August 16, 2007 cameron

#26 – The Invasion Of Russia (Part III)

Recorded on Napoleon’s 238th birthday, we celebrate by making this our LONGEST show yet! 93 minutes of Napoleonic fun! Well, actually, as the subject is the Russian campaign, perhaps not so much fun for Napoleon and his troops, but fun for us to discuss nonetheless.

In this episode we find Napoleon marching into Moscow, the Russians (yes, the Russians!) setting fire to their ancient city, Napoleon waiting for Alexander to make peace, finally realizing that isn’t going to happen, and then marching (what remains of) the Grand Armee back to France. Of course, this “retreat” (or “strategic withdrawal”, as David insists on calling it) is perhaps one of the most tragic stories in military history.

Some objects from David’s personal collections:


General Frost

For further reading, I recommend:



Comments (36)

  1. Well done for getting the podcast out so soon. I am just going home so I am looking forward to listening to it.

  2. Joshua Parker

    Great job as always Cameron and David. I particularly like the connection drawn between religion and brutality, a connection I’m sure Cameron sees also given his atheistic tendencies 🙂

    Such a horrific war though, truly the stuff of nightmares. I doubt many a man today could endure such hardships well at least not civilians anyway.

    For the record Borodino was the bloodiest battle until The Battle of the Somme in 1914, a hundred years later.

  3. Hugh Yeman

    Hi David and Cameron. I enjoyed episode 26; I had a long drive to make on Friday night, and you guys made the time pass more pleasantly. I actually listened to 25 (for the second time) and 26 back-to-back, and I think that 26 was an improvement. For my money (OK, OK, I’m not paying for it, I know) 25 contained a bit too much pontificating on the horrors of war. Don’t get me wrong; politically I think I’m pretty close to you guys, and I’m no fan of war. It’s just that, during 25, I found myself thinking “OK, war is hell, I get it!” quite a bit. Not with 26, though.

    By the way, I made some comments on the Trafalgar episode about a month ago, and sent you both an e-mail. I never got any responses, so either you think I’m incredibly silly – a possibility I’m not entirely discounting – or you didn’t get the messages. Just wanted to see if you’d read them.

    Keep up the great podcasts!


  4. Hugh Yeman

    David: If it’s not too much trouble, could you please tell us what it says in the speech balloons in the “General Frost” cartoon pictured above? It looks interesting.


  5. Hugh Yeman

    Oh by the way, Cameron: the most shocking thing about this podcast was not anything revealed about Napoleon. No, it was that you, who used to work for Microsoft, don’t know how to abort a Windows shutdown! 😉


  6. Wes

    Great Job David and Cameron! In this episode you pointed out how bios history can be toward the person who wrote it. I really enjoyed the enitre podcast. I think Camerson mensioned something about it being too long. You guys can never make a podcast that is too long. Also Great Job on getting the podcast out so soon after the last one. You guys keep up the excellent job. I’m looking forward to the next episode. Also, David, i would like to wish your wife a very happy birthday along with Napoleon. Its seems that your wife has some strange connections with Napoleon.
    Thanks for another GREAT Episode!!!!!!!

  7. Kevin

    David and Cameron

    I have only recently come to this podcast … and as an amateur Napoleon friend (not as strong as an afficiando or buff) I have found them most illuminating. Well done of a thoroughly educational and entertaining podcast.

    I have managed all 26 episodes in the last two months or so … repeated trips from Melbourne to Adelaide by car … 8 hours each way … great for listening 🙂

    May I ask any of the assembled multitude … Ep 26 … how much did the French and allies live ‘off the land’ on the march to moscow? I know the commissariat department was active … but how much (if that is known) was taken from the people … and I know one can take but offer valueless script in exchange.

    If it was a lot then surely the russian peasantry had some reason for being sufficiently miffed to behave the way they did as the french retreated.

    I was also wondering why David thinks the Russian peasants/army were supposed to play by the ‘rules’ of the western europeans? He made a point of talking about the western way of war but gave no reason why he believed that should apply to the russians … I guess it is a bit like a club … If I am not interested in the club then its self-imposed rules have no meaning for me.

    Thanks again for a great, thought provoking podcast

  8. John G

    I agree with Wes. This was a great episode, really fascinating.

    I have read War and Peace, and while Tolstoy clearly had a Russian bias, his story telling is not that inconsistent. David, you mentioned that in War and Peace, Tolstoy attributed the burning of Moscow to the French. While I haven’t had a chance to review this, I don’t remember this being the case. Tolstoy was, however, a bit vague about how the fire’s were started. The way I remember it, he explained that, with the city abandoned fire’s would break out (for whatever reason), and there was no one to fight the fires so they just spread. Without the regular ordered civilisation that Moscow had been, everything broke down, the regular maintenance required to keep a city operating in an orderly manner didn’t happen. People had abandoned the city so the regular everyday controls that were in place broke down, fires broke out, and there was no-one to put them out. His explanation was something like this if I remember it correctly.

    But I must say I was puzzled by Tolstoy’s explanation when I read it. I think your explanation makes a lot more sense.

  9. I was brought up in England. In fact right on the south coast where there is still a string of forts built to prevent Napoleon from landing. We were given a pretty negative of Bonaparte at school, but I do remember we were taught that the Russians burned Moscow. This was reported as an act of heroic determination to resist the invader, even at the cost of destroying their own city. As David made very clear, there really is no other logical explanation even if the documentary evidence didn’t exist.

    Although I have had to revise some of what I learnt at school I still regard the burning of Moscow as a great example of patriotism and hugely to the credit of the defenders. Like the Romans confronted with Hannibal, they showed that you are not defeated as long as you don’t accept defeat, even when you face overwhelming odds.

  10. Antonio


    Thought you might like to know that your readings inspired me to buy, on a old book fair, a book dedicated to the letters from Napoleon to Marie Louise. It might just be a very interesting light reading, and, also, a good deal it was for me (only costed 5 euros)!

    Too bad I can’t place a pic of the funny cover… I’ll try to email it later, if you or David are curious.


    Lisbon, Portugal

  11. Cameron

    Colin, you see the act of a city governor deliberately destroying the property of his people as patriotic??? That’s interesting. Keep in mind that Russia was the instigator of the war and then allowed the French to march into Russia. Surely it would have been far more sensible to just sign a peace treaty than have hundreds of thousands of homeless people and their properties and livelihoods destroyed?

  12. Kevin

    Surely the act of destroying the city was a winning tactic … we applaud the russians in wwii for using such a tactic (the scorch the earth tactic) as it denied the germans the ability to use local supplies.

    yes it is a terrible thing but i suspect that leaders in many countries through history don’t ever consider their own people … if they did then perhaps we have had fewer despots and emperors, fewer kings and dictators

    i also suspect that ultimately we should judge a tactic by its success or not … russian tactics worked … ends and means not withstanding

  13. Cameron

    Kevin I’m not sure it was a winning tactic. It depends, I guess, on what you think the object of war is. If your country gets destroyed, millions homeless, your capital destroyed, does that make you the victor? Especially when these things could have been avoided. Napoleon was very clear in his intentions – he didn’t want to invade Russia. He didn’t want to destroy Russia. He wanted peace – on his terms, perhaps, but peace nonetheless. On the same terms Alexander has previously agreed to. Those Russian people and nobles could have kept their property intact, their wealth, their crops, their LIVES… but they didn’t. Napoleon may have lost a lot of men in the retreat, and the 1812 campaign may have contributed significantly to his eventual defeat, but what did Russia gain as a result??

  14. Richard

    Cameron and David,
    congratulations on a superb episode , David’s performance was absolutely masterful, my favourite episode so far.I had little interest in Napoleon before stumbling on to your podcast , but like all great teachers you have passed on your enthusiasm . I eagerly await the next installment.
    Richard Gunning
    Fremantle , Western Australia.

  15. Kevin


    I think (but am willing to be otherwise persuaded)that kings, emperors, tsars etc may not be terribly interested in the welfare of ‘their people’ … in particular the tsars

    so winning is defined by not losing to napoleon … not by how you achieve that. I would imagine the russian imperial family had no idea of how the serfs lived, or indeed cared how the serfs lived

    Anyway … its an interesting analytic point 🙂

    Thanks again for the podcast

  16. Cameron

    So perhaps we can say that the Tsar won but the Russian people lost? 🙂

    Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that it *had* been the French who torched the Russian countryside and Moscow. And then, after laying waste to Russia, they turned around and left. Would it still have been a victory for the Tsar? If the enemy marches almost unhindered into your country, marches into your capital, lays waste to it, then departs, is that a victory? Or is it only a victory if *you* destroy your own land first??

    I have always thought of it as a bold and brilliant strategy on behalf of the Russians as well but, the more I think about it now, the less I think it can really be considered a victory.

    And… I may be naïve but I think Napoleon, as Emperor, genuinely cared about the welfare of the French. Perhaps because he wasn’t born into power and instead felt that leadership was a calling, a duty.

  17. Kevin

    and it may well be that napoleon cared for the french people … i believe it to be so … otherwise why all the social restructuring (code napoleon etc)

    but the tsars? i do find that difficult to accept 🙂

    and i suspect that it was not the first war (nor the last) where rulers did things for personal gain and gave no thought to some modern concept of ‘the people’ (again i am only referring to the tsar here)

    again … thanks … it is fascinating (as an historian) to have access to such good thinking 🙂

  18. Hugh Yeman

    Kevin said “May I ask any of the assembled multitude … Ep 26 … how much did the French and allies live ‘off the land’ on the march to moscow?”. I would also be very interested in knowing this, because I was thinking about the similarities between the plight of the French in Russia in 1812 and the plight of the Hessians at Trenton in 1776. Before the Brits and Hessians raped and pillaged their way across New Jersey, most of the state was loyalist. By Christmas, though, the invaders – especially the Hessians – had pissed off the populace so much that local militia units were cropping up all over the place and engaging in random raids across the Delaware. This was one of the main reasons why Washington won the Battle of Trenton. I’m curious as to whether the French were similarly responsible for their own downfall, or if instead the French being there *at all* was enough to make the Russian people want to torture them to death?


  19. Hugh Yeman

    Cameron and Kevin, I think that your dialogue about the merits of burning Moscow echoes my internal dialogue. It’s very difficult for me to even know how to think about certain episodes of Russian history. I was talking to a friend from Ukraine about the incredible sacrifices the Russian people made during WWII, and he made it very clear that those people had no choice. So do we admire it, or not? Clearly, Russia’s enormous sacrifices kept the German forces at bay during a crucial time, yet it’s hard to admire anything about a system that forces its own people to become cannon fodder. The problem is that it’s all a matter of degree; the Allied commanders sent their forces at Normandy into certain death as well. Of course, those soldiers at least had a choice in signing up.

    No answers here, just thinking.


  20. There’s an interesting Aug. 23 article by Juan Cole, a prominent commentator on Middle Eastern affairs, author of the widely read political blog “Informed Comment”, and a professor of Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan.

    The article, “Pitching the Imperial Republic: Bonaparte and Bush on Deck”, compares and connects Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. From the first paragraph:

    “French Egypt and American Iraq can be considered bookends on the history of modern imperialism in the Middle East…. There are many eerily familiar resonances between the two misadventures, not least among them that both began with supreme arrogance and ended as fiascoes. Above all, the leaders of both occupations employed the same basic political vocabulary and rhetorical flimflammery, invoking the spirit of liberty, security, and democracy while largely ignoring the substance of these concepts.”

    Cole makes clear he’s not suggesting a great resemblance between the two leaders, no doubt anticipating the obvious objection regarding mental capacity — he is rather identifying the ideological, rhetorical, and historical parallels between the two leaders’ pursuance of these Western incursions into Muslim lands, including “their unappealing tendency to believe their own propaganda”.

    I haven’t read the whole thing yet, and won’t have time until later today, but I am familiar with the high quality and accuracy of Juan Cole’s analyses, and immediately felt that this article would be of interest to Napoleon 101’s hosts and listeners.

    The article is posted at TomDispatch, the blog of Tom Englehardt, a Fellow at the Nation Institute (publishers of The Nation magazine):


    • Jayne

      Thanks for posting! I’m looking forward to reading it a lot a what I love about this podcast is the parallels between Napoleon and now.

  21. Thanks to Delysid for the link to the Juan Cole article. Sobering reminder that brilliant militarist and strategist aside (obviously talking about Napoleon here and not Bush) an invasion is still, ahem, an invasion, and civilian casualties and resistance perhaps serve as a better measuring rod of success. This article reveals a darker side of Napoleonic tactics and contrasts effectively with the feel-good “romantic” perspective of invading Egypt that David portrays in his NFD book. I can’t help but wonder if part of my enjoyment of this podcast, apart from the new perspective on Napoleon it offers (i.e. not seen through an English lens), is the distraction it provides from the ongoing US invasion of Iraq. Examining historical figures and campaigns two hundred years gone allows us to filter out the severed heads posted on pikes in the streets of Cairo and focus instead on the Rosetta stone or the Denon wing.

    And thanks to the listeners who recommended pulling out War and Peace. For once in my life, girl that I am, I’m not skimming through the battle scenes as they all make sense now especially after three podcasts on the Russian invasion.

    Thanks again, Cam and David, for providing this entertaining and enlightening forum. Can’t you guys manage a weekly podcast?

  22. Alex Moore

    Thanks for the great podcast. I’ve listened to the first 12 episodes n the past 4 days and am really enjoying it. I rarely find time to sit down and read, so it’s great to have an intelligent podcast on such a fascinating subject that goes into so much depth. Doing the dishes has never been so educational!

    Toronto, Canada

  23. brett

    Hi, been enjoying the program since I bought an mp3 player earlier this year. I like to listen during my evening walks and the opening theme music starts me off just nicely.

    Napoleon was insane to go into Russia and his reasons for doing so are still not clear to this day.
    If he wanted glory he should of had a go at the Ottomans and kicked their buts out of Europe. Easy victories that would have made him very popular as the savior of Europe.

    Had he have retaken the whole Balkan Peninsular and Constantinople he would have been able to reinforce his friendship with Russia as the protector of a reunited Christendom. Britain would have had little choice then but to sue for peace.

    But being an atheist of English heritage living in a former British colony I’m kinda glad things worked out the way they did.

  24. Keith Hannigan

    Another fine pair of podcasts. Thank you both for your continuing work. I’m sure everyone on the board appreciates it.

    I believe David missed the point when he said, in connection with the burning of Moscow, that 19th Century warfare was primarily conducted between small, professional armies and that cities and civilians were largely left alone. His argument, as I understand it, was that the Russian strategy of scorched earth in general, and the burning of Moscow and Smolensk in particular, was unprecedented. In my view, however, David’s description of war as a small, professional affair is accurate with respect to the 17th and 18th centuries but that description was no longer applicable to warfare in 1812 and Napoleon, as the primary cause of the change, should have damn well understood that change.

    Armies of that 17th and 18th Centuries were small, predominantly mercenary and held in check by merciless discipline. They could not be trusted to forage widely because, not only would the troops commit unbelievable atrocities (see The Thirty Years War), but mostly because the only thing that kept large numbers from deserting or rendering themselves insensate with stolen booze was the prison-guard like attention of their non-coms. As a result, ancien regime armies moved slowly and were supplied by cumbersome supply trains. It was during the 17-18th centuries that you see the development of concepts like line-of-supply.

    However, with the coming of the French Revolution and the new-found commitment of the masses to the idea of the nation, suddenly armies became much larger. The armies of Revolutionary France were huge in comparison to what came before them (which is a big part of why Republican France was able to hold off its many enemies until Napoleon took control.) Of course, these larger armies needed more supplies than contemporary logistics could easily provide. Remember, the army the General Bonaparte first took into Italy in 1796 was starving and was motivated primarily by finding supply. The solution to the problem was found in the much higher morale of Revolutionary armies. Because the soldiers were committed to their cause, in a way that 18th Century troops were not, they could be trusted to forage much farther and more independently then their predecessors. (It also meant that Napoleon’s troops could move much faster than their old school opponents, an advantage the he made great use of.) That is what “living off the land” meant and the logistics of Napoleonic armies absolutely depended upon it.

    By 1812, in response to the French example, European armies had gotten larger across-the-board and clever military thinkers (like Clauswitz) were figuring out the new rules of war that applied to popular armies. Although Napoleon had done a pretty good job of preparing for the Russian invasion, and the logistic capability of the French military in 1812 was much better than it had been in 1796, his huge army still needed to draw supply off of the land. The Russians realized this and made the entirely rational decision to deny the French the supply they needed. I also suspect, although I could not point to evidence to support the point, that part of the reason you saw the conquered populace resist as much as they did in places like Spain and Russia was that the forage demands of the French armies put the cost of war on the peasantry to an extent greater than it did during the preceding centuries.

    David argued that burning Smolensk and Moscow was essentially unprecedented and that professional armies didn’t do that. That may have been the old rules but those rules no longer applied because France and Napoleon had redefined war to include much larger armies and dependence upon the enemy’s territory for supply. I agree that Napoleon was “flumoxed” (to use David’s fine choice of words) by the Russian strategy. But I think you have acknowledge that the Russian plan was the logical consequence of the military circumstances that Napoleon had created. Essentially, my argument is that Napoleon was very good at taking advantage of the possibilities offered by the Revolutionary armies but he was not good at realizing those advantages came with costs and vulnerabilities. It was that weakness that led to his worst decisions and his ultimate defeat.

  25. Eric


    Oops. Sorry for the mistake on your name. I don’t know where that came from. I was up too late.

    Anyway, thanks for responding on the issues. Just a few thoughts. You’re right in pointing out that Europe was not stable before Napoleon’s rise—my mistake in making such a blanket statement. But could it be that the perception of the way things used to be is what the European leaders sought? They did return to the Bourbon rule afterall. (That turned out well, didn’t it.)

    As for Russia, and the benefit of hindsight, I do think Napoleon had all the information at his disposal to anticipate a brutal Russian campaign. I think he chose to ignore it. His star was too bright, he thought. In reply to a warning from General Rapp, Napoleon writes: “The natives say we shall have a severe winter. Bah. You and your natives! We shall see how fine it is.” Early in the campaign, he discovers a narrow road system that cannot support a quick strike. He marches on, planning to live off the land. But Russia is too poor to support 600,000 soldiers. No matter, he marches on. And as he marches deeper into Russia, he discovers that the enemy will not stand and fight; rather, they pull him into the heart of the country with a scorched earth policy. Inexplicably, he takes the bait. But why? I can think of only two possibilities: stupidity or hubris, and he’s too brilliant for the former.

    Look, the man was brilliant. But one has to wonder what greater things he could have done had his military ambitions not blinded him.

  26. Cameron Reilly


    The reason why the allies powers wanted to return the Bourbons escapes me, unless it was purely to say to their own people “See? There is no point in having a revolution. You aren’t getting rid of us.” It’s not like the Euro monarchs even *liked* the French Bourbons, Tsar Alexander and Metternich despised Louis XVIII.

    As for Russia… you won’t get me disagreeing with you that Napoleon had a high degree of belief in his own star. You could call this hubris, sure. He had a number of people in his own staff try to talk him out of it. I think David and I talked about this at some length during our shows on Russia. Napoleon, it seems, just could not accept that Alexander would allow him to march right into Moscow. It was, to him, inconceivable.

    As for the winter, I believe Zamoyski points out in “1812” that Napoleon, ever the scientist, was using the almanacs to determine when winter would occur and it wasn’t due to start for several weeks after their eventual departure from Moscow. Keep in mind though that Napoleon *never* expected the campaign to last anywhere near that long. He was still, I think, shocked that Kutusov wouldn’t stand and fight like a man!

  27. Congratulations for the podcast, I’ve discovered it only recently and I’m still catching up, it’s a great antidote against the boredom of my daily commute, especially for an Italian (for whom Napoleon is an unofficial national hero) living in Britain (where he’s the bad guy)

    Just one minor point: horse meat isn’t disgusting at all, in fact it’s very tasty and healthy – Horses do not get the parasites that plague bovines and pigs, such as tapeworms, so it’s almost the only meat that’s perfectly safe to eat very rare. Where I come from (southern Italy) it’s considered a delicacy and especially on the hill towns near the southeastern coast many butcher shops only sell horse meat.

    The reason why the soldiers sprinkled gunpowder on it was simply that its taste is much sweeter than any other kind of meat, and gunpowder, being quite salty, made it much more palatable.

  28. Cameron

    Hi Eugenio! Thanks for tuning in and for setting us straight about the horse meat! I didn’t believe you at first, but I looked it up and Wikipedia agrees with you:

    Adding gunpowder for taste? That is the strangest thing I have EVER heard.

  29. Cameron, that’s because you’re not Italian or French. We’ll eat almost anything and bl**dy well make it tasty too!

  30. Cameron

    Eugenio, I’ve visited both France and Italy and I don’t remember seeing horse on the menu! Then again, it was probably written in French or Italian and I wouldn’t have known! I can’t wait to get back to France in July to get my fill of real cheese.

  31. Jayne

    A Fidel Castro podcast would be awesome! I already know a little about Alexander and Caesar so it would be great to here about someone I know nothing about

  32. Will Hazell

    It’s been commented on here before, years ago, but it’s worth reiterating that in War and Peace Tolstoy claims that nobody decided to burn down Moscow. He argues that an army encamped in a mainly wooden city is highly likely to start a fire by accident. due to camp fires etc.

      • Will Hazell

        I know, it’s just that in the episode you mentioned that Tolstoy backed the theory that the French started the fire, so I was just pointing out that that wasn’t the case.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

We Love To Hear From Our Listeners.

Get in touch with us!