The Failure of Napoleon's Campaign of 1812

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An assessment of the reasons for the defeat of Napoleon in Russia in the Campaign of 1812

This essay will examine the factors that led to Napoleon and his enormous army retreating from Russia and eventually losing a great majority of soldiers as well as their notoriety of being “invincible” after invading Russia in 1812. It will also consider the effects that that particular war had on the downfall of Napoleon’s empire in the subsequent years.

The Campaign of 1812 was to be Napoleon’s crowning achievement. His Grand Armee of over 600,000 men from all corners of his empire was the largest he had ever assembled. The Emperor of France was notorious to his enemies. His armies were said to be invincible and his tactics in battle were second to none. This was at least how he was perceived at the time. On the 23rd of June, 1812 he invaded Russia with the hopes of ultimately dominating Europe. Napoleon did not anticipate, however, the harsh Russian weather that they had to face coupled with the scorched-earth policy that the Russians employed. He also overlooked the resolve of Tsar Alexander in that the Russian Tsar would not surrender to Napoleon under any circumstances. Napoleon was also fighting a losing battle within himself. His age was beginning to get the better of him and his unwavering confidence in himself blinded him from making correct decisions. The campaign of 1812 was a disaster for Napoleon. Worse than the loss of over 500,000 men in Russia was the realization of France’s enemies that Napoleon was no longer the ‘Invincible’ conqueror that he was. Napoleon’s Russian campaign failed due to the culmination of these various factors, but above all, it was Napoleons faulty judgment and unwavering confidence in himself that led to his demise. Furthermore, this great defeat exposed Napoleon’s weakness to his enemies and as a result his reign as emperor came to an end.

The weather was a worthy opponent to Napoleon and his Grand Armee during his campaign in Russia. However, casualties could have been prevented if Napoleon prepared properly for this grand campaign. Russia experiences extremely cold winters that arrive rapidly. It also gets very hot in the summer months. At the start of Napoleon’s campaign his army experienced very hot weather. As the campaign entered July the heat became unbearable. Napoleon and many of his men were struck with diseases.[1] Napoleon was losing soldiers to exhaustion, sickness and desertion at a rate of 5,000 per day. It is reported that after two months, without even fighting a battle Napoleon had lost 150,000 soldiers.[2] General Clausewitz wrote, "The bad water and the air-borne insects caused dysentery, typhus, and diarrhea."[3] However, if Napoleon had planned to bring more doctors and medicine with him then many thousands of lives would have been saved. I believe this is Napoleon’s first in a series of mistakes that stems from faulty planning. Napoleon’s army suffered even worse during their retreat from Moscow. The soldiers were shattered by the bitter cold of the harsh Russian winter. Again, Napoleon had not planned properly for this. In fact, he had not even planned that he would be in Russia during the winter, another fatal mistake. Napoleon proclaimed before the campaign began that he expected it to last 20 days.[4] And according to another source he prepared 40 days worth of food for his army.[5] Either way this gross miscalculation by Napoleon in the preparation stages of his campaign.

It is evident that Napoleon did not thoroughly plan for the Russian campaign, nor did he make the correct calculations that would ensure a decisive victory. I think that this is due to his slowly deteriorating heath as well as Napoleon’s overconfidence and irrational belief that he could not be defeated. It seemed as though Napoleon failed to display his true genius in 1812 that had won him countless battles in the past. He displayed much caution, which was...
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