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When Napoleon invaded Russia in the summer of 1812, victory seemed certain—but then came winter.

Five years after Napoléon Bonaparte’s retreat from Russia, Stendhal, the French novelist, who had been a supply officer in the emperor’s army during the 1812 campaign, was still afraid of snow:

“The retreat from Moscow has left me plainly suspicious of the attributes of snow,” he wrote in an 1817 travelogue, “not on account of the dangers to which I myself was exposed, but as a result of the hideous sight of horror, suffering and the extinction of pity. At Vilna breaches in the walls of the hospital were blocked with frozen portions of human corpses. This picture is never far from my memory.” Keeping out the air was critical. Outside those grisly walls the temperature some days dropped as low as 31 degrees below zero.

Vilna (Vilnius, in present-day Lithuania) was the last major city inside Russia on Napoléon’s retreat. There the remnants of his Grande Armée, dwindled from the estimated 600,000 men who invaded Russia in June to perhaps 120,000 in December —nobody knows the exact figures—hoped to find a temporary refuge from what Tsar Alexander I called “General Winter.” But there was no refuge. The Russians were close behind and would pursue them to the border, and the Cossacks, who had no respect for borders, even beyond. La Grande Armée was well past defending itself. At the gates of Vilna the crush of panicked, desperate soldiers trying to cram through at once was so bad that men and horses formed a writhing pile of flesh collapsing under its own mass. One captain, falling to the ground, gave himself up for lost: “Then dozens of people began to pile up on top of us, screaming horribly as their arms and legs were broken or they were crushed. Suddenly, the heaving of one of the horses flung me on top, throwing me into an empty space, where I could pick myself up and stagger through the gate.” Another who was there saw an officer “pressed so hard against a cannon by the crush that his stomach burst open and his entrails spilled out.”

Inside the city frozen corpses littered the streets. One German observer, entering the city in January 1813, found them piled three stories high in some spots. In the city’s 40 hospitals, most of them converted monasteries, thousands of men—some with typhus carried by the lice crawling on everyone’s bodies, some with wounds, many with frostbite— suffered without food, water or medical care. Napoléon abandoned them there. When the Cossacks entered the city after the French left, they stripped the invalids of whatever of value remained to them. About 30,000 died within weeks.

Napoléon had drawn his troops from across his empire. La Grande Armée included soldiers from France but also Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Italy. Some 50,000 comprised the Army of Italy; about 2,500 of them— 5 percent—survived. A French light infantry unit of 3,300 men numbered just 192 when it finally reached home. More than 400,000 soldiers on the French side died—two-thirds of the army—and that number does not include the horde of civilians that followed the army into Russia: wives, mistresses, traders, carpenters, butchers, adventurers, wheelwrights, servants, cooks, blacksmiths and wagon masters. Adam Zamoyski, in his superb account of the Russian campaign, Moscow 1812, estimated that tens of thousands of these civilians also melted into the Russian soil. The Russian numbers, both military and civilian, were equally large, equally unspeakable. All told, a million people died.

Then there were the horses. Their losses also numbered in the tens of thousands, and this would have major consequences for Napoléon. Not only had his cavalry forces been decimated, but also he lacked sufficient horses to form new units. That would prove telling in the campaigns of 1813 and 1814, when the combined armies of Prussia, Poland, Russia, Austria and England ganged up on France, and Napoléon could not match their cavalries with his own. Many historians believe it was this factor as much as any that brought him down. The campaign in Russia was the turning point of the Napoléonic wars, proving once and for all the emperor was no longer unbeatable.

How can we account for the disaster that was Napoléon’s retreat from Moscow? After the successful French drive from Russian Poland east to Moscow during the summer of 1812, it wasn’t at all obvious that a retreat would fail so completely. La Grande Armée had reached Moscow with heavy losses, but it was still grand, still an effective fighting force. Only once had the Russian army stood and fought that summer, and the French had won. Napoléon had crossed the border at the Niemen River on June 24 and occupied Vilna on June 28, more or less without a fight. The Russian armies were divided, their communications were poor, and they suffered from constant bickering and infighting at the top. It was the French style to advance rapidly with forced marches, never allowing their enemies to establish strong defensive positions. Because the Russians could not coordinate their movements, they could not unite to defend themselves or, for that matter, agree who would be in command if they did.

Speed has disadvantages, however. Supply convoys could not keep up, so the French had resorted to living off the land—meaning, of course, taking what they needed from local populations, paying for it or not, as the circumstances warranted. This tactic works well in densely populated areas. In Lithuania, not so well: The French found themselves advancing through thinly populated forests, with few roads, and most of those dirt. Then it rained, heavily, and the roads became quagmires, paralyzing the thousands of supply carts. La Grande Armée lost 10,000 horses in these quagmires, dysentery and influenza raged among the troops, and men died or deserted by the thousands.

The French were also discovering that the Russian cavalry was equal to their own. As for the Russian armies, they kept retreating east. In traditional warfare armies fought pitched battles—a winner emerged, the loser sued for peace, negotiations followed, and treaties were signed in which territory changed hands and alliances were made. Napoléon sent an emissary to Tsar Alexander I as soon as he took Vilna, suggesting the two of them meet and arrange a peace, reaffirming their former alliance and ending the war. In fact, he had been trying to do this since well before June 24. The tsar had met Napoléon for just this purpose a few years previously. Napoléon had ladled on the charm and the tsar had come to think of him as a partner and a friend. They had professed to want the same thing: a Europe living in peace and harmony under liberal, enlightened principles.

But Alexander had eventually grown sick of the Napoléonic hegemony in Europe and had developed an almost messianic belief in his own role in Russia and Russia’s role in replacing the French as Europe’s religious and political leader. On May 18 he had already told Napoléon’s emissary Louis, Comte de Narbonne-Lara, he would not negotiate. Alexander laid a map of Russia before Louis and explained. “My dear count,” he said, “I am convinced that Napoléon is the greatest general in Europe, that his armies are the most battle-hardened, his lieutenants the bravest and the most experienced; but space is a barrier. If, after a few defeats, I retreat, sweeping along the population, if I leave it to time, to the wilderness, to the climate to defend me, I may yet have the last word over the most formidable army of modern times.”

And retreat the Russians did. As they did, they employed a scorched-earth policy that would leave Napoléon little hope of feeding his advancing army off the land. The Russian peasantry burned barns full of animal fodder, took cattle and horses deep into the woods, and buried everything else of value. People in cities and towns burned stockpiles of food, clothing and whatever else an invading army might find useful. If the French were to retreat the way they had come— and they had to eventually, as Napoléon had no wish or reason to park his army indefinitely in Russia—they would be doing so across a desert.

The Russians did not withdraw all the way to Moscow. They knew Napoléon would almost certainly beat them in a major battle, and Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov—the aged, ailing, enigmatic warrior to whom Alexander had given overall command of Russian forces after realizing his other generals would rather fight each other than the French—was determined to preserve his army. But on September 7, at Borodino, a little village about 70 miles west of Moscow, the Russians found a decent defensive position and did turn and fight. Borodino would feature one of the deadliest artillery duels in history and was also the bloodiest of all battles in the Napoléonic wars. Territory changed hands five or six times. Unable to see in the dust and smoke, troops advanced again and again into artillery barrages; thousands died. Out of the 250,000 or so men who fought—historians have yet to agree on the numbers—there were some 70,000 casualties. The French won, but the Russian army, its losses on a par with French losses and greatly weakened, withdrew toward Moscow and saved itself. The next evening Kutuzov held a council of commanders, and they decided not to defend Moscow. Another battle like Borodino, Kutuzov understood, would have destroyed his army. Moscow was a sacred city, and the decision was agonizing, but it was only a city. But the army was Russia itself. Without it the people would be helpless.

Accordingly, on Sept. 14, 1812, the first French troops entered Moscow unchallenged and found no one with the authority to surrender the city. Twothirds of the civilian population and all but a few stragglers among the Russian troops had already left. Count Fyodor Rostopchin, the governor of Moscow, had ordered the burning of stores of food and clothing. The city’s firefighting equipment had been removed or destroyed. More than two-thirds of Moscow’s buildings were built of wood, and as the last Russian troops left the city, teams of incendiaries set fire to it. Three-quarters of the city’s 9,000-plus private houses turned to ashes. More than a third of the city’s churches were wholly destroyed, as were more than 8,000 retail shops. As the fire reached its height, Napoléon took refuge in a castle a few miles outside the walls. Even there he could feel the heat from the fire. The city was his, what was left of it. He had won. What it was he had won, however, was by no means clear.

The fall of 1812 was unusually warm and pleasant in Moscow. Napoléon made light of the legendary Russian cold; Moscow, he said, was like Paris in the same season—comfortable, so to speak, to the touch. Because he had not expected to reach Moscow, because he thought the war would be over quickly, he was uncertain what to do. But at least the weather was agreeable. La Grande Armée had not brought winter uniforms; they did not have tents. Armies did not fight in winter; the French did not even have winter uniforms. Those were the rules, the way things were done—why would they need winter clothing?

But this was unlike any war Napoléon had fought before. “The burning of towns and villages, the retreats after battles, the blow dealt at Borodino and the renewed retreat, the burning of Moscow, the capture of marauders, the seizure of transports and the guerrilla war,” wrote Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace, “were all departures from the rules.” The tsar had no intention of conceding. Not all of Moscow’s provisions had been destroyed; Napoléon had enough to feed his army for a month, perhaps more. But beyond that? The French supply lines were exceedingly long and hard to defend, and very little would get through in a Russian winter. This was war as Napoléon did not understand it. This was war on all fronts, fronts that had never even existed before: total war. And he was stuck deep in the enemy’s rear.

It took Napoléon some time to realize he had but one option: He would have to leave, get to Germany, reorganize and resupply his army, prepare for a spring campaign. His troops, in the meantime, were looting Moscow. Looting a city was against the rules if the city was occupied, but an empty city was fair game. Luxury goods were in high demand. Not all the city had burned; not all the houses were unoccupied. The usual outrages—rapes and murders—were perpetrated on the helpless. Troops broke into intact houses, found servants and paid or threatened them until they led them to the treasures families had tried to hide; they took silver, gold, the candlesticks, anything of value.

With the looting came a loss of discipline; the two were, in effect, the same thing. Troops had little to do, and their officers could no longer control them. If Napoléon had been on top of the situation, he would have prepared them for the inevitable—the long march back to a Europe they understood, fighting all the way. But Napoléon, writes Zamoyski, portly now, too long at warfare, had lost his edge. He could not come to terms with the idea of retreat and, therefore, did not prepare for it. Through carelessness and inattention, the small details that sometimes make all the difference fell by the wayside. One of them was horseshoes with cleats, designed for travel on ice and snow, capable of gripping slippery surfaces. A few of the French commanders saw the necessity and urged their higherups to see to it the horses got them. When it became clear that superiors were ignoring them, these men took care of the horses in their own units. But only Napoléon could order that all horses in la Grande Armée be shod in this way. Earlier in his career Napoléon was a master of this kind of detail. Now he was not, and the result was calamitous.

Meanwhile the weather remained fine. October came, there was a nip in the air, the nights were cold, but there was no snow yet, and there were no battles. Kutuzov’s army was entrenched to the south at Tarutino, 50 miles away, gathering reinforcements and blocking the road to Russia’s rich southern provinces. Smaller units, both French and Russian, were stationed at various points in the surrounding country. Cossack patrols picked off French foraging parties, stripping the invaders of food, weapons, clothing, carts, horses and anything else of value, leaving them lost, bootless and naked. Napoléon sat in his comfortable quarters in the Kremlin, waiting it out. Tsar Alexander refused all overtures to peace. Napoléon really had only the one option: retreat. But if he retreated, what would Europe conclude about him? That he had grown weak. That he was vulnerable. The politics of the situation made him reluctant to do what he had to do. He waited too long. “Space is a barrier,” the tsar had said. “If I leave it to time, to the wilderness, to the climate to defend me, I may yet have the last word.”

So it would be. Time had already done its work; it was already too late. “That army could not recover anywhere,” wrote Tolstoy. “Since the battle of Borodino and the pillage of Moscow it had borne within itself, as it were, the chemical elements of dissolution.” It was about to die.

In mid-October, Napoléon made a feint south out of Moscow, leading his army toward Kutuzov’s fortified position at Tarutino, as if planning to invade Russia’s rich southern provinces, but then veered west, back on the road to Vilna. The march out of Moscow was by all reports amazing to watch. Tolstoy was right: Many soldiers and officers cared only for their loot, throwing away ammunition, weapons, clothing. The nonmilitary horde that joined the army in its flight was even worse. Zamoyski notes that some 15,000 to 40,000 vehicles (the numbers are only educated guesses) left Moscow with the army; all were crammed with loot, and an insouciance that would prove fatal. Zamoyski quotes one observer who saw a family of French merchants leave: “These ladies were dressed just like Parisian bourgeoises off for a picnic in the Bois de Vincennes or Romainville.”

On October 22 torrents of rain fell on this parade, and the road turned to mud. Men abandoned wagons and began to jettison their packs, heavy with gold and silver. At a village called Maloyaroslavets, shortly after Napoléon made his turn west, the Russians under General Dmitry Dokhturov took on a French corps under Prince Eugène de Beauharnais and booted the French out of town, then were thrown out in turn as French reinforcements arrived. So it went, back and forth, changing hands eight times, at a cost to the French of 6,000 killed or wounded. The next day Kutuzov, as was his style, retreated, keeping his army of new recruits away from one of those pitched battles Napoléon usually won.

Napoléon also retreated, passing through Borodino, where thousands of corpses still lay, some half eaten by wolves and carrion crows. Farther west, in what passed for French hospitals, thousands of sick and wounded soldiers remained alive, but they were emaciated, as the Russians’ scorched-earth policy had done its job. Napoléon ordered as many as possible onto carriages already overloaded with gear, pulled by horses as thin and weak as the wounded. Drivers did their best to ditch the wounded, not actually pushing but jostling them off. By now it was the end of October. It had yet to turn cold.

Kutuzov trailed the retreating French, in no hurry to catch up, units of the Russian army were moving parallel with Napoléon, close to the road. On November 3 one of them, led by General Mikhail Miloradovich, tried to cut off the rear guard of this immense chaotic column and wrought havoc with artillery fire in the pileup of wagons, artillery and camp followers. The French responded, and it became a running battle. More Russian troops entered the picture, and the French lost another 6,000 dead or wounded, and 2,000 more as prisoners.

The running battle showed the French they would have to fight all the way to the border. Their column was sometimes 20 miles long, sometimes 60, depending on the weather and the fighting. And it was chaotic: Soldiers mingled with civilians and were separated from their units; wagons and coaches broke wheels or axles or got stuck in the mud and were abandoned, blocking the road; order was impossible to maintain. The Cossacks trailed the retreat, picking off stragglers.

Then the temperature began to drop. With that, on November 6, came snow, 2 feet of it. Lacking adequate winter clothing and tents, men tried to build makeshift shelters of tree branches; they huddled close to the fires; to stay warm, and alive, they spent nights not sleeping but walking about, to keep the blood flowing. One colonel stepped out of the barn where he had slept one night to find his men, sitting stock-still around the campfires they had neglected to tend, “dead and frozen.” Horses froze in their traces. Those who had looted furs and dresses for their women back home now brought them out and put them on, even the dresses. The roadway, packed down from the tramp of thousands of feet, turned to ice. Horses lacking the cleated horseshoes struggled to pull guns, wagons and carriages; they slid, fell, broke legs. Major supply trains had to be abandoned. More and more soldiers had to throw away their loot; some threw away their sacks of food instead, paying for that choice with their lives. Officers fought duels over who got to occupy the few available shelters. It hardly made a difference; others would strip thatch from the roofs of these shelters to feed horses and haul off the timbers for campfires. Food soon ran out. Dead horses fed many men; to disguise the flavor they salted the horsemeat heavily with gunpowder.

Ahead lay the city of Smolensk, which Napoléon had ordered stocked with supplies. But the city lay in ruins, and portions of the Russian army had taken Polotsk from the French garrison and seized the supplies stored there, as well as another store of supplies at Vitebsk, both of which were slated for Napoléon’s retreat. Only the initial French units to enter Smolensk found food. The temperature, meanwhile, had fallen to 10 below zero. Most of the men reaching the city were forced to camp out in the cold.

On November 16 Russian forces under Admiral Pavel Chichagov took Minsk, Napoléon’s largest supply base. From there they proceeded north against the route the French would have to take to Vilna. Kutusov was hovering nearby, other units were descending from the north, and Milodoravich was closing from behind. Zamoyski estimates Napoléon had lost 60,000 troops since fleeing Moscow, and that 20,000 camp followers had perished. He still had a fighting force, but no one would have called it la Grande Armée.

Russian forces continued to attack the French column along its route, further reducing the remnants of Napoléon’s army. The French fought bravely but were badly outnumbered; even so, a surprising number managed to escape the traps the Russians had set. But the relentless cold continued to destroy men and horses. Italy sent a cadet corps of 350 men as reinforcements, but they were the pampered sons of nobility and had never faced such circumstances before. All but a handful died within a week. At Krasny the French had to run a gauntlet of Russian artillery and infantry. In five days of fighting Napoléon lost some 10,000 men killed or wounded and more than 200 artillery pieces.

And there were rivers to cross—first the Dnieper, then the Berezina, the last river between Napoléon and Vilna. Spanning it was just one bridge, at the town of Borisov. A Polish division under General Jan Henryk Dabrowski was protecting it, but Chichagov was moving toward it from Minsk. As the remains of the French army headed for the crossing, so did Russian forces under Field Marshal Peter Wittgenstein and four separate Russian groups. Wittgenstein took an entire French division under General Louis Partouneaux, capturing as many as 7,000 men, according to historian Dominic Lieven. And capture was far from the worst thing the French suffered: The extreme cold led to frostbite, claiming toes, fingers, noses; hunger was so rabid that men would slice meat from a horse’s rump while they marched and the owner wasn’t looking (due to the cold, the horse would not feel pain); and lice were ubiquitous—even Napoléon had them. And the Cossacks continued to harass the French, showing no mercy to those they captured.

Chichagov got to Borisov before the French and burned the bridge. Napoléon found an alternate crossing point a few miles north and ordered a bridge built. Thanks to constant infighting among the senior Russian commanders, they missed several chances to cut off Napoléon’s retreat entirely. Chichagov, taken in by a French feint, sent the bulk of his forces south along the west bank of the river; Wittgenstein failed to destroy the wood-paved road to Vilna, which led through a swamp. Thanks to truly heroic efforts by Napoléon’s Dutch engineers, who worked in ice-choked water, the new bridge was built, and the better part of the French army had crossed it before the Russians realized their blunder. After a forced march back north the Russians attacked, inflicting terrible carnage, especially among the civilians. Each army lost about 15,000 men, and some 10,000 civilians died, both from artillery fire and the crushes at the river crossing. It is a wonder the French army survived.

But their ordeal was hardly over. The day after the battle a blizzard and the wind that came with it froze yet more feet and fingers, the cold dropping to 22 degrees below zero. Men killed each other over a fur coat. A few French resorted to eating their dead. “It was not unknown even for men to gnaw at their own famished bodies,” wrote one lieutenant. To survive required great strength of character and utter determination, along with an ability to ignore the most extreme hardships. The Russians were also in bad shape, with huge losses of men, but still they pursued. The temperature dropped further, to 35 degrees below zero. The water vapor in the air froze in tiny specks that cut into the skin when the wind blew. Chichagov’s column, marching down the road to Vilna, walked between columns of weaponless French soldiers, barely alive.

Napoléon left for France after instructing his generals to defend Vilna. There were fresh troops there, and they were sent out to provide a safety net into which the army could retreat. But the reinforcements were not inured to the cold, and many were too young to have known hardship—one such division lost half its men on the first day, the other half before the retreating army arrived. The French were hoping for respite in Vilna, but the city could not be defended, and Cossacks streamed in. To the west of Vilna, on a steep hill too icy to navigate, the French had to abandon the imperial treasury, and looters carried away whole bags of gold coins. The last French officer to cross the Niemen back into Poland was Marshal Michel Ney. He had been fighting a rear-guard action and was nearly alone.

The final toll? Excluding allied survivors, perhaps 35,000 French troops survived to fight again the next year. Half of those who escaped over the Berezina died in the following two weeks. But the Napoléonic wars were not over. Two more years of fighting lay ahead. Nevertheless, the situation in Europe had fundamentally changed. Napoléon’s advance into Russia, the battle of Borodino and the burning of Moscow had aroused a national feeling in Russia that had not existed before. Tolstoy noted it; he called it the X factor, the sentiment that drove peasants to burn their crops rather than surrender them to the French. In Europe the French disaster aroused similar national feelings, and with it a determination to throw off the imperial yoke. Napoléon had, he claimed, never wanted to invade Russia; he only wanted to bring it to heel, back into line. He regarded his real enemy as Great Britain. But Russia broke all the rules. Napoléon found himself fighting not only an army, but also a nation. He was fighting all of Russia. It was the first of the total wars to come.


A frequent contributor to Military History and other national publications, Anthony Brandt is the author of The Man Who Ate His Boots: The Tragic History of the Search for the Northwest Passage. For further reading he recommends Adam Zamoyski’s Moscow 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March and Dominic Lieven’s Russia Against Napoleon: The True Story of the Campaigns of War and Peace.

Originally published in the November 2013 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.