Invasion of Russia, Sixth Coalition

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© Bob Denton 2014

Invasion of Russia and Sixth Coalition, 1812-1814

Back in 1812 Russia had become unhappy with Napoleon’s blockade approach and left the Continental System in order to open up trading links with Britain.

Napoleon rashly decided to respond by invading Russia to force the Tsar back in to his Continental System. This proved to be a disaster just as it was for the Germans in the 20th century. His invasion of Spain and Portugal had tied up huge resources, now even more men and materiel had to be applied to this new invasion.

Some 650,000 troops marched into Poland, the Russians adopted a burnt-earth policy as they retreated. The battle of Borodino in September 1812 was inconclusive but the French were then free to enter Moscow, they found most of it was empty and large parts of it had been burned to the ground, offering no supplies and limited shelter from the

Napoleon withdrew and his army was subjected to dreadful privations as they retreated. Other anti-French forces joined the Russians to harry them all the way home.

The retreat took place during the onset of winter and with few provisions. Regular attacks from the Russians killed some 370,000, captured 200,000. In fact just 27,000 (circa 4%) would cross the Berezina river in to today’s Belarus on their retreat. The Russians had lost 400,000 men of their own.

This led to a Sixth Coalition being formed late in 1812/early 1813, The Swedes signed a secret deal with the Russians against France and Denmark/Norway. The signed a deal with the British when they recognised Sweden’s claims for Norway. In July 1812 the three powers signed the Treaty of Orebro to formalise peace between them. The Alliance was to be joined by Austria, Portugal, Prussia and Spain together a number of German states.

Napoleon again rallied troops from many sources, including the Confederation of the Rhine members and the Italian states, eventually creating a force of 900,000 that would face the one million that was fielded by the coalition. Though some estimates suggest that many of the German troops were a breath away from joining the Allies, so his real number was perhaps halved.

Napoleon enjoyed early success at Dresden against a superior force, but did not have the cavalry to force home his control of his gains. His marshal Nicolas Charles Oudinot with 60,000 troops was despatched to rout the Prussians, but did not fare well on his thrust towards Berlin, neing defeated at the Battle of Großbeeren. Napoleon had little choice but to withdraw and regroup near Leipzig in Saxony where he tried to defend the allied forces.

In October 1813 this became known as the Battle of Nations as it involved Austrians/Hungarians (110,000), French (160,000), Germans (40,000), Italians (10,000), Poles (15,000), Prussians (90,000), Russians (145,000) and Swedes (30,000) – in total some 600,000 troops and the largest battle in the Napoleonic Wars.

Congreve rockets – The Swedes also deployed some auxiliaries from the British Royal Horse artillery; they were equipped with Congreve rockets.

The British East India Company in its wars with the Kingdom of Mysore had been confronted by iron-wrapped rockets developed by Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan. They had been used en masse both to frighten the enemy but equipped with sword-like extensions to eviscerate and they also used them to seek to explode ammunition dumps and stores. The iron-casing gave them greater range, up to 1,000 yards (more than 900 metres).

The British at Seringapatam lost more men to rockets than to shells or other weaponry. Samples of these rockets were sent back to the Royal Arsenal where Colonel William Congreve developed his solid fuel rockets by 1805.

They came in various sizes, could be fired by a flintlock mechanism from simple A-frames and reached up to two miles (3.2 kms).

They were first deployed in 1806 in a 30-minute bombardment from sea of 2,000 rockets in to Boulogne; it set off a number of fires but little else. Their use at Leipzig seemed not to inspire much confidence as their direction seemed rather random and one was described as turning back in to the British team.

But Napoleon’s forces were young and inexperienced following his losses in Russia. The terrain came to his aid in that two rivers split the ground in to various sectors that he was more able to select and use from Leipzig, his opponents had to cross the rivers from sector to sector.

At Markkleeberg there was a to-ing and fro-ing that proved costly to both sides. The Russian infantry were caught unawares at Wachau and walked in to a trap, the Prussians too were caught in Wachau where they were blasted by artillery. Similarly in Liebertwolkwitz the two sides drove each other in and out of the village with the Autrians and Russians finally prevailing. The Battle of Mockern too ebbed and flowed.

However it became more likely that the Allies would encircle Napoleon’s men. But he believed he could prevail and find a way out of the trap. He sent an imprisoned Allied general to deliver a message to the three Allied leaders. He offered to hand over several fortresses provided he was permitted to withdraw back to France.

The encirclement was completed and the Allies launched attacks from all sides, forcing the French back in to Leipzig, but it was long and bloody with a score of set-piece events. The Saxons facing a Prussian group defected to the Coalition, leading 5,400 troops away from the French positions and forcing the remaining French troops to withdraw.

Through the night Napoleon started withdrawing troops across the river Elster away from what he now realised was a hopeless cause. He planned to blow the last bridge over the river after his troops had all been withdrawn but delegation of the task meant it was blown early with French forces still streaming across it and the rearguard left in Leipzig. Those left behind were slaughtered many dying while trying to cross the river.

The French had been effectively removed from the east of the Rhine by this decisive defeat. Casualties on both side were 100,000 and more. The German states promptly abandoned the Confederation of the Rhine and joined the alliance. The Kingdom of Italy was abolished.

While Francis I of Austria wanted to seek peace, Tsar Alexander I and King Frederick William III of Prussia wanted to invade France and put an end to thirty-five years of strife. The Tsar having had the French enter his capital was determined to return the favour; Paris had not been entered by a foreign army for four hundred years!

The Allies approached Paris with 150,000 troops, Joseph Bonaparte had fewer than 30,000 troops to defend the capital.  The Allies pressed in to the city but encountered trenchworks and well-defended position. The Russians stormed Montmartre, the high ground, where Joseph had his headquarters, he flew the city. His second-in-command negotiated an arrangement where he marched his troops to an agreed position, he was encircled by Coalition troops and surrendered the city.

On March 31st 1814 the Tsar led his troops in to Paris declaring he was bringing peace and not destruction.  The French Senate passed the Acte de déchéance de l’Empereur, literally the Act of the Decline of the Emperor, he had been deposed. The Coalition suggested that the only obstacle to peace in Europe was Napoleon himself.

Proposing a rearguard action Napoleon was confronted by his Ney and his other marshals who refused his orders. Given this situation he confirmed on April 4th his abdication, naming his son as his successor and his wife as Regent. But the Coalition saw this as to open to his retaking the throne, so they demanded his unconditional abdication.

At Fontainebleau he confirmed, ‘The Allied Powers having declared that Emperor Napoleon was the sole obstacle to the restoration of peace in Europe, Emperor Napoleon, faithful to his oath, declares that he renounces, for himself and his heirs, the thrones of France and Italy, and that there is no personal sacrifice, even that of his life, which he is not ready to do in the interests of France.’

He then tried to commit suicide with a pill that he had sourced when he had been fearful of capture on the retreat from Moscow, but it had obviously lost its efficacy in the interim and he survived.

His wife and son moved to safety in Austria. Napoleon was sent to the Mediterranean island of Elba off the Tuscan coast. He was given sovereignty over the island of 12,000 inhabitants and permitted to keep the title of Emperor. This led to the famous lengthy palindrome ‘Able was I ere I saw Elba’.

He appears to have taken his new role quite seriously creating a small army and navy and introducing reforms of the island’s mining and agriculture. He would remain there for just one year.

Forward to Return of the Bourbons – Back to British Bridgehead…
Back to 1789 and all that!
© Bob Denton 2014