Napoleon’s Russian campaign: the march to the Niemen

Period : Directory / 1st Empire
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Historical context

This timeline forms part of our close-up on: Napoleon's Russian campaign: the march to the Niemen.
Following Napoleon's victory at Austerlitz, Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire, intent on capturing vast swathes of Turkish territory after Ottoman forces had deposed the pro-Russian rulers of Wallachia and Moldavia. Russian troops overran Moldavia and Wallachia in an assault orchestrated by Nikolay Rumiantsev, Russia's foreign minister. The war dragged on until 1812, when it was brought to an end with a hastily-agreed peace treaty, signed just a few weeks before Napoleon's crossing of the Niemen. At the same time, Russia was also waging a war – declared in 1804 – with Persia, which saw territory in the Caucasus, Georgia and near the Aras River hotly disputed. This war only came to an end in 1813.
After the Battle of Friedland and with Russia fearing insurrection in its Polish territories in Eastern Europe, on 7 July 1807 Napoleon and Alexander I came together at Tilsit to sign a peace treaty. The meeting became known for its location – a raft anchored in the middle of the Niemen River – and Russia's enforced participation in Napoleon's Continental Blockade. Importantly, Russia also agreed to withdraw from Moldavia and Wallachia, territory that it had seized during the ongoing war with the Ottoman Empire, and – in an alliance agreed between the two empires – committed to declaring war on Britain.
The treaty signed two days later with Prussia was also to have a profound effect on Franco-Russian relations. As punishment for being on the wrong side in 1806 and 1807, Prussia lost nearly five million inhabitants, some of which went into the newly-resurrected Polish state, the Duchy of Warsaw. This vassal state, in union with the King of Saxony but in reality governed by the French ambassador in Warsaw, came into being as an effort to introduce yet more of Europe into the Napoleonic system, Napoleon's vision of a quasi-federated continent. Its creation also had the added advantage of creating a barrier between the French empire and Russian interests in Eastern Europe.
As a result of the treaty agreed at Tilsit, Alexander I had gone ahead with his plans to seize Finland: the Finnish war was fought between February 1808 and September 1809, and the resulting Treaty of Fredrikshamn – signed on 17 September 1809 – saw Finland, previously in Swedish hands, become the Grand Duchy of Finland and part of the Russian empire.
In 1808, Napoleon began to turn his attention to empires of the Iberian Peninsula. In order to extend his influence there, he began pulling a large number of his troops out of central Europe and throwing them into this region. In this context, at the diplomatic summit at Erfurt, on 12 October 1808, Napoleon called again on his ally Alexander to act as dissuasion against any Austrian attempt to attack France once the French emperor's back was turned. The subject of the Ottoman Empire once again came up, with Alexander intent on capitalising on a series of palace intrigues to proceed with his dismemberment of the Porte's lands. He was also banking on territorial compensation for his declaration of war on Britain, as outlined in the secret articles at Tilsit. Napoleon, who had signed a treaty with the sultan in 1802, was not however about to allow Russia a clear route to the Mediterranean and ensured that nothing was agreed. Alexander came away disappointed, his designs on Ottoman territory thwarted. He was not the only one to leave frustrated: Erfurt was also notable for Talleyrand's involvement in pushing – behind Napoleon's back – the Russian tsar to resisting Napoleon's overtures for an open alliance against Austria. In fact, the diplomatic chicanery around Erfurt was to lay bear the fragile nature of the Franco-Russian alliance.
Although Russia had agreed to enter into the Continental Blockade – a step that Napoleon believed essential to the eventual victory over Britain – following the treaty at Tilsit, Alexander's commitment was at best half-hearted. Russia's economy was extremely dependent on British trade, and Napoleon's blockade saw the tsar obliged to turn away British ships – thus depriving himself of import duties and British goods – and accept French products into the country instead. After 1809, the blockade – already maintained with reluctance – was enforced even less stringently, with “neutral” ships freely allowed into port. Although not British, these ships were often American, and also – frequently – arrived in port laden with British goods, thus contravening Napoleon's grand system.
Further international tension was to be added by Napoleon's marriage to Marie-Louise, in April 1810. Metternich, the Austrian Foreign Minister, predicted that the emperor's new matrimonial ties with Austria would only fuel the increasing concerns felt by Russia towards France and that this would most likely cause problems further down the line.


Poland was to prove a key point of contention between Russia and France. Any potential alliance discussed by the two rulers was stymied by their respective reluctance to compromise. Alexander wanted a clear and forthright declaration that Napoleon would support no independent Polish state, whilst Napoleon saw no need to make such a commitment, and indeed objected to such a demand being made. Three projects for a Franco-Russian agreement over Polish lands were floated, and each one came unstuck. Indeed, in January 1810, Caulaincourt (French ambassador to Russia) and Rumiantsev, agreed on a draft convention that banned the restoration of the independent Polish state. Napoleon however rejected it. In a letter dated 24 April 1810, Napoleon argued that any declaration against an independent Polish state had to be met with a Russian declaration against the restoration of the Kingdom of Sardinia. The king, who had been forced to flee to Sardinia and watch the kingdom incorporated into the French Empire, maintained a diplomatic presence at the Russian court. Once again, Napoleon knew that Alexander would be politically unable to consent to his suggestions. By July 1810, Napoleon was refusing point blank to make any sort of declaration: in his meeting with Prince Alexis Kurakin, Russian envoy in Paris, as reported in volume two of Vandal's Napoléon et Alexandre (pp.417-424), he declared “French blood will not be spilt fighting for Poland, but nor will it be spilt fighting against this unhappy nation. It would be utterly demeaning to my person to make that commitment or any such similar one.”
The Polish question brought Napoleon into conflict with Rumiantsev, and Prince Alexander Kurakin, Russian ambassador to France. Rumiantsev continued to agitate for a clear proclamation from Napoleon regarding his intentions for Poland, and the publication of a pro-Polish tract in the Duchy of Warsaw was taken by the Foreign Minister as Napoleon's tacit support for the movement. In a letter sent in Champagny's name, but dictated by Napoleon, to Caulaincourt, French ambassador to the Russian court, the emperor could no longer hide his growing impatience and frustration with Russia:
“The emperor, sir, who has for several weeks listened with displeasure to the injurious suspicions continuously emanating from Russia, which at times chooses to suggest that he is fomenting trouble in Poland, at others considers him responsible for articles in gazettes that have been written two hundred leagues from Paris, or brochures which shall forever remain unknown in France – much like their authors – was further upset by the phrase in the letter from M. Rumiantsev which seems to contain a formal accusation. 'What, asked the emperor, does Russia mean by such language? Does she seek war? Why these unending complaints? Why these injurious suspicions? If I had wished to re-establish Poland, I would have said so, and I would not have withdrawn my troops from Germany. Does Russia seek to prepare me for her defection?” [1 July 1810, n° 16,181, Second Empire edition]
By mid-1810, this clash over Poland led to Russian attempts to re-negotiate the Tilsit agreement. However, Kurakin's lack of authorisation to discuss the articles of any potential alliance allowed Napoleon to dismiss any further discussion on the matter. After the fire at the Austrian embassy in Paris on 1 July 1810, which left the Russian ambassador badly burned and fighting for his life, Napoleon addressed a note to Charles de Nesselrode, the deputy head of the Russian mission in Paris, inquiring as to whether the tsar's representative would be in a position to discuss a new Franco-Russian treaty, presumably knowing full well that he was not. This offer was furthermore not sincere since when Nesselrode proposed that he should take any discussions to his government on behalf of Napoleon, the emperor did not take him up. Alexander was beginning to think seriously about the usefulness of the alliance.
Indeed, in the first month of 1811, Alexander I began a correspondence with Adam Jerzy Czartoryski, the celebrated Polish diplomat, close personal friend to the tsar and former Minister of Foreign Affairs at the Russian court. But even before the full extent of Napoleon's annexation of the Hanseatic states became known to him (see below), Alexander had begun to explore in depth an offensive against the French emperor, targeting first of all the reconstitution of a Polish Kingdom (allied, naturally, to the Russian empire). The plan hinged on creating a domino effect in Europe: an invasion of the Duchy of Warsaw with a force of “100,000 Russians” would then be followed by the Polish population rallying to Alexander before overthrowing the French troops in the surrounding area. The German states would soon be inspired to join the new coalition; Alexander even envisioned an alliance with Austria once the balance of power in Europe had sufficiently altered. Playing on Czartoryski's patriotism, Alexander charged his friend with 'putting the feelers out' to the government and military command in Warsaw, informing him that such an operation – which would leave his country eternally indebted to him – could only succeed if Russia received “indubitable assurances” of Poland's co-operation. Uncertainty among Polish leaders regarding Russia's motives was to prove a stumbling block, however, and it did not take long for the French authorities to learn of Alexander's plans. By the spring of 1811, the project had been shelved.

A deteriorating relationship

The grievances were beginning to stack up. At the end of 1810, a large number of vessels from a convoy carrying British goods and proceeding through the Baltic successfully landed in Russian ports as neutral ships or were simply left to continue their journey. Napoleon realised that Alexander no longer had any intention of respecting what they had agreed at Tilsit, and, with more and more vessels landing in Russia, on 13 December 1810, a sénatus-consulte was announced which formally incorporated the Hanseatic cities of Lübeck, Bremen and Hamburg into the French empire. Despite French military presence in the ports for more than four years, fraud and counterfeit were still widespread and the annexation was intended to strengthen the blockade along the Baltic. Notably, this act also annexed a number of territories linked to the ports, including the Duchy of Oldenburg. This small dukedom was ruled by the regent Peter I, whose son George was married to Alexander I's sister, Catherine Pavlovna of Russia. Napoleon offered Erfurt to Peter as compensation for Oldenburg, a proposition that was poorly received both in Oldenburg and in Russia. Although initially intent on remaining in place with severe restrictions imposed upon his rule, the duke was soon forcibly ejected. By an imperial decree dated 22 January 1811, Napoleon ordered the displacement of the Oldenburg family and the seizure of the dukedom, contravening the treaty of Tilsit (article 12), and further worsening Franco-Russian diplomatic relations.
The turn of the year was to prove particularly trying for both sovereigns. On 31 December 1810, the Russian tsar announced an ukase (proclamation) decreeing that goods (other than those of British provenance) could once again enter Russia via its ports, whilst imports entering the empire over land (the majority of which was of French origin) would be hit with heavy duties. Despite the ukase's stipulations, Russia was effectively open to British trade again. Moreover, any goods found to have entered the country illegally would be destroyed. Such a change in commercial policy – announced without consulting the French emperor – merely heaped further pressure on the two nations' diplomatic relations. Napoleon's letter, dated 28 February 1811, mixed melodrama and unconcealed menace but was a clear sign that the relationship was on the rocks.
“I cannot conceal from myself the fact that Your Majesty no longer has any regard for me. […] [Your] latest ukase is, in content and most especially form, specifically directed against France. […] Britain and Europe already believe our alliance is no more. […] If Your Majesty will permit me to speak with candour: You have forgotten what profit You have gained from the alliance […] I am struck by the evidence of these facts and by the thought that Your Majesty is entirely disposed, a soon as circumstance permits it, to come to an agreement with Britain; this would be nothing less than inciting war between the two empires [i.e. France and Russia]. Were Your Majesty both to abandon the alliance and destroy the Tilsit conventions, it is clear that war would follow, sooner or later. This atmosphere of distrust and uncertainty is inconvenient for both Your Majesty's empire and mine. […] If Your Majesty has no intention of returning to Britain's side, You will appreciate the necessity of clearing up all this confusion, for my benefit and Yours.”
Russia however had been active behind Napoleon's back for months. Between the spring and winter of 1810, Colonel Alexander Chernichev's diplomatic mission to Paris (a front for intelligence gathering) and close relationship with Bernadotte had allowed Russia to both cultivate ties with the newly-elected Swedish crown prince and obtain intelligence on Napoleon's policies. The Russian officer's espionage was uncovered, however, and after a private interview with Napoleon – during which the French emperor made it clear that the game was up – the Russian officer promptly left Paris, having burned his personal papers. The identity of the French mole handled by Chernichev – a certain “Michel” working in the Ministry of War Administration who had access to army strength tables, and accurate troop positions and movements – was uncovered following the Russian officer's flight at the end of February 1812. Although Chernichev was allowed to leave French territory – Napoleon was not prepared to provoke a diplomatic incident this early on – the French emperor nevertheless took advantage of the deceit to play the injured party in a note which Maret addressed to Kurakin on 3 March 1812. On 1 May 1812, “Michel” was executed for “having supplied intelligence to a foreign power with a view to providing it with the means of making war on France”.

Austrian involvement

By 25 April 1811, Napoleon had made it clear to Metternich that – contrary to initial indications to von Schwarzenberg in September 1810 – any coming conflict would require active participation from Austria. This gave Austria and Francis I understandable cause for concern, particularly with regards to Galicia (part of modern day Poland and Ukraine), which was part of the Austrian empire at this point, along the border with the Duchy of Warsaw. Metternich's note to the Austrian emperor reported on Napoleon's anticipation of insurrection breaking out in Galicia, supported by Polish nationalists. This in turn could lead to a rift between Austria and France. However, any such event in Galicia could also prove beneficial to Austria, and Metternich elaborated on potential territorial compensation. In the event of Austrian neutrality, they could be compensated for the loss of their Galician territory. In the event of Austria's active participation in an eventual French victory, however, far more could be gained, with Metternich arguing that a more powerful France would be moved to compensate Austria for any sacrifices made during the conflict.

Letter that year, on 28 December 1811, Metternich estimated that the Grande Armée would be about 200,000 to 230,000 troops. At the close of 1811, he described Austria as “before an abyss, the depth of which we cannot as yet even begin to estimate” (Mémoires, vol. II, p.428). Ever the pragmatist, he argued that strict neutrality from Austria would result in the collapse of the Austrian monarchy and was therefore the least favourable course of action as it would prevent Austria from benefiting from either side's eventual victory. In the event of strict neutrality and a victorious France over Russia, Metternich envisaged Napoleon taking advantage of peace talks to reorganise Illyrian territories, Galicia, and Bavaria to the detriment of the Austrian monarchy.
He also admitted that Prussia found itself in an extremely difficult geopolitical situation, which was only exacerbated by that king's “natural indecision”. More concerning however was that this indecision made it difficult to decide on an Austrian course of action. If Prussia entered into an alliance with France, Austria would be almost obliged to follow, lest Prussia gain ascendancy over Austria in the eyes of the French emperor. Prussia's participation in the forthcoming conflict would therefore effectively force Austria into abandoning a policy of neutrality. Yet if Prussia was destroyed (a state of affairs that appeared entirely possible at the time), Silesia would benefit, again to the detriment of Austria. Metternich therefore suggested that Austrian participation in the French invasion would be possible, provided Napoleon gave assurances that Austria would not only be compensated for war costs, but would receive considerable geographical compensation, namely Silesia, the Illyrian provinces, and the Inn border (including Salzburg). In exchange Austria would cede a “reasonable” part of Galicia to the Polish kingdom.
In Metternich's eyes, such a course of action was advisable as a French victory was the only thing that could save Austria.
By January 1812, Metternich had a better idea of Austria's future involvement. An Austrian auxiliary corps would operate on the far-right wing of the invasion force and would – if Napoleon had his way – be commanded by Archduke Charles. His second choice, the Prince Schwarzenberg was the next best option. He also reported that Napoleon had declared that any Austrian force would be commanded by an Austrian and would answer directly to him, independent of all other forces in the Grande Armée.
In the end, national self-interest coupled with the threat posed by Russia to Austrian territory in the east (particularly as the Russo-Turkish war raged) drove Metternich to advocate a French alliance.

The role of Sweden

On 19 January 1812, Napoleon authorised Davout to invade and occupy Swedish Pomerania, ostensibly to reinforce the Continental Blockade that was being flouted and secure the French flank for the upcoming campaign. Napoleon also saw the occupation as punishment for Sweden's lax enforcement of his blockade system. French troops under General Friant crossed the border on the night of 26/27 January, and by the end of the month, Bernadotte had learned that Pomerania was occupied. He received no declaration or announcement from the French emperor, and would subsequently turn towards Russia.
Although initially fearful that a French general on the Swedish throne would make Sweden a client state of France, therefore threatening Russia's coastline to the north, Alexander received enough assurances during Chernichev's stay in Paris and his relationship with Bernadotte to feel comfortable that the Swedish ruler would not be entering into any war with Russia. Bernadotte, who was elected crown prince of Sweden on 21 August 1810, was motivated by establishing Swedish independence, which was better provided for with a strong Russia, particularly with regards to the Scandinavian states. Finland was by now a Russian territory and Sweden – even if they did succeed in retaking it – could not hope to hang onto it for too long in face of Russian strength and numbers. If France declared war on Russia, Britain would become allied with Russia. If Sweden accompanied Napoleon into war with Russia, Swedish maritime trade would be seriously threatened by British control of the seas. Bernadotte reasoned (correctly as it would turn out) that territory could be seized from Denmark – a French ally – as compensation for other territorial losses – i.e. Finland – in Scandinavia. In the crown prince's first meeting with the Russian ambassador to Sweden, Peter Suchtelen, he declared “the happiness of Sweden is inseparable from the peace with Russia”. His insistence on remaining neutral continued however to cause concern, right up until 5 April 1812 and the agreement of an alliance.
It was on 5 April 1812 that the Swedish crown prince – contrary to Napoleon's expectations that his former general would fall into line with him – gave notice of his intention to govern Swedish foreign policy as an independent ruler and signed a defensive and offensive alliance with Alexander I and Russia. The treaty outlined the incorporation of Norway – part of the Kingdom of Denmark and therefore a French ally – into the Swedish kingdom, with Sweden agreeing in turn not to contest Russian possession of Finland. Alexander promised troops to Bernadotte in order to seize Norway, with the pay-off being that once Norwegian territory had been secured, Sweden would carry out diversionary operations against Napoleon's rearguard in Germany.

Prussian indecision

After months of dithering, Prussia – caught between Russia and France – finally came down on the side of the French. Alexander I's decision to pursue a defensive policy in the upcoming conflict effectively pushed Prussia into a reluctant alliance with Napoleon. Frederick William III explained to Alexander in a letter dated 19 (Julian)/31 (Gregorian) March 1812 that the Russian tsar's tactics left him with no choice:
“Faithful to your strategy of not taking the offensive, Your Majesty deprived me of any hope of prompt or real assistance and placed me in a situation where the destruction of Prussia would have been the preliminary to a war against Russia.” [Quoted in Dominic Lieven, Russia Against Napoleon, p.93]
Signed on 24 February 1812, the alliance effectively transformed Prussia into a rearguard base for the Grande Armée. Further articles saw Frederick William III agree to contribute a contingent of Prussian troops to the allied force being massed by Napoleon, as well as apply the Continental System in Prussian territory and supply provisions to the French army. Despite the king's military commitments, such was Prussia's animosity towards France that a large number of Frederick William's officers resigned their commissions and entered the service of Russia. The treaty was ratified on 5 March.
Hot on the heels of the imperial treaty with Prussia, on 14 March 1812 an alliance between France and Austria was formally agreed and signed. Despite reservations regarding the country's ability to weather the upcoming war, Metternich knew that participation in what he saw as Austria's “guerre de conservation” was inevitable. Key amongst the stipulations was Austria's commitment to provide 30,000 men, commanded by the well-respected Karl Philip von Schwarzenberg, then Austrian ambassador in Paris, who would participate in the upcoming campaign (although they were exempt from involvement in any conflict with Spain or Britain). A key element of the treaty was the agreement that, in the event of a new 'independent' Poland emerging from the forthcoming war, Austria was to sign over Galicia, receiving in exchange the Illyrian Provinces. At the same time, however, Metternich – ever seeking to prepare for all eventualities – assured Alexander that Austrian troops would be fighting a “sham war” against Russian forces.
The Prussian alliance would be followed by an ultimatum from Russia, received by the tsar's representatives in Paris on 14 April 1812, which demanded a French withdrawal from all Prussian lands and fortified sites in order to maintain a neutral buffer zone between the two belligerents. Alexander's military success in Turkey and the recently agreed alliance with Sweden had solidified his resolve and just as Napoleon had sought to manoeuvre Alexander's diplomats over Poland, so he sought to provoke an open declaration of war. In response, Napoleon continued to talk of treaties, but having dispatched his aide-de-camp to Alexander's court with the intention of maintaining the pretence of peace, he left Paris for the German territories. Kurakin was left in the French capital, where he eventually obtained a meeting with Maret, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, in order to discuss peace. Upon arriving for his meeting on 9 May, he learned that Napoleon was gone. Despite suggestions that Napoleon was simply visiting his father in law, Kurakin read in the Moniteur on 10 May that Napoleon had headed to Dresden to inspect the army.

Napoleon arrived there at midday on 16 May in the company of a number of German rulers. On 18 May, Francis I arrived and met the imperial couple. During the days that followed, Metternich, who was also present, described how Napoleon initially expected a Russian advance beyond its own borders. Should this not occur, however, the French emperor outlined his understanding of how the war would develop:
“'My enterprise is one of those of which the solution is to be found in patience. Victory will attend the most patient. I shall open the campaign by crossing the Niemen. It will be concluded at Smolensk and Minsk. There I shall stop. I shall fortify these two points, and occupy myself at Wilna, where the chief head-quarters will be during the next winter, with the organisation of Lithuania, which burns with impatience to be delivered from the yoke of Russia. I shall wait and see which of us tires first: I, of feeding my army at the expense of Russia; or Alexander, of sustaining my army at the expense of his country. Perhaps I myself shall pass the most inclement months of the winter at Paris.'”
Metternich proceeded to ask Napoleon what he would do if Alexander initially refused to make peace after the French occupation of Lithuania:
“'In that case I should in the following year advance quite to the centre of the Empire, and I shall be patient in 1813 as I shall have been in 1812! The affair, as I have told you, is a question of time.”

Russian military preparations

Russian planning for the war began as early as 1810, with the publication of Barclay de Tolly's memorandum “The Defence of Russia's Western Frontiers” in March 1810. There was a distinct lack of fortifications along the vast western border of the empire (the last threat to this wing of the empire had been mounted by Sweden's Charles XII, who was defeated by Peter I of Russia at Poltava in 1709). Mikhail Barclay de Tolly, the Russian War Minister, recommended a raised earth offensive withdrawal if Polish territory was invaded, with defensive front established along the Dvina (Daugava) and Dnieper rivers. The intelligence received from Chernichev's activities in Paris also encouraged a defensive policy, citing Napoleon's preference for rapid advances through enemy territory and decisive battles.
A key site was to be the Drissa camp (near Verkhniadzvinsk, Belarus). Early battle plans given to Alexander incorporated an initial advance, a political requirement as much as anything, as a purely defensive withdrawal would result in the loss of Prussia, Russia's ally, to the invading French army. An advance into Poland was also necessary to win Polish nationalists, who might be convinced to fight with Russia if concessions were offered (although Polish suspicion of Alexander's motives and eventual designs on Poland would have to be overcome as well). Such an advance could also hamper Napoleon's advance preparations, preventing him from properly organising his advance stores in Polish territory. A particular fear at the Russian court was what the Polish reaction would be to a Russian policy of retreat. There was serious concern that the educated classes would support Napoleon's advance. These fears resulted in some Russians supporting a more offensive plan against Napoleon. Alexander and Barclay de Tolly knew that Russian numbers, coupled with the likelihood of stretched forces across the vast empire, could not meet the Grande Armée head on. At the same time, however, a defeat back across into Russian territory left the huge and difficult to protect adequately western border open. In many ways, the Russians banked on the peoples affected by the Russian withdrawal tolerating the retreat long enough for Napoleon's impatience to get the better of him, and overstretch himself by launching a march into the Russian heartland.

The Prussian general Karl Ludwig von Pfühl, who served Alexander as an unofficial adviser, advocated a similarly defensive plan, with the Russian army set to retreat back to the Drissa camp upon the outbreak of war. The belief was that the Russian empire could weather the invasion until Napoleon's supplies ran out. Alexander's apparent preference for this ultra-defensive plan – influenced in part by the massive number of troops being assembled by Napoleon – coupled with Pfühl's foreignness made him extremely unpopular at the Russian court. The plan, in the British historian Dominic Lieven's opinion, offered the best chance of saving the heartland of Russia whilst also providing a perfect scapegoat should everything go wrong. Alexander also had to fight against the Russian officer's natural inclination to advance: retreat was considered dishonourable, and such a retrograde movement back into Russian territory could affect army morale.
During the winter of 1811/1812, Russian forces under Mikhail Kutuzov outmanoeuvred the Ottoman army (with whom Russia had been at war since 1806), cutting it off and forcing it to surrender. The war was brought to an effective close. Meanwhile, the Russo-Persian war dragged on. As rumours of the forthcoming conflict between Russia and France reached Persia, a new Persian offensive was mounted. On 13 February 1812, Persian troops succeeded in routing Russian forces commanded by Pyotr Kotlyarevsky at the Battle of Sultanabad (modern-day Arak). Persian joy was to prove short-lived, and Kotlyarevsky defeated Abbas Mirza six months later, at the Battle of Aslanduz on 31 October 1812.
On 2 April 1812, Peter Andrrevich Chuikevich, a former member of Alexander's General Staff and a strategist working in the War Ministry, submitted a memorandum for Barclay de Tolly, offering analysis of Napoleon's preferred method of warfare: a lightning advance followed by quick victories to overwhelm the opposing army. Chuikevich's advice was that Russia should strive to ensure the opposite happened: that a withdrawal, coupled with a war of attrition, raids carried out by flying detachments (made up of light troops), and a wholesale disruption of the enemy's supply lines and communication was the only way to defeat Napoleon.

At the same time, however, there was a general understanding that allies would be few and far between. Despite an agreement with Sweden in April, there was still uncertainty regarding Bernadotte's reliability, whilst any assistance from Britain would almost certainly be limited to financial help. By April 1812, Alexander and the few select members of his inner circle privy to his intelligence knew that Napoleon was amassing a massive army: estimates suggested 450,000 troops, whilst Chuikevich's memorandum numbered Russian effectives at no more than 200,000 to begin with, including 30,000 regular cavalry. To combat this vast outnumbering, Chuikevich proposed inciting rebellion in northern Germany and Pomerania, in the event that allied or Russian forces need to land there later on. In private correspondence, however, Alexander and his generals admitted that the tsar had to envisage giving up more territory than simply the western areas of his empire. There was the distinct possibility that Napoleon could advance deep into Russia before being repelled. Indeed, Count Rostopchin wrote to Alexander on eve of invasion, noting that in the event of initial defeat to Napoleon and a retreat back into Russian heartland, “the Russian emperor will be menacing in Moscow, terrifying in Kazan and invincible in Tobolsk.”
Thus, in April 1812, a state of war in Russia's border provinces was declared, and authorities began requisitioning supplies for the army as the government reacted to France's treaties with Prussia and Austria.

Final preparations

On 25 April, Napoleon dispatched Count Narbonne to Alexander's side to try and buy some more time for the French emperor to further the military preparations already in progress. On 27 April, Russia's ambassador in Paris, Prince Kurakin, threatened to leave the capital if a definitive answer to his note demanding the withdrawal of French troops from Swedish Pomerania and Prussia (delivered in Paris on 14 April) was not received. No answer was forthcoming. Meanwhile, Alexander I arrived in Vilna on 26 April with the French ambassador, General Lauriston – who had received instructions to keep negotiations open with the tsar – still in tow. By now, however, the French ambassador found his access to the Russian tsar barred.
The French imperial couple left for Dresden on 9 May, arriving there on 16 May. They would remain in the city until 29 May. On 18 May, Napoleon was joined by the Austrian emperor, Francis I.
Despite Barclay de Tolly's desire to launch some early pre-emptive offensives in East Prussia and Poland – essentially a means of spoiling French preparations – no attack orders from Alexander were forthcoming. The signature of the Franco-Austrian treaty in April, had intensified Russian fears of a fully-mobilised Austrian army marching on Russia. This development, coupled with the sheer scale of troops assembled by Napoleon meant that any plans of offensive action were abandoned.
Barclay de Tolly's plans for pre-emptive action had however left Russian troops poorly organised to resist the invasion. A quick reorganisation was required to move troops away from East Prussia and Poland and secure the most likely points of invasion along the western border, which as well as being vast also lacked any real natural defences. On 11 May, Petr Mikhailovich Volkonsky, adjutant to Alexander I, noted that the distance between the HQs of Barclay's corps (in Schawel, an important town on the Prussian-Russian border, now Šiauliai in Lithuania) and Prince Pyotr Bagration (in Lutsk, today in Ukraine) was over eight hundred kilometres.
On 28 May, Russia, eager to free up troops for the impending invasion, signed a peace treaty – the Treaty of Bucharest – with the Ottoman Empire. The Sultan found himself forced to agree peace, despite having hoped to hold out until invasion when Russian forces would be diverted elsewhere. Although Alexander was required to return Moldavia and Wallachia to the Turks, he secured in compensation territory in Besarabia and access to the Mediterranean. The Army of the Danube was also freed up to return to Russia. According to Lieven, although the troops could not have made it back in time to fight off Napoleon's initial invasion, the presence of these troops in and around Belorussia greatly hampered Napoleon's communications and retreat.
By 6 June, Pyotr Bagration had moved the reorganised Second Army up to Pruzhany in a bid to bring the first and second armies closer together in order to hold a more defensible line. On 18 June, he was ordered to move further northwards, to guard against Napoleon's push through north-east Prussia towards Vilna. Yet the ultra-defensive policy adopted by Alexander in effect left the Russians forced to wait on Napoleon's first move. Uncertainty surrounding the initial developments of the war meant that few concrete measures had been taken early on. In military terms, there was a general understanding in the Russian officer corps (at least amongst those experienced in warfare) that war was generally too unpredictable to be planned to any great detail. The magnitude of the Russian empire also meant that once Napoleon had made the initial move through the Duchy of Warsaw and crossed the Dvina, he could head off in any number of directions. He could make straight for St Petersburg, or Moscow, head south towards Ukraine and its food and horse reserves, or simply remain in Belarus and consolidate his gains.
On 22 June, as his troops prepared to invade Russian territory, Napoleon issued a proclamation to his army:
“Soldiers! The second Polish war has begun; the first ended at Friedland and Tilsit. At Tilsit, Russia swore an eternal alliance with France and war with Britain. Today she has violated these oaths! She refuses to give any explanation of her strange conduct, except on condition that the eagles of France repass the Rhine, leaving, by such a movement, our allies at her mercy. Russia is dragged along by a fate. Her destinies must be accomplished. Shall she then consider us degenerate? Are we no longer to be looked upon as the soldiers of Austerlitz? She offers us the alternative of dishonour or war. The choice should not be in doubt. Let us then march forward. Let us pass the Niemen. Let us carry the war into her territory. The second war of Poland will be as glorious to the French arms as was the first; but the peace which we shall conclude will be its own guaranty and will put an end to the fateful influence which Russia has for fifty years exercised over the affairs of Europe.”
On 24 June, Napoleon at the head of his army crossed the Prussian-Russian border near Kovno (Kaunas, modern-day Lithuania), at the river Niemen. The invading French army comprised three main groups, spread out over 650 kilometres (numbers from Thierry Lentz, Nouvelle Histoire du Premier Empire: L'effondrement du système napoléonien 1810-1814, pp. 259-267). The initial invasion force numbered about 455,000 men. On the other side was a frontline defending Russian army of about 280,000.
For Part II of this timeline, click here.

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