On This Day in Napoleonic History – 9 May 1812

9Napoleon embarks on his Russian campaign

Napoleon left St Cloud with Marie Louise and the baby King of Rome to make his way to the front. The Emperor didn’t want war with Russia any more than he wanted the war with Austria and Prussia in 1805 and 1806. He was not about to avoid it through concessions, however, even if his ambassador to Russia, Armand-Augustin-Louis de Caulaincourt, spent long hours trying to dissuade him. Caulaincourt told Napoleon about the harshness of Russian winter and of Tsar Alexander’s words: ‘The Frenchman is brave but long privations and bad climate will wear him down and discourage him. Our climate, our winter will fight on our side.’ Napoleon replied to Caulaincourt, ‘One good battle will see the end of your friend Alexander’s fine resolutions and of his sand castles as well.’

As always, Napoleon moved fast. The Imperial family passed the Rhine on the 14th, the Elbe on the 29th and the Vistula on June 6th, travelling 530 miles in 7 days. When Napoleon left Marie Louise in Dresden, he wrote to her: ‘I will be back within two months. Thus our absence from each other would be but a short one.’ It would be seven months before they saw each other again.

Napoleon reached the banks of the Niemen by June 23 and crossed the river into Russia on June 24. As they were crossing, Napoleon’s horse shied at a hare and threw him onto the sandy river bank, leaving him with a bruised hip. ‘This is a bad omen. A Roman would recoil,’ someone exclaimed, possibly Napoleon himself. Whoever said it was right – Russia was a disaster from which Napoleon had never recovered.

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