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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > Memoirs

Memoirs of the Napoleonic Wars. Russian Voices of the Napoleonic Wars, Vol. III.

Yermolov, Alexey. Memoirs of the Napoleonic Wars. Russian Voices of the Napoleonic Wars, Vol. III. Translated by Alexander Mikaberidze. Tbilisi, Georgia: Napoleonic Society of Georgia, 2011. 253 p. ISBN # 9781105258183. Paperback. $15.99.

This is the third in a six-volume series of translations commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Napoleonic Wars, and dedicated to giving voice to Russian authors previously not translated into English.  Alexey Yermolov was a Russian noble who entered the military in 1787 serving in the infantry, cavalry and artillery prior to being exiled for political intrigues against Emperor Paul in 1799.  On Paul's assassination in 1801 Yermolov was pardoned by Emperor Alexander I, although denied his previous rank and given command of a horse artillery company as a major.  His talents in this arm were shown throughout the period of 1801-1807 ultimately leading to command of the Guard Artillery in 1811.  His career significantly changed in 1812 when he was made Chief of Staff of the 1st Western Army.  During the 1812 Campaign he participated in several major battles, was wounded at Borodino, took command of part of the vanguard in the pursuit of Napoleon before finally being recalled to the main headquarters in December 1812.  Although it is unclear from the translator when his memoirs (Zapiski) were written or published they are broken into three parts covering his early life, the Napoleonic Wars and his later service in the Caucasus.  They were published posthumously (he died in 1861) in two volumes.  This publication covers Yermolov's early life and the years of 1801-1812, although Dr. Mikaberidze preceded this book with The Czar's General: The Memoirs of a Russian General in the Napoleonic Wars (ISBN# 9781905043057) which came out through Ravenhall Books in 2005. 

Unlike the first book in the series (Pushin) which might be described as a personal journal, or the second in the series (Radozhitskii) which might be described as a Gothic novel written in the first person, this book is closest to what I would call a modern military history.  It is a well balanced blend of fact, observations and analysis.  His dates, numbers and timelines are generally correct and correlate well with modern histories.  One wonders whether Yermolov kept an ongoing journal, whether he consulted official documents or whether modern histories adopted his facts in the absence of any other accounts.  While one might be skeptical of some of the numbers of captured prisoners or enemy killed (which seem to be rounded up) his facts when it comes to cannons seem very accurate, as you would expect from an artilleryman; this is especially true in his description of the 1806-7 Polish Campaigns.  Interestingly, Yermolov never loses this eye for artillery pieces even during the 1812 pursuit of Napoleon cataloging almost every cannon he sees along the way.  There are many intriguing facts and details that the Western reader will not find elsewhere, even in the other books of this series.  For instance Yermolov's and Prince Yashvil's horse artillerymen were honored for their service in the Polish Campaign by being given a special embroidered badge to be worn on their uniforms; the Russians employed a technique of throwing ropes across a river, covering it with wet hay that froze making a foot bridge; at one point in his attempt to regain the Great Redoubt at Borodino Yermolov threw handfuls of medals of the Military Order of St. George forward so his troops went after them.

Yermolov had the good fortune to have been present, observed and recorded many seminal events of the Napoleonic Wars.  His reporting of the Russian Army during the ill fated Austerlitz, Eylau and Friedland Campaigns were of particular interest and provide a wealth of facts unseen in Western accounts of these battles.  While certainly biased towards the Russians efforts, there is far less "gilding of the rose" than found in other personal accounts of the same period, such as Sir Robert Wilson.  In the 1812 Campaign leading up to the capture of Moscow, Yermolov's position as Chief of Staff places him in meetings, encounters and battles that give the reader probably the most omniscient view of the Russian's side of the campaign.  He sees and records everything from the infighting among various Russian generals to the actual fighting for the Great Redoubt where he was hit in the neck with shrapnel and carried from the fight unconscious.  His observations are illuminating to many aspects of the Napoleonic Wars that left Western authors puzzled in the fifty odd years following them.   Who burned down Moscow, why did Napoleon not retreat from Moscow on a more southern route, how did Napoleon elude a faster moving better supplied Russian Army in his retreat?  Probably most startling to the Western reader is the enormous self defeating infighting, petty squabbles, and outright sabotage that took place within the Russian Army times it is often difficult to understand how they defeated Napoleon at all.  Unlike Pushin, whose observations were passive and dispassionate, Yermolov seemed bent upon placing himself in best possible position to see how things were going, this is particularly true with the 1812 Campaign, where disgusted with the political intrigues at the headquarters and seemingly the "relaxed" approach of Kutuzov in pursuing Napoleon, Yermolov joins the vanguard trying to destroy the enemy.  Unlike Pushin who was safely in the rear with the Guard, or Radozhitskii whose accounts seem second hand from the partisans, Yermolov describes countless small actions against the French and their allies.

Far more than Pushin and Radozhitskii, Yermolov attempts to analyze the events around him.  While "everyone has 20/20 vision in hindsight", Yermolov goes beyond the obvious and critically looks at both Russian and French strategy and tactics.  He notes what artillery tactics work best, how skirmishers and light troops should best be employed, weakness in various defensive emplacements, and on and on.  On the strategic level he has something to say about all the major campaigns he participated in.  But Yermolov finds his true calling in the analysis of people.  He has both good and bad to say about almost all important figures of the Napoleonic Wars and some not so important figures.  His personal criticisms were to become legend and were to lead him to gain as many enemies as admirers.  His very dry and deadpan humor often had me rereading passages, only to discover he was trying to be funny.  In retrospect he is terribly witty and it must have been a delight to read in Russian.  As an intimate to so much to the Napoleonic Wars, it is hard to believe that his memoirs are not consulted or quoted more frequently.  He provides such spot on analysis of Emperors, Field Marshals and Generals that he could easily be a psychologist.

It is hard to review all that was found in Yermolov, but before closing there needs to be mention of the outstanding foot notations in this volume.  Not only has the translator provided Yermolov's often cutting and always insightful footnotes, but Dr. Mikaberidze has gone out of his way to provide additional material.  The translator's additional material was very helpful, well researched and expertly presented.  This material makes this book a treasure for the Napoleonic Wars historian and a must have, must read document.

The book can be purchased here: Alexey Yermolov's Memoirs

Reviewed by Greg Gorsuch

Placed on the Napoleon Series: December 2012