The novel spans the period from 1805 to 1820. The era of Catherine the Great was still fresh in the minds of older people. Catherine had made French the language of her royal court. For the next 100 years, it became a social requirement for the Russian nobility to speak French and understand French culture.
The historical context of the novel begins with the execution of Louis Antoine, Duke of Enghien in 1805, while Russia is ruled by Alexander I during the Napoleonic Wars. Key historical events woven into the novel include the Ulm Campaign, the Battle of Austerlitz, the Treaties of Tilsit, and the Congress of Erfurt. Tolstoy also references the Great Comet of 1811 just before the French invasion of Russia.: 1, 6, 79, 83, 167, 235, 240, 246, 363–364
Tolstoy then uses the Battle of Ostrovno and the Battle of Shevardino Redoubt in his novel, before the occupation of Moscow and the subsequent fire. The novel continues with the Battle of Tarutino, the Battle of Maloyaroslavets, the Battle of Vyazma, and the Battle of Krasnoi. The final battle cited is the Battle of Berezina, after which the characters move on with rebuilding Moscow and their lives.: 392–396, 449–481, 523, 586–591, 601, 613, 635, 638, 655, 640