FRANCE: Napoleon's Russian campaign

From France, Christopher Jones writes:I don't think Cameron is "doing well", as Ronald Hilton suggests,  if you turn the decisive battle of the French 1812 campaign into a defeat when it allowed Napoleon's troops to occupy Moscow. RH: Cameron is doing fine.  It is hard to understand the French refusal to recognize the basic fact that Napoleon lost his wars after having caused untold misery. The Napoleonic legend in France is an odd phenomenon. It brought Napoleon III to the throne, and I thought it had died with his disgrace.  But no; it is still there.  I suppose it makes the French feel good.

Christopher Jones disagrees with Cameron Sawyer: The Russian is a poor soldier for the reasons put forward by Chandler that I sent through: ill fed, badly uniformed, press ganged and not paid. The lesson has still not been learned today: the Russian army is a shambles, its soldiers have no motivation because they are press ganged to serve in an army as semi slaves, with no proper food and badly clothed.  You cannot make supermen out of a Sauhaufen, as Cameron tries to do.  No Cameron, there is virtually no argument: Borodino was a French victory.  Statistically it breaks down like this NUMBERS: (The Campaigns of Napoleon, by David Chandler,[Historian at Sandhurst -- très anglo-saxon!] page 1119) Borodino: French losses 30,000 or 22.5% of total forces engaged Russian casualties 44,000 or 36.5% of total forces engaged.  In this respect it is comparable to the Battle of Arcola  but was certainly a greater victory than Eylau where the French were indeed almost defeated by the Russians on Feb 8, 1807.  (They later crushed them at Friedland) However, Ronald Hilton is wrong to call Wagram a "nominal" victory:  there, French forces suffered 19% casualties while the Austrians sufered 27% casualties.  No "nominal" victory there either.  What is interesting for Cameron and Adriana is the following statistics from the battle at Bautzen and Dresden, both which took place in 1813 after the Russian disaster:  Despite he loss of the Russian campaign Napoleon defeated the Allies at Dresden with a statistical 8% loss to the Allies casualties of 22%; at Bautzen, the French losses were 10% while Allied losses were 21%.  Cameron Sawyer ignores serious analysis in favor of blanket, insulting statements like: "France hasn't won a war in the last two centuries."  This is a direct echo of the Bush administration's pique and implies that French dead of WWI and WWII were cowardly losers while branding the Germans were the same losers and cowards. [I guess we are all losers in war]  In other words, in his world, there is only two supermen, the American and the Russian! Regarding WWII,   Stalin simply constructed a human"steam roller" and was completely oblivious to casualties in order to destroy as many lives as he could.  These horrific Russian losses gave them the crucial breakthrough of the front. No soldier would ever call such callous treatment of their troops, good soldiering.  By the way, he asked for Russian defeats, let's start with the two in most recent memory: the Soviet incursion in Afghanistan and the defeat of an entire Russian army in Chechnya by irregular bandits.  Note: the Chechens held off the Tsar's troops for 60 years or so in the XIXth century.  Do you really want me to list those defeats?

RH: This discussion as to who won the Battle of Borodino seems to me to be a futile search for la gloire. The History Channel has run an excellent British documentary in which academics discuss Napoleon, with quite a long section devoted to Borodino. Napoleon comes across as a man having the same delusions of grandeur as Hitler.  He regarded himself as a military genius and disregarded advice about the dangers of the Russian campaign.  He could win where Charles XII of Sweden had failed.  The historians said that the Battle of Borodino, classified as a French victory because the Russians retreated, was really a draw because the Russians deliberately withdrew in order to counterattack.  The French generals, especially Ney, were sharply critical of Napoleon even before the Battle of Borodino.  As Cameron said, it marked the beginning of the downfall of  Napoleon. The film "The Downfall" showed how Hitler's megalomania had degenerated into madness. Napoleon's megalomania took a different turn. He lived on in an imaginary world. In the memoirs he dictated on St. Helena, he distorted events to cover himself with glory, and depicted himself as the glorious victor at Borodino. There must be a study about the way Napoleon's memoires contributed to the formation of the "Napoleonic legend".  Napoleon, Hitler.  In this nuclear age we must prevent such madmen from attaining power.  As for the Battle of Wagram, it can be assessed as comparable to Borodino.

Cameron Sawyer says_Gracious, I did not mean to get Christopher Jones so upset. I am also worried that we have more or less completed that phase of the debate when interesting new ideas were being discussed, and are entering the phase where we simply repeat the same arguments to each other.  Therefore, to spare the attention span of WAISers, this will probably be my last contribution on this theme (don't any of our real generals want to say anything?!).

So concerning Borodino, then, by all means, since it is so important to Christopher, let us suppose that Borodino was a French victory.

But in what sense?  In any relevant sense?  Let's suppose all of the military textbooks in the world called Borodino a French victory (not the case, by the way).  What was Napoleon's objective?  What was Kutuzov's?  Which of these were achieved?  Napoleon, operating far from his lines of supply with a huge crowd to feed, needed a decisive knockout over Kutuzov's army to survive.  Kutuzov, on the other hand, was in a very different situation -- he needed to maul and weaken Napoleon and avoid being overwhelmed by the larger French force.  Napoleon failed to achieve his objective.  If Borodino was a victory, it brought Napoleon no results whatsoever.  Kutuzov, a far better general than any the Russians had at the beginning of WWII, did achieve his objective at Borodino.  He very badly mauled the Grand Armee, and skillfully withdrew with acceptable casualties.  He sacrificed Moscow, which the Russians themselves burned (this fact was long suppressed) to deny sustenance to Napoleon.  At the right moment, he went back onto the offensive and harried Napoleon back out of Russia, annihilating the Grand Armee in the process.  So however one chooses to characterize Borodino, there can be no debate that the campaign, and therefore the war was a total defeat for Napoleon, and a total victory for Kutuzov.

And let us recall that we started discussing this to establish whether or not the Russian soldier is a "Sauhaufen" or not.  Well, a smaller force of Russians did kill 96.6% of the Grande Armee. WAISers may judge for themselves.

Christopher is upset that I said that the French had lost every war in the last two centuries.  Pace, my point was not to insult the French.  On the contrary, I specifically said that this fact is of no relevance to the question of whether the French are good soldiers or not.  I specifically mentioned how well the French fought in the early campaigns of the Napoleonic wars, and I was specifically trying to show that the fact that the French were often defeated (the Germans as well) does not prove anything about what kind of soldiers the French make (or Germans).  I also specifically mentioned that I do not consider that there was anything cowardly or shameful about the French defeats in the two world wars.   I am not one of those French-bashers which are so unfortunately current these days.  Chris attributes views to me which I have not espoused, and besides, he misses the whole point of my argument.

As to Russian defeats in the last two centuries, they are, demonstratively, relatively few, but I do not attempt to "make a superman out of a Sauhaufen".  I am not trying to make anyone a superman.  Chris, please listen:  My point was that there are no supermen, and no Sauhaufen, either.  Afghanistan, like Vietnam, was a political and not a military defeat (and I am afraid that there is a significant risk of the same result for us in Iraq).  The first Chechen war was a fiasco caused by collapse of the whole Soviet system; three years later the Russian military had recovered enough to take Chechnya back, crushing all organized Chechen military formations.  The great Caucasus War, in which the Chechen and Dagestani troops fought so heroically (and their heroism is celebrated in the poems of Lermontov and in a novel by Tolstoy), was eventually won by the Russians, so this cannot be counted as a Russian defeat.  There is little glory in any of these conflicts.  I am just trying to show that one cannot prove the poor quality of the Russian soldier on the record of the Russian army, which is not at all bad.  It won nearly every time in the last two centuries, maybe not gloriously, maybe not always immediately, but won, much more often than the French or Germans.

As to Stalin's "human steamroller", this is a gross distortion of World War II.  By the end of the war, the Germans were throwing away human lives, including 12-year old Hitler Youth (there was even a whole tank division formed from Hitler Youth) with the same disdain as Stalin did in the beginning.  I have mentioned here how awful the Russian generalship was at the beginning of the war, particularly under that clumsy butcher Budenny, and the Russians also suffered from amateurish interference by Stalin almost as bad, at the beginning, as what German professional soldiers suffered from Hitler.  But this is no reflection on the Russian soldier.  On the contrary, the fact that the Soviet forces were so tenacious despite being so badly led and badly used, shows the quality of the soldiers.   But the quality of Soviet leadership changed during the course of the war, and later there appeared generals like Zhukov and Rokossovsky, among the best of the war on any side.  And even at the beginning, the Soviet army was better supplied and equipped.  An absolutely crucial role was played by mobility -- and here the Soviet production, acquisition, and deployment of trucks represented a devastating advantage over the Germans.

If I may digress for a second on this -- the contrasting approaches to war production between the Soviets and Germans played a critical role in the outcome of the war.  The Soviets saw the whole chain of development, production and deployment of materiel to be a unified whole -- the phrase "military-industrial complex" is a Soviet term, and it is not pejorative.  The Soviets applied a high level of engineering skill and knowledge of production techniques to solve materiel problems in a systematic, organized, and practical fashion.  German war production, on the other hand, was something in which Hitler meddled to an extraordinary degree, and Hitler, with his romantic ideas of destiny and racial superiority, was always looking for a "Wunderwaffe" and skimped on the basic necessities of materiel.  He was so fascinated with "Wunderwaffen" that he pressed his production people incessantly for weapons which would catch his romantic fancy, and they worked so hard on this aspect that they paid insufficient attention to practical questions of production.  Hitler deprofessionalized the system of war production.  It is absolutely incredible that Germany, already one of the world's top automobile producers by the time the war broke out, could not manage to motorize its forces, while Russia, where cars were not produced in large numbers, could.  The reason for this can only be that trucks did not occupy Hitler's private fantasy, and that trucks were therefore sacrificed for things which did.  And Prof. Ferdinand Porsche, possibly the greatest automotive engineer in history, was in charge of tank production!  Imagine what kind of trucks he could have produced if Hitler had let him!   One can almost hear Hitler blathering on about "Wunderwaffen" and "Untermenschen" to enraptured sycophants, while the real military professionals cringed and worried about trucks and winter boots, subjects beneath the Fuehrer's notice.  The Soviets, in contrast, not only produced decent, reliable trucks (and got a lot of them under Lend-Lease), not to mention warm winter boots, but they also produced a superb tank, the T-34 (the "finest tank in the world" -- Feldmarschall von Kleist), which despite having many profound innovations -- sloped armor, a welded chassis, a diesel engine -- was entirely practical, extremely reliable, and could be mass produced.  It had wide tracks and didn't sink into the mud; and at most stages of its production it had bigger guns than its German counterparts.  The German tanks were complicated, mechanically unreliable, and demanded huge quantities of highly inflammable gasoline which the Reich couldn't reliably supply and which, to add insult to injury, was prone to ignite in a fight.  The Germans were in such despair about tanks later in the war that they simply began producing their own T-34 -- the Panzerkampfwagen V "Panther" is a close copy.

And that is just an example.  In World War II, the Soviets were much better at supply and logistics than the Germans were.  They had clothes well designed for the seasons; they had different footwear for different seasons.  Time, planning, effort and resources had gone into designing, producing, and delivering these banal everyday things which did not capture Hitler's imagination as a toy.  The German soldiers suffered terribly for this failure -- during the first winter, they were fragging each other over a pair of captured Russian boots.  And so for all of these reasons, from the beginning of the second year of the war, the Soviets relentlessly crushed the German forces and eventually crushed Germany altogether.   Does this mean the Russian soldiers were "supermen"?  Or that Germans were "cowards and losers"?  No!  I never said that.  I have merely tried to make the point that the Russians were no worse than any other soldiers of the war, and that even with terrible leadership at the beginning of the war, they fought with courage and determination and achieved results.  But that did not win the war by itself -- the Germans also fought very well; no one could ever called them "cowards and losers".  The decisive difference was made by superior organization of the Soviet "military-industrial complex" -- better production of better materiel, and better supply and logistics.   A big help was also provided by Lend-Lease, which accounted for about 10% of the materiel used by the Soviets (of varying usefulness -- the Sherman tanks were unusable; the Dodge trucks were a gift from heaven).
As to Napoleon's meglomania, mentioned by Ronald:  Napoleon had dreams of being Alexander the Great, conquering the world and spreading civilization (the Napoleonic Code; the destruction of the old regimes of Europe).  In the event, he was no Alexander.  But there is no comparison with Hitler.  Napoleon was, after all, a real general, a professional soldier, and for all his mistakes, a great one, in fact, a genius, if not quite on the level of Alexander.  And while some of the civilization Napoleon dreamed of spreading was questionable, much of it was not.  Hitler dreamed of being Napoleon (and obsessed about repeating Napoleon's Russian campaign, but that's another story). But he was no Napoleon.  Militarily, he was an imbecile, who, unfortunately, believed himself to be a genius.  Napoleon's Russian campaign was in most respects well planned, was embarked on with overwhelming force, and would have succeeded but for Kutuzov's skill.  Hitler's Russian campaign was embarked on with inadequately equipped forces, with no means of adequately supporting those forces with materiel, and with strategy largely based on the arrogant, hubricious and in fact idiotic idea that the "Russian soldier" was a racially inferior "Sauhaufen" who wouldn't fight (how surprised Hitler must have been in the event).  And whatever Hitler intended to spread in his conquered territories could not be described as civilization at all -- unless you mean a science-fiction, Morlock civiliation of gas chambers, mass graves, genocide, and slavery. The real victims of Hitler were, of course, the German people, particularly, German soldiers.

As to Napoleon's 1813-15 campaign:  since only 3% of the Grand Armee survived the Russian campaign, Napoleon had to raise a whole new army when he got home.  Under the circumstances, this is an almost unbelievable feat, and an amazing tribute to Napoleon's charisma. But like all of his other campaigns, Napoleon lost this one!  Of what value were any arguable victories at Dresden or Bautzen, with Waterloo, St. Helena and another generation of young Frenchmen slaughtered to no purpose, as the final result?  What is the point?

None of these stories, spanning two centuries of European history,  features any "cowards", "losers", "Sauhaufen", or "supermen".  Just soldiers, fighting as well as they can under the circumstances, with varying degrees of conviction, under different kinds of leadership, with better or worse tools, for better or worse ends.  There is a certain glory in the fighting of those, like the Russians in WWII, who fought to repel an unquestionably evil invader.  The Russian soldier in that war, himself the victim of a repressive totalitarian regime, led by generals who used him poorly and valued his life at two kopecks, but nevertheless fighting like a lion, deserves our particular admiration.  The French in the Napoleonic Wars, and the Germans in the World War II, on the other hand, fought, killed, and died for nothing, for the ambitions of megalomaniacs.  They were pushed on beyond their capabilities, and they were destroyed for that.  It was not their fault!  It was the soldiers in all these conflicts, Germans, Russians, French, or whoever, who paid the ultimate price.

I've said my piece and I've repeated a number of points more than once, at the risk of exhausting the patience of my indulgent fellow WAISers.  This risks turning into blather, so I will now shut up.

RH: Christopher Jones based his pro-Napoleon argument on The Campaigns of Napoleon, by David Chandler, a historian at Sandhurst. But this is a military source, and therefore biassed. Military men usually admire their colleagues, of whom Napoleon was one; Hitler was not.  One curious aspect of the Napoleonic legend is that, even though, like Hitler, he led his country to disaster, in military schools he was studied as a great strategist.  This was true of West Point, and throughout the Americas generals dreamed of being another Napoleon. This was true of the American Civil War, a subject which seems to not ton have been adequately studied. Napoleon's civil aim was to create a vast empire ruled by himself and his family. The admirers of Napoleon and of the Neo-Nazis who demonstrated in Dresden have one thing in common: they yearn for a leader.  I agree with Cameron that we have exhausted this topic, or it has exhausted us, and that we must now turn to other issues.  We thank Cameron for his informative piece.

Randy Black says: For Christopher Jones to both claim victory at Borodino and yet blame Napoleon’s ultimate defeats and retreat on the weather is akin to a student claiming that the family dog ate his homework. Militarily, the most any student of the battle might offer is that the affair was a draw. Regardless of who lost the most men in that one battle, when all the subsequent battles were over and the dust had settled, Napoleon had lost 480,000 of 500,000 men and had bankrupted France.  Yet, in the face of such a verifiable facts, Mr. Jones would have WAISers believe that the only reason Napoleon lost so many men was the Russian weather? Just like a golf tournament, all of the competitors were playing the same golf course on the same days. Such a position is…. Well, I don’t want to sound unWAIS thus I will leave the facts to speak for themselves. Finally, Mr. Jones attacks Cameron Sawyer’s comment “the French haven’t won a war in two centuries” with a counter attack regarding recent Russian defeats. Am I the only WAISer who noted that Mr. Jones did not offer up any wars that the French have won in the past two hundred years?

Regarding Napoleon's retreat from Moscow, Christopher Jones says: At the Beresina, Kutusov had the chance of literally destroying the French army and couldn't.  It was a defeat, but Napoleon gave us a famous quote, "Voilà comment on passe un pont sous la barbe de l'ennemi," [This is how to pass over a bridge under the enemy's nose (lit. beard) RH: This is true, but is simply allowed some French to retreat rather than be slaughtered. Remember the Spanish proverb: Al enemigo vencido, puente de plata.  Give the vanquished enemy a silver bridge to retreat.

Randy Black found this account of Napoleon's retreat acrossthe Beresina river: Russian forces under the command of Chichagov captured the Borisov Bridge on 21 November 1812, and burned it down. They further positioned themselves around the two banks of the river making repair or the construction of a new bridge impossible.

Napoleon had a couple of plans for crossing the Beresina but most of these were discarded. The plan to go south and then cross the Beresina was abandoned since the river widened as it headed south. Since Beresina was burned, there was not much point going there. Napoleon could have gone north but the roads were in terrible condition. What is ironic is the fact that that the increase in the temperatures around the time they were nearing Beresina actually made the crossing of Beresina a failure. If the temperatures had remained low the ground would have remained frozen and passing the river would be easier since there would not be much water from the melting ice and snow.

Napoleon later received new information from a French officer about a perfect location for crossing the river. It was not entirely shallow but building bridges over it seemed feasible.

The work on the bridges began on 25 November. There was no time to cut down trees and shape them so timbers were obtained from houses at Studenka and Veselovo. two bridges were built, one for the infantry and the other for heavy loads of the cavalry, artillery and vehicles.

By the afternoon of 26 November the two bridges were ready. On November 28 the two bridgeheads came under strong Russian attack. The "grand" French Army took three days to cross the bridge. Due to the intense attack of the Russians most of the civilians did not make it since priority was given to the troops. It is uncertain how many crossed Beresina. Napoleon lost 25,000 men in the battle casualties, with the civilians probably this amounted to 30,000. He was left with 20,000 men organized enough to fight.

Cameron Sawyer writes: Reaching the Beresina River, the French were in a desperate situation when they found the river not to be frozen as expected, with no intact bridges and no way to cross. Marshal Oudinot made a successful feint to the south and drew off the force of Admiral Chitsagov, giving Napoleon's engineers a chance to build a bridge over the frigid river.  This was a dramatic moment (good movie material), marked by the boldness of Oudinot in the desperate situation, and by the heroism of the French engineers, and Napoleon managed to save half of his 49,000 surviving troops still in fighting condition (out of 600,000!).   This must have been fairly cold comfort -- Napoleon not only lost 25,000 fighting troops, but 20,000 wounded and stragglers drowned or trampled to death, and 10,000 more cut down by the Cossack vanguard.  Thus another 55,000 Frenchmen perished.

Another in a long string of tragedies, and to me, Napoleon's jaunty bon mot is somewhat chilling.  Of course, this ability to sugar-coat grisly slaughter with a choice phrase conveying the air of jolly derring-do was part of Napoleon's charisma; how many generations of European schoolboys have seen in such phrases the exact reflection of their fantasies about war. I must read more about Napoleon (thank you, Chris).  How he inspired these men, whom he did not have the power to compel like Stalin did, how he mesmerized them, and then threw their lives away, only to go back and mesmerize another bunch.  Truly he was a figure larger than life.

RH: Hitler mesmerized the Germans.

Regarding Napoleon's Russian campaign, Adriana Pena says: About this interminable subject, I can also cite the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln as to how long a cow's legs should be: "long enough to reach the ground".  Kutusov's skill was good enough to destroy the Grande Armee, and that's all that matters. War is not an Olympic event with points given for good form, or adherence for style. Only victory and defeat count.

I agree with Cameron Sawyer that in 1812, Napoleon played too loose with the lives of his men; there is an element of the Mississippi gambler in him as well  as an Italian mafia Don. He also was sufficiently embued with his "destiny" that when necessary he would abandon his men to their fate (the Egyptian campaign, the Russian retreat).  Nevertheless, as Chandler wrote, he remade Europe and there is little to no comparison with Adolf Hitler. In a strange way, I think Napoléon's real lasting glory is non military. For France, (Please don't say that I am trying to speak for all French) he reconciled the revolution and the old monarchical system and restored a role for the Catholic church.  Napoleon hated the excesses of the revolution [the terror]and thought the execution of Louis XVI was a disgrace.  Clever, he synthesized the two, cementing the rights of the revolution with elements of the old regime.  Another point is that Napoleon knew that only a monarch would be respected in negotiations with the crowned heads of Europe in 1800, not a Consul or President, so the empire was basically a way to guaranty the advances of the revolution for the French people (and other Europeans as well).

Regarding the retreat from Moscow, we shouldn't make too much out of the 600,000 figure.  In fact, the actual fighting force that faced Kutusov at Borodino was not much greater than the Russian force at 133,000 men, and actually he had less canon than the Russians (only slightly at 587 to 640).  Cameron also mentioned his strategic objectives for the Russian campaign in another post.  Unlike the Nazis and their racist propaganda, Napoléon actually thought well of the Tsar -- he didn't want to "take over Russia."  The Emperor wanted to force Alexander to comply with the continental system (foolishly -- the Continental system was a failure any way you looked at it) and to this end, he wrote to the Tsar from the Kremlin and said that he wanted to end the war then and there in Moscow.  There are indeed elements about Napoléon's behavior as the years went on that one could qualify mildly as "out-of-touch."  He wasn't very realistic about this campaign although yet again, he was meticulous and not sloppy:  in some post, I saw a reference to Sweden's Charles XII campaign in 1709.  Napoléon based his 600,000 figure on his research into the Swedish king's campaign.  Another aspect is of course that such an army was simply too unwieldy and the terrain to vast to manage even for a genius like Napoléon.  For reading, I like the memoirs of the Marquis de Caulaincourt, With Napoleon in Russia
.  Armand de Caulaincourt was ambassador to Russia before the campaign and returned to France after the Beresina crossing in the Emperor's coach. Regarding Adriana's remarks about cows legs, I am afraid I have to repeat myself: Kutusov did not destroy the Grande Armée, although he had ample chance to do it and never did.  General Winter and Napoléon himself bear ultimate responsibility for the defeat, whatever Randy Black says or thinks.

RH: This talk about hundreds of thousands of soldiers reminds me of the remark: A billion here, a billion there, it soon adds up to real money.

Ronald Hilton 2004


last updated: February 27, 2005