September 01, 2012

1812 First Person

1812 First Person
The Battle of Smolensk

Two hundred years ago, on June 12, 1812, the French Grande Armée crossed the Neman River, beginning Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of Russia. On July 16, Vitebsk fell; on August 6, Smolensk. Then on August 26 (September 7 new style), Russia was defeated by Napoleon at the Battle of Borodino, 60 miles west of the capital. At least 70,000 soldiers on both sides are thought to have died on that single day of battle.

The road to Moscow was open and Napoleon expected Russia to sue for peace. Instead, the capital was evacuated, and soon after French troops entered on September 2, fires broke out (or were set).

Frustrated, the French began their retreat on October 7, and over the next month and a half Napoleon’s forces were decimated by disease, partisan attacks, winter and starvation. By the time the Grand Army recrossed the Berezina River, they had just 27,000 fit soldiers. They had entered Russia with over 400,000 (some estimates put it as high as 600,000) men.

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