on 15 December 2004
This is a superb read - very hard to put down - as it provides an absorbing mix and insight into the historial/ military tactical/ human interest issues of 1812 to really understand and, yes, experience one of the most important and tragic events in European history in the last 200 years.
As a read it is in turn heart-breaking, in the detail of the suffering of soldiers and civilians, awe-inspiring in the descriptions of the heroics, and fascinating in its insights into the commanders, especially Napoleon - with all his flawed genius.
The tactical military stuff is v well described and dealt with - with sufficient detail to understand and be interested, without being swamped with data and having to keep checking previous sections and the maps.
The only Downside was when the book ended!
on 7 May 2004
This book offers a lucid account of both the military and diplomatic aspects of Napoleon's disastrous Russian campaign. Its greatest strength lies in an exceptionally graphic account of the experience of the Napoleonic soldiery on the march to, and in the retreat from, Moscow. We are not spared harrowing details of suffering from heat and cold, but we also meet many examples of heroism and generosity, most movingly told. Many of the details have an almost hallucinatory vividness. It has greatly enriched my own sense of the pathos of history and of the potentialities of human nature in conditions of extreme trial.
My one criticism of the book is that, if one compares it to Antony Beevor's classic book on Stalingrad, which pays equal attention to the experience of the Russian and of the German soldiery, this book is one-sided. Zamoyski, as a learned and judicious historian, has a right to argue that the standard Russian account of the campaign is a patriotic myth and that the weather did more than the Russian army to defeat the French, but the focus remains too strongly on the invaders: the heroism and suffering of the ordinary Russian soldiery is not treated with the same sympathy and attention to detail as is accorded to the French (and the Poles). This book remains, however, a masterpiece of story-telling. It deserves the huge success one may confidently predict for it.
on 6 April 2010
This book is not so much about the particular battles of this conflict (they are covered very well), but the suffering and human tragedy that hundreds of thousands of people experienced.
This book is entirely made up and put together with the diaries and memoirs of hundreds of people whom where on the campaign or eyewitnesses that experienced it first-hand. From peasants, to foot soldiers, to generals. The author does an excellent job of piecing and weaving these all together into a story. It is a story told through there eyes for all extends and purposes, this is what makes it ever more interesting.
There's many details of the suffering from frostbite, starvation, murders and cannibalism. Of leadership that was egotistical, paranoid and indecisive and ultimately contributed and lead to so many deaths.
on 20 August 2004
Zamoyski's book is a well researched, scholarly account of Napoleon's Russian campaign of 1812 with some 550 pages of text. Comprehensive notes on each of the 25 chapters, an extensive bibliography in six languages and a detailed index make up an additional 100 pages or so. Useful maps and interesting illustrations accompany the text. Large parts of the book consist of personal memoirs that graphically illustrate the horror of the undertaking.
As a historical narrative of events it is thorough and meticulous, albeit mostly seen through the invaders' eyes. The sufferings of the Russian people are given less attention, possibly due to the relative scarcity of sources. It has to be borne in mind that, during the Soviet era, this period of history was presented as a heroic struggle with no room for sentiment and it is only recently that this view has been revised.
The book asks but does not answer some important questions. Did Napoleon have a clear political objective? Why was Napoleon uncharacteristically hesitant and repeatedly made mistakes in judgement?
It also begs the question: why fight two major campaigns at the same time at opposite ends of Europe? What was the impact of the Russian campaign on the Peninsular War at this critical time?
It is said that his objective was to reach India, or at least conquer the Middle East in order to thwart Britain. That sounds imprecise and vague. He certainly would not want to find himself squeezed on either side by two major powers at the same time. But was Russia really a threat, considering the state that its army was in? It is simply not possible to discern a strategic objective. And, as the author says, "by definition, aimless wars cannot be won".
One possible reason for his indecisiveness is quite simple: Kutusov was an incompetent commander of whom the Tsar himself despaired and Napoleon could not make any sense of the chaos that surrounded the Russian armies. Consequently, he was not able read the character of the enemy and this was, together with his appreciation of the lie of the land, the principal ingredient of his success as a general.
Several reports, from Caulaincourt his ADC, Constant his valet and Mestivier his personal physician, indicate that he was suffering from poor health.
Napoleon's headquarters have been described elsewhere as a place "where a curious lassitude, so uncharacteristic of Napoleon in action, continued to clog the workings of the Imperial brain."
During the campaign, Napoleon's health deteriorated "to a degree that clouded his judgement." He was suffering from dysuria and a dry cough and loss of voice. His physician described Napoleon as having a "persistent dry cough, difficult irregular breathing, his urine came only in drops and with pain and was thick with sediment." In addition, "his legs and feet were oedematous, the pulse febrile in type and intermittent every twelve beats or so," and there were indications of oedema of the chest and fevers.
Following Borodino, Napoleon continued to have throat and cough problems, leaving him speechless. His urinary problems also continued throughout the campaign.
One of the strengths of Napoleon's leadership was the electrifying effect that his presence had on the troops, both his own and that of his enemy. He led from the front, did not delegate much and paid great attention to detail. It was said that his presence had the value of an entire regiment. Why then, as the book shows, was he absent so often?
Why did he never show up in the Iberian Peninsula during the six years that the French were active in the area? Contemporary accounts show that a visit was rumored on at least two occasions, but never took place. Had he not opened a second front in the East (it is doubtful that the Russian campaign was necessary in the first place), and concentrated his skills in the Peninsula, the outcome might have been quite different. It is no coincidence that Wellington's strategy, from being defensive from 1809 to 1812, became offensive after that date. I understood why when I read Adam Zamoyski's book. The Napoleonic myth expired on the road from Moscow and, indirectly, affirmed Britain as the major power for the next hundred years.
on 31 January 2012
what can i say, other then that this is perhaps one of the best books i have ever read. it really is that good and the author does an amazing job in telling the story both in a strategic, tactical and human view of the campaign that the very mention of the year is enough to strike images of disaster in peoples mind. the writing style is wonderful and keeps you interested all the way though, a person need not even have read other books on the Napoleonic wars as it describes the lead up excellently and a conclusion on what happened after and what the effects of the invasion were both physically and psychologically. this is the definitive book to buy on the 1812 invasion and if you are to ever buy just one book on the Napoleonic wars then let it be this one as it will live you in awe at so much, the scale of the invasion, the massive characters of the story, the brutal fighting, the suffering, the horror and the amazing moments of fearless courage and compassion.
on 30 October 2007
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!
Magnificent work of narrative history bringing home the sweep of historical events and many individual stories of suffering and horror experienced by the members of Napoleon's multinational Grande Armee. In the end Napoleon's defeat was down to a complete mis-estimation of the logistics involved in invading Russia and his elevation of his will and self-belief over the reality of conditions there. The Russian side does not come over well either, with constant bitter rivalry between mediocre or incompetent generals, including Marshal Kutuzov, still thought of as a Russian hero today, but nowhere near as great a general or leader of men as Napoleon. Great military history that really gives a feel for the ghastly experiences endured by the common soldier and civilian especially during the infamous retreat from Moscow.
on 11 May 2012
This book starts with a birth surrounded by all the pomp and power of an empire at its peak. in reality the book is about failure and indecision, about the useless sacrifice of thousands in a vain and pointless enterprise that somehow manages to sum up all that is wrong with man's ambition - in fact, Napoleon summed it all up when he coined his quip on reaching Warsaw, having abandoned his men; "From the sublime to the ridiculous there is but one step."
Watching the build-up to the Russian campaign is like watching a samurai preparing himself for ritual suicide... there is that sense of inevitability - that driving desire to destroy oneself. The "French" army is actually a massive coming together of forces throughout Europe; the courageous Italians, the various Germans, Austrians, Dutch, Belgians, Spaniards and, of course, the "largest non-French contingent... who numbered some 95,000", the Poles. Napoleon's arrogance towards and exploitation of his allies, his incompetence and dithering is astounding. His deception and abuse of his Polish allies, whose courage is constantly proven, is inexcusable!
The French were poorly equipped with out-of-date weaponry, poorly designed and uncomfortable uniforms and a genuine lack of logistical planning for a war to be held in an Eastern Europe that was a total contrast to the more "civilised" and comfortable conditions found in the West. "The troops (were) subjected to a rude awakening... there was an element of surprise at the exoticism and the backwardness of many of the areas east of the Oder. they marvelled at the emptiness of the landscape..." The roads were unsuitable, the villages were squalid, there was a lack of food and infrastructure that could "support" such large invading forces... even the fact that the troops had to bivouac in the field rather than be billeted in comfortable farmhouses and towns... all contributed to the great discomfort of the men and the failure of the campaign. Some of the mistakes made were so similar to Hitler's over a hundred years later... right down to the alienation of potential allies within Russian-occupied territory! "The Frenchmen came to remove our fetters," the peasants quipped, "but he took our boots too."
The Russians wore more comfortable uniforms and had superb artillery but Russian troops were conscripted for a period of twenty-five years - when they left their villages they were given a symbolic funeral since they were never expected to return. Their training and discipline was harsh and they did not lay down their arms; "Frederick the Great is alleged to have said that one first had to kill the Russian soldier and then push him over." The real tragedy is that they were lead by a gang of in-fighting incompetents that belong more in a school staffroom than on the field of battle. "Napoleon's military success in the past had rested on his capacity to make a quick appraisal of any situation and to act intelligently and decisively on its basis. Yet from the moment he set out on his (campaign) he displayed a marked inability... to act decisively...(He had) a difficulty in comprehending what his opponents were trying to achieve... The Russians had spent a year and a half deploying for an offensive, only to retreat the moment operations began. This... led Napoleon to expect a trap, and then to assume that they were avoiding battle out of fear of losing. He was not to know that most of it was the result of chaos and intrigue at Russian headquarters."
When the fighting begins cities are razed, the slaughter is immense. The agony of the wounded is heart-rending. One small fact jumped out at me - it concerned the battle of Borodino: "It had been the greatest massacre in recorded history, not to be surpassed until the first day of the Somme in 1916."
Perhaps the most surprising bit of the story is the march on Moscow. History (or is it romantic vision) concentrates on the horrors of the retreat of a failed army, in the freezing depths, harassed by Cossacks, under fire, starving. Yet the march to moscow, in the blazing heat and rain, bitten by mosquitos and dying of hunger and thirst cost the French almost a third of their forces!
In the retreat, Napoleon's concern about his loss of face meant that suitable, life-saving action was not taken prior to and during the march back. In fact constantly we see not a great leader at the head of his men but a great vacillator, a man full of indecision, skulking in his carriage or hidden away in luxury whist all about him struggle and die. When he did make decisions they were the wrong ones and had terrible consequences. His men "should have blamed Napoleon but did not because he belonged to them as much as they to him... His glory was their common property, and to diminish his reputation by denouncing him and turning away from him would have been to destroy the common fund of glory they had built over the years and which was their most prizes possession."
What I really like about this sort of book is the way it tries to tell the story of the ordinary men. We hear (and see) individual tragedies played out on this cruel stage littered with frozen bodies and abandoned booty. The terrible cold, the lack of food, the conditions... even the lice... One shudders as one watches the growing indifference to the torment of their comrades, the desperate acts they became prey to simply in order to survive. My heart went out to them. Every time they thought they'd reached safety things just got worse.
And the death toll was astounding! "...it is safe to say that all in all, between the Grande Armee's crossing of the Niemen at the end of June 1812 and the end of February 1813, about a million people dies, fairly equally divided between the two sides."
Europe was changed. The Russian Campaign set the seeds for the setting up of autocratic structures throughout, and this in the face of the desires for greater freedom the man-in-the-street (especially the Russian exposed to the greater liberties of the West) expected. Russia and Prussia became dominant powers and it is no conceit to see in Napoleon's failure the sowing of the seeds of that greater conflict to come in 1939.
That I enjoyed this book should not need stating, that it is a good read is undeniable. Zamoyski writes with an ease that encompasses us and a knowledge that gives us material to bore our friends with for a long time to come. This is an epic tale told in an epic manner.
on 31 July 2011
I have to admit that the Napoleonic Wars are outside of my usual area of reading. However some points of history have such a colossal impact on world events, you can feel a genuine sense of shame in not really knowing the history. In Britain we focus on the Peninsular War and Waterloo, whilst holding a vague awareness that Napoleon's failure in Russia was a significant contributor to his downfall. Zamoyski's book on Napoleon's war in Russia and epic retreat are therefore quite welcome reading, especially as an introduction to the subject.
Zamoyski's virtues as a writer come through first of all in his compelling narrative, which easily moves the reader through events (as well unfamiliar places and names) and his sensitive and insightful discussion of the human tragedy of the war. Zamoyski certainly handles his source material well and strives to draw out the international quality of the war, rather than previous accounts which can be very French or Russian centric, this work draws on substantial amounts of Polish, Dutch, Italian and German experiences to name but a few. The book also has an excellent set of easy to follow maps, which are well broken down and very useful for following the efforts of the different corps and armies.
As mentioned previously I would see this work as an introductory piece. It provides a solid introduction, but does have its limitations; it is in broad terms pro-Napoleon. Zamoyski, doesn't really get under the skin of whether Napoleon was right to act as he did, and sometimes the impression is that he was really a promethean architect of a proto-European Union, rather than a tyrant determined to make his friends and family rulers of Europe. Historiographically speaking this finds expression in the way that a general contrast is made between Russian brutality and Western behaviours (or when western behaviour is inappropriate, source material is provided to indicate remorse). Zamoyski is also highly critical of the Russian Leadership and places Napoleon's failure on a lack of form and the weather, this is somewhat disappointing, Zamoyski does fail to place the Russian war effort in the context of total war, in which losing battles is inconsequential to gaining ground and winning the war's strategic objectives (a good comparison would be Grant versus Lee in the American Civil War). Zamoyski also fails to point out that in source material the French and allied sources vastly outnumber the Russian sources and that there is general a dearth of sources from the perspective of Cossacks and Russian Peasants which may have tempered enemy accounts of them.
Overall this is a solid read and well worth the time of reading, I'd certainly recommend reading it alongside Dominic Lieven's "Russia Against Napoleon" that handles the Russian perspective from 1807 to 1814 extremely well.
on 25 August 2011
I see no point in retelling any of the gripping and harrowing tale this book movingly narrates, but I do feel compelled to write a short review in the hope that others will read it. It is the best literary account of any war, disaster or human tragedy I have read, and any writer of history would do well to learn from Zamoyski's measured, thoughtful and humane approach.
It says much that the most gripping parts of the book are not the battles, as one might expect of a book in which Napoleon is the principle character, but the accounts of the ordinary soldiers who marched through a freezing Russian Winter in woefully inadequate clothing and of the peasants whose homes were sequestered thanklessly by French and Russian armies alike. When I first read this book I was working Tuesday nights in a quiet pub and I would prop myself up against the bar reading it, failing to acknowledge customers as they came or left, such is the power of the narrative. This is the sort of history people say one should learn from, and Zamoyski's verve and humanity make this the account others will be measured by.