Rivers and the Destruction of Napoleon’s Grand Army

By: Anthony Kuhn

Before the advent of the railway system, rivers were the most important avenue for the transportation of massive amounts of supplies or men.  However, the transportation of supplies and men are not the only part rivers play, as can be illustrated by Napoleon’s Russian Campaign in 1812.  Rivers can prove to be fatal barriers to unprepared armies when it is necessary to cross them.  They can also be incorporated into a general’s plan of battle or even war.  During Napoleon’s campaign against Russia in 1812, rivers contributed to Napoleon’s decision to retreat, the route of his retreat, and ultimately the destruction of his Grand Army and his power in Europe.  While rivers frustrated Napoleon’s plans, their impact on the French soldier was equally devastating, a fact which was witnessed by General Louis-Francois Lejeune.  The French Grand Army was decimated by a lack of food supplies caused by situations that had a significant connection to rivers.  Various river crossings on the retreat from Moscow served as an additional deadly task for the French that helped bring an end to their dominance of Europe in the early nineteenth century.

Rivers can play a vital role in the logistics of a military campaign.  For example, the historian Richard Riehn contends “the Danube…was able to render excellent and timely service during Napoleon’s 1809 campaign” (Riehn 143).  However, the use of rivers could not be used to a similar effect during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812.  As Richard Riehn notes, “In Continental Europe…most rivers run on a north-south axis” (Riehn 143).  Since Napoleon could only invade Russia from the east, he could not count on waterways as a means of transportation for his campaign because no major rivers ran parallel with his invasion route.  Instead, Napoleon developed a wagon train that was not only a severe encumbrance but could only supply his army for a limited amount of time.  General Louis-Francois Lejeune[1] documented the ultimate effect this had on the Grand Army, saying “after a month’s delay at Moscow, during which our army had received few reinforcements and our troops had been worn out hunting for provisions, we left that city and sadly began our retreat towards France” (Lejeune 346).  Lejeune’s statement shows the precarious supply situation the French faced; the Russians had used the scorch earth policy as they fell back, destroying possible supplies for the French and eventually even burning down most of Moscow.  Realizing the French army could not possibly winter in Moscow with their level of supplies, Napoleon ordered a general retreat from Russia on October 18th

Certainly, there were a few major variables that impacted the supply situation of the French army and thus the need to retreat from Moscow during the winter.  Nevertheless, it is without doubt that the lack of rivers to support a French supply line limited Napoleon’s ability to invade and occupy Russia .  If rivers had been available to work in conjunction with the landed supply line, the French may have been able to cope with the Russian policy of burning provisions.  It is not entirely unreasonable considering “the Danube and Lech made it possible to move massive quantities of supplies by water into forward magazines, sufficient to sustain 200,000 men for 2 months” (Riehn 149) during Napoleon’s Austrian campaign in 1809.  Without rivers to serve as a means for the transportation of supplies, Napoleon could not maintain an extended military occupation of Russia after they had destroyed food supplies that could have been foraged by French soldiers.  Indeed, the French supply train finally collapsed as the Grand Army attempted to make its way out of Russia , bringing extraordinary hardship on the individual level.  On November 24th, just over a month into the retreat, Lejeune noted that “Like the rest of [the French army], I suffered very much from hunger, and for several days I had had nothing to eat but a little biscuit” (Lejeune 373).  Thus, the lack of rivers running east to west had an adverse affect on the French army’s logistics, which was in such a poor state that it forced Napoleon to end his Russian campaign without victory and caused immeasurable suffering for the soldiers and officers who made up the Grand Army.

Yet it would be wrong to believe Napoleon did not understand the importance of rivers because he had gained the unconditional support of his men sixteen years earlier because of an offensive maneuver across a bridge over the Adda River in Italy .  At Lodi, Napoleon successfully attacked an Austrian force that was holding a long, narrow bridge that spanned across the Adda River.  While the bulk of his men were sent charging across the bridge to overrun the Austrian position, some of the men slipped off the bridge to provide covering fire while the French cavalry found a ford north of the bridge and came crashing down on the Austrians’ flank.  The French took over 1,700 Austrians as prisoners out of around 10,000 Austrians who took part in the battle.  Ever the opportunist, Napoleon turned this impressive feat into a stunning public relations victory that “came to symbolize the triumph of his genius in the face of apparently impossible odds” (Blanning 145).  Napoleon said of the battle that “It was only on the evening of Lodi that I believed myself as superior man, and that the ambition came to me of executing the great things which so far had been occupying my thoughts only as a fantastic dream” (Blanning 145).  Indeed, the encounter at Lodi shows the difficulty that people viewed river operations for the skirmish to have boosted Napoleon’s reputation to such an astonishing degree.

Though Lodi may have made Napoleon’s name, it would be the daunting task of river operations during the retreat from Russia that ruined his reputation as a “superior man.”   On October 19, Napoleon brought the army south out of Moscow on the Old Smolensk Road on his way to Kaluga[2] .  However, General Kutuzov[3] moved to block Napoleon’s retreat and the two armies clashed at Maloyaroslavets, a little village that had one major bridge across the Lusha River, on October 24-5[4] .  The French captured the village after eighteen hours of fierce fighting and Kutuzov pulled his forces back to a more defensive position.  Capturing the well-provisioned area of Kaluga would have greatly aided the French retreat, considering the alternative way out of Russia was the resource-depleted invasion route.  Despite this fact that was well known to Napoleon and his senior staff, the French withdrew from Maloyaroslavets and headed north to the original invasion route, dooming the Grand Army to starvation and destruction.  The thought of having to cross rivers against enemy fire, a point of pride to Napoleon at Lodi, contributed greatly to the decision to abandon the march to Kaluga.  General Lejeune provided insight to Napoleon’s decision to change his mind when he wrote “Built as [ Kaluga] was beside a river divided into several branches, it could easily be fortified, and afforded an admirably defended position for the Russian army, which had arrived before us.  The Emperor doubted whether we were strong enough to force a passage through it” (Lejeune 353).  Indeed, the Lusha River, positioned between high, steep cliffs around Maloyaroslavets, posed its own problem for Napoleon.  Historian George Nafziger claims “[Napoleon] was unwilling to commit a large force across the [Lusha], where it might be attacked with overwhelming force and pinned against the steep banks of the river, where it would be destroyed” (Nafziger 268).  Thus, rivers not only impacted the initial supply situation of the French, but also contributed to the disastrous decision to retreat along the invasion route.

Napoleon’s refusal to order an advance on Kaluga after Maloyaroslavets is a far cry from the battle at Lodi, where he viewed the river crossing as an opportunity with public relations benefits instead of a major obstacle.  Rivers, then, played a major factor in the rise and decline of Napoleon’s power in Europe.  In fact, nearly the same language is used to describe the circumstances at Lodi and Maloyaroslavets.  Whereas Napoleon saw himself as a “superior man” after Lodi, Lejeune at Maloyaroslavets says “This must have been indeed a cruel night for the great man, who now saw his star beginning to set, his power crumbling away, and who must already have begun to wonder if he could ever re-establish it, or even if he would get back to France” (Lejeune 353).  If Napoleon had gained the confidence of his men at Lodi, Riehn is correct when he says that at Maloyaroslavets “[Napoleon’s] genius had dimmed under the pressure of his first major failure, which was so overwhelming to him that it was impossible to restore confidence of those around him” (Riehn 333).  Such is how rivers can not only figure into the tactical or strategic plans of armies on the battlefield, but can also influence the morale of those serving in the armies and make or break a political leader.  The Grand Army was devastated at the prospect of having to retreat along the invasion route; order broke down, and nearly over half the force that set out from Moscow became stragglers, or those who not only did not keep up with the body of the army, but were not in any shape for combat[5] .  Again, multiple factors surrounded the break down of order in the Grand Army.  Yet loss of confidence in the leadership of Napoleon and a severe shortage of supplies, especially food, were prominent among them.  Both have hitherto been tied to rivers, showing how rivers have contributed, but not necessarily caused, disaster during the retreat from Russia .

While rivers may not have been part of Napoleon’s invasion strategy, the Russians incorporated rivers into their defensive strategy and saw them as great opportunities to strike at the French while the Grand Army was retreating out of Russia .  Lejeune had noted the efforts the Russians went to establishing a secure defensive position at Kaluga on the Oka River and Napoleon recognized the dominance of the Russian position at Maloyaroslavets when he ordered the French to withdraw.  Moreover, the fact the battle for the town and bridge at Maloyaroslavets lasted eighteen hours is an indication of the importance the Russians attached to the location, considering also that the Russians sent four offensives against the town after the initial French takeover.  Another example of Russian strategy incorporating rivers can be seen by the fortifications built at Kiev, where “a strong bridgehead [was] established on the left bank of the Dvina River” (Nafziger 104).  As soon as French forces began withdrawing from Russia , Kutuzov and other Russian generals would press most of their advantages when it came time for the French to cross over rivers. 

River crossings were difficult operations, especially if already bridges were either unavailable or controlled by the enemy.  In either of these cases, it would be necessary to construct pontoons[6] or find a ford, preferably one that was unmarked and thus unknown.  During the winter months, it was also possible a river would freeze over to allow for a crossing, though this could not always be counted on as we shall see later.  On the retreat from Moscow, Napoleon and his commanders would nearly always prefer reaching a bridge that was already in place.  In early November Lejeune wrote that “[The Viceroy[7] ] had counted on finding a bridge over the Wop, but this bridge was broken, so that he had to cross by the ford” (Lejeune 360).  Clearly, bridges were to be preferred over other means of crossing rivers, for they provided less work for the same result.  Yet the French hoped to make the most of their river crossings and would burn any bridges behind them in order to put some distance between them and the increasingly aggressive Russian forces.  Lejeune writes of the “security [he felt] for the rest of the day” shortly after recounting the Viceroy’s adventure along the Wop.  Unfortunately for him and the rest of the Grand Army, the Russians pursued and maneuvered with a relentless intensity that never really made crossing rivers an advantage for the French.

Indeed, river crossings took on the appearance of a desperate escape rather than well-planned strategic maneuvers.  At Krasnoe, Kutuzov believed the French rear guard under Marshal Ney[8] to be trapped at the Dnieper River[9] and sent an officer to negotiate a surrender of the French force (Lejeune 366-7).  Ney used this time to assess the feasibility of crossing the Dnieper since it was frozen, and the rear guard escaped over the ice, at the cost of leaving behind “the artillery, baggage, and even the wounded” (Lejeune 367).  Marshal Ney should be commended for the crossing as it saved the rear guard from being taken prisoner or obliterated, but it is clear Kutuzov had outmaneuvered the French and it was only the chance happening that the Dnieper had frozen over near Krasnoe that allowed them to escape.  This is because at Orcha later that month, the Dnieper had not frozen and the French were compelled to construct two pontoons under heavy bombardment from the Russians.  The wounded were again left behind as the French set fire to the pontoons in order to achieve momentary relief from the Russian pursuit.  It would be a perpetual action during the retreat; the French army abandoning wounded and noncombatants at rivers in order to escape the fierce maneuvers of the Russians.

At the Berezina River[10] , however, Napoleon became so outmaneuvered by the Russians that his army practically fell apart.  According to Lejeune, Tchichakoff[11] did not want to have the Berezina River at his back while facing the oncoming French.  Thus he retired beyond the Berezina River, burning the sole bridge in the process.  Napoleon quickly began searching for a passage across the Berezina, as he not only faced the Russians in front of him, but was also under threat from Wittgenstein[12] at his rear.  Like the Dnieper at Orcha, the Berezina River at Borisov had not frozen to a level where it could be crossed over.  Added to the troubles of the French, Tchichakoff had taken command of the heights on the opposite bank of the river.  Here again a situation involving a river crossing required a thoughtful decision from leadership; here again Napoleon chose to resign himself to a less desirable choice.  He chose to take the French army further north over marshy land to the town of Studzianka, where he was informed there was a useable ford.  Two passable fords to the south of Borisov would have likely permitted for the passage of his entire army with little occasion, but Napoleon had not been himself since Maloyaroslavets.  Lejeune recounts that at Studzianka the pontoon had been constructed, but the river bed was so muddy the supports sank too deep and neither pontoon reached the other bank (Lejeune 378).  Another pontoon was quickly built to aid the coming crossing. 

On November 27th, the pontoons were in place and Napoleon had sent hundreds of skirmishers as well as an additional 500 to 600 cuirassiers[13] in rafts to cover the far banks.  The Grand Army began to make its way over the Berezina River during the night.  Continual artillery fire caused the bridges to break down and demanded the repair of pontoniers and engineers during the process.  At daybreak Wittgenstein caught up to the French at Studzianka.  Crossing over a river is no easy feat, made even more difficult if an enemy holds the opposing bank.  Yet the French not only faced this situation but also had to deal with an enemy force pushing them against the river, a situation Tchichakoff had been careful to avoid.  For the Russians, it was a brilliant maneuver to use the Berezina as an “ally” on the battlefield; for the French, the Berezina was a disastrous barrier in the way of an attempted flight.  Artillery fire from Wittgenstein caused massive damage to the crowds waiting to cross the bridges, which were clogged with carriages and men.  Lejeune relates the horrifying scene when he says “Wittgenstein’s artillery poured shells upon the struggling crowds, beneath whose weight the bridges were bending till they were under water.  Those who could swim flung themselves into the river, trusting to their skill to save them, but they were overcome by the cold, and hardly any reached the further bank” (Lejeune 381).  Lejeune notes that the greater part of Marshal Victor’s[14] corps and the entire Partouneaux division had either been destroyed or surrendered while covering the retreat, and estimates 20,000 men were killed, wounded, drowned, or captured.  Once the remnant of Marshal Victor’s corps retreated over the bridges, General Eblé[15] had the bridges burned despite that thousands of stragglers had not crossed.  In addition to the 20,000 French combatants killed, an estimated 40,000 noncombatants were killed, many who were former soldiers who had long ago threw down their weapons.   Lejeune recounts their demise with “terrible were the cries of anguish which rent the air as thousands of poor wretches flung themselves into the water…The ice broke beneath them; all was over” (Lejeune 382).

All was over for the Grand Army for all practical purposes.  The French did not suffer another major engagement until they reached the haven of Poland , yet by then only 50,000 of the original force of 600,000 remained.  Rivers had played a major part in the demise of the Grand Army.  It could be said the lack of rivers running on an east-west axis doomed an invasion of this magnitude from the start because a supply train of land wagons was not adequate to the task.  Yet it is better to say the lack of rivers limited Napoleon’s operations; he had no intention of fighting a long war and did not foresee the extent to which the Russians would go to deprive the French of resources.  The Lusha River also played a major factor in Napoleon’s decision to retreat along the invasion route, which doomed the Grand Army to immeasurable suffering.  Yet the brilliance of the Russians at Berezina and the complexity of completing a large scale river crossing provided the ultimate defeat for the French and secured the decline of Napoleon and the French Empire.  To conclude, rivers did not destroy the Grand Army, for many factors contributed to its demise, yet they certainly played a major role in all of the problems and turning points of French operations in Russia . 


Blanning, T.C.W.  The French Revolutionary Wars 1787-1802.  London: Arnold, 1996.

Lejeune, Louis-Francois. “The Retreat From Moscow, 1812-3.”  The Mammoth Book of

Soldiers at War.  Ed. Jon E. Lewis.  New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers Inc., 2001.

Nafziger, George.  Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia.  Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1988.

Riehn, Richard.  1812: Napoleon’s Russian Campaign.  New York: McGraw-Hill Publishing Company, 1990.


[1] General Baron Louis-Francois Lejeune, chief-of-staff to Marshal Louis Davout of I Corps, recorded his memoirs   of the invasion of Russia (Soldiers at War).

[2] Kaluga is a Russian city located roughly 117 miles southwest of Moscow.  Ancient roadway connected the city with Moscow (Britannica Online Academic Edition and Wikipedia).

[3] Field Marshal Mikhail Golenischev-Kutuzov, appointed commander of the Russian armies in the West in late summer 1812.  He died of exhaustion after the campaign (Soldiers at War).

[4] The Battle of Maloyaroslavets, while a French tactical victory, forced Napoleon to change his route of retreat which proved disastrous (http://www.napoleonguide.com/battle_maloyalo.htm).

[5] Riehn puts the number of stragglers at around 36,000 by the time the French reached the Berezina River.  Comparatively, he numbered the men under arms at 31,000.

[6] Temporarily floating bridges. Usually, an army would have units dedicated to their construction, called pontoniers.

[7] Eugene de Beauharnias, Napoleon’s stepson (Britannica Online).

[8] Michel Ney was one of Napoleon’s best known marshals.  Napoleon placed him in command of the rear guard on the retreat from Moscow (www.napoleonicguide.com).

[9] The Dnieper River is one of the longest rivers in Europe, rising west of Moscow and flowing south through Belarus and Ukraine before emptying into the Black Sea (Britannica Online).

[10] The Berezina (Beresina) is a river in Belarus (the area of Minsk) that is a tributary to the Dnieper (Britannica)

[11] Admiral Tchichakoff was an Admiral by honorific title only; he was a Russian land commander throughout his career.  At the Berezina River, Lejeune estimates he had 40,000 under his command (Soldier at War).

[12] Ludwig Wittgenstein was a Russian General who nearly succeeded in cutting the French off at Berezina (www.napoleonicguide.com).

[13] A cuirassier was a cavalry soldier who wore a cuirass or defensive armor of the torso consisting of both breast and black plate (Britannica).

[14] Claude Victor was a French Marshal who is celebrated for his work at Berezina, where he kept the last line of escape open (www.napoleonicguide.com).

[15] Jean Baptiste Elbé was a French General who formed a force of pontoniers for the Battle of Berezina and then was left in charge of burning the bridges (www.napoleonicguide.com)


Placed on the Napoleon Series: February 2008