The new Napoleon movie shows him arriving in a deserted Moscow. What really happened that day?

Sushim Mukul
Sushim MukulNov 28, 2023 | 16:22

The new Napoleon movie shows him arriving in a deserted Moscow. What really happened that day?

Three years after the Russian conquest of 1812, Napoleon was sent to exile in St Helena in 1815. Photo: Handcoloured copperplate engraving by George Cruikshank (Photo by: Florilegius/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

In Ridley Scott's latest, Napoleon, when 'the Emperor' reaches his destination, Moscow, he finds the city deserted. With a few homeless people roaming the streets, the empty Moscow taunts him to the core.

In the following scene where he sees the city burn, the expression on the face of Napoleon, played by Joaquin Phoenix, shows the mockery and tease he has just received.



A bit of context

The year was 1812, eight years after his 'self-coronation' and running over more than a dozen kingdoms and empires in Europe and afar, Napoleon Bonaparte, the French Emperor was at the zenith of his power. Following his success in Grande Armée, he embarked on a colossal military campaign to secure Moscow and force Czar Alexander I into submission in June 1812.

Little did he know that while he was marching through Borodino in the summer of '12, that his ultimate goal of occupation of the Russian capital would mark the beginning of his downfall.

The strategy he followed

  • In 1812, Napoleon sought to enforce his 'Continental System', a trade-war-induced blockade isolating Britain from continental Europe economically.
  • Russia's resistance to this venture and concerns over the Duchy of Warsaw (Napoleonic Poland) intensified tensions.
  • The diverse European army, Napoleon's Grande Armée, crossed the Niemen River (which forms the northern border of today's Kaliningrad Oblast of Russia), numbering around 4,50,000 to 6,50,000 soldiers against Russia's 2,00,000.
  • Napoleon famously said, "I have come once and for all to finish off these barbarians of the North. The sword is now drawn."

Advance and retreat

  • The Russians, using 'scorched earth tactics', retreated, leaving a path of destruction and denying sustenance to the forces in the face of advancing French forces.
  • Scorched earth is a military tactic involving the deliberate destruction or burning of crops and other resources that could potentially be beneficial to an encroaching enemy force.
  • The Battle of Borodino on September 7, 1812, resulted in enormous casualties, but the Russians strategically withdrew, leaving Moscow open for the Grande Armée's entry. Why?
  • American historian, David A Bell summed it up, "Certainly, the scorched earth tactics were incredibly important in denying the French army sustenance."
  • Colonel Paisiy Kaysarov said to the duty general of the General Staff of the Russian Army, "The wounded left in Moscow are entrusted to the humanity of the French troops."

Moscow's desertion

  • Upon entering Moscow on September 14, Napoleon found a deserted city, full of liquor and no food; and a handful of the 2,70,000 residents remaining.
  • Napoleon's hope for negotiation and subsequent subjugation of the Tsar (Russian king) soon turned into despair as fires broke out, allegedly set by Russian patriots on the orders of Moscow's military commander.
  • The fire blazed for five days and was seen from hundreds of kilometres afar, noted French actress, Lousie Fusil in her memoir.
  • Napoleon, in a letter to Tsar Alexander, said, "Beautiful, magical Moscow exists no more. How could you consign to destruction the loveliest city in the world?"
  • However, there is not much consensus over the cause of fire among historians as some say it was the French troops that did it.
  • Moscow Governor-General Feodor Rostopchin is accused by some of ordering the fire, but instigators remain elusive to this day.

Harrowing retreat

  • In the deserted city, as Napoleon waited, no one ever came!
  • The failure to secure Moscow after 36 days marked a turning point. Military historian Sheperd Paine said, "Things got bad very quickly. It was a constant attrition."
  • The Grande Armée, now starving and facing relentless fractional Russian attacks, began a harrowing retreat in the face of incoming snowfall.
  • The battle on the shores of the Berezina River thawed the retreating troops and became a desperate crossing point for them.
  • The subsequent destruction of bridges left thousands stranded, and the unforgiving Russian winter took a toll. Some historians noted that French soldiers used to cut open dead animals to shelter inside on chilly winter nights.
  • Only a fraction of French troops returned home, ravaged by cold and starvation.
  • Napoleon abandoned his army and rushed back to Paris in December 1812.

Europe's response

  • European powers of  Austria, Prussia, Sweden, Russia and Great Britain, following the Russian misadventure, formed an allied force, leading to Napoleon's eventual defeat in 1814.
  • After his return from Moscow, the army he raised lacked experience and 'manpower'.
  • His brief return in 1815 from the Island of Elba finally ended at the Battle of Waterloo, sealing his final exile to Saint Helena in 1815.
  • The French forces at Waterloo faced the joint forces of the United Kingdom, Prussia, The Netherlands, Hanover, Nassau, and Brunswick, just six days after Napoleon was declared an outlaw by the Vienna Congress.

Napoleon's occupation of Moscow thought to be a decisive move, turned futile and fatal. The strategic miscalculations, coupled with the harsh Russian winter and resilient resistance, unravelled the might of the Grande Armée and paved the way for Napoleon's ultimate downfall.

As they say, "It never seems to work out--invading Russia."

Last updated: November 28, 2023 | 16:22
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