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Saturday, June 24, 2006

Napoleon Launches Invasion Of Russia, June 24, 1812

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Today in 1812, French Emperor Napoleon led the Grande Armee, possibly the largest European military force ever assembled up until that time, into Russia. The enormous army contained nearly half a million men and was made up not only of French troops, but contingents from every nation then controlled by France.

During the early months of the invasion, the Russian Army exercised a scorched earth policy, meaning that they continually retreated while destroying anything of value to Napoleon’s men. It was not until September 7 that the two forces met in head-on battle at what would be called the Battle of Borodino. While neither side won a clear victory, Borodino remains possibly the most costly single day battle in the history of man; although exact numbers are not known, it is believed that as many as 90,000 soldiers on both sides lost their lives. While the Russians were not decisively beaten there, they retreated, allowing Napoleon to march on Moscow On September 14, Napoleon arrived there hoping to find supplies but instead found almost the entire population evacuated and nothing in the way of supplies for his army. The next day, fires broke across the city, intentionally set by the Russians themselves. Moscow was composed of mostly wooden structures at that time, so almost the entire city was burned to the ground. Instead of having a city in which to spend the winter, the Grand Armee had ashes.

Still hoping that the Russians would surrender, Napoleon waited a month before ordering a retreat back to friendly territory. On the way out of the nation Napoleon's army suffered continual harassment from elements of the Russian army, who had been waiting for such an opportunity. The Cossacks were able to force the French to retreat through the same scorched areas they had crossed on their way to Moscow, meaning that the army could not live off the land. Napoleon had arrived in Russia with over 200,000 horses; every one of them either died or was eaten. Anything that had to be horse-drawn, including artillery, had to be left behind.

In December, 1812, Napoleon learned that one of his generals was plotting a coup against him in Paris. He left his army behind and escaped from Russia on a sleigh. It was during that month that what remained of the Grand Armee left Russian territory. Of nearly half a million men who started on the campaign in June, fewer than 25,000 left Russia alive. The Russians suffered the loss of over 400,000 soldiers and an untold number of civilians.

Napoleon’s retreat from Russia marked a turning point in the Napoleonic Wars. Although he would wage another campaign in Germany the next year, the end was near. The cruel Russian winter and the tenacity of her army proved that Napoleon could at least be worn down if not defeated outright. It is very probable that had Napoleon not invaded Russia, his dominance of western Europe would’ve continued for many more years.

For the Russian people, the defense of their homeland against French aggression came to be called the Patriotic War, not to be confused with The Great Patriotic War, their name for World War Two. The nationalist fervor that swept the nation after the French retreat led to calls for modernization and reform and began a struggle that would extend into the 20th century and lead to the formation of the Soviet Union.

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