Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812, which Napoleon called the Second Polish War and which is known in Russia as the Patriotic War (Отечественная война - Otechestvennaya Voyna in Russian) was one of the turning points of the Napoleonic wars, proving disastrous for France and its allies.
Charles Minard's graph showing the strength of the Grande Armée as it marches to Moscow and back, with temperature (in Réaumur) plotted on the lower graph for the return journey. -30° Réaumur = -37.5° Celsius
In June 1812, Napoleon began the invasion with his Grande Armée of 610,000 men, the largest army ever assembled at that point in history. He crossed the river Neman heading towards Moscow. The initially 240,000-strong Russian army sought to avoid open battle, and turned to attrition warfare: scorched earth policy, burning crops and villages before retreating so that the enemy could not use them. The Russians also harassed the French flanks with attacks from small battalions of Russian troops and local Cossacks. The Russian army suffered defeats on the approaches to Moscow in the battles of Smolensk (4-6 August) and in the Battle of Borodino (26 August 1812), but was not decisively destroyed, and the French suffered almost as many casualties as the Russians did. By the end of August, Napoleon had lost two-thirds of his army but kept marching on towards Moscow. On 1 September, Marshal Kutuzov, in command of the Russian Army since early August, ordered to abandon the city.
The Capture of Moscow
Napoleon moved into an empty city that was stripped of all supplies. Relying on classical rules of warfare aiming at capturing the enemy's capital, he expected the Russian Tsar Alexander to offer his capitulation. Russian command did not surrender, however. Instead, fires broke out in Moscow, and raged in the city from 2 to 6 September. Moscow, constructed mainly of wooden buildings, burnt down almost completely. It is assumed that the fires were due to Russian sabotage, in line with scorched earth tactics. It effectively deprived the French of shelter in the city.
An example of victory disease
: Napoleon's retreat from Moscow
, painted by Adolph Northern in the 19th century
Sitting in the ashes of a ruined city without having received the Russian capitulation, and facing a Russian manoeuvre forcing him out of Moscow, Napoleon started his long retreat back home. As Kutuzov blocked the southern flank, the French had to use the very same scorched Smolensk road on which they had earlier moved East. Supply of the army grew increasingly difficult, the desertion rate increased. In addition, Kutuzov, still avoiding open battle but at Maloyaroslavets, again deployed partisan tactics to constantly strike at the French trail where it was weakest. Light Russian cavalry, including mounted Cossacks, assaulted and shattered isolated French units. Starting in November 1812, the Russian winter caused additional hardship to the French army, as soldiers and horses started to die from hunger, frostbite and exhaustion on the march. The crossing of the river Berezina brought about another major defeat, as Kutuzov, deciding that the time was right for an open battle, attacked and crushed the part of the French army that had not yet made it across the bridge. In the following weeks, the remnants of the Grand Army were further diminished, and on 14 December 1812 they were expelled from Russian territory. Only about 10,000 of Napoleon's men survived the Russian campaign. Russian casualties in the few open battles are comparable to the French losses, but civilian losses along the devastated war path were much higher than the military casualties.
The Russian victory over the French army in 1812 marked the first blow to Napoleon's ambitions of European dominance, and was the turning-point of the Napoleonic Wars that led to Napoleon's ultimate defeat. For Russia the term Patriotic War formed a symbol for a strengthened national identity that would have a great impact on Russian patriotism in the 19th century. The indirect result of the patriotic movement of Russians, were strong desire for modernisation of the country, that turned into series of revolutions, starting from the Decembrist revolt and ending with the February Revolution of 1917.
The Soviet government meant to evoke patriotic feelings related to the Patriotic War when it proclaimed the struggle against Hitler's invasion in 1941 the "Great Patriotic War". Indeed, the parallels between the German invasion and the French campaign are striking. Both invaders attacked in mid-June, advancing towards Moscow as the major Russian city. Both fought bitter battles on the road to Moscow at Smolensk. As they marched deeper into Russian territory, both faced scorched soil ahead, and partisans in the rear. Neither Hitler nor Napoleon had anticipated a prolongation of their campaign, so neither had equipped his armies for winter warfare. Most crucially, both Hitler and Napoleon had underestimated two things - Russian tenacity and determination in defence of their motherland and the sheer vastness of Russia.
In spite of these parallels, it should however be borne in mind that the type of warfare waged by Hitler and Napoleon respectively differed considerably. The Nazis studied the main causes of Napoleon's failures thoroughly when planning the Soviet invasion. Napoleon mounted a classical campaign of the time, marching in a single trek towards the enemy's major city (note that Moscow was not the Russian capital at the time, Saint Petersburg was). In small, rich European countries, such tactics allowed the French army to acquire food, boots and uniforms, weapons, ammunition and horses in conquered territories themselves; supply lines to the rear were of smaller importance. In vast and poor Russia, these tactics proved fatal. Hitler, on the other hand, unleashed a modern 20th century war including quick, relentless offensives with armoured vehicles.
Having six times the manpower at his disposal, compared to Napoleon's, and pursuing different strategic objectives, he relied on broad territorial control, hence the broad offensive from the Baltic states to the Ukraine. Supply lines to the domestic industrial areas in the rear became crucial, especially in a war against the Soviet Union which would not succeed within weeks, like earlier Blitzkrieg campaigns in the West had. Once the blitzkrieg ended, the Germans chose to fight it out in every region they controlled rather than retreat, leading to terrible losses amongst both Germans and Russians as they fought over occupied territory. Furthermore, Napoleon did little to stop partisan attacks on his flanks, thus enabling partisans to engage in hit-and run tactics with impunity. Hitler and the Nazis, on the other hand, marched in with fully equipped secret police agents to hunt down and kill partisans in the rear of the broad territories they controlled, making resistance a lot more difficult although it was still effective.
List of Russian commanders
1812: Napoleon's Fatal March on Moscow, Adam Zamoyski, HarperCollins, 644 Pages. ISBN 0027123752