What would New Zealand’s history be like without the First and Second World Wars? Blame the terrible Russian winter and Napoleon’s folly according to historian Adam Zamoyski in his riveting book 1812 Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow. The losses suffered in the invasion, particularly to his cavalry, ensured Napoleon’s downfall the following summer. That led to an aggressive Germany unified under a militaristic Prussia while in Russia, the Tsar came to believe he was God’s instrument on Earth. Growing more conservative as he aged, his repression of the generation who defeated Napoleon sowed the seeds of the Russian Revolution. Napoleon’s army began retreating from Moscow on 19 October in fine weather. Three days later, rain turned the road to mud making travel difficult.

On November 6, the first snow fell and soldiers froze to death overnight when their campfires burnt out. Once the snow compacted, it became rock hard and slippery, causing men and horses to fall. Carriages and guns had to be controlled on slopes using ropes held by dozens of soldiers. When they slipped, the guns crashed into vehicles ahead of them, creating chaos. When horses fell, they often broke their legs. In the space of a few days the army lost tens of thousands of horses to cold and accident. The Polish cavalry came through best as they had shod their horses in Moscow with shoes like crampons. Among the French, only the horses of the Imperial household had followed their example, on the orders of General Caulaincourt, a former ambassador to Russia who had experienced their winters before. A few of the French acquired small Cossack horses that had broad hooves and a low centre of gravity. These horses also knew how to slide down slopes by sitting down on their hindquarters still with the rider on their back.

Most of the army slept in the open, but the few huts still left standing often became death traps. So many men crowded inside to shelter that some suffocated in the crush. Huts often caught fire, either from their wooden stove overheating or campfires set too close outside the building by soldiers ripping timber off the hut walls. On the night on November 12 the temperature dropped to minus 24 C and frostbite became widespread among the troops. Not recognising the symptoms or knowing the treatment, many men lost noses, fingers and toes. With such a hard frost, there was no liquid water readily available, so men and horses suffered badly from dehydration. The churned up road surface froze into sharp ridges that lacerated shoes and feet, cutting some to the bone. Stragglers that fell behind were captured by Cossacks, stripped naked and left to die, or sold to peasants who tortured them to death in revenge for their own sufferings.

Men ate horsemeat flavoured with gunpowder for the salt. Horses that died became rock hard in minutes so had to be cut up while still alive - including horses still walking. When the owner looked away, a steak could be slicked from the numbed flank of a horse. The cold froze the blood and the horse would survive a few days longer. But it was the river crossings that posed the greatest danger. As the traffic bottlenecked, people were knocked over in the crush, trampled underfoot and killed. Russian artillery, drawn on sleds, sometimes caught up and shelled the crowd. The bridge over the Berezina had been burnt so 400 pontooners built two new ones working up to their necks for 15 minutes at a time in freezing water as ice floes washed past. Only eight of these men survived the retreat.

crossing the Berezina Crossing the Berezina (Source: Wikipedia)

A two day blizzard starting on November 29 was remembered by survivors as the worst time. Some shot themselves. Those whose shoes had disintegrated got such bad frostbite that skin and muscle peeled away from the bones of their feet. Soldiers who feel down had their boots pulled off before they died. Men murdered for fur coats and there were incidents of cannibalism. When the blizzard passed, clear skies allowed the temperature to plunge. It fell to minus 37 C on December 6. At this temperature liquid water cannot exist in the air and water molecules combine to form ice crystals that sparkle in the clear sky - a phenomenon meteorologists call “diamond dust”.  Men’s breath was as thick as smoke and condensation formed icicles in hair eyelashes and beards which grew thick enough to obstruct vision and breathing.  Eyelashes froze together and had to be pressed between fingers so eyes could be opened. Many got snow blindness, causing tears, which froze.

It was now so cold that men died walking. Blood suddenly streaming from mouth and nose and sometimes eyes and ears, they would stagger a few steps like drunkards before falling. Many now had dementia, some so disorientated that they would walk into fires in bare feet and lie down. One gunner froze to death standing behind his cannon, hand on the breech and facing back towards Russia. Two fresh divisions were deployed in front of the town of Vilna to stop the Russian advance, but, not hardened to the cold, almost all froze to death over two nights. Nor were the Russians spared the suffering. Of the 97,000 who pursued the retreating French, only 27,000 reached Vilna.

The Russian general Denis Davidov remembered colder winters in previous years, but not with large starving armies wandering around in the open. In all, counting civilians and soldiers on both sides, around a million people died because of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. In the opinion of general Caulaincourt, had Napoleon left Moscow two weeks earlier it is likely he would have extricated most of his army intact and continued to control much of Europe. But the warm start to autumn deceived Napoleon as he waited in vain for the Tsar to negotiate. 1812 was not the first time an invading army came to grief in a Russian winter. In 1709 the Swedish king Charles XII lost a third of his forces in winter before defeat at Poltava by Peter the Great. Nor was it the last. Two hard winters during the Second World War contributed to the German Army’s ultimate defeat. A witness later remembered Hitler fuming in December 1941 “These damned meteorologists, also they are talking about Napoleon.”

Written by Erick Brenstrum and first Published: New Zealand Geographic July-August 2010