Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Logistics in Napoleon’s Campaigns


This paper compares the approaches Napoleon took to solve (or attempt to solve) logistics problems involved in the 1805 Austerlitz Campaign and the 1812 Russian Campaign. From a logistics standpoint, the difference between the two campaigns was the distance Napoleon would have to travel outside France’s borders – Moscow is approximately 1,100 miles further away from France than Austerlitz. Napoleon’s solutions for each of these campaigns will be described, and in the conclusion the strengths and weaknesses of each will be listed.

Napoleon Crossing the Alps (painting by Jacques-Louis David, 1805)

Austerlitz Campaign

Prior to the Austerlitz Campaign into Austria, France was using magazines (prepositioned caches) to provide the army with supplies. The problem with magazines was that they limited the movements of the army, and the Austerlitz Campaign would reach far beyond France’s borders.

France had long used a taxation-like system to fund its military, but the increasing size of the French Army made the tax a severe burden on the French people. The Committee of Public Safety provided a solution: they ordered commanders to procure goods from the populace of countries being invaded using the “contribution system” – the military threatened the locals to provide supplies. The military would thus be exporting the French Revolution, and campaigns would be funded by the nations under attack[1].

At the start of the Austerlitz Campaign, Napoleon realized that the contribution system would be unpopular amongst the subjugated people. To compensate for this, he modified the system once he crossed the Rhine on 29 September 1805: Napoleon would give receipts to the suppliers so that they can be later reimbursed[2].

As Napoleon approached the Danube River, his force captured several Austrian supply magazines. These captured magazines would, together with the supplies gathered from the modified contribution system, allow Napoleon to defeat Austria at Austerlitz on 2 December 1805[3].

The Russian Campaign

Napoleon’s planning for the Russian Campaign began in 1810, when Tsar Alexander I left the Continental System, the European blockade of Great Britain. Napoleon’s intention was to capture Moscow and convince Alexander to rejoin the blockade.

Two years prior, Napoleon supplemented civilian transport contractors with a seven-battalion transportation service, the train des équipages, each of these battalions consisting of 600 wagon teams. As the Russian Campaign approached, he increased the size of the train des équipages to 26 battalions, which could carry 9,200 tons of supplies approximately 10 miles per day to the front. To minimize the stress the 600,000+ soldiers in the Grande Armée would place on the local economy, Napoleon established five different supply routes for his army to assemble at Vistula, Poland, the city from which the march to Moscow would begin[4].

The invasion began on 24 June 1812. The campaign ran into problems immediately: the five supply routes to Vistula lacked fodder for the horses, and many of them died. The roads into Russia turned to mud because of thunderstorms, and this slowed the French Army’s progress.

On 14 September, Napoleon arrived in Moscow, but he found it to be burning: the Russians were making sure the Grande Armée had to rely on their own supplies.

He stayed in Moscow a total of five weeks (three weeks longer than planned[5]) in order to negotiate with Alexander. During this time, Russian Cossacks attacked French supply lines and foraging partners.

Alexander refused to negotiate, and on 19 October, the French Army left Moscow. To avoid the resource-stripped area caused by the French Army’s approach into Moscow, Napoleon wanted to take an alternative route out of Russia. At the Battle of Maloyaroslavets on 24 October, the Russians forced Napoleon to retrace the path he took into Moscow. The Cossacks continued harassing the French Army, and on 5 December, Napoleon transferred command of the French Army to an assistant and returned to Paris. The French Army left Russian territory on 14 December.


The time surrounding the two campaigns demonstrate the evolution of logistics under Napoleon. The Austerlitz Campaign saw the introduction of the modified contribution system. An army of any significant size would put considerable strain on the local populace, and the idea of receipts that would be covered by the French Treasury would lessen that strain – assuming the receipts would be honored.

In the years leading up to the Russian Campaign, Napoleon clearly understood that magazines, foraging, and the modified contribution system would be insufficient for the much more extended march to Moscow[6]. This is why he introduced the train des équipages, starting it at seven battalions and later increasing it to 26 battalions. The train des équipages depended on the existence of quality roads, and they were vulnerable to attacks from the Cossacks.

The limits of the train des équipages and modified contribution system were shown in the Russian Campaign, and the French Army did have to resort to foraging. The Russians knew how to combat this: they used scorched-earth tactics. These tactics forced Napoleon to rely on his existing supplies, and Napoleon was thus defeated[7].


[1] Jelineo, “Napoleon’s Logistics.”

[2] Ibid.

[3] Van Creveld, Supplying War, pp. 44-61.

[4] Jelineo, “Napoleon’s Logistics.”

[5] Van Creveld, Supplying War, p. 64.

[6] Hardemon, "General Logistics Paradigm.”

[7] Bennett, “The Grand Failure.”


Bennett, L. “The Grand Failure: How Logistics of Supply Defeated Napoleon in 1812.” Primary Source 1 (No. 1). 2011. Retrieved 10 July 2024 from

Hardemon, R. "General Logistics Paradigm: A Study of the Logistics of Alexander, Napoleon, and Sherman" (1998). Theses and Dissertations. 5650. Retrieved 10 July 2024 from≈context=etd

Jelineo, J. “Napoleon’s Logistics; or How Napoleon Learned to Worry about Supply.” Air Command and Staff College. April 2012. Retrieved 10 July 2024 from

Van Creveld, M. Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton (2nd ed). Cambridge University Press, 2004.

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