Victories would follow the pinnacle that was Austerlitz; the smashing of a resurgent Prussia during the Jena Campaign of 6-12 October 1806, the long-awaited defeat of the Russians at Friedland on 14 June1807 that would cost them over 30,000 casualties, the collective victories over the still combative Austrians during the Austrian War (Wagram Campaign) of 1809 and more. Though victories were there for Napoleon post-Austerlitz, so were the signs of declining military acumen and lapses in adhering to his own maxims.

The frozen winter Battle of Eylau on 7-8 February 1807 is one such an example. The desire to catch and beat the Russian army, under the command of the Hanoverian-born Levin August von Bennigsen (1745-1826), drove Napoleon to seemingly ignore several of his Maxims beginning with unit support. Just a year prior in 1806 Napoleon has espoused that “The art of placing troops is the great art de guerre. Always place your troops in such a way that, whatever the enemy does, they can be united within a few days.” However, his orders to various Corps commanders (such as Davout & Ney) and their distance from the battle (Davout was over 15 miles away) nearly led to a defeat for Napoleon, as they struggled to arrive in time (or not at all) and play a part in the wintery bloodbath of Eylau.

More egregious is Napoleon’s complete failure to recognize the moral of both his men and officers at Eylau. Freezing temperatures, lack of food, inadequate winter gear, and long, forced marches had robbed the army of its bravado when confronted with the numerically superior Russian army. Maxim IX lays out that “The strength of an army, like the power in mechanics, is estimated by multiplying the mass by the rapidity; a rapid march augments the moral of an army, and increases all the chances of victory.” Again, this was either ignored or eluded Napoleon at Eylau as the late arrival of Davout and even later arrival of Ney were not enough to bring about victory (Napoleon would claim one though it was a tactical draw), as the men were physically and mentally spent. The entire situation at Eylau was summed up by Ney: “What a massacre! And without any result!” 


Top: Napoleon, as seen her in the famous painting "Napoleon during the Battle of Eylau" by Antoine Jean Gros, became obsessed with destroying the Russian army which would cost him and France their best troops in the process. Commons.wikimedia.org.

Bottom: The Russian army executed a scorched earth policy while withdrawing further into the interior of the Russian Empire, as Napoleon chased after them, even setting fire to Moscow, as depicted here. Napoleon's failure to live by his own methods of warfighting in Russia would be a setback that neither he nor France would ever fully recover from. Artist Viktor Mazurovsky (1859–1944). Commons.wikimedia.org.


Misjudgments, unchecked imperial zeal, and most heinous, a near complete disregard for the Military Maxims that had served him and France well, are what constituted the Russian Campaign of 1812. Now middle aged, overweight, and easily fatigued, the Emperor of 1812 was a very different military commander than he was years previous, which would affect his decision making exponentially in the most negative of ways. Having assembled an army heretofore unseen at over 500,000 strong, Napoleon invaded Russia with the full expectation of quickly catching the main Russian army, defeating it, and then forcing Alexander to capitulate and agree to Napoleon’s terms.


This would quickly and quite ruinously fall apart as the further the French chased after the main Russian army (who kept pulling further back into the interior of Russia) seeking a single decisive battle, the more strung out and precarious their lines of communication and supply became. Napoleons near obsession with the destruction of the Russian at the cost of all else, saw him gravely neglect Maxim XI which states in part “To act upon lines far removed from each other, and without communications, is to commit a fault which always gives birth to a second.” Incessant attacks by Russian Cossacks and mobile units to harass, disrupt, and cut French lines of communication and supply crippled the French invaders.

The retreating Russians continuously robbed the French of resources and food, as they fired the fields and buildings along their paths of retreat. This directly strained and helped to break the French who were being driven under the auspices of Maxim LV: “A general should never put his army into cantonments when he has the means of collecting supplies of forage and provision, and of thus providing for the wants of the soldier in the field.” The Russian scorched earth policy robbed the French of the ability to forage off the land or even confiscate supplies and food, which along with Napoleon’s disregard for the dire situation and the arrival of the true enemy, the Russian winter (though the Russian heat also killed thousands of men and cavalry horses), spelled catastrophe.

Napoleon’s miscalculation that was the Russian Campaign of 1812 and his faulty application (or outright disregard) of his own Military Maxims cost him dearly and from which, he would never fully recover from, both in reputation and manpower. The Grande Armée that limped back to Europe one year later was shattered, having suffered up to 500,000 casualties with hundreds of thousands having been captured by the Russians. It was effectively the beginning of the end, which would come shortly in a Belgian farm field. 


Suggested Reading

Bonaparte, Napoleon. “Napoleon Bonaparte Letters.” Archives & Special Collections, University of Nebraska-Lincoln. https://libarchives.unl.edu/project/29072/.

Dickman, Thomas. Hampshire Federalist Springfield (MA), September 21, 1809.

Chandler, David. The Military Maxims of Napoleon. London, UK: Greenhill Books, 1994.

Connelly, Owen S. Blundering To Glory - Napoleons Military Campaigns. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006.

Roberts, Andrew. Napoleon: A Life. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2014. 


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