The Russian Campaign was the French invasion of Russia in 1812, during the Napoleonic Wars. It took place in Russia from June 24, 1812, to December 14, 1812. At the beginning Napoleon had thought that it would be a fast and relatively easy military campaign; nevertheless, it turned out to be one of the worst military setbacks in history, which accelerated Napoleon’s decline, which had begun in Spain in the Peninsular War. During the Russian Campaign the French Grande Armée (Great Army) faced the most formidable enemy Napoleon had ever had: the Russian Winter. From an army of 750,000 men, only 115,000 survived. Many were frozen to death, but thousands died also of starvation and in the hands of the Cossack guerrillas that constantly harassed the rear of the retreating French Army. From the beginning of the military operations, the Russians applied a scorched-earth policy, so as the French advanced eastward, they found nothing left for the French soldiers to eat, showing how important logistics is for accomplishing the war objectives. The only important victory obtained by Napoleon in the 1812 invasion of Russia was the Battle of Borodino, but failed to destroy an evasive Russian Army.
Causes of the Russian Campaign
There were two main causes which would lead to Napoleon undertaking this big military campaign.
1) The Treaty of Schönbrunn of 1809 had a clause which removed Western Galicia from Austria, annexing it to the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. Russia considered this annexation against her interests and as a potential launching point for an invasion of Russia.
2) In 1811, Tsar Alexander I of Russia, supposedly allied with Napoleon, refused to continue to be part of the continental blockade of British goods. Napoleon’s edict banning trade with Great Britain was ruining the Russian economy. As a result tensions escalated as every attempt to negotiate failed. In order to obtain support from Polish nationalists and patriots, Napoleon in his own words called what whould be the Russian Campaign the Second Polish War; The first Polish war to liberate Poland from Russia, Prussia and Austria, had been the War of the Fourth Coalition (1806-1807), because one of the official declared goals of this war had been the resurrection of the Polish state on territories of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
The invasion began on June 24, 1812. Napoleon had sent a final offer of peace to the Tsar shortly before the beginning of the campaign. Since he never received a reply, Napoleon gave the order to proceed into Russian Poland. The French Army initially met little resistance as it moved quickly into the enemy’s territory.
Russian Campaign 1812, First Phase (Video)