On June 24, 1812, Napoleon Bonaparte began a fateful invasion of the Russian Empire with his Grand Army (French: Grande Armée). Napoleon mustered the largest military force Europe had ever seen (about 685,000 troops) for the attack. The invasion began by crossing the Neman River, which represented the border of the great Russian Empire.
Napoleon personally chose the places where the army would cross the river. The main location was near the Lithuanian city of Kaunas. At that point, three pontoon bridges were built on the river to cross the hull. After entering the Russian Empire, Napoleon directed his army towards the first large city nearby – Vilnius (today the capital and largest city of Lithuania). Although the French initially advanced rapidly, the Russians applied the tactic of burning the country against them, i.e., in order to retreat, they would destroy all possible sources of food and supplies. Napoleon’s vast army was thus left without enough food and other material.
Napoleon’s campaign lasted until mid-December of that year. Although he managed to capture the Russian capital, Napoleon’s army was completely exhausted and had to retreat. At the same time, the number of soldiers was constantly falling due to desertion, illness and Russian attacks. When the last French troops left Russian soil, only 27,000 soldiers remained capable of fighting.
In less than 6 months, more than 400,000 Napoleonic soldiers, including French, Poles, Germans, Italians, and members of other peoples of the Napoleonic Empire, lost their lives, and more than 100,000 were captured. The Russians had about 200,000 dead, but a very large number of civilians were killed. Many soldiers did not fall in battle, but succumbed to cold, hunger and disease. The French also lost almost all their horses, and they were unable to make up for that loss until after the fall of Napoleon in 1815.