Volcanoes & NAPOLEON 1812

US Army Corps of Engineers

“ Weather… is the greatest ally or the greatest
enemy in the entire history of war.” 1



Dedicated to Eduardo Garzón Sobrado


On June 29th, shortly after the French Grand Army entered Russia, there was a tremendous thunderstorm. Jean-Roch Coignet later recalled: “The hailstorm was so bad that we had great trouble in controlling our horses… I was half dead with cold, and unable to stand it any longer, I opened one of my wagons and took refuge inside.” 2 Meanwhile, on July 4th that same year, in the land of Napoleon’s inveterate enemies the English, John Constable painted

A Hayfield behind West Lodge. He followed that with Fields behind West Lodge on July 7th. 3 Both pictures displayed remarkable sunsets. So what was the connection between the shivering soldier and the talented artist? The answer may come as a surprise – volcanic eruptions - or more particularly the effects produced by the ash, dust and gases that they pour into the atmosphere.


In the years prior to 1812, a plethora of volcanic eruptions across the Northern hemisphere had completed disrupted the normal weather patterns. The consequences for Napoleon’s invading Army were to be absolutely dire.


Towards the end of the Eighteenth Century and throughout the years of Empire there were many such eruptions affecting the climate as far away as Siberia and Alaska and, as the French soldiers criss-crossed Europe in response to the many Coalitions arrayed against them, the sky was filled with dust, gas and ashes that resulted in fantastic sunsets and beautiful rosy dawns. The power of Nature should never be underestimated. The eruption of the Deccan Traps in India 65 million years ago, which continued for a period of over a million years, helped wipe out the dinosaurs. The French Revolution of 1789, which destroyed the dinosaurs of the ancien regime, was itself partly a product of conditions created by a spate of volcanic activity in Europe. Thus volcanoes indirectly helped Napoleon gain power and the fateful eruption of Tambora in April 1815 played a significant part in his downfall. 4


In the preceding generation similar events had had momentous effects. A series of major eruptions in 1783-1785 almost seemed to announce the coming of the French Revolution. The cataclysm that occurred at Asama, Japan 5 in 1783 was well matched by that of Laki in Iceland. That island nestling in the far north well deserves to be called the Land of Fire and Ice. Over an eight-month period, clouds of poisonous sulphur dioxide billowed into the atmosphere killing half the livestock and over a quarter of the population. 6


A local Icelandic priest wrote: “This past week, and the two prior to it, more poison fell from the sky than words can describe: ash… rain full of sulphur and saltpetre, all of it mixed with sand.” 7 This ‘Laki haze’ spread all over Europe. The hottest summer on record created a high-pressure system that funnelled the air south-east towards the Continent. Meanwhile, in the merciless sky there hovered a blood coloured sun, a vivid portent of disaster.

Laki Fissure- Wikipedia by Chmees2

The sky above Norfolk in the East of England was described as copper coloured in 1783. 8 Up to 23,000 British people died that August and September from aerial pollution and its after-effects. A bitter winter followed with hailstones that knocked cattle senseless in the fields. This cold snap in 1783-1784 is estimated to have taken 8,000 more lives.


In America the Mississippi froze at New Orleans and ice was seen in the Gulf of Mexico. Benjamin Franklin said “there existed a constant fog all over Europe and a great part of North America.” 9 Tree ring data backs this up for “it was very cold in 1783 in the extreme northwest” of America .10 It would appear that volcanic eruptions have their greatest influence in high latitudes - as the Grand Army would find out nearly thirty years later. Tree ring data from Alaska, the Yukon and the Mackenzie valley show that “1810 was the coldest summer over the whole region…” 11 Of added importance, in respect of the invasion of 1812, an ‘unknown’ eruption had taken place in 1809 according to tree ring data: “The severity and spatial extent of severe conditions across western North America in the summer of 1810 supports earlier hypotheses of a major volcanic eruption in 1809 for which there is no historical evidence.” 12 We shall see the full ramifications of this ‘extra’ eruption on top of everything else later.


In 1783 and subsequent years, the abnormally cold temperatures led to crop failure and widespread food shortages across Europe. Thus: “The great French Revolution, one of the greatest events in modern history, was brought to a head by famine. This was the ‘Three Year Freeze’ of 1784-1786.” 13 Those who have only heard of the social and political conditions that brought about the Revolution need to consider how a hungry belly affects ‘politics’. Interestingly, in the Great Retreat of 1812 it wasn’t the cold that finished the men off but lack of food according to Dominique Jean Larrey, Napoleon’s respected Chief Surgeon. He also noted how coffee helped keep the hunger pangs at bay.


Napoleon was particularly susceptible to the cold and he complained constantly of it when he and Caulaincourt returned to Paris by sledge after news of the Malet Conspiracy reached them near Vilna in 1812. The remnants of the Grand Army then still struggling out of Russia were left in Murat’s incapable hands and order was only restored when Eugene Beauharnais took over command.


Napoleon lived during the last decades of the so-called Little Ice Age that lasted from about 1500 to 1850. 14 So it has to be borne in mind that the atmospheric cooling that followed volcanic eruptions, which filled the sky with particulates and gases that blocked out the sun, occurred against a background of already low temperatures by historical standards. Ironically, the last Frost Fair on the River Thames was held in 1814, the year of Napoleon’s first abdication. 15


The Laki eruption of 1783 was only the start, the opening chord in a symphony of destruction. There followed a barrage of volcanic eruptions, each adding yet more dust to the atmosphere. Mount Etna was active in 1780, 1792-93, 1802, and 1809 and there was a major eruption from October 27th 1811 to May 1812 – a month before the Grand Army entered Russia. The Urzelina volcano in the Azores erupted in 1808. That year in England, Luke Howard noted an abnormally brilliant twilight. 16 The following year Constable painted another marvellous dust-inspired painting with The River Stour at Sunset as Etna spewed forth. 17 And the effects of the ‘unknown’ volcano have also to be factored in. In 1811 as well as the major eruption underway on Etna, there was more volcanic activity on the Azores and Vesuvius also erupted that year. In the West Indies on the isle of Saint Vincent, La Soufriere erupted in 1811 and April 1812 – again just before the invasion of Russia.


So it should come as no surprise that in Russia itself, spring came late in 1812 and thus the crops were unripe when the French arrived; the summer was incredibly hot and dusty, broken by torrential arctic downpours as described by Coignet; the autumn was unusually mild and the winter was one of the very worst on record. It was almost as if Nature had conspired to test an Army of 500,000 to destruction – to see just what human beings were capable of enduring.

Etna 1842 by Thomas Cole

In The Boy with the U.S. Weather Men of 1917, it states: “There had been some marvellous sunsets during the years 1810 and 1811 and the spring of 1812, but none of the scientists of that time thought of observing them or finding any significance in them, nor did any of them imagine that such could have any effect on the weather.’” 18

Before the invasion and with his usually thorough attention to detail, Napoleon had made enquiries as to the nature of the Russian climate and he had been told that as long as he retreated before the middle of November, the worst of the winter weather would not affect his plans. However, with the eruptions of Saint George in the West Indies in 1810, Etna in Sicily in 1811 and La Soufriere in 1812, there was a “continual replenishment of the stores of volcanic dust,” 19 in the atmosphere - and it was Napoleon’s glorious Empire that was about to vanish in these combined dust-fuelled sunsets.

The Eruption of Soufriere by Turner 1815

Now we can return to a trembling Coignet as he surveys the devastation wrought by that epic hailstorm on June 29th 1812: “Next morning a heart-rending sight met our eyes… the ground was covered with horses which had died of cold. More than ten thousand had died during this night of horror.” 20 That figure is worth repeating – ten thousand! No wonder that in the months ahead there would not be enough remounts for the exhausted French cavalry to hold the marauding Cossacks at bay. So less than a week after the Grand Army entered Russia, many of the French cavalry were forced to walk on foot and in over-sized riding boots this wasn’t easy. The lucky dismounted soldiers found a ride on the small horses indigenous to Lithuania and Russia and looked comical with their feet trailing only inches from the ground. But this disaster was no laughing matter.


There was precious little to feed to the horses that had survived the storm. Green rye found in the abandoned fields killed the animals that foraged upon it and the supply trains could neither keep up with nor find the units they were supposed to be resupplying. Without nourishing oats, the horses pulling the artillery in particular would soon succumb to disease and exhaustion. And this was without Murat’s stupidity, for he kept his men on the qui vivre and did not allow them to rest either themselves or their animals. The saddled horses developed sores on their backs and were exhausted by futile expeditions chasing Cossacks who constantly spooked the Army. Everything seemed to be going wrong and all the while the heavens were preparing a winter of biblical proportions.

Cossacks on the march

An instinctive dread seemed to overcome the Army. Karl von Suckow later wrote: “Not a soul in sight, not an inhabitant in the villages we passed through… These exceptional marches, added to the great shortages we had to put up with, thinned our ranks to an unexpected degree, and thousands of men disappeared within a very short time. Hundreds killed themselves…” 21


Captain Fritz ---, serving with the Russians adds: “The air along the wide sandy tracks running through endless pine woods was really like an oven, so oppressively hot was it and so unrelieved by the slightest puff of wind.” 22 Already he had served with Wellington in Portugal and Spain but he had never experienced such intolerable weather before. The retreating Russians travelled by night to escape the furnace-like conditions.


Count Wedel who was serving in the Polish Lancers described life on outpost duty: “the horses were seldom unsaddled, and never at night, because we always had to be specially prepared for night attacks, since a hundred Cossacks, knowing the district and every track in it, could without danger to themselves put the wind up an entire army corps.” 23 All this before a single major engagement had been fought. Lithuania, a whole province had fallen without a shot and now hundreds if not thousands of soldiers of the Grand Army fell in turn, of starvation, the cold, the heat or simply unmitigated despair.


Those that plodded on were often far from healthy. Heinrich von Roos a senior doctor with Mountbrun’s cavalry corps heading for Smolensk describes how: “On 23 July we came in pouring rain to the River Dvina, which we had orders to cross. There was no bridge. For several days we had not been dry, and now such a cold bath was pleasant for nobody, all the more so because we were in a sickly condition.” 24 Many of them had diarrhoea and Roos tried to ease their discomfort with camomile and peppermint tea until it was discovered that thick broth helped the sufferers. It was easy to tell if a campsite belonged to the French or the retreating Russians – the excreta of the enemy was normal, that of the Grand Army can be guessed at. Dealing with the symptoms of diarrhoea whilst on horseback was messy and difficult to say the least.


Both the torrential rainfall and the otherwise oppressive dry and dusty conditions were the direct result of all those volcanic eruptions. The real enemy of the Grand Army was the weather.

William Hadfield – Smolensk 1787


By the time Napoleon reached the city of Smolensk in the middle of August his position both politically and militarily was extremely awkward. He had failed to bring the Russians to battle and the state of his Army, particularly the cavalry, left a lot to be desired. If he paused for the winter to reorganize, the whole of Europe might consider him beaten. Here, Antony Brett-James points out more human failings: “Whereas Davout, rigid, unpopular martinet that he was, tried to conserve his men and horses the dashing King of Naples (Murat) fatigued and thinned his regiments, not only by losing no chance to attack Cossacks encountered along the way, but also, in the expectation of a decisive battle, by keeping most of his cavalry massed centrally, thus increasing the already unmanageable problem of feeding and watering the horses.” 25


It was as if Fate had been preparing the demoralised men and exhausted, sick horses for total oblivion. Hungry, if not starving, weak and disoriented, they would be drawn on to the gates of Moscow and after the Battle of Borodino, which would cut a bloody swathe through those who had endured it thus far, the decimated survivors would find themselves facing a retreat of hundreds of miles into the teeth of the worst winter weather in a hundred years. The stage had been set – now they faced the final curtain.

Vereshchagin – Night Bivouac of the Grand Army

But before the temperature plummeted there was a very unusual autumnal interlude. Napoleon declared that Moscow, which he had now occupied, was as mild as Paris at the same time of the year. Fatally, he dawdled in the city, awaiting peace proposals from Tsar Alexander that never came. And every day the steely jaws of winter began to close upon his unsuspecting Army.


Brett-James remarks: “warnings about the impending winter were ignored or treated with contempt. It is true that October was exceptionally mild for Russia… When General Rapp told him: ‘The natives say we shall have a severe winter.’ Napoleon retorted scornfully: “Bah! You and your natives! See how fine it is.’ ” 26 But no one could possibly have known just how bad it was going to get and after all the horror stories he had heard about the weather, Napoleon had been lulled into a false sense of security by a mild autumn.


After Murat was surprised at Vinkovo on October 18th, the Great Retreat began. By now only 107,000 men remained under arms. They left Moscow encumbered with baggage and plunder, almost sleepwalking into disaster.


When things can’t get any worse – they often do. So it was in 1812 for the fleeing French and Allied contingents that made up the remnants of the once proud Grand Army. For as well as lower temperatures caused by the many volcanic eruptions prior to 1812, there was also much less solar activity - the so-called Dalton Minimum: “The sun’s activity undergoes long-term changes in intensity… The Dalton Minimum, which occurred around 1790-1820… The year 1810 was the last full calendar year without any sunspots being observed…This solar behaviour is consistent with a reduced solar luminosity and should be accompanied by a cooler climate on Earth.” 27 Although the effects of such solar behaviour have still to be fully understood and explained, the lack of sun spots indicating lower temperatures on Earth might have exacerbated an already terrible concaternation of events pertaining to the weather over Russia in 1812.


And there is still more. The El Niño effect might also have played a part in the destruction of the biggest army the world had so far seen. In his book El Nino in History: Storming Through The Ages, Cesar Caviedes describes how a transition from an El Niño to a La Niña can effect the weather: “Another quick El Niño-La Niña transition in 1812 – when autumn turned to a brutal winter in a few weeks – plunged temperatures to -30 degrees Fahrenheit, making Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow a disaster. He lost 90 per cent of the remains of his army during the seven-week ordeal.” 28 (My italics) And if all this wasn’t bad enough, Napoleon’s men still had to fight the Russian Army and swarms of Cossacks as it made its way out of the benighted country.


Now the high latitudes had another debilitating effect: “The rapidly shortening days meant long cold nights… Ever the days grew shorter and the red sunrises and the red sunsets – which would have meant so much had any one understood – continued.” 29 To add to the growing nightmare, the troops were clad in summer uniforms and many, from warmer southern climes, were totally unused to such arctic weather.

The Retreat of Napoleon From Russia by Victor Adam (1801-1866)

By now it was every man for himself. Stumbling, freezing spectres - no longer could they be called soldiers - froze solid around their pathetic campfires. They died off in layers like an onion, those at the back succumbing first until the very innermost victims’ spirits were given to the night. Around the bodies howled the wolves that feasted as never before. Merciless Cossacks pursued those that staggered on, stripping them naked after making them prisoner and forcing them to walk bare foot in the arctic hell. Or else furious peasants bought the prisoners for a few kopecks so that they could bash their brains out on logs arranged for the purpose. It was no longer war, it was sheer butchery, outright murder. After earlier battles like Austerlitz and Friedland, Napoleon had been generous to his captives, even returning some Russian prisoners in brand new uniforms. The Russian Army cared little for the way their irregulars were operating and they themselves were in the grip of the terrible freeze. It was a war of annihilation and the biggest killer was the weather.


Sergeant Bourgogne gives all the harrowing details in his memoir Retreat From Moscow. Starving men were reduced to eating horseflesh and the thin ragged crows that fell out of the frozen sky. Men walked like zombies across the snowy wastes their faces and beards covered in matted horses’ blood. To the survivors the dead appeared to be the lucky ones. The paths through the tractless forests and barren wilderness were covered in ice and if a man fell it was the end - everyone else was far too weak to offer assistance even if they had not been as totally selfish as they all now were. They were hardly men as the retreat progressed, they were frozen automatons, their hearts as cold and hard as the terrain over which they passed.

Retreat of French Civilians from Russia – B. Villevalde 1846

When the desperate fugitives reached the Berezina River there was another terrible discovery: “The French Army had now reached the marshes, but the Weather was fighting for Russia. Just at this time, a sudden and unexpected thaw set in, making the marsh a morass… Winter was before, winter behind, the Russians on the barrier.” 30

And all this was the result of those turbulent volcanoes, less heat from an almost spotless sun and that El Niño – La Niña changeover event. What chance had Napoleon and the Grand Army ever had? The campaign was doomed from the start. Hundreds of thousands of skeletons were left scattered across the plains to record this victory of Nature over Man.

R. Caton Woodville 1911 - Napoleon at the Berezina

In Caton Woodville’s superb evocation of the crossing of the Berezina we see in this cropped mage a wistful Napoleon looking at the Army’s remaining flags burning on a pyre to lost glory. The composition as a whole reflects the dire extremes to which the Grand Army had now been reduced.

In the howling winds and the deathly cold, the remnants of a once proud fighting machine were covered by the snow falling from a leaden sky. For every grain of volcanic dust that had been launched into the atmosphere there was now a tumbling, twirling flake of ice. It seemed as if every indication of the Army’s passing was to be obliterated, every corpse put to rest beneath a blanket of unforgiving snow.

© John Tarttelin 2010





    1. Francis William Rolt-Wheeler The Boy with the U.S. Weather Men (Boston, Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Co. 1917) 62 of 154 when printed from The Project Gutenberg website.
    2. Jean-Roch Coignet quoted in Antony Brett-James 1812 (London, Book Club Associates, 1973) 48
    3.John E. Thomas John Constable’s Skies: A Fusion of Art and Science (University of Birmingham Press, Edgbaston, England, 1999) 103. See the whole of Chapter Three: Evolution of the skies in Constable’s art from 93 onwards for images and further explanation. The author adds: “Thus there were likely to have been heightened sky colours throughout the period 1808-12… It is clear that the sunrises and sunsets of this period were notable for their increased redness.”103
    4. See my article Napoleon, Tambora and Waterloo on the INS website.
    5. In The Boy with the U.S. Weather Men 61 it says of the French Revolution: “It followed the greatest eruption in the history of the world, that of Asama, in Japan in the year 1783.” However, recent ice core data from Greenland discussed on the CAT.INIST website and reported in the document Climatic impact of the A.D.1783 Asama (Japan) eruption was minimal: evidence from the GISP2 ice core. Hence: “These results suggest minimal climatic effects in the Northern Hemisphere from the 1783 Asama eruption, thus any volcanically-induced cooling in the mid-1780s is probably due to the Laki eruption.”
    6. See Laki on Wikipedia for a detailed description of the effects of this 1783 eruption. The British casualty figures that follow and the consequences for America are taken from this account.
    7. See Laki on Wikipedia. The parish priest was called Jón Steingrímsson.
    8. John E. Thomas op.cit., “In Norfolk in 1783 it was reported that the sun remained coppery coloured until it was 20 degrees above the horizon.” 103
    9. See Laki on Wikipedia under Contemporary reports.
    10. See Energy Citations Database at and the document Summer temperatures across northern North America: Regional reconstructions from 1760 using tree-ring densities. The quote is from the Description/Abstract section.
    11. Ibid.
    12. Ibid.
    13. See The Boy with the U.S. Weather Men 61
    14. See Wikipedia Little Ice Age. The dates for this vary, especially its beginning.
    15. Ibid., See Effect on the Northern hemisphere where it states: “The first Thames frost fair was in 1607; the last in 1814, although changes to the bridges and the addition of an embankment affected the river flow and depth, hence diminishing the possibility of freezes.”
    16. John E. Thomas op. cit., 103
    17. Ibid., 103
    18. See The Boy with the U.S. Weather Men 62
    19. Ibid., 62
    20. Antony Brett-James op. cit., 48
    21. Ibid., 51
    22. Ibid., 52. Captain Fritz’s surname is not known.
    23. Ibid., 56
    24. Ibid., See 59 and 66-67
    25. Ibid., 84
    26. Ibid., 147
    27. See A Sun-Climate Connection? By Douglas Hoyt in Mercury May-June 2003
    28. See for a review of Cesar Caviedes El Nino In History: Storming Through The Ages (2001)
    29. See The Boy with the U.S. Weather Men 63
    30. Ibid., 65


    Bourgogne A. The Retreat From Moscow (London, THE FOLIO SOCIETY, 1985)
    Brett-James Antony 1812 (London, BOOK CLUB ASSOCIATES, 1973)
    Thomas John E. Constable’s Skies: A fusion of Art and Science (University of Birmingham Press, Edgbaston, 1999)
    The Project Gutenberg eBook, The Boy with the U.S. Weather Men, by Francis William Rolt-Wheeler