Reviews: Military Books


With Napoleon in Russia: The Illustrated Memoirs of Major Faber du Faur 1812

Faber du Faur, Christian Wilhelm von.  With Napoleon in Russia: The Illustrated Memoirs of Major Faber du Faur 1812. Edited and translated by Jonathan North.  Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2001. ISBN# 1853674540. 208 pages.  $80

 

'Never Despair While Brave Men Remain with the Colors'


With Napoleon in Russia

There is only one word to describe this monumental work, and that is, 'Magnificent.'  Editor and translator Jonathan North has done the Napoleonic community a great service with this superb edition, and Greenhill has once again triumphed, clearly demonstrating that it is the leader in publishing things Napoleonic.  In short, this is the best piece of Napoleonic scholarship published since Col. John Elting's monumental Napoleonic Uniforms, Volumes III and IV in May of 2000.

 This memoir is a gold mine of information.  Not only is the written memoir included, but also 93 colored paintings done by Faber du Faur, plus the drawings from which those paintings developed.  It covers the author’s participation in the Russian campaign of 1812 in full color, and covers it from muzzle to butt plate.

Faber du Faur was a lieutenant in the Württemberg horse artillery assigned to Ney's III Corps, in the Württemberg 25th Division.  Ney mentioned the Württemberg horse artillery as being as good as, or better, than their French counterparts, and this is high praise indeed, as the French artillery arm was considered the best in the world at the time.

Faber du Faur was there from the first, crossing the Nieman with his battery, through the long march to Moscow, fighting at Smolensk and Valutino, and on to Borodino.  In Moscow, he saw all the bitterness of the fire (deliberately set by the half-insane mayor of the city before the French came in), the helpless plight of the Russian civilians, and the beginnings of the great and terrible retreat.  He chronicles the dissolution of the army along its route of march out of Russia, and all the horror of the crossing of the Berezina. 

He also notes with pride the successes the Grande Armee achieved, terming several of them 'glorious', as well as the problems encountered both on the way in and the retreat out of Russia.  He also notes how the remnants of the Grande Armee fought their way out of the trap at the Berezina, the stern, greatly respected Eble building his bridges as the army fought its way through Tshitshagov’s army on the other side of the river.

Faber du Faur's anecdotes and narrative are fascinating.  Describing an artillery fight outside the walls of Smolensk, he describes the ricochet fire of the Russian artillery and how it was successfully dodged by the Württemberg gunners.  What amazed them, and that hadn’t been taken into account, was, because they had the city walls behind them, the roundshot bounced off the walls and came back at them, causing some casualties.  The narrative of the Württemberg infantry fairly rescuing Murat and defeating the Russian cavalry is dramatic and lively.  The color plates that accompany these two descriptions are among the best of the collection.

The author's depiction of the French and allied troops is interesting.  The French infantry is pictured in the pre-1812 uniforms, settling that long argument, and his depiction of horses and gun teams is also excellent, the detail of the horse harness particularly noteworthy.  Two other interesting pictorials are of great interest.  Napoleon is pictured no less than four times, and in no picture is he painted as being stout.  That flies in the face of conventional wisdom, and Faber du Faur doesn't seem to be one to flatter unnecessarily.  The other interesting picture is of a carabinier in campaign uniform, which is light blue instead of white, which was the undress uniform.

The paintings pull no punches, nor does the narrative.  Losses are always described as heavy and debilitating (the death of the able, respected Gudin of Davout's I Corps is mentioned at the Battle of Valutino).  The more gruesome side of warfare, death and civilian suffering, are also pictured throughout the text, the pictures of the aftermath of Borodino being particularly gruesome.  The recurring theme of hunger throughout the campaign is interesting, as this was one of the areas in which Napoleon carefully planned before the invasion.

Another item is of great interest.  In one of the paintings of the fighting in and around Smolensk there is an excellent rendering of troops fighting in skirmish order.  The infantry are fighting in pairs, their officer and his drummer behind them controlling the action.  This is textbook open order fighting and is interesting as both an observation and a testament.

One last observation of many caught my eye as I carefully went through the memoir.  One of the paintings has Napoleon on foot with a group of staff officers.  Behind them with shouldered arms are two Old Guard grenadiers (curiously with white instead of red plumes on their bearskins) who tower over the officers and their Emperor.  If this is an accurate record, and there is no doubt in my mind that it is, they truly were big men, appearing even taller in their large bearskin caps.

This version of Faber du Faur's memoir is a true tour de force, and one that will remain a standard reference for years to come.  It is an immense achievement.  It belongs on the bookshelves of all historians, wargamers, collectors of militaria and modellers, as well as all students of this fascinating period.  This volume has added greatly to our knowledge of the period and it is one of the best books on the Russian campaign available.  This volume is enthusiastically recommended for all and sundry, and if you don’t add it to your library/collection, you are missing out on both a visual treat, and a serious history of the Russian campaign.

Reviewed by Kevin Kiley
Placed on the Napoleon Series: September 2001

 

 

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