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The Man and the MythNapoleon and JoesphinePolitics in Napoleon's TimesNapoleon at War

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First Italian Campaign | The Egyptian Campaign | Second Italian Campaign | The Ulm-Austerlitz Campaign | The Prussian Campaign | The Peninsular War | The Austrian War | The Russian Campaign | From Lützen to Elba | The Waterloo Campaign


The Russian Campaign, 1812

In 1811, Tsar Alexander I, supposedly allied with Napoleon, refused to be part of the continental blockade of British goods any longer. Napoleon’s edict barring trade with Great Britain was ruining the Russian economy. Tensions quickly escalated; every attempt to negotiate failed.

SOKHOLOV: The Russian army starts to concentrate its forces on the borders. Napoleon went to Kaurakin, the Russian ambassador, and harshly questioned him. "What does this mean? What does Russia want from me? You know it’s easy to start a war but it’s very difficult to finish one."

On June 24, 1812, ignoring the advice of his closest advisors, Napoleon invaded Russia. Never in living memory had so large an army been assembled — Italians, Poles, German, French — more than 600,000 men from every corner of his empire. Napoleon prophesied the war would be over in twenty days.

WOLOCH: An army of 600,000, it would seem to be absolutely irresistible no matter what happened. He’ll simply pour in enough men to overwhelm the Russians, force them to engage in battle and defeat them.

"I know Alexander," Napoleon said. "I once had influence over him; it will come back. If not, let destiny be accomplished and let Russia be crushed under my hatred of England."

HORNE: And Napoleon, once again with this sense of destiny. His star was such that he thought he could defeat Russia — this enormous country.

Napoleon's army trudged slowly across Russia's vast, open spaces. He hoped to annihilate his enemy quickly, but the Russians would not give battle.

SOKHOLOV: Napoleon had an army twice the size of the Russians. There were so many that the Russians didn’t dare fight. They started to retreat because they didn't have a choice. They had to retreat. But while they were retreating, they were, in fact, weakening Napoleon's army.

As the Tsar's armies retreated, they burned the countryside behind them, leaving the Cossacks to hack at Napoleon's rear and flanks, then gallop away.

ELTING: And I think that early on, Napoleon began to realize that this time he had bitten off just a little more than he could chew.

As the days passed, the blazing heat of the Russian summer began to take its toll. Soldiers fell out from exhaustion, sickness, and desertion — more than five thousand a day. After two months, before Napoleon had fought a single battle, 150,000 soldiers were out of action.

HORWARD: A lot of these foreign troops just took off and left. They weren’t Frenchmen, they weren’t loyal to him specifically. They were fighting because their king was allied to Napoleon.

At last, with summer ending, the Russians turned and faced their enemy at the crossroads village of Borodino. Moscow, the holy city of Russia, was at stake. On the morning of September 8, the soldiers of the Tsar prepared themselves for battle, chanting, "'Tis the will of God, 'tis the will of God."

SOKHOLOV: They were prepared to die, to die for Russia. Everyone saw this as a holy day, that they were going to die for a great purpose. There was a tradition to put on clean underwear before death. They all put on clean white underwear and went into battle.

The battle of Borodino was a brutal slug-fest. Napoleon threw his enormous army at the Russians in a frontal assault, showing little of his old strategic subtlety.

SOKHOLOV: This was a wild attack. They were killing each other, killing each other. There were deaths without stop. It was horrific.

The battle began at 6:30 in the morning and lasted until 3 in the afternoon. At that point, both armies were exhausted. The Russians fought the Emperor's armies to a standstill. The next day they withdrew, leaving Napoleon proclaiming victory.

Moscow was at his mercy, but the Russians refused to make peace. As Napoleon’s army entered the city on September 14, he found it almost deserted. That night, Moscow began to burn.

"Mountains of red, rolling flames," Napoleon recalled later, "like immense waves of the sea. Oh, it was the most grand, the most sublime, and the most terrifying sight the world ever beheld."

SOKHOLOV: The Russians burned Moscow themselves. And when Moscow went up in flame, this was the worst blow to Napoleon’s army. Napoleon couldn't stay in Moscow.

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