18th October 1812 was the day on which Napoleon Bonaparte began his retreat from Moscow, realising for the first time that his dream of dominating the whole of Europe was not going to come true. There were two great turning points in the fortunes of Napoleon’s Empire – the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 had shown that France would no longer rule the roost at sea; the Retreat from Moscow made it clear that the same now applied on land.
Napoleon had marched his army 500 miles into Russian territory from the relative safety of Vilnius (in Lithuania). It had taken twelve weeks across territory laid waste by the Russian peasants who had destroyed anything of use to the French before they abandoned their farms and moved elsewhere.
When the French eventually reached Moscow they found that the same policy had been adopted. This had been a thriving city with a population of 250,000 but now only 15,000 remained. The Russians had set fire to much of the city before leaving, and Napoleon was now the conqueror of piles of smoking ruins that contained very little food or anything else of value.
Napoleon sought to do a deal for a truce with the Russian Tsar, Alexander I, but the latter would not even reply to Napoleon’s letter. After 35 days in Moscow, Napoleon had no choice but to order a retreat. The whole Russian campaign had been a complete waste of time, resources and lives.
The Retreat was worse than the advance because Napoleon’s demoralised army now had to march through the devastated Russian territories in the depths of winter. They also came under attack from marauding Cossacks and gangs of guerrillas who were properly equipped for the conditions, which the French were not. Every fresh raid was another defeat.
The men and horses that died, whether from cold, starvation or enemy action, were left where they fell, their bodies becoming food for wolves.
90,000 men began the Retreat from Moscow but only 20,000 returned to Vilnius. Napoleon could only comment that it was but a short step from the sublime to the ridiculous. He had been defeated not so much by the Russians as by Russia.
© John Welford