Everyone had a good laugh when Trump tried to explain why Napoleon was defeated by Russia in 1812: “And his one problem is he didn’t go to Russia that night because he had extracurricular activities, and they froze to death. How many times has Russia been saved by the weather?” Trump sounded a lot like Jeff Spicoli discussing American History with Mr. Hand, “What Jefferson was saying was, ‘Hey! You know. We left this England place because it was bogus. So if we don’t get some cool rules ourselves — Pronto! — we’ll just be bogus, too. Okay?’”
As silly as Trump’s take on Napoleon sounds, it’s clear he’s trying to make a point that many of us vaguely remember we were taught years ago. The great Emperor Napoleon, who had become one of the most successful generals in human history, recklessly marched on Moscow and was ultimately destroyed by the Russian winter. This sounds like a fairly uncontroversial belief. Alas, it’s not true. The real reason Napoleon was defeated in Russia is far more interesting and teaches us a simple truth about human nature.
In Andrew Roberts’ outstanding biography of Napoleon, we learn that the Russian invasion was far more complex than is commonly understood. Napoleon actually didn’t want war with Russia and said it was the “greatest and most difficult enterprise” he had ever attempted. All along, he figured it would take two or possibly three years for a successful completion of the Russian campaign. At some point before reaching Moscow, he planned on stopping so he could fortify his army for the winter.
Napoleon was a meticulous planner, according to Roberts. In December 1811, he asked his librarian to gather all the books on Russia and Lithuania. He then studied accounts of Charles XII of Sweden’s catastrophic invasion of Russia in 1709 as well as books on Russian geography and natural resources. Later during the invasion, Napoleon looked at all of the available almanacs and charts on winter in Russia. He learned that sub-zero temperatures would arrive in November. When the army left Moscow in mid-October, Napoleon knew he had roughly twenty days to find winter shelter. Unfortunately, the Russian military prevented him from getting his army to shelter in time.
Russia’s strategy proved to be very effective in opposing Napoleon’s Grand Armee, which embarked with 615,000 troops — the largest invasion force in the history of the world up until that time. Prior to the fighting, Tsar Alexander I told Napoleon, “If war must begin, I will know to fight and sell my life dearly.” Later, Alexander vowed, “I would sooner let my beard grow to my waist and eat potatoes in Siberia” before making peace. One of his generals, Barclay de Tolly, designed a plan to entice Napoleon’s army deep into the Russian interior thereby stretching supply lines. As Napoleon advanced, entire villages were burned to the ground by the retreating Russians, while cavalry raids harassed the French soldiers. Disease also proved to be a deadly enemy of the Grand Armee. Long before the arrival of winter, Napoleon lost one-fifth of his troops to typhus fever.
Despite all of the difficulties during the summer of 1812, Napoleon believed that victory was always over the next hill, so he kept moving forward. Years later, Napoleon would say, “I should have put my soldiers into barracks at Smolensk [roughly 230 miles west of Moscow] for the winter.” Andrew Roberts writes, “its vast size made Russia impossible to invade much beyond Vilnius in a single campaign. His military administration was incapable of dealing with the enormous strain that he was putting on it.”
The risky decision to advance on Moscow turned out to be Napoleon’s undoing. After entering Moscow on September 15, 1812, the city’s governor, Fyodor Rostopchin, ordered the burning of the city — 6,500 of the 9,000 major buildings would be destroyed. Watching the flames, Napoleon remarked, “What a tremendous spectacle! It is their own work! So many palaces! What extraordinary resolution! What men!” Napoleon felt he could’ve wintered in Moscow, if it hadn’t been burned to the ground. It was “an event on which I could not calculate, as there is not, I believe, a precedent for it in the history of the world. But by God, one has to admit that showed a hell of a strength of character.” He later added, “It will take Russia two hundred years to recover from the loss which she has sustained.”
So it wasn’t an ignorance of weather that ultimately led to disaster for Napoleon and the Grand Armee. Rather, it was Napoleon’s belief that Alexander and the Russians would act as he would’ve acted. Why would the Russians destroy their own villages? How could they possibly burn to the ground a magnificent and historic city like Moscow? Napoleon just assumed Alexander would eventually agree to reasonable terms. He actually came to admire Russian defiance and resilience, but clearly he didn’t anticipate it.
Napoleon lost 524,000 men out of the original 615,000 that embarked for Russia — according to Roberts, 60% of these casualties were due to disease, exposure, starvation, and other causes not directly related to the battlefield. Just as many died advancing on Moscow as leaving it.
Ironically, it was Napoleon himself who first blamed the weather for the catastrophe. A savvy practitioner of the art of propaganda, Napoleon didn’t want to give credit to the Russians for their victory. And he didn’t want to publicly blame himself or his own troops either. So he told the French people that the weather caused the losses in men and horses, though, as Roberts shows, “all the figures he gave were wildly inaccurate.” Napoleon had the ability to be truthful with himself, however. On his first day back in Paris after the debacle, he admitted to his colleagues that he had waited in Moscow too long, hoping for a peace treaty. He then added, “I made a great error but I have the means to repair it.”
John Reeves is the author of the forthcoming, The Lost Indictment of Robert E. Lee.