I'm really not sure if I can do this book enough justice in the space of a tiny review. Before reading it I was, like many others perhaps, very much aware that Napoleon's march on Moscow was a turning point in his career and in European history, but apart from that, well... largely ignorant. Reading Zamoyski's book changed all that, and the only regret I have is not having read it earlier.
"1812" is a stunning history book! The 25 chapters are 'bite-size', just the right size to read at least one chapter each evening before going to bed (or two, or three... I found it very hard to put this book down), and in them Zamoyski gives a fascinating account of the entire campaign (beginning with the reasons why, and ending with the aftermath). In doing so he strikes a perfect balance between on the one hand a crystal-clear analysis of the broader political/military scene and motivations of the principal actors, and on the other hand lots of small but telling anecdotes.
One of the things that struck me most is how (as Zamoyski clearly demonstrates) few of the events were the result of intelligent, strategic decisions taken with clear goals in mind, but rather how one thing led to another and decisions were often reduced to the choice between the lesser of two evils. It's astonishing really, and all the more so if you come to realize the enormous cost in human misery and lives resulting from these decisions.
Zamoyski includes literally hundreds of extracts of private correspondence, notes, diaries, etc. from Napoleon and Tsar Alexander themselves down to foot soldiers, which don't detract from the main story but always succeed very well in illustrating the point Zamoyski is trying to make. I'm sure most of us are aware Napoleon's Grande Armée didn't have a field day in this campaign, but just how horrific it actually was is perhaps never better said than in the (often very moving) words of the actual participants. Last but not least the book contains 23 simple but clear maps, and is written in impeccable English.
This is a real feast from cover to cover!