Reviews: Books

Campaign Memoirs of the Artilleryman, Part I: 1812. Russian Voices of the Napoleonic Wars

Radozhitskii, Ilya. Campaign Memoirs of the Artilleryman, Part I: 1812. Russian Voices of the Napoleonic Wars, ser., Vol. II. Translated by Alexander Mikaberidze. Tbilisi, Georgia: Napoleonic Society of Georgia, 2011. 153 p. ISBN # 9781105168710. Softcover. $14.99.

This is the second 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.  Ilya Radozhitskii was an artillery officer who on the eve of the war in 1812 was a lieutenant in the 3rd (Light) Company, 11th Artillery Brigade belonging to the 6th Corps of Lieutenant General Essen II.  His memoirs of the Napoleonic Wars first appeared in the early 1820's in the journal Otechestvennye zapiski before they were published in separate volumes in 1835.

Compared to the first volume of this series, the memoirs of Ilya Radozhitskii are a highly professional, extremely well-written work of literature.  That it was intended for publication and reading by the public is clearly evident.  In many ways they rival the historical novels of the period, and in other ways, they exceeds them, being based upon eyewitness experiences.  Radozhitskii skillfully begins his account of the 1812 campaign by describing the Russians' perception of Napoleon and the prevalent folk superstitions of his being the Antichrist and the coming Apocalypse.  This painting of the grand, world stage of events leads to himself as a lowly artillery lieutenant in the midst of cataclysmic events and the almost Biblical struggle of good and evil.  That these same literary devices were later used by Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace is no surprise when we find that the memoirs were extensively consulted, and those familiar with this work will find many descriptions lifted in their entirety into that novel.  Pierre's observations at the Battle of Borodino, his abortive attempt to assassinate Napoleon, the description of partisan warfare against Napoleon, even a scene where a rabbit skitters out between battle lines find their way into Tolstoy's epic novel. This adoption shows just how great a work of literature Radozhitskii has produced.

Radozhitskii's memoirs are valuable in many ways and on many levels.  As noted he has gone to great length to explain on the level of nations and emperors what was going on around him.  While his insights and descriptions of the emperors Napoleon's and Alexander's thoughts and motivations cannot be taken as authoritative in any way, they at least present what intelligent and thoughtful persons in Russia thought of the dramatic events of 1812.  His attributions as to the thoughts and intentions of Barclay de Tolly, Bagration, Miloradovich and Kutuzov are probably closer to the mark and reflect what much of the army felt.  He attempts to explain also feelings of the French and their allies with less success.  He is a true nationalist and is quick to note his feelings towards "foreign" commanders in the Russian army, the loss of Smolensk and as fortune turns against Napoleon he is largely unsympathetic to the horrific brutality of the Cossacks and Russian partisans whose atrocities against French stragglers he seems to ignore if not condone.    

On the level of the military campaign of 1812, Radozhitskii's memoirs give an interesting and accurate accounting of his artillery units actions and movements from Nesvizh in the Minsk province to Vilna to Smolensk, Borodino and Moscow, only to return in pursuit of Napoleon's army to Vilna and ending at Grodno.  Exceptional personal accounts with grand overviews of several important battles including Ostrovno, Smolensk, Borodino, and Vyazma are given.  Additionally several smaller skirmishes such as those of Stragan's River and Spas-Kuplya are given.  Whether true or not Radozhitskii presents the 1812 campaign as largely planned and suggests that many events attributed to accidents, carelessness or merely bad luck by French authors like Ségur such as the burning of Smolensk and Moscow and the destruction of the military magazines in Moscow were carefully designed by the Russians.  Further he suggests that much of the partisan warfare that developed during the great retreat was done under special orders of Kutuzov, rather than random and opportunistic events.  These alternative views of the campaign run counter to Pushin's observations in the first book of this series who saw disease, hunger and cold and the true winners in the campaign but probably simply reflect the authors' different perspectives.

To me, the truest level on which these memoirs are important are those of the artillery lieutenant who matures from a novice to military life and battle to a true veteran, inured to the hardship, bloodshed and horror of war.  Without bravado or false heroism Radozhitskii gives the vivid account of being wounded and almost killed by a careening cannonball.  We also learn of Russian military medicine at its finest with the description of the field hospital and various wounded patients and how Radozhitskii is ultimately evacuated and returns to his unit.  We are also witness to the devastating effects of the artillery, see it deployed, see how it was defended and used as well as overrun and destroyed.  Unlike the memoirs of a general or distantly placed observer, Radozhitskii comes face to face with the enemy on multiple occasions describing the lean sunburned wiry tirailleurs darting in and out of cover peppering the immobile lines, the semi-savage Bashkirs, the (often) drunk French during their attacks, etc.  For those more interested in the grotesque, Radozhitskii provides an interesting tactical accounting of the guerilla and partisan warfare against Napoleon's army.  The exploits of the infamous Captain Figner who had been a staff captain in Radozhitskii's company are presented in great detail although the translator notes that Radozhitskii seems "reticent" to reveal the darker side of his comrade in arms.  I frankly had to skim this section as being too barbarian, although I'm now curious to read Denis Davydov's Essay towards a Theory of Guerilla Warfare (1821) to see if he admitted to such behavior.  

Dr. Midaberizde has found a true gem to present to the reading audience, and of the three volumes of the series, I must admit that this is my favorite.  It provides the detail and accuracy of Pushin and the grand overview of Yermolov but also places it in a compelling story, with enough interesting color to hold ones attention.  While there are many personal accounts of the Napoleonic Wars, there are few that encompass such a broad range of subjects going from the political and grand strategic viewpoint to hand-to-hand combat.  It is a shame that the translation limits itself to the year of 1812.  Dr. Mikaberizde has further provided many concise and important footnotes which assist the reader in the understanding of what is written.     

Reviewed by Greg Gorsuch

 

Placed on the Napoleon Series: November 2012

 

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