Chapter 1

The invasion of Russia is decided upon

‘The colonial produce placed on the market in Leipzig fair
was conveyed in 700 carts from Russia; which means that today
the whole trade in colonial produce goes through Russia, and that
the 1,200 merchantmen were masked by the Swedish, Portuguese,
Spanish, and American flags, and that were escorted by twenty English
men-of-war, have in part discharged their cargoes in Russia.’

Napoleon, 4 November 1810.

‘In affairs of state one must never retreat, never retrace one’s
steps, never admit an error - that brings disrepute. When one
makes a mistake, one must stick to it – that makes it right!’

Napoleon to Segur in Moscow, October 1812.

It is generally agreed that Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 was his greatest mistake. To be sure, he made others; the kidnapping and execution of the Duc d’Enghien, his invasion of Spain and his subsequent failure to resolve the mess he left behind there before embarking on the Russian adventure, and - undoubtedly - trying to compete in a trade war with Great Britain.

While the results of the Russian failure were speedily and dramatically evident, the effects of the trade war, carried out equally relentlessly between Britain and France, were much less easily seen but equally - if not more - fatal to his empire. Indeed, it was the continued smuggling of British contraband through Russia into western Europe that was the real reason for Napoleon’s decision to invade the Russian colossus. It can be argued that he would eventually have been forced out of power by the universal public resentment of his Continental System, which deprived the masses of all the spices, condiments, tea, coffee, cocoa and other colonial products to which they had become accustomed.

With the British government’s Order in Council of May 1806, all Continental ports from Brest to the River Elbe were placed under blockade by the Royal Navy. This was known as Fox’s Blockade, he being the Foreign Secretary of the day after the death of William Pitt. This sealed off the great Hanseatic ports of Bremen and Hamburg. Napoleon responded with his Berlin Decree of 21 November 1806, which was a much more rigorous policy than France had previously employed. The British retaliated with new Orders in Council in November 1807, banning neutrals from trading with France and its allies. Spencer Perceval, the then prime minister, summed up the aim of these new Orders in Council: ‘either the neutral countries will have no trade, or they must be content to accept it through us.’


Alexander I, Czar of all the Russias. Author’s collection.

Napoleon then resorted to the first Milan Decree of 23 November 1807. He had declared ‘une croisade contre le sucre et le café, contre les percales et les mousselines’ (a crusade against sugar and coffee, against percales - calico - and muslin). Interestingly enough, this was to give a great spur to the development of the European sugar beet industry.

To his brother Louis, king of Holland, Napoleon wrote that his aim was to ‘conquérir la mer par la puissance de la terre’ (conquer the sea with the power of the land). Britain was placed under blockade; all trade with Britain was to cease; British goods on the Continent were subject to seizure and no ship - of any nation - could enter any French or allied port if it had previously visited a British port.

This policy was doomed to failure, since any power that aims at world domination - and Napoleon certainly did - must be able to control the world’s seas. Britain did so, and was thus the superpower of this age. Soviet Russia’s great naval building programme following the Second World War, when she also strained to attain global domination, is further proof of this truth. Nowadays, air power goes hand in hand with sea power to ensure world dominance.

The effects of the trade war on the economy of Holland were disastrous: 1,349 merchantmen entered Amsterdam’s port in 1806, but this had dropped to 310 in 1809.

The Moniteur of 25 September 1806 gave another reason for the promulgation of Napoleon’s Continental System: ‘La prohibition des marchandises étrangères de côtes que vient d’ordonner le Gouvernement ne contribuera pas peu à nous faire obtenir le resultat si désirable de fabriquer nous-mêmes la totalité d’articles dont nous avons besoin.’ (The prohibition on the entry of goods of foreign origin, ordered by the government, is designed to favour the sales of all articles made in our own territories).

To replace the trade between mainland Europe and the industrialized production and colonial items, now firmly a British monopoly, Napoleon attempted to create and impose his own ‘common market’ on all the nations under his control. Naturally, this market was skewed in favour of France, in the same way that Britain biased trade with her colonies in her own favour. The ban on trade with Britain lasted until early 1810, when the Emperor was forced to allow trade with his great rival under licences; Britain rapidly became one of the most significant markets for French goods. But if the French economy had suffered under Britain’s blockade, the economies of the other European states were in tatters by this time and the irrepressible smuggling was forcing Napoleon to annex more and more stretches of Europe’s coastline in a frantic, but fruitless, effort to stop it. Holland, north Germany, the Hanseatic ports, the Grand Duchy of Oldenburg - the list grew ever longer, France ever larger.

The economy of Russia, too, was suffering under the Continental System, which Alexander had agreed to impose upon his country in 1807. By 1810 the very internal stability of Russia was in danger and the merchants and nobles were in growing unrest. The Czar relented. To have done otherwise would have been too dangerous for him personally.

British merchantmen poured into St Petersburg; colonial produce flooded through Russia and across Europe. Napoleon’s spies reported everything. He realised that if he did nothing to stop this impudent flouting of his orders he would become an impotent laughing stock, and he was notoriously short of a sense of humour. He tried diplomatic threats; these were fended off, ignored. He pondered. Since meeting with the Czar at Tilsit three years before, he had been convinced that he could manipulate his Russian cousin like putty. Now this.

What was he to do? Admit that Britain had won? Never! He well knew that such an admission would rapidly be followed by the end of his reign. But there were many who were capable of reading between the lines of the Emperor’s much-cherished economic lies, among them the Duke of Wellington. In October 1811 he wrote to Lord Liverpool (then Secretary of State for War):

I have no doubt but that Napoleon is much distressed for money. Notwithstanding the swindling mode in which his armies are paid, the troops are generally ten and eleven, and some of them twelve months in arrears of pay... It is impossible that this fraudulent tyranny can last. If Great Britain continues stout, we must see the destruction of it.

And again, on 24 December 1811, to Lord William Bentinck, commanding British forces in Sicily:

I have long considered it probable, that even we should witness a general resistance throughout Europe to the fraudulent and disgusting tyranny of Buonaparte,1 created by the example of what has been done in Spain and Portugal; and that we should be actors and advisers in these scenes; and I have reflected frequently upon the measures which should be pursued to give a chance of success... I am quite certain that the finances of Great Britain are more than a match for Buonaparte, and that we shall have the means of aiding any country that may be disposed to resist his tyranny.

This was pure prophecy. Denis Davidov (a young Russian officer of spirit and initiative) had heard of the guerrilla warfare that the Spanish people had unleashed on the hated invaders and was keen to try it in Russia. We shall see how successful he was.

For Napoleon, to just let things continue, to try to ignore the creeping destruction of his artificial economic structure, was not an option either. Action was imperative; but Russia? How could he force his will on that giant? Diplomacy had failed; economic counter-measures would be just laughable; French exports to Russia were miniscule. There remained only one possibility - war. But this would have to be conducted on a truly mammoth scale and in a theatre up to 2,000 km away from Napoleon’s French base.

He was not worried about fighting the Russian army; he had beaten them in 1805, 1806 and 1807. He overawed all their commanders and his Grande Armée was the perfect war machine. The Confederation of the Rhine, Italy, Naples - even Prussia - would provide more or less willing contingents and other assets to support him. His new father-in-law, Kaiser Franz I of Austria, would also be persuaded to lend a sizeable contingent. Napoleon would break into Russia like a tempest, destroy their army and enforce his will in Moscow and St Petersburg. Then? Who knew? Perhaps on to India? Perhaps to eclipse Alexander the Great?

So how did the opponents in this epic struggle measure up to one another in 1812? Russia had a population of some 37.5 million, an army of 516,770 at the end of 1811 and a navy of 67 ships of the line, 36 frigates, over 700 sloops, designed for shallows use, and 21,000 men in the crews. The army was increased by a further 113,275 men in new regiments; a further 185,000 were raised in Reserve Divisions, formed by the combined Reserve and Depot battalions. There were then 63,279 men in garrison regiments and some 100,000 irregular troops. An astounding total of 1,300,000 Russians were eventually mobilised for the defence of their homeland. These were subdivided as follows:

·         1st Army of the West under Barclay de Tolly - 110,000 men, plus 7,000 Cossacks and 558 guns.

·         2nd Army of the West under Prince Bagration - 45,000 men (including the newly-formed 27th Division) and 217 guns.

·         3rd Army of the West under General Tormassow - 46,000 men and 164 guns.

·         The Army of the Danube under Admiral Tschitschagoff – 38,600 men and 204 guns.

Up in Finland and Latvia were a further 26,000 men and 78 guns. In the early part of 1812 the populace was called upon to join the militia or Opolcheni; this resulted in a further 330,000 men joining up, although many were armed only with axes and pikes.

France’s population was 30 million, considerably less than that of Russia, but her army was the greatest in Europe until Russia mobilised in 1812. Estimates of the march-in strength of Napoleon’s multinational army vary; Chambry gives the following totals: 610,000 men, 182,000 horses and 1,372 guns. Doctor David Chandler gives ‘more than 600,000 men... 200,000 animals - horses and oxen - of whom 80,000 were the finest cavalry mounts.’

When Napoleon invaded Russia, there were 4,000 men in his headquarters alone. The Imperial Guard numbered 47,000, the twelve infantry corps had 415,000 men, the four cavalry corps 40,000 and the artillery and train numbered 21,500. A further 80,000 men followed on in the ‘march regiments’. These totals included all the foreign contingents from Prussia, the Confederation of the Rhine, Italy, Naples, Spain, Portugal, Austria and Illyria. The stunning sum of 607,500 men is reached. In June 1812, however, only just over 500,000 invaded Russia, the rest (IX and XI Corps and the march regiments) were on the lines of communication.

The French navy had been second only to Britain’s Royal Navy in 1790. The excesses of the Terror had caused over half the officers to emigrate. Various defeats had steadily reduced it; Trafalgar gutted it. In disgust at its repeated failures, Napoleon had turned his face from what was left. The remaining ships rotted in their blockaded harbours, their crews used for coastguard duties. In 1813 naval gunners formed four regiments of infantry, which fought very well at Leipzig and other battles.



The Duke loved to refer to the Emperor by his discarded birth name instead of the adopted ‘Bonaparte’.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!