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The War of 1812. The expulsion of Napoleon's army

On 2 September Napoleon stood on the hill called Poklonnaya Gora and looked at the magnificent sunlit panorama of Moscow. The imagination of Lord Byron captured the moment:

The half barbaric Moscow's minarets
Gleam in the sun, but 'tis a sun that sets!
Moscow! thou limit of his long career…

Napoleon waited in vain for a delegation to bring him the keys to the city. He was informed that the city was deserted. The French army entered Moscow, but it found neither provisions nor rest there. Moscow was on fire. Looting began and drunkenness. Napoleon made three unsuccessful offers of peace to Alexander I.

After withdrawing from Moscow, the Russian army reached the area of Tarutino and set up camp. This manoeuvre was of tremendous strategic significance. Here the conditions for a counterattack were created. The Russian army reliably shielded the country's southern provinces from the enemy - the armouries at Tula, Briansk and Kaluga with their large stores of provisions. In case of need, the army could bar Napoleon's way to St Petersburg. From Tarutino it was easy to establish communications with the third army and to direct the actions of partisan detachments, both peasant and army.

The partisan movement developed almost from the very moment of the French invasion. The partisans' actions inflicted heavy losses of men and materials on the enemy. In one of his letters, Napoleon recorded that every day the French army was losing more from partisan attacks than on the battlefield.

On 7 October, after 36 days of unsuccessful efforts to conclude peace with Russia, Napoleon gave orders for a withdrawal from Moscow. He moved his forces towards Tarutino, hoping to break through to Kaluga and Tula. The Russian army advanced to meet him. On 12 October the battle for Maloyaroslavets took place. The French took the town but could not fight their way through to Kaluga. The main forces of the Russian army had arrived, occupied strong positions and were ready to continue the struggle. Napoleon was unwilling to risk his whole army and gave orders to begin a retreat to Mozhaisk and further along the old Smolensk road. From that moment the initiative in the war passed to the Russian army. At Maloyaroslavets, in the words of the Comte de Segur, one of Napoleon's generals, "the conquest of the world stopped [and] the great wreck of our fortunes began".

Now it was Napoleon who evaded battles, while withdrawing rapidly to the west along the Smolensk road devastated by the war and attacked by partisans. Kutuzov took his army further south, denying the French the opportunity to break through into the southern regions. At the same time, the other Russian armies went onto the offensive: one commanded by Admiral Pavel Chichagov that was located by Minsk, and the other, under General Piotr Wittgenstein that had covered the route to St Petersburg.

A major battle took place on 22 October by Viazma, where the best French units were destroyed. Following up, the Cossacks inflicted serious blows on the corps commanded by Marshal Ney and General Beauharnais. Early in November the main forces of both armies took part in a three-day battle at Krasny. The French lost almost all their artillery. This battle was the Russian army's greatest success since the start of the campaign. For Krasny Kutuzov was awarded the title of Prince of Smolensk.

In the middle of November, the Russian forces surrounded Napoleon's army by the River Berezina. In crossing the river, on 14–16 November, the French army suffered its final catastrophe. Napoleon left the remnants of his army and headed for Paris. When asked what state the army was in, he replied that there was no more army.

The Russian historian Yevgeny Tarle (1874–1955) wrote, ÍIn the historical tradition of Russia and Europe, Borodino, the fire of Moscow and the crossing of the Berezina remained for ever three landmarks that held the imagination of nations with insurmountable force… In the fire of Moscow the golden crown of the universal conqueror melted, poets and prose writers of the following generations said. Napoleon's final downfall came only at Waterloo, on 18 June 1815, that is to say two years and nine months after the fire of Moscow, but those years were no more than a long and bloody death agony. In Moscow the conqueror received a fatal, irreparable blow to the heart."

 


The Fire of Moscow in September 1812
Salvator Cardelli

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Portrait of
A.N. Seslavin

George Dawe

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Communion set from Alexander I's campaign church
Axel Hedlund

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Bas-relief:
The Liberation of
Moscow in 1812

Fiodor Tolstoi

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Plate featuring horsemen wearing shakos
Early 19th century

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Cartridge pouch of General Beauharnais
Early 19th century

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Vase: Russia
1828

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