On October 19, 1812, Napoleon withdrew his “Grande Armee” from Moscow and began his tortuous retreat to France. Prior to his invasion of Russia, Napoleon was championing his “Continental System”, a blockade designed to economically isolate Britain. Russian participation was vital to Napoleon’s plan, but Czar Alexander refused to cooperate believing Russia’s acquiescence would ruin its economy .

In June,1812, Napoleon mobilized his army consisting of more than 500,000 soldiers. Napoleon’s troops encamped in Prussia and Poland waiting for their leader’s arrival. Unusually cold weather had delayed the harvest. Many of the army’s horses consumed the green harvest and died of colic. Soldiers were forced to live off acorns and many starved to death before the invasion even started.

The Russian army’s strategy was to constantly retreat while destroying any supplies that might be useful to the enemy. When the French troops entered Moscow, they found that the city had been deserted.  The few remaining residents set a series of fires that destroyed any food and supplies that Napoleon’s army would need to survive the Russian winter.
Napoleon assumption had been that once he occupied Moscow, the Russians would beg for peace. However, rather than wallowing in sorrow, Alexander said his beloved city’s burning “illuminated my soul”. He refused to capitulate causing the French to abandon Moscow. The retreating French were besieged by severe rainstorms that turned the roads into seas of mud. They were bedeviled by marauding Cossacks who upon capturing French soldiers promptly tortured them to death.  Temperatures plunged in early November causing many men and all their horses to freeze to death.

The Russian debacle left 380,000 of Napoleon’s soldiers dead and 100,000 imprisoned. Most of the remaining 50,000 were unfit for further service.  European powers emboldened by his failure would defeat France in 1814 and cause Napoleon to be exiled to Elba.

“Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it” George Santayana

On June 22,1941, Germany launched a surprise invasion of The Soviet Union.  The Germans bulldozed their way through Soviet territory inflicting massive casualties on the Soviet army and citizens. The Russian army successfully defended Moscow only because the German army needed to divert troops for the appropriation of vital oilfields in Southern Russia. Disastrously, German Chancellor, Adolph Hitler redirected troops from the oil mission to an assault on Stalingrad. Hitler was obsessed with Stalingrad because it was named after his nemesis, Premiere Josef Stalin.

Despite Stalingrad’s lack of strategic value and against the advice of his generals, Hitler launched a massive air attack on the city, reducing it to rubble. However, Russian troops aided by patriotic citizens used the rubble as defensive cover to impede the German advance. The Russians put up a suicidal resistance and fought for every street and building.  When temperatures plunged to an astounding -30c below, Germans could no longer dig trenches resulting in thousands of German deaths from exposure.

After three months of devastating street battles, Russian General George Zhukov launched an attack to the beleaguered Germans’ flank and forced the surrender of the surviving German troops.

Hitler’s Russian debacle significantly altered the course of World War II. An estimated 800,000 Axis soldiers (Germans, Romanians, Italians, and Hungarians) died at Stalingrad. The German army lost a quarter of its guns, tanks and munitions, assets that were never adequately replaced. Many German officers became bitter critics of Hitler and would eventually plot against him.  And just as in the case of Napoleon’s debacle, a great power was proven to be conquerable and its enemies became emboldened.

Icky Epilogue
The extraordinary losses suffered by Napoleon’s soldiers have traditionally been blamed on hunger and the extreme Russian cold.  However, in 1995 French scientists analyzed the DNA of 72 teeth extracted from a mass military grave and determined that the primary cause of death was parasites.  Similarly, in his outstanding book, “Stalingrad”, Anthony Beevor details how the clothes of nearly every member of the German army became infested with lice. This caused soldiers to suffer a constant madness- inducing itch and eventually fatal bouts of typhus, dysentery, and other diseases.

On that cheery note, have a great weekend.

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