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The soldiers in Napoleon's army, many of whom were mercenaries, suffered in unimaginable ways. Napoleon had a gift for inspiring his troops to persevere, even in adverse conditions; at the same time he quickly abandoned them when it appeared he would lose the battle.
During the Russian Campaign, Napoleon had raised an army of 600,000 men. He fought few pitched battles, as the Russians simply withdrew ahead of him. The Russians also burned crops, slaughtered livestock and poisoned wells so that it was impossible for the army to forage for food and supplies. When the campaign was abandoned, Napoleon likewise abandoned his troops and left them to return on their own through the harsh Russian winter. The troops had not been adequately provisioned for the weather, as Napoleon believed that battle would be concluded more quickly than it really was. There were no food supplies, and many starved. Those who did not starve suffered acute frostbite, often losing fingers, toes, even their genitals. Russian serfs, whom Napoleon had refused to liberate, also committed numerous atrocities against the French soldiers. Of the 600,000 who embarked on the campaign, only 30,000 returned. All who returned bore physical and emotional scars from the encounter with winter.
The retreat of Napoleon's army is described and dramatized by Leo Tolstoy in his great novel War and Peace. Much of it is seen from the viewpoint of a major character in the novel, Pierre Bezukhov, who is taken prisoner and forced to accompany the retreating army on foot. Napoleon's forces made it all the way to Moscow, but the city had been evacuated. Fires were breaking out all over the city, some of them accidentally caused, some deliberately caused by Russian arsonists who wanted to make the city uninhabitable for the French army during the coming winter. Pierre was suspected of being one of the Russian incendiaries. The Russian strategy had been mainly to withdraw and leave a "scorched earth" behind them, making Napoleon's supply problems more and more difficult. But when he finally had to order a full-scale retreat, the Russian forces began to harass the French relentlessly, killing many and taking many prisoners. Tolstoy worked on his masterpiece for years and, characteristically, did considerable research, which including talking to people who had actually been involved in the war. Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union in World War II followed a similar pattern of success and failure attributable largely to the vast expanse of territory to be covered and to the terrible winters which were not only impediments to travel and causes of death by freezing, but utterly demoralizing. In Napoleon's time the transportation relied on horses rather than motorized vehicles, but the French troops were forced to eat all their horses.
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