A lot of wars happened in 1812, but Napoleon waged one of his largest offensives during the latter half of the year. Starting in June, Napoleon mobilized the Grande Armée (three quarters of a million men) and marched towards Moscow. His official aim was simply to free Poland from Russian oppression, but he likely also had his sights on acquiring vast Russian territories.
To summarize things a bit, Napoleon made a horrid choice. The Russian Campaign turned out to be a disastrous one. His initial battles at Smolensk were promising victories, but Napoleon’s Grande Armée didn’t arrive in Moscow until September. That meant that it was getting cold, and the Russian winter was dangerously near. Napoleon eventually arrived in a deserted, looted, and partially-burned Moscow, and his troops began to freeze as it neared October.
“At length day, a day of dismal ruin, appeared. It came to add to the horror of the scene, and to dim its splendor. Many of the officers took shelter in the halls of the palace. The chiefs, including Mortier himself, overcome by the fire with which they had contended for six and thirty hours, returned to the Kremlin, and fell down in a state of exhaustion and despair.” (Source: The Burning of Moscow As Seen by One of Napoleon’s Generals)
Napoleon’s troops left France with limited supplies, and foraging was sparse. More than half of his men parished in the aftermath of Moscow, and the Grande Armée was never the same. It was the beginning of the end for Napoleon. That is how the traditional narrative tends to go, anyway.
Historian Robert Holtman tells us that Napoleon expected a fight in Moscow, because he believed the Russians would do anything to keep their capitol city. (Source: Holtman, The Napoleonic Revolution, Pg. 33). Ironically, they did exactly the opposite of what he expected them to do. For Napoleon, arriving in a burned, looted, and broken Moscow was unthinkable. He wanted to fight Russians, but he ended up fighting with the Russian Winter. This outcome should have been an obvious possibility to Napoleon. The astute historian should clue in to how obvious his lust for power and domination was in this circumstance, too. A lot has been written about Napoleon’s fair and just social reforms, such as his flexible Napoleonic Code. However, the true nature of the man lies in his military career and aspirations of empire.
For historian Robert Holtman, Napoleon’s educational reforms were some of the most lasting. He was quick to link himself with the French Revolution, too, often referring to himself as a “Soldier of the Revolution.” (Source: Holtman, The Napoleonic Revolution, Pg. 191-195)
It is interesting that the most sweeping reforms were in the area of education, because it is undoubtedly an area of reform that is beneficial to the military and laity alike. Napoleon was a man of singular mindset. Only a man of such a singular, simple mindset could have conceived of the massive military blunder that was the Russian Campaign. Napoleon’s troops didn’t abandon him, though. They stuck through with him all the way home to the borders of the French Empire.
The way home was treacherous for the French forces after Moscow. At Barezina, though, Napoleon was able to secure a victory despite what must have been beyond nightmarish circumstances. The following video is from a video game, but it provides an excellent look at what Napoleon’s travels were like. He was a very orderly man – he even wore his military outfit every day on the Island of Elba – all alone – during his years of exile. To be certain, he would have had his troops march in formation prior to battle even during starvation.
Video: The Battle of Barezina (Final Russian Campaign Battle; After Moscow)
Napoleon would go on to fight for about four more years after the Russian Campaign, but he never was able to overcome the loss. It must have had a disturbing psychological impact on him. The burden of knowing that he had mismanaged things enough to lead to 300 thousand deaths – well, that must have been a lot to stomach. During the Egyptian Campaign more than a decade earlier, plague had broken out. Still, plague is something people can’t possibly plan for. Should Napoleon have known what would happen to him in Moscow beforehand?
It’s interesting to note that Hitler made the same mistake in the 20th century. After conquering continental Europe in a manner not unlike Napoleon, Hitler then proceeded to invade Russia. Hitler fared worse than Napoleon in Russia, too. Napoleon won some important victories at Smolensk, but Hitler got dragged into Stalingrad – one of the bloodiest and most protracted battle sites of the war.
When Hitler finally did arrive in Moscow, they simply pulled the same old trick on him that they had pulled on Napoleon more than 100 years earlier: Burn the city, let in thieves, and destroy the food. The winter then does the rest of the work. Nothing defeats an army as efficiently as the Russian Winter. Hitler and Napoleon both lost their empires in large part due to it.
Documentary: Hitler Turns East (to Russia)