June 21, 2007 cameron

#23 – The Road To Moscow

In this episode we explore the political events that resulted in Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, the tragedy that formed the central events of Tolstoy’s War and Peace and which saw Napoleon raise the largest army in history up until that time, 500,000 – 700,000 men (historians vary on exactly how many there were).

Napoleon is often accused of being the instigator of this war (something Tolstoy, a Russian, was happy to suggest) but David and I examine the facts behind this perspective.

While this is a tragic and deeply moving period of Napoleonic history, it is also one of the most fascinating, both from a military and a humanist perspective.

Perhaps the best graphical representation of this unfortunate episode (or, in fact, one of the greatest use of informational graphics ever) is this image by French engineer Charles Minard.

Edward Tufte called it “the best statistical graphic ever drawn” and uses it as a prime example in The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. (source)


Comments (15)

  1. Great podcast as ever, thanks again to the pair of you.

    The army which Napoloeon mustered to attack Russia was huge by any standards, but it seems to me to be almost an order of magnitude bigger than the size of the armies about which we have been talking in the podcasts so far. I can’t remember any battles that you have talked about so far having a single protaganist whose forces got into 5 figures.

    How was it possible to keep such a huge number of people under arms? Was there anything unusual in the way Napoleon organised the resources of his empire to allow such a vast investment in the military? Even in the 20th Century with all its advances in technology an army of that size would take some supporting. I think it is about 3 times bigger than the current British army for example.

  2. Nick

    Another great podcast.
    I think fans of Napoleon feel very differently about the Russian Campaign, as opposed to the Peninsular War, because even though they both ended very badly for France, the Russian Campaign was far shorter, on such a grand scale, and is full of so many tragic “what if’s.” The Peninsula was years of grind out quagmire – not much glory there.

    I do have a question, which will probably be addressed in the later podcasts, but I’ll ask anyway. I think Mr. Markham, or possibly both of you, commented on the fact that the Russian nobility was pushing for war. If that was the case, I doubt they would have been very happy with the Czar’s “plan” of constant retreat, in which he either destroyed the land, left it to the enemy, or both.
    Even in War and Peace, Tolstoy describes the utter panic of the nobility as Napoleon moved closer. I guess my question is, why didn’t the Russian nobles, who had wanted the war, “demand” that the Czar fight Napoleon as opposed to retreating? I doubt the nobles cared much about grand strategy, but I’m sure they’d want to save their land, even if it meant a Russian military defeat. Any thoughts? (or should I just wait for the other podcasts?)

  3. Cameron

    Colin – I’ve asked David to response to your question.

    Nick – yeah I’m sure we’ll cover that in the episode… or two… or three. 🙂
    The whole “run away! run away!” strategy of the Russians has always intrigued me and I’ve got a lot of stuff to share on the subject, as I’m sure my esteemed colleague and mentor Sir Markham will have even more!

  4. Nick,

    I’ll just say that you are correct, the nobles were itching for a fight and it was this political pressure that probably led to the Battle of Borodino. There was no way that the Russians could give up the holy city of Moscow (remember, St Petersburg was actually the capital then) without a fight. For more, tune in to the next episode!

    Colin, you are right about the size of the army. It created special problems and we’ll talk about them in the next episode!

    So tune in, and tell 10,000 of your friends to do likewise!


  5. Tim

    I have recently started listening to the podcast and truly love it. I am forwarding it to all of my friends that have read the Aubrey/Maturin novels so that they can get a better understanding of who Napoleon was and why he is so important to history. Those that have listed have joined your fan club. I have caught up to the Battle of Morengo.

  6. Trevor Hardcastle

    Hi, why did not you use the music of Chaikovsky’s 1812 theme like in the first podcasts? Maybe it is irrelevent for the podcasts covering previous years, but for this one in particular it is perfectly legitimate.

    How can it be that so peace inclined indivicual (as you describe Napoleon) was always fighting various wars? It just doe not make too much sense.

    Can you tell in the program how Napoleon lured in so many people? Did he make firm promises of who gets what after the victory?


  7. Trevor,

    That is a fair question, and to find the answer one needs to look at exactly how the wars started. You can eliminate the early campaigne, such as the first Italian campaign and Egypt, as Napoleon was a general and fought where he was sent (though in the case of Egypt he had a hand in the decision, and he received command in Italy due to good political and social contacts, in both cases in addition to his obvious brilliance as a general). The rest of the campaigns were really continuations of the wars of the coalitions against Revolutionary France. If one looks at who actually starts the wars, or in the case of Russia, the mutual buildup of forces in response to issues that diplomacy (tried by Napoleon) simply could not solve, it is hard to draw the conclusion that Napoleon was the aggressor, the one who actually starts the conflicts. Of course, Napoleon was very successful in most of these campaigns, which may be part of why he is seen as being interested in war. One can also debate some of his treaty terms at the conclusion of conflicts, suggesting that more lenient terms might have led to longer term peace. I’m not convinced of that, but some do make the case. For example, if Napoleon had not become King of Italy, perhaps he would have seemed less of a threat to Austria and maybe even England. I’m not sure, but it is a possibility. In any event, all that notwithstanding, I would question anyone who says that Napoleon wanted all the wars he had. As a reformer (which he clearly was), wars were of limited value and had major drawbacks.



  8. Rick

    That Minard graph is so cool. I have a copy on my office wall and love to see the expressions on my co-workers faces when I tell them the thick line starting at the Polish border and moving east represents 500,000 troops and the small line coming west to the same point is the 10,000 troops left of the Grande Armee. Few are history lovers as I am but all are amazed at the human toll.

    With this podcast, I have finally caught up after one edition a week for 23 weeks. Now I have to wait a whole month? Merde! Ce n’est pas possible! I will go crazy with anticipation.

    Keep up the good work, guys! And thanks for a thoroughly entertaining and informative podcast!

  9. Trevor Hardcastle

    By claiming that Napoleon did not wart wars, not only do you distort the reality, but you diminish his genius a lot. It is a little more complicated than that.

    Napoleon definitely wanted fame, glory, and what we call now popularity. Whether it can be achieved through peace or by war is a tactical matter. The one who does not want war would not go to the military.

    Also, it is incorrect to take especially Napoleon’s letters literally. As a man of enormous power, he never revealed all his intentions to anyone as such people tend to do. I am sure that Napoleon always maintained that he wanted peace and there would be no wars, had his opponents agreed to everything Napoleon offered. But there always were conflicts of interests which lead to wars.

    Trevor Hardcastle

  10. Trevor,

    I agree. A man of Napoleon’s drive,determination and ability should be able to succeed in getting what he wants out of life. He spent most of his life embroiled in war, and would have spent even more of it fighting if the British hadn’t put him on a small island miles from any punch up potential.

    As soon as he was out of the way the world breathed a sigh of relief and there was peace for decades.


  11. Nick

    Thanks for responding to my post – and so quickly too! (I guess I should check the website more often.) I’m very much looking forward to hearing more about the Russian Nobility’s influence on the Czar in the next podcast, especially if they did in fact play a big role in forcing the issue at Borodino.

    on a side note, I can’t help thinking of War and Peace when I think about the Russian Campaign – this struck me when I first read it, but even more now: one of the major characters is named “Pierre”! Why would Tolstoy give such an obviously French name to one of his main characters? Another main character, “Andre”, could be either Russian or French, depending on the spelling (though it’s spelled the ‘French way’ in most English translations), but “Pierre”?! also, I wonder if Tolstoy noticed the irony of having his characters occasionally speak to each other in French. I know it was the lingua franca of the time, but still, demonizing the French at one moment and then parleyvous-ing Francaise the next, is a little disconcerting.

    – Nick

  12. Cameron

    Trevor, war has always been a political tool, and still is today. Napoleon went to military school as a child, and he excelled at his studies, so of course it was a political tool he was comfortable with and, obviously, extremely good at. However, I do honestly believe, from the hundreds of books I’ve read about Napoleon, that he was intelligent enough to know that France would be better served by a sustained peace, as long as it was peace on the the right terms. The point David and I often make in the show is that Napoleon rarely, if ever, was the one to start or declare war. If you have evidence to refute that, let me know.

    Regarding his letters, many of them are to his marshals and ministers. As he was on campaign much of the time, his letters to his staff were his only means of giving his instructions. It doesn’t make much sense to me that he would have lead them deliberately astray on many occasions. He did, though, make good use of propaganda tools, like the Bulletins and Le Moniteur.

  13. Mike

    Just curious – in the letter Cameron read out from N to A there was mention of (sounded like) ‘Cardyne (Cordine ?) fox’. Can’t find it via google – any idea what it was?

    While I’m here – terrific show guys, been listening since before Lodi & really enjoying it. Thanks.

  14. Cameron

    Hi Mike! Great question, I had to look it up!

    The letter referred to “Caudine Forks”. The Battle of Caudine Forks, 321 BC, was a decisive battle of the Samnite Wars. The Samnite commander, Gaius Pontius, set a trap for the Romans. The Caudine Forks was a narrow gap between two mountains which the Samnites barricaded, trapping the Roman army as they tried to pass through. When the Romans returned to the entrance, they found the Samnites waiting for them! According to Livy, instead of killing the Romans, the Samnites decided to let them go but forced them to agree to a humiliating treaty which the Roman Senate rebelled against years later. A bit like Germany after the Treaty of Versailles.

    According to Bourrienne:

    This allusion to the Caudine Forks was always in Napoleon’s mouth when he saw an enemy’s army concentrated on a point, and foresaw its defeat.

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