This Day in History (19-Oct-1812) – Napoleon Retreats from Russia

Throughout Napoleon’s career as a General, he built a reputation for conceiving ambitious battle plans and somehow managing to pull them off. By 1812, the French Empire had far outgrown the borders that existed when Napoleon took the reins of the army in 1796. On hearing news of revolt in Russia, Napolean built an army of as many as 500,000 men, the largest army in Europe,  and launched forward for a 600-mile march from Poland to Moscow, with supply wagons carrying 30 days of food. Entering Russia Napolean realized that road network was very bad, unlike Europe, causing discomfort on all the fronts.

Knowing his soldiers would be unable to overcome the invaders in direct confrontation, Russian General Mikhail Kutuzov managed to avoid a frontal assault altogether. Acting in a hit-and-run manner while pulling off an organized retreat, his troops burned everything in sight as they slowly pulled within the city of Moscow in early September. Following the Russians through burned out forests, the French would find the land bereft of resources, leaving them hungry and fatigued by the time they made camp. The situation was just as bad for the horses. Grazing along the road or in a meadow was not adequate to maintain a healthy horse. On September 7th, the Russians stepped forward to face the French at the Battle of Borodino, near a village on the outskirts of Moscow. The two armies clashed in a fierce, day-long engagement that left almost 80,000 dead, possibly the bloodiest day Europe has ever seen. Napoleon marched his army in assuming he would find ample supplies and downtrodden citizens. He saw neither as Russians had burned everything and left. After spending four weeks in the city, Napoleon realized he would not be welcoming a Russian party suing for peace. It was also a bone-chilling below zero cold that few had experienced before. The weak soldiers died of winter. Naplean opted to march home. Lumbering to the southwest, the French suddenly found the Russians eager for a fight. Starving and weary, Napoleon’s soldiers were easy targets for relentless attacks. After leading most of his soldiers across the Morava River in modern Slovakia, an impatient Napoleon burned the bridges with some 10,000 waiting to cross. Two months after leaving Moscow, the French army made it to safety on December 14th, with just 100,000 survivors, only 1 in 5 of the men who had left returned.