In the Great War (1812–1814), a coalition of Austria, Prussia, Russia, the United Kingdom, Portugal, Sweden, Spain and a number of German States finally defeated France and drove Napoleon into exile on Elba. After the disastrous French invasion of Russia, the continental powers joined Russia, the UK, Portugal and the rebels in Spain. With their armies reorganized, they drove Napoleon out of Germany in 1813 and invaded France in 1814, forcing Napoleon to abdicate and restoring the Bourbons.
Two-and-a-half million troops fought in the conflict and the total dead amounted to as many as two million, including the casualties of the 1812 Russian campaign (some estimates suggest that over a million died in Russia alone). The Great War included the battles of Lützen, Bautzen, Dresden and the epic Battle of Leipzig (also known as the Battle of Nations), which was the largest battle of the Napoleonic Wars, and, indeed, the largest in Western history before the First World War. Ultimately, Napoleon's earlier setbacks in Russia and Germany proved to be the seeds of his undoing, and the Allies occupied Paris, forcing his abdication.
Although the Napoleonic Empire seemed to be at its height in 1810 and 1811, it had in fact already declined somewhat from its apogee in 1806-1809. While most of Western and Central Europe lay under his control - either directly or indirectly through various protectorates, allies, and countries defeated by his empire and under treaties favorable for France - Napoleon had embroiled his armies in the costly and drawn-out Peninsular War in Spain and Portugal. France's economy, army morale, and political support at home had noticeably declined. But most importantly, Napoleon himself was not in the same physical and mental state as in years past. He had become overweight and increasingly prone to various maladies. Nevertheless, despite his troubles in Spain, with the exception of British expeditionary forces to that country, no European power dared move against him.
The Treaty of Schönbrunn, which ended the 1809 war between Austria and France, had a clause removing Western Galicia from Austria and annexing it to the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. Russia viewed this as against its interests and as a potential launching-point for an invasion of Russia. In 1811 Russian staff developed a plan of offensive war, assuming a Russian assault on Warsaw and on Danzig.
In an attempt to gain increased support from Polish nationalists and patriots, Napoleon in his own words termed this war the Second Polish War:
Soldiers, the second war of Poland is started; the first finished in Tilsit. In Tilsit, Russia swore eternal alliance in France and war in England. It violates its oaths today. Russia is pulled by its fate; its destinies must be achieved! Does it thus believe us degenerated? Thus let us go ahead; let us pass Neman River, carry the war on its territory. The second war of Poland will be glorious with the French Armies like the first one.
Napoleon's "first" Polish war, the War of the Fourth Coalition to liberate Poland (from Russia, Prussia and Austria), he saw as such because one of the official declared goals of this war was the resurrection of the Polish state on territories of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
Tsar Alexander found Russia in an economic bind as his country had little in the way of manufacturing yet was rich in raw materials and relied heavily on trade with Napoleon's continental system for both money and manufactured goods. Russia's withdrawal from the system was a further incentive to Napoleon to force a decision.
Crossing the NiemenEdit
The invasion commenced on 24 June 1812. Napoleon had sent a final offer of peace to Saint Petersburg shortly before commencing operations. He never received a reply, so he gave the order to proceed into Russian Poland. He initially met little resistance and moved quickly into the enemy's territory. The French coalition of forces amounted to 449,000 men and 1,146 cannons being opposed by the Russian armies combining to muster 153,000 Russians, 938 cannons, and 15,000 Cossacks. The center of mass of French forces focused on Kaunas and the crossings were made by the French Guard, I, II and III corps amounting to some 120,000 at this point of crossing alone. The actual crossings were made in the area of Alexioten where three pontoon bridges were constructed. The sites had been selected by Napoleon in person. Napoleon had a tent raised and he watched and reviewed troops as they crossed the Niemen. Roads in this area of Lithuania hardly qualified as such, actually being small dirt tracks through areas of dense forest. Supply lines simply could not keep up with the forced marches of the corps and rear formations always suffered the worst privations.