June 28, 2007 cameron

#24 – The Invasion Of Russia (Part I)

On June 24, 1812, the Grande Armée of approximately 600,000 men, the largest army assembled up to that point in European history, crossed the river Neman and headed towards Moscow. In this episode, we focus on the first few months, and follow Napoleon as he captures Vilna, Vitebsk and Smolensk.

We examine why Napoleon was so confident that the campaign would be a short one and why he was so very, very wrong. We also discuss what was happening in the Russian camp and look at the political implications of their retreat.



Comments (24)

  1. That’s what I call a podcast! Thanks again for the great work.

    Napoleon seesm to have indulged in some very uncharacteristic dithering in the early stages of this campaign. Was this really the way the man was thinking? Or was it down to logistic problems that haven’t been documented.

    You don’t have to have worked on very big projects to know that one of the strange things about delays and hold ups is that nobody is ever responsible for them. Could it be that the shear scale of the invasion was beyond his staff?

  2. Nick

    Well I hope this podcast puts to rest the talk in some quarters that you guys are overly biased towards Napoleon. All of his inexplicable decisions were pointed out in this episode. I only wish we had more insight into what he could have been thinking when he decided to sit around for so many days and weeks – maybe some info from his dispatches, letters, or memoirs.

    and To take the day off for his birthday!? Wouldn’t the perfect gift for Napoleon have been a great victory? He could have even used the occasion as a way to inspire the troops:

    “Soldiers! Today is your Emperor’s birthday. My greatest wish is for an end to this war, so that you may all return safely to your families. With a victory today, that wish will be fulfilled. Let us dine tonight among the captured standards of our enemies and tomorrow we shall return home, covered in glory. Vive la France!”

    of course, his speech/ dispatch would have been much longer and better, but what a missed opportunity!
    and the weather? how could the same man who used the mist and sunlight to such great at Austerlitz effect not factor the Russian winter into his plans!

    I look forward to the next podcast, where, sadly, Napoleon will begin to understand Richard III’s desperate cry: “My kingdom for a horse!”

    – Nick

  3. Trevor Hardcastle


    What are our good friends from England are doing at the time of the Russian campaign? Are they sending any supplies to Russia? Are they planning any subversive operations in Paris?


  4. Trevor,

    I think the English contribution to Napoleon’s downfall is beyond dispute. There was an English army in Spain actively fighting the French all the while Napoleon was in Russia.



  5. Antonio

    These episodes about Russia are, so far, the best of the series. I feel that all past episodes, as well as all the past Napoleonic campaigns (besides Portugal and Spain) where just a mere prelude to the Russia campaign.

    I can only start to imagine what will follow in the 100 days and Waterloo episodes!


    PS: By the way, there were a few thousands Portuguese soldiers that were employed in the Grand Armee. Now, can you imagine walking all the way from Lisbon to Moscow? Imagine that!

  6. John G

    David, Cameron

    Just a quick note to say that I thought this latest episode was exceptional. I loved it! I have read War and Peace and it is good to get another perspective on the Russian campaign, although this episode fits pretty well with how it was covered by Tolstoy. No-one could argue about any Napoleon bias in this episode – the entire campaign does not present a very flattering portrayal of Napoleon and his decision making.

    I am most interested in knowing about whether Tzar Alexander’s continual withdrawal was a deliberate strategy or not. If it was, it was a stroke of genious. What is the consensus on this?

  7. Antonio,

    That is an interesting fact about the Portuguese fighting with Napoleon. How did they come to be on the ‘wrong’ side?

    But as you say, they had quite a journey, and all on foot presumably.


  8. Antonio


    Thank you for your interest.

    During the first invasion of Portugal (1808), and during the brief period while governor, Junot disbanded most of the Portuguese Army, while ordering the best units to march into France.

    Most of the soldiers, of course, refused to obey these orders and “deserted” during the march to France, soon after crossing the border. These soldiers later formed the core of the new Portuguese army, reorganized as an effective fighting force under Wellington. Some others joined the Portuguese Guerrilheiros.

    However, other units were so disciplined that they simply obeyed the order and marched into France to place themselves under Napoleon’s orders. Some officers where also fooled by the French “liberal and reformist” propaganda and ended up by being considered traitors by the Portuguese (and again, some other officers were actually traitors to their Queen and country).

    Some survived many campaigns serving under Napoleon’s Marshalls, and, in 1812, a few thousands marched to Russia as professional soldiers.

    Now imagine marching from the hot and sunny Portugal to fight in the Russian winter, thousands of miles away from home, for the sake of the French Emperor, whose soldiers had just recently been busy murdering and pillaging their homeland!

    A few hundred survived the Russian campaign and managed to return to France, gradually and discreetly returning to Portugal, many years after the end of the Napoleonic wars.

    I too presume that they all walked, as no fleet could travel without the intervention of the Royal Navy.


    PS: To tell you the truth, Colin, nowadays I would probably choose walking instead of flying with the aeroflot…

  9. austin

    Dear everyone at napoleon 101,

    I would like to thank you for pointing out in each episode
    how Napoleon wasn’t always the one driving the “war machine”. Whenever i look up napoleon on any website (other than this one) or in a book , or on T.V., they tend to label him a “tyrant, war monger , absolute Dictator, and so on…”. I like the fact that you point out that a lot of the time many of the European powers started or provoked most of the wars. I started listening to this podcast pro-British, but I’ve listened to all of your episodes and I’ve come to realize that Britain was the war monger. If Im not mistaken, wasn’t it Britain who started all 5 coalitions against napoleon or revolutionary France, forcing him to go to war? In your last two episodes you talked about how czar Alexander really provoked the Russian campaign. Anyway , I’m just trying to say i love what your doing with this podcast and hope you get nominated for that podcast award. (i voted for you). Good luck with this podcast and any future ones.

  10. Cameron

    Austin, thanks for the supportive comments (and for voting!). I’m not sure if we can say Britain *started* each of the coalitions, certainly the other Monarchs were involved in each decision, but Britain certainly played a significant role in keeping Europe at war during these years. The key point I want to make sure people understand is that Napoleon was never the one to break a peace treaty and cannot be saddled with all of the responsibility for the “Napoleonic Wars”. That isn’t to say he was completely innocent either. Even Caulaincourt, in his memoirs, accused Napoleon of liking war:

    Finally, I urged, he would not have gathered such forces in the North, to the detriment of the Spanish campaign, nor would he have spent so much money in all sorts of preparations, if he had not been resolved to put them to some use, either for a political end or to satisfy his fondest passion.

    “What passion is that?”, asked the Emperor, laughing.

    “War, Sire.”

    He tweaked my ear, with weak protests that it was not so.

    I told him that his desire was, if not for universal
    monarchy, at least for a supremacy which should be more than primus inter pares, and should place him in the position of demanding from others sacrifices which he would not be called upon to make himself; and this without allowing them the right of complaint or even of comment.

    (Caulaincourt, page 25, With Napoleon In Russia)

  11. Hello David and Cameron. I discovered the podcast about a month ago, and I wanted to tell you that I’ve been enjoying it a great deal. During the last few years, in an attempt to become less ignorant of history, I’ve limited myself almost exclusively to historical readings. That process has been much more rewarding that I’d anticipated, as I’ve discovered ways of looking at history that make it exciting – something I hadn’t known was possible. So far I’ve been most intrigued by the stories that people tell about history, how these stories differ from the historical reality, and what this says about humanity. People love to tell the story of how the Duke of Medina Sidonia screwed up the Spanish Armada of 1588, when in reality he not only did a first-rate job of getting its preparations back on track but he almost certainly did as good a job as anyone could have done with the mission itself. People love to tell the story of how Washington took Trenton on December 26, 1776 because Colonel Rall and the Hessians under his command got stinking drunk the night before, when in reality the Hessians were far too beleaguered by militia raids to even think about partying. I’m sure you can think of a hundred other examples.

    Given my particular interest, I’m sure you can see why I find your podcast so enjoyable. Until I began listening, I literally did not know there *was* such a thing as a Napoleon admirer. All I know about Napoleon comes from the Patrick O’Brian novels and from J. Christopher Herold’s book _Bonaparte in Egypt_. As you can well imagine, I’m looking forward to reading more and synthesizing my own view from the wildly disparate interpretations of Napoleon.

    I’m currently listening to podcast #19. I was going to wait until I was caught up before introducing myself, but I have a question: Is there an appropriate place here to make comments on earlier podcasts, or should I do that via e-mail?

    Thanks for the interesting podcasts!

    -Hugh Yeman

  12. Cameron

    HI Hugh

    Thanks for listening! Feel free to leave comments relating to earlier episodes on the blog page for that episode. We get them all.


  13. Hugh,

    If you read the posts you’ll see that there is a lot of debate about how much one should admire Napoleon. I think we all agree that he is a significant and influential figure though.


  14. i’ve created a site for historical podcasts – but i’m sure if i’m allowed to put direct links to your files. please have a look and tell me if there is anything you would like to remove from the page.

  15. Your site is a good idea Gidon. Can I suggest you add Dan Carling’s Hard Core History to it?


  16. Thanks colin I’ve added him to my site. do you know any other historical podcasts i’ve missed?

  17. Tom

    David, Cameron

    I discovered your podcast several months ago and have been slowly working through them and they are GREAT! For the last two years or so I have been obsessed with Napoleon and the Napoleonic era in general and have bought several books on Napoleon (perhaps next i’ll buy Napoleon for Dummies).

    Anyway I have a question that is a little off topic. During the sixth coalition Murat was aiding Napoleon, however, after Leipzig he switched sides and supported the coalition. After the war the allies repaided Murat by planning to dethrone him. Murat went to war with Austria over this and was defeated, he managed to escape but was later captured and executed. Now Murat was not some lowly general, he was the King of Naples, although he did abdicate. Napoleon abdicated and was made emperor of Elba and even after he staged a combeback was only exiled. How come Murat was so harshly punished? Doesn’t this kinda bring the Duc d’Enghien to mind, the way Napoleon dealt with him outraged the leaders of Europe yet Murat can be put in front of a firing squad by those same leaders.

  18. Simon Foster

    You guys are doing a great job I have learned so much from this show, being English i held the typical sterotype of Napoleon as a short, spineless dictator who neeeded to be defeated but now I see the full picture.

    It seems he was a very inspirational, influential character who was just trying to do his job as leader of his country bringing peace to his people.

    Keep going will be listeneing close.

    P.S Cameron I’m on your side about the Monarchy, trust me most of us over here have the same opinion.

  19. Andrew Killam

    I have finally caught up on your wonderful podcast series. I hope you are both doing well and complete the next one soon.


  20. Joe Crinnion


    I have just come across your wonderful podcast series. As a Napoleon nut this is heaven. Keep up the good work.

    Best regards,


  21. Frank

    Where did the podcasts for the 1812 Russian campaign go? here we are nigh upon the bicentenial of this war and I was looking to refresh myself on your take after reading Zamoyski’s book, and alas they are gone.

    • cameron

      Hi Frank, I’m just moving the site and shows over to a new server. They should all be up and normal in a day or two. Apologies for the inconvenience.

    • cameron

      Frank, that 1812 show should be working. Please let me know if you continue to have problems.

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