Having recently read several books on the disastrous French invasion of Russia in 1812, I'd become aware of the works of Albrecht Adam (Napoleon's Army in Russia: The Illustrated Memoirs of Albrecht Adam, 1812), and Faber du Faur, whose illustrated memoirs of the campaign are frequently used to supply books on this subject with evocative imagery. I remember thinking, especially whilst reading Zamoyski's gripping account of the campaign, 'wow, I'd love to see more of those pictures: I wonder if they've been published in book form?'.
Well, they have, and both books are superb. Faber du Faur's has the distinct advantage over Adam's, which is nonetheless wonderful and well worth having, because, unlike Adam (who - rather wisely - left the party before it really began to fall to pieces), he saw the whole campaign through, from it's 'glorious' start to it's abject conclusion. As a result it's his work that has the fuller coverage, inc. the descent of the Grande Armee into a crazed rabble of patchwork harlequins, caught up in a tragic and near apocalyptic farce in which humanity (and the elements) ran the gamut from the heroic to the horrifyingly brutal.
The artworks are really phenomenal, and Greenhill Books has printed the book beautifully: it's large format (in landscape orientation), the print quality is brilliant, and Jonathan North's translation of the text reads very well. Such specialist books can sometimes suffer from poor editorial quality control, or slightly odd (or plain poor) writing. Thankfully the synopsis of the 1812 campaign given here is very good, and there's a decent map of the theatre of operations. And, this bears repeating, the artwork itself, the core of the book, is just fabulous.
So many aspects that simply reading about this fascinating subject can't quite convey are brought vividly to life: the realities of life on campaign, mostly spent travelling, camping (outdoors and, very often, unprotected from the elements), foraging and eating, etc. The landscapes, architecture, the importance of logistics (the sheer volume of horses, wagons, and such like) and the native inhabitants (commerce between the Grande Armee and Russian Jewry is a noticeable feature in both Adams' and Faber du Faur's books), all are depicted.
All the books on this subject these days, and even these two much older sources, stress how things went terribly wrong right from the start, but the visible manifestations of this harrowing descent into a motley bedlam does actually begin to be most apparent on the retreat, and the haggard, skeletal, fancy dress scarecrows, amidst the appalling squalor, suffering and sheer dehumanising brutality, make for compelling characters in this excellently drafted material.
A stunningly beautiful and well realised edition, this is a classic document of Napoleon's hubristic over-reaching, the pivotal moment, where over a million lives were grist to the mill of his unrealisable imperial ambitions. Having rapaciously looted and laid waste to much of Russia, nearly all the booty was destined to be jettisoned in the scramble to survive, this jewel of a book however, is one of the only real treasures to come out the campaign, and I really can't recommend it highly enough.