Today on September 14, 1812, Napoleon Bonaparte and his Grande Armee march through the Russian capital of Moscow.
By 1812, Napoleon was arguably at the pinnacle of his power and influence. He had crowned himself Emperor of France in 1804 and went on to conquer most of continental Europe. On June 24, 1812, he launched what was his greatest military campaign yet - the Invasion of Russia. He assembled the largest military force in history, with almost 700,000 recruits from across his vast empire. As his Grande Armee marched east, they were constantly faced with retreating Russian soldiers. They simply refused to meet him in an open battle. To make matters worse, the Russians resorted to scorched earth tactics by setting everything ablaze as they moved further east.
Only a week earlier on September 7, Napoleon finally got his wish and defeated the Russians at the Battle of Borodino. From there, the path was clear for him to continuing marching on Moscow. As he entered the city, Napoleon was shocked to find the city’s population had all but completely evacuated (alongside the retreating Russian army). In fact, he was expecting to be greeted by city officials to discuss their surrender and the setup of a new provisional government. But, the Russians had absolutely no plans for surrendering. What the French army found was a desolate city with empty food storages. During the first night of their occupation, soldiers awoke to massive fires breaking out across the city, including the Kremlin. It’s believed the fires were started by Russian patriots willing to burn down their city before handing it over to the French.
Napoleon still believed Alexander I, Czar of Russia, would eventually surrender and sue for peace. He and his army spent over a month in the ruined city awaiting peace negotiations that never came. On October 19, Napoleon finally ordered their retreat from Moscow, as he knew his army would never survive the Russian winter. His seemingly unstoppable “Grande Armee” was now in disarray. The Russian Campaign turned out to be Napoleon’s greatest mishap. More than half a million French soldiers died on the harsh journey home.