Perhaps the ultimate ‘hollow victory’ was recorded on September 14th, 1812, when Napoleon Bonaparte marched his Grande Armeé into Moscow.
He expected to find downtrodden and defeated representatives of the Russian Czar, ready to surrender the capital and the country. Instead he found the city deserted, stripped of anything that might sustain his exhausted troops, and with parts of it deliberately set ablaze.
Intent on ruling all of Europe, Napoleon had embarked on his Russian campaign less than three months earlier, marching the largest military force ever assembled in European history across the border. Comprising around 450,000 men, his army was not just large but effective too, its officers appointed on merit and its ranks including contingents of professional soldiers from Prussia, Austria and other countries in the grip of the mighty French Empire.
His previous successes came from moving large armies swiftly and engaging the enemy in decisive battles, but the Russians frustrated all his early efforts, chiefly by running away! In fact, it was more of a strategic and organised retreat, the Russian generals realising they had to first weaken Napoleon’s force before engaging it.
The Russians were also willing to make massive sacrifices, removing or burning anything that could be useful to the enemy as they retreated deeper into their own country. This “scorched earth” policy meant Napoleon’s massive army could not live off the land, while his supply lines became dangerously overstretched.
Finally, the Russians called a halt at the town of Borodino, about 70 miles west of Moscow, building fortifications and apparently ready to engage the advancing French. Overconfident of victory, Napoleon made no effort to outflank the Russians and kept many of his troops in reserve. The resulting battle, on September 7th, was the largest and bloodiest single-day action of the Napoleonic Wars, involving 250,000 troops and resulting in 70,000 casualties.
Although the French gained a narrow tactical victory, it cost them 49 officers and thousands of men, with the surviving Russians able to extricate themselves and resume their strategic retreat, robbing Bonaparte of his decisive victory. Nevertheless, he was confident of glory when he marched his army into Moscow just one week later, on September 14th. Once he had the grand prize in his grasp, he firmly believed Czar Alexander would have no choice but to capitulate.
But his grand prize proved nothing but an empty shell. The city was deserted, stripped bare and abandoned. Soon after his arrival, fires were spotted at strategic locations in the city, apparently started by Russian patriots who had remained hidden. As the firestorm spread unchecked, Napoleon’s troops fled to the outskirts to avoid suffocation.
When the flames died down three days later, more than two-thirds of the historic and once spectacular city was in smouldering ruins. Napoleon had never thought the Russians capable of sacrificing so much in order to deprive him of victory. He was wrong.
After another month of waiting for a surrender that never came, Napoleon was forced to lead his starving troops out of the city. Suddenly the tables were turned as the Russian troops – who reappeared as quickly as they had vanished – began harassing the disintegrating and retreating Grand Armeé at every opportunity. It only just escaped over the Berezina River, but was forced to burn its bridges to halt the Russian pursuit, abandoning 10,000 troops to a grisly fate on the far side.
After that the Russians largely abandoned their pursuit, allowing the harsh oncoming winter to do their work for them as thousands of French troops succumbed to exhaustion, starvation and the bitter cold. Napoleon himself was forced to leave his army behind and race back to Paris, where rumours of his death had already led one general to attempt an unsuccessful coup.
Six days after Napoleon arrived in Paris on December 18th, the tattered remnants of his ‘Grande Armeé’ finally left Russian soil, having lost more than 400,000 men in the disastrous campaign. It was Napoleon’s first major defeat and news of it emboldened his enemies across Europe, who began to form new alliances against him.
Napoleon’s catastrophic retreat from Moscow marked the end of his previously meteoric rise to power. Reversing his fortunes, it would ultimately lead to his defeat at Waterloo in June 1915 and his death in exile just six years later, at the age of 51.
• Pictured is the painting ‘Napoleon’s Retreat from Russia’, by Adolph Northen.