How long did the war of 1812 last

Napoleon's Russian campaign in 1812

On June 24, 1812, a huge army under the command of Napoleon I (1769-1821) crossed the border of the Russian Empire. At the beginning of the war, Napoleon hoped for a short campaign with a quick decisive battle that would break the will of the tsar and force him to the negotiating table. However, the French emperor was not prepared for the Russian scorched earth retreat. When the battered remnants of his defeated army crossed the Russian border again in the opposite direction in December 1812, the end of Napoleon's rule over France and Europe had begun.

In the Peace of Tilsit in 1807, France and Russia concluded an alliance that seemed to cement the dominance of the two so different powers on the European continent for decades. Subsequently, Napoleon I and Tsar Alexander I (1777-1825) repeatedly publicly stated their deep bond with each other, most recently in person at a meeting in Erfurt in the autumn of 1808. However, all the flattery there covered the insurmountable rifts that arose over the next few years between Napoleon and Alexander opened up ever deeper. Even before leaving for Erfurt, the tsar had predicted: "There is no room for both of us in Europe."

The reasons for the increasing distrust and political tensions were primarily Alexander's concern that Napoleon might found a kingdom of Poland and thus cause unrest among the Polish population of western Russia. In addition, there was growing dissatisfaction among the Russian population about the economic consequences of the continental blockade imposed on Great Britain by France. At the latest after Russia withdrew from the continental blockade at the end of 1810, both Napoleon and Alexander were convinced of the inevitability of war. In the months that followed, the Russian General Staff concentrated around 225,000 soldiers from its three western armies directly on the border with the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, where a huge Napoleonic force was gathering in the spring of 1812. The nominal strength of this Grande Armée was around 590,000 men on paper, in fact there were no more than 300,000 to 350,000 soldiers who crossed the border river Nyemen (German: Memel) in the first wave of attacks from June 24 to 26, 1812 invaded Russia without a declaration of war.

In addition to the French, Napoleon's army consisted mainly of soldiers from subjugated and allied nations, mainly Germans, Poles, Austrians, Italians, Swiss, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese. They were followed by tens of thousands of civilians: servants, coachmen and lads of officers, traders and sutlers, adventurers and soldiers of fortune, wives, lovers and prostitutes. Heat, dust, hardship, hunger, thirst, violence and death awaited them all in Russia. In the first few weeks, tens of thousands of people died from diseases such as dysentery and typhus or from exhaustion. The completely inadequate supply of supplies also fell victim to horses en masse: Countless bodies and horse carcasses lined the path of the main French armed forces on their advance, without there having been any noteworthy fighting with the Russian army, which was rapidly retreating into the interior of the country. Only on September 7, 1812 did the two main armies meet in direct combat at Borodino and then suffered around 80,000 dead and wounded. It was not until more than 100 years later, at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, that so many soldiers again fell victim to a single day's battle.

Napoleon's final decision to invade Moscow was made after this mighty battle of the campaign. On September 14th, the first French units reached Moscow, which was deliberately set on fire by the Russians. About a month later, the main force, which had shrunk to around 95,000, left the city in search of winter quarters - too late to escape the Russian winter and the reorganized army of the tsar. The withdrawal, which in some cases turned into a panic, was finally accompanied by snow and freezing cold, greed and dehumanization, hunger and cannibalism. Anyone who fell into the hands of Cossack units or local farmers faced bloody abuse and brutal death. Epidemics, exhaustion and frostbite as well as constant enemy attacks sealed the downfall of the Grande Armée, of which only a few thousand men survived. By this time Napoleon himself had rushed back to Paris in a sleigh without his troops. The Russian losses were no less dramatic, with around 500,000 soldiers and civilians also dead.

With the disaster in Russia, Napoleon's European system of rule collapsed. In view of the Russian advance to the west, the Prussian declaration of war on France took place on March 17, 1813, and Austria followed on August 12. In October 1813, Napoleon was decisively defeated in the Battle of Leipzig, which ended the long French rule in Germany.

© German Historical Museum, Berlin