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The War of 1812. The Invasion by Napoleon's Army

The first decade and a half of the 19th century was marked on the European continent by the bitter struggle that Austria, Prussia and Russia waged with the support of Britain against Napoleonic France.

The chief obstacle on Napoleon’s path to world dominance was Britain that possessed the strongest navy of the day. The French Emperor resolved to strangle his rival country’s economy by forbidding all the European states to trade with the British.

Russia, whose economy was badly effected by the participation in this Continental Blockade forced upon her by the 1807 Treaty of Tilsit, was little by little preparing for war with France. In the spring of 1812 the Russian guards advanced to the western frontiers beyond which Napoleon’s Grande Armee was gathering.

At dawn on 12 June, without war being declared, the French forces (over 600,000 men and 1,420 artillery pieces) crossed the River Nemen and invaded the Russian territory. Facing this enemy was a force of 220–240,000 Russian soldiers with 942 guns. The Russian forces were divided into three main armies. The first, covering the route to St Petersburg, was led by General Mikhail Barclay de Tolly, the Minister of War. The second, cutting off the way to Moscow, was led by General Piotr Bagration. The third, southern, army was in the Ukraine. It was led by General Alexander Tormasov. Alexander I was with the staff of Barclay de Tolly’s army. Napoleon’s plan was to drive between the Russian first and second armies, to encircle them one at a time and to destroy them in pitched battles as near as possible to the western border.

The Russian forces did not put up a fight at the border, but withdrew. They avoided major encounters, but constantly harried the enemy. In June and July they managed to avoid encirclement in Lithuania and Belorussia, repulse the pressure in the directions of the Ukraine and St Petersburg and link up in the area of Smolensk. Barclay de Tolly assumed overall command and continued to pursue the tactic of withdrawal. On 6 August, after bitter fighting, the Russians abandoned Smolensk. Napoleon entered the burning city. He sent a peace offer to Alexander I, but received no reply. He decided to move against Moscow, calculating that before the walls of their ancient capital the Russians would have to fight a pitched battle, the result of which he never doubted.

Meanwhile Barclay de Tolly continued to withdraw, forcing Napoleon into a prolonged war. The abandonment of Smolensk prompted open public hostility towards him. On 8 August, Alexander I signed a decree naming a new commander-in-chief, Mikhail Kutuzov. The famous soldier was then 67 years old and he enjoyed the respect of the army and 3nation.

Kutuzov, like Barclay, understood that Napoleon needed a battle, as the movement eastward was taking the French army ever further from its sources of supply. The new commander-in-chief was a supporter of the tactic of withdrawal. Yet it was clear to him that neither the Emperor nor the army would tolerate putting off a pitched battle much longer.

Kutuzov resolved to meet the French in a battle near the village of Borodino, some 125 kilometres from Moscow. The Battle of Borodino was one of the largest clashes of the period. Napoleon’s forces numbered 135,000 men and 560 guns; Kutuzov had over 120,000 men and 620 guns.

The great battle began early in the morning on 26 August. For six hours the troops commanded by Bagration fought off the determined enemy assaults on the left wing. During the eighth attack Bagration himself was mortally wounded. A bitter struggle flared up for the centre of the Russian position - the battery defended by General Nikolai Rayevsky’s corps. The battery changed hands several times. At the cost of tremendous losses, the French succeeded in taking Rayevsky’s battery and Bagration’s fleches. Napoleon, however, became convinced that it was impossible to hold them and towards evening gave orders to his forces to withdraw to their original positions.

"Of all my battles," Napoleon recalled, "the most terrible was the one I fought outside Moscow. In it the French showed themselves worthy of gaining victory, but the Russians gained the right to be unvanquished." For the Battle of Borodino Kutuzov was awarded the rank of field-marshal. He intended to give battle again outside Moscow, but when he learned that the reserves were not ready, he took a difficult decision to leave Moscow to the French. "With the loss of Moscow, Russia is not yet lost… But if the army is destroyed, both Moscow and Russia will perish…," the Field-Marshal said at the council of war held in the village of Fili.

On 2 September the French army entered Moscow.


Snuffbox decorated with a miniature portrait of Napoleon
Early 19th century

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Portrait of Emperor Alexander I
Jean-Henri Benner

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The Battle
for Smolensk.
18 August 1812

Albrecht Adam

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Portrait of
Mikhail Kutuzov

Joseph Oleszkiewicz

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The Attack of Uvarov's Cavalry at Borodino
Avgust Dezarno

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Militia Cross

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The Cathedral
of the Intercession
and the Saviour Tower
in Moscow

Giacomo Quarenghi

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