Sunday, November 20, 2011

Another Napoleonic Fiasco
Napoleon and Russia
A Brief Note on Supply and Size

The French Invasion of and Retreat from Russia in 1812

In a previous posting I discussed the fiasco of Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt which ended with the French being trapped in Egypt and then expelled, with the loss of a bit over ½ of the expeditionary force.1 It is now approaching the 200 year anniversary of Napoleons invasion of Russia so here I will briefly discuss some myths associated with another Napoleonic fiasco, the invasion of Russia.

One of the most common myths about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia is the idea that he did not take the difficulties seriously. This is not true in the slightest. The idea is that Napoleon was so arrogant and so convinced that by sheer force of his genius that any difficulties could be overcome that his preparations were inept.

This is simply not true. Napoleon in fact made massive and huge preparations. Firstly he did not underestimate the difficulties with which he was faced. For example he concentrated massive forces for his invasion a total of over 400,000 men for the initial invasion force with slightly over 300,000 men available as reinforcements.2

In fact during Napoleon’s invasion c. 615,000 men including reinforcements, that arrived later, entered Russia. This was undoubtedly the largest army ever seen in Europe. Napoleon invasion force was divided into three groups, two were flanking armies and the central army under Napoleon’s personal command that numbered over 350,000 in the initial invasion and got over 100,000 reinforcements in the course of the invasion and retreat.3

The Russian armies opposed to Napoleon at most totaled 200,000 at the start of the invasion and were thus grossly outnumbered. In fact the forces opposed to Napoleon’s main central army numbered under 150,000.4 Thus in terms of size of armies Napoleon had an initial massive superiority over his Russian enemies. On the face of it should not have been a problem to crush the Russians.

Also Napoleon did in fact realize that his armies customary practice of living off the country would not work very well in Russia and he had strained every nerve to build up a massive commissariat and a support system of carts and horses to supply his army, with food and other supplies.5

When Napoleon crossed the Niemen River on June 24 1812 he thought that he had well prepared for the invasion; it turned out he had not prepared properly at all.6

Why was Napoleon despite a massive effort that took over a year to organize not prepared? It was because his efforts despite their truly massive scale were simply not enough. It was not that his army was too small; it was if anything too large for the task, it was because his supply arrangements, despite their prodigious size were insufficient. His efforts on the supply side were given the size of his army not enough. No one before had ever had to deal with such a horde of such a huge size and the strain it put on local resources in Poland. Prussia was such that much of the supplies laid up for the invasion were consumed before the invasion. Further since the wars of the revolution started French armies were used to living off the country in the far richer western European farmlands, so that their supply services were highly amateurish and sloppy. The French lacked a trained, efficient, organized supply system. Napoleon was to a large extent building one from scratch and so it was shockingly inept, corrupt and wasteful.7

Finally Napoleon appears to have neglected almost entirely the effect of marching his armies over large distances over very poor roads, even for the time period; to say nothing of the effects of such “friction” on trying to get supplies to his troops.

The net result was that supply arrangements were woefully insufficient and that very quickly once the invasion started the supply services began to breakdown very quickly.

Further Napoleon had calculated that the Russians would meet him on or near the frontier and there he would crush them. Since the Russians refused to do that he was lured deeper and deeper into Russia.

Actually here Napoleon was not in error about Russian intentions. Although the Russian high command had prepared a well thought out plan to lure Napoleon deep into Russia and then destroy the French army through attrition and the weather, this strategy did not sit well with the hotheads who opposed any retreat and wanted a fight on the frontier. Of course this was playing right into Napoleon’s hands. So the Russians had decided to prepare to fight at or near the frontier. That this would have been a disaster for the Russians is rather clear in hindsight.8

The Russians were saved by the fact that Napoleon’s army was so huge in comparison to their own that they had to continually retreat to avoid being surrounded or crushed by a force that greatly outnumbered them. In other words the Russians were forced to follow the strategy they had originally outlined.

Paradoxidly the very effort that Napoleon made to ensure that he had sufficient force to crush the Russians frightened the Russians from accepting battle near the frontier and led them to with draw deeper and deeper into Russia.9

The huge size of Napoleon’s army also helped ensure that the supply effort, despite its truly gigantic scale remained insufficient given the size of the army, and that insufficiency was further aggravated by the very poor roads and poor farms in European Russia.

Also the very long distances marched, drained both man and beast in Napoleon’s armies as they invaded, a problem aggravated by supply problems. And the supply problems aggravated the need to forage for food that tended to create a problem with stragglers to say nothing of annoying the local peasantry. And the poor nature of the countryside made foraging much more strenuous and time consuming than in Western Europe. The effects of all this were further exasperated by several rather torrid heat waves in July and August 1812.10

Unlike the Russian soldier who were used too, physically and psychologically, to rather long periods of continuous marching for very long stretches of time in torrid weather, the French and their allies were not so that the wear and tear on the units of Napoleon’s invading forces was greater.

The results were quickly apparent. The “Grand Armee", began to fall apart quite quickly. The old myth that it was the winter that destroyed Napoleon’s army is just that a myth. The casualties suffered in the advance, from all causes were massive probably in the order of 200,000, dead, sick, wounded, stragglers and deserters. During the advance on Moscow Napoleon also received considerable reinforcements (c. 50,000), to the initial. 350,000 in his main army, of course he had to leave some troops behind to guard his lines of communication, even so he arrived in Moscow with barely 100,000 men. His losses over the advance to Moscow had been prodigious and disastrous.11 By the time Napoleon got to Moscow he had lost the campaign.

The bottom line was Napoleon had prepared too well, his army was so large it frightened the Russians, and was very difficult to supply properly, and its sheer size probably made Napoleon too confident and willing to plunge ever deeper into Russia. The result was disaster for Napoleon.

It is ironic that if Napoleon had settled for an army ½ the size of, or less, than one he actually used he probably would have defeated the Russians near the border and secured a favorable peace as it was trying to make sure he had sufficient force helped powerfully to ensure his defeat.

Scene From the Retreat from Moscow

1. See Here.

2. See Riehn, Richard K, 1812: Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, John Wiley & Sons, Inc, New York, 1991, pp. 159, 426-443, Zamoyski, Adam, Moscow 1812, Harper Perennial, New York, 2004, Barnett, Correlli, Bonaparte, Hill and Wang, New York, 1978, p. 166, Schom, Alan, Napoleon Bonaparte, Harper Perennial, New York, 1997, 595-597, Tulard, Jean, Napoleon, Methuen & Co. Ltd, London, 1984, p. 436, Marshall-Cornwall, James, Napoleon as Military Commander, Penguin Books, London, 1976, p. 220, Nafziger, George F, Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, Ballantine Books, New York, 1988, pp. 333-336.

3. See Riehn, pp. 467, 483, 485.

4. Marshall-Cornwall, pp. 220 says 150,000, see Riehn, pp. 88, 186,

5. See Riehn, pp. 37-38, 142-152, Barnett, pp. 166-169, Nafziger, pp. 83-92.

6. Barnett, pp. 169-172, Riehn, pp. 184-185, Marshall-Cornwall, 220-222.

7. See Footnote 5 and Zamoyski, pp. 134-140.

8. Riehn, pp. 171-172, 196-197, Marshall-Cornwall, pp. 220-223.

9. Barnett, pp. 172-174, Marshall-Cornwall, p. 222.

10. Barnett, pp. 170-173, Marshall-Cornwall, p. 221-222, Riehn, pp. 184-185.

11. Riehn, pp. 184-185, 294, 482.

Pierre Cloutier

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