In spite of it’s brutal nature and it’s sheer persistence, the Russian winter has been a great military asset throughout the history of Mother Russia, seeing not only defeat of her enemies on the battlefield but the collapse of both established and fledgling empires.
In the early 1700s, Sweden invaded Peter the Great’s Russia, only to be ravaged by the seasonal excesses of cold, further exacerbated by the tactics of the defending Russian forces who used their familiar climate as a super-weapon of sorts. After establishing a foothold within Russia, the Swedish army found itself embroiled in a protracted conflict, whilst Russian forces methodically retreated back into their homeland, drawing the Swedes in further.
As the winter of 1707 – 08 progressed, Russia employed scorched earth tactics to accentuate the season’s grip: destroying as much food, shelter and facilities as it could to ensure that nothing of any use would be left for the advancing Swedes to employ towards their survival. The Russian’s themselves knew how to deal with the extremes of winter and how to work within them. This was not so for the advancing Swedes who were inexperienced in this terrain and its unforgiving conditions.
The tactics worked, with the beleaguered Swedish army reduced from 35,000 troops to a little over half of their number by the arrival of spring. The damage to the invading force was so great that it would ultimately see the downfall of the Swedish Empire at the Battle of Poltava in 1709.
France would fare far worse in 1812 under Napoleon, who had set his sights on Moscow and who had invaded in June – with time seemingly on his side and the winter half a year away. As with the Swedes, Russian forces retreated before the French, destroying everything of possible benefit as they sunk back into their homeland. Even whole villages were rendered unhabitable; burnt to the ground lest they provide a modicum of resources for the invading French. Entering Russia with just under 380,000 troops Napoleon would lose around half by August through desertions, illness and punishing skirmishes by the defending troops.
The costly victory at Borodino (7th Sept) would see Napoleon’s army reduced to around 100,000 from the diminishing 130,000 that he managed to assemble for the battle. This victory created a gateway to Moscow itself. However, without a decisive win against the Russians and winter a mere few weeks away, Napoleon would find himself entering and subsequently giving up Moscow in an humiliating turn-around.
Although Moscow was indeed captured, Russia refused to negotiate a peace deal or acknowledge defeat. They would simply manage without Moscow if need be, the French would be forced further east into Russia to push defeat home (maybe) with vastly depleted numbers, a scorched earth to contend with and the full onslaught of the Russian winter playing out around them. It was a lost cause.
Moscow was evacuated by the French on 19th October 1812 before the first frosts, which were subsequently followed by snow on November 5th. Napoleon was fleeing the onset of winter as it chased him all the way back across 600 miles of ruined Russian countryside until his diminishing troops finally exited Russia in December. Conditions by then were markedly worse and his Grande Armée: a tattered rag of it’s former self.
More frozen goods next time: just how cold is Russian cold? And what happens when aspiring world-dictators fail to learn the lessons of history?
[photo by Modnar]