Napoleon reorganised the traditional build up of an army by introducing the corps system. Each corps consisted of infantry, cavalry, artillery, engineers and staff. In fact they were miniature armies, capable of acting in corporation or on their own. Corps commanders had to lead and direct their troops in accordance with Napoleon’s grand tactics. The military objective of Napoleon’s campaigns was to concentrate on the enemy’s main army and to destroy it. For this purpose he manoeuvred separate corps, thereby gaining local superiority for the final blow. In face of a coming battle Napoleon concentrated his forces. Speed of manoeuvre and speed of concentration were crucial to achieve victory. In previous campaigns Napoleon’s forces successfully outmarched and outmanoeuvred every opponent. But this would not be the case in the Russian campaign. The vast Russian countryside with all kinds of difficult terrain and weather influences, mistakes made by several of his corps commanders, combined with a constant retreating but still battle worthy Russian army, only lead up to a decisive clash between both opponents at Borodino. Napoleon’s troops were capable of travelling up to fifty kilometres a day. They marched without large and slow moving baggage trains and on campaign they lived of the land. Such light travelling had been possible before but not in Russia. On the vast and poorly inhabited Russian countryside Napoleon was forced to use cumbersome baggage trains to feed and supply his troops.
The Grand Army of 1812 was the largest army Napoleon had ever assembled. Napoleon gathered and organised his forces for the forthcoming campaign against Russia, calling up many new soldiers. Because most of Europe was under his control he had time to train them. Although containing fewer veterans, at the start of the campaign the army was almost as good as that of 1805. The cavalry received good horses, the number of guns had been increased and a supply system using no less than eigthteenthousand draft horses was made ready to keep the army going. In this Grand Army only half of the men were French, the other half came from many other allied European countries. And even the so-called French troops contained a considerable amount of soldiers from states that had only become part of France during the previous years. Most of Napoleon’s allied troops were organised along French pattern. I will describe the specific differences and qualities of units more closely when dealing with those present at Borodino.
Napoleon supplied and equipped his men well for the invasion, but many of the newer soldiers lacked campaign and battle experience. They did not know well enough how to look after for themselves, their equipment or their horses. Especially the weather and the enormous distances they had to cross in Russia took their toll. By the time the Grand Army reached Borodino it had already lost many men and horses from exhaustion and disease. Napoleon was aware of the fact that his newer soldiers lacked the quality and endurance of his veterans. But the army was still good, and he liked the big numbers for psychological reasons too. The sheer size of his army would strongly impress his opponent, lowering both morale and will to resist. The fact that Napoleon’s 1812 army was still very good is strongly related to the quality of his officers and NCO’s. Most of them were veterans that had received promotion and rank based on merit. The absence of good officers and NCO’s would prove a main shortcoming in later campaigns.
In battle Napoleon wanted to have the initiative. He favoured the attack, maintaining a constant element of surprise and leaving his enemy unaware of the exact location his attack would take place. This gave him the advantage of targeting on one or more parts of the enemy’s battle line, forcing the latter to regroup or causing disorder among their troopers. When selecting battle positions Napoleon looked for terrain suitable for good artillery placement, for concealing his troops and their movements and for places providing him a good overview. He always formed a strong reserve and kept it in the rear of his army, well out of range of hostile artillery fire. The reserve normally consisted of heavy cavalry and the Imperial Guard and would only be committed at critical or decisive moments during the engagement. Napoleon knew the importance of having an open line of retreat and of well-prepared flank protection. By carefully deploying his forces he prevented the enemy from penetrating his battle line. During battle Napoleon showed both flexibility and the capability of immediate reaction to changing circumstances. All these had made him the unequalled master of the battlefield. A Napoleonic battle could last only a few hours or even a few days. Duration of a clash was primarily influenced by immediate circumstances. This is the weather, the terrain, the quality of the fighting men (including that of their leaders), the amount of combatants involved, the sort of clashes (between or mixed cavalry, infantry, artillery), the direction of assaults (frontal, flank etc.) and sheer luck! The ratio between infantry, cavalry and artillery in battles varied. At Borodino the French had a ratio of about one cavalryman to three infantrymen and one gun to every 205 soldiers.
With the possibility of a new war against Napoleon’s forces, Czar Alexander realised Russia’s army needed to be prepared in both quality and quantity. He therefore gathered many military advisers around him and appointed Barclay the Tolly as Minister of War. Starting late 1810, a series of both actions and changes were to take place. In order to expand the available manpower more and more recruits were drafted. At times Russia had a population exceeding thirty million. Besides the already existing annual draft some extra were issued. As a result recruitment grew from four to twenty out of every five hundred men. Recruitment criteria applied to age, height and fitness. The minimum age of acceptance was nineteen but with the need for manpower this was lowered to eighteen. In reality under-aged boys were accepted too. At the early stages of the war the maximum age was set at forty but even elder men filled the ranks. Height requirements were adjusted too so smaller men could be taken in. Due to its vast territory, slower working administration and lesser finances Russia was unable to assemble more men than Napoleon did.
Under the direction of Barclay the Tolly a major reorganisation of the army was set in motion. The infantry now became organised into corps on the French model, each corps comprising two divisions with a brigade of cavalry and one or more artillery companies attached. The remaining cavalry formed separate cavalry divisions of either cuirassiers or of mixed dragoons and light cavalry. For tactical reasons cavalry divisions were grouped together to form a cavalry corps, comprising two divisions of two or three brigades and each with one or more horse artillery companies attached. The overall quality of the Russian army at times was just above average. It contained many new soldiers and the vast majority of the officers was uneducated and did not know how to lead properly. A great deal of the higher officers consisted of foreigners that had been hired by the Russians or voluteered just to be able to continue fighting against Napoleon. The presence of so many foreigners brought about some serious tensions in the army, and not alone in the higher command level. On the other hand the Russian soldier was know for his tenancy and apparently apathetic obedience. When Napoleon’s invasion was well underway these characteristics became more and more strengthened by sheer patriotism and a determined will to resist. Furthermore the Russians did have some very good troops. The guard, the grenadier regiments, some cuirassier and hussar regiments and the artillery were known for their fighting abilities. Besides them the Russian army had thousands of the feared horsemen called Cossacks.
The Russian army of 1812 at the beginning of the campaign was about half the size of Napoleon‘s Grande Armee. For this reason the Russians did not want to fight right from the start. They had to retreat because they believed there was no other option. But while retreating, Napoleon and his army had to follow and very soon the number of invaders began to dwindle rapidly with more than five thousand men each day. After just a few weeks of campaigning Napoleon began to realize that this time the outcome would be very uncertain. He had to carry on, because a failure could mean the beginning of the end of his reputation and above all of his empire.