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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > Memoirs

In the Service of the Tsar Against Napoleon - The Memoirs of Denis Davidov, 1806 - 1814

By Denis Davidov
Translated and edited by Gregory Troubetzkoy

London: Greenhill Books, 1999. 214 pages. ISBN#1-85367-373-0. Hardcover.

In the Service of the Tsar cover

Denis Davidov was a hussar officer who became a partisan and Russian hero during Napoleon's 1812 invasion of Russia. He wrote his memoirs in 1814 from the notes that he had kept during his military career. Davidov was a colorful and romantic figure who was in his element charging saber in hand, but he was also a well-known poet, an authority on the theory of warfare and a successful ladies man among many other things. He was the inspiration for Denisov, the devil-may-care character in Tolstoy's War and Peace.

Gregory Troubetzkoy has divided Davidov's memoirs in several chapters. In the first Davidov tells us in great detail how in 1793, when only seven years old, he met his hero, General Suvurov, a meeting that had a great effect on him. The next chapter describes his first campaign, the 1807 campaign against Napoleon. He tells us how, as a young adjutant to Prince Bagration eager to distinguish himself in battle, he attempted to defeat the entire French vanguard with a handful of cavalry and Jägers and of his close escape from capture or death. The third chapter is very interesting because Davidov describes the Battle of Eylau from a Russian point of view. He describes vividly the great slaughter that took place in this battle during the French infantry attacks and the charge of the French Cavalry. Chapter four gives us an eyewitness account of the peace talks at Tilsit between Napoleon and Tsar Alexander. On this occasion Davidov found himself eye to eye with Napoleon, an encounter which he describes in great detail, down to the color of the Emperor's hair and eyes. In chapter five we find Denis Davidov in Finland where he serves as a staff officer during the invasion of Finland and the defeat of the Swedes.

When Napoleon invades Russia in 1812 Lieutenant Colonel Davidov is in command of the 1st Battalion of the Akhtyrka Hussar Regiment. He soon realizes however that he can be more useful to his country as a partisan leader than as a simple hussar can so he asks for a separate command. With five officers, 50 hussars and 80 Cossacks under his orders, Davidov sets out to become a partisan. He uses his small band, which grows very fast into an effective partisan force of all arms, to raid and harass the French all the way to Moscow and back. He tells us about his various engagements with the French, from small and short skirmishes to full-fledged battles. We can read in numerous other memoirs how the Russian partisans made life difficult for the French, how they always hovered around their retreating army and how the Cossacks dealt with stragglers and foraging parties. Davidov tells us how it was for these Cossacks and how much damage and pain they caused the French with their hit and run tactics. In the next chapter of his memoirs, Davidov, after having read Napoleon's notebooks in 1830, goes through great lengths to refute Napoleon's statements in which he minimizes the impact of Russian partisan attacks on the Grande Armée. Davidov's memoirs end with a chapter on the War of Liberation in Germany (1813-1814) and the occupation of Dresden in which he played a major role.

Gregory Troubetzkoy and Greenhill Books are to be commended for providing this translation and I hope that many others will follow their example and provide us with more translations of Russian memoirs and documents. I think it is important to also know the Russian side of the Napoleonic Wars to give us the full picture instead of just the one-sided French picture that we are used to. If you want to know both sides of the story then In the Service of the Tsar Against Napoleon is a must have for your private library.

Reviewed by Fons Libert, FINS