The French invasion of Russia in 1812 (also known as the Patriotic War of 1812), was a turning point during the Napoleonic Wars. It reduced the French and allied invasion forces (the Grande ArmÃ©e) to a tiny fraction of their initial strength and triggered a major shift in European politics as it dramatically weakened French hegemony in Europe. The reputation of Napoleon as an undefeated military genius was severely shaken, while the French Empire's former allies, at first Prussia and then the Austrian Empire, broke their alliance with France and switched camps, which triggered the War of the Sixth Coalition.
The campaign began on 24 June 1812, when Napoleon's forces crossed the Neman River. Napoleon aimed to compel Emperor of Russia Alexander I to remain in the Continental Blockade of the United Kingdom; an official aim was to remove the threat of a Russian invasion of Poland. Napoleon named the campaign a Second Polish War (in reference to the "First Polish War"); the Russian government proclaimed a Patriotic War.
At nearly half a million strong, the Grande ArmÃ©e marched through Western Russia, winning a number of relatively minor engagements and a major battle at Smolensk on August 16--18. However, on that same day, the right wing of the Russian Army, under the command of General Peter Wittgenstein, stopped part of the French Army, led by Marshal Nicolas Oudinot, in the Battle of Polotsk. This prevented the French marching on the Russian capital at Saint Petersburg; the fate of the war had to be decided on the Moscow front, where Napoleon himself led his forces.
While the Russians used scorched-earth tactics, and often raided the enemy with light Cossack cavalry, their main army retreated for almost three months. This constant retreat undermined confidence in Field Marshal Michael Andreas Barclay de Tolly, leading Alexander I to appoint an old veteran, Prince Mikhail Kutuzov, the new Commander-in-Chief. Finally, on 7 September, the two armies met near Moscow in the Battle of Borodino. The battle was the largest and bloodiest single-day action of the Napoleonic Wars; it involved more than 250,000 soldiers and resulted in at least 70,000 casualties. The French captured the battlefield, but failed to destroy the Russian army. Moreover, the French could not replace their losses whereas the Russians could replace theirs.
Napoleon entered Moscow on September 14, after the Russian Army had again retreated. But by then the Russians had largely evacuated the city and even released criminals from the prisons to inconvenience the French; furthermore, the governor, Count Fyodor Rostopchin, ordered the city to be burnt. Alexander I refused to capitulate and the peace talks that Napoleon initiated failed. In October, with no clear sign of victory in sight, Napoleon began his disastrous Great Retreat from Moscow, during the usual autumn Russian mud season.
At the Battle of Maloyaroslavets the French tried to reach Kaluga, where they could find food and forage supplies. But the replenished Russian Army blocked the road, and Napoleon was forced to retreat the same way he had come to Moscow, through the heavily ravaged areas along the Smolensk road. In the following weeks, the Grande ArmÃ©e underwent catastrophic blows from the onset of the Russian Winter, the lack of supplies and constant guerilla warfare by Russian peasants and irregular troops. When the remnants of Napoleon's army crossed the Berezina River in November, only 27,000 fit soldiers remained; the Grand ArmÃ©e had lost some 380,000 men dead and 100,000 captured. Napoleon then abandoned his men and returned to Paris to protect his position as Emperor and to prepare to resist the advancing Russians. The campaign effectively ended on 14 December 1812, when the last French troops left Russia.
An event of epic proportions and momentous importance for European history, the French invasion of Russia has been the subject of much discussion among historians. The campaign's sustained role in Russian culture may be seen in Tolstoy's War and Peace, Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, and the identification of it with the German invasion of 1941--45, which became known as the Great Patriotic War in the Soviet Union.