The Battle of the Berezina: Napoleon's Great Escape
The crossing of the Berezina was an event of epic proportions for its time and in the memories of its thousands of participants it evoked for almost a century a mixed sense of horror and loss. Despite the impact on the combined psyche of both sides of the conflict, it is probably one of the poorest documented military engagements of the 1812 Russian Campaign, with more being said of the human drama played out among the mass of civilians and stragglers, than the events leading up to the choosing of the site, the engineering miracle of building the bridges, or the dogged pursuit and tough resistance on both sides of the Berezina. However, this deficiency has finally been corrected by Dr. Mikaberidze, in his The Battle of the Berezina-Napoleon's Great Escape, where he provides for the first time a complete accounting of the events leading up to the crossing and battles at Zanivki, Brili and Studyanka on 26-28 November 1812.
Dr. Mikaberidze sets the stage for these engagements with an impressive background summary starting with souring of both Napoleon and Alexander to the terms of the Treaty of Tilsit and ending with the Saint-Petersburg Plan to ensnare Napoleon's Grande Armée before it can escape Russia. Included in this background is an inside glimpse into the Russian leadership bringing to bear the author's formidable knowledge on the subject (see his The Russian Officer Corps of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars). We learn here of the antagonism between the key players that will play so importantly in the failures and successes of Russia's grand strategy. The book follows with a campaign chronicle of events, concentrating on Admiral Chichagov's initial successes in and around Borisov, and expanding to include other characters as they gravitate to this area and the actions that resulted.
The author traces the successive arrivals of Oudinot, Victor with Wittgenstein on his heels, and Napoleon. Here the author takes time is to digress on the Grande Armée's retreat to that point and Kutusov's pursuit. As each new character is introduced, and further actions result, the time line slows and readers is treated to greater levels of details, so that by the time of the actual crossing we are given an almost hourly accounting of events. Dr. Mikaberidze brings to the reader an impressive collection of primary and secondary sources from a large number of nationalities on both sides to provide thumbnail sketches on the personalities, their motivations and their thought processes throughout the events and afterwards. He uses still more references to fill in the details on everything from the glowing scar on Murat's face in the cold to sounds of frozen tree limbs the size of a man falling to the ground from cannon fire.
During Oudinot's struggle with Chichagov at Borisov 18-22 November, the bridges were destroyed and with them the planned crossing point over the Berezina. With the imminent arrival of the Grande Armée, Wittgenstein and Kutusov, the French frantically began to find an adequate crossing site while the Russians equally sought to block it. Through the use of dozens of primary sources, Dr. Mikaberidze carefully demonstrates, how conflicting personalities, lack of communications, and at times shear circumstance led to the shifting of the Russian defenses south of Borisov; and through an equal set of circumstances, and some deception a crossing point was found and bridges built north of Borisov. While the great escape was often attributed to the sagacity of Bonaparte the author rightly shows that it belongs to his talented subordinates and the self sacrificing of the engineers, sappers and pontonniers of the Allied Forces. Even as the construction of two bridges begins, the Russians realized their mistake and the rush was now on to stop the crossing, on both sides of the Berezina with Chichagov approaching from the south and Wittgenstein (and later Kutusov's advance guard) from the east.
With the capture of the remains of Partouneaux's entire 12th Division, after its futile attempt to break out of Stary Borisov, it seemed certain that the meager combat forces left could not defend the crossing against two relatively fresh Russian armies. The various subplots, strands of information, and background come together in the author's recounting of the final battle (or more rightly battles) on the east and west banks of the Berezina on the 28th of November. All of the glory and valor, all of the shame and cowardice, all of the horror and sorrow, all of the joy and triumph are skillfully displayed, as if for the first time to the reader.
While Napoleonic apologist are quick to cite as a reason failure in 1812 being due to the large number of non-French in the Grande Armée, what one finds in the final battle for the crossing is that it was these other nationalities: Swiss, Poles, Dutch, Badenese, those from Berg and others that were entirely responsible for the triumph at Berezina. Despite lack of ammunition, many having not eaten in days, these Allied units fought until their total destruction to save the remains of the Grande Armée. The sad and glorious events of those days are still remembered as a point of national pride by the Swiss and Poles, with good reason. One of my favorite aspects of this book is its clear objectivity, presenting in most cases three or more accounts from both sides of the conflict on any matter of even remotely contentious matters, thereby allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions on, for instance the cowardice or bravery of the unfortunate Partouneaux or the incompetence or sagacity of Admiral Chichagov. The background information gently guides the reader to the historical truth of the events rather than trying to make attempting to present a personal or national bias (something particularly true of the primary sources available to date.) This books further introduces Western readers, in most cases for the first time, to a wealth of Russian and Eastern European sources both primary and secondary, adding to the credibility and veracity of his accounting.
Although Dr. Mikaberidze's book probably the only thorough history of this important action, that would be missing the very important fact that it undeniably one of the best researched and written history of any military engagement. While initially put off by the subject matter, as one dealing with a military disaster, such as Dunkirk, where the victory is bitter sweet, I found his skillful writing a pleasure to read, and hard to put down. I look forward to any future writings from this talented historian.
Reviewed by: Greg Gorsuch
Placed on the Napoleon Series: April 2010
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