Reviews: Books

Diaries of the 1812-1814 Campaigns. Russian Voices of the Napoleonic Wars

Pushin, Pavel. Diaries of the 1812-1814 Campaigns. Russian Voices of the Napoleonic Wars, series. Translated by Alexander Mikaberidze.  Napoleonic Society of Georgia, 2011. 189 p. ISBN 9781105098185. $13.99

This is the first in a series of translations commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Napoleonic Wars, and dedicated to giving voice to Russian authors previously not translated into English.  Pavel Pushin was an officer in the elite Life Guard Semeyonovskii Regiment whose daily journal first appeared in the Odessa newspaper "Za tsarya i Rodinu" in 1908.  The third and fullest edition appeared in 1987 when V. Bortnevskii edited the diary for the Leningrad University Press.  This first English translation is based upon the third edition.

Beginning in March 1812, (then) Captain Pavel Pushin, commander of the 9th Company of the 3rd Battalion of the Life Guard Semeyonovskii Regiment compiled an almost daily journal until his return to Saint-Petersburg in July 1814.  Unlike some memoires or diaries, Pushin's journal is largely recording facts and observations as they happen, most likely at the close of the day.  His vision of the events is immediate, limited and personal and do not appear to have been intended for publication, although at times the author has gone back at a later date to add what happened to people he knew.  He speaks candidly of his mistresses, his disdain for certain fellow officers, admiration of the Germans, distrust of the Poles, cost of souvenirs in France and England, generally not bothering to explain the intricacies of military life, all of which help confirm that this was meant as a journal of his thoughts and not something for others to read.

The journal is unique and a valuable document in a number of ways. First, in being an almost daily account, it provides an unprecedented level of detail to the Semeyonovskii Regiment, the logistics of the Guard, the political intrigues of its officers, its movements and whereabouts during this period.  One could literally trace by day and hour the movements of the regiment being given daily accounts of the innumerable villages where it was billeted or fields where it bivouacked.  It is fascinating to read of the period method of billeting with families while on campaign, the acquisition of supplies, length of marches, days of rest, and so forth, especially when the author notes in such detail weather, road and troop conditions.  For those who tire of constant marching, the end of the journal recounts how the regiment leaves from Cherbourg in June 1814 by ship, briefly stopping in England moving by sea back to Saint-Petersburg.  This too provides detailed information on the Russian Navy of the period.  Second, this is the account of an aristocratic, privileged member of an elite regiment.  He sees (or at least records) little of the deprivation, combat or hardships seen in other units.  He is empathetic with the more progressive countries of Prussia and France, admires their nobility and on occasion their bourgeois.  The regiment seems to be little more for him than an extension of his social circles in Saint-Petersburg.   He is disinterested in military matters and worries mostly of following the honor code of the regiment, where officers "arrest" one another for minor infractions, are broken at times to enlisted ranks only to rise again to the rank of colonel within days.  Pushin documents an interesting "mutiny" of officers over being slighted by a colonel, which Grand Duke Constantine must intervene to put an end to.   In many ways the regiment appears is a social club and the ascent in rank comes more from being "in favor" than from merit or heroism.  Finally, Pushin is an avid tourist, being interested in history, architecture, art, music, theater.  He attends plays and operettas as he moves through Europe, visits palaces to look at their galleries, goes to historical churches and castles, visits gardens and amusement parks.  He gives his impressions of these sights and activities reflecting a sensitive and artistic understanding typical of the Romantic Period.  

For those interested mostly in the military conduct of the campaigns of 1812-1813 or particular battles in this period, this journal may be a disappointment.  Pushin's view of combat, as an officer is limited entirely to what he could see on the field or overheard from others.  Still, we find in Pushin, many accuracies that only a participant in combat can provide.  His often poignant observations color the history:  watching a Frenchman calmly awaiting death to end his suffering, in the pool of blood of his comrade who had been lanced by Cossacks; the Prussian artillerist who despite a lull in battle feels duty bound to engage the French, only to bring a hail of shells on the Semeyonovskii Regiment much to their disgust, telling the Prussian to go to hell; watching Count Arakcheyev grow pale and flee on learning that the hissing object that landed near him was a "grenade".  There are many small details which add considerably to our image of the campaigns.  He also sees and describes much that didn't happen in battle which is important to the period:  the various celebrations and parades as Alexander's army "liberates" Europe; the preparations for continued fighting during periods of treaties; families and mistresses following the army while on campaign; the occupation of France in 1814.

Of particular interest in Pushin's journal is his return to Vilna in December 1812 after its evacuation by the French.  As they approach the city, he recounts the fields covered in the dead, stripped bodies of soldiers.  Subsequently two of his fellow officers, among many other Russians, contract "Vilna Fever" and die in a few days later.  While just a short passage this helps illustrate the archeological discovery of hundreds of dead soldiers in Vilna who died not from exhaustion, hunger, wounds etc., but from typhus spread by lice during the retreat from Moscow.  According to one account of the 25,000 who crowded Vilna in December 1812, only 3,000 were alive in June of 1813.  Pushin notes that at the beginning of the campaign his company had 4 officers, 16 NCO's and 165 privates, but after his stay in Vilna he was the only officer, with 2 NCO's and 22 privates.  All 12 companies of his regiment only mustered 300 men. As he points out, "such a huge loss in human life occurred largely because of exhaustion, cold and disease, not enemy bullets or gunfire."

I thoroughly enjoyed this journal, finding it as complimentary to the other books in the series, as well as those previously translated into English such as Nadezhda Durova.  Dr. Mikaberizde has done the Napoleonic War historian an invaluable service by his translation of this journal.

Reviewed by Greg Gorsuch

 

Placed on the Napoleon Series: November 2012

 

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