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Why did Napoleon Fail in Russia in 1812?

By Robert Burnham

Napoleon failed to conquer Russia in 1812 for several reasons: faulty logistics, poor discipline, disease, and not the least, the weather. Napoleon's method of warfare was based on rapid concentration of his forces at a key place to destroy his enemy. This boiled down to moving his men as fast as possible to the place they were needed the most. To do this Napoleon would advance his army along several avenues and converging them only when necessary. The slowest part of any army at the time was the supply trains. While a soldier could march 15 - 20 miles a day, a supply wagon was generally limited to about 10 - 12 miles a day. To avoid being slowed down by the trains, Napoleon insisted that his troops live as much as possible off the land. The success of Napoleon time after time in Central Europe against the Prussians and the Austrians proved that his method of warfare worked. However for it to work, the terrain must co-operate. There must be a good road network for his army to advance along several axes and an agricultural base capable of supporting the foraging soldiers.

In 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia with about 600,000 men and over 50,000 horses. His plan was to bring the war to a conclusion within twenty days by forcing the Russians to fight a major battle. Just in case his plans were off, he had his supply wagons carry 30 days of food. Reality was a bit different. Napoleon found, as the Germans found in 1941, that Russia had a very poor road network. Thus he was forced to advance along a very narrow front. Even though he allowed for a larger supply train than usual, food was to be supplemented by whatever the soldiers could forage along the way. But this was a faulty plan. In addition to poor roads, the agricultural base was extremely poor and could not support the numbers of soldiers that would be living off the land. Since these 600,000 men were basically using the same roads, the first troops to pass by got the best food that could easily be foraged. The second troops to go by got less, etc. If you were at the rear, of course there would be little available. The Russians made the problem worse by adopting a scorched earth policy of destroying everything possible as they retreated before the French. As time went by, soldiers began to straggle, due to having to forage further away from the roads for food and weakness from lack of food.

The situation was just as bad for the horses. Grazing along the road or in a meadow was not adequate to maintain a healthy horse. Their food had to be supplemented with fodder.

The further the army went into Russia, the less fodder was available. Even the grass began to be thinned out, for like food the first horses had the best grazing, and those bringing up the rear had it the worse. By the end of the first month, over 10,000 horses had died!

Soldiers weakened by poor diets and fatigue are susceptible to disease. Typhus was rampant among the troops due to infestations of lice. Additionally, the poor food, combined with bad water, and camping on sites where tens of thousands bivouacked before (and thus contaminated the water and area with feces) made intestinal ailments such as diarrhea and dysentery common. By the time Napoleon had reached Moscow, three months later, over 200,000 of his soldiers were dead or hospitalized due to disease and exhaustion.

Poor discipline was another major problem. Troops had to forage to survive. The deeper they went into Russia the further they had to go each day to find food. Commanders lost control of their troops as many soldiers' only concern became finding food and just disappeared. These soldiers did not necessarily die, but form a uncontrollable mass bringing up the rear. As months went by, units cease to exist, except in name only. This became especially true during the retreat in the late Fall. Much of the army was soon a mob, with little cohesion and no effectiveness. This in itself would not be too great of a detriment, except for the impact on those units that were still intact. There were several cases during the retreat where mobs of soldiers broke into the few warehouses that contained supplies and destroyed more than they ate — and leaving little or nothing for those fighting in the rear guard. The worse case of this was in Smolensk. At a major warehouse bureaucrats insisted that the soldiers must be with their units before they would be issued food. The troops couldn't handle this stupidity and rioted, demolishing the warehouse and much of the food that was stored there. In another case, at the crossing of the Berezina, thousands of soldiers in these mobs panicked when they were attacked by the Russians. In their desperate attempt to cross the bridge it broke, and at least 10,000 - 20,000 soldiers died or were captured.

The final factor was the weather. First it was too hot — making it a dry, dusty march to Moscow. Then when the Retreat began, it was too cold at first. This was a bone-chilling well below zero cold that few had experienced before. First to die were the weak who, too exhausted to walk, laid down and died. As the little food supplies they had ran out, the strong got weaker and they too began to die. But then the weather changed. There was a warm spell which thawed the frozen roads — slowing down the march even more. Roads that were heavily rutted, but solid soon were quagmires of mud. Streams that were once frozen were quick moving and obstacles that had to be overcome. Rivers that could have been crossed without bridges now needed bridges. All of which took precious time and energy, something the army did not have. Then once again the weather took a turn for the worse — this time far colder than before. Thousands died in their sleep overcome by exhaustion and exposure. By the time the army crossed into Poland in early December, less than 100,000 exhausted, tattered soldiers remained of the 600,000 proud soldiers who crossed the Nieman five months before.

For more information about this topic, read:

Clausewitz, Carl von. The Campaign of 1812 in Russia. Greenhill, London; 1992.

Haythornthwaite, Philip. Uniforms of the Retreat from Moscow: 1812. Hippocrene Books, New York; 1976.

Nafziger, George. Napoleon's Invasion of Russia. Presidio Prees, Novato; 1988.

Tarle, Eugene. Napoleon's Invasion of Russia: 1812 Oxford University Press, New York; 1942.