On This Day in Napoleonic History – 18 October 1812

18The Grande Armée begins its withdrawal from Moscow

Napoleon stayed in Moscow for six weeks, waiting to hear from Alexander and hoping to make peace. But winter was fast approaching and there was no word from the Russian Emperor. On the 13th, Napoleon finally gave the order for evacuation. As the Grande Armée began withdrawing from Moscow on the 18th, they were taken by surprise by an attack from Kutuzov at Taroutino, also known as Winkowo, in which Murat lost 2000 killed and wounded. Napoleon himself left Moscow on the 19th, taking the Southern route towards Kaluga, which he nicknamed Caligula. His plan was to reach the fertile Ukraine, while receiving reinforcements from Smolensk

Thus, the retreat from Moscow would look like strategic withdrawal rather than a retreat. Unfortunately for Napoleon, it wasn’t to be. General Dmitry Dokhturov blocked the Grande Armée at Malo-Yaroslavetz, which became the third largest battle of the campaign. The French successfully captured and held the town while the Russians withdrew. When Napoleon described Malo-Yaroslavetz as a victory, one of the officers said, ‘Two such victories and Napoleon would have no army left.’ Indeed, the ultimate consequences of this battle were disastrous for Napoleon, who became convinced that the Russians would contest the Southern route bitterly and decided to withdraw northwards towards the supply depots of Moscow/Smolensk route along which they had come the previous month. ‘Things are getting serious,’ he told his master of the horse, Armand-Augustin-Louis de Caulaincourt. ‘I beat the Russians every time and yet never reach an end.’

Choosing this route was to be a fatal decision for the Grande Armée. The only explanation for one of the most fateful decisions of Napoleon’s reign is to be found in the letter he told Berthier to write to Junot: ‘We marched on the 26th to attack them but they were in retreat. Davout went in pursuit of them but the cold and the necessity of offloading the wounded made the Emperor decide to go to Mozhaysk and from there to Vyazma.’ This explanation makes little sense. Never before had the needs of the wounded determined the strategy of the campaign. And if the Russians were indeed retreating, then why not take the Southern route? Comte de Ségur would later say that Malo-Yaroslavetsk was the point at which the great Empire began to crumble to the ground.

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