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After the Battle of Waterloo, the French empire led by Napoleon crumbled and the European countries he conquered became independent again

Oleg Ozerov

The Patriotic War of 1812 was cruel and bloody; it became a tragedy for both Russia and France. If we talk about human losses, they were very high. True, they are incommensurable with the losses in the First and Second World Wars, but the mobilisation capabilities at that time were much lower, since the population of the warring countries was several times smaller. For example, the population of Russia before the war of 1812 was only about 40 million people.

Russia lost more than 450 thousand people during the Patriotic War of 1812 and subsequent campaigns in Europe. This number includes those who died from wounds and frostbite, as well as civilians who died as a result of hostilities. Of course, this figure is terrible, given that Russia’s active army included only 540 thousand soldiers and officers by the beginning of hostilities in 1812, and it covers all military units, of which a good quarter was located in the vast expanses of Russia far from its western borders!

If we talk about irretrievable combat losses, then Tsar Alexander I himself admitted, based on the reports of regimental and divisional commanders, that 300 thousand people became victims of the “unparalleled invasion”.

But by the end of 1812, Napoleon’s Great Army had ceased to exist as a major military force. When Napoleon was preparing for the campaign, the French mobilisation capabilities were about twice as high as those of Russia: after all, more than 71 million people lived on the territory of the French Empire and on the territories of vassal countries, and Napoleon could freely use both human and economic resources being available in much of Europe.

Being mobilised and equipped for decisive battles, The Great Army of Bonaparte numbered about 670 thousand soldiers and officers. This number was achieved due to the fact that troops of 16 nationalities took part in the eastern campaign. The most numerous national groups after the French included Germans and Poles. Based on the allied agreements with France, Austria allocated the full 30,000-strong army, and Prussia a contingent of 20,000 soldiers. After the invasion of Russia, units of up to 20 thousand people consisting of the inhabitants of the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania, were added to The Great Army. In total, according to the most conservative estimates and including the second line and reinforcements, up to 685 thousand people took part in Napoleon’s Russian campaign. Napoleon also had reserves numbering from 130 to 220 thousand soldiers in the garrisons of Central Europe and 100 thousand of them in the National Guard of France; the latter, by law, could not fight outside the country, but when was necessary, it sourced sergeants and gunners, and even entire battalions.

Carl-Friedrich Beyer. “Capitulation of Paris on 19 (31) March 1814”. First quarter of the 19th century

The underestimation of the combat capabilities of the Russian army, the climatic conditions in Russia, the scale of a possible partisan movement and, in general, the national-patriotic spirit of the Russian people led to the rapid death of The Great Army. The shameful step back of French troops from Moscow turned into a disaster. It was previously believed that about 60 thousand people returned across the Russian border, that is, about a tenth of Napoleon’s troops, but other figures can be found in French sources: as French generals noted, less than 32 thousand people managed to cross the Berezina River. And some of them subsequently died from wounds and diseases…

If we summarise the losses of the French throughout the war, they are huge: 200 thousand killed, more than 200 thousand imprisoned, about 130 thousand deserted and about 60 thousand more sheltered by Russian peasants, townspeople and nobles. Of the 47 thousand elite guards of Napoleon, who entered Russia with the emperor, only several hundred soldiers survived six months later.

As of January 1, 1813, according to the reports of the governor-generals from the western, Volga and Ural provinces of Russia, there were more than 200 thousand captured soldiers and officers of The Great Army, of which 140-150 thousand were “organised” (in camps) and 50-60 thousand of them were “unorganised” (so called “sharomyzhniki”). It is known from the same reports that more than 60 thousand former prisoners of war became Russian subjects. According to various estimates, approximately 10 thousand people out of the total number of The Great Army that invaded Russia, remained in French troops. And over 1200 guns were left in Russia.

Although the surviving soldiers and officers eventually became the backbone of the new army established by the French emperor from scratch, this new army did not have that combat experience and that fighting spirit which Napoleon’s victorious army possessed. It is not surprising that the French army was defeated in the two decisive battles of the subsequent period, at Leipzig and at Waterloo. This gives grounds to assert that the campaign against Moscow ended with the fact that the largest and most combat-ready army of the 19th century Europe was defeated, and the mighty French Empire was finally defeated three years later. After the Battle of Waterloo, the French empire led by Napoleon crumbled and the European countries he conquered became independent again.

On December 25, 1812, Emperor Alexander I of Russia announced that the Russian army would continue its offensive against France. 380 days later, on March 13, 1814, the Russian corps as part of Allied troops took Paris.

It is well known that the word bistro appeared in French usage, because Russian officers ran into French cafes and, when ordering food, said: “Bistro, bistro!” (“Quickly, quickly!”). Indeed, this often happened, but one should not think that the capture of Paris was a smooth ride for the Russian army. Russian troops sometimes faced fierce resistance both in the vicinity of Paris and in the city itself, but the guards and the Cossacks broke it.

It is recognised that the battle for Paris was one of the bloodiest for the Allies in the campaign of 1814. In just one day of fighting, they lost more than 8,000 servicemen, of which more than 7,000 were Russian soldiers. But that was the last day of a whole era – the era of the Napoleonic wars.

Wanting to save the city of many thousands from bombardment and street fighting, Marshal Marmont, a commander of the right flank of the French defense, sent a truce envoy to the Russian emperor by 5 o’clock in the afternoon. Alexander I replied that he would order “to stop the battle if Paris is surrendered: otherwise, by the evening they will not recognise the place where the capital was.” Paris was surrendered.

On March 19, 1814, squadrons of cavalry led by Emperor Alexander I solemnly entered the capital of France. The streets along which the allies were to move, and all the streets adjoining them, were full of people; people occupied even the roofs of houses. In the suburbs, the people greeted Allied troops in the sullen silence, but in the rich blocks, the Allies were welcomed with flowers.

Alexander I generously rewarded his generals. The commander-in-chief of Russian troops, General Barclay de Tolly, received the rank of field marshal. Six generals, including Raevsky and Yermolov, were awarded the Order of Saint George Second class. Those were high awards, considering that only one Barclay de Tolly was awarded such an award for the Battle of Borodino. The Russian infantry general Langeron, who distinguished himself during the capture of Montmartre, was awarded the highest Order of Saint Andrew the Apostle the First-Called.

In May, peace was signed, returning France to the borders of 1792 and restoring the power of the Bourbon dynasty in the country.

The Allies thought Napoleon was done for, but he became yet another European troublemaker when he returned to power for a full hundred days in 1815, but only to again lose the battle and finally ruin France’s prestige.

In contrast, the international prestige of Russia increased unprecedentedly after the war of 1812. In the next few decades, the Russian Empire remained the most influential country in Europe. When the Congress of Vienna took place in 1814-1815, at which the European powers concluded a number of important treaties, it was Russia that played the decisive role there, and all Western European countries took its opinion into account. The situation began to change by the middle of the 19th century, when the Western European countries started overtaking Russia economically, creating a kind of coalition of bourgeois states that aimed at limiting Russia’s influence on European affairs. At that time the main problem of Russia consisted of serfdom, which restrained the productive forces in the Russian Empire and hindered the development of industrial relations.

Summing up the results of the war of 1812, Western (including French) historians prioritise such reasons for the defeat of The Great Army as severe frosts and the unpreparedness of the French army for them, the unwillingness of the Russian command to conduct decisive battles and the “dishonest use” of partisan forces against the regular army. By the way, some modern Western historians also explain the defeat of Nazi troops by the same reasons, perhaps with the exception of the decisive battles. But such explanations and references to the country’s severe climate do not stand up to scrutiny.

Russian army enters Paris in 1814

First, war is not only guns and cannons, but also the supply of troops with the necessary resources: ammunition, equipment, warm clothes and hot meals. Going to a huge country with a colder climate, with great human resources and material capabilities, the French strategists and, above all, Napoleon himself had to consider the scale of people’s resistance and the likelihood that the war might change the scenario that the French emperor had prepared. He should have foreseen that such a large country as Russia had the opportunities to manipulate its forces and resources, envelop enemy troops and create powerful obstacles for their cavalry. No doubt, Russia has severe climatic conditions, but hard frost affected Napoleon’s army most of all when it was already stepping back, when it was completely demoralised and only a small part of it survived. Frost below 20 Celcius degrees really took place, but at the time when the remnants of The Great Army stepped back to the Berezina River.

Important battles in this war included Smolensk, Borodino, Tarutino and Maloyaroslavets. Western historians complain that there was no battle near the border which Bonaparte dreamed of and in which he would clearly have an advantage. The refusal of the Russian army of a general battle near the border and its step back to the inland was the right decision: Napoleon was forced to march up Russia, which extended his supply chains and complicated the management of troops. The stubborn resistance of the Russian army and the ability of the commanders-in-chief M. B. Barclay de Tolly and M. I. Kutuzov to save the army did not allow Napoleon to win the war by victory in one big battle.

As they moved away from the Neman, the Napoleonic army was forced to rely more and more on foraging, but not on the early prepared system of supply centers. Under such conditions, the inefficiency of the French foragers, as well as the resistance of the peasants to the enemy, led to disastrous consequences. The peasants not only hid food and fodder, but also implemented guerrilla warfare against the French foragers and intercepted enemy carts. The French system of supplying troops with food and fodder collapsed, famine began in the French units, and a significant part of the army turned into an incapacitated crowd in which each soldier dreamed only of his personal salvation.

The historian and participant in the war of 1812, Lieutenant General Mikhailovsky-Danilevsky emphasised the importance of strategic planning carried out by Emperor Alexander I and his military advisers, in his book Description of the Patriotic War of 1812. At a time when the main forces of the Russian army were still stepping back, action plans were already drawn up in Saint Petersburg for the armies led by Chichagov and Wittgenstein against the flank corps of The Great Army. Those plans began to be put into practice shortly after Napoleon’s entry into Moscow (Chichagov’s offensive) and ended with the unification of all Russian troops on the Berezina River.

Thus, the main reason for the defeat of The Great Army was the nationwide upsurge in defense of the fatherland, the mass heroism of Russian soldiers and officers, as well as the military leadership talents of Russian military leaders.

This nationwide feat was repeated during the Great Patriotic War.

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