A Victory Or Defeat?

By AniRadzi

Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) was, and remains, to be celebrated for his clever strategy in battlefield and numerous victories. Historians have spent enormous attention to analyse his bright military tactics. In 2008, Donald Sutherland wrote:

“The ideal Napoleonic battle was to manipulate the enemy into an unfavourable position through manoeuvre and deception, force him to commit his main forces and reserve to the main battle and then undertake an enveloping attack with uncommitted or reserve troops on the flank or rear. Such a surprise attack would either produce a devastating effect on morale, or force him to weaken his main battle line. Either way, the enemy’s own impulsiveness began the process by which even a smaller French army could defeat the enemy’s forces one by one.”

After having a lesson on the French Invasion of Russia, I can summarise that the most important thing during wars is the right strategy. During the lifetime of the Prophet SAW also, when Muslims had involved in wars, they gave their attention to military strategy through discussions among themselves. And such tradition continued until the end of the last Muslim power, Osmanli sultanate.

Strategy does not mean the focus on military tactics only, but it also covers the knowledge of geographical and cultural peculiarities of that particular place, climate and the attitude of local people. We may have a huge army in large numbers, but without proper strategy, we are weak. Let me explain this point on the example of the French invasion of Russia in 1812.

The Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815) were a series of major conflicts pitting the French Empire, led by Napoleon Bonaparte, against an array of European powers formed into various coalitions. They revolutionised European armies and played out on an unprecedented scale, mainly owing to the application of modern mass conscription. The wars were a continuation of the Revolutionary Wars, which broke out in 1792 during the French Revolution. Initially, French power rose quickly as the armies of Napoleon conquered much of Europe.

In his military career, Napoleon fought about 60 battles and lost seven, mostly at the end of his reign. The great French dominion collapsed rapidly after the disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812.

For Russia, this battle was the ‘Patriotic War,’ or sacrificing themselves against enemy for the sake of their country. The Russian Empire, largely based on feudal system and serfdom, did not have the best army. Serfs were treated so badly without any rights for free movement by their landowners. In addition, the Russian military forces were small in number and exhausted due to colonial expansion of the empire and continuous wars to pacify the newly annexed regions.

Grande Armee of Napoleon consisted of 680 000 soldiers making it one of the largest armies at that time. This number, for sure, was enough to defeat the Russian army. However, the Russians had their own strategies to save their land and that was the reason for the defeat of Napoleon.

The Russian army slipped away from the military engagement except several minor clashes at Smolensk and continued to retreat into Russia for three months. And the French army followed them. As the Russian army fell back, the Crossacks (free and independent army of Russia) were given the task to burn the villages, town and crops. This was done to destroy the resting place for the Napoleon’s army and to finish their food sources.

Starvation and privation compelled the French soldiers to leave their camps at night in search for food. These men in small numbers frequently confronted by Crossacks who captured and killed them.

The French army reached Moscow. On 7 September the French caught up with the Russian army which had dug itself in on hillsides before a small town called Borodino, seventy miles west of Moscow. The battle that followed between two empires was the largest and bloodiest single-day action of the Napoleonic Wars, involving more than 250,000 soldiers and resulting in 70,000 casualties.

The French gained a victory and Napoleon entered Moscow a week later victoriously. But he was in shock to see that all inhabitants of the city were evacuated and the city was burnt on the order of the mayor of Moscow, Rostopchin. Napoleon stayed on in Moscow looking to negotiate a peace, but Alexander I did not sue for peace.

After staying a month without shelter and food in burnt city, Napoleon moved his exhausted army out southwest toward Kaluga.

France began its invasion in summer time and the military campaign continued until cold winter. Soldiers were exhausted, did not have winter clothing, and their remaining horses were in poor condition. Napoleon lost 380 000 men dead and 100 000 being captured. Napoleon then left his men and returned to Paris to prepare the defence against the advancing Russians. The campaign effectively ended on 14 December 1812, when the last French troops left Russia.

This was a turning point for Napoleon’s hegemony in Europe as he lost his reputation and army. Napoleon was defeated in 1814, and then again in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo after a brief return to power. The Allies then reversed all French gained since the Revolutionary Wars at the Congress of Vienna.

In sum, although the French army won at the Battle of Borodino in 1812, due to the lack of knowledge of Russian culture and geography, he was not able to confirm his victory in vast Russia. The Russians were able to safe their country from invasion.


Writer is a final year student at Department of History and Civilization, International Islamic University Malaysia