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Fighting for Napoleon’s Army in Russia: A POW’s Memoir

Fighting for Napoleon’s Army in Russia: A POW’s Memoir

Fighting for Napoleon’s Army in Russia: A POW’s Memoir

C J Wagevier, translated by Samuel de Korte

Pen & Sword Military (2023)

ISBN: 9781399089753

Pages: 208

On the frozen banks of the Berezina River, the last remnants of Napoleon’s once invincible Grande Armée fled like phantoms in the night from the encroaching Russian hosts. The little that remained of the once mighty Napoleonic war machine was only saved by dogged rearguard actions in the face of the biting cold of the Russian winter. Most histories of the 1812 campaign are content to leave the narrative there, essentially Napoleon escapes and abandons his army, so he can return to France and raise a new host for 1813. However, the Grande Armée not only left thousands of dead by the roadsides, but many would spend the final years of the Napoleonic Wars as prisoners. This translation of Captain Carel Jacob Wagevier’s memoirs is a great reminder of the men who were left behind. Wagevier’s account gives a glimpse of the aftermath of Napoleon’s campaign in Russia, recounting life as a POW in the heart of Russia, providing a fascinating insight into his captivity and perception of early 19th century Tsarist Russia.

Wagevier commanded the Grenadier company of the 125e Régiment d’infanterie de Ligne. This regiment was mostly composed of Dutch soldiers, who were formed into a French line regiment following the annexation of the Kingdom of Holland by Napoleon in 1810. The 125e formed part of Maréchal Claude Victor-Perrin’s IXe Corps d’armée, where they placed in the 12e Division under the command of Général Louis Partouneaux. During the final days of the retreat from Moscow, the 125e would be left with the 12e Division to guard the town of Borisov, allowing the rest of the army to escape. Fatally for Wagevier, Partouneaux’s orders meant he tarried too long at Borisov and his command was forced to surrender. This began Wagevier’s captivity in Russia where he would eventually end up in the depths of modern Tartarstan in the city of Menzelinsk.

Wagevier’s narrative published in 1820 is one of the earliest examples of memoir literature in Dutch and recounts his journey from Groningen, a city in the Netherlands, to the very heart of Russia. He provides a fleeting look at the final days of the Grande Armée, as Victor’s corps first aided Général Laurent de Gouvian Saint-Cyr’s retreat from Polotsk, before going on to serve as the rearguard of the army. The real meat of the text is Wagevier’s description of his journey through Russia following his incarceration. It provides a fascinating view of how POWs were treated in the early 19th century. In Wagevier’s case he was escorted deep into the heart of Russia and billeted on several households, ranging from merchants to lords along the way. He does not shy away from the many fights and beatings he received, particularly in the early days of his captivity when tempers where still frayed following the mass destruction left in the wake of the Napoleonic host, which had left scores of villages in flames and Moscow and Smolensk in ruins.

Despite general hostility towards Wagevier and his fellow prisoners, he demonstrated an ability to find a way to connect with many of his hosts, particularly the last family he was billeted with in Menzelinsk. Here he remained for most of his captivity until 1814 when the Tsar released the last of the Napoleonic POWs. During the intervening months of captivity, Wagevier provides vignettes of Russian and Tatar life under the Tsars, highlighting the often-brutal punishments meted out to the serfs, whilst juxtaposing this with descriptions of Tatar villages, and hunting trips in the local fields.

Wagevier’s memoir forms an interesting mixture of military memoir and travelogue, with the ever-present feeling of powerlessness experienced by POWs consistently at the forefront of his narrative. His text gives an invaluable insight into the lives of the many thousands of POWs who endured and, in many instances, died in captivity in Russia following Napoleon’s failed invasion. A poignant reminder of the many who would not return can be found in the appendix, where the translator Samuel de Korte, has included the letters of Colonel Frederik Hendrik Wagner, also of the 125e, to his wife Bernadina Albers. While Wagner’s letters have none of the vivid descriptions of battlefields, their very mundane fears for debts unpaid, or Bernadina’s pregnancy, leaves the reader with the very human face of a man who unlike Wagevier, would never return to the Netherlands and instead would die in captivity. This translation of Wagevier’s memoirs is a great addition to the growing body of first-hand accounts from 1812 being translated for an anglophone audience.

Owen Davis

January 2024