Sunday 23 September 2018

Book Review: 1812, Napoleon's Invasion of Russia, Paul Britten Austen

This single volume publication, on Bible-thin paper, is actually a three volume work. The product of 25 years of study, it collects and weaves together myriad short extracts from around 160 firsthand accounts, written by participants in these momentous events. The result is something really quite unique and very special.

Even in this single volume format it’s a weighty tome, and no mistaking! The one-thousand or so pages adding up to, as the author himself points out, something 'fairly vast.' He describes his book as a ‘word film’, and it really does have something of that quality. Certainly the drama of the events is heightened, coming as it were from the horses' mouths. 

And what horses! His sources range from the highest echelons (Caulaincourt, at Napoleon’s side), to the rank and file (the author’s own choice of lowlier men being ‘obscure little Swiss voltigeur Jean-Marc Bussy’). My only quibble on this score is that it's not always completely clear who's being quoted.

Caulaincourt and Bonaparte leaving Russia. [2]

Despite being ‘fairly vast’, the narrative sticks pretty resolutely to the central column of Napoleon’s Grande Armée. Amazingly, there's not sufficient space for much, if anything, about the flanking Corps. [1] I happened to have superb visual accounts of the 1812 campaign to hand, by Faber du Faur and Albrecht Adam, when I read this, which helped me visualise things. I just wish I had also had a really good book of maps; so much of the narrative info concerns movements, and particular locations, all of which would have been more easily followed if only one could glance back and forth between the text and some decent maps!

Pretty much all the books that I've been reading on this subject, at least amongst the more contemporary ones, make some use of firsthand accounts. But this particular telling of the story takes that modus operandi to new heights. In describing how he wrote the book Britten Austen said, I ‘invent nothing, hardly even a phrase, and certainly neither events nor persons. But resurrect them - in their own words.’ The book is remarkably vivid as a result, which is fantastic.

Swiss Infantry of the 4th Regt, Carle Vernet. [3]

For example, the adventures and sufferings of a certain Heinemann, survivor of a virtual massacre, as he escorts a wounded sergeant to the rear, before becoming a prisoner himself, are just one among many of the episodes that vividly convey the exciting, moving and gripping dramas this book is packed with. In this instance there's actually a happy end to the story - in fact two happy endings (but I'll let you read the book and find out what they are!) - a rare and pleasant thing, given the huge loss of life in this campaign.

Allowing his sources to speak for themselves is certainly not the author simply being lazy. Again in his own words*: ‘Naturally … [I] had to take my thousands of vivid fragments, longer or shorter, snip them and put them together in what I came to think of as a 'marching order', and generally help the reader not to go astray.’ But, rather endearingly, where his own voice is audible, I love it: I Iike a writer who says 'i'sooth'! Indeed, his writing style is quite different in tone to all the other authors I've read so far on this subject, which is refreshing. He's also the only author, besides Burns, that I've encountered using the term 'agley', as in 'aft gang agley', as in when things go 'wrong'!

Paul Britten Austen

In conclusion, this is a pretty unique account of the Russia 1812 campaign. Vivid, gripping, and, for my money, totally essential reading. Can't recommend it highly enough!

* In deference to the author's own style!

[1] In a more academic book that sought to cover the whole campaign this might be a problem. But in this instance, the author is pursuing a different set of goals, chiefly to transport the reader to the time and place he’s writing about. And in this respect this book is a signal triumph.

[2] Given how much time Caulaincourt spent in close proximity to Napoleon, it's amazing how hard it is to find any contemporary images of them together!

[3] If pictures of Caulaincourt with the Emperor made me think of him as the invisible man, then what should I call poor old Jean-Marc Bussy? I could find no images of him at all. So instead I found some pictures by Carle Vernet, illustrating uniforms of the 1812 regulations (which Vernet also had a hand in designing). These guys playing footsie with each other look to be having an easier time of it than Bussy had! I did, however, find out that Bussy later became a police-man, and lived to the ripe old age of 88!

... then, a bit later, I found the picture below, by Knötel. This one has a Swiss Voltigeur, on the right. I guess Bussy must've looked something like this fellow?

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