Napoleon’s Reasons for Defeat
The Campaign of 1812 should have been a another crusade for Napoleon,
but he now faced 2 new policies that he had never faced before, the severe Russian
winter and the notorious scorched-earth policy. On June 23, 1812 Napoleon’s
Grande Armee, over 500,000 men strong, poured over the Russian border. An
equal amount of Russian forces awaited them. The result of the campaign was a
surprise. Two authors, General carl von Clausewitz and Brett James, show
similarities in reasons why Napoleon had lost this campaign to Russia.
Napoleon believed that after a few quick victorious battles, he could
convince Alexander to return to the Continental System. He also decided that if he
occupied Moscow, the Russian government would crumple and ask for peace.
” A single blow delivered at the heart of the Russian Empire, at Moscow the Great,
at Moscow the Holy, will instantly put this whole blind, apathetic mass at my
mercy.” pg 6, 1812 Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia
This was his belief he expressed in March 1812. However, when Napoleon
eventually took over Moscow, the Tsar still did not surrender. Napoleon, sent a
message to the Tsar, demanding a immediate surrender. However, the Tsar could
not surrender because if he did, he would be assassinated by the nobles.
Clausewitz replies by saying, ” Napoleon was unable to grasp the fact that
Alexander would not, could not negotiate. The Tsar knew well that he would be
disposed and assassinated if he tried so.” pg 256, The Campaign of 1812 in
General Clausewitz said, “Napoleon believed if he defeated the Russian Army and
occupied Moscow, the Russian leadership will fall apart and the government
would call for peace.” pg 253, The Campaign of 1812 in Russia
Brett James also agreed that Napoleon’s occupation had no result. ” The
occupation of Napoleon in Moscow did not have a effect on the government.” pg
13, 1812 Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia
With his battle plan set, Napoleon prepared his troops for the attack on
Russia. But, Napoleon did not consider the fierce Russian winter which awaited
him. According to Ludwig Wilhelm Gottlob Schlosser, a onlooker, he described
the army by saying,
” The French, down to the lowliest drummer were very fastidious. These poor
French devils were not satisfied with less than soup, meat and vegetables, roast,
and salad for their midday meal, and there was no sign of their famous frugality.
They were completely devoid of the coming winter.” pg 13, 1812 Napoleon’s
Defeat in Russia
Napoleon was even warned by General Rapp about the extremities of the
oncoming winter in Russia.
” The natives say we shall have a severe winter,” Napoleon retorted scornfully, ”
Bah! You and your natives! We shall see how fine it is.” pg 147, 1812
Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia
Napoleon should have heeded Rapp’s words. As the Grand Armee marched toward
Moscow, many horses and men were lost in the freezing snow, and for those who
remained, their morale and effectiveness was at the nadir.
General Clausewitz states his point by saying, ” With more precaution and better
regulations as to subsistence, with more careful consideration of his marches,
which would have prevented the unnecessary and enormous accumulation of
masses on one and the same road, he would have preserved his army in a more
effective condition.” pg 255, The Campaign of 1812 in Russia
Brett James also shared the same opinion, ” Napoleon appeared to have made no
effort to discover the facts in Russia, or prepare his troops for it.” pg 140, 1812
Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia
As Napoleon and his army was making their way to Moscow, they
encountered typhus, colds, and dysentery. Even the mighty Napoleon had caught
a mild case of the flu. However, his soldiers had received the brunt of the attack.
Captain Thomas- Joesph Aubry relives this ordeal, ” After this the typhus made
appalling inroads in our ranks. We were fourty-three officers in our ward. All of
them died, one after the other, and delirious from this dreadful disease, most of
them singing, some in Latin, others in German, others again in Italian – and singing
psalms, canticles, or the mass.” pg 210, 1812 Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia
General Clausewitz wrote, ” The bad water and the air-borne insects caused
dysentery, typhus, and diarrhea.” pg 136, The Campaign of 1812 in Russia
Brett James also wrote, ” Bad water, bad air, and bad sanitation all contributed to
the vile diseases.” pg 213 1812, Napoleon’s defeat in Russia
Napoleon had lost about 80,000 men altogether from diseases alone. But there
were some remedies for the sick, doctors provided gruel for the dysentery and
warm soup for the colds. Napoleon could have lowered the casualties if he had
brought more doctors and more supplies.
When Napoleon had finally reached Moscow, he discovered it deserted.
Two days later, a great fire broke out in Moscow, temporarily forcing Napoleon
and some of his troops out of Moscow. If Napoleon had reached Moscow with at
300,000 men instead of 90,000, he could have continued his campaign and defeat
the weakened Russian army. The Emperor could have reached Moscow with at
least 300,000 men if he had taken better care of his troops and had not fought
every battle that he came across. Brett James shows that Napoleon regarded his
army as mere numbers and did not contemplate that they would be affected by
hunger and fatigue.
” He would not have lost a 100,000 men if he had not chosen on every occasion to
take the bull by the horns.” pg 86, 1812 Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia
” Moscow was a good weeks march away, but already the army was already
disintegrating through sheer hunger.” pg 147, 1812 Napoleon’s Defeat in Russia
General Clausewitz also relates with Brett by declaring, ” He reached Moscow
with 90,000 men, he should have reached it with 300,000. This would have
happened if he treated his army with more care and forbearance.” pg 255, The
Campaign of 1812 in Russia
If Napoleon only had at least 300,000 men, he could have waited for supplies
with the comfort of knowing that he was safe. Instead, Napoleon retreated and
allowed his army to slowly wither under the attack of the Russian guerrillas.
Therefore I have shown some reasons why Napoleon had lost the
Campaign of 1812 to Russia. However, Napoleon did not lose the war out of
military errors but of a simple miscalculation – a miscalculation that was made by
Hitler a century later. Napoleon believed that if he occupied Moscow, the Russian
government would collapse and he would rule Europe with little opposition. But
as history reveals, this tactic does not work and Napoleon is defeated, paving the
way for other nations to deny Napoleon’s lust for power.
by Jung Soo Kim
Category: European History