Starting from October 28th, until they reach Vyazma, the French army, which was 73,000 strong, is gradually reduced to 36,000. Only 5,000 were killed in battle. The same proportion is lost during each of the march’s subsequent legs. From Smolensk, Berthier writes to Napoleon, explaining that the army has virtually disbanded. He urges that the men be granted rest and food at Smolensk, or else discipline will completely collapse. When the French do reach Smolensk, some kill one another in their desperation for provisions. Meanwhile, Napoleon and his staff keep writing orders that nobody follows. The army just keeps running.
The French retreat from Russia is deadlier than battle, thanks to the extension of the French line beyond the army’s capacity to keep soldiers fed and supplied. French morale has also totally collapsed, and even the leaders’ orders are little more than perfunctory gestures.
Given the self-destruction of the French, it seems impossible that historians would credit the retreat to the genius of Napoleon or his marshals, but they do exactly that. They justify even Napoleon’s base actions on his supposed “greatness,” which seems to exclude the possibility of bad. It never occurs to anyone that this kind of “greatness” is actually a recognition of insignificance. But, according to the measures of good and bad given by Christ, there cannot be greatness without “simplicity, goodness, and truth.”
Historians find ways to interpret the humiliating French retreat as evidence of Napoleon’s genius, because they presuppose that everything he does must be great. Tolstoy suggests that this measure of "greatness" is inherently off base, because Napoleon was devoid of basic Christian virtues.
When they read about the end of the 1812 campaign, Russian people feel dissatisfied. Why didn’t the Russians simply destroy the weak, demoralized French? History blames Kutuzov’s and other generals’ failure to execute certain maneuvers. In reality, there was no need to capture Napoleon and the rapidly retreating French. Besides, in the brutal winter of 1812, it was all the Russians could do to stay alive themselves.
Much as historians tend to praise Napoleon no matter what he did, so do contemporary readers, even Russians themselves, look for reasons to blame Kutuzov. But just because annihilation of the French sounds ideal doesn’t mean it was an achievable aim, and people overlook the bigger picture of suffering on both sides.
The contradiction between historical accounts and facts is due to the fact that historians record generals’ “beautiful feelings” instead of the actual events. Interesting quotes from generals, military triumphs, and speculations are more interesting than the stories of the tens of thousands of ordinary men who died along the way. Yet if the ordinary masses’ stories were considered, the contradiction would be resolved. All the people wanted was to expel the invaders, and that was achieved. They saw no need to provoke the French who were already running away.
Historians often idealize events. They pick out inspiring and exciting events instead of giving the full picture, and they focus on the biggest personalities. If they considered the will of the Russian people at the time, however, the reason the French were allowed to escape becomes clear.