Reviews: Military Books



1812 Trilogy: The March on Moscow, Napoleon in Moscow, and The Great Retreat

Austin, Paul Britten. 1812: The March on Moscow. London: Greenhill, 1993. 416 pages. ISBN # 1853671541. Hardcover. Out of print.

Austin, Paul Britten. 1812: Napoleon in Moscow . London: Greenhill, 1995. 272 pages. ISBN# 1853671959. Hardcover.

Austin, Paul Britten. 1812: The Great Retreat . London: Greenhill, 1996. 488 pages. ISBN # 1853672467. Hardcover.

March on Moscow cover

Napoleon in Moscow cover

The Great Retreat cover


'Men of Bronze'

Both students and historians are still perplexed as to how and why the huge Grande Armée of 1812 was not only unsuccessful in the invasion of Russia, but why it was largely destroyed in that long, difficult campaign. These three books supply the answer. It has been said that Paul Britten Austin is not a military historian. Be that as it may, he has done all of us a huge service in putting together these three books that are full of first hand accounts. A myriad of participants, from marshals and generals down to the private soldier, including doctors and an actress, tell the sad tale of the advance to Moscow, the great fire that helped Napoleon make the decision to retreat, and of the miserable retreat itself.

There is much new material here, especially on the Cossacks, which hasn't been presented anywhere else. This is really not military history per se, but a well-done anthology of first hand accounts that tell their own vivid story. We read of the initial advance by the Grande Armée, the confusion of the Russians, as well as the disloyalty and treachery of those who hated the initial Russian commander, Barclay de Tolly. Then of the mad scramble by the Russians to get out of the way of the French, and the large, indecisive battles of Smolensk and Borodino. The story of the occupation of Moscow, ambush and battles outside the eastern gates is recounted. And of the retreat which began with the French victory of Maloyaroslavets, which frightened Kutusov so much he wouldn't fight Napoleon again, to the hurt of the other two Russian armies at the Berezina as they attempted to stop the French getting out of Russia. The miserable hardships of building the bridges for the Grande Armée's escape, whipping both Russian armies simultaneously, but losing large numbers of stragglers who couldnąt be roused to cross the rickety bridges before they were burned to prevent the Russians under Wittgenstein and Kutusov from following. The last remnants of the Grande Armée finally escaping, large numbers of both armies dying from exposure before reaching suitable safety and shelter form the elements.

High drama, huge armies trying to find and fight each other, incredible suffering, all told by those who were there and went through it, all this gives us three incredible volumes that is indispensable for those interested in this grueling campaign. Note that later in 2000 Greenhill will be re-issuing all three books in a single volume (London: Greenhill, 2000. ISBN# 185367415X).

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

 

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