RUSSIA AGAINST NAPOLEON: THE TRUE STORY OF THE CAMPAIGNS OF WAR AND PEACE
By Dominic Lieven
REVIEWED BY JOSEPH C. GOULDEN
For starters, be prepared to reconsider two things that you think you know about the French Emperor Napoleon - that he was a consistently brilliant military general who ranks as one of the foremost battlefield commanders in history, and that his most calamitous defeat, in his 1812 campaign in Russia, was chiefly a result of “General Winter,” the fierce cold and snow that caught his Grande Armee deep inside Russia, hundreds of miles from home.
Dominic Lieven, a professor of Russian history at the London School of Economics, challenges both these conceptions in what is the first English-language analysis of Napoleon’s disastrous campaign to draw upon military archives that he examined in Russia. His book is a masterpiece of military writing. He presents extraordinary detail in crisp, rich prose. He knows a good deal about battlefield realities. And he argues, convincingly in my view, that Napoleon made basic military blunders in the campaign, chiefly by overextending his lines of supply and not providing the logistics necessary to support his army.
In essence, Mr. Lieven recounts what happened after the part of the Russian campaign recounted in Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel “War and Peace” that climaxes with the Battle of Borodino, which began Napoleon’s retreat. Many generations of readers are perhaps content that Tolstoy stopped when he did. The edition I read runs 1,029 pages, about all I cared to read. But Mr. Lieven takes us two years further, as the Russians rally support from Austria and Prussia and chase Napoleon all the way back to Paris. The city falls, and a well-thumped Napoleon is forced from power.
As Mr. Lieven makes clear, Napoleon’s aim never was to occupy Russia, but to smash the army of Czar Alexander I and force him to accept dictated surrenders, which included an alliance against Britain. He descended upon Russia hoping for a quick victory.
Napoleon had a keen confidence in French superiority. As did many of his countrymen, he considered Russia a semi-barbaric Asian country. How could an army of peasants living under feudal conditions withstand an assault by his skilled ranks? To be sure, life in the Russian ranks was unpleasant. Peasants were conscripted en masse - entire villages of young men - for 25-year “enlistments,” meaning that few men ever made it home. Private soldiers lived on groats and gruel.
Despite industrialization efforts by Peter the Great, arms manufacturing was nascent, and arms and ammunition for the most part were smuggled in from Britain. Soldiers received perhaps six rounds of live ammunition a year for shooting practice; they mainly “made do” with clay bullets.
But the Russian high command contained intellectual generals who studied military history and knew how to apply the lessons learned to the battlefield. The commander in chief, Mikhail Kutnzov, shrewdly chose to avoid a set battle with Napoleon’s superior force. Instead, he relied upon a tactic perfected centuries earlier by the Roman general Quintus Fabius Maximus, who used small unit harassing actions to wear down a larger enemy through attrition. The “Fabian strategy” worked to perfection (and the concept survives today as part of special operations doctrine).
A major advantage enjoyed by the Russians could be called “horsepower.” As Mr. Lieven observes, “immense herds dwelt on the steppe lands of southern Russia and Siberia,” strong and swift horses with amazing resilience. “In many years, the greatest hero of the Russian war effort in 1812-1814 was the horse [which] fulfilled the present day functions of the tank, the lorry, the aeroplane and motorized infantry.” Napoleon could not replace the thousands of horses he lost during the campaign; hence Russian light cavalry relentlessly harassed his retreating columns.
Another area in which the Russians enjoyed an overwhelming advantage was espionage. Czarist agents in Paris and elsewhere elicited intelligence from many levels of Napoleon’s government, from sources including the minister of police, the notorious Joseph Fouche, and the former foreign minister, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, both of whom were disillusioned with the emperor.
Mr. Lieven acknowledges some murkiness in the documents he examined, for a key Russianintelligence officer, Count Karl von Nesselrode, “very sensibly” did not explain “how precisely payments were made and documents acquired.” Napoleon’s political planning, his strategy for the coming military campaign, even household gossip about theEmperor’s eccentricities, eating habits and growing forgetfulness” - all were detailed in a flow of reports to Moscow. And, as the author notes, one very able Russian operative was his ancestor Christopher Lieven, who headed the mission in Berlin. (Three of his ancestors were generals in the Battle of Leipzig.)
Once Napoleon was put on the run, he desperately fought major rear-guard battles that further depleted his ranks.The Russians, meanwhile, put together a massive logistics operation - 850 carts daily for food and forage, stretching back hundreds of miles. Czar Nicholas and his advisers made an astute political decision: They were not fighting “France” but Napoleon and his insatiable ambitions. His officers strictly enforced an edict to troops to “preserve the strictest discipline and treat the civilian population well.” (One cannot resist comparing this conduct with the Red Army’s brutality in the waning days of World War II.)
Once Alexander’s army neared Paris, he pledged to preserve the city “for France and the sake of the whole world.” Russia and its allies marched into Paris unopposed on March 31, 1814. Napoleon was deposed the next day.
One statistic suffices:Napoleon’s Grande Armee numbered 450,000 soldiers when the campaign began. Only 6,000 returned home.
As Mr. Lieven ably argues, during much of his career Napoleon “blunderedtowards empire,” not sorting out his priorities, relying on “bluff and intimidation” to achieve his goals. Russia was one bluff too many. And in the end, the “backward” Russians simply out-generaled him.
Joseph C. Goulden is a Washington writer. His e-mail is JosephG894@aol.com.