Napoleon’s Russian Campaign: The Retreat

Period : Directory / 1st Empire
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Entering Moscow

On the 15th September, a week after the bloody battle of Borodino, Napoleon entered Moscow. He had expected to enter with glory, met by a delegation of the city's highest officials assembled in recognition of his victory and ready to negotiate peace. But there was no delegation; in fact, there was hardly anyone left there at all. Of Moscow's 200,000 inhabitants from before the war, only 2% remained, predominantly wounded soldiers and some remaining to plunder the homes of those who had fled.
Even less could Napoleon have predicted how soon he would also be leaving the city; since it was also on the day he arrived that the first fires were lit, doubtless under the supervision of Moscow's governor Rostopchin (although at the time it was circulated in Russia, to incite more patriotic feeling against the enemy, that the fault lay with the French). Initially, Napoleon installed himself in the Kremlin, but the spreading blaze forced him to leave for the outskirts of the city only the next day. Thus on the 16th September he moved into the Petroff palace to the north-west of Moscow on the St Petersburg road with his troops camped nearby. Moscow burned for six days.

Waiting for Peace

On the 18th September, Major General Ivan Tutolmin was received at the Petroff Palace. The subsequent letter he wrote to the Tsar's mother Maria Feodorovna, on Napoleon's request, regarding the opening of peace talks received no reply. A similar attempt by Napoleon to open dialogue around peace came on the 22nd September, soon after the end of the fires, when Ivan Alekseevich Yakovlev, former captain of the guard, wrote to the Tsar on Napoleon's behalf, but again to no avail.
Meanwhile, in the terrible weather and mud which hampered the troops from 18th-23rd September, Napoleon turned his attention to Russian manoeuvres, hoping to crush any resistance. Cossack bands, however, continued to thwart French attempts at control led by Murat. By the 26th September, Napoleon had discovered that Kutuzov's main forces were on the main Kaluga road. Over the end of September and the beginning of October, the Russian Army slowly retreated to Tarutino, where it took up a defensive position on 3rd October after clashes with Murat's troops.

During this period, Napoleon was also thinking about the pursuance of the campaign. Several options were open: retreat to Smolensk in order to winter in safety before continuing the campaign the following year; a drive on St Petersburg in order to take Russia's second capital, and finally force Alexander into submission; or to engage Alexander in peace negotiations.

Napoleon's preference for the final option led to his sending Lauriston to Kutuzov's headquarters to discuss possibilities for peace. Caulaincourt had refused the Emperor's plan to approach the Tsar on the grounds that it would be in vain. On the 4th October, Napoleon wrote to Kutuzov (CG, 31792):

‘Prince Kutuzov, I send one of my aides de camp to you in order to discuss several important matters. I hope that Your Highness will believe what he is to say to you, above all when he expresses the high esteem and particular respect I have for a long time held for your person. Moscow, 3rd October 1812. Signed: Napoleon.'
On the 5th October, Kutuzov received the letter. On reading it he agreed to a secret meeting with Lauriston, and suggested to the French that he would take their peace proposals to the Tsar. Alexander had already stated that he had no intention of any negotiation with Napoleon as long as there was a single French soldier left in Russia, and was furious when Kutuzov informed him of this meeting; in meeting with Lauriston, Kutuzov had acted in direct contravention to an imperial order. But Kutuzov was in fact playing for time and had no intention of negotiating peace, indeed he guessed that Napoleon's keenness on negotiation was in the end a sign of weakness. Keeping French hopes for peace alive allowed him precious time to organise Russian forces for the next stage of the campaign while the Grande Armée remained in the ashes of Moscow.
It gradually dawned on Napoleon that peace talks would not be forthcoming; and with the Russian winter approaching he was left with the dilemma of what to do next. The circle surrounding him spoke of Napoleon's initial determination to stay in Moscow for the winter months, not because of its military value, but because of the political blow that would be dealt him should he leave; this would look like an admission of defeat, and could harm his standing in Europe. But arrangements did also begin to be made for a retreat, although too little too late. The horses did not have horseshoes which would allow them to cross the ice safely, and the men were not appropriately equipped for the bitter cold to come. 

But finally, on the 14th October, Napoleon decided to leave Moscow. He directed Berthier to organise the evacuation of a convoy of 1,500 injured soldiers to Smolensk, accompanied by 200-300 men. The convoy departed Moscow on the 16th October a few days before the army.

The Battle of Tarutino

On the 18th October, the Battle of Tarutino (also known as Vinkovo) took place. The Russian army had arrived at Tarutino on 2-3 October, and began to make entrenchments to defend it immediately. Murat pursued (and indeed harried) the Russian rearguard as far as the outskirts of Tarutino, but was unable to capitalise on his superiority. Setting up outposts in and around the village of Vinkovo, Murat paused for breath. The following two weeks gave the much depleted and exhausted Russian Army a crucial period in which to recuperate, encamped as they were in a strong position, well-fed and receiving reinforcements. Murat and the Grande Armée, however, were camped nearby in far less advantageous position, and without the same access to food or resources. Kutuzov, aware of the increasingly superior position of his own troops, organised an ambush by Russian troops of Murat's advance guard. Although losses were fairly even, Murat was forced to abandon his position so as to avoid being surrounded.

Leaving Moscow

On the 19th October, the French evacuated Moscow and its surrounding area. As the Grande Armée was leaving the city, Mortier, governor of Moscow, set up explosives around the Kremlin to carry out Napoleon's (strategically irrelevant) orders to destroy it. Whilst light rain and some intervention by Muscovites prevented all the fuses from firing, nevertheless, large parts of it were destroyed, and a stretch of the surrounding wall collapsed completely. The last regiments of the Grande Armée left the city at around 1am on the 23rd, about half an hour after the fuses were lit in the Kremlin. When Russian troops re-entered the city, they found scenes of terrible destruction, as many dead lay unburied in the streets and those buildings which were not burnt had sustained significant damage or were blackened with smoke; inside, everywhere was plundered and many churches had been defiled. The Moscow rabble also played a role in this. Heading the evacuation of Moscow, Napoleon settled first in the ‘chateau' in Troitsk, then in Ignatovo on 21st October. After two nights spent in Fominskoye, Napoleon then reached Borovsk.

On the 24th October came clashes at Maloyaroslavets, a small town to the southwest of Moscow. The allies under the Viceroy of Italy, Eugène de Beauharnais, were outnumbered by the Russian side under Kutuzov, 24,000 Italians against 32,000 Russians. Troops led by Davout arrived late in the day to ensure that Eugène's exhausted men could hold their position in the town. Each side lost about 7,000 men, and although the French side managed to hold on to their position, the Russians fell back just south of Maloyaroslavets, importantly blocking the Kaluga road.


The French retreat began on the following day, and on the 26th October, Napoleon informed Berthier of his intention to go on the route to Viazma (fatefully, the same road by which the Grande Armée had entered Russia); fighting ensued on the way there later that day. On the 28th October, Napoleon reached Vereya, while Davout and Prince Poniatowski both brought their men to join up at Mozhaysk. Two days later, Napoleon was in the town of Gzhatsk (renamed ‘Gargarin' in 1968), situated 230km from Smolensk. From there he led a part of the Grande Armée to Viazma, where he was eventually to be joined by the remainder of his forces. On the 31st October, the corps led by Davout was at Gzhatsk to protect the rear guard of the Grande Armée; after leaving the city the corps was attacked by Cossacks. The following day, on the 1st November, Napoleon reached Viazma. On the Russian side, Miloradovitch leading Kutuzov's advance guard was approaching. He was far from the rest of the army however, since they had marched further south.

By the 3rd November, Napoleon passed the village of Semelevo, a few kilometres north-east of Smolensk, then arrived at Slavkovo, where he stayed until the next day. Meanwhile, Eugène de Beauharnais's troops assisted Davout at Viazma, where there are signs of the growing weakness of the Grande Armée as they began to struggle against repeated Russian attacks. This same day also saw the winter's first significant snowfall. This marked a dramatic change to the earlier milder weather, which some have argued lulled the Emperor into a false sense of security. The winter of 1812 became an unusually cold and bitter one. On the 5th November, Napoleon reached Dorogobuzh.

News from Paris…

On the 6th November, in Mikhaïlovka, Napoleon received news of General Malet's coup d'état. A fortnight earlier, on the 23rd October, a radical army general with a history of opposition to the Napoleonic regime, Claude-François Malet, had attempted to bluff his way into power by announcing that the Emperor had been killed in Russia. His plot was foiled in less than twenty-four hours and Malet and his main accomplices were executed less than a week later, on the 29th October, following trial by a military commission. The news of the failed coup d'état unsettled Napoleon and exposed the shallow roots of the First Empire. Thus this event was perhaps an important factor in his decision to return to Paris not long afterwards.

Smolensk and Beyond

On the 9th November, Napoleon arrived at Smolensk, where he remained for several days. There he learned of the setbacks affecting General Augereau and Eugène de Beauharnais, and reorganised the Grande Armée accordingly for retreat.

On the 12th November, the advance guard of Napoleon's Grande Armée left Smolensk with the intention crossing the river Dnieper for Orsha.

The French troops left behind, as the main body rushed to Moscow, had been involved in a stand off around the town of Polotsk. The assault sometimes called the Second Battle of Polotsk had taken place on the 18th October (the first having taken place in early August), in which Russian forces, under Wittgenstein, outnumbered Napoleon's troops, under Oudinot and Gouvion Saint-Cyr, by almost five to one. 

On the 13th – 14th November, Victor attempted an attack on Wittgenstein's men near Smoliany, further east on the Ulla, trying to move the Russians away from the Grande Armée's line of retreat. Despite his efforts, however, Victor did not manage to dislodge the Russian forces from their position.

On the 14th November, Napoleon left Smolensk, and over the following days there were a series of engagements at Krasnoye. The state of the Grande Armée was rapidly declining, while Wittgenstein's men, holding their position at Ulla during the first three weeks of November, had been sent supplies from the Governor of Pskov, and therefore were far better fed than the French troops, and also far warmer due to supplies of fur coats sent to them in September.

Napoleon arrived at Orsha on the 20th November. Realising that the army was disintegrating and that his baggage train could soon be captured, he ordered the destruction of his official papers.


On the 22nd November, Admiral Pavel Vasilievich Chichagov, in command of newly created Russian Third Western Army, moved his headquarters across the river Berezina and into the town of Borisov on his arrival there. However, some of his men were overwhelmed by Napoleon's advance guard, so he and his staff were forced to decamp back over the river, left to puzzle over Napoleon's next move.

On the 25th November, the Grande Armée arrived at Borisov, on the edge of the Berezina river. Chichagov's task of defending the bank was made very difficult as he was unsure as to where Napoleon would cross and which route the retreat would take. The movement of Russian troops from south to north to protect Borisov shows Chichagov's assumption (shared by Ermolov and Wittgenstein) that Napoleon would continue his retreat along the Minsk road. Instead, when the French emperor went along the Zembin road towards Vilna (modern Vilnius), Russian troops arrived too late to regain control of the route, despite fierce fighting from 26th – 28th November. On the 27th November, 50,000 men led by Ney, Oudinot and Victor crossed the Berezina near the small village of Studienka; the small Russian force there to meet them had no chance of preventing their crossing. In many ways, the crossing of the Berezina was disastrous for Napoleon, with the loss of between 25,000 and 40,000 men and most of their baggage. However, it was one of his most brilliant victories, since the crossing actually took place, and the Grande Armée were even able to take some advantages in their position, despite huge losses in both men and supplies.

The Incredible Ride

On the 5th December, Napoleon left the army at Smorgon to return to Paris. Unsettled by Malet's attempted coup, he confided to Caulaincourt that ‘in the current state of affairs, I can command in Europe only from the Tuileries palace.' The journey was swift; Napoleon was accompanied by Caulaincourt in a series of vehicles (changed according to the terrain, at first on runners then on wheels) and a small entourage travelling separately, including thirty (soon to become fifteen) Chasseurs de la Garde. The party traversed some 2,500 km, over thirteen days and thirteen nights of almost uninterrupted travel.

The party departed around 9pm, reaching Ashmiany at about midnight. Ignoring his entourage, Napoleon pressed on to Miedniki (not far from Vilna), arriving there at dawn and thereby avoiding capture at Ashmiany. After two hours of conversation with Maret, talking politics and the state of affairs at Vilna.

The Emperor had hoped that the remnants of the Grande Armée would be able to recuperate and regroup at Vilna, only one day's march to the West. However, with his departure morale dropped significantly, and in Vilna the soldiers fared little better. There is evidence that thousands of men had died of typhus, and the hospital in Vilna was overflowing with the dead and dying. General Robert Wilson visited a monastery that was being used as a makeshift hospital by the French, and there reported that ‘The hospital at St. Bazile presented the most awful and hideous sight: seven thousand five hundred bodies were piled like pigs of lead over one another in the corridors… and all the broken windows and walls were stuffed with feet , legs, arms , hands , trunks and heads to fit the apertures, and keep out the air from the yet living.'

Upon seeing the conditions at Vilna, several days after the Emperor's departure, Murat (who had been left in charge of the Grande Armée) decided to abandon Napoleon's plan and evacuate the town. On the 12th December, Kutuzov made his triumphant entrance into Vilna. And the day after, what was left of the Grande Armée limped back across the Niemen.

At 10am on Sunday 6th December, Napoleon changed horses in the outskirts of Vilna and then headed for Kovno (modern Kaunas). After receiving military reinforcements during the night at Rumšiškes, he arrived at Kovno at 5am on Monday 7th December.  The temperature had dropped to -30°. Having crossed the frozen Niemen, and so leaving Russian territory, the cortège headed for Marijampole, where the passengers were forced to step out to push the wheels. On the 8th December, the party reached Goldapp, then to Augustowo the following day, and finally Pultusk on the 10th December, heading for Warsaw. It was on this part of the journey, cramped in what Caulaincourt called a ‘cage', that the Emperor and the diplomat had their famous conversations, later published by Caulaincourt as ‘En traîneau avec l'Empereur'. Every day between 8 and 9 Napoleon and Caulaincourt took coffee at a post-house, and between 5 and 9 every evening they would dine. On entering Warsaw, he went on foot to the Hôtel d'Angleterre, with no fear of recognition given his somewhat altered appearance, and received certain Polish ministers and the French ambassador l'abbé de Pradt. Napoleon was back in his carriage at 7pm heading for Lowicz and Kutno, reaching Posen (modern Poznan) in the early morning of 12th December. Leaving Posen at lunchtime, he reached Glogow that evening. He reached Bunzlau (modern Boleslawiec) on the morning of the 13th December, passing through Bautzen the following day, finally reaching Dresden at midnight. In a comic scene, Napoleon's carriage searched desperately for the French minister's residence in the dark city for several hours.

After receiving the Saxon king briefly very early in the morning, Napoleon set off again at 8 in the morning, in a carriage with runners lent by the King, reaching Leipzig, having a brief meeting and then setting off for Lützen, which they reached on the 15th December. After another change of carriage brought about by broken runners, Napoleon held a brief meeting in Erfurt before heading (now on wheels) towards Hanau, arriving at noon on the 16th December. He reached Frankfurt at 3pm. After crossing the Rhine on a boat, Napoleon set off again at 7pm, finally in French territory. From Mainz thereon the carriage stopped only for dispatches and to grease the wheels. On the 17th December, Napoleon lunched at Saint-Avold and dined at Verdun. That same day, the Moniteur of the 29th bulletin of the Grande Armée revealed the full details of the Russian catastrophe to the French public. On the 18th December, Napoleon halted at La Ferté-sous-Jouarre for a broken axle, and changed to a post cabriolet. He dined that evening at Chateau-Thierry, just to the north of Paris. At Meaux, the postmaster handed over his chaise, but since Napoleon no longer had any money Caulaincourt was forced to ask for credit. This unmarked post-chaise passed through the gates of the Tuileries Palace at midnight, with no announcement, to reassert his power in Europe in the face of this most crushing defeat.

ES, January 2015

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