What caused Napoleon Bonaparte's defeat in his Russian campaign? What went wrong?

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larrygates | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Napoleon's defeat in Russia was the result of logistical problems, the size of the invaded country, and the Russian winter, all of which combined to hand him a disastrous defeat.

Napoleon had assembled a tremendous army of over 600,000 men, the Grande Armee for the invasion. Napoleon was a tactical and strategic genius, and anticipated defeating the Russian army in a series of pitched battles. However, the Russian army simply retreated ahead of Napoleon, forcing him to march deeper and deeper into the country. The retreating Russian forces destroyed crops and poisoned wells such that there were no resources for the French army to forage. Napoleon was thus forced to depend on supplies from France across an increasingly long supply line.

When Napoleon reached Moscow, the city had been deserted and partially burned. After five weeks, he had no choice but to head back to France; but was caught in the Russian winter.  He had apparently not learned the lesson from the adage that "Russia's best soldier is General Winter." His troops suffered horribly from the cold; many of them lost body parts from frostbite. Others were captured by the pursuing Russian army or died from exposure or starvation, as his supply lines from France were cut.  Napoleon himself abandoned his troops and returned to Paris to raise another army. Only 30,000 men of the 600,000 returned.

Ironically, when Adolf Hitler planned Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Russia, his generals warned him against it, citing Napoleon's disaster. Hitler insisted that he had learned from Napoleon's mistakes and pursued his plan. His army ultimately suffered the same fate. As with Napoleon, Hitler's invasion of Russia proved his undoing.  


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