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French invasion of Russia

Napoleon's disastrous invasion of Russia. Created by Sal Khan.

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  • mr pink red style avatar for user JoeMcDo
    On the chart when it shows Napoleon's retreat, there is a line that joins it coming down from the north, what is that?
    (44 votes)
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  • purple pi purple style avatar for user kayleigh.hay
    Curious how Napoleon made such a huge mistake to wait in Moscow for so long that it cost him huge casulties and lesssupporters yet in WWII Hitler ignored this error and even though his generals protested he made them invade Russia during the winter time. My guess is that both of the leaders were too focused on gaining power than bothering to think about the fact that, it gets pretty cold up north. Has anyone else made any other mistakes like these in history?
    (27 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user trouthooker445
      Napoleon decided it was imperitive to punish the Russions for breaking the trade restrictions imposed by the Continental System (blockade of Britain by all member states in Napoleonic Empire). Hitler simply recognized his war was a timetabled war, meaning he had to achieve his objectives quickly; so when Hermen Goering aasured him that the Battle of Britain was nearly won, Hitler turned to Russia instead of making sure Britain was defeated. Goering also assured Hitler the Luftwafta could also supply the German army as it marched against Russia. The rest is history.
      (30 votes)
  • piceratops tree style avatar for user K.492
    At : what happened at the Berezina River that made Napoleon lose so many men? Was it just that they had trouble crossing it or was there some sort of skirmish with the Russians? Thanks!:-)
    (17 votes)
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  • spunky sam blue style avatar for user Cogito, ergo sum
    Why did France and Great Britain hate each other so much?
    (5 votes)
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    • leaf green style avatar for user Aberwyvern
      In 1066 the duke of Normandy who was a subject of the French king, conquered England (he was called William the conqueror for this reason). He was married to the daughter of the French king. And so his children were the children of the English king and grandchildren of the French king, plus they held the duchy of Normandy as well, this gave them a good claim on the French crown, and the English and the french fought for many years over these claims ( you can look op the hundred years war to read about the conflict). and this was what started the rivalry between England and France, later the English king Henry the eight split from the catholic church and formed the church of England which was unpopular with the rest of the catholic nations, including France.
      (15 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user kipster
    Why did Russia break the treaty with Napoleon and start trading with Britian?
    (7 votes)
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    • leafers tree style avatar for user cmlopes
      As a purely agricultural country, Russia flirted with an economic crisis when it could no longer, because of the Continental System, exchange its excess of production by England manufactured goods. The result was that the Tsar Alexander I Pavlovich started to trade with England again, ignoring Napoleon's protests or answering evasively.
      (11 votes)
  • male robot hal style avatar for user Adam Davies
    why did napoleons invasion fail
    (4 votes)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user T-series
      Napoleon Bonaparte sent more than 70,000 soldiers to invade Russia. At first, the Russians retreat. The France' goal is to capture Moscow and other Russian cities. But the Russian cold defeated many soldiers and the Russians take care of rest of the soldiers.
      (3 votes)
  • old spice man green style avatar for user Dennis Moseychuk
    Did Hitler know what happened to Napoleon when he attacked Russia?
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Nazim Nazie
    Why is it a bad idea to invade Russia in winter ?
    (3 votes)
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  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
    What is the technical difference between a "skirmish" and a "battle"?
    (2 votes)
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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Lauren Swalec
    At , the coldest temperature is given as '-37 degrees'. Is this in Fahrenheit or Centigrade? Although, I suppose at that temperature, the difference between the scales is rather small - after all, -40*F = -40*C.
    (3 votes)
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Video transcript

In the last video, I talked about the two campaigns that eventually lead to Napoleon's downfall. One of those was the Peninsular Campaign. Where Napoleon and the French Empire had to waste a significant amount of resources fighting and trying to hold Spain. And the other, almost more direct catalyst for the fall of Napoleon, was his invasion of Russia. We're going to see in this is video why it was so disastrous for Napoleon. This is easily one of the top five, I would say, famous military campaigns in all of history. So let's remind ourselves the relationship between Napoleon, or between the French Empire and Russia. After the Fourth Coalition, you might remember the Treaty of Tilsit, they're friends. Russia was part of the Continental System, which means that they would boycott or that they would not trade with Britain. Or allow Britain to use any of Russia's ports. And Russia was allowed to do anything that they want with the Ottoman Empire. So everything was good. But then we move forward to 1811. We're in 1811 and Russia starts relaxing the Continental System. Essentially meaning that they started to trade a little bit with Britain. So this all of a sudden begins to annoy, it angers Napoleon. In order for an embargo to work, in order for the Continental System to work, everyone on the continent has to not trade with Britain. Because if someone trades with Britain, Britain could just trade with them and then that trade could circulate through the rest of Europe. So in order for this to work, it has to be total. So this already annoys Napoleon. Especially because he defeated the Russians in the Fourth Coalition. In the Treaty of Tilsit he thought he was being nice to them. Just don't do any trade with Great Britain, we're going to be good buddies. But then what really got Napoleon is in 1812, he hears that Russia is thinking about taking the French Empire's part of Poland, or the Duchy of Warsaw. So Russia thinking about taking Poland. So Napoleon figures, gee, we're no longer friends, I better attack them preemptively. So against the advice of a lot of people about actually invading Russia, Napoleon decides to invade. So this directly leads to Napoleon invading. And his other option, obviously, would have been just to defend Poland from Russia. But Napoleon, he just says no, look if they're going to double cross me like that, I'm just going to go full tilt and show them who's boss. So he decides to invade in April of 1812. And Napoleon is no dummy. He realizes that the Russian winter is really vicious. So he says, if I start in the late spring like this and I engage the Russians and I decisively defeat them, everything will be said and done. And I'll be Emperor of Russia, as well. Before Russia even begins to get cold. So what I'm going to do here, to just understand how devastating this campaign ends up being to Napoleon, I'm going to use one of the most famous charts in the history of charts. Some people consider this to be the best, most well-designed chart ever. And this was created by Charles-- let me use another color. I keep using this. This was created by Charles Joseph Minard. You can actually get a bigger version of this on Wikipedia. But that was too big for my screen. So this is a smaller version. But it's a fascinating chart. So what it shows is the size of Napoleon's army as it invades Russia. And the size of the army is shown by the width of this brown line right here. So when he starts invading Russia, he has 450,000 men. If you could read this number, that's what it says. And you can find zoomed versions on the web. If you just do a search on this and on the invasion of Russia, you'll find this chart. It's very, very famous. More than even teaching you the history, this is also just a neat chart to look at. And it's something that you should be exposed to at some point. But as you can see, and just so you have some scope of what's going on, not only does it show you the size of his forces, it shows the path that it travels. And you can already see that as the forces are travelling, the number of the soldiers in the force is getting smaller and smaller. And he keeps updating the numbers. So obviously that width is smaller than that width, by it looks like it's less than half the forces at this point than at this point. And just to understand where this is going on, here is a map of Eastern Europe. And Charles Joseph Minard's map starts right around here in Lithuania. So this is where the Napoleon forces were strongest, where he had 450,000. And it kind of goes like this. This is Moscow right here. So this is kind of the endpoint. And if I were to trace this shape onto here, it would look something like this. I'm just trying to show the path. Roughly like this. And then you get to Moscow. So that line is the same thing as that line. Just so you have some context within the broader geography of Europe. So it's starting off, in what's almost exactly the northeastern border of present-day Poland, or you could say the southwestern border of what's now Lithuania. Crosses through what is now Belarus. And then goes on into Russia. Now, as you can see here, I already pointed out, that as he's traveling, as the forces are travelling, these 450,000 men, horses, and armaments, and cannons, and everything else is getting thinner and thinner. And one is, it's just basic military logistics. You have to keep your supply routes open. You have to keep leaving men behind to essentially guard the supply routes. So just as the longer your campaign, and the further into enemy territory you have, you have to keep leaving men behind to guard it. And this whole time, Napoleon kept wanting to engage with the Russians. The whole time that he was travelling, he kept expecting to engage the Russians. But just as he was about to engage the Russians, the Russians would back up a little bit. And this kept happening. They're were small skirmishes, so obviously he lost some troops here or there. But most of this was just to maintain the supply line. Eventually, he is able to have, I guess we could say, a skirmish, I don't want to say a skirmish, it was actually maybe a brief battle with the Russians in August in Smolensk. And that is, let me make sure I get it right on the map, right there. But once again, Napoleon was victorious. But the Russians retreated, it wasn't a decisive victory over the Russian army. Eventually, he just keeps chasing them, keeps chasing them, until we get to September 7, 1812. And now you could imagine that we're kind of in the fall now. And it gets cold quickly out here in Russia. So already, it's getting to be a kind of precarious position. But Napoleon is confident. He's like, you know what? If I can decisively defeat the Russians, I can take Moscow. Moscow will have food it in. And all will be said and done. And that's actually brings up another point. You might remember when I talked about the War of the Third Coalition, that Napoleon, and in general good military tactics to invade during the fall. Because of fall is the harvest season. That way you don't have to have as many supplies carried with you. You don't have to guard the supply routes as carefully. Because you can just go and take all of the farmer's crops to feed your troops. But what the Russians did is what they call scorched earth tactics, which essentially means exactly what it sounds like. As the Russians kept retreating back, they burned everything that could be of benefit to Napoleon's troops. So they burned all the fields as they retreated, so that Napoleon's troops couldn't access the local resources. So they had to keep having a very-- I guess you could say-- costly supply chain from where they started, as opposed to just feeding off of the land. And the Russians just continued to do this on and on and on. All the way to Moscow. All the way to September 1812, where we have the Battle of Borodino, if I'm saying it correctly. And at this point, Napoleon only had a 135,000 of his original 450,000 men. The rest had to be left behind to guard the supply route. Or they deserted because they were starting to get hungry. Or they were lost just with minor skirmishes that happened along the entire way. And at the Battle of Borodino, after a long, protracted, super bloody battle, in which-- let me write these numbers down-- 44-- and these are all estimates-- 44,000 Russian casualties. Mostly death, but also wounded or captured. And 35,000 French. Many historians think this is the most of bloody day of battle up to this day in history. The French are victorious. So we have a French victory here. So Napoleon is feeling good about himself. Borodino is right outside of Moscow. He's like, you know what? I'm just going to walk into Moscow. They're going to hand the keys of the city over to me. And then my troops are going to have a good time in Moscow being able to eat all the food that must be there. And I will now be Emperor of Russia, as well. So about a week later, he walks into Moscow and it's completely deserted. All of the inhabitants have left and they've taken all the food with them. And then on top of that, Moscow starts burning. And there's some debate as to why Moscow burned. Some historians believe it is because the Russians deliberately set fire to the city. Some believe that it was just a tinder box waiting to burn and Napoleon's troops were just a little irresponsible with where they built fires. It's not clear. But needless to say, it made Moscow useless to Napoleon. And this is kind of a major change. Napoleon just expected look, if I beat your army decisively, like I did it at Borodino, I won. I take the city. Now, you should give me food and shelter. And I'm your new Emperor. But the Russians had something different in mind. They said, no you will never take Russia. You can have Moscow. You can have a burned Moscow. There's nothing in it. And we'll just like to see you retreat in the Moscow winter. And by Napoleon's own accounts, this is a quote that he gave. The most terrible of all my battles was the one before Moscow. The French showed themselves to be worthy of victory. This is at Borodino. But the Russians show themselves worthy of being invincible. So with no one to recognize Napoleon or to help him out or to feed his troops, he's kind of in a worthless Moscow. He decides to just turn around, especially because the Russian winter is approaching. So on this chart you can see they went all the way to Moscow, they had 135,000 troops. They lose 35,000 of them. So you have 100,000 troops coming back. This black line, right here, this represents the retreat. And then things start getting cold. So it's really interesting about this chart that Minard made. It has a couple things. You see the route that Napoleon's army took as it went into Russia. Then in black, this is its retreat. It gets thinner and thinner and thinner. And you see where they went. And on top of that, he shows the temperature as they retreated. And this is on something called a Reaumur scale, but you can just multiply these numbers, if you can see them, by 1.25. So you can see that it was already, it was not that bad. But over here, we're already below freezing. We're well below freezing over here. At the coldest point, if Minard's numbers are right, and I've seen some historians contest the numbers, but it was cold nonetheless. It's negative 37 degrees as we start approaching into November and December. So Napoleon's forces, as before, they had this whole supply chain. They had scorched earth. So there's nothing to eat. They still had nothing to eat. Then it started getting cold. And while it was cold and they were retreating, some of the troops would desert. They would be attacked by peasants. Just little bit by little bit they'd be attacked by various Russian forces. And then kind of the final blow was when they were trying to cross the Berezina River. So this right here is the Berezina River. And you can even see from Minard's chart that the width was respectable. But then after trying to cross that river, it just got decimated. Almost half of the soldiers died or disappeared. And these are depictions, these are paintings, of the retreat of Napoleon's forces in the winter. This is actually a painting of the crossing of Berezina. And by the time that the forces got back at the end of 1812-- all the way over here, by Minard's map-- you only have 10,000 troops of the original 450,000. So only 1 in 45 returned. The other were either captured, deserted, or just died. So when this happened, you could imagine, not only did Napoleon lose so many soldiers, also lost on the order of 200,000 horses. Actually, total casualties for this one campaign, the estimates are about 300,000 French troops. The estimates I saw had about 200,000 Russian troops. And just to be clear, a big portion of the French troops died as they tried to retreat. And then there was a huge amount of Russian civilian casualties. And there were also soldiers from other countries participating, especially on the French side. When all is said and done, estimates are over 1 million dead from the French invasion. But beyond even just the human casualties, Napoleon lost on the order of 200,000 horses. I forgot the exact number, but thousands of canons. So you could imagine, that it was just this huge, huge loss to the French military. So by the time this was done, the rest of the powers of Europe could kind of finally see Napoleon being weakened. He was already bogged down in the peninsula. He had this huge defeat as he tried to invade Russia. They finally realized that now is the time that they can form maybe a Sixth Coalition and really take Napoleon out.