Reviews: Reference Books



The Russian Officer Corps in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, 1792-1815

Mikaberidze, Alexander.  The Russian Officer Corps in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, 1792-1815. N.Y.: Savas Beatie, 2005. 480 pages. ISBN# 1932714022.  Hardcover. $64.95.

The Russian Officer Corps in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, 1792-1815

Also mentioned:

Zhmodikov, Alexander and Yurii. Tactics of the Russian Army in the Napoleonic Wars . 2 vols. West Chester, OH: Nafziger, 2003. $19.95.

Ermolov, Aleksiei Petrovich. The Czar's General, The Memoirs of a Russian General in the Napoleonic Wars. Translated and edited by Alexander Mikaberidze. Welwyn Garden City: Ravenhall Books, 2005. 252 Pages. ISBN# 1905043058. Hardcopy. $34.95/ £19.99

"The relation of the men who command to those they command", wrote Tolstoy in War and Peace, "is what constitutes the essence of the conception called power." Few students of the Napoleonic era doubt the power of the Russian army. It delivered a decisive blow to French in 1812. But the workings of that victorious force remain a mystery even to those who have studied the period for years, unless they are educated enough to speak Russian and fortunate enough to have access to a library of largely forgotten books.

National stereotypes undoubtedly play their role informing the scant knowledge that people have of the tsar's army. The stolid muzhik, or peasant, embodies the Russian soldier for many readers: simple, loyal, untroubled by complex thoughts, unyielding, tough to a point that baffles foreigners. Of their leaders, we are less certain; indeed it is to Tolstoy and his epic novel as much as any other source that the average western European or American forms an impression of the life of Russian aristocracy and the officer corps it spawned.

Alexander Mikaberidze's work on the Russian officer corps provides the most important contribution to our understanding of that group ever published in English. It will inevitably become a standard reference for serious students of that army and indeed the Napoleonic period.

The first part of Dr. Mikaberidze's book is a statistical analysis of the tsar's officer corps. Clearly there was some impressive official record-keeping since, in the case of the British officer class, I do not believe a similar analysis would be possible.

What emerges from this section is a picture of an officer corps stuffed with those claiming aristocratic birth – 86.5% in fact. Clearly the army was seen by the landed class as the place to warehouse the sons of obscure branches of their family; young boys who would inherit nothing, were often ill-educated, but could not go into professions deemed beneath them. As Dr. Mikaberidze points out, "many Russian officers lived in poverty." The statistics show that three quarters of them in 1812 owned no land or serfs, making do instead with their meagre army pay. What was more, there were far more young gentlemen of this description looking for meaningful employment than there were commissions in the army, so a great many enlisted as non-commissioned officers or even, particularly in the Guards, in the ranks, with some waiting years to be raised from their humble stations.

These desperate circumstances undoubtedly bred desperate men – young ensigns or captains who could be relied upon to present themselves in the hope of advancement when some desperate, or indeed foolhardy, enterprise was being contemplated. As this study points out, many of them had only the most basic education, a widespread ignorance that led Russia 's eighteenth century rulers to rely heavily on foreigners in the higher command of their forces. The numbers diminished a little in the early nineteenth century but were still sufficiently great for tensions to break out into open hostility between the Russians and foreigners during the retreat to Moscow.

As for the individual circumstances of senior officers those are covered in the main part of this work, which consists of 800 biographies. In providing this unique collection of personal details the author will gratify the many aficionados of the period who find themselves reading about a particular battle and want to know more, whether it be about the man who led the Russian cavalry at Hoff in 1807 or the infantry of the Guards at Kulm in 1813.

This book will also help disentangle the similarly named officers engaged in different battles, for example the six general Rosens. The author's treatment of the subject is sufficiently thorough that even entries on the more familiar figures, like the Cossack General Matvei Platov, contain much interesting information. I was aware that he had caused a sensation when visiting London after the wars, but not that he had been awarded an honorary doctorate by Oxford University! Perhaps it was for contribution to the science of asset stripping.

Given the long term usefulness of a reference work like this, it is entirely understandable that the publishers have produced it expensively as a well-illustrated hardback. The same is true of the author's edition of General Alexey Yermolov's autobiography, "The Czar's General", which fills the gap often expressed by enthusiasts for a memoir in English by a senior Russian figure in the campaigns against Napoleon. Yermolov's reflections on the failure of Austerlitz interested me in particular – but with a career that included leading the recapture of the Grand Redoubt at Borodino, as well as taking part in the battles of Krasni and Lutzen one could hardly have hoped for an officer with a more interesting career.

When one adds Dr Mikaberidze's recent publications to the Zhmodikovs' work on Russian tactics in this period, it all amounts to a huge change in the amount of information available to the English-speaking reader. Certainly, Tactics of the Russian Army in the Napoleonic Wars , is a also must-read for students of Napoleonic warfare. It harvests vital detail from hundreds of battle accounts (mostly in Russian) to present a fascinating picture of the Russian army's attempts to adapt to the French challenge. I can only think that assembling this wealth of information was an epic labour of love. We can be grateful to George Nafziger for publishing it, but I just hope that it is re-published in a proper hardback edition instead of the current 'samizdat' paper version because it too deserves to be consulted for decades to come.

 In sum our understanding of who the men who defeated Napoleon in Russia were, what they thought, and how they did it has been expanded greatly by these books.

Reviewed by Mark Urban. 2/07.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: January 2007                

 

 

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