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Napoleon Invades Russia 1812

In summer of 1812, the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte led his Grand Army to invade Russia. After occupying Smolensk, Napoleon’s army marched to Moscow which they found deserted and on fire. Despite being razed to the ground, the allied troops spent several weeks in Moscow. The French troops were already running low on supply and morale, so the emperor decided to withdraw from the city. On October 19, 1812, they left the city and attempted to march back to their homeland.  The arrival of winter and the onslaught of Russian gunfire decimated Napoleon’s troops.  These events are recorded on the Bible Timeline with World History during this time period.

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The War of the Sixth Coalition: Napoleon’s Invasion of and Disastrous Retreat from Russia

A painting that depicts Napoleon watching the burning of Moscow in 1812.

In 1807, Napoleon Bonaparte and the Russian Emperor Alexander I signed the Treaty of Tilsit. The two men then became friends and allies, giving Russia a brief respite from the wars that devastated much of Europe. However, the alliance between France and Russia crumbled in 1812 when grievances from both sides resurfaced.

Napoleon’s main issue with Alexander was his lax enforcement of the French Continental System in the Baltic. This accusation had basis as the Russian emperor felt that his country did not benefit from French trade policy. In spite of his alliance with France, he continued to let ships which carried British goods into Russian ports in the Baltic.

Alexander, on the other hand, believed that the presence of French troops in the Duchy of Warsaw threatened Russia’s interests in Poland. Russia had also waged a war against the Ottoman Empire starting in 1806 and had been trying to get a chunk of its territories in the Balkans. Although it was unclear to him what Napoleon’s Balkan plans were, Alexander knew that France (the Ottoman Empire’s long-time ally) would block any Russian attempt to partition the Ottoman Empire.

Both emperors knew that war was on the horizon and were busy seeking allies between 1810 and 1812. Prussia and Austria pledged reinforcements to Napoleon, while Russia wooed Sweden for its support. Alexander then hurriedly wrapped up the war against the Ottoman Empire so he and his troops could concentrate on the new Coalition War against France.

On June 24, 1812, 600,000 soldiers marched east to attack the Russians in the city of Smolensk. Apart from French soldiers, the Grand Army also included allied German, Swiss, Dutch, Polish, Austrian, and Italian soldiers. Even before entering Smolensk in August, Napoleon’s army was already suffering from the heat, hunger, and disease. However, they still outnumbered the city’s defenders, so the Russian army retreated from Smolensk without putting up much of a fight. The French emperor originally planned to winter in Smolensk but decided to pursue the Russians into Moscow.

The Russians tried to halt the Grand Army’s advance by engaging them in a battle at Borodino. Around 70,000 men from both sides were wounded or killed on September 7, and the Russians were once again forced to retreat deeper into their territory. The Grand Army arrived in Moscow on September 14 but found the city deserted and ablaze.

 Despite Moscow’s desolate condition, Napoleon and his army still lingered in the city to celebrate this “success.” As the weeks progressed, however, he saw that his troops’ supplies and morale had become dangerously low. Worse, Alexander had rejected his offer of peace and the dreaded Russian winter was fast approaching. After five weeks of staying in Moscow in vain, Napoleon finally ordered his men to march west. On October 19, French and allied troops left Moscow and marched back to their homeland. Little did these men know that they would be decimated on the way home. Russian troops led by General Mikhail Kutuzov fired upon the men as they made their way to Smolensk. By the time they arrived in the city, the French and allied troops had been reduced to half. Hunger, disease, and extreme cold also contributed to their demise.

Thousands of French and allied soldiers died as they attempted to cross the Berezina River once again. Russian troops proceeded to rain gunfire on their enemies. Most of the French and allied troops were killed, while many were captured and taken as prisoners. By December 18, 1812, only around 100,000 of the original 600,000 men returned to their homelands alive.


Picture by:  Альбрехт Адам – скан из книги, Public Domain, Link

Breunig, Charles. The Age of Revolution and Reaction: 1789-1850. New York: Norton, 1977.

Lieven, Dominic, ed. The Cambridge History of Russia. Vol. 2. The Cambridge History of Russia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. doi:10.1017/CHOL9780521815291.

Markham, Felix. The New Cambridge Modern History: War And Peace In An Age Of Upheaval 1793-1830. Edited by C. W. Crawley. Vol. IX. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

Montefiore, Simon Sebag. The Romanovs: 1613-1918. New York, Vintage Books, 2017.


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