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As with many wars before and since, Napoleon’s invasion of Russia began with a ruse. The French Emperor had massed an army of half a million men on the banks of the river Niemen but he feared that, if he were seen on the frontlines, the Russians would know that an attack was imminent. He therefore switched uniforms with Colonel Pagowski of the 6th Polish Lancers and, disguised as the Polish officer, trotted forwards for a final reconnaissance of the Russian position. Just a few hours later, on the evening of Tuesday 23 June 1812, he launched his vast and multinational army across the river. The Russians, aghast and astonished, fell back as the Napoleonic juggernaut rolled into Russia.

This invasion was a momentous event and would have lasting consequences, but its origins lay in a peace treaty signed five years before between Napoleon, Emperor of the French, and Alexander, Czar of Russia. There, on a raft on the quietly flowing Niemen, the two had agreed on war (with England) and peace (with each other). However, closing ports to British ships hurt Russia, just as the strengthening of French power in Germany and Poland threatened Russia’s interests, so that, by 1810, the Czar was distancing himself from a relationship which was rapidly turning sour. Napoleon, never one to tolerate disobedience, began to move forces eastwards in the spring of 1812. Russia, having sensed the coming crisis, made peace with Sweden and the Turks, and waited for the storm to break.

It was quite a storm. Napoleon had at his immediate disposal an army of 450,000 men and would call upon reserves and supports on either flank, elements which would boost

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