Category Archives: Flow Map

Map Showing the Overland and Overseas Flights of Charles A. Lindbergh

Hello Readers:

As many of you know, I love historical maps. In particular ones that tell the story of a significant point in history. Below are snippets of the “Map Showing the Overland and Overseas Flights of Charles A. Lindbergh” in color. It was designed by Ernest Clegg and published by the John Day Company, New York in 1928. With informational boxes describing various flights. In carved wood frame.

A narrative of Lindbergh’s flight follows the images of the map in this blog entry.

I hope you find this as interesting as I do.

Best Regards,


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7:52 A.M., May 20, 1927

LuckyLindyAt 7:52 A.M., May 20, 1927 Charles Lindbergh gunned the engine of the “Spirit of St Louis” and aimed her down the dirt runway of Roosevelt Field, Long Island. Heavily laden with fuel, the plane bounced down the muddy field, gradually became airborne and barely cleared the telephone wires at the field’s edge. The crowd of 500 thought they had witnessed a miracle. Thirty-three and one half-hours and 3,500 miles later he landed in Paris, the first to fly the Atlantic alone.

Working as a mail pilot a year earlier he heard of the $25,000 prize for the first flight between New York and Paris. Backed by a group of St. Louis businessmen, Lindbergh supervised the building of his special plane and set out after the prize. Other teams were attempting the feat – some had met disaster. Lindbergh equipped himself with four sandwiches, two canteens of water and 451 gallons of gas. Midway through the flight “sleet began to cling to the plane. That worried me a great deal and I debated whether I should keep on or go back. I decided I must not think any more about going back.”

On the evening of May 21, he crossed the coast of France, followed the Seine River to Paris and touched down at Le Bourget Field at 10:22P.M. The waiting crowd of 100,000 rushed the plane. “I saw there was danger of killing people with my propeller and I quickly came to a stop.” He became an instant hero, “the Lone Eagle.” New York City gave him the largest ticker tape parade ever, the president awarded him the Distinguished Flying Cross. His feat electrified the nation and inspired enthusiastic interest in aviation.


7Bad weather and the prospect that his transatlantic flight would be delayed for a number of days greeted Lindbergh upon his arrival in New York. However, on May 19th, a favorable weather report predicted a break in the rain prompting Lindbergh to make his attempt the next day. He arrived at the airfield before dawn the next morning, prepared his plane for flight and began his historic journey:

About 7:40 A.M. the motor was started and at 7:52 I took off on the flight for Paris. The field was a little soft due to the rain during the night and the heavily loaded plane gathered speed very slowly. After passing the halfway mark, however, it was apparent that I would be able to clear the obstructions at the end. I passed over a tractor by about fifteen feet and a telephone line by about twenty, with a fair reserve of flying speed. I believe that the ship would have taken off from a hard field with at least five hundred pounds more weight. I turned slightly to the right to avoid some high trees on a hill directly ahead, but by the time I had gone a few hundred yards I had sufficient altitude to clear all obstructions and throttled the engine down to 1750 R.P.M. I took up a compass course at once and soon reached Long Island Sound where the Curtiss Oriole with its photographer, which had been escorting me, turned back.


Lindbergh continued his flight over Cape Cod and Nova Scotia and headed for the open Atlantic as darkness fell:

Darkness set in about 8:15 and a thin, low fog formed over the sea through which the white bergs showed up with surprising clearness. This fog became thicker and increased in height until within two hours I was just skimming the top of storm clouds at about ten thousand feet. Even at this altitude there was a thick haze through which only the stars directly overhead could be seen. There was no moon and it was very dark. The tops of some of the storm clouds were several thousand feet above me and at one time, when I attempted to fly through one of the larger clouds, sleet started to collect on the plane and I was forced to turn around and get back into clear air immediately and then fly around any clouds which I could not get over.”


6Lindbergh continued his course, at times skimming only 10 feet above the waves as he tried to find a way around the fog and maintain his course. The appearance of fishing boats below alerted him that he was nearing land:

The first indication of my approach to the European Coast was a small fishing boat which I first noticed a few miles ahead and slightly to the south of my course. There were several of these fishing boats grouped within a few miles of each other.

I flew over the first boat without seeing any signs of life. As I circled over the second, however, a man’s face appeared, looking out of the cabin window.

I have carried on short conversations with people on the ground by flying low with throttled engine, and shouting a question, and receiving the answer by some signal. When I saw this fisherman I decided to try to get him to point towards land. I had no sooner made the decision than the futility of the effort became apparent. In all likelihood he could not speak English, and even if he could he would undoubtedly be far too astounded to answer. However, I circled again and closing the throttle as the plane passed within a few feet of the boat I shouted, “Which way is Ireland?” Of course the attempt was useless, and I continued on my course.

Less than an hour later a rugged and semi-mountainous coastline appeared to the northeast. I was flying less than two hundred feet from the water when I sighted it. The shore was fairly distinct and not over ten or fifteen miles away. A light haze coupled with numerous storm areas had prevented my seeing it from a long distance.

The coastline came down from the north and curved towards the east. I had very little doubt that it was the southwestern end of Ireland, but in order to make sure I changed my course towards the nearest point of land.

I located Cape Valencia and Dingle Bay, then resumed my compass course towards Paris.


5Lindbergh flew over Ireland and then England at an altitude of about 1500 feet as he headed towards France. The weather cleared and flying conditions became almost perfect. The coast of France and the City of Cherbourg passed beneath his wings as darkness fell a second time during his flight.

The sun went down shortly after passing Cherbourg and soon the beacons along the Paris-London airway became visible.

I first saw the lights of Paris a little before 10 P.M., or 5 P.M., New York time, and a few minutes later I was circling the Eiffel Tower at an attitude of about four thousand feet.

The lights of Le Bourget were plainly visible, but appeared to be very close to Paris. I had understood that the field was farther from the city, so continued out to the northeast into the country for four or five miles to make sure that there was not another field farther out which might be Le Bourget. Then I returned and spiralled (sic) down closer to the lights. Presently I could make out long lines of hangars, and the roads appeared to be jammed with cars.

I flew low over the field once, then circled around into the wind and landed.

But suddenly, a hysterical, ecstatic crowd broke through the restraining ropes and stampeded toward him, cheering and shouting. As he opened the door, he was lifted down and hoisted onto the shoulders of the police, who carried him through the surging crowd, cries of “Vive” ringing through the night. He had conquered the Atlantic alone, covering 3,610 miles in 33 1/2 hours. He had won the Orteig prize!

From the balcony of the American Embassy the following morning, he responded briefly and modestly to the persistent calls of the great crowd which had gathered. For hours after he retreated back inside, they shouted, clapped, and waved their hats and handkerchiefs. In the days that followed, his fame as a hero grew to unbelievable proportions as he took Europe by storm. The President of France pinned the Legion of Honor upon the lapel of his borrowed suit and thousands of messages poured in upon him.

It was as if everyone saw in him something that they sought in themselves – a spirit of adventure and achievement in life. Somehow he represented the symbol of hope in a weary world, for there was something unique about his integrity, courage, and indifference to honors. “He had started with no purpose but to arrive. He remained with no desire but to serve. He sought nothing, he was offered all.”

Returning Home

4When he came home to America aboard the USS Memphis, a majestic convoy of warships and aircraft escorted him up the Chesapeake and Potomac to Washington. President Coolidge welcomed him home and bestowed the Distinguished Flying Cross upon him. His New York reception was the wildest in the city’s history as 4 million people lined the parade route and Mayor Jimmy Walker pinned New York’s Medal of Valor upon him. Finally, when it was all over, he turned and flew to St. Louis for a rest and to contemplate. His epic flight would become the one singular event which electrified the world and changed the whole course of history.

It was now that the Daniel Guggenheim Fund sponsored him on a three month nation-wide tour. Flying the “Spirit of St. Louis,” he touched down in 49 states, visited 92 cities, gave 147 speeches, and rode 1,290 miles in parades. Tired, but satisfied with the job he had done in promoting aviation, he returned to New York. He made a good will tour at the request of Ambassador Dwight Morrow. It was here that he first met Anne Morrow, daughter of the Ambassador, a meeting that would blossom into romance. After Mexico, he visited twelve other Central American and West Indies countries, conveying goodwill all along the 9,000 mile flight tour.

On March 21,1929, President Coolidge presented him with the nation’s highest honor, the Congressional Medal of Honor. Throughout the rest of his life he would continue to serve America as an advisor on aviation. He resigned his commission as a Colonel in the reserves an April 29, 1941, but he served in the Pacific theater during World War II as a technical advisor. He taught American fighter pilots how to get increased range from their planes – as much as fifty percent more. He flew several combat missions in P-38 fighters and on at least one sortie shot down a Japanese plane. After the war, he continued to serve his country in many ways and on April 7, 1954, he was appointed a Brigadier General in the Air Force Reserves.

Certification of Charles Lindbergh’s flight required several documents to prove the performance

orteigprizeThe Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) – the World Air Sports Federation – is the sole organisation authorized to certify aeronautical and astronautical world records worlwide.

The certification of Charles Lindbergh’s flight required several documents to prove the performance. A sealed barograph, an instrument working with atmospheric pressure, was loaded on the aircraft; its six-hour cylinder recorded the altitudes flown and proved that the flight was uninterrupted. The start of the flight was attested by the US National Aeronautic Association and the Procès-verbal established by the Aéro-Club de France on Lindbergh’s arrival attested that the barograph was found sealed and reported that 322 litres of gas (85 gallons) remained in the sealed tanks. This Procès-verbal was signed by no less than 13 French officials, the US Ambassador Myron Herrick, the Belgian Air Attaché Willy Coppens and, of course Charles Lindbergh himself. Finally, the FAI General Secretary Paul Tissandier informed the National Aeronautic Association on August 31st, 1927, that Lindbergh’s flight was certified as the Class-C World Record for non-stop flight over a distance of 5809 kilometres”.



[1] The Spirit of St. Louis 2 Project, The Flight,

[2] “Lindbergh Flies the Atlantic, 1927,” EyeWitness to History, (1999).

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 – 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,

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

Continuing The March 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 march in detail. [2]


To Moscow
The Battle of BorodinoThis time, the Russian withdrawal was less organised. The retreat, covered by the cossack commander Matvei Platov, proved ineffective in slowing up the French chase. As a result, on 10 September the Russian rearguard clashed with Murat’s vanguard. The Russian troops, unable to retreat in good order, were forced to leave many of their wounded and sick in Moshaysk. Napoleon remained in Moshaysk until 12 September. The problem of Moscow reared its head again: no longer a question of pitching battle en route, the Russian forces headed back to the capital of Old Russia. Kutuzov was far more attached to Moscow than Barclay de Tolly was (as a Baltic Protestant, Barclay de Tolly’s allegiance lay primarily with the tsar and the empire, rather than the city of Moscow) and initially saw its loss as the end for Russia. However the previous battle had convinced him that the Russian army needed time and space to recover. A further engagement so soon after Borodino was not high on his list of priorities. At 4pm on 13 September, the day after the Russian army had arrived in Fili (a small village on the western outskirts of Moscow), a council of war was held. There, it was made clear that any attempt to hold the city would result in the destruction of the Russian army, the fall of Moscow and the likely end of the Russian Empire. Kutuzov may have come to that decision already, but as Lieven points out, the agreement (or at the very least a shared blame) had to be reached before he could call the retreat. In attendance were Bennigsen and Barclay de Tolly. Bennigsen was charged with preparing and choosing the battleground for the defence of the city, and he made it clear in later correspondence that he saw Barclay de Tolly and Kutuzov as the culprits behind the decision. Barclay de Tolly supported Kutuzov in his argument: not only would a defeat in front of the gates of Moscow have lost the city, but any subsequent retreat would be severely hampered by having to withdraw – probably hastily – through Moscow. At the end of the meeting, Kutuzov declared: “I know that I am going to have for the breakage, but I sacrifice myself for the good of the fatherland. I order the retreat.” (quoted in Marie-Pierre Rey, op. cit., 2012, pp. 168-169) By the evening of 13 September, the decision had been announced. Despair, shame and anger swept through the army (to be replaced by grim resolve), whilst fear took hold of the civilians all too aware of the Grande Armée’s imminent arrival. Although some inhabitants had started to leave the city before the decision had gone public, there was little time to complete a full civilian evacuation. Archives were hurriedly boxed up, treasures covered, hidden or dispatched from the city. Carriages and carts were requisitioned for transport. At 11pm, the artillery began moving out of the city. The infantry began a few hours later, at 3am on 14 September. That day, as the Russian army passed through, the city descended into absolute chaos. As early as 3 September, however, Fyodor Rostopchin, the governor of Moscow, had begun removing not only all inhabitants considered “foreign” enough to harbour pro-French or pro-Napoleon sympathies (including Germans, Swiss and French) but also all civil servants and local elites, intent as he was to deprive Napoleon of any opportunity to liaise with or develop a relationship with the Russian authorities. Sacking a landed estate, by V. N. Kurdyumov. As Napoleon’s advance guard under Murat approached the city walls, the Russian general in charge of covering the Russian retreat was a certain Mikhail Miloradovich, who succeeded in securing a one-day truce in order to evacuate the army in good order. Murat obliged, and the Russians were able to withdraw unmolested. Murat’s troops did not reach the Dorogomilovo District, in the west, until 2pm on 14 September.

map_of_war_1812_fThe night of 13/14 September, Rostopchin also evacuated the 2000-odd members of the fire brigade and nearly one hundred water pumps from the city. What followed remains uncertain. There is evidence to suggest that Rostopchin gave the order to set fire to the city once the army had left. It may have also been part of the general scorched earth policy of the Russian army ever since the Grande Armée had crossed the border. It equally could have been brought about from looting on both sides. All that is known is that no orders for such an act were given by Napoleon or Alexander (irrespective – in the case of the former – of later Russian propaganda). Whatever the case, early on 15 September Napoleon entered an almost completely deserted Moscow. The population, about 262,000 in 1812, had left, with only 10,000 (some of whom were wounded soldiers) remaining. By midday he had set up his headquarters in the Kremlin. The nature of the evacuation had left a large quantity of food and drink in the city. Yet by the end of the day, the first fires had broken out within the city walls. Between 10.30pm and midnight, the fire spread further, leaping quickly between the closely packed buildings and warehouses. As the wind picked up, controlling the fire became more and more difficult. By the morning of 16 September, the fire had intensified. The Arbat – the historical centre of the city – was destroyed and the University of Moscow’s library had gone up in flames. At midday that day, Napoleon was encouraged to evacuate the Kremlin. Refusing, he remained in the palace until 5.30pm when, “besieged by an ocean of flames” (in Ségur’s words), he was obliged to flee.   He and his officers set up camp in the Petrovski Palace, a few kilometres north-west of Moscow, on the St Petersburg road. The remaining French troops, being completely without the means to bring the fire under control, left the city at the same time. Eugene de Beauharnais lead his troops out on the road to Zvenigorod (to the west). Ney headed north-west towards St Petersburg. Davout took the road to Smolensk. The French forces remained outside of the city limits until 20 September when, as the rain came to fall, the fire was extinguished. Returning to the city that day, the army – officer and common soldier alike – descended into a frenzy of pillage.

Burning of Moscow In the absence of police or any sort of authority, many Russians still in the city joined in. Napoleon returned to the Kremlin. A third of Moscow’s houses were utterly destroyed, whilst only 122 out of 329 churches remained standing after the fire and destruction.   Meanwhile, Kutuzov and the army had evacuated the city on 13/14 September. Initially heading out towards Ryazin’, they had passed through Lyubertsy on 16 September and continued south-east. Then, Kutuzov suddenly turned west and passed back in front of Moscow at high-speed. Fortunately for the Russians, the Grande Armée was to prove too exhausted to follow the withdrawal. On 18 September Kutuzov was in Podolsk, before continuing on to his encampment near Tarutino, about 100km to the south-west of Moscow. This position not only allowed him to harass the French lines of communication, but also stay in contact with the Russian forces under Tormasov and Chichagov, commander of the Army of the Danube. He was also well placed to watch over the workshops and arms factories in nearby Tula and Briansk, and receive supplies which came up to Kaluga from the fertile lands to the south, in modern-day Ukraine. map_of_war_1812_g Napoleon was left with a few choices. He could make his winter quarters in the ravaged city of Moscow. He could head south towards the breadbasket of The Ukraine. Or he could make for St Petersburg. This latter option would have been feasible had he the men and the material, but as it was, he would be forced to march through the winter-ravaged land with the possibility of being cut off by the remaining troops under Kutuzov. Napoleon however seemed convinced that an approach to treat from Alexander was imminent. Nor was a great deal of coordinated effort made to organise winter equipment and supplies. Napoleon, by various means, sought to engage Alexander, but each one remained ignored. On 20 September, Napoleon wrote to Alexander: “The beautiful and fine city of Moscow is no more: Rostopchin has had it burnt down. Four hundred arsonists have been caught in the act; they all declared that they were lighting the fire on the order of this governor and the director of police: they have all been shot. The fire now seems to have abated. Three-quarters of the houses have been burnt, one-quarter remains. [...] How is it possible to destroy one of the most beautiful cities in the world and the work of centuries in the achievement of such a weak aim? [...] The fire has opened the way to pillage, in which the soldiery is competing with the fire for the remains. If I once for a moment imagined that such things had been done on Your Majesty’s order, I would not be writing this letter; however I am convinced that it is impossible, given your principles, your spirit and your enlightened ideas, that you ordered such excesses, unworthy as they would be of so great a sovereign and so great a nation. [...] I made war against your majesty without bitterness; one word from you, whether before or after our recent battle, would have stopped my advance and I would even have agreed to forgo the advantage of entering Moscow.” [20 September, 1812, Correspondance générale, Fayard/Fondation Napoléon, 2012, n° 31,736, p. 1,103] 470px-Napoleon_watching_the_fire_of_Moscow_01 Upon learning of Kutuzov’s movements, he dispatched Bessières to observe the Russian movements. Poniatowski and his force reached Podolsk on 24 September.   By 4 October, Napoleon knew that a decision had to be taken. Macdonald’s siege of Riga was threatened by the arrival of Governor of Finland Faddey Steingell at the head of 10,000 men. Although Macdonald successfully repelled the threat, Steingell linked up with Wittgenstein, still in the area. To the south-west, Chichagov and Tormasov threatened Schwarzenberg, based near Brest-Litovsk. There were over nine hundred kilometres between Riga and Moscow, and more than a thousand kilometres between Napoleon and Brest-Litovsk. Any further advance would simply increase these distances. In the end, Napoleon was to stay in the Moscow about a month. What was the plan there? The mounting of an attack on St Petersburg was apparently mooted; huge amounts of stores were amassed with the idea of wintering in the Russian capital; reinforcements were on their way from Smolensk. But the situation in Moscow was not good. The city was half burnt and the troops had plundered much. And not far to the south-east, the Russian army, by no means out of action, was preparing to counterattack. Furthermore, partisan units were successfully harrying transport columns, and, as the encounter at Taroutino would show, despite their chaotic approach, the Russians were still a force to be reckoned with. Kutuzov was later to boast that he had played the French emperor, dragging out negotiations with Napoleon because the Russian knew that the French in Moscow were stuck in a trap. It is possible however that, taking into account the fact that he said this in December 1812, this assertion was made with the benefit of hindsight. And in the same conversation, Kutusov also convincingly remarks that he thought that Napoleon had waited too long, letting himself be obsessed with obtaining a peace treaty instead of continuing to be belligerent. Be that as it may, Napoleon’s actions in Moscow seem to imply hesitation, and in the mental and strategic void, the emperor took the fateful step of heading, too late, back west.

Next: Retreat

[1] Dr. Daniel Churchill, MITE6323  – Interactivity, Visualization, Emerging Technologies and Paradigms, The University of Hong Kong, February, 2007.

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

[3] Napoleon’s Russian campaign: From the Niemen to Moscow,,

[4] Karl von Clausewitz, Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia in 1812,

[5] Art of the Russias, Figurative, 1812, Part 10,

DataViz History: Charles Minard’s Flow Map of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign of 1812 – The Battle of Borodino

Continuing The March

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 march in detail. [2]


The Battle of Borodino

The Battle of BorodinoOn 7 September, at the Battle of Borodino, the Russians sought to fight a battle of attrition. Knowing that they were clustered densely around the defensive positions erected in the area (Raevski’s Redoubt and the v-shaped earthworks known as the Bagration flèches), the hope was that Napoleon would be limited tactically and forced to simply meet the Russians head-on. The Russian command knew that this strategy would cost them a great deal of men. The massed ranks of Russian troops formed a thick curtain of troops, whilst the battlefield and troop arrangement made any military manoeuvres almost impossible. The battle has gone down in history not for its strategic brilliance but for the sheer destruction of life on both sides.

After the battle, General Lariboisière estimated that the French artillery – all 587 guns – had fired about 60,000 times, with the infantry having gone through 140,000 cartridges: it is thought that the Russians fired slightly fewer cannon shots (50,000) and 20,000 fewer cartridges. For a battle that lasted about ten hours, this works out at about three cannon shots per second and more than 430 musket shots per minute (figures in Marie-Pierre Rey, L’Effroyable Tragédie, 2012, pp. 156-157). The Russian artillery numbered over 600 pieces, but problems in supplying enough ammunition coupled with a failure to concentrate their fire where it mattered meant that they proved less effective than the French guns. The Russians also lost Aleksandr Kutaisov, the artillery commander: his body was never found. One Russian officer, Lieutenant Andreev, noted in reference to the cannon fire: “They said that the sky burned [that day]. But we could barely make out the sky through the screen of smoke.”

The Battle of BorodinoAt 6.30am, the French forces hit the right-wing of the Russian army, surprising Kutuzov, who expected the first hit to come against the left-wing. Troops commanded by Eugène and led by General Delzons crashed out of the dawn fog and into the Russian forces stationed in Borodino. After a brief counter-attack around 7am, the village fell. At the same time, troops under Davout and Ney attacked the southern-most Bagration flèches, guarded by men under General Mikhail Vorontsov and Neverovsky. The defensive works exchanged hands in the three hours up to 10am, when Ney finally seized them back for the French. By midday, the French troops had fought off the Russian counter-attacks and secured the position. The day was to get worse for the Russians: Bagration was gravely wounded during the battle and had passed out. He would eventually die from the related infection on 24 September. The central redoubt was the site of particularly bloody fighting, captured and lost in turn – swinging like a “pendulum” in the words of Dominic Lieven Russia against Napoleon (p. 201) – as both sides manoeuvred to secure the position. During the fighting, Montbrun died after shrapnel ripped through his kidney, whilst his replacement in the struggle for the redoubt, General Auguste de Caulaincourt (brother of the diplomat), was also killed.

The Batte of Borodino

The Batte of Borodino

Finally, around 6pm, the cannon fire stopped and the two sides retired to their headquarters: Napoleon to Shevardino, Kutuzov to Moshaysk, 15km to the east. Although Napoleon anticipated picking up where he had left off the next morning, in reality the battle was over. The battle was to prove one of the bloodiest in the entire history of the Napoleonic Wars: the Russians had 45,000 dead, wounded or missing, whilst Napoleon’s losses totalled between 28,000 and 35,000. Dominique Jean Larrey, chief surgeon, estimated that he had performed about two hundred amputations – most as a result of artillery fire – in the first twenty-four hours after the battle.

The victory – in terms of territory won and losses inflicted – was Napoleon’s. It was not to be however the decisive one he so craved: the remnants of the Russian armies retreated back towards Moscow, leading Napoleon to declare “La paix est à Moscou”. In relaying the result of the battle to Alexander, Kutuzov’s description painted it as a victory to the Russians. Later Russian army bulletins even described how the French army had been torn to pieces, albeit without any mention of the death toll. Debate remains as to whether the victory could have been the one Napoleon wanted had he committed his Guards. His officer corps had been divided on the issue during the battle – Murat, Davout and Ney for their introduction in order to bring the battle to its conclusion; Berthier, Duroc and Bessières against, for fear that a damaged Guards regiment would affect morale so far from Paris – and historians have continued to debate how successful their introduction would have been. As it was, the Guards remained in reserve, Kutuzov retreated down the Moscow road, and Napoleon found himself obliged to give chase once again.

Next: To Moscow


[1] Dr. Daniel Churchill, MITE6323  – Interactivity, Visualization, Emerging Technologies and Paradigms, The University of Hong Kong, February, 2007.

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

[3] Napoleon’s Russian campaign: From the Niemen to Moscow,,

[4] Karl von Clausewitz, Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia in 1812,

DataViz History: Charles Minard’s Flow Map of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign of 1812 – Polotsk, Smolensk and on to Borodino

Continuing The March

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 march in detail. [2]


Polotsk, Smolensk and on to Borodino

To the north, on the French left flank, Oudinot had been charged with linking up with Etienne-Jacques-Joseph-Alexandre Macdonald – leading the 10th Corps and himself ordered to capture the stronghold of Riga – and pushing back Wittgenstein. Although Oudinot never succeeded in joining up with Macdonald, he did engage Wittgenstein between 30 July and 1 August. The first battle actually took place on 28 July, between Wittgenstein’s advance guard (under General Kulniev) and Oudinot’s light cavalry and the 6th infantry division, commanded by Corbineau and Legrand respectively, at Kliastitsy (35km north of Polotsk). This initial clash saw the French surprised and pushed back: the second meeting, which ran over 30 July, 31 July and 1 August, saw further French losses as the Russian artillery held the advance. Kulniev was however killed leading a charge late on 1 August, the Russians lost about one thousand men, and the battle came to an end with Oudinot withdrawing south towards Polotsk and Wittgenstein falling back northwards. As a result, Gouvion-Saint-Cyr, who commanded the Bavarian VI Corps and had already been instructed to offer Oudinot support, was obliged to force march from Biešankovičy (about 80km south-east of Polotsk) to Polotsk. Setting out on 4 August, the Bavarian corps reached Polotsk on 7 August. That same day, Oudinot set out from Polotsk, heading towards Wittgenstein’s position at a village called Rosiza, north of the Drissa camp. On 11 August, the Russian commander headed south towards Svol’na (Belarus), intent on cutting Oudinot off. The latter retreated back towards Polotsk. For the memoirs of D’Aupias which recount in detail this northern theatre, see here (text in French).

Polotsk, Smolensk and on to Borodino

Source: Mr. Yankey’s World History Class, Owasso Mid High School, 8800 N 129th East Ave, Owasso, OK 74055,

By now, Alexander was aware that it was becoming politically dangerous to cede such huge swathes of Russian territory without a fight. He therefore wrote to Barclay de Tolly on 9 August indicating the need to go on the offensive and begin fighting back properly against the invaders. Despite the push from both within and without the army to attack Napoleon in open battle, Barclay de Tolly remained unconvinced. Arguing that pitched battle against the Grande Armée risked leaving the Russian empire completely undefended should he prove unsuccessful, Barclay de Tolly continued to pursue his defensive retreat, hoping that slowing Napoleon would allow Alexander time to put together a reserve force. Further south, in Gorodeczna (north-east of Brest-Litovsk, between Pruzhany and Kobrin), on 12 August troops under Schwarzenberg and Reynier defeated a Russian force commanded by Tormassov. On the afternoon of 15 August, troops under Murat and Ney arrived at the western edge of Smolensk, where elements of the 1st and 2nd Western Armies had convened (including Dokhturov’s VII Corps, infantry from Konovnitzin’s II Corps and Neverovsky’s 27th Division).
Over the course of 16 and 17 August, Ney’s and Murat’s troops, along with Poniatowski’s Polish Corps, clashed with the Russians pitched in Smolensk: Barclay de Tolly – who was resolved to continue the retreat and draw Napoleon ever eastwards – called a withdrawal. About 11,000 Russians died defending the city.   Back in the north west, the First Battle of Polotsk took place between 17 and 18 August and saw Oudinot’s troops, supported by Gouvion-St-Cyr’s Bavarians, meet Wittgenstein’s reinforced 1st Corps of about 22,000 men. The Russian attack centred on the village of Spas (near Polotsk) but by the end of the first day, both sides had maintained their positions. Oudinot was wounded during the day, and Gouvion-St-Cyr took over the command. On 18 August, a French counter attack was launched and succeeded in pushing Wittgenstein back, who decided that withdrawal was the best course of action. Although the Russians had withdrawn (Gouvion-St-Cyr was made a maréchal shortly afterwards, on 27 August, 1812), Oudinot’s march on St Petersburg was held up. The latter came in for some severe criticism from Napoleon, who considered that Oudinot had allowed himself to be cowed and bullied by Wittgenstein. Alexander, for his part, would later declare Wittgenstein to be the “saviour of St Petersburg” whilst Gouvion-St-Cyr praised the Russians for their orderly and combative retreat. The Russian troops fell back to Sivoshin, 40km or so from Potolsk, and there was to be no further combat until October.   The 1st and 2nd Western Armies’ march back in the direction of Moscow was to prove eventful. Having evacuated Smolensk (which was by now in ruins), and forced along poor country roads in order to avoid the French artillery, Barclay de Tolly’s rearguard – commanded by Eugen of Württemberg, Alexander’s cousin – was severely harried by Napoleon’s advancing troops, commanded by Ney and Murat. The retreat had begun in confusion and a complete lack of coordination, caused in part by poor organisation, difficult roads, and a night-time departure. As a result, Württemberg’s troops were caught by Ney’s advancing force.


Meanwhile, troops under Pavel Tuchkov (who was later captured during the combat and imprisoned), held their nerve and succeeded in protecting the Moscow road to the east of Smolensk. These skirmishes, which took place on 19 August near Valutino and Gedeonovo (on the outskirts of Smolensk, near modern-day Lubino), are often claimed as French victories. Although the Russians were forced to withdraw, the advancing troops under Ney and Murat were held up long enough to allow the Russians to retreat to a safe distance. Napoleon, who believed the Russians to have retreated further back than they in actual fact had, remained away from the frontline, installed in Smolensk since 16 August. In the end, the lack of concerted push from the French saved the Russian army. Smolensk had been left to the French, but Napoleon knew that Moscow would not be abandoned without a serious fight.   On 18 August, Kutusov was appointed supreme commander, replacing Barclay de Tolly, whose tactics had been widely criticised, particularly by Bagration. Barclay de Tolly remained in command of the 1st Western Army, but Kutusov now dictated the strategy. Since the retreat from Smolensk, a defensible position for battle with Napoleon had been sought somewhere along the Moscow road. Dorogobuzh and the nearby Usv’atye fields (the site of Colonel Toll’s open criticism of Barclay de Tolly’s strategy, an incident on 21 August known as the “Mutiny of the Generals”) were both suggested and rejected. Time was running out as the Russian forces retreated back towards Moscow. Eventually, the small village of Borodino, 124 kilometres from Moscow was chosen.   On 25 August, Napoleon – based near Dorogobuzh (about ninety kilometres east of Smolensk) – received the wounded Tuchkov, where he proposed peace talks. Tuchkov refused and later that autumn was dispatched to Metz.

By 28 August, the Grande Armée had arrived in the town of Vyaz’ma, 114km from Borodino. The retreating Russian troops had sought to raze it to the ground, but the French forces succeeded in extinguishing the fire and salvaging the town’s food stores. On 29 August, Kutusov joined up with the retreating Russian forces on the Moscow road. On 30 August, 2,000 reinforcements under General Miloradovich arrived, and at the start of September, the Russians were in Borodino. On 31 August, two cossacks were captured by Murat’s forces: Napoleon subsequently learned of Kutuzov’s promotion and arrival as commander of the Russian forces. On 1 September, Napoleon arrived in Gjatsk (modern-day Gagarin, Russia), just sixty or so kilometres from Borodino.

The run-up to  Borodino

Despite being chosen as the site to pitch battle, Borodino was not without its faults. The Old Smolensk Road, which cut in from the west behind the Russian position (the latter running from Maslovo, through Borodino and the destroyed village of Semenovskoe – Raevski’s Redoubt – and onto the Russian left-flank stationed at Shevardino), offered the advancing Grande Armée a route behind Russian lines. To avoid this, Bagration’s troops, stationed at Shevardino, started to push south eastwards to Utitsa, due south of Borodino.   On 5 September, the French advance guard under Murat appeared on the Russian left-wing near Shevardino, commanded by Major General Count Sievers. Murat, with Davout, captured the villages of Alexinki and Kolotsa, near Shevardino. Meanwhile Poniatowski moved up from the south and captured Doronino. During the fierce battle, the Russians lost between 5,000 and 6,000 men and were pushed back. French losses totalled about 4,000. As a result, a large majority of the Russian forces stationed at Borodino were squeezed into the small area of land between Semenovskoe and Borodino.   The morning of 5 September, French forces totalled slightly more than 140,000 men (of which Napoleon would commit 124,000, refusing to commit his elite Guards regiment), with the Russian troops at about 110,000. On 6 September, the two sides recuperated from the previous day’s battle and made preparations for the next clash.   The night before the battle, Kutuzov roused his troops, declaring: “Companions, Fulfil your duty. Think of the sacrifices made of your cities delivered to the flames and of your children who implore your protection. Think of your emperor, your lord, who considers you to be the source of his strength, and tomorrow, before the sun has gone down, you will have written your faith and your loyalty to your sovereign and your fatherland in the blood of the aggressor and his armies.” (Quoted in French in Marie-Pierre Rey, L’Effroyable Tragédie, 2012, p. 155) “Compagnons, Remplissez votre devoir. Songez aux sacrifices de vos cités livrées aux flammes et à vos enfants qui implorent votre protection. Songez à votre Empereur, votre Seigneur, qui vous considère comme le nerf de sa force, et demain, avant que le soleil ne se couche, vous aurez écrit votre foi et votre fidélité à votre souverain et à votre patrie avec le sang de l’agresseur et de ses armées.”

The Battle of Smolensk

At 2am on 7 September, Napoleon dictated his famous proclamation, to be read to the troops at about 6am: “Soldiers! Here is the battle that you have so much desired. From now on victory depends on you: it is necessary to us. It will give you abundance, good winter quarters, and a prompt return to the fatherland. Conduct yourselves as at Austerlitz, at Friedland, at Vitebsk, at Smolensk, and let the most distant posterity point with pride to your conduct on this day. Let it be said of you, ‘He was in that great battle under the walls of Moscow.’” “Soldats ! Vous avez supporté les privations et les fatigues avec autant de courage que vous avez montré d’intrépidité et de sang-froid au milieu des combats. Vous êtes les dignes défenseurs de l’honneur de ma couronne et de la gloire du grand peuple. Tant que vous serez animés de cet esprit, rien ne pourra vous résister. Soldats, voilà la bataille que vous avez tant désirée ! Désormais la victoire dépend de vous : elle nous est nécessaire. Elle nous donnera l’abondance, de bons quartiers d’hiver et un prompt retour dans la patrie ! Conduisez-vous comme à Austerlitz, à Friedland, à Vitebsk, à Smolensk, et que la postérité la plus reculée cite avec orgueil votre conduite dans cette journée ; que l’on dise de vous : il était à cette grande bataille sous les murs de Moscou !”

Next: The Battle of Borodino


[1] Dr. Daniel Churchill, MITE6323  – Interactivity, Visualization, Emerging Technologies and Paradigms, The University of Hong Kong, February, 2007.

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

[3] Napoleon’s Russian campaign: From the Niemen to Moscow,,

[4] Karl von Clausewitz, Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia in 1812,

DataViz History: Charles Minard’s Flow Map of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign of 1812 – To Drissa via Saltanovka

The March Continues

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 march in detail. [2]


The March Continues – Volkovysk and Polotsk

Bagration, at the head of the 2nd Western Army, had been stationed in the triangle of Volkovysk (modern-day Belarus) Białystok (modern-day Poland) and Brest-Litovsk when Napoleon crossed the Niemen. With less than 250km between the two commanders, Bagration was instructed to head back inland, and he left Volkovysk on 28 June. On 30 June, Jerome Napoleon, king of Westphalia, arrived in Grodno (modern-day Belarus), about 50 km to the north of Volkovysk so recently vacated by the Russians. However Jerome’s slow advance at the head of his Westphalian troops was not speedy enough for his infuriated brother, Napoleon. The emperor wanted Jerome to push on and harass Bagration’s force before it had a chance to withdraw and join up with the 1st Western Army.

While Bagration had initially been instructed to head straight for the Drissa camp, on learning of Davout’s position further north – near Achmiany (Belarus), heading for Minsk – which rendered his instructions impossible, the Russian instead set off due east for Bobruysk, also heading towards Minsk. Jerome’s advance troops eventually made contact with Bagration’s strong rearguard cavalry further down the line, but by then it was too late: Bagration had escaped Jerome and Davout and was able to continue his reluctant retreat.   By 4 July, the Austrian headquarters, commanded by Prince Schwarzenberg, had moved up from Lviv and was by now in Pruzhany (modern-day Belarus). His orders were to monitor Tormasov’s forces stationed on Alexander’s far left wing, in the Volynia region (modern-day north-western Ukraine, around Lutsk and Rivne).

5-27-2013 8-32-03 AM
To Drissa via Saltanovka

By 5 July, Jerome had still not made any serious advance on Bagration. On 6 July, Napoleon gave orders that in the event of Jerome’s and Davout’s troops reuniting, overall command would devolve to Davout as the more experienced general. He also instructed his stepson and Viceroy of Italy, Eugene de Beauharnais to lead his IV, the VI corps and the III cavalry corps to get after Bagration in support of Davout. The viceroy left Novo Troki (modern-day Trakai, Lithuania) on 7 July and headed south for Šalčininkai (Lithuania). On 8 July, Davout and his 1st Corps occupied Minsk.

The advance guard of the 1st Western Army, with Alexander, arrived at the fortified camp in Drissa on 9 July, followed two days later by Barclay de Tolly with the main body of the 1st Western Army. Yet by 17 July, the Russians were leaving the camp, having burned their remaining stores. Pursuing a policy of scorched earth and a total avoidance of open battle with Napoleon, the forces retreated back on Vitebsk. At the start of the campaign, General Matvei Platov’s flying cossacks offered cover for Bagration’s retreating force. With Jerome’s troops desperately trailing after the retreating 2nd Western Army, Platov’s cossacks ambushed Jerome’s advanced Polish lancers on 8, 9 and 10 July, near the villages of Kareličy and Mir (Belarus). These clashes were the first real combat of the campaign, and saw the Polish troops defeated, and indeed nearly routed, by the superior cossack light cavalry. These defeats ensured that a healthy distance remained between Jerome and Bagration’s retreating forces.

Finally, on 11 July Jerome’s two corps reached Navahrudak (Belarus) and continued east, reaching Nesvizh on 14 July. It was there that, on 16 July, he received Davout who informed him of Napoleon’s decision to amalgamate the forces and remove his younger brother from command. Furious, Jerome set off home to Kassel (back in Westphalia). Meanwhile, Bagration had reached Slutsk by 13 July, by now beyond the reaches of both Jerome and Davout. Davout’s presence did however prevent Bagration from immediately linking up with Barclay de Tolly at the Drissa camp. Forced to circle further to the south in order to stay out of Davout’s reaches, Bagration eventually met Davout later that month, at the Battle of Saltanovka (23 July).

Meanwhile, Napoleon remained in Vilna until 16 July, occupied with a number of important tasks. One was the organisation of the government of Lithuania. On 1 July, 1812, Napoleon had signed a text establishing the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (also known as the Provisional Government of Lithuania): the initial aim was to raise troops in the Lithuanian territories and provision the rearguard of the Grande Armée. Despite putting in place an extensive system of government and administration (he appointed diplomat Louis Pierre Edouard Bignon as imperial commissar and Dutch general Dirk van Hogendorp as governor), logistical difficulties and lack of material support beset the provisional government. Another key operation was the organisation of his supply line: a great deal of food and water provisions for the entire campaign had to come through Vilna. In the end, however, the three or so weeks that Napoleon spent in Vilna slowed the advance to such an extent that both Bagration and Barclay de Tolly were able to retreat back into Russia relatively unhindered.   Morale had however suffered greatly in the Russian camp in the early days of the campaign. In fact even the initial strategic withdrawal had proved extremely unpopular with a number of the tsar’s generals, who considered it not only militarily risky to cede ground so easily but also politically dangerous to abandon the Duchy of Warsaw and Prussia to Napoleon. Russian despondency surrounding this initial retreat was palpable.

On 10 July, 1812, the Russian officer Arseny Andreyevich Zakrevsky (who had served as adjutant to Barclay de Tolly earlier in 1812) wrote to Fieldmarshal Vorontsov with criticism for the strategy:   “We have retired hastily, towards the wretched position of Drissa which, it would seem, will be our ruin. We cannot now reassess our decision, or undertake a different strategy; it appears that we have chosen the worst.” And as time passed, the Drissa camp too began to appear unable to offer the protection required against Napoleon’s advancing Grande Armée. If Barclay de Tolly remained entrenched in the camp, Napoleon would be at liberty to direct his forces against Bagration and destroy the 2nd Western Army. Such an event would open up the Grande Armée’s march on Moscow and leave Barclay de Tolly dangerously exposed and threatened from behind.

And so, on 17 July, in another morale-sapping manouvre, Russian forces destroyed the camp’s magazines and marched out south-east, away from the border and towards Vitebsk. What had initially been built as the bedrock on which the entire Russian defensive strategy was to be abandoned only three weeks after the invasion. Peter Wittgenstein was to remain in the area with 25,000 men (the 1st Infantry Corps) and orders to protect the road to St Petersburg. On 18 July, having arrived in Polotsk, Alexander left his army in the hands of Barclay de Tolly and proceeded on to Moscow, before returning to St Petersburg. The Russian strategy appeared to be in tatters. On the same day (18 July), Napoleon arrived in Hlybokaye (modern-day Belarus), 86km to the south-west of Polotsk. Oudinot was by now just below the Drissa camp.


[1] Dr. Daniel Churchill, MITE6323  – Interactivity, Visualization, Emerging Technologies and Paradigms, The University of Hong Kong, February, 2007.

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

[3] Napoleon’s Russian campaign: From the Niemen to Moscow,,

DataViz History: Charles Minard’s Flow Map of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign of 1812

DataViz History: Edward Tufte, Charles Minard, Napoleon and The Russian Campaign of 1812 – Part 5

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

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

[Click on map to see full size version]

The chart above also tells the story of a war: Napoleon’s Russian campaign of 1812. It was drawn half a century afterwards by Charles Joseph Minard, a French civil engineer who worked on dams, canals and bridges. He was 80 years old and long retired when, in 1861, he called on the innovative techniques he had invented for the purpose of displaying flows of people, in order to tell the tragic tale in a single image. Edward Tufte, whose book, “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information” is a bible to statisticians, calls it “the best statistical graphic ever drawn”. [SOURCE]

Minard’s chart shows six types of information: geography, time, temperature, the course and direction of the army’s movement, and the number of troops remaining. The widths of the gold (outward) and black (returning) paths represent the size of the force, one millimetre to 10,000 men. Geographical features and major battles are marked and named, and plummeting temperatures on the return journey are shown along the bottom.

The chart tells the dreadful story with painful clarity: in 1812, the Grand Army set out from Poland with a force of 422,000; only 100,000 reached Moscow; and only 10,000 returned. The detail and understatement with which such horrifying loss is represented combine to bring a lump to the throat. As men tried, and mostly failed, to cross the Bérézina river under heavy attack, the width of the black line halves: another 20,000 or so gone. The French now use the expression “C’est la Bérézina” to describe a total disaster.

In 1871, the year after Minard died, his obituarist cited particularly his graphical innovations: “For the dry and complicated columns of statistical data, of which the analysis and the discussion always require a great sustained mental effort, he had substituted images mathematically proportioned, that the first glance takes in and knows without fatigue, and which manifest immediately the natural consequences or the comparisons unforeseen.” The chart shown here is singled out for special mention: it “inspires bitter reflections on the cost to humanity of the madnesses of conquerors and the merciless thirst of military glory”.

What does the map show us [1]

  • Forces visual comparisons (the upper lighter band showing the large army going to Moscow vs. the narrow dark band showing the small army returning).
  • Shows causality (the temperature chart at the bottom).
  • Captures multivariate complexity (size of army, location, direction, temperature, and time).
  • Integrates text and graphic into a coherent whole.
  • Illustrate high quality content (complete and accurate data, presented to support Minard’s  argument against war).
  • Place comparisons adjacent to each other, not sequentially (people forget if they have to go from page to page ).
  • Use the smallest effective differences (i.e., avoid bold colors, heavy lines, distracting labels and scales).

Let’s look at the map in detail

Since Minard’s map is in French, I have provided an Englsh language version for us to use as we discusss the flow of Napoleon’s march in detail. [2]


Crossing the Niemen River – So It Begins

5-26-2013 8-37-35 AMAs Napoleon concentrated his enormous coalition army in preparation for the invasion of Russia,  three Russian armies were positioned to guard the western frontier: the 1st Western Army, under Mikhail Barclay de Tolly, the 2nd Western Army, under Prince Pyotr Bagration, and the 3rd Western Army, under Alexander Tormasov. In June 1812, the 1st Western Army was stationed along the frontier with East Prussia and the Duchy of Warsaw. The 2nd was placed further south in modern Belarus. The 3rd stood yet further south, but still in Belarus. The overall commander of these three armies was Alexander himself, who was installed in Barclay de Tolly’s headquarters near Vilna.

On 23 June, the Prussian major (and later military theorist) Karl von Clausewitz, who had recently entered Alexander’s service, reached the Drissa camp (northwest of Polotsk on the Dvina, near modern Verkhniadzvinsk in Belarus) to inspect the site and report on the progress being made on its defensive works and fortifications. He remained unconvinced of its defensive qualities and said so to Alexander on 28 June. Despite the fact that the camp had appeared central to Russian strategy pre-invasion, it would prove of little worth once the Russian forces had withdrawn from the western frontier.

News of the Grande Armée’s advance guard crossing the Niemen (24 June, 1812) reached Alexander and Barclay de Tolly that same day, late in the evening. The order to withdraw to the Drissa camp was issued shortly afterwards, and Barclay’s units fell back.

Between 26 and 27 June, the order to retreat back from borders spread to each of the Russian corps commanders. Although most of the 1st Western Army’s withdrawal was relatively untroubled, General Dokhturov’s 6th corps, stationed between Lida and Grodno, was almost cut off by the Grande Armée’s crossing of the Niemen and Davout’s troops making for Minsk. Only by force marching did the 6th corps avoid the advancing French troops and reach Drissa unmolested. It was also on 26 June that Alexander dispatched a letter proposing talks with Napoleon, provided that the French emperor retired back over the border. The messenger was held up by Davout and only succeeded in reaching Berthier and Napoleon at the end of the month. The evacuation of Vilna began late on 26 June: by the time Napoleon received Alexander’s messenger and letter, Vilna had been occupied by the Grande Armée. Barclay de Tolly left the city early on 28 June, having destroyed the remaining depots as well as the bridge across the Dvina. Napoleon’s advance troops arrived about an hour later.

Next: The March Continues


[1] Dr. Daniel Churchill, MITE6323  – Interactivity, Visualization, Emerging Technologies and Paradigms, The University of Hong Kong, February, 2007.

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

[3] Napoleon’s Russian campaign: From the Niemen to Moscow,,

DataViz History: Edward Tufte, Charles Minard, Napoleon and The Russian Campaign of 1812 – Part 3

Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon BonaparteNapoleon Bonaparte (French: Napoléon Bonaparte, Italian: Napoleone Buonaparte; 15 August 1769 – 5 May 1821) was a French military and political leader who rose to prominence during the latter stages of the French Revolution and its associated wars in Europe. [SOURCE]

As Napoleon I, he was Emperor of the French from 1804 to 1815. His legal reform, the Napoleonic Code, has been a major influence on many civil law jurisdictions worldwide, but he is best remembered for his role in the wars led against France by a series of coalitions, the so-called Napoleonic Wars. He established hegemony over most of continental Europe and sought to spread the ideals of the French Revolution, while consolidating an imperial monarchy which restored aspects of the deposed Ancien Régime. Due to his success in these wars, often against numerically superior enemies, he is generally regarded as one of the greatest military commanders of all time, and his campaigns are studied at military academies worldwide.

Napoleon was born at Ajaccio in Corsica in a family of noble Italian ancestry which had settled Corsica in the 16th century. He trained as an artillery officer in mainland France. He rose to prominence under the French First Republic and led successful campaigns against the First and Second Coalitions arrayed against France. He led a successful invasion of the Italian peninsula.

In 1799, he staged a coup d’état and installed himself as First Consul; five years later the French Senate proclaimed him emperor, following a plebiscite in his favour. In the first decade of the 19th century, the French Empire under Napoleon engaged in a series of conflicts—the Napoleonic Wars—that involved every major European power. After a streak of victories, France secured a dominant position in continental Europe, and Napoleon maintained the French sphere of influence through the formation of extensive alliances and the appointment of friends and family members to rule other European countries as French client states.

The Peninsular War and 1812 French invasion of Russia marked turning points in Napoleon’s fortunes. His Grande Armée was badly damaged in the campaign and never fully recovered. In 1813, the Sixth Coalition defeated his forces at Leipzig; the following year the Coalition invaded France, forced Napoleon to abdicate and exiled him to the island of Elba. Less than a year later, he escaped Elba and returned to power, but was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815. Napoleon spent the last six years of his life in confinement by the British on the island of Saint Helena. An autopsy concluded he died of stomach cancer, but there has been some debate about the cause of his death, as some scholars have speculated that he was a victim of arsenic poisoning.

Events Leading Up to the Russian Campaign of 1812

The Treaty of Tilsit in 1807 resulted in the Anglo-Russian War (1807–12). Emperor Alexander I declared war on the United Kingdom after the British attack on Denmark in September 1807. British men-of-war supported the Swedish fleet during the Finnish War and had victories over the Russians in the Gulf of Finland in July 1808 and August 1809. However, the success of the Russian army on the land forced Sweden to sign peace treaties with Russia in 1809 and with France in 1810 and to join the Continental Blockade against Britain. But Franco-Russian relations became progressively worse after 1810, and the Russian war with the UK effectively ended. In April 1812, Britain, Russia and Sweden signed secret agreements directed against Napoleon.

In 1812, at the height of his power, Napoleon invaded Russia with a pan-European Grande Armée, consisting of 650,000 men (270,000 Frenchmen and many soldiers of allies or subject areas). He aimed to compel Emperor Alexander I to remain in the Continental System and to remove the imminent threat of a Russian invasion of Poland. The French forces crossed the Niemen River on 23 June 1812. Russia proclaimed a Patriotic War, while Napoleon proclaimed a Second Polish war. The Poles supplied almost 100,000 men for the invasion-force, but against their expectations, Napoleon avoided any concessions to Poland, having in mind further negotiations with Russia.

Although the Napoleonic Empire seemed to be at its height in 1810 and 1811, it had in fact already declined somewhat from its apogee in 1806-1809. While most of Western and Central Europe lay under his control – either directly or indirectly through various protectorates, allies, and countries defeated by his empire and under treaties favorable for France – Napoleon had embroiled his armies in the costly and drawn-out Peninsular War in Spain and Portugal. France’s economy, army morale, and political support at home had noticeably declined. But most importantly, Napoleon himself was not in the same physical and mental state as in years past. He had become overweight and increasingly prone to various maladies. Nevertheless, despite his troubles in Spain, with the exception of British expeditionary forces to that country, no European power dared move against him.

The Treaty of Schönbrunn, which ended the 1809 war between Austria and France, had a clause removing Western Galicia from Austria and annexing it to the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. Russia viewed this as against its interests and as a potential launching-point for an invasion of Russia.In 1811 Russian staff developed a plan of offensive war, assuming a Russian assault on Warsaw and on Danzig.

In an attempt to gain increased support from Polish nationalists and patriots, Napoleon in his own words termed this war the Second Polish War:

Soldiers, the second war of Poland is started; the first finished in Tilsit. In Tilsit, Russia swore eternal alliance in France and war in England. It violates its oaths today. Russia is pulled by its fate; its destinies must be achieved! Does it thus believe us degenerated? Thus let us go ahead; let us pass Neman River, carry the war on its territory. The second war of Poland will be glorious with the French Armies like the first one.

Napoleon’s “first” Polish war, the War of the Fourth Coalition to liberate Poland (from Russia, Prussia and Austria), he saw as such because one of the official declared goals of this war was the resurrection of the Polish state on territories of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Alexander I of Russia
Alexander I of Russia

Tsar Alexander found Russia in an economic bind as his country had little in the way of manufacturing yet was rich in raw materials and relied heavily on trade with Napoleon’s continental system for both money and manufactured goods. Russia’s withdrawal from the system was a further incentive to Napoleon to force a decision.


The invasion of Russia clearly and dramatically demonstrates the importance of logistics in military planning, especially when the land will not provide for the number of troops deployed in an area of operations far exceeding the experience of the invading army. Napoleon and the Grande Armée had developed a proclivity for living off the land that had served it well in the densely populated and agriculturally rich central Europe with its dense network of roads. Rapid forced marches had dazed and confused old order Austrian and Prussian armies and much had been made of the use of foraging. In Russia many of the Grande Armée’s methods of operation worked against it and they were additionally seriously handicapped by the lack of winter horse shoes which made it impossible for the horses to obtain traction on snow. Forced marches often made troops do without supplies as the supply wagons struggled to keep up. Lack of food and water in thinly populated, much less agriculturally dense regions led to the death of troops and their mounts by exposing them to waterborne diseases from drinking from mud puddles and eating rotten food and forage. The front of the army would receive whatever could be provided while the formations behind starved.

Napoleon had in fact made extensive preparations providing for the provisioning of his army. Seventeen train battalions, comprising 6000 vehicles, were to provide a 40-day supply for the Grande Armée and its operations, and a large system of magazines was established in towns and cities in Poland and East Prussia. At the start of the campaign, no march on Moscow was envisioned and so the preparations would have sufficed. However, the Russian armies could not stand singularly against the main battle group of 285,000 men and would continue to retreat and attempt to join one another. This demanded an advance by the Grande Armée over a network of dirt roads that would dissolve into deep mires, where ruts in the mud would freeze solid, killing already exhausted horses and breaking wagons. As the Minard’s map will show us, the Grande Armée incurred the majority of its losses during the march to Moscow during the summer and autumn. Starvation, desertion, typhus and suicide would cost the French Army more men than all the battles of the Russian invasion combined.

Grande Armée

On 24 June 1812, the 450,000 men of the Grande Armée, the largest army assembled up to that point in European history, crossed the river Neman and headed towards Moscow. Anthony Joes in Journal of Conflict Studies wrote that:

Figures on how many men Napoleon took into Russia and how many eventually came out vary rather widely.

  • [Georges] Lefebvre says that Napoleon crossed the Neman with over 600,000 soldiers, only half of whom were from France, the others being mainly Poles and Germans.
  • Felix Markham thinks that 450,000 crossed the Neman on 25 June 1812, of whom fewer than 40,000 recrossed in anything like a recognizable military formation.
  • James Marshall-Cornwall says 510,000 Imperial troops entered Russia.
  • Eugene Tarle believes that 420,000 crossed with Napoleon and 150,000 eventually followed, for a grand total of 570,000.
  • Richard K. Riehn provides the following figures: 685,000 men marched into Russia in 1812, of whom around 355,000 were French; 31,000 soldiers marched out again in some sort of military formation, with perhaps another 35,000 stragglers, for a total of fewer than 70,000 known survivors.
  • Adam Zamoyski estimated that between 550,000 and 600,000 French and allied troops (including reinforcements) operated beyond the Niemen, of which as many as 400,000 troops died.

“Whatever the accurate number, it is generally accepted that the overwhelming majority of this grand army, French and allied, remained, in one condition or another, inside Russia.”

—Anthony Joes

Russian Imperial Army

The forces immediately facing Napoleon consisted of three armies comprising 175,250 Russians and 15,000 Cossacks, with 938 guns as follows:

General of Infantry Mikhail Bogdanovich Barclay de Tolly served as the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Armies, a field commander of the First Western Army and Minister of War until replaced by Mikhail Illarionovich Kutuzov who assumed the role of Commander-in-chief during the retreat after the Battle of Smolensk.

As irregular cavalry, the Cossack horsemen of the Russian steppes were best suited to reconnaissance, scouting and harassing the enemy’s flanks and supply lines.

These forces, however, could count on reinforcements from the second line, which totaled 129,000 men and 8,000 Cossacks, with 434 guns and 433 rounds of ammunition.

Of these about 105,000 men were actually available for the defense against the invasion. In the third line were the 36 recruit depots and militias, which came to the total of approximately 161,000 men of various and highly disparate military values, of which about 133,000 actually took part in the defense.

Thus, the grand total of all the forces was 488,000 men, of which about 428,000 gradually came into action against the Grand Army. This bottom line, however, includes more than 80,000 Cossacks and militiamen, as well as about 20,000 men who garrisoned the fortresses in the operational area.

Sweden, Russia’s only ally, did not send supporting troops. But the alliance made it possible to withdraw the 45,000-man Russian corps Steinheil from Finland and use it in the later battles (20,000 men were sent to Riga).

Next: Napoleon’s Russian Campaign of 1812


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