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Why Napoleon Lost in Russia


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Sorry this one isn't really about CMBB, except as precedent on another invasion of Russia that failed, despite taking Moscow.

I have long been fascinated by the course of the 1812 campaign in Russia, and by the riddle of the evaporating French army. Everyone hears endless stories of the horrors of the retreat from Moscow, but the reality is only one out of six of the men who crossed the border were still with the army by the time they got to Moscow, let alone coming back.

There was an expensive great battle of course, Borodino, and it caused 30,000 French casualties. But that took them from something like 130,000 down to 100,000, and they started with 600,000. There was one previous large fight at Smolensk, but it only caused about 5,000 French casualties. They were already down to 150,000 before it occurred.

From Smolensk to the start of the retreat, the losses come from the battles and a modest ongoing attrition. The first leg back, from Moscow to Smolensk, is what most of the winter horror stories are about ("General Winter" etc), accounted for 50,000 and cut the army in half.

Three quarters of the invading force left the strength before there was any winter weather or any fighting. This happened right at the start of the campaign, in the first two months, starting from a well stocked supply train. It also included a 2 week pause to allow supplies to catch up.

Many accounts have stressed the difficulty of foraging in the poorer Russian terrain, compared to what the French were used to in western Europe. I long considered this the main explanation. The Russians were eating out the territory as they retreated, and Napoleon followed their track because he was seeking battle continually. This put far more men on a thin strip of terrain, than the countryside could support, and effectively ate it out.

I believe that is still a contributing cause, but it hardly explains a loss of 450,000 men in 2 months. They'd disperse to forage or straggle back on the trailing supply wagons, but reform after the pauses at Vilna and Smolensk. This is not what we see.

There is another explanation I now consider the real cause. Disease. The overcrowding of the route, the shortage of supplies, and the strain of the march, all contributed to low resistence, but the basic cause was abymsal hygiene resulting in epidemic conditions. And the key agent was probably typhus.

Dysentery was also a serious problem, but on its own cannot account for the scale of loss. It might take as many as a tenth through dehydration (if completely untreated), but would mostly lead to stragglers in hospital. Although they had no antibiotics, the French medical service knew enough to treat it with rehydration therapies, which reduce actual mortality to insignificant levels - although some men might go untreated or wind up in places where potable water in any form was not available.

There is also some recent evidence that trench fever was epidemic in the army. It was not yet identified at the time (only was in WW I), but modern DNA evidence from grave sites shows French soldiers suffered from it. But this again is an incapacitor, but not a killer. It predicts straggling for a few week period. Combined, these can account for the need to pause at Vilna and the like, but not losing three quarters of the army before Smolensk.

But typhus is another matter. Epidemic typhus was one of the greatest killers in conditions of war or famine until the advent of modern hygiene on the one hand, and antibiotics on the other. It was part of what made the 30 years war such a disaster, for example. Untreated epidemic typhus can infect everyone in a location suffering from collapsing hygiene, and can bring outright mortality rates ranging from 10% in a milder epidemic, to 60% in severe ones. The more suppressed overall health is before it hits, the higher the mortality rate.

If everyone in the Grand Armee faced a bout of typhus during the entry march, many of the men already having suppressed immune systems from undernourishment, poor water supply, overexertion, dysenstry, and trench fever, then you have all the conditions for a highest mortality typhus epidemic. Which can easily kill 50% of those infected, outright, in a matter of weeks.

This fits the case. The balance fell out and ended up in hospital or foraging far from the line of march. But before they even got to Smolensk, typhus alone may have taken ten times what the French lost at Borodino. Typhus is spread by body lice. Thus it would appear Napoleon was defeated by insect-borne microbes.

FWIW.

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Yes, the 30 Years War was a particularly nasty one where the population not only had to contend with ransacking mercenary armies that stripped the land bare but also typhus, dysentry and if that wasn't enough, bubonic plague as well! No wonder some estimates put the loss males in the population at certain provinces as high as 50% as a result of the war and accompanying devastation.

Regards

Jim R.

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While I rather like typhus as a major contributing cause of the evaporation of armies in 1812, I still wonder how much of that attrition was due to out and out mortality. French and Russian losses were frightening any way you look at it, and French losses were certainly worse, though some of the drop in French numbers might have to do with Prussian and Austrian allies effectively dropping out.

Nowadays we tend to think of losses in war as coming from combat action, but back then you lost far more men from marching around quickly than from actually fighting the enemy.

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I thought so too, for a long time. But they do not seem to have made it back out of Russia, that is the issue. All the later evidence is that survivors of the campaign as a whole numbered 100,000 or less.

Yes march attrition was a serious issue in the Napoleonic wars for all sides. One can imagine men who left the column to forage got lost and were eventually done in by partisans and cossacks by the end of winter, but it is mostly imagining.

Thing is, nobody else ever had 3/4 of their force evaporate in two months without combat, let alone on such a scale. Also, if mere straggling were the root cause, the 2 week pause would have reformed half the losses or more, but in reality failed to do so.

As for allies dropping out, there are plenty of allied contingents at Borodino, so I don't buy it. An entire Italian corps, an entire Polish corps, nearly an entire corps of Saxons and Westphalians etc. Individual formations record a strength of 7000 at the frontier and 1500 at Smolensk, so it was not a reduction of national contingents as blocs, but occurred within each as real loss.

We know there was a typhus epidemic, from reports at the time and from modern DNA analysis. We just don't know how many people it actually sickened or killed. What I did not know in detail before was the typical etiology of typhus and the very high mortality rates it can reach in a weakened population, when untreated. The range is really wide, some outbreaks killing 10% of those who contract the disease, some fully 60%. To me, that was the new information that revised my estimate of the importance of mere foraging difficulties, vs. outright loss to disease.

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I'd agree with most of that, but I would say that typhus probably not the only culprit. Dysentary, pneumonia, heat stroke, and quite possibly simple starvation took their share as well. I've read a goodly number of histories on the campaign, and you don't really get the feeling an epidemic hit the French army prior to the Retreat.

And straggling resulting in no retutrn to ranks had to be huge, possibly tens of thousands just turned around and walked back to Poland, it wasn't like MPs would stop them. I'm guessing on that, of course.

But no matter the means, the cause goes straight back to the decision to shove 400,000 men, plus close to that many horses, down essentially a single road leading through an unpopulated region of mostly pine forests and swamps. It sort of creates a walking Dafur, too many people concentrated too tightly, with too few supplies.

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When I was researching Naval warfare un the 18th and 19th centuries the general breakdown of losses were about 95% disease, 4% shipwrecks and about 1% combat(if that).

When one considers that during the Seven year war and the Napoleonic Wars the Royal Navy ran up losses of about a quater of a million men in EACH conflict (yes you heard me correctly, and you can verify this for yourselves), there can be seen to be some correlation to the land losses.

For reference the operating strength of the Royal Navy was about a hundred thousand men (both marines and sailors) and the first conflict covers a seven year period, while the second conflict is for a twelve year period. So losses would run at about 35,000 and 20,000 a year respectively.

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  • 2 years later...

JasonC,

There was a show on some time back (History Channel?) called something like The Death of Napoleon's Army. Based on a recent dig in Vilnius, Lithuania, it concluded that typhus was the real killer of Napoleon's retreating army. The survivors were riddled with it and continued to die in droves even once food was finally available. Well worth watching if you get the chance!

Regards,

John Kettler

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I happen to have done some past studying on disease and warfare, ages ago but now, enough to offer the following.

There is was general rule-of-thumb that existed for centuries that in a campaign, for every 6 months in the field, the typical army (at least in Europe, which is the only theatre with long enough good records) can expect to lose 50% of its initial force due to disease (and problems with non-combat injuries and resurfacing of old wounds etc) even if no battle was fought. This figure did not change much until the 20th century. Hence, even if resupplied with new troops, campaigning seasons tended not to last year-round not only because of the problems of travelling in winter but also because this attrition rate only worsened in winter conditions.

Jason C, I wonder if your calculations of the size of Napoleon's forces by the battles of Smolensk and Borodino, compared to the initial size of his Grand Army, may be over-accounting, for not all of his forces took part in those battles? The figures vary according to varying sources. But although he had about 400,000 to 800,000 men overall (or 600,000 if you take the middle value of that range), his main central army was only of about 265,000 and it was mainly with this central army that he fought at Smolensk and Borodino. Hence it may be safer to calculate the losses of those first two months as at most about a third (say 90,000: i.e. 265,000 minus the 175,000 that lined up at Smolensk) rather than three quarters. And half of those 90,000 missing were due to earlier fighting (some 12,000 dead and perhaps 30,000 wounded). Thus, the number lost to disease in the 2 months before that battle was probably about 48,000 (90,000 - 42,000), not far off the 44,167 that would be estimated by the general rule-of-thumb. Also, the typhus seemed to have struck more on the return trip, not in the earlier months.

Finally, the papers that forum users have linked in their replies are great but all over a decade old and, as pointed out in an earlier message, within the past few years mass graves of some of Napoleon's troops have been uncovered. Research continues, so if you are keen on tracking down losses to disease, I'd recommend including more recent research.

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Interesting - Do you think this attrition rate would still apply contemporarily to the Taliban. IIRC they tend to lay low in the winter.

I happen to have done some past studying on disease and warfare, ages ago but now, enough to offer the following.

There is was general rule-of-thumb that existed for centuries that in a campaign, for every 6 months in the field, the typical army (at least in Europe, which is the only theatre with long enough good records) can expect to lose 50% of its initial force due to disease (and problems with non-combat injuries and resurfacing of old wounds etc) even if no battle was fought. This figure did not change much until the 20th century. Hence, even if resupplied with new troops, campaigning seasons tended not to last year-round not only because of the problems of travelling in winter but also because this attrition rate only worsened in winter conditions.

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I concur with Kingfish. The 50% per 6 months rule is only a rough ready-reckoner based only on European campaign history, dealing with the logistical and health issues of maintaining a traditional army in the field, often in cramped camps and far from home (thus picking up and spreading any local diseases that are alien to them etc, and struggling with hygiene, malnutrition or lack of medical supplies or spells of relief etc). So, it wouldn't really hold true for insurgents who are often in their "home" territory, and nor are they really consistently concentrated together "in the field" like a regular army. Nor would the rule be as effective in regions, say, that didn't have noticeably seasonally harsh weather (i.e. cold winters, or hot summers or a rainy season). However, all campaigns, anywhere, by regular or irregular forces of course face some sort of health attrition.

Back in the 1980s I was trying to develop some campaign rules (for table-top wargaming!) and studied the issue. There was a fair bit of British military medical research and authorship in the early 20th century that looked into the history. These lessons were put to good use by the Brits in WW2 - a key factor in the Desert War was superior hygiene rules by the desert rats over the afrika corps. Brit forces had to always dig latrines and sit on boxes with resealable flaps even away from base camps. The Germans did not, tending to individually go behind a dune or a rock with no sergeant checking each mess was properly covered. Consequently, there were far greater problems with fly-borne diseases in the German camps. This was recently demonstrated in this year's TV series "Generals at War" on the National Geographic Channel.

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Back in the 1980s I was trying to develop some campaign rules (for table-top wargaming!) and studied the issue. There was a fair bit of British military medical research and authorship in the early 20th century that looked into the history. These lessons were put to good use by the Brits in WW2 - a key factor in the Desert War was superior hygiene rules by the desert rats over the afrika corps. Brit forces had to always dig latrines and sit on boxes with resealable flaps even away from base camps. The Germans did not, tending to individually go behind a dune or a rock with no sergeant checking each mess was properly covered. Consequently, there were far greater problems with fly-borne diseases in the German camps. This was recently demonstrated in this year's TV series "Generals at War" on the National Geographic Channel.

B.H. Liddel Hart mentioned in his 'History of the Second World War' that on several occasions commonwealth troops were forced to abandon recently captured enemy positions, in particular Italian trenches, because of the filth, and thus got caught in the open when the Axis counterattack rolled in.

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