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The French Retreat from Russia, Today

Updated: Oct 24, 2022

One of the most famous wars ever fought were the Napoleonic wars of the 19th century. Many look upon them as the height of the Victorian era and today, October 19th, 1812 the Emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte, begun his retreat from the gates of Moscow which would mark the downfall of the Bonaparte-controlled France.

For 7 months the French army had been invading Russia. Early on they had pushed far enough into the Russian empire that many believed that the war would be easily won. The French, by September 14th, had actually taken the city of 27,000 and had burned over three quarters of it ash. Though Saint Petersburg was the capital of the country, Moscow was the spiritual capital and the burning of the city deeply angered Tsar Alexander I. Napoleon would become egotistical at his capture and burning of Moscow and would stay until the October 19th of that year. With his army numbering 108,000, the Emperor would leave Moscow and begin their march back. However, with a majority of the cavalry killed and the rest diverted into infantry units, the retreat would be greatly slowed.

As a fast victory was expected, the French soldiers were not equipped to deal with cold weather. As the infamously harsh winter set in, the French retreat would be slowed even more. With the horses dead, the retreat slowed, and the Russian tactic of “scorched earth warfare” (the destruction of EVERYTHING in the wake of the military and civilian retreat) being employed early on in the war making wells, farms, towns and villages unusable to the invaders, even the act of bivouacking (setting up a makeshift camp site) was proving to be difficult. As the winter cold would put out fires before they could be stoked or make them go out suddenly as the soldiers slept moral and quality of life for the invading army was plummeting. As the retreat advanced further in the cold, the horses that were direly needed became unable to walk in the snow, and eventually died of exhaustion and exposure. They were left along the side of the road to help the following French soldiers follow the roads which were so covered in snow were invisible to the ground around them and so out of date that they were almost as equally treacherous to walk on as the uncut wilderness.

Early on in the war, the French Grand Army entered Russia with over 500,000 soldiers, the biggest army the European world had ever seen at that point. This army continued to grow as more soldiers from the countries of Prussia, Poland, and states of the Holy Roman Empire (a union of over 100 Germanic countries and city states) joined the snowballing force. By the time the army had entered Russia it numbered 600,000 -- only half of which were French. And yet by the end of the retreat, only 100,000 survived the retreat, 10,000 of which had occupied Moscow.

Only a few years later, in 1815, Napoleon would be exiled to the island of Saint Helena where he would eventually die in 1821. The Napoleonic wars had a major impact in Europe, particularly in the central region that would lead to the Prussian expansion and subsequent German Empire's creation. Leading to the inspiration for the civilians of Russia in a series of revolutions leading up to the October Revolution of 1917 and the founding of the USSR.

The wars' influence the modern day down to every single aspect of our life and the Napoleonic wars are among the biggest of these wars alongside the World Wars, American Revolution and 7 Years War, And today is the anniversary of the biggest event of these wars.


Leian is a Junior at Poudre high school who is in his first year at the Poudre Press and runs a blog called History, Today.

Works Cited

Austin, Paul Britten. 1812: the Great Retreat. Greenhill Books, 1996. Accessed 19 October 2022.

Bodart, Gaston 1867-, and Harald 1853-1936 Westergaard. Losses of Life in Modern Wars, Austria-Hungary; France. Edited by Vernon L. (Vernon Lyman) 1867 Kellogg, WENTWORTH Press, 2016. Accessed 19 October 2022.

Clodfelter, Micheal. Warfare and Armed Conflicts. McFarland Incorporated, 2008. Accessed 19 October 2022.

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