Monday, September 21, 2009

Moscow 1814

I read Adam Zamoyski's Moscow 1812 (Napoleon's Fatal March) not long ago. The book left me with the impression that Alexander I was in a relatively weak position vis-a-vis the Russian aristocracy in terms of constructing a policy against Napoleon. The book also made Napoleon's invasion seem a little less reckless than it seems in retrospect. It seems that Napoleon really did come relatively close to forcing the Russian army to engage him in a fight to the finish, which Napoleon would have won, as he won all battles. The political pressure to defend Russian lands was severe. And Napoleon might have turned on Petersburg and forced the czar--and if not the czar some alternative faction within the court--to sue for peace. But Zamoyski also seems to be saying that if Napoleon had not paused for a few vital weeks after taking Moscow, he might have retreated in pretty good order, still occupying vast tracks of Russian land.

Surprisingly, Napoleon himself comes across--to this reader anyhow--as somebody who really did have the ability to set limits for himself. He seems to have really wanted to avoid war with Russia, and moreover seems to have hoped (not entirely unreasonably) that he could defeat Russia and force the country to to the bargaining table as all countries previously had been forced to the bargaining table. At this point, dynasties had little interest in total war. But Napoleon showed an ability to negotiate, to respect the opinions of his generals, to maintain a realistic sense of what was going on at home, etc. At any rate, the books shows that Napoleon's leadership abilities were real and necessarily predicated on certain forms of realism and moderation and sympathy for the common soldier. On the other hand, Zamoyski shows that Tolstoy's portrait of the chief Russian general was way off the mark. The Russian chief strategist made few good decisions except for avoiding conflict on a few key occasions.

More important than any of these impressions, Zamoyski shows that this war was horrific for the soldiers who fought it. This might seem like a commonplace, and perhaps all wars are equally bad.

But this book reads like a gruesome true crime thriller or a decent into hell. The horror starts with Borodino, with massive causalities on both sides. But it gets so much worse with every page. The French (but also the Russians to a lesser extent) fell into anarchy. On paper, Napoleon's army remained capable of defending itself as it returned to central Europe. In reality, it disintegrated. Soldiers froze to death, fought one another, starved, etc. There are stories of men left to die on the battle fields who were forced to drink the blood of dead horses. There are stories of Cossack torturers who attacked stragglers without mercy. The captured French were often starved, robbed, forced to walk naked through the snow, etc. The horses died en masse. Cannibalism spread. Soldiers killed one another for shelter or set others on fire who were huddling together for shelter. Units froze in all sorts of positions while standing guard. One particularly horrid passage describes how soldiers would cut living flesh off the horses who were too frozen to feel the blades.

Alexander I

No comments:

Post a Comment