Mieczyslaw Kasprzyk's Reviews > Moscow 1812: Napoleon's Fatal March

Moscow 1812 by Adam Zamoyski
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May 11, 12

bookshelves: central-european-setting, european, french, history, military, napoleonic-era, non-fiction, polish, russian
Read from April 29 to May 11, 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The French were poorly equipped with out-of-date weaponry, poorly designed and uncomfortable uniforms and a genuine lack of logistical planning for a war to be held in an Eastern Europe that was a total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 died, 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.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Adam (new)

Adam Good, descriptive review. Thanks.

Czarny Pies Bravo. Excellent review.

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