|Napoleon's army flees across the Berezina River F. deMyrbach|
by John Arquilla
Today marks the bicentennial of the culminating catastrophe that befell the Grande Armée as it retreated from Russia. This past weekend one of the French Emperor's descendants, Charles Napoleon, traveled to Minsk in Belarus to attend ceremonies commemorating the disaster at the nearby Berezina River crossing, where thousands died -- many by drowning -- in a final, panicked rout in freezing weather. Bonaparte had marched deep into Russia with nearly half a million soldiers; he returned with less than 25,000.
Given that Napoleon was the great captain of his time -- perhaps of all time -- and that his armies had conquered and held most of Europe, the tragic events on the Beresina demand explanation. His defeat is something of a puzzle, too, as the Grande Armée won the campaign's pitched battles fought at Smolensk and Borodino. Harsh winter weather, the commonly assumed culprit, cannot explain the result either; the first frost didn't arrive to bedevil the retreat until just a few weeks before the Beresina crossing.
The answer to the puzzle is that Napoleon and his forces were beaten by what a young Russian hussar, Denis Davydov, called his "indestructible swarm" of Cossacks and other raiders who constantly harried the French columns on the march. They also struck relentlessly, repeatedly, and to fatal effect at the Grande Armée's supply lines. As David Chandler, an eminent historian of Napoleon's campaigns, put it: "raids of Cossacks and partisan bands did more harm to the Emperor than all the endeavors of the regular field armies of Holy Russia."Swarms matter, and have done much to shape the world. As my colleague David Ronfeldt and I have noted in our RAND study of swarms, the phenomenon began long ago. The Mongols were particularly adept at this way of war, following a doctrine they actually named "Crow Swarm." Edward Luttwak, in his masterful The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, observed that the success of the Byzantines in protecting the edges of empire for nearly a thousand years after the fall of Rome had much to do with their employment of defensive swarm tactics. But Davydov, in a brief campaign launched only after he overcame bureaucratic resistance, helped defeat one of history's greatest adventurer-conquerors, giving us perhaps the single most dramatic example of swarming ever seen.