19 October 1812

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1800: Napoleon's retreat from Moscow, 1814. From the painting by Meissonier from the book The Outline of History by H.G.Wells Volume 2, published 1920. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Napoleon Bonaparte retreats from Moscow.

The story of Napoleon’s advance to and retreat from Moscow, is one of the most pathetic in human history. Full of spirit, the Grand Army had started, but already difficulties were beginning. It took three days to cross the Niemen, by means of pontoon bridges thrown across; but they reached the far side unmolested, and pursued their way over the sandy wastes. The solitude of the way, the sultry heat of a Russian midsummer, and drenching thunderstorms depressed the spirits of the army.

During the disastrous retreat, Napoleon’s army suffered continual harassment from a suddenly aggressive and merciless Russian army. Stalked by hunger and the deadly lances of the Cossacks, the decimated army reached the Berezina River late in November but found its route blocked by the Russians. On November 26, Napoleon forced a way across at Studienka, and when the bulk of his army passed the river three days later, he was forced to burn his makeshift bridges behind him, stranding some 10,000 stragglers on the other side. From there, the retreat became a rout, and on December 8 Napoleon left what remained of his army to return to Paris with a few cohorts. Six days later, the Grande Armée finally escaped Russia, having suffered a loss of more than 400,000 men during the disastrous invasion.