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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > Books on military subjects

1812: Russia's Patriotic War

Spring, Laurence. 1812: Russia's Patriotic War. Stroud, Gloucestershire: The History Press, 2009. Hardcover, ISBN 9780752449944, 288 pages, 16 plates of illustrations. Index, bibliography and appendixes. $45.

In 2012 Europe will mark the 200th anniversary of Emperor Napoleon's fateful invasion of Russia which signaled the beginning of the end for his empire. In 2007, the Russian government established a special state commission, chaired by President D. Medvedev himself since early 2009, to supervise preparations for this anniversary, which promises to be one of the biggest of the bicentennial Napoleonic events. The Russian Campaign continues to draw attention of scholars and several publications on various aspects of this war appeared in recent years, including Adam Zamoyski's Moscow 1812: Napoleon's Fatal March (2005), this reviewer's Battle of Borodino (2007), and Stephan Talty's The Illustrious Dead (2009).[1] A new addition to this literature is Laurence Spring's book on the "Patriotic War of 1812," as the Russian Campaign of 1812 is known in Russia .  As the author states in his Author's Note, "There has been many books written on the 1812 campaign, but very few in English have looked at it from the Russian perspective." He, thus, embarks on filling this gap by writing primarily from the Russian point of view.

1812: Russia 's Patriotic War consists of twenty chapters. Chapter 1 outlines preparations to the war, Chapter 2 deals with the events in Vilna where Napoleon met Russian envoy Alexander Balashov, who was sent to negotiate with the invader. Chapters 2 and 3 follow the retreat of the Russian 1st and 2nd Armies while Chapters 5-7 concentrate on the failed Russian offensive at Smolensk and the subsequent battles for and around this city. Chapter 8 introduces the new Russian commander-in-chief Mikhail Illarionovich Golenishchev-Kutuzov, who took over the command of the armies in late August 1812. Chapters 9 and 10 discuss the battle at Borodino which failed to give Napoleon a decisive victory he was seeking. In Chapters 11 and 12, the author follows the Russian armies retreat and the famous council of war at Fili, where the Russian high command decided to abandon Moscow. In chapter 13 the reader will learn about the French occupation of Moscow while chapters 14 and 15 provide details on the northern and southern flanks which oftentimes receive limited attention in the studies of the Russian campaign. With Chapter 16, the book reaches the turning point of the campaign as the French suffer a defeat at Tarutino (18 October) and Napoleon decides to leave Russia and withdraw westward. The subsequent chapters 18 and 19 follow the Russian army's pursuit of the retreating Grand Armée and the battles at Maloyaroslavets, Vyazma, Krasnyi and the Berezina, while Chapter 20, entitled Russia is Saved!, concludes the campaign with the expulsion of the last remnants of Napoleon's army and Russian celebration of victory. There are four appendixes featuring orders of battle of the Russian armies (for June and December) and of opolchenye forces at Borodino, and a table of French losses compiled by a Russian intelligence officer in 1813.

The book incorporates dozens of memoirs of Russian participants as well as a few from the opposite side. It is full of numerous quotes from diaries, memoirs, letters and other sources that are translated from Russian and weaved into the narrative. Reading this book, the reader will be reminded of Paul Britten Austin's famous trilogy that provided a tantalizing look at the Russian Campaign through the eyes of soldiers and officers of the Grand Armée. Using dozens of Russian memoirs, Spring accomplishes the same task for the Russian army and he must be commended for this.

Yet, after completing this book, I was left with rather conflicting feelings about it.  It is an interesting book that will introduce an English-speaking audience to many Russian memoirs that have not been fully utilized until now. So the book does contribute to creating "a more balanced view of the campaign from the 'other side'." And compiling so many Russian accounts into one narrative should be of interest to anyone interested in this campaign.

1812: Russia 's Patriotic War oftentimes provides sweeping statements that gloss over important details or sacrifices analytical discussion in favor of quotes from memoirs. Thus in "Prelude to War," the author simply notes that "many Russian generals wanted an offensive war before Napoleon's European Army was ready and bombarded with their plans for occupying the Duchy of Warsaw so that, according to Bagration, 'the theater of war will leave the limits of our empire." Yet, none of these plans are discussed at any length, and the name of Lt. General Karl Ludwig Pfuel (author refers to him as "Phull") is only mentioned in passim (p. 19.)

The author tends to accept the contemporaries' memories at their face values, instead of putting them through a scholarly scrutiny, comparing and contrasting various accounts and secondary literature. Thus, Chapter 1 relies too much on the memoirs of Countess de Coiseul-Gouffier, although there are numerous documents and studies available on this issue. Chapter 15, which is about the Southern flank where Alexander Tormasov's 3rd Army of Observation fought the Austrians and Saxons, is just three pages long and provides nothing new on the Russian side, instead repeating generic information which can be easily gleaned from any previously published book. In it the author cites only five sources, and some of his quotes are not properly referenced. Thus, this reviewer could not find MG Vasili Vyazemsky's letters in the electronic edition of V. Vereshagin's book which is cited as the source, although Vyazemsky's journal has been published.[2]

Chapter 14 deals with the northern flank where Marshal Macdonald tried, unsuccessfully, to take control of the Baltic provinces while Marshal Oudinot clashed with General Wittgenstein in and around Polotsk. Macdonald's campaign is discussed in just a page, using reports of reports of a British rear admiral, while the two battles of Polotsk are covered in nine pages, of which five and half pages are a long excerpt from the memoir of Rafail Zotov, a junior officer in the St. Petersburg opolchenye. Although Zotov provides a vivid picture of the fighting, his viewpoint is rather limited and, like any other memoir, cannot be trusted as the main source for the battle. There are plenty of other sources on this battle – Wittgenstein's correspondence, official journals of military operations, memoirs of other participants and secondary studies, none of which are used in the book.

Similar problems exist throughout the book. Chapter 16, entitled Taruntino, spends less than four pages (out of fourteen) on the battle itself, and even then the battle account is rather sketchy, driven primarily by quotes from memoirs. Even if one accepts the argument that this book's main goal was to showcase the Russian human experiences of the war, the fact is that, in some case, the author failed to use many important memoirs that would have significantly improved his work. For example, Chapter 19 (on the Berezina Crossing) is primarily based on memoirs of Langeron and Rochechouart, with minor use of Ermolov, Wilson and Zotov. Missing are such interesting memoirs as those of Chichagov, Arnoldi, Czaplic, Falenberg, Khrapovitskii, Malinovskii, O'Rourke and Sukhetskii, which all contain valuable details on the Berezina events.

The book contains five maps of key battles ( Smolensk, Lubino/Valutina Gora, Borodino, Krasnyi and Berezina) but they are 19th century French maps which are reproduced at a small scale and are difficult to use in conjunction with the text.  The book also includes sixteen plates of illustrations, but captions for some of them contain mistakes. Image 1 on plate 11 is identified as "The Battle of Polotsk by P. Guesse," although it is I. Ivanov's "Expulsion of the enemy from Moscow by MG Ilovaisky IV's detachment of light cavalry on 10 October 1812." Caption for image 2 on the same plate refers to "Russian Cossacks re-entering Moscow…", although the image clearly shows Russian regular cavalry.

The book would have greatly benefited from a more rigorous copy-edit since it contains many poorly constructed sentences and format errors. For example, although Table of Content identifies chapter 3 as dealing with the 1st Western Army, turning to page 30, the reader will discover that this chapter is not numbered, chapter 4 is numbered as three, and chapter 5 as four; fortunately, after skipping on chapter 5, the numbering of subsequent chapters is correct. The book is also full of typos and inconsistent transliterations which may, at first, seem minor but gradually become rather annoying.

Chapter 9 refers to the battle of Shevandino, instead of Shevardino, while Chapter 16 is entitled Taruntino, instead of Tarutino. Throughout the book the reader will find such mistakes as Mayoslavets for Maloyaroslavets, Regnier for Reynier; Schwarzenburg for Schwarzenberg; Soltikov for Saltykov, Guesse for Hesse, Dorodino for Doronino, Galitzin for Golitsyn, Krasnoe for Krasnyi and numerous others. The same Russian names are often given both in Russian transliteration and Latin form. Russian regimental names are cited in at least two different versions, and a few of them are incorrect transliterations of original names. In fact, the author may not be fluent in Russian since time and again he fails to take into account conjugation of Russian words and translates them as they are.

The book also contains its share of mistakes and misstatements. To cite just a few examples: On Page 13, author contends that after years of believing he was infertile, Napoleon, in 1807, "met a young Polish countess, Marie Walewska, who became his mistress and on 4 May 1810 gave birth to their son… Napoleon realized that there was still a chance for a legitimate heir to carry on his dynasty and so he divorced Empress Josephine and began looking for a new wife" (13). Yet, Napoleon had a male offspring much earlier than that since he acknowledged Charles Leon, born in 1806, as his son. In addition, the author is mistaken about the sequence of events since Napoleon divorced Josephine in January 1810 and married (by proxy) Marie Louise in March 1810 (the author himself refers to this on p. 14), so the birth of Alexander Florian Joseph Walewski in May 1810 could not have been the cause of Napoleon's search for a new wife as the passage implies; on Pages 15, 19, etc. The author refers to Alexander Tormasov as the commander of the 3rd Western Army. However, in the first two months of the campaign, Tormasov was not commanding the 3rd Western Army (which did not exist at the time), but rather the 3rd Army of Observation (tretya obzervatsionnaya armiya). The 3rd Western Army was established in September 1812 as a result of a merger the 3rd Army of Observation and the Army of the Danube.

On page 19 – "The Russians believed that Napoleon had about 300,000 men in Central Europe" – it all depends who these "Russians" were. Some generals, who were not properly briefed, certainly believed in this number but not the Russian central command. In April 1812, the Russian intelligence knew that Napoleon had up to 450,000 men concentrated in the Duchy of Warsaw and Old Prussia. The author himself indicates on page 20 that Russian intelligence successfully infiltrated the French Ministry of War and "in 1811 knew where every French regiment in Europe was stationed." Michel Michel (p. 20), who had sold French military secrets to the Russians, had never served at the "General Staff of the French Army" but, as the records of his court martial state show, he worked in the bureau of the Ministry of War (bureau du ministere de la guerre). "Marshal St. Cyr" (p. 24) was still a general at the start of the campaign and earned his title after the first Battle of Polotsk in late August 1812. On page 25 – "Major Baron Woldemar von Lowenstern, who had served in the French Army in 1805…" – Löwenstern did not serve in the French army since he suffered from poor health and family problems (death of a child), and in his memoirs, he clearly states that "I took no part in this campaign" (vol. 1, p. 87) when discussing events of 1805. On page 39 – "General Carl Clausewitz" – Clausewitz was a lieutenant colonel in 1812, and received the rank of major general (in Prussian army) in 1818. And the list of mistakes continues …

The bibliography is incomplete and should have been more fairly titled a 'short' or 'select' bibliography since it does not include dozens of titles that the author cites in individual chapters. The author consulted some dated sources (i.e. Vereshagin, Bragin, etc.) yet virtually none of the recently published major works by such esteemed Russian historians as V. Bezotosnyi, A. Zemtsov, A. Popov, A. Vasiliev, L. Ivchenko, etc. who have reevaluated Russia's role in the 1812 Campaign. Chapter endnotes contain only short bibliographic references (i.e. "Valkovich and Kapitonov, Borodino, pp. 332-334") which an average reader may find difficult to identify since they are not included in bibliography.[3] Many quotes from Russian sources are in fact referenced to British newspapers or English-language sources. Thus, in chapter 3, Russian Army bulletins and Alexander' proclamation are cited from Edinburgh Evening Courant, Jackson's Oxford Journal and Robert Wilson's well-known work on 1812, instead of Russian sources. Similar problems exist in chapter 4, on the operations of the 2nd Western Army, where author relies on a journal of "Mr. Levy, the Englishman who was marching with the Russian Army," instead of reports of Ataman Matvei Platov and General Peter Bagration or memoirs of the Russian participants. Interestingly, the bibliography refers to an important collection of archival documents from the Russian State Military Historical Archive (RGVIA) but this reviewer could not find a single file from this collection cited anywhere in the book. This is quite disappointing since this collection contains official journals of military operations, hundreds of reports and letters of Russian commanders, army rosters and other important documents.

In final analysis, this is a flawed book but worthy of note. If you are interested in Russian human experiences of the war, you will certainly enjoy the fact that so many Russian accounts are brought together under "one roof," offering a counterpoint to more French-centered accounts. But if you are seeking a thorough analysis of the Patriotic War based on the Russian sources, this book is certainly not for you. In either case, the reader must be wary of the above-mentioned problems which diminish the book's overall value.

Reviewed by Alexander Mikaberidze.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: November 2009


[1] Adam Zamoyski, Moscow 1812: Napoleon's Fatal March ( New York: Harper Perennial, 2005); Alexander Mikaberidze, The Battle of Borodino: Napoleon against Kutuzov. Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2007; Stephan Talty, The Illustrious Dead: The Terrifying Story of How Typhus Killed Napoleon's Greatest Army ( New York: Crown Publishers, 2009).

[2] Vyazemsky, Vasily. "Zhurnal 1812 g." in 1812 god… Voennye dnevniki ( Moscow, 1990), 195-225 (available online at; S. Shumikhin, "Dnevnik (1803-1812) and pisma gen.-maiora Vyzemskogo," in Arkheograficheskii ezhegodnik ( Moscow, 1982).

[3] A. Val'kovich and A. Kapitonov, eds. Borodino: Dokumental'naya khronika. Moscow: ROSSPEN, 2004.


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