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German Historians: Why Did Napoleon Lose the War of 1812?
 May 3, 2012

Two hundred years ago Napoleon unleashed a war on Russia that ended in his demise, which was quite unexpected for many. What was the main reason behind his defeat: the Russian people, Russian winter or Russian God?

Numerous books telling about Napoleon’s campaign against Russia that ended in the crushing defeat of Grande Armee are being published in Germany in the bicentennial year, including the monographs by German historians, translations, repeated editions, multipage academic works and popular publications.

What caused the crush and shame of Napoleon’s Army? Nobody gives an unequivocal answer. Some blame the poor preparation for the Russian campaign, excessive self-confidence of Napoleon and the severity of Russian winter. Other historians emphasize the braveness of Russian soldiers and an unheard-of patriotic upswing (“the frenzy of people”). Still others admire the brilliant tactics of Barclay de Tolly and later Kutuzov, who abstained from entering a decisive battle and sapped the adversary’s stamina down to Borodino. Thus Adam Zamoyski thinks the decision to toss a “bone” to Napoleon by surrendering Moscow was “brilliant.” Other historians demur at all points save for the Russian Army’s endurance and stout heartedness, which nobody questions.

The frosts began earlier than usual indeed in 1812 – already in October. Yet by that time the fate of Napoleon’s Army had been sealed. Its remnants were disorderly retreating from Moscow. A disaster had broken out much earlier – in fact even before the Battle of Borodino. Getting ready for his campaign, Napoleon certainly took into consideration some of the Russian peculiarities, but far from all of them.

Russia lacked a dense population, typical of Central and Western Europe, and high standards of living. Poverty-stricken peasants and a few not very wealthy landowners were unable to maintain hundreds of thousand Napoleon’s soldiers, who bled the local population dry and causing the hatred of local peasants, which soon backfired on them with “the bludgeon of people’s war.”

Fools and roads?

Bad roads and huge distances led to a wide gap between the frontline and combat service support. Many French wagon trains got stuck in Poland and Lithuania. Suffice to say, that when the Russian Army was already on the offensive march in 1813, in Vilnius alone it seized four million bread and army-biscuit rations and almost the same amount of meat, alcohol, wine, thousands tons of clobber and munitions. All of them had been prepared by the French for the Russian campaign, but never reached the combat units.

The mortality of cavalry and artillery horses which (like people) had to be out at feed was terrifying. Many thousands horses could not even get to Smolensk, which markedly weakened Napoleon’s Army.

Furthermore the French forces were decimated by camp fever and infectious diseases. The morale was low already during the first weeks of the campaign; the diseased were numbered by many thousands. Shortly before the Battle of Borodino it was found that only 225,000 were left from the 400,000-strong force. For instance, light cavalry lost half of its rank and file. As was counted by French quartering officers (this data is quoted by Dominic Lieven in his Russia against Napoleon), 50,000 people deserted Napoleon’s Army during the first one and a half months.

One of the reasons for mass defection was that the French accounted for only half of the Grande Armee. Many battle-seasoned veterans retired as early by late 1811 and were replaced by a voluntary-compulsory military draft of Italians, Dutch, Germans, Swiss, Belgians…

Nevertheless, according to historian Daniel Furrer, quite a few of these “allies” were valorous fighters. Out of 27,000 Italians only about a thousand returned to their homes from the Russian campaign. And out of 1,300 Swiss soldiers, about a thousand perished as they were covering the crossing of Berezina River during Napoleon’s retreat.

Germans against Germans

Germans were fighting on both sides. German kingdoms and principalities were partly occupied by the French and partly – like Prussia – were forced into becoming Napoleon’s allies under pressure. Participating in the Russian campaign were 30,000 Bavarians, 27,000 soldiers and officers from Westphalian Kingdom, 20,000 Saxons and the same amount of Prussians. Bonaparte did not trust his Prussian “allies” who shortly before allied with Russia and just in case placed a French marshal as commander of the Prussian division.

As for the Russian Army, it included a special Russian-German legion formed from hussars and infantry soldiers who defected to Russia already after Napoleon’s invasion. By the end of the campaign the legion numbered almost 10,000 soldiers: two hussar regiments, two infantry brigades, a Rangers Squadron and a Cavalry Artillery Squad. These units were under the command of Prussian officers and the entire legion was led by Ludwig Georg Wallmoden-Gimborn.

Another topic that attracts German historians is who was to blame for the fire in Moscow. Who set Moscow on fire when Napoleon’s Army stepped into the city: French soldiers, general governor count Rostopchin, or Russian stalkers? Anka Muhlstein, the author of Moscow Fire: Napoleon in Russia has no doubts: Moscow was set on fire at the order of Fyodor Rostopchin, who had long been bragging about this fact himself! Incidentally, Emperor Alexander I was very much displeased. Of course! Almost 6,500 houses out of 9,000 burnt down to ashes in Moscow, in addition to more than 8,000 stalls and storehouses, and more than a third of all churches. The fire destroyed 2,000 wounded Russian soldiers whom the retreating army failed to take with them…

A large part of The Moscow Fire, like other works telling about the war of 1812, is devoted to the Battle of Borodino. Number one issue here is the casualties of both sides. According to the latest data, the French lost 30,000 people (roughly every fifth soldier), Russians – about 44,000 (every third). Unfortunately, some pseudo-historians try to belittle Russia’s losses and to exaggerate France’s losses, telling outright and unnecessary lies. The statistics of casualties in no way downplays the heroism of the fighters of Borodino, although the battle was formally won by Napoleon who seized Moscow as a result. But this was a Pyrrhic victory…



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