Another passion of mine besides European Royalty and it’s history has been the study of the weather. Today I begin a new series where I combine two of my passions: European Royal History and Meteorology. Weather has helped shaped historical events and the course of history itself. In this series I will look at how weather impacted significant events in European History.
Accurate and detailed weather forecasts can save lives. The lack of an accurate and detailed forecast, and it’s resulting loss of life, is evident in one of the most well known historical events in which weather was a significant player; Napoleon’s war on Russia in 1812.
His Imperial Majesty Emperor Napoleon of France
In 1812, Emperor Napoleon of France gathered the largest army Europe had ever seen at the point, more than 600,000 strong. His plan was to march boldly into Moscow to attack the forces of Emperor Alexander I of Russia. Napoleon was not at all concerned that winter was approaching. Napoleons’s non concern about the coming winter was not due to having foreknowledge that Russia would be experiencing a mild winter, his overconfidence was primarily due to his obstinance and hubris.
His Imperial Majesty Emperor Alexander I of Russia
In truth, in 1812 Napoleon would not have had a long term forecast about the winter. Today we have many tools to predict the weather as we can scientifically measure the temperature, air pressure and windspeed etc. We also have many computer models, known as Numerical Weather Prediction Models which uses mathematical computations of the atmospheric and oceanic conditions to predict weather patterns based on current weather conditions. However, before these tools and technologies, the weather was predicted by the appearance of clouds or the behaviour of animals. There were also primitive thermometers and barometers that aided in forecasting the weather.
Admiral Robert FitzRoy
The term forecast wasn’t even part of the weather vernacular in 1812. The word ‘forecast’ was invented by Admiral Robert FitzRoy in the mid 1800s. FitzRoy was a pioneering meteorologist who made accurate daily weather predictions, which he called by a new name of his own invention: “forecasts” and he defined it as such: “the term forecast is strictly applicable to such an opinion as is the result of scientific combination and calculation.” Incidentally, Admiral Robert FitRoy had royal connections. Through his father, General Lord Charles FitzRoy, Robert was a fourth great-grandson of King Charles II of England, Scotland and Ireland through his mistress, Barbara Palmer-Villiers, 1st Duchess of Cleveland. Born on the wrong side of the sheets as they say.
Back to Napoleon. Napoleon could not foresee his campaign lasting into the winter, believing his war would be swift and decisive. Without a long term forecast for the coming winter, coupled with Napoleon’s overconfidence, this left him unprepared for the difficulties that were ahead.
It was not just winter weather that made an impact on Napoleon’s troops. On June 24th Napoleon entered and attacked Vilnius, Lithuanian. That same afternoon severe thunderstorms and accompanying torrential downpours had a devastating impact on the siege. Since there were no discernible roads in this area of Lithuania, the ruts of the wagons on the soft and saturated ground were turned into bottomless mires. Wagon sank up to their hubs; horses dropped from exhaustion; men lost their boots.
After the storms, the sun reemerged bringing along with it oppressive heat and humidity which would bake the deep ruts into canyons of concrete, where horses would break their legs and wagons their wheels. With the numerous dead horses blocking any forward movements, the troops were left with living in swamp-like conditions with dysentery and influenza raging though the ranks with hundreds laying sick in a field hospital. The Crown Prince of Wurttemberg (future King Wilhelm I of Wurttemberg) reported 21 men dead in bivouacs from sunstroke and a further 345 soldiers were sick.
There are four types of weather fronts that cause thunderstorms: cold front, warm front, stationary front and occluded front. Thunderstorms can become extremely severe and can appear seemingly out of nowhere along any of these front lines. Cold fronts tend to move faster than the other types of fronts and are associated with the most violent types of weather such as severe and super cell thunderstorms, although any type of front can produce these same storms. Since the historical records indicate that severe thunderstorms were followed by oppressive heat and humidity on June 28th 1812 in Vilnius, Lithuanian, it is safe to conclude that these storms were part of a warm front that moved through the region.
Napoleon reached Moscow in mid September. By mid October with the French having set fire to large portions of Moscow, the French were holding onto a tenuous victory. An official French Imperial Delegation was sent to negotiate an armistice and a permanent peace with the Russian Emperor. The French were received with all civility, and we’re encouraged that the Russian soldiers wanted peace. On October 19th, after 35 days in the city, the French began to leave Moscow.
The Retreat from Moscow
Napoleon left Moscow at the head of 95,000 men, with 500 cannons and an uncertain number of wagons (estimates range from 4,000 up to 40,000, with around 20,000 perhaps most likely). The wagon train included the Imperial HQ, the pontoon train, thousands of wagons filled with food and just as many filled with the loot of Moscow. Although Napoleon was victorious in his siege of Moscow, it was with his retreat from Moscow that the Russians delivered the French Army its crushing blow…with help from the weather.
Although the Russian campaign was over by mid-October, the encroaching winter weather was heavy on the minds of Napoleon’s closest advisers. The return to France would take several months. Early on November 5th Napoleon reached Smorgoni. That evening he held a conference with his marshals – Murat, Prince Eugene of Savoy, Berthier, Lefebvre, Bessières, Ney and Davout all attended. At this meeting Napoleon announced that he was going to leave the remnants of the army and return to Paris.
At 10pm Napoleon left with a small party and a small escort of Polish cavalry. Napoleon’s decision to leave the army was probably correct, although his enemies did portray it as a cowardly betrayal of his army. Napoleon had left Marshal Murat in charge of the army. He proved to be a poor choice. Around 20,000 men (mainly stragglers) were lost between Smorgoni and Vilna due to the harsh weather conditions. This was the period of severe frosts, with the temperature dropping to -20c (-4F) on December 5th and -26c (-32.2F) December 9th.
The army was equipped with summer clothing only, and they did not have the means to protect themselves from the cold. In addition, the army lacked the ability to forge caulkined shoes for the horses to enable them to walk over roads that had become iced over. As Napoleon’s army marched further from Vilna temperatures fell further to -40 degrees C. (-40F) The soldiers fell to frostbite and starvation. In one 24-hour period, 50,000 horses died from the cold.
In his memoir, Napoleon’s close adviser, Armand de Caulaincourt, recounted scenes of massive loss, and offered a vivid description of mass death through hypothermia.
“The cold was so intense that bivouacking was no longer supportable. If the soldiers resisted the craving for sleep it would prolong their agony for a short while, but not saving them, for in this condition the drowsiness engendered by cold was irresistibly strong. Sleep comes inevitably, and to sleep is to die. This kind of death by freezing happened to thousands of individuals. The road was covered with their corpses.”
Of the 600,000 men who marched into Russia, only 150,000 would limp home. It was the beginning of the end for Napoleon’s empire, and heralded the emergence of Russia as a power in Europe.
Following the Russian campaign a saying arose that the Generals, along with Janvier and Février (January and February) defeated Napoleon. This demonstrates that without knowledge of the weather Napoleon’s troops were ill prepared to safely navigate the land and keeping their troops and animals safe.