How Napoleons Invasion of Russia Led To His Downfall



How Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia Led To His Downfall







Grayson Goldman
European History Term Paper
April 25, 2000






Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Russia was a major factor in his downfall. In 1812, Napoleon, whose alliance with Alexander I had disintegrated, launched an invasion into Russia that ended in a disastrous retreat from Moscow. Thereafter, all of Europe, including his own allies, Austria and Prussia, united against him. Although he continued to fight, the odds he faced were impossible. In April 1814, Napoleon’s own marshals refused to continue the struggle and stepped down from their positions. During the actual Russian campaign, there were many key factors that greatly impacted his downfall. The largest army ever assembled for one single invasion was reduced to a mere fraction of its original size. Because of the rebellions from his allies, Austria and Prussia, Napoleon had to fight a war on both the western and the eastern front. The losses he suffered in Russia greatly affected his future campaigns.
Throughout his reign, Napoleon was able to overcome many obstacles that others before him could have only dreamed. One was the idea of having a United Europe under France. With his Grand Armée, Napoleon had already conquered, and was controlling an enormous amount of Europe, such as Switzerland, the Confederation of the Rhine, Austria, and the Grand Duchy of Warsaw (Broers, 47). These countries, or provinces, made up the bulk of central Europe. Napoleon had recently ended a war with Spain, and now had signed a peace treaty with them. In 1805, France, under Napoleon, and Russia, under Alexander I, signed the Treaty of Tilsit. The treaty was one of peace under certain conditions. Russia was prohibited to trade with England, and they were also obligated to turn over some of their land to France (Elting, 63). The territory that France gained control over was the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. The treaty was extremely harsh on Russia. The prohibition of trade with England greatly affected the economy of Russia. The Continental System, which Napoleon instituted, prohibited trade with England. Alexander I violated the Treaty of Tilsit by renewing trade with England. Napoleon invaded Russia in an attempt to force Czar Alexander I to abide by the Treaty of Tilsit (Web, Russian Embassy).
The summer of 1812 was an ideal time for Napoleon to begin an invasion. Russia’s economy was weak due to the trade embargo and other internal problems. The infrastructure of Russia was at a technological disadvantage, which would later be more of a burden to Napoleon than an advantage. The artillery and small arms were years behind that of France. The Russian army was a conscription army, meaning that local farmers had to furnish a certain number of surfs for military service, as opposed to a professional, trained army where the government supplies the soldiers with all of their needs. An amazing half-million soldiers had enlisted in Napoleon’s Grand Armée (Saglamer, Beginning of the March). This was the largest army gathered for one single invasion. Russia’s army was out numbered 3:1 with only one hundred-seventy thousand soldiers. Not only was the Russian army not well trained, they were also ill equipped. Napoleon recognized that it would be difficult and extremely slow for Russia to mobilize her army due to her enormous size and weak infrastructure. If Napoleon invaded now, he knew that he could be well into the Russian territory before meeting any major opposition.
On June 24, 1812, Napoleon began his fatal Russian campaign. The Grand Armée, led by Napoleon, crossed the Nieman River, into Russia. On the journey to Moscow, Napoleon met virtually no major opposition. The first stop in the campaign was Kovono. Early into the campaign, the Grand Armée was affected by a colic epidemic that claimed the life of nine thousand horses and thousands of soldiers (Web, Russian Embassy). This slowed the pace of the army. Harsh weather conditions caused the dry roads to turn to mud, making it extremely difficult to maneuver the large artillery cannons and wagons. The city was easily captured; the Russians had previously retreated.
After a day’s rest, Napoleon and his troops continued to the city of Vilna. The march from the River Niemen was tougher than expected. Once again, hot