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In the Legions of Napoleon: The Memoirs of a Polish Officer in Spain and Russia, 1808-1813

Brandt, Heinrich von. In the Legions of Napoleon: The Memoirs of a Polish Officer in Spain and Russia, 1808-1813. Translated and edited by Jonathan North. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole, 1999. 304 pages. ISBN# 1853673803. $34.95. Hardcover.

In the Legions of Napoleon cover

The ancient Kingdom of Poland had been the traditional guardian of the eastern marches of Europe against Asiatic hordes. Not blessed with natural obstacles as borders, and facing grasping, treacherous Russians on the east and aggressive, hostile Germans on the west, she eventually lost her battle of national survival. Brutally partitioned between Austria, Russia, and Prussia, in 1795, her young men sought to fight for Polish Independence in other lands.

Some left before the partition. Kosciuzko fought for the embryonic United States in its Revolution against England in the 1770s and 1780s. Others found their way to Revolutionary France, and formed units to spread liberté, egalité, and fraternité eastward. Stalwart examples of de Saxe's young men with only a cloak and a sword, formed units of polish volunteers who fought the kings of Europe to a standstill with their French comrades-in-arms.

The newly translated memoir, In the Legions of Napoleon: The Memoirs of a Polish Officer in Spain and Russia, 1808-1813, by Jonathan North tells the exciting story of one of these intrepid Polish soldiers who left home and fought for Napoleon the length and breadth of Europe. Heinrich von Brandt was a Pole of Prussian heritage who had been a junior officer in the Prussian Army. After the destruction of that army in the Jena Campaign, he applied for a commission in the French service, and after an enlightening interview by Marshal Davout, he was given his commission, assigned to the Legion of the Vistula, and humped his pack to Spain.

What follows is one of the best memoirs of the period, definitely on a par with that excellent French memoir by Charles Parquin. Brandt, a 19-year-old second lieutenant, takes to the military life with a passion, and is an efficient and observant officer. His first assignment gets him into Spain for the second siege of Saragossa, in which he played an important part. This leads to some of the interesting and informative character sketches that pepper these memoirs and give critical insight to some of the French commanders of the period. Brandt saw Lannes, Davout, Suchet, Lacoste, Laval, Habert, Claparede and others, and some of his stories have not been related to us before.

He is impressed with Davout (and who wouldn't be?) and is impressed by the Marshal's severity and seriousness, but finds out later that Davout treats all new officers in that manner (he also witnesses firsthand the volcanic nature of both Davout's and the Emperor's tempers --Brandt is impressed). He thinks highly of Lannes and Suchet, as well as Lacoste, conveying regret when that outstanding engineer was killed in action at Saragossa. Laval gets high marks; Claparede is characterized as efficient, but disliked when he commanded the Legion. Habert is described as a big man, brave to a fault, but not too bright.

Two of the best anecdotes he relates involve Lannes and Habert. Both occur during Lannes' successful siege of Saragossa. Lannes is reconnoitering the Spanish defenses from the roof of a house with one of his engineer officers. Spanish sharpshooters start firing on them. Lannes, infuriated, takes up a musket and returns fire, eventually silencing the Spanish marksmen, who are not very good shots. The Spanish reply with artillery fire, which kills the engineer, and Lannes decides to call it a day. Habert is one day making his way along the front lines to inspect his troops. They are under intermittent fire, and at one point Habert, being tall, must bend over to stay under cover. One of the conscripts makes a comment that even generals duck, and Habert furious, grabs the luckless conscript and drags him out into the street so they are both under gradually heavier fire. The conscript is hit numerous times, but Habert remains untouched. Habert flings the now dead rookie to the ground, kicks him, calls him a f****** conscript, and returns to the French positions. The dead man's comrades agree with the action, merely saying the young Frenchman should have kept his mouth shut.

Brandt describes in great detail the actions in which he and the Legion fought, the type of officers and men he served with, and the grueling campaigns in which they participated. He also gives insight into the minds of his comrades and superiors. One of the best anecdotes in the book recalls the time when he returned, leading a detachment, to his company's garrison area in a small Spanish town, and he renders his report of the action, in writing, to his company commander, Captain Skolniki. The captain dutifully reads his subaltern's well-done report, complimenting him on his accuracy and completeness. He then rewrites the report for him, embellishing the action into a minor epic, lets Brandt read it, and comments, 'That's how you write a report.' Later, when Brandt reads one of Suchet's after action reports (or more accurately 'proclamations') of an action in which he himself has participated, he remembers Captain Skolniki's remarks and thinks that Suchet and the Captain think the same way. Unfortunately, Captain Skolniki, along with many of Brandt's comrades, is later killed in action.

Brandt and his comrades are more than happy to leave Spain, and are feted in Bordeaux on the way east to Russia. Troubled by grumbling civilians in Alsace-Lorraine, he praises the skill with which the huge Grande Armée is moved across Europe for the invasion of Russia. The marches are well controlled and expertly handled, and the logistical support for the invasion is unprecedented.

Brandt's account of the crossing of the Berezina is skillfully told. He was wounded in an earlier action, and upon reaching the bridges, he and his comrades are stopped by a gendarme. Protesting they are not stragglers, they shoulder their way across the rickety, creaking bridges, walking through ankle deep, freezing water near the opposite bank before stepping on dry land again. The fighting was fierce and savage, and the Grande Armée was fighting for its very life, and whipped two separate Russian armies to the ground, even though it was dying on its feet. Brandt's expert telling leaves no doubt how desperate the action was.

Brandt is promoted by Napoleon himself in the ranks of his battalion, and is given his cross of the Legion of Honor by Suchet, who knows Brandt by name. Brandt thinks very highly of Suchet, and was praised by Suchet as the only officer in his regiment who knew what to do when threatened by a mutiny among the unpaid, unruly Poles.

This gem of a book is one of the best accounts of the Spanish war, as well as the desperation and heartbreak that was Russia. Truly, Napoleon was entirely accurate when he called the Grande Armée's survivors of the retreat his 'men of bronze.' This book is a must for every Napoleonic historian, enthusiast, and anyone who likes a good story of high adventure. It is told in a soldierly, straightforward manner, by an officer who did more than his assigned duty for his Emperor and his native land of Poland. It is one of the best memoirs to come out of the period, and ranks with Parquin's as one of the most accurate. Jonathan North's masterful translation has added another gem to the crown of valuable and accurate Napoleonic memoirs available to us. Brandt's book belongs on every enthusiastıs bookshelf.

Reviewed by Kevin Kiley
Placed on the Napoleon Series: April 2000

 

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