The battle of Borodino, the occupation of Moscow, and the subsequent flight of the French are instructive historical events. Nations’ political success has a great deal to do with their military success or lack thereof—even though it doesn’t make a great deal of sense that the military victory or defeat of a nation would determine its status in relation to other nations. But it’s always been true, ever since ancient times, and Napoleon’s earlier wars further confirm this.
Throughout history, military success usually translates to a nation’s overall success. This pattern is so consistent that it becomes a truism. Up through the earlier Napoleonic Wars, the pattern holds true.
This pattern changes in 1812. The French take Moscow, yet suddenly, with no further battle, it’s not Russia that submits, but Napoleonic France. This proved that winning a battle, as the French did at Borodino, isn’t necessarily a guarantee of conquest. Historians tend to discuss these events as if they’re describing a fencing duel in which the French were the fencer and the Russians were the enemy who dropped his sword and fought with a club instead, yet historians continue to describe the whole event as a fencing match.
The War of 1812 doesn’t fit the old historical pattern. The French victory at Borodino (itself questionable in many Russian eyes) proves to be a hollow one. Historians struggle to account for Napoleonic France’s ultimate failure. They describe events as if the French and Russians fought by different rules.
One of these deviations from the “rules” of war is the behavior of scattered people against organized masses of people. This has been called partisan warfare. Such warfare directly opposes the well-established rule that attackers should always concentrate their troops in order to be ready for battle. This rule arises from military science’s belief than an army’s strength is identical to its numbers. Military science sees an army’s force as the product of mass times “some unknown x.” It suggests all sorts of things for this “x,” most often the genius of commanders.
One of the new developments during the War of 1812 was partisan warfare, which is, to put it more simply, smaller groups fighting against larger forces. Partisan warfare played a key role in pushing Napoleon to retreat. In the past, an army’s strength was seen as being equivalent to its numbers, multiplied by a debatable factor like ingenious leadership.
In reality, though, the “x” is the spirit of an army—the army’s willingness to fight, no matter who they’re fighting under or whatever weapons they’re using. If soldiers want to fight, in other words, then they’ll “put themselves in the most advantageous conditions for fighting.” The conventional rule that soldiers should be massed for attack and dispersed for retreat actually confirms this truth about army spirit. When the French retreat in 1812, their spirits are low, so they press together—their mass is the only thing that keeps them together. At the same time, Russian morale is so high that they can afford to disperse and beat the attacking French without needing orders or discipline.
Partisan warfare in 1812 undercuts military science’s conventional wisdom. The key to partisan warfare is the fact that morale is more important than anything else, including numbers or leadership. Morale explains why the larger French force could be successfully attacked by much smaller, less organized Russian forces.
When the enemy enters Smolensk, the so-called partisan war begins. At this time, the partisan war wasn’t officially recognized by the government. Denis Davydov is responsible for legitimizing this unconventional form of warfare. In late August, he began forming partisan detachments. These detachments begin destroying Napoleon’s grand army in a piecemeal fashion. By October, there were hundreds of detachments. These ranged from large ones structured like armies to small parties of peasants or landowners.
Partisan warfare began in an unofficial, grassroots way and developed into a variety of different expressions. These small groups quickly found success in harrying the larger, demoralized French army.
The most intense time of the partisan war is in late October. The smaller partisan detachments, like the Cossacks and peasants, have gained confidence. On October 22nd, Denisov is caught up in partisan warfare. All day, he and his party have been watching a large French transport of cavalry supplies which includes Russian prisoners; it’s on its way to Smolensk. Dolokhov, too, has a small party of partisans nearby. Denisov has captured a French drummer boy to inform him about the transport, but the boy is “half-witted” and can’t tell him much. So Denisov sends a muzhik, Tikhon Shcherbaty, to capture at least one more soldier. In the meantime, a young officer arrives with a message from his general. The officer turns out to be Petya Rostov. Denisov warmly welcomes Nikolai’s little brother and lets him spend the night.
Captain Denisov, Nikolai Rostov’s old friend, and the unscrupulous Dolokhov reappear as partisan fighters, as well as the youngest Rostov, reappearing unexpectedly. Partisan warfare depends on careful intelligence and scouting to ensure the best use of a detachment’s resources.