Reviews: Military Books

1812: The March on Moscow

Austin, Paul Britten. 1812: The March on Moscow. South Yorkshire, UK: Frontline Books, Pen & Sword, 2012. (Repr. of Greenhill Books, Lionel Leventhal, Great Britain, 1993.) 416 pages. ISBN# 978848327047. Paperback. $24.95.

This is the first of two books reprinted in paperback in 2012 dealing with the advance of the Grand Army on and occupation of Moscow in 1812.  This is the penultimate first hand accounting of the 82 day journey of Napoleon's Allied army from the Niemen River to the entry of Moscow in 1812.  Using over 100 firsthand accounts from almost every country in Europe (France, Holland, Switzerland, Bavaria, Prussia, etc.) who survived the campaign, Paul Britten Austin ingeniously combines their stories to form one chronological narrative allowing the reader to be with everyone and in all places during this three month period.  Well, almost everyone, as the author points out he has not bothered to reflect on the advance from the Russian point of view (for which I would direct anyone wanting this to see Dr. Mikaberidze's excellent, Russian Voices of the Napoleonic Wars series).

As Leo Tolstoy points out, one can never know what happens in battle, least of all the participants who are limited by their own perspectives.  Paul Austin, however has come close with this book, by providing the reader with a "preponderance of evidence" from the eyewitnesses to history.  The book provides both ample details of facts that support the best modern military analysis of the campaign as well as some tantalizing facts which suggest reasons for events and results overlooked by military historians.  Perhaps most persuasively, the author, through his eyewitnesses, presents the case that Napoleon's Grand Army was beaten long before the bloody battle of Smolensk, perhaps even before they crossed the Niemen River.  What is shown of the Grand Army is a multicultural, multilingual, dissimilarly-motivated group, largely inexperienced to the rigors of campaign, malnourished and exhausted by ceaseless forced marches through a hostile, alternatively scorching and freezing, arid and drenched landscape, devoid of the abundance of Western Europe.  The situation of the starving, depleted and diseased army at Vitebsk is only exasperated by the Russian scorched earth policy.  While the presentation of the beaten Grand Army before Smolensk is not new, the author provides probably the most authentic segue to Napoleon's continued advance, as most if not all eyewitnesses seemed to see that the calculated risk of moving on to gain supplies to either winter over or fight another battle as the better alternative to heading back into the Lithuanian/Polish wasteland.

The grand battles of Smolensk and Borodino are given greater detail than ever before by the eyewitnesses.  Small and large facts are thrown at the reader in the chaotic randomness of battle itself.  For those seeking "color," to otherwise drab military history, here we have Technicolor.  Unlike any one memoir, which might give a boring account of sitting on a horse waiting for action, here the reader is everywhere at once...fruitlessly trying to take down the Medieval walls of Smolensk with twelve-pounders to the "spectacle of marvelous beauty" as Smolensk burns...from the evacuation and seizure of Borodino village by the 92nd Line to the death rattles of Lariboisière's young son, all the horror and drama of war is there.  Small comfort, the humor of little observations such as whether some bread is edible after being splashed with a friends' brains.  An interesting aside suggested for the high proportion of senior officers killed at Borodino comes from Austin's presentation of the numbers before the battle  that Laugier (La Grande Armée: Récits de Césare de Laugier) records as 103,000 infantry, 30,000 cavalry, 587 guns records, that showed such a high survival rate of officers versus enlisted after the journey to Borodino.  For instance of Ney's 12 Württemberg battalions only 1,450 have survived to that point but almost every officer is among them.  There were so many officers that the entire officer corps was formed and the excess sent back into the ranks.  As one account notes, "At least they'd been able to afford to buy a little food, even if at fantastically inflated prices.  An officer doesn't have to carry a heavy haversack, and he rides a horse. " But riding horses is the least privilege, as many if not all senior officers have one or more carriages, servants and other entourages.”  So many so that Napoleon himself must demand that examples be set as they had slowed the advance to a crawl at times.             

For those who enjoy firsthand accounts, interesting factoids, and martial color this book is certainly a must.  However, as Austin warns himself it does not reflect on the Russian point of view, nor is it strictly speaking a military history devoted to orders of battle, tactics or strategy of the type so popular among the "war-gamer."  He does not, for reasons of space, follow corps other than Napoleon's immediate strike force with even the II and IV Corps operations being summarized.  Unlike many historians, he also does not "ascribe to my protagonists thoughts or feelings they have not themselves put on record.”  But most importantly to me, he leaves it to the reader to evaluate, except occasionally in the notes, the accuracy of the eyewitnesses' memories, or how much of it was hindsight.  He does make the point of avoiding the most obviously biased or exaggerated by simply not drawing on those accounts or those parts of the accounts he uses.  As for his notes, they represent a book in themselves and add reality and perspective, as well as additional historical details unknown to the eyewitnesses.

The most difficult part of reading this book is assimilation of so much detail.  The panorama is breathtaking and epic in proportion, and like any epic cinema it will no doubt need to be seen again and again before it can fully be appreciated.  The natural impulse on reading this book is to go to the accounts themselves, however, Austin has treated us to a sequel dealing with the occupation of Moscow where the same individuals recount the brief and confused stay before the great retreat.  While the Napoleonic Wars enthusiast may have read dozens of accounts and histories of the frozen retreat to the Berezina, this book uniquely brings us to the high water mark of the Empire.  I would greatly recommend for any library.

Reviewed by Greg Gorsuch
Placed on the Napoleon Series: May 2013

 

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