Plus de Napoleon — Invasion of Russia

The last historical film we presented on Napoleon chronicled his rise, which was built largely on good fortune and pure nerve. Those continued to serve him in good stead, amplifying his self-regard, up until his rather irrational decision to solve Russian backsliding on alliance with him… by invading Russia, in 1812. (With Bonaparte so preoccupied in the East, Britain was able to take a decent shot at turning a war they stumbled into, into a near-run reconquest of America … but that’s another story). This French film (professionally dubbed into rosbif) is a more traditional documentary, with acted scenes separated by low-budget CGI and talking-head historians (both French and Russian ones, who have a somewhat different view). The first half of the video culminates in Napoleon’s pyrrhic victory at Borodino before Moscow. A much weakened Grande Armée then takes up lodgings in an empty Moscow… that is promptly set afire by clandestine incendiaries, sent out by Alexander I. At this point, Napoleon’s plan, to defeat the Russians and impress them into alliance, is absolutely impossible. He persists.

Here’s the second part, in case the first one doesn’t lead in automagically.

It does underestimate the now-proven effect that disease, especially typhus, had on the Grande Armee. Instead, they attribute the devastation of the army to stress and starvation.

Napoleon made several errors here:

  1. He underestimated his opponent;
  2. He underestimated the effect that disease, especially typhus, would have on the Grande Armee; 
  3. He conducted a total war with limited-war aims;
  4. He believed that a single decisive victory would end the war on his terms.
  5. When he took the enemy’s capital, he considered himself the victor, and the campaign over. To his chagrin, the Russians didn’t see it that way.
  6. When it was clear his plan had no hope, he clung grimly to it.
  7. When he finally made the call to retreat from Moscow, he made it far too late for a horse-drawn army — 19 October 1812.

Every one of those errors comes, in our opinion, from his charmed life that began when he made gambles against tall odds, and seemed charmed to win, regardless of those odds. Improbability obeys mathematical laws and cannot continue forever, even if Napoleon hadn’t been stacking the wagers on his gambles ever higher.

The biggest casualty of the ill-considered Russian Campaign may have been Napoleon’s aura of invincibility.

26 thoughts on “Plus de Napoleon — Invasion of Russia

  1. Scott

    Not a typo, but a bit of an unfinished sentence:

    5.When he took the enemy’s capital, he considered himself [something here goes]

  2. John M.

    “Improbability obeys mathematical laws and cannot continue forever…”

    There are no rules against improbability continuing for an arbitrary finite length of time. And Napoleon wasn’t trying to make it last forever, just for another couple of decades.

    -John M.

  3. Jonathan

    His approach to the decisive battle and taking the enemy’s capital reminds me of the Japanese – they kept trying to set up battles for the ‘one decisive blow’ after which we (the US) would give up/ pull back/ negotiate/ bow down to them, depending on which person was talking.
    They were annoyed that we didn’t give them the battle they wanted and kept winning the battles we did fight. I think it was a cultural view because that is how they won the 1904 war with Russia and the war that brought ‘Kamikaze’ into their history (i forget which it was).
    It is interesting to see the same view in both France and Japan – do you know if there are any other cultures that aimed for a single battle to end a war?

    1. whomever

      “war that brought ‘Kamikaze’ into their history”

      Not a battle per se; a conveniently timed typhoon destroyed the Mongol invasion fleet, hence ‘Divine Wind’.

    2. Haxo Angmark

      German military thinking up to WW II was big on the single “Battle of Annihilation”. During June-November of 1941 on the Eastern Front, the Germans won a half-dozen major encirclement battles, killing/capturing anywhere from 300,000 to 800,000 Russian/Soviet troops in each….and then expecting an immanent Red collapse. Didn’t happen, though, partly because the Germans themselves had miscalculated the Red Empire’s military demography by millions of men.

      1. Sommerbiwak

        Also “General Winter” helped halt the german invasion with Hitler’s armies unprepared for winter.

  4. Ray

    His retreat from Moscow in winter killed his army. Being “horse drawn” had nothing to do with it. Don’t take my word for it. Dig up Von Paulis (spell?) or Hitler and ask them.

  5. J. Wilde

    I always figured that after fighting this guy for almost 20 years, his enemies had finally figured him out. He went for the big decisive battle, and they realized that all they had to do was not give him one. Even Borodino wasn’t *that* decisive.

    1. Scipio Americanus

      That’s about the long and short of it. After getting beat enough times they figured out counters to his tactical innovations and outright copied his operational innovations (these, like the corps system, being the important ones). He was not, compared with the best of his adversaries, an exceptional strategist, so there was no real deficit to make up there for the Allies.

      The way to defeat a force dependent on operational maneuver is to stick them down and wear them out with attrition, assuming you’ve got the men and materiel to make it work. Take a look at colossal, almost Great War-ish fights like Leipzig to see how the allies ground up Napoleon’s armies.

    2. Hognose Post author

      No, Borodino wasn’t decisive in itself. It was a French operational victory that was one of the building blocks of French strategic defeat.

  6. staghounds

    Beasts of history whose reach exceeds their grasp are actually fairly rare. For every Napoleon there are a dozen Stalins and Francos.

  7. Roger

    Napoleon’s defeat also was the impetus for a rousing piece of music.
    Which is better known today than Napoleon or his defeat.
    Thanks to Pyotr.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Napoleon also inspired Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ (Symphony No.3) but when he declared himself Emperor in 1804, Beethoven changed the dedication to, “to the memory of a great man.”

  8. whomever

    “Every one of those errors comes, in our opinion, from his charmed life that began when he made gambles against tall odds, and seemed charmed to win, regardless of those odds.”

    I read an interesting article once, on the topic “why do so many rock stars/champion athletes go broke”. The article’s explanation was something like this: Imagine that you’re the best QB your high school ever had, or a dynamite garage band, or whatever. You have two choices – swing for the fence by making a go of the NFL, or trying to become the next Beatles, or quietly play ball in college or gigs while focusing on getting that degree in accounting or whatever. People willing to bet on long shots go for the sports/music career; people playing the odds get the accounting degree. Therefore the few people who make it big are self selected as extreme risk takers. When the time comes to invest their millions, they don’t just plunk it in a safe mutual fund, they invest in a better mousetrap or whatever – and end up in bankruptcy court.

    1. John M.

      I think “investing” in Lamborghinis is more common than investing in better mousetraps.

      -John M.

      1. whomever

        IIRC (it’s been a while) quite a few squandered a lot in restaurant chains or whatever.

        The Lambos and solid gold bathtubs don’t help, but are still cheaper than businesses.

        1. John M.

          Businesses at least occasionally go up in value. Lambos and gold bathtubs? Pfft.

          Restaurants are, generally speaking, for suckers, at least in part because so many idiots go into the restaurant business thinking, “hey, I eat in restaurants all the time, how hard could it be to run one?”

          And Dan Majerle seems to have done well with his restaurants, though I think he partnered with some real restaurateurs to run the joints.

          -John M.

  9. DB

    Often overlooked is the effect of Russian Cossack partisan cavalry on Napoleon’s logistics and lines of communication. I highly recommend “In the Service of the Tsar Against Napoleon, The Memoirs of Denis Davidov, 1806-1814.”

  10. Norman Yarvin

    “My enterprise is one of those of which the solution is to be found in patience. Victory will attend the most patient. I shall open the campaign by crossing the Niemen. It will be concluded at Smolensk and Minsk. There I shall stop. I shall fortify these two points, and occupy myself at Wilna, where the chief head-quarters will be during the next winter, with the organisation of Lithuania, which burns with impatience to be delivered from the yoke of Russia. I shall wait and see which of us tires first: I, of feeding my army at the expense of Russia, or Alexander, of sustaining my army at the expense of his country. Perhaps I myself may pass the most inclement months of the winter at Paris.” — Napoleon to Metternich, before starting out on the Russian campaign (as printed in Metternich’s memoirs).

    1. Hognose Post author

      What about the Memoirs of Sergeant Adrien Bourgogne? Available in many editions, probably for free as an ebook at

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