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Thread: Why Napoleon lost Russia campaign 1812

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    Aquilifer
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    Default Why Napoleon lost Russia campaign 1812

    Quote Originally Posted by Prince of Essling”
    Disease (dysentery etc) was the biggest contributor to Napoleon's defeat in Russia as it devestated his army; "General Winter" finished off his army.


    This remark mentioned in another thread little bit inspired me to ask the question why Napoleon lost Russia campaign in 1812.

    Napoleon lost his catastrophic Russia campaign without a doubt. He had the biggest multinational Grande Armee, used many supporting contingents and heavily outnumbered Russians in the beginning, but he lost this disastrous campaign. It could be interesting to discus why Napoleon lost this campaign.

    His long distant march to Moscow turned into catastrophic winter retreat, but Russian harsh winter was only the last nail to French coffin. Strategically they lost this campaign mainly by their own mistakes made long before Russian winter season.

    There were many reasons why French and their allies were defeated. Disease, dysentery, influenza, starvation, harsh weather, distant depots, long communication and supply lines, poor living condition, poor motivation, great scale desertion, masses marauders, robberies, drop off morale and discipline. All these things get many problems and inflicted many, many casualties, but it can not entirely explain why they were defeated.

    Russian also suffered that kind of casualties. They were more hunger-proof and cold-proof and more resistant than West and South European people, but many Russians also were ill, many frozen, many died with exhaustion on the roads, many was tired or went on last legs, many were prostrated or lost their minds. It was crazy, deadly race which not many can survived. In these hard conditions Russians can outlived many French, Germans, Polish, Italians, Dutch, Austrians, Czechs, Hungarians, Prussians, Swiss, Belgians, Croats, Spaniards and Portuguese. Russian also were better motivated because they defended their homeland. They fought hard, retreated and used scorched earth strategy.

    Both sides suffered horrendous casualties, but Napoleon and his Marshals were defeated, because many years before and during that campaign French made too many small and many big mistakes. They spoiled that campaign from the start mainly by themselves.

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    Jokern's Avatar Dairokuten Mauo
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    Default Re: Why Napoleon lost Russia campaign 1812

    I've always wondered why he marched on Moscow and not St. Petersburg, the Russian capital.

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    Archimonday's Avatar Princeps Prior
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    Default Re: Why Napoleon lost Russia campaign 1812

    Well you have to think about it statistically. If you have an army numbering in the hundreds-of-thousands, and your marching through the Russian Steppe, where do you station them for the winter? Napoleon was no idiot, he probably originally intended to march on St. Petersburg, but knew that the winter was coming, and as was the style of the day, most armies did not campaign in the winter, so what becomes Napoleons next goal now that he's in the middle of Russia with winter swiftly approaching? Capturing a city to garrison his forces until the spring, Moscow probably gave him that city. You can't simply garrison hundreds of thousands of men in small towns very easily without separating them and splitting your forces up, and when your enemy is use to the winter, that separation could leave all those separate garrisons vulnerable to attack and destruction.

    Capturing a city was necessary, so that all the soldiers could be kept garrisoned in houses. Worcestor, one of the biggest cities near me here in Massachusetts, has a population of 180,000 people, and its a MASSIVE city. It takes a great deal of space, and a great deal of effort to garrison so many men, especially when we get into armies of the size of the Grande' Armee, where you have more than half a million men marching around.

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    leviath's Avatar Princeps Posterior
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    Default Re: Why Napoleon lost Russia campaign 1812

    Well it starts with a simple question : is it possible to successfully invade Russia ? I guess not, so that's why he failed. It was an unreachable goal.
    Actually the huge lack of serious informations about Russia was one of the main reason why he lost this campaign. It was lost as soon as it started. The campaign was prepared with old maps, completely out of date, and a total misconception of the russian culture and people (which explains the road to Moscow -the religious capital- instead of St Petersburg -the administrative capital).
    And since Napoleon was famous for his skill to win campaigns as soon as he prepares them, then this poorly prepared campaign explains its fail by itself.

    It is popular to think that Winter was the cause of this disaster, but it was already lost as soon as a french soldier crossed the Niemen. This was the step too far...
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    Default Re: Why Napoleon lost Russia campaign 1812

    Russia has vast territory and big population therefore was hard to conquered, but Russia could be defeated and she was successfully invaded by Mongols 600 years before Napoleon. Polish and Lithuanians also successfully invaded Russia 200 years before Napoleon.

    French and their allies were definitely defeated in relatively short campaign. Why?

    Napoleon went too far, lost too many soldiers and entered to Moscow with only 90.000-100.000 men. It was not many soldiers for continue that campaign in central Russia.

    French Emperor and his Marshals made too many mistakes and spoiled that campaign from the start or even many years earlier. Preparation was great, army was biggest up to date, but they lost that war. They could win, but they were defeated. Why?

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    leviath's Avatar Princeps Posterior
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    Default Re: Why Napoleon lost Russia campaign 1812

    Quote Originally Posted by exNowy View Post
    Preparation was great, army was biggest up to date, but they lost that war. They could win, but they were defeated. Why?
    Well because as I told you, the preparation WASNT great at all !
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    Default Re: Why Napoleon lost Russia campaign 1812

    Preparation was great, however poorly lead and not enough for long or winter campaign. French and their allies gathered and used almost half million soldiers, next hundred thousand were used in next wave, reinforcements, garrisons and in depots, more than one hundred seventy thousands horses, more than one thousand guns, thousands wagons, carriers, carts, lot of ammunition, equipment and food. It was the most carefully and completely organized force Napoleon ever commanded. It had the most thoroughly prepared supply system, however it could not fulfilled their duty when French marched so fast and so far.

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    Prince of Essling's Avatar Napoleonic Enthusiast
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    Default Re: Why Napoleon lost Russia campaign 1812

    As the originator of the quote in Nowty's opening post - I think it worthwhile reflecting on the losses of the Grande Armee.

    Of the nearly 700,000 men available to Napoleon, some 674,000 crossed the Vistula, and of these some 640,000 actually took part in military operations. At the end of the campaign of the 640,000 there remained as organised troops only 68,000 (Schwarzenburg & MacDonald). The main army of 450,000 had dwindled to about 25,000 disorganised men.

    The Russians claimed to have captured 190,000 men, 3,000 officers & 48 generals! Franco-allied battlefield losses were relatively small (I have excluded prisoners - ??? figures not available) compared to the overall loss:
    Mir 600;
    Romanov 279;
    Saltanovka 4,134;
    Kobrin 273 (plus the capture of the rest of the Saxon force);
    Jakobovo & subsequent actions 4,000;
    Svolna 1,200;
    1st Polotsk 2,000;
    Gorodetschna 3,000
    Eckau 600;
    Dahlenkirchen 800;
    clashes around Riga 900;
    Ostrovno 3,000;
    clashes around Vitebsk ???;
    Krasnoe 500;
    Smolensk 8,000+;
    Loubino 8,500;
    clashes near Viazma ???;
    Shevardino 8,000;
    Borodino 30,000+;
    Vinkovo 2,000;
    Malo-jaroslavets 6,000;
    2nd Polotsk 7,000;
    Smoliatsny 400;
    Batrun ???;
    clashes in the South near Baila etc ???;
    Volkovysk ???;
    Borisov 1,500+;
    Viazma ???;
    clashes around Smolensk ???;
    Krasnoe ???;
    Berezina crossing ??? but heavy;

    Franco-allied numbers exclude the many thousands of camp followers & non-combatants!

    The British General Sir Robert Wilson (who was a Russian admirer) says that the Russians lost 90,000 men in march from the Berezina to Vilna; and that of a force of 10,000 recruits sent to Vilna only 1,500 arrived (the majority of the rst had gone to hospital with illness or frostbite).
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    Default Re: Why Napoleon lost Russia campaign 1812

    Quote Originally Posted by Prince of Essling
    As the originator of the quote in Nowty's opening post - I think it worthwhile reflecting on the losses of the Grande Armee.

    Of the nearly 700,000 men available to Napoleon, some 674,000 crossed the Vistula, and of these some 640,000 actually took part in military operations. At the end of the campaign of the 640,000 there remained as organised troops only 68,000 (Schwarzenburg & MacDonald). The main army of 450,000 had dwindled to about 25,000 disorganised men.

    The Russians claimed to have captured 190,000 men, 3,000 officers & 48 generals! Franco-allied battlefield losses were relatively small


    Sources varied rather widely in numbers, many data are unbelievable or are misleading, but I agree that Grande Armeee and Russian suffered horrendous casualties. There were relatively smaller battlefield than other losses, but casualties only show that it was great scale catastrophe. There were many reasons why Napoleon lost Russia campaign and it could be interesting to find some answers on that questions.

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    antred's Avatar Hastatas Posterior
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    Default Re: Why Napoleon lost Russia campaign 1812

    Quote Originally Posted by leviath View Post
    Well it starts with a simple question : is it possible to successfully invade Russia ? I guess not
    I guess the Mongols didn't read that memo.

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    Default Re: Why Napoleon lost Russia campaign 1812

    His campaign failed because he had only expected to confront the Russians in Poland and along the Russian border which he sort to force the field armies of the imperial army into a pitched battle but instead slowly drew his army closer and closer in land whilst using the 'scorched earth' tactic, and of course his overstretched supply line could not sustain a field army of around 400,000 I think it. He sucessfully invaded Russia and even captured Moscow, which was set on fire but he stayed there for around 2 months and didn't leave earlier before the winter came.

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    Default Re: Why Napoleon lost Russia campaign 1812

    Quote Originally Posted by |Kenshin| View Post
    His campaign failed because he had only expected to confront the Russians in Poland and along the Russian border which he sort to force the field armies of the imperial army into a pitched battle but instead slowly drew his army closer and closer in land whilst using the 'scorched earth' tactic, and of course his overstretched supply line could not sustain a field army of around 400,000 I think it. He sucessfully invaded Russia and even captured Moscow, which was set on fire but he stayed there for around 2 months and didn't leave earlier before the winter came.
    Yes, you are right, but there were much more reasons why Napoleon lost this campaign.

    I find such main problems.

    1. Napoleon lead bad politics in Italy, Germany, Poland, Spain, Netherland and many other European countries many years before Russian campaign. He wear out French manpower while had not strong, and not many devoted allies. Many his commanders and many small allies and supporting contingents were not good motivated and so interested in this far campaign.

    2. Napoleon employed wrong strategy in Russia. French and majority their allies poorly lead their soldiers, went too fast and too far. Emperor sought pitched battle, uselessly pursued Russians, whilie he lost so many soldiers on the way to and from Moscow.

    3. Napoleon failed with army composition. He took many raw recruits, many poorly trained young soldiers, many provisional and depot units. He dispersed many national contingents between many different Corps, Divisions and Brigades. Then thousands soldiers deserted and many surrendered.

    4. Great preparations were poorly lead and were not enough for long and winter campaign. There were many not good prepared soldiers and horses. Soldiers soon lacked in food. Horses were extensively used, but were poorly fed. Commanders poorly lead this multinational Grande Armee. Then there were many stragglers, grand scale marauders, many pillages, plunders, robberies etc.

    5. There were low populated, vast theater of war, long distances, harsh weather, hard land and living conditions. Then many soldiers were ill, many dead with disease, dysentery, starvation, influenza, exhaustion etc. Many horses dropped with fatigue, many fall dead in the summer and winter, because occupied territory lacked in oats and stables.

    6. Napoleon and his Marshals failed with military operations. They failed in strategic maneuvers, did not destroy separated Russian Armies or Corps or Divisions early in the summer. Then they fought costly, bloody Battle of Borodino and again went far on east and stayed too long in burned Moscow. Then they must retreated nearly on the same way which was deserted and lacked in resources and dwellings.
    Last edited by exNowy; January 08, 2012 at 06:44 AM.

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    Ikko-Ikki
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    Default Re: Why Napoleon lost Russia campaign 1812

    Perhaps the Russian army was better than the Grand Army?

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    Steph's Avatar Maréchal de France
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    Default Re: Why Napoleon lost Russia campaign 1812

    I think he lost because he was... too strong. Against Austria in 1805 (Austerlitz France 72k vs 85k allied), or against Prussia in 1806 (Prussia 250k vs France 200k), the French army was not outnumbering the ennemy army. Austria, Prussia, sought confrontation, Napoleon and his marshalls managed to have tactical victory, a few decisive battles where the ennemy was soundly defeated, sued for peace, and war was over.

    It was probably the same plan for the Russian campaign: go into Russia, confront the Russian army, defeat it, sue or peace, war over quickly.

    But the Grand army when it exited Poland was too big for the Russians to confront. The new if they tried to face they would lose. So they avoided real combat, and use the large Russia space to weather the French army before they faced it. France couldn't replace losses, Russia could...

    Perhaps if Napoleon had try to invade Russia with a smaller army (half of what he had?) the Russian would have tried to face him and he could have secure a decisive victory. And he would have had a reserve for reinforcement.

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    Default Re: Why Napoleon lost Russia campaign 1812

    Quote Originally Posted by KIKS View Post
    Perhaps the Russian army was better than the Grand Army?

    This remark could look funny, but it also could be taken as serious question.
    What is more this is not an easy question and many can not give right answer up today.

    In the beginning Grande Armee heavily outnumbered Russian. Many French, Polish or German units were good quality. French commanders were experienced and earlier took part in many successful battles. Imperial Guard and attached there foreign units in majority looks splendid. Army was supported with thousands supply train wagons.

    But Grade Armee included also many raw recruits, many soldiers were poorly trained, many were not interested in that far war and many were poorly motivated. There were many foreign units dispersed between French corps, divisions, brigades. Many went unwillingly on this campaign. These multinational army on such big theater of war was hard to command, supply and reinforce.

    In the summer there were many deserters, marauders and mislaid. In late summer they fought first bigger battles. In autumn French uselessly waited almost 2 month around burned Moscow. Then came early winter and many lost motivation to continue this campaign. Many quit their posts and arms, many easily surrendered, many units were decimated and with many reasons French can not stop Russian offensive.

    Russian army also was large, but was deeply deployed. It was soon after few reforms and consisted of many experienced veterans as well as many recruits. They were supported with thousands Cossacks and other irregular units. It looks that Russian cavalry was more effective on Russian vast theater of war.

    In pitched battles Russian army can stood firmly, but in many cases e.g. at Smolensk or at Borodino suffered more casualties. It could suggest that tactically they were not better than French, Polish or German. They were even worse, but strategically they effectively retreated, exploited vast territory, implicated French in an affairs, waited for Russian harsh winter which finally help them destroy Napoleon’s Grande Armee.

    In these harsh condition Russian outlived West and South European, but was Russian Army better than Grande Armee? I doubt that it was.

    Russian were more resistant and more lucky at that time.
    Last edited by exNowy; January 09, 2012 at 04:05 AM.

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    Default Re: Why Napoleon lost Russia campaign 1812

    Quote Originally Posted by Steph View Post
    I think he lost because he was... too strong. Against Austria in 1805 (Austerlitz France 72k vs 85k allied), or against Prussia in 1806 (Prussia 250k vs France 200k), the French army was not outnumbering the ennemy army. Austria, Prussia, sought confrontation, Napoleon and his marshalls managed to have tactical victory, a few decisive battles where the ennemy was soundly defeated, sued for peace, and war was over.

    It was probably the same plan for the Russian campaign: go into Russia, confront the Russian army, defeat it, sue or peace, war over quickly.

    But the Grand army when it exited Poland was too big for the Russians to confront. The new if they tried to face they would lose. So they avoided real combat, and use the large Russia space to weather the French army before they faced it. France couldn't replace losses, Russia could...

    Perhaps if Napoleon had try to invade Russia with a smaller army (half of what he had?) the Russian would have tried to face him and he could have secure a decisive victory. And he would have had a reserve for reinforcement.
    Yes, it is interesting idea, and I thought in similar way therefore stated that Napoleon in this campaign employed wrong strategy, failed with army composition and failed with military operations.

    Nevertheless there were somehow what if questions.

    Napoleon took too many soldiers which were poorly motivated or unwillingly went on that far campaign. On a paper Grande Armee looked vast and beautiful, but in reality it inflicted so many troubles a specially when Emperor decided went across low populated Lithuania, Belorussia and central Russia, and did not went across more populated and resources reach Ukraine and south Russia.

    Worse that Napoleon did not listen too much what Polish said him before this campaign. He did not offer something more for his Polish and other small allies. He also could took in actions more Prussian and Austrian which in majority only poorly guarded his north and south flanks. This way he wear out his the best troops while his false allies mainly uselessly waited and therefore latter he had big troubles at Berezina.

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    Muizer's Avatar member 3519
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    Default Re: Why Napoleon lost Russia campaign 1812

    Quote Originally Posted by Steph View Post
    It was probably the same plan for the Russian campaign: go into Russia, confront the Russian army, defeat it, sue or peace, war over quickly.
    I think it's true that Napoleon held on too long to the idea that he would conclude a military victory in one or more pitched battles with a peace treaty.

    I think it likely though that the Russian response (refusing peace) would have been the same regardless of the size of the French armee.
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    Prince of Essling's Avatar Napoleonic Enthusiast
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    Default Re: Why Napoleon lost Russia campaign 1812

    Just to add a couple more into the rich mix of reasons for failure (we already have breakdown of the supply train; scorched earth; sickness/disease; bad strategy; size of the campaign theatre) :-

    1. age composition of the army: with many new non-battle/campaign hardened troops in the French portion of the army these troops were unable to sustain the marches required to bring the Russians to battle (had they been the quality of the personnel that marched to Austerlitz or Jena it is possible that Napoleon may have secured his destructive battle); their lack of hardiness meant they were among the first to fall out of the ranks. There was also the reverse case of some troops being too old for sustained campaigning.

    2. horse flesh: western/central european horses were unable to cope to with poor diets/green oats in Russia, resulting in many premature deaths. As a result the Grande Armee ended up with insufficient mounted cavalry to counter the Russian cossacks, horses to pull the supply train/artillery etc.
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    Default Re: Why Napoleon lost Russia campaign 1812

    The lack of experienced troops in the Grand Army was because of the Spanish campaign, not to mention Napoleon leaving a large portion of his experienced troops back to defend against France's enemies.

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    Default Re: Why Napoleon lost Russia campaign 1812

    Quote Originally Posted by Muizer
    I think it's true that Napoleon held on too long to the idea that he would conclude a military victory in one or more pitched battles with a peace treaty.

    I think it likely though that the Russian response (refusing peace) would have been the same regardless of the size of the French armee.
    We don’t know what could happened in such case. But it could be more likely that Russian could not retreated and could fought pitched battles earlier, close to border and nearer to French and their allies depots. Then Napoleon could found there these decisive battles which he uselessly sought around few month in 1812. In such case he also could wore out less his resources, suffered less casualties and could destroyed more Russians in the beginning.

    Later he could continue his war in Russia or sue for peace even on the same as Treaty of Tilsit conditions.

    Long war was not comfortable for him, but it also was not comfortable for Russia. She could continued war and Russian many times waged long wars, but when Napoleon did not lose so fast his campaign, he could have much better position. Then many minorities in Russia and Ottomans, Persia and even Sweden could be used against Russians too.

    But it looks that Napoleon did not want completely destroy or conquer Russia. He wanted forced Tsar to continue their alliance against Great Britain and continental blockade was his main goal.

    In other case he earlier should recreate Kingdom of Poland, more strengthened Polish, better prepared his Grand Armee for longer campaign, then could raised up some minorities in Russian Empire and even forced Prussian and Austrian to engaged more cavalry units.

    Maybe these things were his hypothetical mistakes.
    But there were many evidently French faults made before and during this campaign.
    Last edited by exNowy; January 10, 2012 at 02:53 AM.

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