Napoleon entered Moscow on September 14, 1812, and what a crashing disappointment that was. He was totally expecting a delegation of city fathers offering the keys of the city and ready to do his bidding. That was how civilized people did war in those days.
But there was nobody home.
He had crossed the Nieman river in June and pursued the Russian army right to the gates of the city all in the name of the liberation of Poland from Russia – he controlled all of western Europe by treaty or occupation and only Russia refused to cooperate.
So he took his Grande Armee of nearly half a million men and crossed the river. Of all the things that ultimately defeated Napoleon, weather was at the top of the list. And it was not the icy Russian winter, but the excessive heat that summer. Men died of heat stroke and so did the horses. Then the rains came, turning the dirt roads to ditches of mud and creating conditions for dysentery.
The Russians retreated, not as a clever strategy, but in desperation. They were outnumbered and lost badly at Borodino so they just kept backing up.
Meanwhile, the Grande Armee was dying. From disease, starvation, desertion – half the army was gone by the time it got to Moscow. Then, without officials to make arrangements, Napoleon’s men had to find their own billets and forage for food. It got colder, fires were lit, and soon the city’s wooden buildings, which was most of them, burned.
He took his army and left. General Kutuzov at that point did do something strategic – by harrying the French, he forced them to stay on the Smolensk road, the same road they had entered Russia on.
The grass was gone, so the horses starved. Some were eaten by the soldiers, who were also starving. 200.000 horses died and so the supply wagons and cannon had to be abandoned. By the time Napoleon recrossed the Nieman, he had about 40,000 of his original half million soldiers remaining.
The loss had an enormous psychological effect on the Europeans who lived in terror of the emperor. He was no longer the invincible military genius of the century; he could be defeated. By 1814, Napoleon was on the way to Elba.
At top is Herbert Lom (better known for his roles in the Pink Panther movies) as Napoleon; he was one of the stellar cast of the 1956 epic, War and Peace. Of those stars, Mr. Lom is the sole survivor, happily still with us at the age of 93.