In Lynch Bennett’s article The Grand Failure: How Logistics of Supply Defeated Napoleon in 1812, he points to logistical errors as a primary and often overlooked reason for Napoleon’s “Grand Failure” to invade Russia in 1812. As the popular idiom states “the devil is in the detail”; devilish details grew large and unruly, details that Napoleon neglected to anticipate. He was blinded by ambition and hubris, fed by his past accomplishments of conquest; he had by 1812 conquered the whole of continental Europe. The logistical difficulties involved in supplying his Grande Armeé of over 600,000 men were multiple and grave. By the time the French retreated Russia in a devastating defeat the army had dwindled down to only a few thousand.
Forsaking the Refuge of Vitebsk
Originally, on July 27, 1812, Napoleon had planned to stay put in Vitebsk wisely accessing that the city was a good fortress in which to delay the overtaking of Moscow until 1813. Despite having the support of his army in this plan, he ignored his common sense and shifted gears. Instead of camping out in Vitebsk, he decided they should move forward. It was a rash decision motivated by his inability to remain inactive. This change in course set the way for death in the dead of winter.
The Unforgiving Winter
Napoleon and what still remained of his dragging and bedraggled army upon entering the nearly deserted Moscow, which was set on fire by its own Russian governor, were forced to retreat just as winter was arriving on Oct 19, 1812. Those with enough strength and resources of food, medicine and proper clothing to endure the frigid temperatures, were able to make it out alive, but most did not. Most starved, froze or were killed by Russian Guerilla attacks as they made the long journey back to France. Their fate was sealed, when Napoleon, in a move that was a betrayal to his men, even further diminishing their chances of survival when he detoured the route back. He took the Smolensk way back to France, “The desolate road, riddled with corpses every fifty paces, afforded no reprieve to the starving soldiers.”
The infectious organism that causes Typhus is called Rickettsia prowazekii. At the time of Napoleon’s campaign to seize Russia in 1812, it was not yet discovered that typhus thrives and is transmitted via the feces of lice. A century later in 1916 a Brazilian doctor named Henrique da Rocha Lima, during research on typhus in Germany, discovered that the organism responsible for so many deadly epidemics, resides in the feces of lice.
The French soldiers were put into extremely unsanitary circumstances of filth, sweat and unclean clothes,as they made their way to Russia in 1812. Not only were the French perfect hosts for the organism, but the poor of Russia were living in deplorable conditions. The unfortunate co-mingling of French and Russians, each having to endure unsanitary states beyond their own control, exacerbated the infestation. In fact, some historians believe that typhus killed more soldiers than did the Russian army. Once the lice feces gets onto someone in their hair, skin, clothes, etc., it is only a matter of a simple cut or scratch for the organism to infect its host.