On June 23, 1812, Napoleon Bonaparte, still today considered one of the greatest generals and military tacticians in history, made one of the greatest strategic military mistakes in history. Napoleon gathered his Grande Armee of 685,000 men (300,000 French and 385,000 Austrian, Prussian and Polish allies), perhaps the greatest military force ever gathered at the time, and invaded Russia.
Despite fierce Russian resistance at Borodino on September 7, and their scorched earth retreat leaving nothing behind them to sustain the Grande Armee, Napoleon occupied Moscow on September 14.
However, the Russians burned much of the city and refused to surrender or engage Napoleon in pitched battle. The Grande Armee had already been substantially reduced by casualties and sickness (including typhus) and was in precarious logistical straits. On October 13, it began to snow. A few days later, Napoleon realized that the Grande Armee’s Russian campaign could not be sustained. In snow and bitter cold, with low food rations, starving horses, no winter uniforms, and sick and exhausted troops, Napoleon began his retreat out of Russia. On December 6, temperatures on his route of retreat into Lithuania dropped to 36 F. degrees below zero, so cold that men falling asleep by a campfire never woke up. By the time his Grande Armee crossed into Lithuania, it had less than 27,000 fit troops. Nearly 400,000 had died, 100,000 had been captured, and the rest scattered, deserted, or missing.
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