Category Archives: Charles Minard

Data Visualization – A Scientific Treatment (Peter James Thomas)


peter-thomas-h130Peter James Thomas sent me a link to his blog about the scientific treatment of data visualization. Mr. Thomas (photo, right) has extensive management experience in the insurance, reinsurance, software development, manufacturing and retail sectors, with particular focus on forming a deep appreciation of business / customer needs; developing pragmatic strategies to address these; having a passion for high-quality execution; and understanding the key role of education in enacting cultural and organisational change. While Mr. Thomas has predominantly been a General IT or IT Development Manager in most of his roles, his specialties include Business Intelligence / Data Warehousing / Analytics (the main subjects covered in his blog), Financial Systems / ERP, IT Strategy Formation, IT / Business Alignment and Customer Relationship Management systems.

Peter is currently Head of Group Business Intelligence for Validus Holdings, a leading insurance and reinsurance organisation with a global presence. For a considerable portion of his time in this role, he was also Head of IT Development at Validus’s Talbot Underwriting subsidiary.

I am including Mr. Thomas’ blog post in its entirety below. I am also including a link to his blog here.

Best regards,


Data Visualisation – A Scientific Treatment

by Peter James Thomas, November 6, 2014

IntroductionDiagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army of the East (click to view a larger version in a new tab)The above diagram was compiled by Florence Nightingale, who was – according to The Font – “a celebrated English social reformer and statistician, and the founder of modern nursing”. It is gratifying to see her less high-profile role as a number-cruncher acknowledged up-front and central; particularly as she died in 1910, eight years before women in the UK were first allowed to vote and eighteen before universal suffrage. This diagram is one of two which are generally cited in any article on Data Visualisation. The other is Charles Minard’s exhibit detailing the advance on, and retreat from, Moscow of Napoleon Bonaparte’s Grande Armée in 1812 (Data Visualisation had a military genesis in common with – amongst many other things – the internet). I’ll leave the reader to look at this second famous diagram if they want to; it’s just a click away.While there are more elements of numeric information in Minard’s work (what we would now call measures), there is a differentiating point to be made about Nightingale’s diagram. This is that it was specifically produced to aid members of the British parliament in their understanding of conditions during the Crimean War (1853-56); particularly given that such non-specialists had struggled to understand traditional (and technical) statistical reports. Again, rather remarkably, we have here a scenario where the great and the good were listening to the opinions of someone who was barred from voting on the basis of lacking a Y chromosome. Perhaps more pertinently to this blog, this scenario relates to one of the objectives of modern-day Data Visualisation in business; namely explaining complex issues, which don’t leap off of a page of figures, to busy decision makers, some of whom may not be experts in the specific subject area (another is of course allowing the expert to discern less than obvious patterns in large or complex sets of data). Fortunately most business decision makers don’t have to grapple with the progression in number of “deaths from Preventible or Mitigable Zymotic diseases” versus ”deaths from wounds” over time, but the point remains.Data Visualisation in one branch of Science

von Laue, Bragg Senior & Junior, Crowfoot Hodgkin, Kendrew, Perutz, Crick, Franklin, Watson & Wilkins

Coming much more up to date, I wanted to consider a modern example of Data Visualisation. As with Nightingale’s work, this is not business-focused, but contains some elements which should be pertinent to the professional considering the creation of diagrams in a business context. The specific area I will now consider is Structural Biology. For the incognoscenti (no advert for IBM intended!), this area of science is focussed on determining the three-dimensional shape of biologically relevant macro-molecules, most frequently proteins or protein complexes. The history of Structural Biology is intertwined with the development of X-ray crystallography by Max von Laue and father and son team William Henry and William Lawrence Bragg; its subsequent application to organic molecules by a host of pioneers including Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, John Kendrew and Max Perutz; and – of greatest resonance to the general population – Francis Crick, Rosalind Franklin, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins’s joint determination of the structure of DNA in 1953.


X-ray diffraction image of the double helix structure of the DNA molecule, taken 1952 by Raymond Gosling, commonly referred to as “Photo 51″, during work by Rosalind Franklin on the structure of DNA

While the masses of data gathered in modern X-ray crystallography needs computer software to extrapolate them to physical structures, things were more accessible in 1953. Indeed, it could be argued that Gosling and Franklin’s famous image, its characteristic “X” suggestive of two helices and thus driving Crick and Watson’s model building, is another notable example of Data Visualisation; at least in the sense of a picture (rather than numbers) suggesting some underlying truth. In this case, the production of Photo 51 led directly to the creation of the even more iconic image below (which was drawn by Francis Crick’s wife Odile and appeared in his and Watson’s seminal Nature paper[1]):

Odile and Francis Crick - structure of DNA

© Nature (1953)
Posted on this site under the non-commercial clause of the right-holder’s licence

It is probably fair to say that the visualisation of data which is displayed above has had something of an impact on humankind in the fifty years since it was first drawn.

Modern Structural Biology

The X-ray Free Electron Laser at Stanford

Today, X-ray crystallography is one of many tools available to the structural biologist with other approaches including Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy, Electron Microscopy and a range of biophysical techniques which I will not detain the reader by listing. The cutting edge is probably represented by the X-ray Free Electron Laser, a device originally created by repurposing the linear accelerators of the previous generation’s particle physicists. In general Structural Biology has historically sat at an intersection of Physics and Biology.

However, before trips to synchrotrons can be planned, the Structural Biologist often faces the prospect of stabilising their protein of interest, ensuring that they can generate sufficient quantities of it, successfully isolating the protein and finally generating crystals of appropriate quality. This process often consumes years, in some cases decades. As with most forms of human endeavour, there are few short-cuts and the outcome is at least loosely correlated to the amount of time and effort applied (though sadly with no guarantee that hard work will always be rewarded).

From the general to the specific

The Journal of Molecular Biology (October 2014)

At this point I should declare a personal interest, the example of Data Visualisation which I am going to consider is taken from a paper recently accepted by the Journal of Molecular Biology (JMB) and of which my wife is the first author[2]. Before looking at this exhibit, it’s worth a brief detour to provide some context.

In recent decades, the exponential growth in the breadth and depth of scientific knowledge (plus of course the velocity with which this can be disseminated), coupled with the increase in the range and complexity of techniques and equipment employed, has led to the emergence of specialists. In turn this means that, in a manner analogous to the early production lines, science has become a very collaborative activity; expert in stage one hands over the fruits of their labour to expert in stage two and so on. For this reason the typical scientific paper (and certainly those in Structural Biology) will have several authors, often spread across multiple laboratory groups and frequently in different countries. By way of example the previous paper my wife worked on had 16 authors (including a Nobel Laureate[3]). In this context, the fact the paper I will now reference was authored by just my wife and her group leader is noteworthy.

The reader may at this point be relieved to learn that I am not going to endeavour to explain the subject matter of my wife’s paper, nor the general area of biology to which it pertains (the interested are recommended to Google “membrane proteins” or “G Protein Coupled Receptors” as a starting point). Instead let’s take a look at one of the exhibits.

Click to view a larger version in a new tab

© The Journal of Molecular Biology (2014)
Posted on this site under a Creative Commons licence

The above diagram (in common with Nightingale’s much earlier one) attempts to show a connection between sets of data, rather than just the data itself. I’ll elide the scientific specifics here and focus on more general issues.

First the grey upper section with the darker blots on it – which is labelled (a) – is an image of a biological assay called a Western Blot (for the interested details can be viewed here); each vertical column (labelled at the top of the diagram) represents a sub-experiment on protein drawn from a specific sample of cells. The vertical position of a blot indicates the size of the molecules found within it (in kilodaltons); the intensity of a given blot indicates how much of the substance is present. Aside from the headings and labels, the upper part of the figure is a photographic image and so essentially analogue data[4]. So, in summary, this upper section represents the findings from one set of experiments.

At the bottom – and labelled (b) – appears an artefact familiar to anyone in business, a bar-graph. This presents results from a parallel experiment on samples of protein from the same cells (for the interested, this set of data relates to degree to which proteins in the samples bind to a specific radiolabelled ligand). The second set of data is taken from what I might refer to as a “counting machine” and is thus essentially digital. To be 100% clear, the bar chart is not a representation of the data in the upper part of the diagram, it pertains to results from a second experiment on the same samples. As indicated by the labelling, for a given sample, the column in the bar chart (b) is aligned with the column in the Western Blot above (a), connecting the two different sets of results.

Taken together the upper and lower sections[5] establish a relationship between the two sets of data. Again I’ll skip on the specifics, but the general point is that while the Western Blot (a) and the binding assay (b) tell us the same story, the Western Blot is a much more straightforward and speedy procedure. The relationship that the paper establishes means that just the Western Blot can be used to perform a simple new assay which will save significant time and effort for people engaged in the determination of the structures of membrane proteins; a valuable new insight. Clearly the relationships that have been inferred could equally have been presented in a tabular form instead and be just as relevant. It is however testament to the more atavistic side of humans that – in common with many relationships between data – a picture says it more surely and (to mix a metaphor) more viscerally. This is the essence of Data Visualisation.

What learnings can Scientific Data Visualisation provide to Business?

Scientific presentation (c/o Nature, but looks a lot like PhD Comics IMO)

Using the JMB exhibit above, I wanted to now make some more general observations and consider a few questions which arise out of comparing scientific and business approaches to Data Visualisation. I think that many of these points are pertinent to analysis in general.


Broadly, normalisation[6] consists of defining results in relation to some established yardstick (or set of yardsticks); displaying relative, as opposed to absolute, numbers. In the JMB exhibit above, the amount of protein solubilised in various detergents is shown with reference to the un-solubilised amount found in native membranes; these reference figures appear as 100% columns to the right and left extremes of the diagram.

The most common usage of normalisation in business is growth percentages. Here the fact that London business has grown by 5% can be compared to Copenhagen having grown by 10% despite total London business being 20-times the volume of Copenhagen’s. A related business example, depending on implementation details, could be comparing foreign currency amounts at a fixed exchange rate to remove the impact of currency fluctuation.

Normalised figures are very typical in science, but, aside from the growth example mentioned above, considerably less prevalent in business. In both avenues of human endeavour, the approach should be used with caution; something that increases 200% from a very small starting point may not be relevant, be that the result of an experiment or weekly sales figures. Bearing this in mind, normalisation is often essential when looking to present data of different orders on the same graph[7]; the alternative often being that smaller data is swamped by larger, not always what is desirable.


I’ll use and anecdote to illustrate this area from a business perspective. Imagine an organisation which (as you would expect) tracks the volume of sales of a product or service it provides via a number of outlets. Imagine further that it launches some sort of promotion, perhaps valid only for a week, and notices an uptick in these sales. It is extremely tempting to state that the promotion has resulted in increased sales[8].

However this cannot always be stated with certainty. Sales may have increased for some totally unrelated reason such as (depending on what is being sold) good or bad weather, a competitor increasing prices or closing one or more of their comparable outlets and so on. Equally perniciously, the promotion maybe have simply moved sales in time – people may have been going to buy the organisation’s product or service in the weeks following a promotion, but have brought the expenditure forward to take advantage of it. If this is indeed the case, an uptick in sales may well be due to the impact of a promotion, but will be offset by a subsequent decrease.

In science, it is this type of problem that the concept of control tests is designed to combat. As well as testing a result in the presence of substance or condition X, a well-designed scientific experiment will also be carried out in the absence of substance or condition X, the latter being the control. In the JMB exhibit above, the controls appear in the columns with white labels.

There are ways to make the business “experiment” I refer to above more scientific of course. In retail business, the current focus on loyalty cards can help, assuming that these can be associated with the relevant transactions. If the business is on-line then historical records of purchasing behaviour can be similarly referenced. In the above example, the organisation could decide to offer the promotion at only a subset of the its outlets, allowing a comparison to those where no promotion applied. This approach may improve rigour somewhat, but of course it does not cater for purchases transferred from a non-promotion outlet to a promotion one (unless a whole raft of assumptions are made). There are entire industries devoted to helping businesses deal with these rather messy scenarios, but it is probably fair to say that it is normally easier to devise and carry out control tests in science.

The general take away here is that a graph which shows some change in a business output (say sales or profit) correlated to some change in a business input (e.g. a promotion, a new product launch, or a price cut) would carry a lot more weight if it also provided some measure of what would have happened without the change in input (not that this is always easy to measure).

Rigour and Scrutiny

I mention in the footnotes that the JMB paper in question includes versions of the exhibit presented above for four other membrane proteins, this being in order to firmly establish a connection. Looking at just the figure I have included here, each element of the data presented in the lower bar-graph area is based on duplicated or triplicated tests, with average results (and error bars – see the next section) being shown. When you consider that upwards of three months’ preparatory work could have gone into any of these elements and that a mistake at any stage during this time would have rendered the work useless, some impression of the level of rigour involved emerges. The result of this assiduous work is that the authors can be confident that the exhibits they have developed are accurate and will stand up to external scrutiny. Of course such external scrutiny is a key part of the scientific process and the manuscript of the paper was reviewed extensively by independent experts before being accepted for publication.

In the business world, such external scrutiny tends to apply most frequently to publicly published figures (such as audited Financial Accounts); of course external financial analysts also will look to dig into figures. There may be some internal scrutiny around both the additional numbers used to run the business and the graphical representations of these (and indeed some companies take this area very seriously), but not every internal KPI is vetted the way that the report and accounts are. Particularly in the area of Data Visualisation, there is a tension here. Graphical exhibits can have a lot of impact if they relate to the current situation or present trends; contrawise if they are substantially out-of-date, people may question their relevance. There is sometimes the expectation that a dashboard is just like its aeronautical counterpart, showing real-time information about what is going on now[9]. However a lot of the value of Data Visualisation is not about the here and now so much as trends and explanations of the factors behind the here and now. A well-thought out graph can tell a very powerful story, more powerful for most people than a table of figures. However a striking graph based on poor quality data, data which has been combined in the wrong way, or even – as sometimes happens – the wrong datasets entirely, can tell a very misleading story and lead to the wrong decisions being taken.

I am not for a moment suggesting here that every exhibit produced using Data Visualisation tools must be subject to months of scrutiny. As referenced above, in the hands of an expert such tools have the value of sometimes quickly uncovering hidden themes or factors. However, I would argue that – as in science – if the analyst involved finds something truly striking, an association which he or she feels will really resonate with senior business people, then double- or even triple-checking the data would be advisable. Asking a colleague to run their eye over the findings and to then probe for any obvious mistakes or weaknesses sounds like an appropriate next step. Internal Data Visualisations are never going to be subject to peer-review, however their value in taking sound business decisions will be increased substantially if their production reflects at least some of the rigour and scrutiny which are staples of the scientific method.

Dealing with Uncertainty

In the previous section I referred to the error bars appearing on the JMB figure above. Error bars are acknowledgements that what is being represented is variable and they indicate the extent of such variability. When dealing with a physical system (be that mechanical or – as in the case above – biological), behaviour is subject to many factors, not all of which can be eliminated or adjusted for and not all of which are predictable. This means that repeating an experiment under ostensibly identical conditions can lead to different results[10]. If the experiment is well-designed and if the experimenter is diligent, then such variability is minimised, but never eliminated. Error bars are a recognition of this fundamental aspect of the universe as we understand it.

While de rigueur in science, error bars seldom make an appearance in business, even – in my experience – in estimates of business measures which emerge from statistical analyses[11]. Even outside the realm of statistically generated figures, more business measures are subject to uncertainty than might initially be thought. An example here might be a comparison (perhaps as part of the externally scrutinised report and accounts) of the current quarter’s sales to the previous one (or the same one last year). In companies where sales may be tied to – for example – the number of outlets, care is paid to making these figures like-for-like. This might include only showing numbers for outlets which were in operation in the prior period and remain in operation now (i.e. excluding sales from both closed outlets or newly opened ones). However, outside the area of high-volume low-value sales where the Law of Large Numbers[12] rules, other factors could substantially skew a given quarter’s results for many organisations. Something as simple as a key customer delaying a purchase (so that it fell in Q3 this year instead of Q2 last) could have a large impact on quarterly comparisons. Again companies will sometimes look to include adjustments to cater for such timing or related issues, but this cannot be a precise process.

The main point I am making here is that many aspects of the information produced in companies is uncertain. The cash transactions in a quarter are of course the cash transactions in a quarter, but the above scenario suggests that they may not always 100% reflect actual business conditions (and you cannot adjust for everything). Equally where you get in to figures that would be part of most companies’ financial results, outstanding receivables and allowance for bad debts, the spectre of uncertainty arises again without a statistical model in sight. In many industries, regulators are pushing for companies to include more forward-looking estimates of future assets and liabilities in their Financials. While this may be a sensible reaction to recent economic crises, the approach inevitably leads to more figures being produced from models. Even when these models are subject to external review, as is the case with most regulatory-focussed ones, they are still models and there will be uncertainty around the numbers that they generate. While companies will often provide a range of estimates for things like guidance on future earnings per share, providing a range of estimates for historical financial exhibits is not really a mainstream activity.

Which perhaps gets me back to the subject of error bars on graphs. In general I think that their presence in Data Visualisations can only add value, not subtract it. In my article entitled Limitations of Business Intelligence I include the following passage which contains an exhibit showing how the Bank of England approaches communicating the uncertainty inevitably associated with its inflation estimates:

Business Intelligence is not a crystal ball, Predictive Analytics is not a crystal ball either. They are extremely useful tools […] but they are not universal panaceas.

The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street is clearly not a witch[…] Statistical models will never give you precise answers to what will happen in the future – a range of outcomes, together with probabilities associated with each is the best you can hope for (see above). Predictive Analytics will not make you prescient, instead it can provide you with useful guidance, so long as you remember it is a prediction, not fact.

While I can’t see them figuring in formal financial statements any time soon, perhaps there is a case for more business Data Visualisations to include error bars.

In Summary

So, as is often the case, I have embarked on a journey. I started with an early example of Data Visualisation, diverted in to a particular branch of science with which I have some familiarity and hopefully returned, again as is often the case, to make some points which I think are pertinent to both the Business Intelligence practitioner and the consumers (and indeed commissioners) of Data Visualisations. Back in “All that glisters is not gold” – some thoughts on dashboards I made some more general comments about the best Data Visualisations having strong informational foundations underpinning them. While this observation remains true, I do see a lot of value in numerically able and intellectually curious people using Data Visualisation tools to quickly make connections which had not been made before and to tease out patterns from large data sets. In addition there can be great value in using Data Visualisation to present more quotidian information in a more easily digestible manner. However I also think that some of the learnings from science which I have presented in this article suggest that – as with all powerful tools – appropriate discretion on the part of the people generating Data Visualisation exhibits and on the part of the people consuming such content would be prudent. In particular the business equivalents of establishing controls, applying suitable rigour to data generation / combination and including information about uncertainty on exhibits where appropriate are all things which can help make Data Visualisation more honest and thus – at least in my opinion – more valuable.


Watson, J.D., Crick, F.H.C. (1953). Molecular structure of nucleic acids; a structure for deoxyribose nucleic acid. Nature.

Thomas, J.A., Tate, C.G. (2014). Quality Control in Eukaryotic Membrane Protein Overproduction. J. Mol. Biol. [Epub ahead of print].

The list of scientists involved in the development of X-ray Crystallography and Structural Biology which was presented earlier in the text encompasses a further nine such laureates (four of whom worked at my wife’s current research institute), though sadly this number does not include Rosalind Franklin. Over 20 Nobel Prizes have been awarded to people working in the field of Structural Biology, you can view an interactive time line of these here.

The intensity, size and position of blots are often digitised by specialist software, but this is an aside for our purposes.

Plus four other analogous exhibits which appear in the paper and relate to different proteins.

Normalisation has a precise mathematical meaning, actually (somewhat ironically for that most precise of activities) more than one. Here I am using the term more loosely.

That’s assuming you don’t want to get into log scales, something I have only come across once in over 25 years in business.

The uptick could be as compared to the week before, or to some other week (e.g. the same one last year or last month maybe) or versus an annual weekly average. The change is what is important here, not what the change is with respect to.

Of course some element of real-time information is indeed both feasible and desirable; for more analytic work (which encompasses many aspects of Data Visualisation) what is normally more important is sufficient historical data of good enough quality.

Anyone interested in some of the reasons for this is directed to my earlier article Patterns patterns everywhere.

See my series of three articles on Using historical data to justify BI investments for just one example of these.

But then 1=2 for very large values of 1


Mapping Time: A Detailed Look at Minard’s Flow Map

Charles Minard’s Map of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign of 1812

One of the most famous maps incorporating time was created in 1861 by Charles Minard, a French Engineer.  The map and chart, entitled, “Carte figurative des pertes successives en hommes de l’Armée Française dans la campagne de Russie 1812-1813″, brilliantly illustrated the march to and from the Polish-Russian border to Moscow by Napoleon’s army and was profiled in the article, Spatial Unmapped on GIS Lounge.

422,000 soldiers began the journey in June of 1812 towards Moscow and only 10,000 made it back to the border after the failed invasion.  Minard’s map has been acclaimed by many for its clear use of geography and time to show how devastating the invasion of Russia by France was on the troops.

Noted statistician and Yale professor, Edward Tufte, declared in his 1983 book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information that the Minard graph “may well be the best statistical graphic ever drawn.

Mapping Time

Esri Press has recently released a book inspired by Minard’s Map entitled, Mapping Time:

Published by Esri Press, Menno-Jan Kraak’s book Mapping Time: Illustrated by Minard’s Map of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign of 1812 combines historical and geographic analysis with cartography to examine mapping change over time.

The book includes more than 100 full-color illustrations inspired by graphic innovator Charles Minard’s classic flow line map of Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia.

Kraak is a professor of geovisual analytics and cartography at the University of Twente in Enschede, Netherlands who has also written the textbook, Cartography, Visualization of Geospatial Data.

Book details: Mapping Time: Illustrated by Minard’s Map of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign of 1812 is available in print (ISBN: 9781589483125, 168 pages, hardcover) and e-book format (ISBN: 9781589483668).


The Lyra Visualization Design Environment (VDE)

Source: Arvind Satyanarayan, Kanit “Ham” Wongsuphasawat, and Jeffrey Heer, The Lyra Visualization Design Environment (VDE), UW Interactive Data Lab Projects,

What is Lyra?

IDL LogoLyra is an interactive environment that enables custom visualization design without writing any code. Graphical “marks” can be bound to data fields using property drop zones; dynamically positioned using connectors; and directly moved, rotated, and resized using handles. Lyra also provides a data pipeline interface for iterative visual specification of data transformations and layout algorithms. Lyra is more expressive than interactive systems like Tableau, allowing designers to create custom visualizations comparable to hand-coded visualizations built with D3 or Processing. These visualizations can then be easily published and reused on the Web.

How Can I Try it Out?

Lyra is available as free and open source software. Try it out or fork it on GitHub.

Note: Lyra is currently alpha software, so beware of bugs! If you experience a bug, please file a bug report.

Is There a Tutorial?

Let’s Make a Bar Chart with Lyra by Jim Vallandingham

Who to Contact?

Please E-Mail the Lyra Team any feedback, or links and screenshots of visualizations built with Lyra!

Example: Napoleon’s March to Moscow – Minard’s Map

Click on image to view interactively

DataViz History: Napoleon’s Tomb Using Six Coffins

Napoleon's Tomb

afterlife-journeys-new-631After twenty-five years, when this thought came to the King to restore to France the remains of Napoleon who died on Saint-Helena, God gave him one of those inspirations which spoke sympathetically the heart of the people.

To Louis-Philippe thus belongs the honor of having returned to the country the remains of the great man who so gloriously presided over its destinies.

This generous resolution was announced in these terms in the House of Representatives, May 12, 1840 by Mr. Remusat, then Minister of the Interior:

“Gentlemen, the King commanded His Royal Highness the Prince of Joinville, his son, to go with his frigate to the island of Saint-Helena, to collect the remains of the Emperor Napoleon.

The Commander in charge of the precious deposit is to present them, on its return to the mouth of the Seine, to another boat to bring it back to Paris. Napoleon’s ashes will be placed in the Invalides.  A formal ceremony, with great religious and military pomp will open the tomb, which must be kept forever.

It is indeed important, gentlemen, to the majesty to such a memory, that the buried august does not remain exposed in a public square in the middle of a noisy and distracting crowd. It should be placed in a place sacred and silent, which can be visited with reverence by all those who respect its glory and genius, its greatness and misfortune.

Napoleon was Emperor and King.  He was the legitimate ruler of our country. In these capacities, he could be buried in Saint-Denis; but Napoleon will not be buried as any ordinary king: he must reign and control again in the forum where the soldiers of the fatherland rest; where he will always inspire those who are called to defend it. His sword will be placed on his grave.

The art raised under the dome in the middle of the temple consecrated by the religion of the gods of war, will be a worthy tomb, perhaps with the name to be engraved.  The monument should have a simple beauty, a grand form, and with a solid aspect that seems unshakable to defy the passage of time.  It is a monument to Napoleon as his lasting memory.

We do not doubt gentlemen that the Board of Deputies joined with a patriotic emotion of the Royal idea will be justly expressed.  Now France, France alone, will possess all that remains of Napoleon: the tomb, like his reputation, does not belong to anyone but his country.

The July Monarchy was, in fact, the only legitimate heir to all the memories of which France is proud: it probably belonged to the monarchy, who first rallied all the forces and reconciled all the wishes of the French Revolution, to elevate and honor without fear the statue and the tomb of a popular hero, because for one thing, it does not fear the comparison with its glory, its freedom!”

We know with what enthusiasm these beautiful words were welcomed by all of France.  The government prepared on the spot for the trip, and after July 7, the frigate Belle-Poule sailed from Toulon, the corvette La Favorite, commanded by M. Guyet, accompanied it.

On board the Belle-Poule, with the Prince of Joinville, sailed Captain Hernoux, his aide-de-camp; Touchard, ensign, his officier d’ordonnance; Count Rohan-Chabot, Commissioner of the King; Baron de Las-Cases, member of the Chamber of Deputies; General Gourgaud, aide-de-camp to the King; General Bertrand; the Abbot Coquereau, chaplain of the expedition; and the four former servants of Napoleon; Saint-Denis and Noverraz, chamber valets; Pierron, cook; and Archambauld, picket.

M. Marchand, executor of the will of the Emperor, who he had said: “The services he rendered to me are those of a friend,” took passage on the La Favorite. [1]

On Thursday, October 8, the day of arrival of the expedition to Saint-Helena, at six o’clock in the evening MM. de Chabot and Las-Cases landed.  This memory of the scorched places where they had been twenty-five years ago, which they had spent near Napoleon, was still young, and would never fade from their minds. Too soon the night interrupted their pious pilgrimage, and they had to return to board, to their great regret.

The next day the 9th, some officers of the two ships landed early at the place of the Emperor’s exile.  After having only gone five hundred steps along a trail carved in the rock, they crossed a narrow gated drawbridge, flanked by hand-rails; then after less than two hundred steps, they arrived at the gate of James Town, the capital and only town of the island, containing the bulk of its population, which only amounted to about 1,600 souls; the garrison forming a third; the settlers three-sixths; and slaves or Chinese workers, the remaining sixth.  The settlers were mostly former minor employees of the East India Company, retired civil service or military.  The stores were almost all Jewish.

The two huge black and arid rocks that hugged James Town are 55 feet high, and are crowned by batteries. The rock on the right, Ladder Hill, the montagne de l’Echelle, is named in that the slope that descends from the fort to the city, is so steep one could use it only by a wooden staircase forming a true ladder.  The left rock, Munden’s Hill, the montagne de Munden, has a less difficult access.  One recounts that Admiral Richard Munden, approaching the coast under cover of night, slid down it from the rigging used by his sailors, who took the island from Holland.  This is an unlikely fact; as the foot of the rock shows debarkation, impractical due to continuous crashing waves.

The city runs from north to south.  While casting one’s eyes to the harbor, we first see clumps of trees that seem to grow out of the sea and under the coastal battery that closes the gorge.  Behind a little amphitheater, runs the length of the main street, or rather the only street of the village; behind again, much farther and higher, stands the white house, Alarm House, all surrounded by pine trees.  Our officers, entered the city, crossed the parade square, which was 170 feet long by 160 wide.  At the left is the governmental palace and garden of the company; at the right, the church and administration; following the garden of the company, is a house of modest appearance at the corner of the street: it is the one the Emperor occupied the only night he spent at James Town.  Having arrived in the harbor October 15, 1815, at noon, landed on the 17th, at 6 thirty in the evening, he left the next day the 18th, at five o’clock in the morning, before daybreak.  He was not returned to these places.  Our officers bowed respectfully before these painful memories.

Halfway to Longwood, one was greeted by Hut’s Gate, this small house of three or four parts, where General Bertrand had spent several months with his family awaiting the preparation of a home for him near the Emperor.  These mountains, with arid sides, the peaks crowned with clouds, offered a frightening contrast with the sinuous valleys with streams that were alive with vegetation.  Some green points mark their source among the rocks. In these oases and along the valleys, arise pretty white houses with green shutters, covered with tiles or slates.  Their charming construction is reminiscent of those small painted wooden houses that are sold in toy stores for the amusement of children.  Where nature has created a breech in the mountains of the coast, the sea seems to be confused with the mists that cloud the horizon; and the vessels of the roads appear as fishing boats, through the misty curtain.

After passing through a clump of trees looking as sad as the arid soil we travel on, we arrived at Longwood.

It was on the night of 14 to 15 that this solemn operation was to take place. It was assumed that the work would be long and difficult, and that the mortal remains of the Emperor could be delivered the next day to the Prince de Joinville. Two large tents had been erected for service needs in a corner of the valley; one to be used by the body-guard of a strong detachment of the English 91st Line; in the other it was decided that the coffins would be opened. The Commissioner of the King had discussed all the details with the Governor. Their actions had been planned so that no obstacle seemed possible.  The most comprehensive union existed between the officers of both nations.

The Prince had published an agenda addressing the ceremony to be observed on the days of the 15th and 16th, which impacted those French who, coming from afar, saw only their senior officers being admitted to attend the exhumation and follow the imperial coffin in its last move on English soil.  The British government, meanwhile, had just expanded its invitations.  Only when the exhumation accomplished, was the entire island invited to join the funeral from the valley to the utmost extent that is to say to the landing port.  If we had agreed that the French sailors should perform this work under the eyes of their officers, the Prince, presumably, would have led in person.

But according to the steps taken by the government of the island, the exhumation was to be exclusively entrusted to English hands, therefore the Prince thought it proper to remain on board, where his own resignation had to more patiently endure the French sacrifice which they had been condemned to. His agenda was that he would descend to the head of the staffs of the three warships to get on the pier, from the hands of the English, the mortal remains of the Emperor, and he would guide himself the rudder of the boat where it would be placed.

For two days the ebony coffin, from Paris, had been sitting in one of the two tents.  The Governor had also brought close by the hearse he had built, all draped in black, with a canopy supported by four columns, surmounted by plumes of crepe; four horses caparisoned in mourning would be harnessed to it.

On the 14th in the morning, every avenue leading to the valley was guarded by English detachments.  The proclamation of the Governor, displayed in the city, had produced a profound sensation.  As ten o’clock at night struck from the clock of the frigate, two boats landed on the shore MM. de Chabot, Bertrand, Gourgaud, Las-Cases, the four servants of the Emperor, the three commanding captains, the doctor Guillard, the abbot Coquereau, the two cabin choirboys, Dufour and Légiré, and M. Roux , plumber.  At half past ten they got into the prepared carriage. Soon they left James Town on a cold brisk ride, accompanied by rain and fog.  The moon rose melancholy, sometimes veiled by clouds, sometimes soaring silently over their bluish crest: nature seemed to join the French in religious mourning.  Arriving on the hill, they saw at the bottom of the valley a flickering light; it was that the lanterns used for illuminating the workers.  From time to time we passed the English posts established since sunrise: we approached the scene that only would be left after consummating the exhumation.  Nothing had yet been done; they had awaited the arrival of the representatives of France.

At midnight, they stopped at the gate of the tomb.

It was close to the place where Napoleon rested.  The commissioners of both governments introduced into the chamber the people who had to witness the solemn act which was accomplished.  We said who the representatives of France were.  On the British side, it was Captain Alexander, the Deputy Governor of the island, the Chief Justice W. Wilde, the lieutenant of artillery Trelawney, Colonel Hopson, the lieutenant-colonel of militia, Colonial Secretary W. -H. Seale, C. M. Littcehale, Lieutenant of the Royal Navy, commanding the brig Dolphin, Mr. Darling, who had presided at the burial of the Emperor, and the plumber who had welded the coffin.

At a quarter past midnight, work began.  Previously it had been found that the monument was intact.  Workers belonging to the 91st Regiment of Infantry first carefully tore the borders of geraniums and other flowers; that the Prince had requested for distribution among the sailors of the expedition; then under the power of levers, a part of the iron gate was pried open: the heavy hinges clutching the stones, on which it was sealed, yielded to the action of jacks, and pickaxes, breaking the mortar to a large extent.  The deep silence that reigned in the chamber was only broken by the voice of Captain Alexander, who briefly gave his orders; rain clouds on the horizon, went down into the valley, and a light rain began to fall.  The pale faces of the workers and watchful spectators could be seen by the light of the lanterns among the cypresses and willows coming and going like shadows.  You could hear the repeated blows of hammers that struck the iron railing, and from time to time see the sentinels who met on the hills nearby.

The iron gate removed, M. Chabot took a position outside the tomb.  The three black slabs that covered it were removed, starting with the feet, then detaching the one that protected the head, and ending with the middle one. The three slabs removed, mold presented itself to the eyes, separated from the ground by a blank space of about a foot and a half and with a large crack, a huge collapse, which caused concern that the coffin had been crushed. This earth seemed wet.

It was then half past one.  Work went on in silence: the activity was extreme.  They reached a hard spot, we thought to be the stone that covered the coffin; but the extract from the report of Hudson-Lowe about the burial acknowledged a rectangular wall forming, as we found out later, the four sides of the vault.  There was mold to a great depth.  After removing the earth that formed on the ground a mound of nearly six feet, we encountered fragments of slabs joined by iron clamps, and chunks of basalt associated with Roman cement. The chisel bit into this grained cement with difficulty; it chipped on the basalt without penetrating; under the hammer it sparked.  This slow and painful operation lasted four hours; the rain intensified, the wind rushing forcefully over the ravine with its voice and its complaints, and the day that struggled against the fog began to allow the distinguishing of objects.

Napoleon I

The Father Coquereau went to the source of water that was blessed for the ceremony. Secluded in one of two tents, he prepared the great religious duty he was commissioned to perform.

The strength of the workers was exhausted.  The extreme difficulty of the operation led Captain Alexander to decide at half past five to try a trench on the left side of the vault to bring down the corresponding wall, and then reach the coffin, where the top layer continued to oppose with same resistance.  But about eight o’clock, the masonry weakened, and shaking, gave way and revealed the wide slab sent from England, which covered the vault to its full extent. Through a slot, we saw the coffin, one and all uncovered their heads.  Captain Alexander, moved by a religious feeling that everyone will appreciate, covered the stones; he ordered at the same time they cease to dig the side ditch, which had already reached a considerable depth.

A crane had been drawn up for the slab.  French and English went to dress in their full uniforms.  At nine o’clock a guard of militiamen and British soldiers gathered around the monument.  The rain fell violently.  They finished removing the cement that held the large slab, and adjusted the cleats.  Father Coquereau, wearing the robe, the cape and stole, stood on the side where the head laid; near him, the choirboy Légiré carried the cross; behind him, the English witnesses; on the side of the chaplain, the witnesses of France.

At a sign of Captain Alexander’s hand, the workers seized the ropes, and then raised the mounting slab slowly upright; filed on balance, it allowed the coffin to be seen: it was half past nine.  Everyone was uncovered.  The general presence was broken only by the sound of prayers; Protestant, Catholic, all prayed to God with the same fervor.  There was only a single belief: the belief in the genius. Father Coquereau sprinkled holy water and recited the De Profundis.

The commissioners went down into the cellar where the mahogany coffin was placed at a depth of ten feet on a large slab base itself on a cube of stone. Its length was about six feet by three wide.  The wood was damp, but well kept; the lower shelf, once lined with velvet, alone had started to deteriorate, some silver nails fixing it to walls were still bright.  On the sides, you could see the straps and ropes that were used to lower the coffin.

The doctor Guillard purified the grave by sprinkling chloride, and a messenger was sent to the Governor informing him of the progress of the operation.  Soon, with strong ropes, the coffin was raised, leaving the bed where it had rested for twenty years.  The chaplain said the lifting body rites according to the Catholic Church.  At ten-twenty the remains of the Emperor Napoleon were in the midst of the French.  Captain Alexander ordered twelve men of the 91st without rain cloaks and with uncovered head to carry it into a tent nearby.  The Abbot and the altar boys went before reciting their prayers.  Behind, in pouring rain, the French and English procession slowly advanced.

After some health measures, taken again by Doctor Gaillard, they began opening the coffins.  The first, of mahogany, enveloping all the others, was sawed off by both sides to slide out the lead coffin that it contained, and which was placed at a quarter past noon in the ebony sarcophagus that had been brought from France.  The governor of the island, though very ill, came at twelve forty-five, surrounded by his staff.  Everyone waited anxiously in silence.  We cut and carefully lifted the upper part of the lead coffin, where they found a third of mahogany, so well preserved that one could loosen the nails.  The cover of it having been removed, we saw a fourth of tin slightly oxidized.  It was in the last that Napoleon was.  The emotion of the assistants was at its height.


The weld was cut slowly, the lid, ajar by the chisel, yielded.  First, one could distinguish a white cloth that covered the coffin and prevented distinguishing the body; it was the quilted satin which, following the custom of India, formed a lining in the interior of the casket.  It had separated and enveloped the body like a shroud.  The doctor lifted it by one end and rolling it upon itself from the feet towards the head; he left the body uncovered.

It would be impossible to describe the emotion of all who attended the funeral scene.  Several convulsively sobbed, and tears dimmed every eye.

Something white, detached from the fittings, covered, like light gauze, all that the coffin contained.  The skull and forehead which strongly adhered to the silk were coated; we saw little on the bottom of the face, on the hands, on the toes.  The body still had a repose that one had given him on placing him in the coffin; the upper limbs were alongside the body; the forearm and left hand rested on the thigh, the legs were slightly flexed. The head was raised by a cushion; the skull was large; the forehead high and broad; the eyes had lost none of their size and shape. The eyelids were completely closed; there seemed a few lashes still.

The bones and skin of the nose were well preserved, the bottom only had suffered.  The cheeks appeared puffy: they felt gentle, soft to the touch; their color white.  The beard, which had grown since death, colored the chin with a bluish tint; the chin was not altered, still retaining this face typical of Napoleon.  The thinned lips, were parted, three very white canines showed themselves under the upper lip, which was somewhat parted to left.  The hands, though beautiful, seemed to belong to a man still alive; they were so bright in tone and color.  The fingers had long nails, adhering with an extreme whiteness. The legs were still enclosed in the boot, but due to the rupture of thread, four toes on each side pushed through.  Their skin was a dull white; they were covered with nails.  The clothes stood out by their color: one recognized very well the uniform of Horse Chasseurs of the Old Guard with its dark green coat and bright red facings; the Grand Cordon of the Legion of Honor showed on the vest.  The white pantaloons were partly concealed by the little hat that rested on the thighs.  The epaulettes, the plaque and the two attached decorations on his chest had lost their luster: they were black.  The two silver vases which contained the heart and stomach appeared between his legs; one was topped by an eagle that showed between the legs.

This examination, which lasted only two minutes, noted a more perfect state of conservation than was expected based on known circumstances following the autopsy and burial.  The doctor said that, fearing for these precious remains coming in contact with atmospheric air, he felt it necessary to seal them up as quickly as possible. This necessary determination created an unspeakable heartache in all the spectators.  The tears flowed more abundantly. Finally padded satin was put in his place, having been lightly coated with creosote; the wooden boxes tightly closed, the metal cases were welded with the utmost care, except that of tin which the workers could not close, because of its state of oxidation.

The remains of Napoleon were contained in six coffins:

  1. One of tin.
  2. One of mahogany.
  3. One of lead.
  4. A second of lead, separated from the preceding by sawdust and wooden wedges.
  5. A coffin made of ebony.
  6. One of oak protecting all the others.

These last three were brought from France.

At three o’clock everything was finished.  Subsequently General Churchill arrived with his aides-de-camp, in deep mourning.  The rain was still falling. The coffin, which weighed 2,400 pounds, was transported with great difficulty on the hearse by forty-three artillerymen, who surrounded it throughout the journey.

The tricolor flags that were used in the ceremony and the imperial flag that were already on board the Belle- Poule had been offered for the old ones by the young ladies of the island, which had made them with their own hands. The white and blue were in silk and red was in a Chinese crepe.  The English girls were stripped of their most beautiful shawls, their finest materials, to accomplish this national act of reparation.  The officers of H. M. of Britain, partnering with the work, had made the stripes from their uniforms, which, under the nimble fingers of their compatriots, had metamorphosed into imperial figures.  By receiving this precious gift from the hands of Miss Gideon, the most graceful of these blonde English girls, the Prince had promised, at the Hotel des Invalides, that the imperial flag, donated by the ladies of Saint-Helena, would shade the coffin of heroes: he has kept his word: at each move its first step is that the flag did not quit for a moment the sarcophagus. Upon his return to Paris he was quick to send a flattering letter to Miss Gideon with a gold bracelet adorned with pearls, rubies and a beautiful emerald.

When the funeral pall with bees crowned with eagles in gold on purple velvet, its large cross of silver and ermine border, had been deployed and fell on the carriage it was covered entirely in its rich draperies, eight foot valets in deep mourning stood at the head of the horses.

The troops waited for the funeral lining the way.  It started off in the following order: 220 militiamen of Saint-Helena, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Seale; 140 soldiers of the 91st Regiment, commanded by Captain Blackwell; the musicians of the militia; Abbot Coquereau, preceded by the two cabin choirboys, Lérigé bearing the cross and Dufour the holy water; the four-wheeled chariot was drawn by four horses caparisoned in black cloth.  On this uneven ground it would have been dangerous to have more.  The tassels were kept by MM. Bertrand, Las-Cases and Marchand; followed by the faithful servants: Saint-Denis, Noverraz, Pierron and Archambault.   Along the march the artillerymen, were responsible for keeping it on the steep slopes.  M. de Chabot led the mourning on his side with the captains Guyet and Charner; then M. Arthur Bertrand, Captain Doret, Doctor Guillard and civil authorities, military and maritime of the island, which had wanted the French ranked first in the sad solemnity.  Behind came the principle inhabitants in mourning. The procession was closed by a company of artillery and a detachment of militia, which was followed by a large population.

Arriving at James Town, the funeral procession marched slowly between two rows of militiamen.  The sky had cleared, it stopped raining; the shops were closed; the windows and balconies, covered with people; the crowd thronged the streets.  The forts and the ships were firing the cannon every minute from the start; the flags were flying at half-mast.  Further on the border of militiamen succeeded by a line of soldiers, extended up to the embarkation pier.

There the Prince was waiting under the tricolor for the remains of the hero. He had just landed with the staffs of the Belle-Poule, La Favorite and the Orestes.  On approaching the carriage they uncovered; the men manning the long boats muffled their oars; far off the three French warships, hoisted their colors, as did all French and foreign ships, as their yardarms that were en pantenne[2] for eight days; and from the musicians of the Belle-Poule was heard funeral marches.

The boat, in which the coffin had been placed, bent under the weight.  The coffin was finally leaving the land of exile.  All the French had re-embarked. The flag of the ladies of Saint-Helena was raised.  The frigate, corvette and brig greeted it with a triple salvo of artillery.  The land answered with twenty-one guns; the two long boats of La Favorite preceded the boat, two boats of the Belle-Poule escorted; two boats from the Orestes followed. All the men were bareheaded, crepe on their arm.  On October 15, 1815, a captive Napoleon had anchored at Saint- Helena to begin his long agony.  On October 15, 1840, his remains were returned again from a foreign land on behalf of France.

When the boat had approached the frigate, all signs of mourning had disappeared: it was to the sound of volleys of the decked vessels with crews on the yardarms, that the dead Emperor was received on board.  Sixty men were under arms; the three staffs lined the way.  When the coffin passed, the drums beat loudly, the music sounded national airs of France.  On the forecastle, a chapel, decorated with military trophies, had been prepared.  The coffin was laid down at half past six.  It was almost dark.  By their torches arranged around the catafalque an absolution was recited and the body remained exposed.  Four sentries were placed at the four corners.

During the night of October 15 to 16, the officer of the watch remained by the body with the chaplain.  At ten o’clock in the morning the funeral service was to begin; the altar had been erected on the site of the steering wheel, leaning on the mizzen mast; it was shaded with tricolor flags and dominated by a trophy of arms on the right, and on the left, two fasces of fusils, topped by a crown of oak; in front, two howitzers; between the altar and the capstan, a black cloth trimmed with silver, on which rested the coffin draped with the imperial mantle and diadem veiled with crape.  Incense burned in suspended cressets. Thirty men were under arms starboard and thirty to port. The companions of exile having taken their place; then came the faithful servants and four more former officers of the division; then the Prince, M. Chabot, the consular officer of France, the officers of the Royal Navy and the two captains of merchant ships the Bien-Aimée, of Bordeaux, and the Indien, of Havre, and their passengers, and finally all the sailors.  Not a foreigner was there.  It was a national celebration.  Throughout the duration of the divine office, the corvette and brig, which since eight o’clock in the morning had their flag at half-mast and rigging en pantene, alternated firing a cannon from minute to minute.

The Mass ended, the abbot Coquereau, who left his chasuble, took the stole and the cope and began the prayers of the absolution; then the body was lowered into the burial vault prepared in the lower deck. The imperial flag still with its ribbon of crepe floated on the mainmast.

Saturday the 17th, there was to be sanctification and a last pilgrimage to the valley of Napoleon.  Despite strict orders, it was almost completely devastated.  Everyone, even the most humble sailor, had his share of relics. At nine o’clock in the morning, the large slab of white stone was brought on board, which immediately closed the coffin and the three tiles that had covered the grave.

The following 18th early, the Prince gave orders to sail.  We made good progress.  At sunset, we scarcely could distinguish Saint-Helena.  It was 22 miles away.

Napoleon had left St. Helena twenty-five years to the day after he landed in this land of exile.

Initially, the weather, which began with a storm, made us fear a painful and upsetting journey; but this was short lived and the Belle-Poule found the sea breeze calmed, and at night the moon rose brilliantly, as if to illuminate with its glow its grief of the funeral march to the landing of Courbevoie, where Napoleon finally touched the shores of the Seine December 14, 1840.

The next day, the 13th, which was chosen by the government to accomplish the grand ceremony of removing the ashes of the Emperor to the Invalides, will now have its place in our national annals and remain in human memory as one of the most memorable our history.

That day, in a beautiful winter sun, a hearse, which summarized the whole ceremony, with its colossal statues of Victory supporting a huge shield, its fasces of weapons, its purple draperies, his bees, its eagles, its lightning bolts, its palms of laurels, its imperial figures, its four-wheeled ancient chariot and its team of sixteen horses with floating white feathers and trappings of gold, led by two pickets on horseback, and by sixteen on foot in the imperial livery, appeared on the Bridge of Courbevoie; the National Guard and troops of the line formed the hedge to the Hotel des Invalides.

The Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile, was an allegory representing the apotheosis of him who laid the first stone.

The procession set off at ten o’clock in the morning to the sound of bells of all churches and the great bell of Notre Dame.  It marched in the following order:

    • The gendarmerie,
    • The Municipal Guard,
    • The lancers,
    • The cuirassiers,
    • The dragoons,
    • The School of Saint-Cyr,
    • The Polytechnic School,
    • The Staff School,
    • The artillery,
    • The engineers,
    • The veterans,
    • The chaplain of Saint-Helena,

dome-illu1_01A body of funeral musicians, The warhorse of Napoleon, wearing the harness he used when he was first Consul. The general officers of land and sea, 24 non-commissioned officers of all the corps of cavalry, The Commission of Saint-Helena, 34 decorated non-commissioned officers of the infantry, The 86 non-commissioned officers carrying the banners of the 86 the departments, The Prince de Joinville and his staff, The sailors of the Belle-Poule and La Favorite, around the hearse, Two marshals, an admiral and Lieutenant-General Bertrand, bearing the Imperial pall, The former officers of the military and civilian households of the Emperor, The two prefects of the Seine and the municipal authorities, The former military police with their old uniforms, The deputation of Ajaccio, birthplace of Napoleon, The retired officers, etc., etc..

The Avenue des Champs-Élysées formed a majestic route of banners, trophies, statues; the Place and the Bridge of the Concorde were decorated with eight allegorical statues and four triumphal columns; a colossal statue of Immortality was erected on the steps of the Chamber of Deputies; the Quai d’Orsay and the Esplanade des Invalides were decorated with thirty-two statues of kings and warriors, and among the statues, tripods with streaming flames.  Everything was pompous, magnificent and admirable.

Everyone had abandoned staying at home and their businesses to run to sit on the route of the procession: the city and the entire suburb was on the Avenue des Champs-Elysees and the Esplanade des Invalides.

At half past one the hearse approached the Pont de la Concorde.  At two o’clock it stopped at the gate of the Home of the Invalides, decorated with a black curtain decorated with silver and gold, supported by two triumphal columns and numerous bundles of spears.  The entrance court had become an avenue through rich candelabra.  The courtyard had been transformed into a magnificent armory of the most warlike effect.  The church by its rich tapestry of funeral mourning was worthy of he who was Emperor of the French.

Carried on the shoulders of the sailors who had escorted it throughout the journey, the coffin arrived under the dome, where the King, surrounded by all the illustrious of the state, had advanced to receive it, Louis-Phillippe shook the hand of his son:

—Sire, said the young Prince, I commend to you the body of the Emperor Napoleon.

—I accept it in the name of France, said the King, and turning to General Bertrand:

—General, he said, I charge you to place the glorious sword of the Emperor on his coffin.

Oh! The shadow of Napoleon had to be moved by passing under the arches of the Temple Hospital.  It had to recognize these standards as the God of battles, the memorable days of France, which was pleased to provide the courage, the fearlessness of her children. In the thinned ranks of the disabled veterans who came to weep at the foot of his coffin, it had to remember some of these proud athletes who had followed the crest of the Alps and the Pyrenees, on the sands of Syria, as in ice of Russia.  It had to smile, and if the August shade had been expressing the thought of the great soul which had animated their general, it would have told them these words he once addressed to them: “Soldiers! … I am pleased with you! …”

The evening of the late apotheosis, when the crowd was sadly removed from the sacred enclosure, where the murmur of the thousand voices were erased, and the solitude was complete and the silence profound, an almost century-old disabled soldier, blind, and barely walking with the aid of two wooden legs, entered with reverence into the chapel where the body of Napoleon was in the midst of a sea of lights. Arriving with great difficulty to the foot of the Imperial burial scaffold, he wanted to be rid of his two wooden legs, the better to kneel and then prostrate himself; then his bald head touching the stairs, one heard from his chest sighs mingled with tears, and words of GodEmperorfather, out of his mouth inarticulate stammering.  Finally, when torn from his poignant pain by two comrades, the martyr of battles crossed the chapel to go back, one noticed that the senior officers of the home had uncovered respectfully as he passed.

Because the one who had to make this last tribute to the mortal remains of Napoleon, was the first invalid that had been decorated by his hands, while France had first welcomed the noble title of Emperor.

The ceremony ended at the Invalides.  Pious pilgrimages were accomplished, over ten days, at this church; across the avenue lined with statues and trophies that the procession had followed; where the squadron and the ship catafalque floated; at the Arc de l’Étoile, under which the imperial chariot was deposited; and at the landing of Courbevoie.  Despite the inclemency of the season, the crowd was so large in the vicinity of the Invalides, that despite the vigilance of the troops, serious disorders and unfortunate accidents had occurred.  But after arriving in the sanctuary, the crowd flowed calmly and thoughtfully, with approximately 100,000 people admitted daily.  It brought the total number of visitors to more than one million.



[1] The 1841 edition differs from the 1857 illustrated version at this point.  The 1841 epilogue is much shorter and has a long report by the Prince of Joinville.  What follows is the translated text of the 1841 first edition:

Since the report given by the Prince de Joinville on their landing in Brazil at the beginning of September the government had received no news of the expedition.  Finally, November 30, we learned that it had anchored at Cherbourg the same day at five o’clock in the morning, after a prosperous voyage, and the next day, 1 December, the Minister of the Navy received the following report of the Prince de Joinville, dated from the harbor of Cherbourg, 5 November 1840:

“As I had the honor to announce, M. Minister, I left September 14th for the Bay-of-All-Saints; I had continued along the Brazilian coast with winds coming from the north-east and north, that allowed me to quickly reach the meridian of Saint-Helena, though I had to go beyond the parallel of 28 degrees south.  Arriving on this meridian calm and contrary wind had caused me some delay, but October 8, I anchored in the harbor of Jamestown.

The brig The Orestes, seconded by M. Vice Admiral Mackau, that provided the Belle-Poule a pilot for the Channel, arrived yesterday. This boat brought me no new direction; I immediately busied myself executing the orders that I had previously received.

My first thought was to put M. Chabot, Commissioner of the King, in contact with General Middlemore, Governor of the island.  These gentlemen had to settle according to their respective instructions, how the remains of the Emperor should be exhumed, and their movement aboard Belle-Poule.  The project implementation was issued on a schedule for 15 October.

The Governor would be responsible for the exhumation and all that was to take place on the British territory.  For me, I was to pay the honors to be rendered, on the days of 15 and 16 by the division under my command. The French merchant ships la Bonne Aimée, Captain Gallet, and l’Indien, Captain Truquetil, joined us with alacrity.

On the 15th, at midnight, the operation was started by the French and English Commissioners, M. Chabot and Captain Alexander R. E., the latter directing the work.  M. Chabot is to make the government a detailed account of operations he had witnessed, but I cannot avoid covering the same details.  I limit myself to tell you that it took until ten o’clock for the coffin to be discovered in the pit.  After having removed it intact, we proceeded to open it, and the body was found in an unexpected state of preservation.  In this solemn moment at the sight of such recognizable remains of one who did so much for the glories of France, the emotion was profound and unanimous.

At half past three, the cannon of the forts in the harbor announced that the funeral procession was marching towards the town of Jamestown.  The troops of the militia and the garrison preceded the wagon, covered with the pall whose corners were held by the generals Bertrand and Gourgaud, and MM. Las-Cases and Marchand.  Authorities and residents followed in droves.  On the road, the guns of the frigate responded to the forts’, and sounded from minute to minute. Since morning, the yard arms were en pantenne2, flags at half-mast, and all French and foreign vessels were shown in mourning.  When the train appeared on the platform, the British troops lined the way, and the carriage moved slowly toward the beach.

At the seaside, where the British lines stopped, I had gathered around me officers of the French division.  All in great grief and heads uncovered, as we awaited the approach of the coffin.  Twenty paces from us it stopped, and the Governor General, advancing towards me, gave me, on behalf of his government, the remains of the Emperor Napoleon.

As soon as the coffin was lowered into the long boat of the frigate, ready to receive him, again the emotion was serious and deep; the wish of the dying Emperor began to be fulfilled: his ashes rested on the National flag.

Any sign of mourning was abandoned at this point; the same honors that the Emperor would have received in his lifetime were given to his mortal remains; and in the midst of salvos from decked vessels, with crews hanging from on the yardarms, this long boat, escorted by long boats of all the ships, slowly made its way to the frigate.

Arrived on board, the coffin was received between two rows of officers under arms, and carried onto the quarterdeck, prepared as a mortuary chapel.  As you’ve prescribed to me; a guard of sixty men commanded by the oldest lieutenant of the frigate, made honors.  Although it was already late, absolution was recited and the body remained exposed all night. The chaplain and an officer watched it closely.

On the 16th at ten o’clock in the morning, with the officers and crews of the French commerce and warships together on board the frigate, a solemn funeral service was celebrated. We then lowered the body below deck, where a chapel had been prepared to receive it.

At noon, everything was finished, and the frigate was under sail; but the official wording of the agreement called for two days, and it was only on the 18th in the morning that the Belle-Poule and La Favorite could set sail. The Orestes, leaving at the same time, made their way to their destination.”

Napoleon had left St. Helena twenty-five years to the day after he landed in this land of exile.

Initially, the weather, which began with a storm, made us fear a painful and upsetting journey; but this was short lived and the Belle-Poule found the sea breeze calmed, and at night the moon rose brilliantly, as if to lighten with its glow its grief of the funeral march to the landing of Courbevoie, where Napoleon finally touched the shores of the Seine December 14, 1840.

The next day the 13th, which was chosen by the government to accomplish the grand ceremony of moving the ashes of the Emperor to the Invalides, will now have its place in our national annals and remain in human memory as one of the most memorable in our history. That day, in beautiful winter sunlight, a funeral carriage, laden with wreaths of immortality, preceded by the banners of France and the living remains of forty armies slowly passed under the Arch of Triumph of the Star!  The sarcophagus, surrounded by so much military pomp, and received the cheers of an enthusiastic populace who remembered that the sun once obeyed the fortune of Napoleon; the sarcophagus, we say, contained the remains of the man who in the space of fifteen years, had only been matched in by Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne and Louis XIV.  Napoleon dead, was laid under the dome of the Invalides, the place during his lifetime, he had marked for heroes.

Oh! The shadow of Napoleon had to be moved by passing under the arches of the Temple Hospital.  It had to recognize these standards as the God of battles, the memorable days of France, which was pleased to provide the courage, the fearlessness of her children. In the thinned ranks of the disabled veterans who came to weep at the foot of his coffin, it had to remember some of these proud athletes who had followed the crest of the Alps and the Pyrenees, on the sands of Syria, as in ice of Russia.  It had to smile, and if the August shade had been expressing the thought of the great soul which had animated their general, it would have told them these words he once addressed to them: “Soldiers! … I am pleased with you! …”

The evening of the late apotheosis, when the crowd was sadly removed from the sacred enclosure, where the murmur of the thousand voices were erased, and the solitude was complete and the silence profound, an almost century-old disabled soldier, blind, and barely walking with the aid of two wooden legs, entered with reverence into the chapel where the body of Napoleon was in the midst of a sea of lights. Arriving with great difficulty to the foot of the Imperial burial scaffold, he wanted to be rid of his two wooden legs, the better to kneel and then prostrate himself; then his bald head touching the stairs, one heard from his chest sighs mingled with tears, and words of GodEmperorfather, out of his mouth inarticulate stammering.  Finally, when torn from his poignant pain by two comrades, the martyr of battles crossed the chapel to go back, one noticed that the senior officers of the home had uncovered respectfully as he passed.

Because the one who had to make this last tribute to the mortal remains of Napoleon, was the first invalid that had been decorated by his hands, while France had first welcomed the noble title of Emperor.

[2] One places the yardarms “en pantenne” as a sign of mourning.

[3] Placed on the Napoleon Series: Napoleon Himself: Epilogue, January 2010,

What Minard’s Map Helps Show Us: Why Napoleon’s 1812 Russian Campaign Failed

This is the last blog from my multi-part series on Charles Minard’s Flow Map of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign of 1812. It discusses the reasons why it failed, which relate mainly to logistics.

I hope you enjoyed this series and will soon discuss other famous data visualizations in World history.

I would like to credit Martin Gibson’s War and Security Blog for great insights to the Russian Campaign of 1812.

Best Regards,


Charles Minard's Flow Map of Napoleon's Russian Campaign of 1812

[Click on map to see full size version]

Why Napoleon’s 1812 Russian Campaign Failed

David Chandler argues that the enterprise was beset with problems from the start. [1] Tsar Alexander I was not persuaded to come to terms by the threat of invasion, meaning that he was unlikely  to negotiate once the fighting had started. Defeats made the Russians more, not less, determined to resist; the size of Russia made it hard to conquer.

Napoleon was fighting on two fronts. A successful end to the Peninsular War would have released 200,000 troops. Without them, he was forced to turn to allies to supply him with troops. Some of them, including Austria and Prussia, were very reluctant to co-operate. The different languages and equipment of the various nationalities involved created discipline, communications and supply problems.

Napoleon was unwilling to restore the Kingdom of Poland because he needed Austrian and Prussian aid. Consequently, he did not receive full support from the Poles and Lithuanians. However, he gave them enough encouragement to make the Austrians and Prussians suspicious.

Chandler believes that the main reason for the campaign’s failure was logistics. The French over-estimated the traffic capacity of the roads, meaning that supply convoys were always late. There was less grain and fodder available than they had forecast. The depots were too far to the rear and the Russian scorched earth policy meant that the army could not find supplies locally.

The retreating army found large amounts of supplies at Smolensk, Vilna and Kaunas, whilst the Russians captured more at Minsk and Vitebsk. The problem was not the quantity of supplies, but the ability to move them to the front line.

Napoleon should, in Chandler’s view, have spent the winter of 1812-13 at Smolensk. The Emperor had not originally intended to go as far as Moscow. His plan was to win a decisive victory as soon as possible, but the Russians evaded a series of traps intended to force them to fight at Vilna, Vitebsk, Drissa and Smolensk. The French supply system could not cope with the demands of the advance from Smolensk to Moscow.

The need to protect the lines of communication and flanks meant that Napoleon did not have enough troops to win a decisive victory by the time that he managed to bring the Russians to battle at Borodino.

Napoleon then stayed too long in Moscow, allowing the Russians to rally after Borodino. Chandler points out that the Emperor had captured Vienna in 1805 and 1809 and Berlin in 1806 without the enemy immediately coming to terms, so why did he think that taking Moscow in 1812 would induce Alexander to surrender?

Finally, Napoleon  took the wrong route from Moscow to Smolensk. In order to avoid fighting Kutuzov, he switched from the southern route through the fertile and unspoilt Kaluga province to the northern route, which had been ravaged in his advance. He did this after the Battle of Malojaroslavets, but this was a French victory. Chandler doubts that the cautious Russian commander Prince Mikhail Kutuzov would have risked repeating the heavy casualties of Borodino to defend Kaluga.

Chandler argues that Napoleon was already beaten by the time that the Russian winter set in. He also notes that the French suffered as much from the heat of the summer, which caused many men to drop out and killed many horses. The cold made the disaster worse, but did not cause the French defeat.

Chandler praises the endurance and skill in combat of the Russians, and says that the strategy of trading space for time in order the blunt Napoleon’s offensive was correct. However, he wonders whether or not this was the intention from the start, suggesting that the Russians retreated because of weakness rather than a deliberate plan. He contends that it is difficult to see a clear Russian plan until after Napoleon reached Moscow.

In summary, he argues that Napoleon’s military abilities had declined. He was less energetic than in the past.  He failed either to supervise his subordinates, or to take charge himself at the decisive point. He over-estimated the ability of his army and under-estimated the Tsar. Finally, the enterprise was simply too big.

Martin van Creveld devotes a chapter of Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton, in his seminal work on importance of logistics in the history of warfare, to Napoleon’s campaigns.[2]

Van Creveld says that the Emperor increased his supply train ahead of the invasion, and stockpiled large amounts of artillery ammunition. He notes that the operational plans for the campaign have not survived, but argues that the logistical arrangements imply that he expected a short war.

The French supply train was inadequate to sustain an advance on Moscow. An army of 200,000 men that took 60 days to reach Moscow (the Grande Armée actually took 82 days) would have required 18,000 tons of supplies. The French supply train had a capacity of half that, and would also have had to supply troops protecting the flanks and lines of communication.

Once in Moscow, 300 tons of supplies per day would have been needed. It was 600 miles from the supply depots, so the required transport capacity would have remained at 18,000 tons, assuming that supplies moved at an optimistic 20 miles per day.

The invading force carried four days of rations in their packs and 20 days in their battalion supply wagons. Van Creveld argues that a 12 day campaign is implausibly short. He therefore contends that Napoleon expected to win within 24 days, whereupon he would have required his defeated opponent to supply his troops, as he had done previously. This would have allowed him to advance up to 200 miles into Russia.

According to van Creveld, logistics played a major role in the planning of the campaign. The invasion had to begin in June so that the 250,000 horses could be fed from the grass crops. It was impossible to provide fodder for so many animals from base depots. The invasion route was determined by supply considerations; the roads were too poor further north and the River Niemen could not have been used to supply a more southerly advance.

He believes that the Russian plan was also based on logistics. His contention is that all the Russian commanders agreed that ‘only the factors of distance, climate and supply could defeat the French army.’[3] The only dispute was over the speed of retreat; some were afraid that too quick a withdrawal would cause a revolt by the serfs. It was also necessary to ensure that Napoleon followed the Russians into the interior.

Mistakes by his subordinates, notably his brother Jerome, prevented Napoleon from defeating even part of the Russian army at Vitebsk, which van Creveld says is the furthest into Russia that the French logistic system could sustain the army.

Napoleon chose to head for Moscow because the land became richer after Smolensk, so it was easier to live off the land the further east he moved. His army was strong enough to defeat the Russians at Borodino.

Van Creveld believes that the Grande Armée’s biggest problem was ill discipline rather than lack of supplies, citing as evidence the fact that the Imperial Guard reached Moscow almost intact.

My view is that Napoleon’s first mistake was to invade Russia whilst he was still at war in the Iberian Peninsular. He should have concentrated on first winning that war. His dispute with Alexander over the Continental System, the French attempt to wage economic war with Britain, would have mattered less if the British had been expelled from the Continent.

Victory in the Peninsular would at best have meant that there was no need to invade Russia. At worst it would have released a large number of French troops for the invasion of Russia, reducing Napoleon’s dependence on allies.

Having made this initial mistake, he planned to win a quick victory. He failed to do so because the enemy did not play into his hands, and because of mistakes by his subordinates. He did not supervise them as closely as in the past, probably because his army was now too big for his old, personal style of command to work.

After failing to win an early victory, he should have wintered at Smolensk. There was no reason for him to assume that he could win a decisive victory by heading deeper into Russia, or that he would force the Russians to surrender by taking Moscow. The Russians had only to survive to win, so there was no point in them risking a catastrophic  defeat.

Napoleon made the losses from his defeat worse by making a number of errors after reaching Moscow: he stayed there too long; he retreated by the ravaged route that he had advanced across; and he should have taken only as much loot and as many guns as he had horses to pull.

Overall, Napoleon took on an enterprise that was both unnecessary and too big to succeed when he invaded Russia. It was an example of the importance of logistics in warfare; see the blog entry on Bullets, Bombs and Bandages, a BBC TV series on logistics.

[1] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966). The analysis of the reasons for the failure of the campaign is on pp. 854-61.

[2] M. Van Creveld, Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004). The chapter on Napoleon is on pp. 40-74, with the 1812 Russian Campaign analysed on pp. 61-70.

[3] Ibid., p. 65.

DataViz History: Charles Minard’s Flow Map – The End of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign

Since Minard’s map is in French, I have provided an English language version for us to use as we discuss the flow of Napoleon’s retreat in detail. [9]

Minard Map- English Translation

The End of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign [10]

After a fierce action, the rearguard of Napoleon’s Grande Armée crossed the River Berezina on 29 November. It seemed to the 55,000 men who had made it over the Berezina that the worst was over. Armand Caulaincourt, formerly Napoleon’s Ambassador to Russia, and a member of his entourage, wrote that ‘After the crossing of the Berezina all faces brightened.’[1]

In fact, although the Berezina was the last major action of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, his army continued to lose men in rearguard actions and to the weather. The temperature was still falling and was recorded as being -30° C (-22° F) on 30 November and -37.5° C (-35.5° F) on 6 December by Dr Louis Lagneau. [2]

Napoleon’s original plan had been to defeat Admiral Pavel Chichagov’s army in order to clear the route to Minsk, but the losses incurred in the crossing meant that he had no choice but to retreat to Vilnius.

He reached Smorgoni on 5 December. He then informed his marshals that he intended to return to Paris. He would take only a small entourage and escort, posing as Caulaincourt’s secretary. He reached Paris late on 18 December.

David Chandler notes that the marshals and most subsequent commentators agree that Napoleon’s decision to return to Paris was correct. His subordinates could handle the rest of the retreat, and he was needed in Paris to recruit new troops and to rally public opinion.[3]

The Emperor left Marshal Joachim Murat in command. Adam Zamoyski says that he would have preferred to appoint Prince Eugène but feared that Murat would mutiny if put under Eugène’s command. [4]

Chandler argues that Murat was more suited to pursuing a defeated enemy than to carrying out a retreat. He attributes Napoleon’s decision to appoint Murat instead of Eugène to the influence of Marshal Louis Berthier, his chief of staff. [5]

Murat’s orders were to make for the supply base at Vilnius. About 20,000 of the men who had crossed Berezina failed to make it; the survivors reached it between 8-10 December. It contained four million rations of biscuits, nearly as much meat and plenty of clothes and weapons. However, the starving troops rioted. Many drank themselves into a stupor and died of exposure. [6]

Many of the Grande Armée’s losses were caused by typhus. In 2001 a mass grave was found by construction workers in Vilnius. It was initially assumed that it contained either Jews murdered by the Nazis or victims of Stalin’s terror.

However, the grave contained French coins and belt buckles from the Napoleonic era, showing that the corpses were of some of Napoleon’s soldiers. A scientific analysis showed that they died of typhus. See this article from for more details.

Napoleon had ordered Murat to allow the army to rest and recuperate in Vilnius for at least eight days. Murat, however, was concerned by the threat from Cossacks and ordered the retreat to resume on the night of 9 December; 20,000 men wounded earlier in the campaign were left behind in the hospitals.

The army crossed the River Niemen and left Russia on 14 December. The pursuing Russians, by now reduced to 40,000 men, stopped at the frontier. [7]

The End of Napoleons Russian Campaign

The forces on the flanks of the main force also withdrew from Russia. General Ludwig Yorck, commanding 17,000 Prussians and 60 guns, was surrounded on 25 December. After five days of negotiations  he signed the Convention of Tauroggen, making his troops neutrals. He acted without the consent of his king, but the news was received enthusiastically in Prussia.

Prince Karl Schwarzenberg, commanding the Austrians also signed an armistice with the Russians. Austria and Prussia would fight against France in 1813.


According to Chandler, Napoleon took 655,000 troops into Russia, including reinforcements. Only 25,000 out of the 450,000 in the central army group, commanded by Napoleon himself, crossed back over the Niemen. Losses in the flanking forces were high, but not quite as bad; 68,000 of them returned, making a total of 93,000 who retreated out of Russia.

Of the approximately 570,000 who did not, 370,000 died in action or of illness or exposure. The other 200,000, including 48 generals, were captured; about half of them died in captivity.

Napoleon also lost 200,000 horses and 1,050 of the 1,300 guns that he took into Russia. The Russians captured 929, the others being destroyed. New guns were built and new soldiers recruited, albeit inexperienced ones. The horses were the hardest to replace

Russian casualties were 150,000 killed and at least twice as many wounded or frost-bitten. Chandler says that the impact of the campaign on Russian civilians cannot be calculated.[8]

Next: Why Napoleon’s Russian Campaign Failed


[1] Quoted in A. Zamoyski, 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow (London: HarperCollins, 2004), p. 481.

[2] Ibid., pp. 482, 504.

[3] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 849.

[4] Zamoyski, 1812, pp. 495-96.

[5] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 850.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., pp. 850-51.

[8] Ibid., pp. 852-53.

[9] Mike Stucka, English translation of Minard’s classic chart of Napoleon’s March,, November 4, 2006,

[10] Martin Gibson, Napoleon Retreats from Moscow, 18 October 1812, War and Security Blog, October 17, 2012,

DataViz History: Charles Minard’s Flow Map of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign of 1812 – Crossing of the Berezina


Since Minard’s map is in French, I have provided an English language version for us to use as we discuss the flow of Napoleon’s retreat in detail. [11]

Minard Map- English Translation

Napoleon’s Crossing of the Berezina [12]

Napoleon fought off the pursuing Russians under Prince Mikhail Kutuzov at Krasny on 17 November 1812. However, he was forced to continue to retreat to the River Berezina, leaving Orsha on 20 November.

The Battle of BerezinaKutuzov had missed a number of opportunities to cut off and destroy Napoleon’s Grande Armée as it retreated from Moscow. This angered Tsar Alexander, who said that Kutuzov displayed ‘inexplicable inactivity.’[1]

Three Russian armies were converging on Napoleon. As well as Kutuzov, Admiral Pavel Chichagov had captured Minsk, a major French supply base, and was approaching the Berezina from the south with 60,000 men. In the north, Prince Peter Wittgenstein, with 50,000 troops, had defeated Marshal Claude Victor at Smoliani.

Adam Zamoyski argues that Kutuzov realised that Napoleon and his generals and marshals were better commanders than himself and his subordinates. He consequently did not want to engage in a frontal battle with the Emperor, preferring to wait until Napoleon’s line of retreat had been cut by Chichagov and Wittgenstein.[2]

On 22 November Napoleon learnt that Chichagov had taken Borisov and its wooden bridge across the Berezina. The next day Marshal Charles Oudinot defeated Chichagov and retook the town, but the retreating Russians burnt the bridge.

Normally the ice would have been thick enough in late November to allow the Berezina to be crossed without bridges. However, the Grande Armée, having suffered great privations from the cold, now suffered from an unexpected thaw, which caused the ice to break up.

Fortunately for Napoleon, the Russians were not pressing his army vigorously. They were also suffering from the winter, and his reputation continued to intimidate all their commanders, not just Kutuzov. He also thought that a crushing victory was not necessarily in Russia’s interests, as it would benefit Britain more. General Sir Robert Wilson, a British observer, reported that Kutuzov had said that:

I am by no means sure that the total destruction of the Emperor Napoleon and his army would be such a benefit to the world; his succession would not fall to Russia or any other continental power, but to that which already commands the sea whose domination would then be intolerable.[3]

Napoleon considered attacking Wittgenstein, and then taking an alternative route, which would enable him to reach Vilna without crossing the Berezina. He rejected this because of the exhaustion of his troops, the poor roads and the muddy terrain, deciding to construct a pontoon bridge at Borisov.

Napoleon had ordered General Jean Baptiste Eblé, the commander of his bridging train, to destroy his equipment in order to prevent it being captured. However, Eblé had destroyed only the actual pontoon bridge, retaining his tools, smithies and charcoal. Thus, his engineers, who were mostly Dutch, could build a pontoon bridge by tearing down local houses for their wood.The problem was that the river was wide at the site of the burnt bridge, and large blocks of ice, propelled by a strong current, were floating down it. This made construction of a replacement at the same site very difficult.

General Jean Baptiste Corbineau, one of Oudinot’s cavalry brigade commanders, then reported that he had found a ford at Studienka, eight miles north of Borisov. Napoleon initially rejected Oudinot’s suggestion of crossing there, but changed his mind after meeting Corbineau on 25 November.


Eblé was ordered to start building three bridges across the Berezina at Studienka at nightfall on 25 November. Various demonstrations were planned in order to distract Chichagov, whose army was to the west of the Berezina an south of Borisov.

A detailed plan was prepared to move the troops still under discipline across the river, starting as soon as the bridges were complete. However, it depended on the enemy being distracted by the diversionary operations and no specific plans were drawn up to allow stragglers to cross.

The first bridge, intended for infantry, was completed by 1pm on 26 November, and the crossing began immediately. The second one, capable of taking wagons, was ready by 4pm. The plan to build a third was abandoned because there were not enough materials to do so.

Lack of time and materials meant that the bridges were improvised and flimsy, and continual repairs were required. The heavier one had to be closed from 8pm  until 11pm on 27 November, from 2am until 4am the next morning and from 4pm to 6pm later that day. The breakages caused hundreds of death.

However, most of the organised and armed troops were across by the end of 27 November, leaving just Victor’s IX Corps as rearguard. The Gendarmes had so far prevented unarmed men and civilians from crossing, but they were now invited to cross. Many, having settled down beside camp fires and, seeing no immediate danger, decided to wait until morning.

The strength of the Grande Armée at this stage is uncertain, but David Chandler estimates that 25,000 men under arms, 110 guns and 40,000 stragglers left Orsha. Joining up with Oudinot and Victor’s corps increased its strength to perhaps 49,000 combatants, 250-300 guns and 40,000 stragglers. About 75,000 Russians were close enough to interfere with the crossing.[4]

Chichagov was slow to realise what was happening, and did not engage Oudinot, who was covering the southern flank on the west bank of the Berezina, until the morning of 27 November. The French had to surrender ground, but maintained their line.

Crossing of the Berezina

On the east bank of the Berezina, Victor also gave up some ground under pressure from Wittgenstein, but his corps remained intact and Napoleon left able to withdraw one of its brigades, comprised of Germans from Baden, across the river.

The action on both banks began again early on 28 November. Chichagov’s advance guard, commanded by General Eufemiusz Czaplic, a Pole, attacked Oudinot. The position looked so bad for the French that Napoleon prepared to commit the Old Guard, but Oudinot rallied his men. He was wounded, for the 22nd time in his career, and Marshal Michel Ney took command.

Ney was outnumbered by over 30,000 to 12-14,000 men, and his troops were in a worse physical condition. Three quarters of his men, which included Poles, Italians, Wüttermbergers, Dutchmen, Croats, Swiss and Portuguese as well as Frenchmen, fought gallantly.[5]

Ney ordered General Jean-Pierre Doumerc’s cuirassier division to charge the enemy. Czaplic was wounded and 2,000 of his men were captured. This charge, described as ‘brilliant’[6] by Chandler, forced the Russians back. Fighting continued for the rest of the day, but the line had been stabilised.

On the east bank Victor’s force of 8,000 men, mostly from Baden, Hesse, Saxony and Poland, was attacked at 9am by Wittgenstein, who had numerical advantage of four to one. However, the morale of Victor’s men remained, according to Zamoyski, ‘unaccountably high’[7] and they held out.

Victor faced a crisis on his left flank because he was short of troops. One of his divisions, commanded by General Louis Partouneaux, had been ordered to withdraw from Borisov to Studienka in the early hours of 28 November. It took the wrong road and was captured.

Napoleon therefore ordered the Baden brigade that had been withdrawn the day before to cross back over the Berezina. Doing so was very difficult because of the large number of stragglers coming the other way, but the infantry managed to force their way across.

The Russians were able to bring up guns on Victor’s left, which bombarded the bridges, causing panic and great losses amongst the stragglers. Napoleon deployed guns on the west bank, and they inflicted heavy casualties on the Russians who were trying to envelop Victor’s left.


Victor and his men were ordered to retire across the river at 9pm. The bridges had first to be cleared of the dead men and horses and the wreckages of wagons. By 1am, only a small screen was left on the east bank. Victor and Eblé urged the remaining stragglers to cross, but most again decided to wait.

Victor’s last men withdrew at 6am, and the stragglers at last realised the urgency of the situation. Eblé had been ordered by Napoleon to burn the bridges at 7am, but waited until 8:30am because so many were still on the other side of the river. By then the Russians were close to the bridges, leaving him no choice to set them on fire, even though thousands had still to cross.

Chandler argues that ‘Napoleon was undoubtedly in a position to claim a strategic victory’ at the Berezina.’[8] He had extracted the survivors of the Grande Armée, albeit with heavy losses. Chandler attributes this to the inactivity of the Russian commanders and the efforts of Eblé, who he describes as ‘the true hero of the Berezina’[9], Oudinot and Victor.

Chandler also suggests that Kutuzov’s lack of urgency during this phase of the campaign is difficult to interpret as ‘anything else than a deliberate desire to allow Napoleon to escape over the Berezina’[10]

The crossing of the Berezina marked the last major combat of Napoleon’s 1812 Campaign. He had originally intended to fight Chichagov in order to clear the route to Minsk, but the losses incurred in the crossing meant that he had no choice but to retreat to Vilna.

The crossing of the Berezina did not, however, mean the end of the Grande Armée’s ordeal. It continued to suffer casualties in rearguard actions, and to the weather; the temperature was still falling.

Next: The End of Napoleon’s 1812 Russian Campaign

[1] Quoted in A. Zamoyski, 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow (London: HarperCollins, 2004), p. 432.

[2] Ibid., pp. 435-7.

[3] Quoted in D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 834.

[4] Ibid., pp. 841-42.

[5] Zamoyski, 1812, pp. 471-73.

[6] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 842.

[7] Zamoyski, 1812, p. 473.

[8] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 845.

[9] Ibid., p. 841.

[10] Ibid., p. 846.

[11] Mike Stucka, English translation of Minard’s classic chart of Napoleon’s March,, November 4, 2006,

[12] Martin Gibson, Napoleon Retreats from Moscow, 18 October 1812, War and Security Blog, October 17, 2012,

DataViz History: Charles Minard’s Flow Map of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign of 1812 – The Battle of Krasny (Krasnoi), November 1812


Since Minard’s map is in French, I have provided an English language version for us to use as we discuss the flow of Napoleon’s retreat in detail. [11]

Minard Map- English Translation

The Battle of Krasny (Krasnoi), November 1812 [12]

The previous post in this series described Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow to Smolensk, which he reached on 9 November 1812. It took another four days until all his units had arrived. Only 41,500 of the 100,000 men who had started out from Moscow made it to Smolensk. [1]

There were fewer supplies in Smolensk than Napoleon had hoped, and looting meant that those that there were did not last as long as they would have done if carefully rationed. On the night of 12 November the temperature fell as low as -23.75°C (-10.75°F). Many of the troops were camped out of doors. [2]

Adam Zamoyski points out that Armand Caulaincourt, formerly Napoleon’s Ambassador to Russia, and a member of his entourage, thought that the Emperor could have turned the losses to his advantage by creating a mobile force of around 40,000 men

The wounded could have been left in Smolensk with medical attendants and supplies. Horses, by now in short supply, could have been freed up by ditching loot and the wagons carrying it and part of the artillery. The remaining field force would have been mobile enough to fight its way out of Russia and small enough to be supplied. Instead, the retreat was poorly organised, with the Emperor postponing decisions until the last moment. [3]

The Battle of Krasny

Napoleon ordered his army to resume the retreat on 12 November. One corps left each day, ending with the rearguard, commanded by Marshal Michel Ney, on 17 November. The army was therefore strung out along the road. The Emperor himself departed on 14 November.

On 15 November Napoleon and his Imperial Guard reached Krasny. He decided to wait for the rest of his army to catch up. It was harassed by Cossacks and skirmished with the Russian advance guard under General Mikhail Miloradovitch.

The next day Prince Eugene’s 4,000 Italians found the road from Smolensk to Krasny blocked by Miloradovitch’s far larger Russian force. The Italians managed to hold out until nightfall, but seemed certain to be destroyed the next day.

Eugene, however, took them on a night march round the Russians to Krasny. Zamoyski says that a Russian speaking Polish Colonel persuaded Russian sentries that they were acting under orders from Prince Mikhail Kutuzov, the Russian C-in-C. [4]


Napoleon now faced a problem. If he withdrew, then his remaining troops, commanded by Marshals Louis Davout and Ney, might not be able to fight their way through. If he waited for them, then he might find his own retreat cut off by Kutuzov, who was a couple of miles to the south of Krasny. He therefore decided to attack Miloradovitch.

Napoleon led his Imperial Guard forward. They were outnumbered, but Zamoyski says that ‘his bearing…seemed to have impressed not only his own men but the enemy as well.’ [5]

Miloradovitch withdrew, allowing Davout’s corps to pass. Kutuzov was urged by his subordinates to attack, since the Russians were strong enough to surround and destroy the enemy, but he did nothing.

Kutuzov did, however, threaten Napoleon’s line of retreat. The Emperor withdrew with the Old Guard, leaving the Young Guard to cover Davout’s retreat. The French suffered heavily from enfilading fire and the Young Guard was almost wiped out. Kutuzov, however, would not attack Napoleon. Zamoyski says that ‘Many on the Russian side felt a deep-seated reluctance to take him on and preferred to stand by in awe.’ [6]

David Chandler argues that Krasny ‘reveals the degree of moral ascendancy retained by Napoleon’ [7] over his opponents. He also says that it shows that he was correct not to commit the Imperial Guard at Borodino, since events showed that he needed it at Krasny.


Napoleon reached Orsha, a reasonably well stocked supply base on 19 November. He intended to wait there for the remainder of his army. His greatest concern was whether Ney and his 6,000 organised troops, plus double that number of camp followers and stragglers, could make it through Krasny.

Ney encountered Miloradovitch on 18 November, and declined an invitation to surrender. The French tried to break through, but were beaten back with heavy casualties. Miloradovitch and General Sir Robert Wilson, a British observer with the Russian army, both commented on the courage of the French. [8]

Unable to fight his way through, Ney decided to go round the Russians. A crossing point on the Dnieper, which ran north of and roughly parallel to the road, was identified.

After leaving enough camp fires burning to persuade the Russians that his corps was staying put, he led the 2,000 survivors north to the crossing point. The river was frozen, and the ice was just thick enough to take men, provided that they crossed in small groups, but not wagons, guns or horses. Some horsemen and light wagons managed to cross, but cracks appeared in the ice when more tried to follow. In the end, 300 men and all the guns had to be left on the south bank.


The French found food at a village on the north bank that had previously escaped the ravages of war. They were harassed by Cossacks all the way to Orsha, but Ney and 1,000 men made it back to the army.

Napoleon could not linger at Orsha. On 18 November he learnt that Minsk, a major supply base, had been captured by the Russians. Prince Karl Schwarzenberg’s Austrian Corps had been supposed to protect it.

Napoleon accused the Austrians of betrayal. However, Schwarzenberg had moved south-west to support General Jean Reynier’s VIII Corps, which had been attacked by General Fabian Sacken. This left the route to Minsk open to the Russian army commanded by Admiral Pavel Chichagov.

Napoleon’s northern flank was also open. He had ordered Marshal Claude Victor to re-take Polotsk, but he was defeated at Smoliani by Prince Peter Wittgenstein on 13-14 November.

Kutuzov claimed victory at Krasny, but Chandler states that Napoleon had the better of the battle. [9] Zamoyski points out that a real Russian victory would have produced more trophies than Davout’s Marshal’s baton. [10]

However, Napoleon had no alternative but to continue to retreat towards the River Berezina.

Next: Napoleon’s Crossing of the Berezina

[1] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 828.

[2] A. Zamoyski, 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow (London: HarperCollins, 2004), pp. 415-16.

[3] Ibid., pp. 418-19.

[4] Ibid., p. 421.

[5] Ibid., p. 422.

[6] Ibid., p. 424.

[7] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 829.

[8] Zamoyski, 1812, pp. 426-27.

[9] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 829.

[10] Zamoyski, 1812, p. 431.

[11] Mike Stucka, English translation of Minard’s classic chart of Napoleon’s March,, November 4, 2006,

[12] Martin Gibson, Napoleon Retreats from Moscow, 18 October 1812, War and Security Blog, October 17, 2012,

DataViz History: Charles Minard’s Flow Map of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign of 1812 – Retreat from Moscow to Smolensk


Since Minard’s map is in French, I have provided an English language version for us to use as we discuss the flow of Napoleon’s retreat in detail. [12]

Minard Map- English Translation

Napoleon’s Retreat from Moscow to Smolensk [13]

The previous post in this series described how Napoleon decided to retreat from Moscow on 18 October 1812. His intention was to make for the supply depot at Smolensk by a southerly route. This might require a battle with Mikhail Kutuzov’s Russian army, but would mean that the French were not moving through the territory that had been ravaged in their advance on Moscow.

The Grande Armée set off on 19 October, moving south west towards Kaluga. The main body took the older of the two roads to Kaluga, with Prince Eugene’s IV Corps taking the newer road, which was further to the west. Napoleon ordered Marsahl Edouard Mortier, commander of the French rearguard, to destroy the Kremlin before withdrawing on 23 October. The French demolition charges did not work properly, damaging but not destroying the Kremlin.

According to David Chandler, Napoleon had told his men that he intended to attack Kutuzov’s left flank, realising that this news would reach the Russians. He hoped that Kutuzov would consequently move to the east and allow the French to escape to Smolensk.[1]

Adam Zamoyski speculates that Napoleon may have intended to attack the Russians, with Eugene launching a flanking manoeuvre. If Napoleon did consider this, he changed his mind, since on 21 October the main French army moved to join Eugene on the new road.[2]

Kutuzov was quickly informed that the French had left Moscow, but was slow to move. General Dimitry Dokhturov learnt from prisoners that the Grande Armée corps was heading for the road junction at Maloyaroslavets. The French would threaten the flanks and supply lines of the Russian army if they took the junction, so Dokhturov moved his corps there. Control of Maloyaroslavets would give mean that Napoleon could proceed to Smolensk via either Medyn or Kaluga.

General Alexis Delzons’s 13th Division reached Maloyaroslavets ahead of Dokhturov, but Delzons left only two battalions in the town. Dokhturov’s corps attacked at dawn on 24 October, taking the town and forcing Delzons to retreat back across the river.

Delzons launched a counter-attack and forced the Russians back. The Croatians of the 1st Illyrian Regiment did particularly well. Kutuzov’s leading corps, under General Nikolai Raevsky, arrived and re-captured the town. General Domenico Pino’s 15th (Italian) Division then took it back. The Russians fell back, but took up a position that covered the bridges over the river.

By 1pm most of the Grande Armée was drawn up on the north back, but Napoleon decided not to send it across the river because the well-positioned Russian artillery would have inflicted heavy casualties on it as it moved.

Retreat to Smolensk

Fierce fighting continued in the town for the rest of the day and the Italians held it at nightfall. General Sir Robert Wilson, a British observer with the Russian army, wrote that:

The Italian army had displayed qualities which entitled it evermore to take rank amongst the bravest troops in Europe. [3]

The action had involved 27,000 soldiers and 72 guns of the Grande Armée against 32,000 Russians with 354 guns. Napoleon had lost 6,000 men, including Delzons. Russian casualties were higher, but they could be replaced. Napoleon now had only about 65,000 men with him, facing 90,000 Russians with 500 guns.

Early on the 25 October Napoleon carried out a reconnaissance of the battlefield. He was nearly captured by Cossacks, but his escort fought them off. Baron Agathon Fain, his secretary, said that the Emperor was badly affected by the sight of the corpses on the battlefield, many of whom had been burnt to death.[4]

Kutuzov had withdrawn two kilometres to a new position. Attacking it might result in a decisive French victory, but casualties would be heavy. The Russian withdrawal had opened up the route to Smolensk via Medyn, but taking this route would mean that the Grande Armée would be closely pursued by the Russians all the way to Smolensk.

Napoleon therefore decided to retire and head for Smolensk via the route that the Grande Armée had originally advanced along.

Zamoyski points out that Kutuzov, concerned about the inexperience of his troops, was reluctant to fight a pitched battle with the Grande Armée . He suggests that if Napoleon had moved boldly, he could have reached Medyn, where supplies were available, joined up with General Louis Baraguay d’Hilliers’s division and reached Smolensk by 3 or 4 November.[5]

Chandler argues that Napoleon’s plan to defeat Kutuzov before heading to Smolensk via Kaluga was the best option open to him. Changing his plan now meant that six days had been wasted. He could still have headed for Smolensk via Medyn, but reverting to the original line of advance ‘was to court disaster.’[6] Charles Esdaile calls Maloyaroslavets a ‘pointless battle’[7] for the French as it wasted a lot of time.

The Grande Armée marched along a single road, meaning that those further back had to march through ground churned up by those ahead of them. The horses were in poor condition, so it was hard for them to pull guns and wagons. Some generals wanted to speed up the column by abandoning part of the artillery, but Napoleon refused, as he argued that he was making a tactical withdrawal rather than retreating.

On 28 October the head of the column reached the battlefield of Borodino. The corpses had not been cleared away, and large numbers of French wounded had not been evacuated. Napoleon ordered that they should be taken along, against the advice of his Surgeon-General, Baron Dominique Jean Larrey and other doctors. Few survived the retreat.


Napoleon reached Vyazma on 1 November. He reached despatches that informed him that things were going badly on his flanks. In the south the Austrian Prince Karl Schwarzenberg was withdrawing towards the River Bug, exposing Napoleon’s flank. In the North a Franco-Bavarian army under Marshal Laurent St Cyr had been forced to retreat from Polotsk

St Cyr had been promoted to Marshal after the First Battle of Polotsk on 18 August 1812, in which he took over from the wounded Marshal Charles Oudinot and defeated Prince Peter Wittgenstein’s Russian army.

On 18 October Wittgenstein, who had been reinforced and now outnumbered St Cyr, launched a new attack on St Cyr at Polotsk. The Franco-Bavarians held off the attack on the first day; casualties on both sides were heavy. St Cyr realised late the next day that he was in danger of being encircled. A Bavarian counter-attack on 20 October enabled the Franco-Bavarian force to withdraw, but the road to the French supply base at Vitebsk was opened.

The retreat continued, with the column being pressured by both Cossacks and Kutuzov’s advance guard, commanded by Count Mikhail Miloradovich. On 3 November Miloradovich attacked the Grande Armée’s rearguard, Marshal Louis Davout’s I Corps, to the east of Vyazma.

Davout received support from Eugene’s IV Corps and Marshal Josef Poniatowski’s IV Corps. The French suffered heavy casualties, but were able to fall back on Marshal Michel Ney’s III Corps. It had been left at Vyazma with orders to replace the I Corps as the rearguard once it was clear of the town.

French casualties were about 6,000 dead and wounded and 2,000 prisoners. Poniatowski, crushed beneath his horse, was amongst the wounded. Russian losses were at most 1,845. As well as human casualties, the Grande Armée suffered a loss of cohesion. Zamoyski argues that the Russians could have destroyed four French corps if Kutuzov had attacked with his full army.[8]

Until 3 November the retreat had taken place in reasonable weather. The temperature fell sharply on the night of 4-5 November, and the snow began on 6 November. Armies did not then normally campaign in the winter, so the French uniforms were completely inadequate for the Russian winter. Zamoyski describes how men out on fur coats and even women’s dresses that they had plundered from Moscow to take home to their womenfolk.[9]

Troops in units that retained their discipline and cohesion coped best. Stragglers, without comrades to help and support them, fared worse. The animals fared worse; deaths amongst horses meant that wagons and thus supplies had to be abandoned. Saul David’s recent BBC TV series on logistics and war, Bullets, Bombs and Bandages, explained that the French horses had the wrong type of shoes, which made it hard for them to walk on the snow and ice.

Napoleon continued to receive bad news as he retreated. On 6 November he was told that General Claude Malet, a patient at a sanatorium, had escaped and tried to launch a republican coup in Paris on 23 October, claiming that the Emperor was dead. It was quickly suppressed, but Malet had easily fooled some local commanders and Napoleon’s infant son and heir had received little support. The Emperor therefore decided that he needed to return to Paris as soon as possible.

The next day Napoleon learnt that Marshal Louis Victor had been forced to retreat after a battle with Wittgenstein at Czasniki on 31 October. The seriousness of the situation was shown by the phrasing of the order that Napoleon sent to Victor to attack Wittgenstein and re-capture Polotsk. Victor was told to:

Take the offensive  – the safety of the whole army depends on you; every day’s delay can mean a calamity. The army’s cavalry is on foot because the cold has killed all the horses.[10]

Napoleon reached Smolensk on 9 November. It was four days before the whole of the retreating column arrived. The food stocks were lower than expected and this was compounded by looting. Chandler says that in three days the army ate supplies that could have been eked out to last a fortnight; it now comprised only 41,500 men.[11]

The Grande Armée did not stay long in Smolensk. Napoleon wanted to link up with Victor and Oudinot’s 25,000 men and considered wintering at his Vitebsk supply base. He did not know that the Russians had captured it on 7 November.

Next: The Battle of Krasny, November 1812

[1] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 820.

[2] A. Zamoyski, 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow (London: HarperCollins, 2004), p. 369.

[3] Quoted in Ibid., p. 373.

[4] Ibid., p. 374.

[5] Ibid., pp. 375-77.

[6] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 823.

[7] C. J. Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2007), p. 478.

[8] Zamoyski, 1812, pp. 387-88.

[9] Ibid., pp. 391-92.

[10] Quoted in Chandler, Campaigns, p. 827.

[11] Ibid., pp. 827-28.

[12] Mike Stucka, English translation of Minard’s classic chart of Napoleon’s March,, November 4, 2006,

[13] Martin Gibson, Napoleon Retreats from Moscow, 18 October 1812, War and Security Blog, October 17, 2012,

DataViz History: Charles Minard’s Flow Map of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign of 1812 – Retreat from Moscow


Since Minard’s map is in French, I have provided an English language version for us to use as we discuss the flow of Napoleon’s retreat in detail. [10]

Minard Map- English Translation

Retreat from Moscow, October 18, 1812 [11]Retreat from Moscow

After Napoleon’s victory at Borodino led to the French capture of Moscow, Prince Mikhail Kutuzov’s Russian army retreated to Tarutino, south and slightly to the west of Moscow. Adam Zamoyski describes this as ‘a good position.’ [1] It was a sufficient distance from Moscow to be safe from a major French attack, threatened the French lines of communication and protected the routes to the south.

The French cavalry, commanded by Marshal Joachim Murat, and Marshal Josef Poniatowski’s V Corps were near Tarutino. Some Russian generals, notably Count Levin Bennigsen, wanted to attack them, but Kutuzov realised that his army needed time to rest, recuperate and receive reinforcements.

The rest of the French army was around Moscow. Much of the city was destroyed by a fire that started on 15 September and lasted for three days. City Governor Count Fyodor Rostopchin had made preparations to burn any stores useful to the French and city and had ordered Police Superintendent Voronenko to set fire to not only the stores, but to anything that would burn. Rostopchin had also withdrawn all the fire fighting pumps and their crews from the city.

Zamoyski suggests that the fires started by Voronenko and his men were further spread by local criminals and French soldiers engaged in looting, and by the wind. He contends that the fire left many French troops without shelter. Other historians who believe that the fires were started deliberately by the Russians include David Bell and Charles Esdaile. [2]

David Chandler agrees that Rostopchin ordered the fires, but says that most supplies and enough shelter for the 95,000 French troops remained intact. He argues that a complete destruction of the city would have actually been better for the French, as it would have forced them to retreat earlier. Instead, Napoleon stayed in the hope that he could persuade Tsar Alexander to come to terms. [3]

On the other hand, Leo Tolstoy claims in his novel War and Peace, the most famous book on the 1812 Campaign, that the fire was an inevitable result of an empty and wooden city being occupied by soldiers who were bound to smoke pipes, light camp fires and cook themselves two meals a day. [4]

On 5 October Napoleon sent delegations to attempt to negotiate a temporary armistice with Kutuzov and a permanent peace with Alexander. Kutuzov, who wanted to gain time to strengthen his forces, received the French delegates politely and gave them the impression that Russian soldiers wanted peace.

However, Kutuzov refused to allow the delegation to proceed to St Petersburg to meet the Tsar. He sent their letters on to the Tsar, with a recommendation that Alexander refuse to negotiate, which the Tsar accepted. According to Chandler, Napoleon refused to believe that the Tsar would not negotiate until a second French delegation also failed. [5]

The balance of power was moving against Napoleon as time passed. Chandler says by 4 October Kutuzov had 110,000 men facing 95,000 French at Moscow and another 5,000 at Borodino. The Russians had an even greater advantage on the flanks. [6]

Napoleon had been sure that Alexander would negotiate once Moscow fell and had not planned what to do if the Tsar refused to make peace. According to Zamoyski, Napoleon had studied weather patterns and believed that it would not get really cold until December, but did not realise how quickly the temperature would drop when it changed. [7]

Chandler argues that he had six options:

  1. He could remain at Moscow. His staff thought that there were sufficient resources to supply his army for another six months. However, he would be a long way from Paris, in a position that was hard to defend and facing an opponent who was growing stronger. His flank forces would have greater supply problems than the troops in Moscow.
  2. He could withdraw towards the fertile region around Kiev. However, he would have to fight Kutuzov and would move away from the politically most important parts of Russia.
  3. He could retreat to Smolensk by a south-westerly route, thus avoiding the ravaged countryside that he had advanced through. This would also mean a battle with Kutuzov.
  4. He could advance on St Petersburg in the hope of winning victory, but it was late in the year, his army was tired and weakened and he lacked good maps of the region.
  5. He could move north-west to Velikye-Luki, reducing his lines of communication and threatening St Petersburg. This would worsen his supply position.
  6. He could retreat to Smolensk, and if necessary, Poland the way that he had come. This would be admitting defeat and would mean withdrawing through countryside already ravaged by war.

There were major objections to each option, so Napoleon prevaricated, hoping that Alexander would negotiate. On 18 October Napoleon decided on the third option, a retreat to Smolensk via the southerly route, which would entail a battle with Kutuzov. He ordered that the withdrawal should begin two days later. [8]

Also on 18 October, however, Kutuzov decided to attack Murat’s cavalry at Vinkovo. An unofficial truce had been in operation, so the French were taken by surprise. Murat was able to fight his way out, and Kutuzov did not follow-up his limited success.

However, the Battle of Vinkovo, also known as the Battle of Tarutino, persuaded Napoleon to bring the retreat forward a day. Around 95,000 men and 500 cannon left Moscow after 35 days, accompanied by 15-40,000 wagons loaded with loot, supplies, wounded and sick soldiers and camp followers. [9]

In an attempt to distract Kutuzov, Napoleon sent another offer of an armistice and told his men that he intended to attack the Russian left flank, expecting this false intelligence to reach Kutuzov.

Next: Retreat from Moscow to Smolensk


[1] A. Zamoyski, 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow (London: HarperCollins, 2004), p. 333.

[2] D. A. Bell, The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Modern Warfare (London: Bloomsbury, 2007), p. 259; C. J. Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2007), p. 478; Zamoyski, 1812, pp. 300-4.

[3] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), pp. 814-15.

[4] L. Tolstoy, War and Peace, trans., A. Maude, Maude, L. (Chicago IL: Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., 1952). Book 11, p. 513.

[5] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 814.

[6] Ibid., pp. 815-16.

[7] Zamoyski, 1812, p. 351.

[8] Chandler, Campaigns, pp. 817-19.

[9] Ibid., pp. 819-20; Zamoyski, 1812, pp. 367-68.

[10] Mike Stucka, English translation of Minard’s classic chart of Napoleon’s March,, November 4, 2006,

[11] Martin Gibson, Napoleon Retreats from Moscow, 18 October 1812, War and Security Blog, October 17, 2012,


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