1812: Napoleon’s fatal march on Moscow.
Adam Zamoyski’s 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow is a stunning narrative retelling of the French emperor Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia.
The French invasion of Russia in 1812 was in effect supposed to be Napoleon’s final assertion as the supreme power in early 19th – century Europe. Over the past ten years he had pummelled the various military powers with stunning battlefield successes – Austria (along with the Russians) at Austerlitz (1805), and Wagram (1809), Prussia at Jena and Auerstadt (1806), and Russia herself at Friedland (1807). In 1812 he put together a vast, 500,000 strong multinational army drawn from all over Europe known as the Grande Armee for one final, all – out effort to subdue Tsar Alexander I’s Russia, his one remaining serious obstacle to dominating mainland Europe.
Zamoyski’s work takes us into the initial invasion, as it proceeds via Poland and Smolensk, through increasingly savage and, for both sides, desperate battles, as well as the slow debilitation of the army, then up to the sack and burning of Moscow. With lucid use of images and excellent characterisation he guides us through all the macabre savagery and horror of the retreat from the funeral pyre of Moscow, then illustrates the slow destruction of the Grand Armee through a combination of the oncoming Russian winter, French incompetence, roving Cossack bands and a host of other factors, leading to the essential destruction of the largest army in European history till that time. Some of the best (and downright chilling, no pun intended) moments are when he skilfully weaves in tales of the sheer, yet futile determination of the soldiers to return and the travails they encounter. He draws attention to the French soldieries continued faith in Napoleon even as they froze to death, and their sadness in watching him get off his horse and march with them in an attempt to share some of their suffering and boost morale.
He gorily recounts how troops unused to cold conditions of down to minus 38 degrees Celsius would simply expire after walking for only a few minutes, or the bizarre case of otherwise starving French troops feasting on rich sugar and coffee captured from the Muscovite nobility.
His use of imagery – the warm, though stark conditions of summer in eastern Europe as the French marched to their doom, in contrast with the endless icy barrenness and suffering of the French retreat mere months later – is extremely effective, which makes this work far more accessible to the general reader.
He is not sparing in his criticism of the Russian’s overall response, as well as the Russian Tsar Alexander’s dilly-dallying between compromise or conflict with Napoleon. Though the Russian leaderhip’s competence was certainly questionable, the criticism is perhaps slightly overplayed and is one (minor) part of this work that must be taken issue with.
There was very real logic behind many of the Russian strategic decisions, such as Kutuzov’s unwillingness to engage Napoleon directly in battle and his decision to essentially let the French be killed by the elements instead.
He fails to see that Alexander and his generals realised that the French army, with its veteran core of crack troops who had served through 20 years of campaigns from the battle of Valmy through to Austerlitz would have been very difficult to defeat in a straight fight, and heavily outnumbered the Russian army anyway. So a retreat, despite the fact that this ceded the initiative to the French and allowed them to ravage Russia for months, was really the only logical option apart from some sort of accommodation.
Nonetheless, for the most part Zamoyski’s research is excellent, using a mixture of diaries, battle reports, newspapers and various other sources to weave together a tapestry of death and destruction, battles, triumph and tragedy, folly, farce, sacrifice, incompetence, and human suffering that was part of the events of 1812. Though this is well-trodden ground for most historians by now, Zamoyski’s real skill is in how he brings this story to life in a riveting, shocking and emotional work which will catch the reader’s attention till the final page.