The last historical film we presented on Napoleon chronicled his rise, which was built largely on good fortune and pure nerve. Those continued to serve him in good stead, amplifying his self-regard, up until his rather irrational decision to solve Russian backsliding on alliance with him… by invading Russia, in 1812. (With Bonaparte so preoccupied in the East, Britain was able to take a decent shot at turning a war they stumbled into, into a near-run reconquest of America … but that’s another story). This French film (professionally dubbed into rosbif) is a more traditional documentary, with acted scenes separated by low-budget CGI and talking-head historians (both French and Russian ones, who have a somewhat different view). The first half of the video culminates in Napoleon’s pyrrhic victory at Borodino before Moscow. A much weakened Grande Armée then takes up lodgings in an empty Moscow… that is promptly set afire by clandestine incendiaries, sent out by Alexander I. At this point, Napoleon’s plan, to defeat the Russians and impress them into alliance, is absolutely impossible. He persists.
Here’s the second part, in case the first one doesn’t lead in automagically.
It does underestimate the now-proven effect that disease, especially typhus, had on the Grande Armee. Instead, they attribute the devastation of the army to stress and starvation.
Napoleon made several errors here:
- He underestimated his opponent;
- He underestimated the effect that disease, especially typhus, would have on the Grande Armee;
- He conducted a total war with limited-war aims;
- He believed that a single decisive victory would end the war on his terms.
- When he took the enemy’s capital, he considered himself the victor, and the campaign over. To his chagrin, the Russians didn’t see it that way.
- When it was clear his plan had no hope, he clung grimly to it.
- When he finally made the call to retreat from Moscow, he made it far too late for a horse-drawn army — 19 October 1812.
Every one of those errors comes, in our opinion, from his charmed life that began when he made gambles against tall odds, and seemed charmed to win, regardless of those odds. Improbability obeys mathematical laws and cannot continue forever, even if Napoleon hadn’t been stacking the wagers on his gambles ever higher.
The biggest casualty of the ill-considered Russian Campaign may have been Napoleon’s aura of invincibility.