Saturday 11 July 2015

Book Review: 1812, Napoleon's Fatal March on Moscow - Adam Zamoyski

One of the most exciting and engaging reads on this perenially fascinating apocalyptic campaign.

Some while ago I was in a proper frenzy of reading about the Russian 1812 campaign. It's the chief subject in my ever growing Napoleonic library, and I intend to read and review all the books on the subject I can.

It seems almost mandatory nowadays that histories of the 1812 campaign such as this - from Alexander Spring's Patriotic War to the numerous Alexander Mikaberidze titles, such as The Battle of Borodino - are not complete without making bold claims to 'exclusive' use of Russian documents not translated or cited before.

For french speakers: an interview with the author, in which he displays his admirable command of French.

This claim to exclusive use of original sources is duly trotted out amongst the varied claims to greatness made on Zamoyski's behalf, on the back cover blurb, along with the oft-repeated fact that he's fluent in six languages. Of course I'm very impressed by both claims, as evidence of scholarly accomplishment, although I must confess that reading or hearing the latter every time Zamoyski is mentioned gets a bit galling after a while! 

Not being a professional historian myself I can't really comment on how true it is that there's lot of original research here. It wouldn't surprise me though, as Zamoyski's book is certainly very rich in contemporary anecdote, and all the better for it. What I can say with certainty, however, is that the copious use made of these first-hand accounts is amongst the most effective I've enjoyed to date.

A beautiful map from the series by Alison,
this one depicting Krasnoi.

Fortunately what we have here is a rare example of a book that lives up to (perhaps even exceeds?) the hyperbole bestowed upon it. 

Amongst the many books I continue to devour on Napoleonic subjetcs, all too many are either a bit dry, often in an attempt to be comprehensive, or else overly enthusiastic in a 'military buff' vein, and therefore not very balanced. Zamoyski, however, is spot on: both critical of, and suitably awed by, all the things that make this story so compelling. From the high politics and grand if illusory dreams of some of the chief protagonists, to the collapse of humanity into bestial brutality in battle and on the march, he always hits exactly the right note, allowing the reader to respond to the unfolding events in their own way.

One of the iconic images of Russia, 1812: Ney with the rearguard.

There are so many episodes, on every scale, from the mammoth battles, to the tiniest details of acts both heroic and heinous, that capture one's imagination. And Zamoyski has the gift of retelling the story in a way that is engaging without being intrusive. He also covers everything in a way that balances all the potential components as harmoniously as one could hope for, couching important details in their broader contexts, and beginning and ending the book in a way that eases you in and out of a narrative so compelling you don't really want it to end. Masterful!

Adolf Northern's painting of Napoleon during the retreat.

I love this sort of history book, and found myself more or less glued to it on a daily basis - constrained only by such intrusions as work, eating, sleeping, etc! -  until finishing it just moments before I started typing my first draft of this review (quite some time ago now). On finishing the book I felt a mixture of exhaustion and exaltation. Thankfully one's journey as a reader allows one to vicariously experience this mind (and limb) numbing episode from the comfort of a nice settee!

I've refrained from trying to relate any content, as Zamoyski does it so well you really ought to buy the book and enjoy him delivering the tale. But I'll end by mentioning that, very close to the end of the book, he relates how one disappointed Frenchman decided to rewrite history - an early example of the sort of thing that has subsequently developed into the now fecund genre of 'alternative history' - his story diverging from reality at the point where Napoleon retreats from Moscow. I won't give away this alternative history, but I will say that this single paragraph alone practically justifies the price of the book, and this is a book literally stuffed with such treasures.

Faber du Faur's images of the retreat are superb, if sometimes rather harrowing. Here French troops bivouac amidst burned-out buildings and calcinated corpses, near Mozaisk.

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