On 26 November, 1812, the Battle of Berezina began as Napoleon desperately tried to break through the enemy Russian lines and bring the tattered remnant of his forces back to France. In one of the most dramatic and heroic rearguard actions in history, his men managed to build a bridge across the icy river and hold off the Russians as they did so.
At a terrible cost in combatants and civilians, Napoleon was able to escape across the river and save his surviving men after a vicious three-day battle.
The French invasion of Russia
In June 1812 Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France and Master of Europe, invaded Russia. He was confident, having crushed Tsar Alexander’s armies and forced him into a humiliating deal at Tilsit five years earlier.
Since that victory, however, relations between him and the Tsar had broken down, largely over his insistence that Russia uphold the continental blockade – a ban on trading with Britain. As a result, he decided to invade the Tsar’s vast country with what was the largest army ever seen in history.
Napoleon’s mastery of Europe was such that he could call upon men from Portugal, Poland and everywhere in between alongside his crack French troops, widely considered to be the best in Europe. Numbering 554,000 men, the Grand Armée – as this force came to be known – was a formidable host. On paper.
Historians have argued since that its great size and multi-ethnic nature was actually a disadvantage. In the past, Napoleon’s great victories had been won with loyal and mostly French armies which had been experienced, well-trained, and often smaller than those of his foes. The problems with large multi-national forces had been seen during his wars with the Austrian Empire, and the famous ésprit de corps was thought to be lacking on the eve of the 1812 campaign.
Furthermore, the problems of keeping this vast body of men supplied in a country as vast and barren as Russia were obvious to the Emperor’s anxious commanders. The campaign, however, was far from disastrous in its early stages.
The road to Moscow
A little known fact about the campaign is that Napoleon’s army actually lost more men on the way to Moscow than on the way back. The heat, disease, battle and desertion meant that by the time the Russian capital was seen on the horizon he had lost half his men. Nevertheless, what was important to the Corsican General was that he had reached the city.
Battles at Smolensk and Borodino along the way had been costly and hard-fought, but nothing Tsar Alexander had done had been able to halt the Imperial juggernaut in its tracks – though he had managed to extricate most of the Russian army intact from the fighting.
In September the exhausted and bloodied Grand Armée reached Moscow with its promise of food and shelter, but it was not to be. So determined were the Russians to resist the invader that they burned their own old and beautiful capital in order to deny its uses to the French. Camped in a burned and empty shell, Napoleon dithered about whether to remain over the bitter winter or claim victory and march home.
He was mindful of earlier campaigns into Russia – such as that of Charles XII of Sweden a century earlier – and made the fateful decision to return to friendly territory rather than face the snows without adequate shelter.
Winter: Russia’s secret weapon
When it became clear that the Russians would not accept a favourable peace, Napoleon marched his troops out of the city in October. It was already too late. As the once-great army trudged across the empty vastness of Russia, the cold set in, as early as the French generals could possibly have feared. And that was the least of their worries.
The horses died first, for there was no food for them. Then after the men ate them they started dying too, for all the supplies in Moscow had been burned a month earlier. All the time, hordes of cossacks harassed the increasingly bedraggled rearguard, picking off stragglers and making the survivor’s lives a constant misery.
Meanwhile, Alexander – advised by his experienced generals – refused to meet Napoleon’s military genius head-on, and wisely let his army dribble away in the Russian snows. Astonishingly, by the time the remnants of the Grand Armeé reached the Berezina river in late November it numbered just 27,000 effective men. 100,000 had given up and surrendered to the enemy, while 380,000 lay dead on the Russian steppes.
The Battle of Berezina
At the river, with the Russians – who now finally scented blood – closing in on him, Napoleon met with mixed news. Firstly, it seemed like the constant bad luck that had dogged this campaign had struck again, for a recent rise in temperatures meant that the ice on the river was not strong enough for him to march his whole army and its artillery across.
However, some troops he had left behind in the area now rejoined his forces, taking the number of fit fighting men up to 40,000. He now had a chance.
Creating a bridge strong enough to take his army across the sub-zero water seemed an impossible task, but the extraordinary courage of his Dutch engineers made the escape of the army possible.
Wading through waters that would kill them in just thirty minutes of exposure, they were able to construct a sturdy pontoon bridge, while on the opposite bank the arriving and outnumbering forces were heroically held off by four Swiss regiments who formed the ultimate rearguard. Only 40 out of 400 engineers survived.
Napoleon and his Imperial Guard managed to cross on 27 November, while the Swiss and other weakened French divisions fought a terrible battle on the far side as more and more Russian troops arrived.
The next days were desperate. With most of the Swiss now dead Marshal Victor’s corps stayed on the far side of the bridge fighting off the Russians, but soon troops had to be sent back over to prevent them from being annihilated.
When Victor’s exhausted troops threatened to break Napoleon ordered a massive artillery barrage across the river which stunned his pursuers and stopped them in their tracks. Taking advantage of this lull, Victor’s remaining men escaped. Now, to stop the enemy’s chase the bridge had to be fired, and Napoleon ordered the thousands of servants wives and children following the army to come over as quick as possible.
His orders were ignored however, and many of these desperate civilians only tried to cross once the bridge was actually aflame. It soon collapsed, and thousands were killed by the river, the fire, the cold or the Russians. The French army had escaped, but at a terrible cost. Tens of thousands of men that he simply couldn’t spare were dead, as were a similar number of those men’s wives and children.
The precursor to Waterloo
Astonishingly, 10,000 men did reach friendly territory in December and lived to tell the tale even after the worst disaster in military history. Napoleon himself went on ahead immediately after Berezina and reached Paris by sledge, leaving his suffering army behind.
He would live to fight another day, and the actions of the Dutch engineers had enabled the Emperor to defend France to the last, and preserved his life so that three years later he could return for the final act of his great drama – Waterloo.