[In Our Time] Napoleon’s Retreat from Moscow

Napoleon’s Retreat from Moscow

19/09/2019 by BBC Radio 4

Web player: https://podplayer.net/?id=81551011
Episode: http://open.live.bbc.co.uk/mediaselector/6/redir/version/2.0/mediaset/audio-nondrm-download/proto/http/vpid/p07nn2lz.mp3

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss how, in September 1812, Napoleon captured Moscow and waited a month for the Russians to meet him, to surrender and why, to his dismay, no-one came. Soon his triumph was revealed as a great defeat; winter was coming, supplies were low; he ordered his Grande Armée of six hundred thousand to retreat and, by the time he crossed back over the border, desertion, disease, capture, Cossacks and cold had reduced that to twenty thousand. Napoleon had shown his weakness; his Prussian allies changed sides and, within eighteen months they, the Russians and Austrians had captured Paris and the Emperor was exiled to Elba.


Janet Hartley
Professor Emeritus of International History, LSE

Michael Rowe
Reader in European History, King’s College London


Michael Rapport
Reader in Modern European History, University of Glasgow

Producer: Simon Tillotson

Listen Date: mid December 2019


  • Learned that scorched earth was literally that – you burned the fields so that the horses of invading cavalry would have no fodder.
  • If the strategic aim of invading Russia was to weaken Britain’s alliances, wouldn’t it have been simpler to just keep the army in defensive positions in Western Europe?
  • With no general staff or even a concept of a general staff, 500,000 soldiers was just too much for Napoleon and the officers to feasibly control.
  • Peasants had a pragmatic aim in killing the French soldiers, not just a nationalistic or patriotic one – the soldiers living off the land were stealing their food.
  • Post 1812, Napoleon was weakened as much by lack of horses as lack of men.
  • I had forgotten about the Polish national anthem until about ten minutes after the first mention of Polish soldiers in the Naopleonic army and how the Russians treated them as rebels. Poland didn’t get mentioned again until the podcast only discussion, where Prof Janet talked about how they went back into Russian control, but at least got a nominal (if small) Polish state and constitution.
  • I remembered Done With Bonaparte.
  • The Russian army was more active than Tolstoi etc give credit for – they were well trained and with experience from Persian and Ottoman wars. (To clarify, Tolstoi and other mythmakers made it out to be as if the army was completely annihilated but then all the peasants rose up and took over the job.)
  • “Autocracy tempered with assassination” – I love that phrase
  • I learned about Bashkirs.
  • I misheard Tarutino as Tarantino. Ayyo.
  • Burning Moscow down so that the French would have nothing to capture reminds me of the pirates from Asterix: “Our honour is saved, Cap’n! I’ve scuttled the ship!” (Asterix and the Magic Carpet)
  • Interesting bit towards the end about Russian peasants thinking “Hey, if we saved Europe, how come we’re the only ones who didn’t get a constitution out of it?”
  • Got reminded that the Overture of 1812 uses the Marseillaise to represent the attacking French, but also learned that this is anachronistic because Napoleon had banned it for being too revolutionary. Side Note: did the Tom and Jerry WW2 cartoon use the 1812 Overture?

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