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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > Books on military subjects

1812 Napoleon in Moscow

Austin, Paul Britten 1812 Napoleon in Moscow, Greenhill Books, Lionel Leventhal Limited, Great Britain, 1995. Paperback edition, Frontline Books, Pen & Sword Books Ltd, South Yorkshire, United Kingdoms, 2012. 264. ISBN # 978-84832-703-0.

This is the second of two books reprinted in paperback in 2012 dealing with the advance of the Grand Army on and the occupation of Moscow in 1812.; This is the first hand accounting of the approximately 40 day period from the entry of Napoleon's Allied army into Moscow until the fateful decision about 25 October 1812 to retrace its path from Smolensk which had been left devastated just a month before. Paul Britten Austin continues the combined chronological narrative of over 100 firsthand accounts from almost every country in Europe (France, Holland, Switzerland, Bavaria, Prussia, etc.) who survived the campaign, satisfying the most ardent admirer of personal memoires and primary source documentation.; Like its predecessor the book is an outstanding source of color and detail unavailable in standard histories of the events. ;;

As in his previous excellent book on the march to Moscow, Britten has provided an overwhelming number of eye witnesses to events making this probably the finest history of the events within Moscow in the Fall of 1812.; While the author has only included accounts taken from those on the French side of the conflict, their sole presence within Moscow and in surrounding area lend a clearer picture of the events, than those who could only guess on events based upon the information of informants or other histories.; He does, at times, go to some lengths to tie the stories to previously controversial historic points.; His accounts and analysis, for instance, of the burning of Moscow, is quite complete and the provided maps of the city give a nice overview of the distribution of the damage and movements of persons through the days of arson and looting.; Perhaps many have puzzled over the seeming inactivity of the French for a month in Moscow based simply on the lack of major battles, however, what we find is that Napoleon continues to work his usual 20 hour days managing the campaign, the governance of his Empire, and his personal affairs, while every cog of the great machinery of the Allied army is straining to treat and evacuate wounded, foraging for supplies, building ovens for bread, stockpiling of ammunition, the upgrading and building of defenses for Moscow.; The tremendous activity during those days often works against itself due to the contradictory feelings of whether the army will winter over, advance on Saint-Petersburg, or strike south to Turkey and India as some imagined.; Even though we know from history the futility of these efforts there is still a mounting tension as the strangle hold on Moscow tightens, supplies become short and panic over the increasingly untenable position becomes apparent to everyone.

For those inclined to human interest stories of the occupation, the book is replete with minutiae of interpersonal interactions with various inhabitants of Moscow, episodes of humor and culture in the bizarre graveyard of a city.; Britten's correspondents do a fine job in describing the unheard of landscape of a partially burned out city devoid of any inhabitants.; In this "post-apocalyptical"; environment the Allied army eventually finds released convicts, foreigners from all over Europe, and the servants of many rich families, left behind to care for their city mansions and host the French in their absence.; The often tragic circumstances of those left behind in Moscow is seen only at a glance in this hectic month, with many foreign inhabitants finding themselves suddenly indispensible to the Allied army (as seamstresses, laundresses, translators, performers, and companions) only to fall to an unknown fate while being left in the city or perhaps leaving with the army.; The accounts of the miles wide column of new camp followers on the evacuation of the city are dramatic and pathetic at the same time.; It is not surprising for those familiar with Napoleon's custom of establishing a fully functioning "palace" wherever he went, to see the Kremlin transformed and to find Moscow's surreal short lived eastern "Paris" with regular cultural performances, balls, and concerts.;; This book might also be of interest to historians interested in the architecture, furnishings and lay out of pre-occupation and fire Moscow, as there are many interesting accounts of town homes and estates prior to their destruction.

For those exclusively interested in military matters there is ample accounting of small and large unit combat.; The hit and run tactics of the peasant partisans and Cossacks is well represented as swarms of marauders roam freely within plain sight of the Allied outposts, making it harder and harder to move without larger and larger escorts.; The informal and frequent "understandings" between Murat's advance guard and the Russians ultimately leading to the messy and disastrous Battle of Tarutino, where the author of the disaster is also the savior of the Allied Army.; Through a number of different angles we see the complicated psychological struggle which may well have been the leading contributor to Napoleon's indecision to leave Moscow in a timely manner.; While Murat clearly sees the increasing threat, he cannot and will not reveal to Napoleon his inability to deal with it, this same personal vanity and ego meanwhile is played upon by the Russians as well as Napoleon who really doesn't want there to be a problem.; Although many observers can see the mounting threats, no one seems unable to unravel the complicated web of half-truths and lies that they have been living within for a month.

Perhaps the best covered and most interesting combat is the singular Battle of Malojaroslavetz where Prince Eugène's tiny, mostly Italian force of 20,000 fights to a standstill 9 Russian divisions of 80,000.; This is military history of epic proportions and Britten's fluid accounting makes it a delight to read.; Rather than the usual disjointed nature of eye witnesses filling in their portion of events, Britten has done a marvelous job in making the battle seamless.; While Napoleon was not personally in command, this action must rank as one of the most triumphant of the campaign.

For those who enjoy firsthand accounts, interesting factoids, and martial color this book is certainly a must.; However, as Austin warns himself it does not reflect on the Russian point of view, however he has

placed the reader in the Russian army (mostly in his account of Malojaroslavetz) by including quotes from Sir Robert Wilson, a British military observer.; For those familiar with Sir Robert there is nothing new to his subjective comments, and Britten gives full warning to those unfamiliar.; For those interested in the Russian view point I would highly recommend the "Russian Voices of the Napoleonic Wars" translated by Alexander Mikaberidze which provide in many ways the same span of viewpoints in the other authors.; On the subject of objectivity and subjectivity, Britten, unlike many historians, does not "ascribe to my protagonists thoughts or feelings they have not themselves put on record."; ;While leaving it to the reader to evaluate the merit of the various eye-witness accounts, he has provided through extensive end notes a pathway and guide to some of the authors most glaring inaccuracies.;

I would highly recommend this book and would consider it a must to those who have read and enjoyed his previous book of 1812 The March on Moscow.

Reviewed by Greg Gorsuch
Placed on the Napoleon Series: June 2013


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