Berezina 1812: Napoleon’s Hollow Victory
Osprey Publishing (2022) (Campaign Series CAM 383)
Colour illustrations throughout, including battle scene artworks, maps, 3D diagrams and photographs.
Berezina 1812 is the latest release from Osprey Publishing covering the Napoleonic era. It brings together two expert sources – Osprey respected for its great campaign introductions through their Campaign series and Professor Alexander Mikaberidze whose work on the Napoleonic era includes translations of Russian accounts from the 1807, 1812 and 1814 campaigns, which bring the experience of Russian soldiers to life. This invaluable contribution has enabled the Russian perspective to be made available to an English-speaking audience, bridging the fog of war that shrouded some English accounts of the 1812 campaign as these have tended to focus on the French perspective. This duo’s approach has produced an excellent introduction to the latter days of Napoleon’s 1812 campaign, where the last remnants of his Grande Armée attempted to flee the slowly closing jaws of Field Marshal, Prince Mikhail Kutuzov’s pursuing Russian forces.
Mikaberidze introduces the reader to the context of the invasion providing a rough outline of the events leading up to Napoleon’s retreat to the Berezina River. The text really shines through Mikaberidze’s clear descriptions of the campaign movements of the main protagonists and his judicious selection of first-hand accounts that work to bring the narrative from a strategic overview to the smoke and fire of the front line. The accounts selected show the diversity of the participants of the 1812 campaign, including Russian and French first-hand material and on the Napoleonic side, accounts from Dutch, Polish and Swiss soldiers, ranging from generals to foot soldiers, including an account from an actress caught up in the retreat.
This range of perspectives allow Mikaberidze to discuss not just the Napoleonic army but also the machinations taking place in the Russian high command. He includes the animosity between Admiral Pavel Chichagov, sent to block Napoleon, and Count Peter Wittgenstein, who had been pursuing the French from Polotsk, (in modern day Belarus). Just as Napoleon’s drive to escape helped set the tone and desperate need to construct the bridges across the river Berezina, so too did in-fighting in the Russian general staff. Animosity between the generals, led to a lack of support from Wittgenstein, while Kutuzov’s slow pursuit of the Napoleonic army, compounded the lack of central command and control, allowing Napoleon and the remaining core of his soldiers to escape Chichagov’s army.
The text is supported by an excellent selection of maps and of course Osprey’s signature prints, produced by Adam Hook. The maps included showcase the strategic movement of the French and Russian armies, and the tactical operations on both the left and right banks of the Berezina, including the breakout attempt by Marshal Nicolas Oudinot and the active defence against Wittgenstein, led by Marshal Claude-Victor Perrin. Additionally, the prints produced by Hook, showcase some little-known events such as Lieutenant Thomas Legler’s efforts to lead the 1st Swiss Regiment against the soldiers of Major-General Yefim Czaplic’s force sent to block the French advance.
This book is an excellent introduction to the end of Napoleon’s army and the final days of the 1812 campaign. Mikaberidze’s text pairs wonderfully with the selections of prints and maps produced by Osprey to create another great addition to the Campaign series.