Friday, November 25, 2016

Review of 1812: Napoleon's Fatal March on Moscow by Adam Zamoyski (Harper, 2005)

Last month I visited Moscow and went to the Borodino Panorama, a massive 360 degree painting that depicts the 1812 battle between Napoleon’s Grande Armee and Czar Alexander’s Russia forces commanded by Marshal Kutuzov that took place to the west of the city.  It was a massive encounter involving tens of thousands of soldiers and had the largest one day casualties prior to The Somme.  Napoleon’s forces won the battle and shortly after entered Moscow, much of which had been burned.  However, Alexander and Kutuzov did not capitulate and refused to negotiate with the Emperor of France, who at that time also ruled much of Europe.  Shortly after occupying Moscow, Napoleon decided to undertake a tactical retreat, aware that he was critically low on supplies and the winter was approaching.  However, he set out too late and his retreat was marred by freezing temperatures, snow and ice, for which his army was ill-equipped, and a lack of food, water and forage for the horses.  Along with a series of battles and partisan attacks, the weather massively reduced his force, along with its accompanying civilian entourage.  Few of the original force, which numbered over half-a-million, who entered Russia left.  In total between the French and allied forces and the Russians circa one million people perished.  For Napoleon the consequences were dire and within a few years he had lost his empire and was exiled and Alexander was entering Paris.  In every way it was a costly campaign. 

Due to its significance of the Grande Armee’s adventure into Russia to European and Russian affairs, it has been written about many times.  However, accounts tend to have a particular ideological slant and purpose and are usually based on a narrow set of sources.  In 1812 Adam Zamoyski seeks to tell the story in a non-partisan way using a range of sources from multiple countries and drawing heavily on first hand testimony of letters and diaries written during the campaign, and accounts by key actors afterwards.  The result is a dense and compelling story that balances historical and political contextualisation with accounts of key battles and events told in harrowing detail.  And it is a harrowing story, involving tens of thousands of deaths in battle, or as prisoners, or from hunger, or freezing temperatures.  Often hundreds or thousands die in a few hours, even in non-combat situations.  And the horses suffer more than the people.  It’s a fascinating tale, but it really isn’t for the faint hearted or weak-stomached.  Without wider knowledge of other accounts it is somewhat difficult to judge, but Zamoyski does seem to succeed in providing a balanced telling.  Indeed, it is clear that he favours no side and forensically details the calamitous decisions, heroic actions and atrocities committed by the French and her allies and the Russians.  It is perhaps a little over-long and dense, but overall, an interesting and detailed account of a key event in nineteenth century Europe.

1 comment:

Conor said...

The story of the engineers who struggled for hours to build the last pontoon bridge while chest-deep in ice cold water and allowed the remains of the forces to escape, and the frantic rush the following morning to get over before it was destroyed was particularly bleak and well described. A great read for sure.