Far from lining themselves up in battle formation waiting to be attacked by Napoleon’s enormous mixed-nationality army, the Russians retreat strategically, even abandoning Moscow, drawing Napoleon deeper into Russia. His lines of communication are over-stretched, his supplies insufficient. Apart from various skirmishes, there is one big battle: Borodino. This has gone down in history as the single bloodiest day in all warfare until the Battle of the Marne.
Napoleon then delays too long before heading for winter quarters. The suffering of the men is extreme.* They die in battle. They die from Typhus, dysentery, cold, starvation, exhaustion and suicide. The really unlucky ones are taken prisoner and horribly tortured to death by Russian peasants and Cossacks. Nothing I have read about the First or Second World Wars compares for horror with this campaign. It’s telling that whereas previously Napoleon had been greeted by cries of ‘Vive l’Empereur!’ and had exchanged good humoured badinage with the men, now they curse him.
Napoleon decides he is needed in France and makes for Paris at great speed, leaving the stragglers to get home as best they can. He has lost over half a million men for nothing and I can’t forgive him for it.
* The loss of horses is so great that Roberts calls it ‘equinocide’, the first time I have ever seen this word used.