French invasion of Russia, 1812: Napoleon’s Russian campaign

The exhausted soldiers slept on the battlefield, next to piles of dead and dying men and over 15,000 death horses.

From June 24 to December 14 ,1812, Napoleon I waged a military campaign against the Russian Empire. This conflict is known as the French Invasion of Russia. There were almost 300,000 casualties on Napoleon’s side, marking the beginning of the end for the French Empire. The retreat was characterized by various incidents of atrocities in which the barbarity of the Cossacks disputed the horrible environmental circumstances enforced by “General Winter.” Napoleon’s invasion of Russia was among the most dramatic events in the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). As a result of the lasting effect the tragedy had on people, the term “Berezina” has come to mean anything tragic today.

What led to Napoleon’s invasion of Russia?

French invasion of Russia, 1812: Napoleon's Russian campaign. The French Army crossing the Niemen River.
The French Army crossing the Niemen River by Waterloo Clark (c.1771–1863).

It has been argued that Napoleon Bonaparte, at the height of his fame and power, should not have risked all on a Russian campaign. But this is debatable for two reasons: first, Napoleon was not in an easy situation at the time, and secondly, his invasion of Russia was not motivated by a whim.

Indeed, in 1811, Napoleon, while at the head of the first European (not to mention global) power, met obstacles. From a symbolic point of view, the situation with the Papacy had gotten increasingly problematic, but worse, from a military point of view, the imperial army was utterly bogged down in Spain, where it was confronting guerilla warfare and the English army.

The finest soldiers were consequently compelled to stay in the peninsula and the continual casualties impacted French public sentiment. Moreover, French generals had begun to suffer defeats, which dispelled the notion that the French imperial force was unstoppable. And European kingdoms had revived their hopes of toppling the French Empire. When Austria went to war with France in 1809, Russia did nothing for its ally, France. As a result, Napoleon had to rely on his own resources to put an end to the Austrians’ inclinations.

It turned out that the Russian alliance was merely nominal. Tsar Alexander I of Russia had not backed France and had grown more distant from the country since the Meeting at Erfurt with Talleyrand in 1808, during which Talleyrand had awoken in him the concept of being the new liberator of Europe by bringing the French Eagle down.

The Russian alliance was no longer working for either military or economic reasons, and yet the Tsar continued his inactive stance, which only further provoked Napoleon. The goal of the Franco-Russian Alliance of expanding a continental embargo designed to suffocate the British economy, named the Continental System or Continental Blockade, was no longer honored by Russia.

The great distances between the two countries meant that the trade was poor and mostly consisted of luxury items, both of which Napoleon had hoped to flourish. However, the Tsar put discouraging tariffs on goods of this kind. There was disillusionment on the battlefield, in the economy, and also in the family tree when the Tsar denied Napoleon’s sister’s hand in marriage and went for Marie-Louise of Austria as his bride.

Moreover, the Tsar was also quite upset with Napoleon, it appeared to him that the Treaties of Tilsit were merely words. Alexander was weary of waiting for a battle against the Ottomans that was continually postponed, and he couldn’t take Napoleon’s stifling of his goals for Constantinople any longer.

Nor could he tolerate the presence of the Duchy of Warsaw, Poland’s pseudo-rebirth under French control, which was just happening outside his front door. With the Siege of Oldenburg in 1805, France was at last in command of the Baltic Sea, a vital shipping route for Russian commerce. Trade with Russia had been difficult since the Continental System was signed, and the country traditionally always had a trade surplus with France.

In 1811, Napoleon thought that the Tsar would turn from passive to military resistance at any moment as fresh reports of rearmament were spreading. Marshal Louis-Nicolas Davout, who was stationed in Poland, informed Napoleon of a major military movement of Russian forces to the east. Things were getting confirmed, and Napoleon was sure that Poland was in great danger, so he dispatched soldiers to fortify the likely front line. However, Tsar Alexander showed reluctance and ultimately abandoned his offensive plans in favor of a more cautious stance.

Strides toward the French invasion of Russia

Napoleon and his marshals are straining to keep the retreat under control.
Napoleon and his marshals are straining to keep the 1812 retreat under control.

Napoleon, whose adherence to the Continental System was vital, readied his invasion force as new word of Russia’s invasion plans spread. As the diplomats dithered in St. Petersburg, Napoleon ordered a levy of 120,000 soldiers for 1812. The French Department of War’s topographic office was tasked with producing all of the required maps for the upcoming campaign. Beginning in January 1812, imperial forces from all over Europe began moving into Germany, while the military commander Davout and his 150,000 soldiers fortified the Polish frontier.

It wasn’t that Prussia didn’t want to follow the Russians; rather, it was that if Austria were to do so, then only a victory would be assured. But Austria was still incapable of mounting a serious challenge to the French army after their crushing 1809 defeat. By the end of the war, Prussia had given in and agreed to allow the French Army to travel through its territory while also sending over roughly 20,000 of its own soldiers to aid in Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.

The Austrian government did the same thing, supplying 30,000 soldiers with the intent of conquering parts of Romania. Austria agreed to grant Prussia the Galicia (Eastern Europe) if it can capture Illyria in exchange for the two countries working together in this 1812 French invasion of Russia.

Sweden had never warned Napoleon about the possible Russian invasion. Although he was French too, King Bernadotte was exclusively interested in serving Swedish interests since the nobility was against him. Without regard to the Continental System, Napoleon conquered Swedish Pomerania, and Bernadotte joined the Russians, the enemy of his own nation.

As a result, Russia not only gained the United Kingdom’s loyalty but also the neutrality of the Turks, whom they had just defeated. But despite the size of his empire, Tsar Alexander could only align two forces against Napoleon, one under the instructions of Barclay de Tolly (120,000 soldiers), and the other under the leadership of Pyotr Bagration (40,000 soldiers).

The Tsar sent an ultimatum to Napoleon on April 8, demanding that he withdraw from Prussia and all territories east of the Elbe. Alexander didn’t bother waiting for a response, and he assumed the leadership of his troops at Vilna (Vilnius). Due to the extensive planning that had gone into the French invasion of Russia, Napoleon could not back down, and instead, he assumed direct control of the French troops.

The beginning of Napoleon’s Russian invasion

On May 16, Napoleon gathered his allies, including Francis I of Austria, King Frederick William III of Prussia, and King Maximilian I Joseph of Bavaria, around him at Dresden. Napoleon’s army entered Russian territory on June 24 after crossing the Niemen River. The same night, Napoleon’s horse was terrified by a hare and threw him off. Many French saw this as a foreshadowing of terrible things to come.

Napoleon led an army of 250,000 troops, largely French, who were supported by forces led by his son-in-law Eugène de Beauharnais (90,000 Italian and southern German soldiers) and his brother Jerome Bonaparte, the King of Westphalia (70,000 Germans and Poles). Napoleon’s force seemed unstoppable, yet the Russians kept evading. On June 28, Vilna was captured, but Jerome Bonaparte was unable to prevent Bagration from fleeing; the tone in the French command shifted, and Jerome was sent home.

The French Army was dwindling in the face of Russia’s vastness. To protect his supply routes, Napoleon was forced to leave minor contingents behind at all times. And the supply line was losing its potency the farther Napoleon and his army went into Russian territory. Any army in this situation was almost certain to lose troops due to desertion and illness (typhus, dysentery, etc.).

At the outset of the French invasion of Russia, the invaders weren’t shivering solely due to the cold, but rather due to the extreme temperature swings between the day and night in Russia. To relieve the Army, Napoleon intended to utilize Prussia and Poland, but the hostile populace of the Prussian Army and poor crops in Poland rendered this strategy ineffective. About 6,000 soldiers were leaving Napoleon’s Russian campaign every day. Many of the weary soldiers never made it to the hospitals, and their decaying remains left a foul odor along the Russian roads.

The Battle of Borodino

Napoleon and his staff at Borodino. French invasion of Russia, 1812: Napoleon's Russian campaign.
Napoleon and his staff at Borodino. By Vasily Vereshchagin (1842-1904)

The Russian Army never stopped retreating. Although it is often claimed that the Russian Army was acting out of strategic understanding, the reason for their constant retreat during the French invasion could be the fear of conflict. But the retreating might have been planned strategically before the conflict as well.

The Russian generals on the field probably considered it too dangerous to confront Napoleon, and while they are retreating, they burned the non-transportable stockpiles of supplies along their way. On August 17, the Russians attempted to hold Smolensk. But at the end, the Russians burned the city and began their retreat once again. When they arrived in Moscow, however, continuing to withdraw was out of the question.

But for the new Russian marshal Kutuzov, who took the place of Bagration, the enemy was considerably weakening. Kutuzov decided to defend Moscow, and on September 7, 1812, he deployed his soldiers into a defensive stance. In this stage of the French invasion of Russia, the Russian strategy was to position a large number of soldiers (110.000) on a 5-mile (8-km) front by relying on formidable defensive anchorages such as earthen mounds, ditches, stake nets to pile up the French horsemen, and lines of wolf traps.

The Russians’ plan was simple: bait Napoleon into an eroding battle so that he would have no choice but to commit his troops to their deaths on a sophisticated defensive system.

The battle was extremely violent and indecisive, especially in the Battle of Borodino, which was ultimately won only by a formidable charge of French cuirassiers. This battle occurred at dawn when 1227 pieces of French artillery were unleashed on the Russians. There was an average of 3 cannon shots per second and 430 rifle shots per minute during the battle. 

Though Napoleon had the chance to easily smash the Russian army, he missed it because he was hesitant to disband his position. The Russians surrendered over 20 cannons and roughly a thousand captives in the evening, in addition to losing 45,000 men (dead and wounded). Over 6,540 Frenchmen were killed, while another 21,450 were injured.

The exhausted soldiers slept on the battlefield, next to piles of dead and dying colleagues and over 15,000 death horses. Kutuzov took advantage of this break to withdraw in chaos, and he managed to pass off this furious resistance as a triumph that would endure in Russian history. Since Napoleon had already reached Moscow on the 14th of September, the French victory in the invasion of Russia was almost certain.

As Napoleon approached the Kremlin, it seemed apparent that the end of the invasion of Russia was near. Previously, he had negotiated peace treaties with Prussia and Austria after capturing Berlin and Vienna, and this could be the same with Russia. But Napoleon could have also abolished serfdom in Russia to win over the peasants. But it would have required committing himself to the redistribution of land and fighting to the death with the Tsar’s army when he was far from his supply bases. It was taking 15 days for a letter to get from Moscow to Paris.

For Napoleon, Moscow was only a staging ground and a negotiation tool; he was not interested in remaining here.

Fire of Moscow

Fire of Moscow from 15-18 September
Fire of Moscow from 15-18 September by A. Smirnov

Moscow, the holy city of Russia, had been evacuated of its population. One fire followed another, and soon the whole city was in flames. All the Frenchmen ran in the direction of the water pumps, only to find that they had gone. On the Russian general Kutuzov’s order, Moscow’s governor Rostopchine had set a bunch of convicts out of jail and given orders to the head of police to promptly set fire to the whole of Moscow. The flames were fanned by the ferocious wind, which swept relentlessly through the primarily wooden structures across the city. The Fire of Moscow took place between September 14 and 18 in 1812, and two-thirds of Moscow erupted in flames.

On that day, Moscow seemed like hell on earth as heat seeped into the streets, fires scorched flesh, and some French troops took advantage of the widespread fear to plunder the city. Napoleon was helpless as he saw the city crumble. After 21 days of burning, the blaze finally died out. Arsonists who were caught were put to death.

Still optimistic, Napoleon waited for the Tsar to respond, hoping that this would signal the start of peace talks. But there was no response. Fearing being stranded in Russia, he resigned himself to commanding a retreat. After leaving Moscow in ruins, the French Army departed from the capital on October 19. But the Army had left 700 ill and injured men behind, which the Cossack general Ilowaiski had entrusted to local peasants who eventually killed them in order to obtain their uniforms.

The French withdrawal from Russia

Napoleon's Retreat from Russia by Adolph Northen (1828 – 1876).
Napoleon’s Retreat from Russia by Adolph Northen (1828 – 1876).

The most memorable moment in Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 is actually the withdrawal from the country. Due to the hostile locals and the Cossacks’ use of the scorched earth tactic, Napoleon’s French troops were unable to retreat and were ultimately forced to fall back. Adding to the poor supply line, Russia was now slammed by a sudden frost with temperatures reaching as low as -13 to -22 degrees Fahrenheit (-25 to -30 degrees Celsius). After October’s unusual warmth, the French were caught off guard by the onset of winter’s white hell.

Napoleon’s French troops were unprepared and had to make do with whatever they could find along the road. The French column spread out, weighed down by the loot hauled in several carriages. When the horses surrendered to the cold and starvation, the carts were all winded up at the wayside. The frost covered the lips and limbs, and many soldiers who fell asleep never awoke. Those who stayed behind or moved out from the main column were slain by the Cossacks.

As bellies rumbled, the horse meat was highly prized, but it was challenging to obtain food from horses that were dead and frozen for a long time. The Russian captives were considerably more desperate than the other starving troops, and cannibalism was reported among their ranks. There were many different types of people in the convoy, including soldiers, convicts, and women such as officers’ wives, sutlers, comedians, and prostitutes.

Napoleon planned to get food from Smolensk, a city that burned down during the French invasion of Russia. However, the supplies were not organized well enough, so they weren’t enough and only helped the Imperial Guard, which had arrived first.

Napoleon was declared dead

Napoleon was hit with devastating news on November 6, 1812. By the time the reports of the military tragedy reached Paris, French General Claude François de Malet was close to overthrowing the government. On October 22 and 23, Malet orchestrated a coup by proclaiming Napoleon Bonaparte dead and mobilizing the units around Paris on the basis of a fake Senate order.

He got several comrades freed from jail and even managed to tempt the first regiment of the Imperial Guard, which he commanded to block the exits to Paris. It was now up to him to persuade General Pierre-Augustin Hulin to hold the capital after having military officer Anne Savary and the director of police imprisoned.

But as the sun came up, Hullin and his staff saw through the plot, and Malet was taken into custody. Napoleon was outraged by this news, but not so much by Malet’s bravado as by the incompetence of his ministers, and the officers’ behavior, which included obeying a fake Senate order without even thinking about helping his son, L’Aiglon Bonaparte.

Napoleon made the decision to send his army to Paris after considering the danger that the rumors of his death were posing. His desire was to put an end to these political setbacks, and for that, the only way to regain the military initiative was to raise a new army in France to launch a counterattack.

This was all happening under pressure from the Russians, who attempted to block the roads to halt the French Army, but Napoleon continued to push through with his soldiers. They were met with furious fights, like at Krasno. In Doubrowna, 600 remaining cavalrymen, the “Sacred Squadron,” formed a tight guard around Napoleon because of the threat of Cossack incursions.

When the 21st of November rolled around, Napoleon had just 24,000 troops remaining.

The chaotic Battle of Berezina

Battle of Berezina
Battle of Berezina by Victor Adam (1801-1866)

When the French Army arrived at the Berezina, it found itself blocked by a river carrying large slabs of ice. The Russian Army’s moment seemed to have come. But the French Army managed to escape with 50,000 men owing to its pontoon boats, which performed miracles on the icy waters. Yet, it was only at the expense of an unfortunate scene: A French rearguard that was keeping back the Russians while on the bridges jostled one another, and in the end, they vanished forever in the turmoil of the frosty waters.

Napoleon Bonaparte surrendered the leadership to his brother-in-law, Joachim Murat, and set out for Paris by sleigh, escorted only by a few of his officers. Napoleon carried a little bottle of poison around his neck on this journey from December 7 to December 18, 1812, in case he were to be captured. A horse cart in Meaux marked the end of Napoleon’s escapade. With barely 80 francs in all their pockets, Napoleon and his companions had to take credit to pay the road expenses of the trip.

As Joachim Murat was unable to direct the retreating French army, he gave leadership to Michel Ney, who expended enormous efforts to salvage what was yet possible. Kutuzov routed the remnants of the French army on the 8th, and by the 12th, they had recrossed the Niemen River (or Nemunas). A total of almost 390,000 men, not including captives and deserters, died throughout Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.

Prussians felt confident enough to switch sides in favor of Russia on December 31, 1812, and the result was a victory for their side. At that point, Napoleon’s former allies began to desert him one by one for the Russian Army, seeking to get the spoils of their participation in the successful advance. Although this reversal of alliance put Napoleon in a tough situation, he nonetheless managed to recruit a new army, and the year 1813 was highlighted by the German campaign of 1813.

The end of Napoleon’s French Empire

Despite his numerical disadvantage, Napoleon fought against the Sixth Coalition, consisting of the German states of Austria and Prussia, plus Russia and Sweden. He managed to win multiple battles, but the campaign resulted in the Sixth Coalition victory, which ended the domination of Napoleon’s French Empire.

Napoleon’s last campaign was the one in northeastern France in 1814. The Austrian, Prussian, Russian, and other German troops of the Sixth Coalition invaded France after their victory at Leipzig in 1813. Napoleon put on a spectacular display of his strategic talent in this war in France, the final part of the War of the Sixth Coalition (1813-1814). 

Napoleon was able to get several victories despite the Coalition’s overwhelming numerical advantage, particularly during the Six Days’ Campaign. And thus, Napoleon presided over a triumphant farewell until his abdication from the throne.


  1. Richard K. Riehn (1990). “1812: Napoleon’s Russian Campaign”.
  2. Adam Zamoyski (2004). “Moscow 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March”.
  3. David P. Chandler (1966). “The Campaigns of Napoleon”.
  4. Robert Thomas Wilson (1860). “Narrative of events during the Invasion of Russia by Napoleon Bonaparte, and the Retreat of the French Army, 1812.”

By Hrothsige Frithowulf

Hrothsige works at Malevus as a history writer. His areas of historical interest include the ancient world and early Europe, as well as the history of modern culture.