In 1812, the French army of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte marched toward Russia to invade it. The Grande Armée numbered about 685,000 troops at the start of the war, including 400,000 from France. It was the largest army ever known to have been assembled until that point in the history of warfare.

The Emperor’s Forces up until this time had been unmatched and undefeated. However, the battles he fought were a Pyrrhic victory for his army as certain incidents changed the course of events.

The Battle of Smolensk

Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte rapidly pushed his army through Western Russia through a series of long marches in an attempt to destroy the Russian Army, winning a number of minor engagements and a major battle, the Battle of Smolensk in August 1812. He had hoped that this battle would win him the war, but the Russian army slipped away and retreated, leaving Smolensk to burn.

Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte of France, (August 15, 1769 – May 5, 1821)/Source.

As the Russian army fell back, they destroyed villages, towns, and crops, forcing the invaders to rely on a supply system that was incapable of feeding their large army in the field.

On September 7, the French caught up with the Russian Army in the small town of Borodino, seventy miles west of Moscow. The following Battle of Borodino was the bloodiest single-day action of the Napoleonic Wars, with 72,000 casualties, which resulted in a narrow French victory.

How Napoleon Bonaparte entered Moscow

However, the Russian Army withdrew the following day, leaving the French again without the decisive victory Napoleon sought. A week later, on September 14, 1812, Napoleon entered Moscow, but the Russians had set Moscow on fire, abandoned it, and advanced farther East.

When the Emperor and his army eventually got to Moscow, the temperature had dropped drastically to minus 28 degrees Celsius.

As they encountered the fire, their buttons started to cut loose, exposing their inner clothing. Mother Nature had come to the rescue of the Russians. Instead of chasing after the Russians, they battled with the dreadful cold.

In the end, of the 600,000 French soldiers who made it to Russia, only 27,000 of them made it out of Moscow alive.

The Downfall of the French Army

One reason for the downfall of the unstoppable French army was the buttons on the army uniforms. All of the army’s clothing, spanning from the highest general to the most-lowly private, had buttons made of the chemical element, Tin sewn on to their uniforms.

Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and his army retreat from Moscow, 1812.

When exposed to bitter cold, as Napoleon’s army encountered in Russia, Tin disintegrates into a fine powder. As their buttons and uniforms fell apart, they felt so weakened by the cold that it could not function. Instead of using their hands to carry vital supplies and weapons, they were holding together their garments, grasping for heat.

The Tin Pest

The bonding structure of Tin atoms begins to change when temperatures drop below ten degrees Celsius (10°C) and Tin was the major metal used to make the buttons on the French army’s uniforms. As the severe Russian temperatures approached minus 30 degrees Celsius (-30°C), the buttons have crumbled into dust.

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The Tin used by Napoleon’s army was pure (that is, no other element was mixed with it) and was more tolerant of low temperatures. A nice, smooth, shiny Tin can very quickly become “infected” with a condition called “tin pest” which radically changes its crystalline structure and makes it crumbles.

A Solution

This could have been avoided by adding another element or metal, known as alloying, with small amounts of electropositive metals or semimetals soluble in tin’s solid-phase like Antimony or Bismuth, which would have prevented the crumbling of the soldiers’ buttons and eventually prevented many deaths by the Russian winter.

However, the French underestimated the knowledge of Chemistry!

Interestingly, the disintegration of something as small as a tin button led to the downfall of one of the greatest armies throughout history as the reputation of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte suffered severely, and the French supremacy in Europe weakened dramatically.

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Chemist. Novelist. Writer. Author, A Carnage Before Dawn, 2020.