Certain historical events become so covered in myth and significance, so overlaid with patriotism and emotion, that over time many people forget what really happened and why. Napoleon’s fatal 1812 march on Moscow is one such event. As Adam Zamoyski puts it, “No other campaign in history has been subjected to such overtly political uses.” Generations of Russian children were brought up on a story of the gallant Czar Alexander, who rallied the peasantry to defend the homeland, cleverly enticed the French into Moscow, then burned the city and forced Napoleon’s army to retreat during a frozen winter. Romantic writers — C.S. Forester, for one — turned the story into a fable of heroism in defeat; romantic composers — Tchaikovsky, most famously — were inspired to write stirring music. Leo Tolstoy put the 1812 campaign at the heart of his novel War and Peace, celebrating it as a parable: the expulsion of corrupting foreign influences from the soil of ancient Russia.
But all of the patriotism, mythology, fiction and song that followed the events of that year has, in the subsequent two centuries, nearly obscured the story of the invasion itself. Zamoyski, a British historian of Polish origin and the author of numerous books, wanted to use firsthand accounts and memoirs in order to put right the facts and bring alive the history in a way that would make sense to contemporary readers. He has succeeded.
Zamoyski — whom, I should add here, I met many years ago — was aided by being able to speak most of the languages used by the commanders and soldiers who fought in Napoleon’s Grande Armee, at the time the largest military force ever assembled. Some 600,000 troops crossed the Niemen River into Russia in the summer and fall of 1812, among them Frenchmen, Germans, Poles, Italians and Swiss. About 400,000 of them died: on the march, in battle and during the horrific winter retreat. Similar numbers are thought to have perished on the Russian side. Indeed, the incomprehensible scale of the tragedy was probably what led contemporaries to construct such elaborate symbolic explanations and patriotic justifications of the events.
For the tragedy was not only vast, it was also pointless. “I have no wish to make war on Russia,” Napoleon told a Russian envoy in 1811. In fact, the two monarchs had engaged in an odd dance of friendship and enmity for many years preceding the war. There was even talk, at one point, of a possible dynastic union between Napoleon and one of the czar’s sisters. But when Alexander began moving his troops to his Western borders, apparently challenging Napoleon’s control over former Polish territory, Napoleon simply felt obligated to respond. Although later writers saw the war as an ideological conflict between the forces of monarchy and revolution, in retrospect the drift to battle looks a lot more like the chain of unstoppable events that led to the outbreak of World War I. This was hardly a war of ideas: Napoleon actually missed several opportunities to rally the Poles to a national, patriotic cause, and seems not to have been much interested in winning the loyalties of the people whose lands his army marched through.
Yet the czar’s methods were no more clever or purposeful. For all the purple prose written about Alexander’s tactics, Zamoyski concludes that the Russian troops kept retreating — and avoiding open battles — mostly because their commanders didn’t know what else to do. As so often happens in war, it was incompetence, not careful planning, that was crucial, bringing Napoleon practically to the gates of Moscow without a fight. And it was panic, not cunning, that led Alexander to keep totally silent after Napoleon marched into Moscow following the battle of Borodino. The French emperor found the Russian czar’s refusal to surrender deeply unnerving. How was he to know that the St. Petersburg court was in fact wracked by indecision?
The pointlessness of the high politics surrounding 1812 did not make the experiences of those doing the fighting any less powerful. Both armies contained an extraordinary group of personalities, and there are many wonderful portraits in this book: the pompous and rather stupid Field Marshal Prince Kutuzov, who had the luck to be in charge of the Russian armies at the moment Napoleon lost his nerve and decided to retreat; the French cavalry commander Joachim Murat, who wore “grandiose or bizarre” outfits composed of rich cloth, expensive furs and jewels, “his thick black sideburns [contributing] to an ensemble which aroused astonishment and made one think of him as a charlatan”; Napoleon himself, bored in Moscow, playing vingt-et-un with his commanders. “It was not in his nature to know how to amuse himself,” remarked the young officer Henri Beyle, otherwise known as the novelist Stendhal.
But the best material comes from the letters and memoirs of more ordinary combatants that Zamoyski has pulled together from a huge range of sources. Many of the junior-ranking Russian officers had never actually seen battle, had never had any contact with the serf-soldiers who were forcibly drafted into the Russian ranks, and spoke better French than Russian, if they spoke Russian at all. As a result, the experience of war inspired the first glimmers of a new kind of national feeling. When one recently enlisted aristocrat found his horse had been wounded beneath him, his newfound sense of patriotism was such that “an inexplicable feeling, of joy, of pride, welled up inside and enveloped [him].” Watching his countrymen fight for the ancient city of Smolensk, another declared that “the spirit of the nation is awakening.”
The confusion and horror of the French retreat through the Russian winter are well described. “The air itself,” wrote a French colonel, “was thick with tiny icicles which sparkled in the sun but cut one’s face drawing blood.” Another Frenchman recalled that “it frequently happened that the ice would seal my eyelids shut.” Prince Wilhelm of Baden, one of Napoleon’s commanders, gave the order to march on the morning of Dec. 7, only to discover that “the last drummer boy had frozen to death.” Soldiers had resorted to looting, stripping corpses and even to cannibalism by the time the march was over.
By the end of the book, the tragedy is so vast that it’s hard not to feel some more recent echoes. The movement of mass armies over vast tracts of Central Europe, the terrible privations suffered by ordinary soldiers, the devastation of the landscape, the loyalties sworn to various vague causes — all are eerie precursors of much later wars. It is no accident that many at Stalingrad were reminded of 1812, or that Napoleon and Hitler are sometimes compared. In some sense, Napoleon’s wasteful, hubristic march on Moscow was truly a harbinger of the greater devastation to come. For that reason alone, it is worth retelling.