On the morning of June 24, 1812, the greatest army Europe has seen until now stands on the banks of the Neman river, at the western edge of the Russian Empire. La Grande Armee, the army of 20 nations, begins to cross the bridges: rank upon rank of Frenchmen, Italians, Germans, Poles and many more, cross amidst the sounds of fluttering standards, horses straining in their traces, and the creak of wagon wheels. But the Russian Imperial army they expect to find awaiting them is nowhere to be seen. Napoleon’s Downfall has begun. https://youtu.be/21Gmmvq8aAQ
For the French, the crossing of the Neman is the beginning of the Russian Campaign; for the Russians, it’s the start of the Patriotic War. For four days, the men, horses, cannon, regimental standards, and supply trains of the Grande Armee stream eastwards across the river under the watchful eyes of Russian Cossack scouts. June 1812 marks the beginning of one of the most dramatic campaigns in military history – in just under 6 months, the balance of power in Europe will be upended, hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians will lose their lives in battle, to sickness, exposure, or starvation, and Europe will come closer to total war than ever before. But as the bands play the Grande Armee across the Neman and Russia holds its breath, few of the troops can imagine the suffering and carnage that is to come – or even how it all came to war in the first place. Colonel Jean Boulart of the artillery of the Guard recalls the moment: “Despite the uncertain future, there was enthusiasm, a great deal of it. The army’s confidence in the genius of the Emperor was such that nobody even dreamed that the campaign could turn out badly.” (Zamoyski)
The clash between France and its client states and Russia in 1812 arose from years of war and a very tense peace. Back in November 1806, Napoleon decided to respond to a British blockade of Europe with a continent-wide blockade of trade with Britain. He called it the Continental System and hoped it would damage the British war effort, but it also put pressure on French satellite states and allies in northern Europe who had strong trade links with Britain. In 1807, France and its allies defeated the Fourth Coalition, which included Prussia, Sweden, Saxony, Russia and Britain, with a resounding victory over the Russians at Friedland. Tsar Alexander I asked for an armistice, and the Treaty of Tilsit brought peace – for the time being.
The treaty did not force the Tsar to give up any territory, but it did compel Russia to join the Continental System, ally with France, and declare war on the United Kingdom. The Tsar also agreed to recognize French satellite states and renounce Russian interests in the Balkans. In the years after Tilsit, the blockade of Great Britain reduced trade in Russia’s Baltic ports by a third, the ruble lost 50% of its value, and annual deficits soared.
Political interests also drove France and Russia further apart before 1812. The most explosive problem was the status of a Polish state. In 1807 Napoleon created the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, a client state that greatly worried Russian ruling circles. Russia had gained much of its western territory in the 18th century partitions of Poland, and its leaders feared that the Grand Duchy was a step towards re-creating a full Polish Kingdom that would want those lands back. The Polish question was a politically useful one for Napoleon: he referred to the 1805-07 war as “The First Polish War” and in his proclamation to the Grande Armee in 1812, he announced the invasion of Russia as the “Second Polish War” – but he never promised a Polish kingdom. The Tsar hoped that he could win over the Poles by offering them a kingdom, but insisted that he be crowned king, so in 1812 the Polish question was still open.
Russian and French interests also clashed in the Baltic and the Balkans. In 1808-1809 Russia defeated Sweden and took control of Finland, which became a Russian satellite. In 1810 Sweden elected French Marshal Jean Bernadotte as regent, so Russia now worried about French influence on its northern border. To the south Russia and the Ottoman Empire also fought a war from 1806 to 1812, over influence in the Balkans and the Dardanelles.
One of the political flashpoints was a personal one for the Tsar. When Napoleon redrew the borders of the German lands by creating the Confederation of the Rhine and expanding the French empire, he dispossessed the Duke of the tiny Duchy of Oldenburg. Duke George however, happened to be married to the Tsar’s sister Catherine, and the couple exiled themselves to Russia. The Tsar took this as a grave insult to his honor and viewed it as a severe breach of the aristocratic code.
Napoleon may have been Emperor of the French and King of Italy, but he had little respect for the old order and Christian religion that Alexander held so dear. These ideological and personal differences also contributed to the reason the Grande Armee crossed the Neman. Napoleon saw himself as a man destined for European imperial hegemony. He felt his mission was to spread a rational French-revolution-inspired system across all Europe, with one currency, one system of weights and measures, and one rational philosophy of administration. As he put it, he wanted to make Paris the capital of the world. For good measure, the French emperor also spoke of freeing the Polish nation. Tsar Alexander saw himself as a protector of the traditional divinely-ordained order, with a mission from God to resist a Napoleon that he admired and feared, but also viewed as bent on conquest. The two men held talks together at Tilsit in 1807 and again at Erfurt in 1808, but came no closer to understanding each other or resolving their differences in power politics – though they did praise each other in official communication.
The peace brought by the Treaty of Tilsit in 1807 was straining under economic, geopolitical and ideological tensions between France and Russia. Napoleon wanted to somehow keep Russia as an ally in the main struggle against Britain, but the Tsar had other plans.
On New Year’s Eve, 1810, the Tsar declared that Russia was leaving the Continental System in violation of the Tilsit treaty. By 1811 at the latest both sides viewed a coming war as inevitable. The Tsar was determined to not be the aggressor but Napoleon had no such hesitations. In early 1812 diplomatic preparations reached a fever pitch. France signed agreements with former enemies Prussia and Austria which forced their reluctant monarchs to provide a total of some 70,000 troops to support the Grande Armee. The Russians ended their war with Ottomans and signed an agreement with Sweden. After unsuccessful diplomatic advances, the French went so far as to occupy Swedish Pomerania in January 1812 to enforce the blockade. Russia even made a secret agreement with Count Metternich that Austrian troops would not be used aggressively even if the French forced them to invade.
The espionage war intensified, with the French uncovering a Russian spy ring in Paris, and sending their own agent to the Grand Duchy of Warsaw to gather intelligence. French presses even printed fake Russian rubles for the army to buy local supplies, while in Russia, the Tsar’s authorities cracked down on prominent Francophiles, spread anti-French propaganda, and censored the post. The nobility began to worry that if the French did come, they might liberate the serfs or inspire them to rise up against their masters. Russian officer PA DavYdov decided to re-enlist, and wrote of the growing tension to a friend:
“According to what is being said and what is being prepared, war with the French is imminent. As for who will command the army, we know nothing, they only say the Tsar himself will soon inspect it […] there is no other news, the war is on everyone’s mind.” (Rey 62)
Both sides also began full-scale military preparations from 1811. They conscripted significantly more men to fill out the ranks, and made logistical arrangements to supply the growing armies. French authorities began to fill their supply depots, and in early 1812 units began the long cold march from their barracks in France, Spain, the Italian peninsula, or the German lands to East Prussia and the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. At first, none knew exactly where or whom they would fight – rumors hinted that they might march against Prussia, Sweden, Russia, the Ottomans, or even British India.
Even as the armies confidently marched east, some Frenchmen feared their Emperor was making a mistake. Some regions of the country were experiencing a wheat shortage and had little stomach for another war after decades of fighting. Even some of Napoleon’s advisors tried to warn him, like former Minister of Police Joseph Fouché:
“No matter what success you achieve, the Russians will fight for every foot those difficult lands where you will find nothing to feed the war […] half of your army will be employed in covering weak lines of communication, interrupted, threatened, or cut by swarms of Cossacks. Sire, I implore you, in the name of France, in the name of glory, in the name of your security and ours, sheathe your sword.” (Rey 45)
In Russia, army engineers fast-tracked a fort-building program to shore up defenses. Forts in Kiev, Riga, BabrUisk, Dunaburg and a fortified camp at DrIssa were either renovated or built from scratch. 50,000 extra muskets were bought from Britain, and 100,000 men began to move from Finland and Bessarabia towards the western border.
Last-minute diplomacy is little more than a charade. The Tsar sends word to Napoleon that peace can be maintained if French-led troops withdrew beyond the Rhine, but there is little chance of that, and Napoleon does not answer. He eventually sends a reply, but he has committed to war and the messenger is sent mostly to gather intelligence.
After months of preparation and buildup, the war begins with the crossing of the Neman. Both the French and Russian High Commands can now put their war plans into action – and these are as different as could be.
The 650,000 men, 150,000 horses, and 1393 cannon of the Grande Armee are divided into 5 groups: a northern wing under Marshal Macdonald, the main force under Napoleon himself, two others under Napoleon’s stepson Eugene de Beauharnais and Napoleon’s brother Jerome, King of Westphalia. Austrian forces under Prince Schwarzenberg are on the southern flank, and two corps stayed in Prussia as a reserve.
The 200,000 men and 1100-1600 cannon of the Russian army are divided in three: the 1st Western Army under Barclay de Tolly, the 2nd Western Army under Prince Piotr BagratYOn, and General TormAsov’s 3rd Observation Army troops protecting Ukraine. There are more Russian troops in other parts of the empire, but they are needed to guard its vast borders.
Napoleon said he never wanted a war with Russia and only invades to force Russia back into an alliance against Great Britain, and his military plans are ambivalent: he talks of marching on Moscow, or St Petersburg; of beating the Russians quickly in a decisive battle or of campaigning until 1814. In any case, he promises to make war in a way never seen before.
Russian high command also went back and forth on whether to adopt an offensive or defensive strategy. Ultimately they choose a risky strategic retreat to draw the Grande Armee away from its bases before making a stand. Most of the men, however, like Lieutenant RadozhItsky, have no inkling of the plan: “We thought that we would immediately go out to meet the French, fight them on the border, and chase them back.” (Zamoyski)
As Napoleon’s army of 20 nations streams across the Neman in June 1812, the Tsar gathers with his commanders at his headquarters in Vilna. Discussions are tense, and there’s confusion as to what exactly should be done and when, with the most powerful army in the world just a few days’ march away. On June 25, the Russian army receives its orders: retreat to the east. Meanwhile French Captain Fantin des Odoards has just crossed the river and makes an entry in his diary:
“Vive l’Empereur! The Rubicon has been crossed. The shining sword which has been drawn from its scabbard will not be put away in it before some fine pages are added to the glorious annals of the great nation.” (Zamoyski)
The next day, des Odoards and his French, German, Polish and Italian comrades can see smoke rising from Vilna – but still no enemy in sight.