Wednesday 29 July 2015

Book Review: Journal of the Russian Campaign of 1812 - Fezensac

De Fezensac isn't as gifted or evocative a writer as say Coignet or Bourgogne, but nonetheless, as another piece in the patchwork of primary sources on Russia 1812, his journal of that campaign is, for me, essential reading.

My copy is the edition from the Ken Trotman Military History Monographs series. A simple but handsome paperback, it reproduces a translation by Col. Knollys, of the Scots Guards [1]. Originally published in 1852, only forty years after the momentous events it describes, veterans of the era were still alive, and the campaign of 1812 remained a vivid and and fascinating living memory. Even now, over 200 years later, and despite the participants themselves being long gone, I personally find their stories are still as vivid and fascinating as ever.

Knollys prefaces the Journal with a lengthy sketch of most of the 1812 campaign, which, at over 120 pages, is almost as long as the Journal itself [2]. This is both generally useful, as scene setting if you don't know the overall campaign, and as a refresher if you do, and also addresses specifics that connect with De Fezensac's account. 

As well as Knollys' lengthy introduction, the book benefits from a very nice and reasonably large - considering the size of the book itself (a small paperback) - fold-out map. This isn't the clearest of maps, but it does have most of the key places marked on it. This map is not only useful, but is also a very beautiful old-fashioned thing, highly evocative of the era it describes.

The Prince of Neuchatel, aka Louis-Alexandre Berthier.

In his own preface, De Fezensac explains that his Journal, not originally intended for wider publication [3], is a book of two parts: the first concerns his period as an ADC to the Prince of Neuchatel, i.e. Berthier, Napoleon's right hand man and organisational mastermind, whilst the second sees him as Colonel in command of the 4th Regt of line infantry, in Marshal Ney's III Corps.

In 'Part The First', he narrates the auspicious outset of the campaign, with the seemingly easy conquest of Lithuania, and follows the long road as the triumphant progress of the invading army begins to look a bit shaky, as the French and their allies begin to melt away, even though the Russians won't give battle. [4] 

And so he progresses, narrating his staff level view. This part of the narrative is more generalised and comprehensive, quite naturally given his position in the army, than the latter half, where he takes a more local ground level view. Although the top brass, and Napoleon especially, are often described by Fezensac as out of touch with the harsher realities of the developing campaign - even at this early stage - it wasn't all cushy for the 'big hats' and their staff: as early as p. 14 he observes that 'The generals and other officers bivouacked like the rest of the army.' 

He continues as ADC to Berthier, of whom he gives a brief but candid and predominantly very positive pen portrait, as far as Borodino. After Borodino, on arriving at Mojaisk, and due to the very considerable losses at that ever so bloody battle, known to Fezensac and his French comrades as the Battle of Moskowa, he is given command of the 4th Line Infantry regiment.

A latter day Montesquieu-Fezensac, in 1950, beneath an unknown Napoleonic painting.

Sadly Fezensac is a rather shadowy elusive figure. I was unable to find any pictures of him at all. I did find serval pictures of relatives. One was even closer to Napoleon, being involved in the domestic affairs of the Bonapartes (he's portrayed in a rather sentimental picture - which I've included towards the bottom of this post - showing Napoleon dandling the king Of Rome on his knee at breakfast!). The Montesquieu-Fezensac family as a whole was an ancient aristocratic one, which suffered quite badly during the revolution. That said, some of them survived and thrived, as the family connections with Napoleon's regime shows. And later in the C19th Proust would base a central character in his epic novel, À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (known in English as In Search of Lost Time, or Remembrance of Things Past), on another member of the clan, which is, in turn, why we have the above picture.

Turning briefly from the narrative to Fezensac: as mentioned in the above aside, re my inability to find any images of our author, another and later member of the wider family - the aesthete and dandy Robert de Montesquiou, 'a scion of the famous French Montesquiou-Fézensac Family', [5] was destined to be immortalised by Proust. 

As a result of this, Life magazine ran a feature on his descendants, describing them as 'Personalities Duc De Fezensac - Family Proustian France, 1950'. The picture above comes from this feature, and shows a male member of the family on a rather grand staircase below an imposing painting, depicting sappers (of the Imperial Guard?) tending to what appears to be a very young and apparently mortally wounded officer. [6]

Returning now to Fezensac's narrative, the larger 'Part The Second' is where an already interesting story becomes really fascinating. From the occupation and eventual evacuation of Moscow, to his part in the rearguard work on the gruelling and bloody retreat, it's pretty clear De Fezensac prefers to be in active service rather than on the staff. The excitement of his now more direct involvement is ably and effectively communicated in his narrative.

Perhaps the most thrilling, moving and compelling part of his story is the famous episode during the retreat when the meagre tattered remains of III Corps become separated from the rest of the army. Under Ney - who more than earns his soubriquet 'the bravest of the brave' - the ever shrinking Corps makes a harrowing bid for liberty by crossing to the opposite bank of the Dnieper and fighting their way back to the tail end of the wreck of the Grand Armée.

Marshal Ney Supporting the Rear Guard during the Retreat from Moscow by Adolphe Yvon, 1856.

The bravery of Ney and III Corps doesn't end there, but is continually manifested, as the other various Corps also melt away on the retreat. At the back of the book appendices give the 'distribution and numbers' of the Grand Armée as it crossed the Niemen, and then later the returns for survivors and losses. If Fezensac's account leaves you reeling drunk with the sense of the terrible suffering these troops and their followers experienced, the dry looking but awful facts that these numbers bespeak make for sobering reading.

Eventually Fezensac arrives home, via his regiment's depot, but it is hardly the heroic return that his jubilant and confident departure had presaged: 'I arrived alone in the night, on a dung-cart, wrapped in a wolfskin...' But not only is he alive, he even has the satisfaction of emerging from his ordeal with praise from the praiseworthy (which is high praise indeed). He cites, with evident pride, a letter from Marshal Ney that describes his service on the campaign in glowing terms.

“Napoléon Ier, Marie-Louise et le roi de Rome” (the empress brings her son to her husband who is having breakfast; behind: Controller É. P. de Montesquiou-Fézensac with wife and the nurse Mme.Auchard). 1812, by Alexandre Menjaud.

Fezensac's Journal is not the best memoir of this campaign, or this era, but nonetheless it is very good, and it is certainly well worth reading.


[1] I see that Leonaur have brought out editions in paperback and hardback, minus the Knollys segment. I'd quite like to read that version, and see how it feels compared with having read Fezensac after having read Knollys!

[2] In Knollys' lengthy disquisition he makes a number of pointedly disparaging remarks about military histories by civilians, with particular reference to Walter Scott's then highly popular and successful multi-volume work. For my review of the current incarnation of this latter (in heavily abridged form), a book I must say I thoroughly enjoyed reading, click here.

[3] As with the writings of many veterans of famous campaigns, the work seems to have been commenced as a personal aide-memoir, but then worked upon and shared with family and friends. And finally, when the result of these efforts meets with interest and approbation, finished with a view to publication.

[4] Stephan Talty has written an excellent and very interesting book, The Illustrious Dead, about how Napoleon and the Grand Armée can, in a very real and meaningful sense, be described as having been vanquished not so much by either the Russians or the harsh winter weather, but the Typhus microbe.

[5] The quote is from Wikipedia. An illustrious and well-connected family, in addition to their connections with Napoleon and Proust, they at times also used the name D'Artagnan, with another member of the family also enjoying a second and fictional life, as the inspiration for another literary creation, this time from the pen of Dumas.

[6] Just as I could find no pictures of our author, I was unable to find out who the guy pictured in this black and white photo is (or was), or anything about the painting.

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