by Timothy Lane 6/22/16
Someone who has a good command of data can find plenty of things that happened on any day, most of them relatively minor. June 22 is noted for the coincidence that two of Europe’s greatest conquerors both made the same mistake on this day.
On June 22, 1812, Napoleon I Bonaparte led his French (and allied) forces into Russia. It was a war several years in the making, reflecting various disputes between Napoleon and Russian Tsar Alexander I that had grown up since the Treaty of Tilsit in 1807. Unfortunately for Napoleon, one result of these disputes is that Alexander and his War Minister, Barclay de Tolly, had taken steps to organize Russia to fight such a mammoth war.
Napoleon had a main force of 400,000 men, with perhaps 250,000 more in flanking forces that advanced (not very far) on St. Petersburg and Kiev. The Russians avoided major battles for over 2 months, but small actions, disease, and hunger still stalked the French; at the battle of Borodino, Napoleon only had a third of the force he started with. He won, and took Moscow (which is further than Hitler got). But with St. Petersburg serving as the main capital, this accomplished little, and he soon retreated back the way he came — a route short on food at the beginning of the Russian winter. That finished off his army (though it should be noted that the weather was actually unexpectedly mild at the crossing of the Beresina — very unfortunate right after the French had burned their bridging train as no longer needed, and a lot of trouble to cart around).
Adolf Hitler was never the sort to learn from others’ mistakes (or his own, for that matter), so he seemed unconcerned when circumstances caused his invasion of Russia to come exactly 129 years later to the day The results were very different. The Germans moved rapidly and inflected devastating losses on the Soviet forces for few of their own — but they were still increasingly being mobbed by the vast resources of the Soviet empire Their advance on Leningrad came a lot closer than did Napoleon’s, and their attack on Kiev further still. But they fell just a little short of Moscow before the Soviets began their counterattack, using troops brought from Siberia (where they weren’t needed to fight Japan, busy elsewhere) as winter froze their ill-prepared forces.
The Germans were driven back a considerable distance in some areas, losing some strategically critical areas, but in the end they hold on and didn’t collapse into the undisciplined rout that happened to the French and their allies. But after 1941, they were reduced to a war of attrition, which they never had a chance of winning. Year by year, their forces in the East fared worse than they had the year before.
As it happens (and it probably wasn’t a coincidence), one of the key blows against them came on June 22, 1944, when Soviet forces opened an offensive against Army Group Center, Germany’s strongest force. Vastly superior numbers, surprise and good strategy, and the errors of Adolf Hitler and his sycophantic subordinates led to the near-total destruction of the whole group, allowing the Soviet forces to advance all the way to Warsaw before halting — for the time being.
Timothy Lane writes from Louisville, Kentucky and publishes the FOSFAX fanzine.
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