This coming Sunday marks the two-hundredth anniversary of the day Napoloen Bonaparte took the step that would break his Grande Armée and lead to his ultimate defeat in Belgium, almost exactly three years later. It was on Wednesday, 24 June 1812, that Napoleon led nearly 700,000 troops across the River Niemen into Russia. In mid-December of that same year, less than 50,000 troops would limp back across the Niemen, retreating from Russia as they made their slow and painful way home to France.
Why, where and how did Napoleon take this fateful step?
By 1812, Napoleon was no longer quite at the height of his power in Europe. Though he held within his grip nearly every nation on the Continent, and none dared move against him, he was aware that his political support in France was slowly eroding. In addition, Wellington’s army in the Iberian Peninsula was a costly drain on French military resources. And, though he tried to hide it, his health was not what it once was. He was no longer a young man, at the age of forty-three he was gaining weight and was increasingly susceptible to various ailments. Napoleon was eager to crush Great Britain, and he believed that he was not getting the support he had expected in that quarter from his supposed ally, Russia. Still confident in his own power as a commander, Bonaparte determined to invade Russia and teach the Tsar a lesson. Though he did not yet know it, it was Mother Russia who would teach the Little Corsican and the troops of his Grande Armée a very bitter and deadly lesson.
Though Napoleon’s principal reason for invading Russia was to force the Tsar back into an alliance with him against Britain, he masked it by claiming he was actually doing so to prevent the Russian invasion of Poland. Napoleon had established a Polish state, known as the Duchy of Warsaw, in 1807. In that same year, he signed the Treaty of Tilsit with Tsar Alexander I, ironically, on a raft in the middle of the same River Niemen he was just about to cross in order to invade Russia. By the terms of the Treaty of Tilsit, Russia and France agreed to come to each other’s aid in any disagreements with other powers. In particular, France was to help Russia against the Ottoman Turks, while Russia agreed to join the Continental System, the French-mandated blockade against Great Britain. Russia also agreed to respect the boundaries of the new Duchy of Warsaw. But Russia was not honoring the blockade of England, so Napoleon reasoned they would also not respect the Polish boundaries he had established. Therefore, he justified his invasion of Russia by christening his new action "The Second Polish War" (The first having been the battle in 1807, which preceded the establishment of the Duchy of Warsaw).
Perhaps because this was supposedly a Polish war, Napoleon chose to begin it from the Duchy of Warsaw. From there, the army marched west into Lithuania, arriving at the city the English called Kovno, situated at the confluence of the Niemen and the Neris rivers. The Niemen River was the only natural barrier between the French and the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, their first target on the way into Russia. It is a slow moving river, wide and deep at its mouth, but becomes more shallow the farther one travels upstream. The city of Kovno was not quite at the mid-point of the river, and about one hundred miles upstream from Tilsit, where Napoleon and Tsar Alexander had signed their treaty on a raft in this same river in 1807. Though the Niemen was less deep here than it was downstream, it was still too deep to ford on foot, nor could the heavy supply wagons traverse it, even with the slow current. Therefore, Napoleon had his engineers construct three pontoon bridges across the Niemen from the southwestern elderate of Aleksotas on the south bank.
Even with three bridges, it actually took nearly three days to get 700,000 men as well as all their horses, artillery and supply wagons across the river. On that first day, Wednesday, 24 June, the divisions under the personal command of the Emperor were the first to cross the river, followed by their supply trains. Napoleon remained on the left (south) bank supervising the crossing. Near the point of crossing, on the southern edge of Kovno, there is a prehistoric hill fort mound, which, since the nineteenth century has been known as Napoleon’s Hill, because it is believed that the Emperor took a position on that high ground to direct the movements of his troops across the Niemen. Though it is mostly wooded over today, the trees are of relatively recent growth and it is believed the hill fort mound, at a height of more than 207 feet, was mostly open land in 1812 and a perfect vantage point from which to view the progress of the army making its way across the river.
The lengthy river crossing was not only the result of the large numbers of men and supplies which had to move over those three pontoon bridges. It was hot and humid and there were also intermittent but severe thunderstorms and heavy rain in the area which delayed the progress of the army. On the second day, Thursday, 25 June, the divisions under the command Bonaparte’s most senior and trusted general, Marshal Ney, crossed the river. Though the foot soldiers and the heavy supply wagons had to use the pontoon bridges to get over the river, some of the cavalry officers chose to swim their horses across the water further upstream, in between rain showers, perhaps for a brief respite from the heat. By Friday, the last of the French troops, commanded by generals of lesser rank, and the last of the supply trains, had passed over the pontoon bridges. Once the Grande Armée had crossed the River Niemen, it began its march on Vilnius.
Many people believe that Napoleon did not properly plan his invasion of Russia and that it was the winter which defeated him and his Grande Armée. In fact, Bonaparte was probably just as good at logistics as was Wellington, and he planned this invasion very carefully. If the campaign had gone according to his plan, he would have handed Russia a crippling defeat in short order. But nothing about this campaign bore any relation to the kind of warfare Napoleon was used to waging. Though he won every battle in which he engaged in Russia, he lost the campaign, partly because the Russians would not stand and fight. They knew they did not have the strength to defeat him, so even though they skirmished here and there, the main body of the Russian army kept moving farther and farther into the heartland. Bonaparte had expected a hard, fierce battle soon after entering Russian territory, by which he and his Grande Armée would smash the Russian army, leaving him in a position to dictate terms to Tsar Alexander. That never happened. Not only did the Russian army not march out to meet him when he invaded, more unexpected, the Russians practiced a scorched earth policy as they pulled back into the heartland. As Napoleon followed in the wake of the ever-retreating Russians, he led his army deeper and deeper into the country, over ground which yielded little or no forage for his men or his animals.
In terms of the weather, Russia did not wait until the winter to harass the French. The heavy rains which had hindered their crossing at the Niemen followed them into Russia. This had the effect of turning the already poor roads into quagmires which were impassible to the heavier supply wagons. Many had to be left behind in the early days of the march. Worse, the same rains resulted in poor crop yields in much of the area. This was disastrous for the French army, which was carrying mostly arms and ammunition in their supply trains, rather than food-stuffs, as Bonaparte had planned to forage off the land. But between the bad weather and the Russian policy of destroying all supplies as they moved deeper into Russia, the French troops and their animals began going hungry within a short time after they marched into Russia. It only got worse as they pursued the elusive Russians. The winter in Russia that year, based on available records, was no more severe than an average Russian winter, but it was still more severe than the beleaguered French troops could endure in their already weakened state. In fact, they never actually bore the brunt of a Russian winter, as the last of the French army limped or crawled out of Russia on 14 December 1812, a week before winter actually began.
Just a week before Napoleon and his Grande Armée crossed the Niemen River on their way into Russia, the United States had declared war on Great Britain. In this same month, the British Army in the Peninsula was struggling to hold their own against the French army. The previous month, the British Prime Minister had been assassinated, just outside the House of Commons. The British and their government cannot be blamed for thinking that 1812 was going to be one of the worst years in their history. Little did they know that within the month, Wellington would turn the tide in the Peninsula and by the end of the year, Napoleon’s formidable Grande Armée would be badly broken, its remnants straggling out of Russia without their General. The Emperor himself had left them more than a month before, rushing back to Paris to defend his government against an attempted coup d’état. The second half of 1812 would be very different for the British than had been the first.