While Napoleon Bonaparte didn't meet his Waterloo until three years later, the failure of his 1812 invasion of Russia was one of the greatest upsets in military history. But evidence now suggests that it was neither the Russian people nor the harsh winter that played the greatest role in defeating the famed French military leader -- it was the smallest of enemies. Archaeologists who excavated the remains of some of the approximately 570,000 French soldiers who died during the war say that the majority of these deaths were caused by typhus, a disease caused by several types of bacteria and spread by lice.
The lice moved rapidly from soldier to soldier, who typically bunked near one another and wore the same clothes for days. In fact, 80,000 French troops died from typhus just one month into the Russian invasion. Prior to this discovery, most historians believed that the largely intact French army that pushed with little resistance into the Russian capital only turned back after the citizens of Moscow burned most of the city, denying Napoleon's troops the food and supplies they needed to survive. Another commonly held theory is that many French troops perished in the harsh cold during their retreat.
What you don't know about Napoleon:
- Contrary to popular belief, Napoleon was not particularly short for his time: He was about 5 feet, 6 inches (168 cm), which was the average height for a man.
- In 1799, during Napoleon's campaign in Egypt, one of Napoleon's soldiers discovered an old basalt stone with writing on it: We know it today as the Rosetta Stone.
- Napoleon was finally defeated by the Seventh Coalition at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. He was exiled to the island of Saint Helena, where he died in 1821 at age 51.
Frequently Asked Questions
What were the primary reasons for Napoleon's failure in the invasion of Russia?
The failure of Napoleon's invasion of Russia can be attributed to several key factors. Firstly, the harsh Russian winter decimated his troops, who were ill-prepared for the extreme cold. Secondly, the scorched earth policy employed by the retreating Russian army left the French without supplies or shelter. Additionally, logistical challenges and overextended supply lines made it difficult to sustain the Grande Armée. Finally, Russian resistance was stronger and more resilient than anticipated, leading to significant French casualties.
How did the Russian winter affect Napoleon's army?
The Russian winter had a catastrophic effect on Napoleon's army. The Grande Armée was not equipped for the severe cold, which led to frostbite, hypothermia, and death among the soldiers. According to some estimates, temperatures plummeted to as low as -30 degrees Celsius (-22 degrees Fahrenheit), exacerbating the suffering of the troops and horses. The lack of adequate winter clothing and shelter meant that the army's strength was severely depleted by the time they retreated from Moscow.
What was the scorched earth policy and how did it impact Napoleon's campaign?
The scorched earth policy was a military strategy used by the retreating Russian forces to deprive the invading French army of resources. As they withdrew, the Russians burned their own lands, villages, and crops, leaving nothing behind for the French to use. This tactic ensured that Napoleon's army, already struggling with long supply lines, faced starvation and a lack of fodder for their horses. The absence of local resources forced the French to rely on their overextended supply chains, which could not sustain the large army in hostile territory.
Did Napoleon underestimate the Russian army?
Yes, Napoleon did underestimate the Russian army. He expected a quick victory and was not prepared for the prolonged resistance that the Russians offered. The Russian troops, led by Generals Kutuzov and Barclay de Tolly, avoided large-scale engagements that could favor the French, instead engaging in a strategic retreat that stretched the French lines thin. The Russians then employed guerrilla tactics and waited for the right moment to counterattack, which ultimately contributed to the French defeat.
What were the long-term consequences of Napoleon's failed invasion of Russia?
The long-term consequences of Napoleon's failed invasion were profound. The loss of around 500,000 soldiers from the Grande Armée weakened France's military might significantly. This disastrous campaign also sparked a wave of nationalism across Europe, leading to increased resistance against French occupation. The defeat in Russia marked the beginning of the end for Napoleon's empire, culminating in his first abdication and exile to Elba in 1814, less than two years after the retreat from Moscow.