This week is the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, when Napoleon led his Grand Armee into Russia.
Frustrated in his war with Britain, economic disaster, and failure of the Continental Blockade, Napoleon decided that he needed another great victory to bring Europe under his heel. Picking a fight with Russia, he got what he wanted, and his troops poured across the Neman River.
The Grand Armee was composed of 685,000 from almost every part of the First Empire and her satellites and allies. It was the largest army the modern world had ever seen, and all Europe was certain of a crushing Russian defeat. But the Russians burned their crops and towns, falling back the entire time, sucking the invaders deeper and deeper into Russia. The Grand Armee grew smaller and smaller as it was forced to leave garrisons and guard supply columns. Men and horses starved while Russian partisans picked them off one by one. Russian mud and rain slowed them down.
Finally, Marshal Kutusov was forced to fight the French at Borodino on September 7. A hard fought day, 74,000 casualties total for both sides, and the Russian army retired in good order. The French entered a Moscow stripped of supplies. A month later, the French were in full retreat. Mother Russia and Father Snow now killed even more of the invaders, and the Russians Cossacks destroyed whole columns of troops.
As he had done in Egypt, Napoleon abandoned his men to their fate and returned to Paris. The Grand Armee that entered Poland was only a tiny fraction of the one from months before.
Once again, the Russians did what no one in Europe thought they would do; they continued to pursue the French in a bid to destroy the First Empire. What followed was the War of Liberation, as much of Germany revolted against the French.
Napoleon responded with a new army, composed of the “Marie Louises”, young French conscripts barely out of school, nicknamed after their young empress. Napoleon fought great campaigns, and won many victories, but it was never enough to stem the tide, and in April 1814 he was defeated.
General Montgomery once said the the first rule of warfare was to never march on Moscow. As they would do so often, the Russian people, with their courage and willingness to sacrifice everything for their homeland, won a great victory.