The WW2-era British military commander Bernard (Monty) Montgomery wrote in his Book of War Rule #1 “Don’t March on Moscow”. Most schoolchildren know that breaking this rule led to Napoleon’s and Hitler’s demise, but in addition to the French and Germans, the Crimeans, Turks, Poles, and Swedes have also learned this disastrous lesson. As the world possibly gears up for another confrontation in response to Putin’s adventurism, we could be in for another demonstration of this maxim.
Why is this particular maneuver so devastating?
1) The Russian winter is brutal, and given the very large expanse of the country, it is difficult for standing armies (especially prior to mechanized warfare) to get to it and out of it before bad weather begins.
2) The Russian people (and this is a compliment), and especially their leaders, are absolutely bat-shit crazy. They would rather destroy their country themselves and send untold numbers of soldiers to their death rather than lose. Muscovites have routinely burnt their city to ash, leaving nothing of use to an invading army, and thus stranding them in a wasteland with an oncoming winter. Less well known is how how many soldiers died from being shot by their own men because they weren’t advancing fast enough (or at all) against the invaders.
The Crimeans and Turks
The beginnings of the state we now know as Russia began in the mid-15th century, having been born from the remnants of a disintegrating Mongol empire. For decades, Crimeans and Ukrainians would terrorize the Russian countryside. In the 1570’s, allied with the Turkish Ottomans, they thought they could lay siege to the city and conquer the country. In 1572, with a force of 120,000 men, the Crimeans marched on Moscow. With a force half that size, the Russians made a stand just outside of the city. The Crimeans were devastated.
Today, Poland has an unfortunate legacy of being Europe’s great football, having been alternatively brutally dominated by the Russians, Germans, and Soviets. In 1610, it was the largest country in Europe. After initially being welcomed, Polish King Sigismund over-reached by forcing catholicism on an Eastern Orthodox country. The Russians revolted and outlasted the more powerful neighbor after a decade-long struggle. Poland never recovered it’s former glory.
In 1709, the Swedish King Charles XII first experienced what came to be known as “scorched earth”. With a better trained and better equipped army, Charles thought that conquering Moscow would be a cinch. Instead, the Russians burned everything in his path. When the Russians finally turned around to fight, they devastated the Swedes at the Battle of Poltava. Sweden’s empire was crushed.
Napoleon didn’t lose a single battle during his Russian campaign, but it was the most disastrous move of possibly any general ever to march on Moscow. Not only did the Russians masterfully execute a similar scorched earth policy, they tricked Napoleon into thinking that surrender and terms were close at hand. They just kept baiting him further and further into the country, where 80% of his starving and frozen men breathed their last.
Ironically, after the tables were turned, and the Russians and their allies were marching on Napoleon’s Paris in the lead up to Waterloo, Parisians in general and Napoleon in particular favored surrender and abdication to destroying their own city.
Hitler viewed the Soviets and Stalin with contempt. After violating their non-aggression pact, Hitler failed to learn history’s lessons. The Soviets just kept throwing more bodies at the Nazis, and shooting those that showed the slightest cowardice. Eighty percent of all allied casualties during WW2 were Russian, which often gets forgotten in the Hollywood version of the war. Think about that for a moment. Even Nazis valued the life of their soldiers more than the Soviets in a war of attrition.