Archive | September, 2008

“Wellington: The Iron Duke,” by Richard Holmes

30 Sep

“Wellington: The Iron Duke,” by Richard Holmes (303p)

Wellington: The Iron Duke is a 2002 non-fiction biography of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington by British military historian Richard Holmes. Through a combination of contemporary diaries and letters written by Wellington (an extraordinary number of which have survived) and those of his age as well as biographers and titbits from other studies, Holmes constructs the story of Wellington’s life from childhood to death with a more centred focus on Wellington’s military career.

The opening chapters of Iron Duke deal with Wellington’s childhood and upbringing in Ireland, particularly the difficult life he and his family had following the death of his father Garret Wesley when Wellington was eleven. I say Wesley because that, as it turns out, was the family name until Richard Wellesley changed it in the 1790s. Wellington led a relatively boring early life – he was the third son and an average student at Eton with no direction ready for his adult life – so Richard dominates the early part of the novel. Richard deals with the crippling finances of the Wesley family, the political problems in Ireland and the cut throat environment of British politics.

He eventually lands Wellington an army commission (that being the usual career of the third son) in the 73rd Regiment of Foot as an ensign in 1787. Wellington’s early army career was, like his childhood, on the dull side as he transferred in an out of regiments. From the 73rd he became a lieutenant and aide-de-camp in the 76th, a brief transfer as a lieutenant in the 12th Light Dragoons in 1789, then he moved to the 18th Light Dragoons as a captain in 1791, until eventually he purchased his majority and lieutenant colonelcy in the 33rd in 1793. Wellington had yet to even see military action though, and in between that period of regiment hopping he dipped his toes into the ferocious world of British politics as a member of parliament, but instead chose to dedicate himself to his military career after his marriage proposal to Kitty Pakenham was rejected by her brother.

Wellington first saw military service in the early years of the war against Revolutionary France. He is given his first command, in charge of a brigade at Boxtel, and while the battle was unsuccessful he learned several lessons that would remain with him right through to Waterloo. After returning he spent another year in politics but wanted out from there again, and so he made preparations to go on campaign again. He had been intended to go to the West Indies (and probably to his death) but fate and the sea proved to be in his favour and their ship was blown back to Poole, so Wellington, now a full colonel, was sent to India instead in 1796. Richard Wellesley, as well as second youngest brother Henry, was to join him in India as the Governor-General. The Wellesley brothers plan to shape India in their vision by putting the entire subcontinent under British command, and Wellington leads the way by participating in the defeat of Tippoo Sultan at Seringapatam. Wellington is made commander of Seringapatam and through his influence with Richard is eventually made into a major-general and given dual command of the successful defeat of the Maratha Confederacy at Assaye.

The bulk of the novel concerns, quite obviously, the biggest success of Wellington’s career: the Peninsular War. Wellington is forced to deal with a lot of loopholes and political nonsense before he departs for Spain, chiefly because the Whig Party attacked them for their conduct in India. He also marries Kitty Pakenham a dozen years after he was rejected, although they had both changed drastically. Wellington was now very much the man history remembers him as – cold natured, meticulous, committed and completely wrapped up in his work. He enjoyed a less than warm marriage to Kitty and they were almost always distant from each other.

Wellington soon rises to the top in Spain after a false start. While back in England he submitted his plan to Lord Castlereagh and is made commander of all British forces in Portugal. Over the course of the next six and a bit years, through his attention to meticulous detail and planning, Wellington storms through Spain and drives the French right out. Without getting into too much detail, Holmes gives a concise analysis of Wellington in the Peninsular War, particularly focusing on how he felt he needed to be in control of everything otherwise the war would be a total failure. After the Peninsular War is over there is the brief interlude during the Peace of 1814, but an entire chapter is dedicated to Wellington’s most famous battle: Waterloo.

The final quarter of the novel deals with the second half of Wellington’s life, which was less successful as his military career. Holmes mainly pays attention to Wellington’s inability to move with the times, stating that he was still very much an 18th century Georgian man, but also theorising that one of his main failures as a politician is his dislike of the general populace and a major disapproval of the way Britain had headed in all those years he had spent away. He was completely against integrated democracy and steadfastly believed that the country should solely be in the hands of “men of taste,” in his words. He was also against party politics and believed that the prime minister should have the role of day-to-day management of the country, working for the monarch and not being constrained to the ills and wills of the party. That is not to say Wellington’s time in office was a total failure, though – he did see the passing of the Catholic Emancipation, but otherwise his time as prime minister is far less glorious as his time as commander-in-chief.

Holmes concludes the novel with an epilogue giving his finals thoughts on Wellington’s life and character. It is his character that Holmes finds most intriguing, and his theory behind Wellington’s devotion to duty and tendency to distance himself from affection comes, as it usually does, from childhood where Wellington led a lonely life as Richard dominated the family. It was that upbringing that made him such a humble and modest but also such a great man.

Iron Duke is quite easy to read for a non-fiction biography. Holmes’ concise to the point approach to Wellington’s life makes this a quick read, and at only 303pages it took me no time to finish it. Perhaps it is not the most intricately detailed biography on Wellington ever written, but Holmes does not address the pointless – he never bores us the colour of Wellington’s socks on 13 June, 1804 or whenever – so the reader is only left with the more important details of Wellington’s extraordinary life. Holmes does an excellent job throughout of explaining Wellington’s personality. In modern times he would be called a control freak due to his constant need to be present and able to fix the mistakes of others. After reading it you get the proper impression of what Wellington must have been like as a commander (“failure is not an option” could have easily been coined by Wellington) and it takes little effort to imagine being one of his underlings. Holmes also pays attention to Wellington’s relationship with his brothers – with Richard it was strained and frosty, but Wellington was seemingly quite close with Henry and William. There are a number of excerpts from surviving letters by Wellington to them where he is unusually candid, but his letters to Richard are cold and formal.

If anything, Iron Duke is more of an entry-level introduction to the Duke of Wellington’s life. That is not to say it has been dumbed down, far from it, but Holmes just gets to the point quicker and his analysis of Wellington’s life, at any stage, is concise and easy to understand. It is also honest and Holmes has no problems discussing Wellington’s often sordid private life, namely the string of mistresses he kept throughout his life. I would not recommend reading this if you have already read Elizabeth Longford’s (herself a great grand-niece of Wellington by marriage – husband Francis was the great-great-great grand nephew of Kitty Pakenham) two volume The Years of the Sword biography on him, as this is far less exhaustive. You are unlikely to read anything new, especially on Wellington’s domestic life, and it would be all too familiar. But Holmes’ writing style is easy yet informative and allows the reader to understand Wellington as a person, as a general and as a politician simply enough so they feel like they know the Duke of Wellington at the end of the novel without being bored by the pointless and irrelevant.

9/10.

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“Heretic,” by Bernard Cornwell

28 Sep

“Heretic,” Bernard Cornwell (448p)

The final novel in Bernard Cornwell’s Grail Quest trilogy is Heretic. Set against the backdrop of the Hundred Years War, archer Thomas of Hookton reaches the conclusion of his quest to find the mysterious Holy Grail and unlock one of history’s greatest mysteries, unaware of the great peril making its way across Europe.

It the closing stages of the Edwardian-phase of the Hundred Years War. England has captured Calais and destroyed the French army. Thomas, with a small band of archers and his friend Robbie Douglas, is sent to Gascony with the aim of hunting down his cousin Guy Vexille and finally unlocking all the secrets and the whereabouts of the Holy Grail. After securing a small Gascon town and turning into a garrison, Thomas’ plans to discover the Grail from his cousin are ruined when he saves the life of, and then curiously falls in love with, a young girl named Genevieve condemned to be burned at the stake for witchcraft.

But saving her life has dire consequences for Thomas. The rumour of the girl being a witch, in an age of religious mysticism, costs him his friendship with Robbie after an argument about her living with them. The Scotsman then has his head turned by Vexille and his lot, joining them to fight against Thomas. The church is not pleased by Genevieve’s survival either, and when Thomas turns down their request to release the girl back to into their custody he is excommunicated – I am no religious man, but I can imagine the impact that would have had a on a commoner in those days. This plunges Thomas into a depression as he is outlawed and forced to go on the run again, still clinging onto the hope he can find the Grail.

Vexille and the Church, in league with each other to find the Grail, send out mercenaries to capture and kill Thomas. He eludes them in a narrow fight at a monastery and then somewhat predictably finds allies in some Gascon separatists, who help him return to the garrison. There, Thomas and Vexille finally fight each other inside the garrison as it is battered by a French force attempting to recapture the town. Thomas kills Vexille at long last but only notices at the last minute as men everywhere begin falling ill during the siege. They vomit, sores ooze pus and blood and they suffer severe fever … the Black Death had arrived. Thomas escapes and makes it back to England with Robbie and Genevieve, but the information he bludgeoned out of Vexille in their fight triggers a light bulb in his head and he finally realises the true location of the Holy Grail. He just chooses to keep it to himself instead.

The action in Heretic is almost entirely fictional. The opening passages did take place, but otherwise the rest of the action is fictional, yet still retains the excitement and page turning goodness of the previous two. For those reasons it is a fine and easy read that flows and comes together superbly. It is never dull and at a touch over 350 pages only took me a couple of days to work through.

Heretic has a fairly simple and obvious plot outcome. It is the third in the trilogy, so at some stage the true location of the Holy Grail would come into play and forms the basis of the story’s conclusion. But that is the main problem with Heretic – the outcome is rushed and comes across as like “oh! Here it was after all!” The ending was just disappointing, I think. After a well written siege of the garrison, whose name I have forgotten and can’t be bothered looking up, and the superb plot twist of the arrival of the Black Death, I had been expecting a little more fireworks with the ending. It comes across like Cornwell just wrote it as an afterthought when he had a deadline to meet and put no little extra effort into creating a definitive ending and just left it as it was. The ending alone spoiled it a tad for me, but it should turn nobody off from an otherwise fine novel.

6/10.

“Vagabond,” by Bernard Cornwell

27 Sep

“Vagabond,” by Bernard Cornwell (384p)

Vagabond is the second novel in Bernard Cornwell’s 2000 trilogy, the Grail Quest, set during the Hundred Years War about fictional archer Thomas of Hookton’s quest to one day find the Holy Grail. The two battles covered in Vagabond are the Battle of Neville’s Cross and Les Espagnols sur Mer.

Thomas is back in England after Crécy, sent back to learn more about his father’s involvement in possessing the Holy Grail by Edward III himself. His investigations take him to the English-Scottish border areas just as the opportunistic Scots are launching another invasion into England, forcing Thomas to pick up his bow and land a hand. While he fights to protect England he sends Eleanor, who is pregnant with his child, and their companion Father Hobbe to Durham Cathedral. At Durham Eleanor and Father Hobbe meet an evil Dominican friar and the man that was revealed to be The Harlequin in the previous novel, Guy Vexille, Thomas’ cousin. They are both killed by Vexille and the Scots lose the battle with David II being captured, but Thomas is grief stricken when he finds Eleanor and Father Hobbe dead. He returns to Hookton with Robbie Douglas, a captured Scottish noble, and receives more information about the Grail. He now believes it might exist after all.

A letter from Sir Guillaume calls Thomas and Robbie to France to help the embittered knight, trapped in his castle after being outlawed by Philip VI. Despite being so badly out-numbered Thomas uses his intelligence to blow up a magazine of gun powder that had been stored for use with early cannon. Sir Guillaume is freed from his castle and they return to La Roche-Derrien, where Jeanette makes a return. Her son has been taken by the Duke of Brittany and Thomas devises a daring plan to rescue him, only to be betrayed by some Flemish mercenaries, and is taken capture by the Dominican friar. He is tortured for days under the guise of the inquisition but unable to extract any information from him, the friar lets Thomas go.

Vagabond culminates in a fictional siege at La Roche-Derrien in a desperate fight. The English garrison is outmanned and has no supporting forces as the main army is hundreds of miles away, so they are left to themselves. Thomas, rehabilitated but still crippled by the inquisitors, joins the defenders in the fight. Scores on either side die but eventually, as in most cases in Cornwell novels, the English come out on top and drive the French away from the town. Thomas suffers more loss as his friend, Will Skeat, is killed but this resolves Thomas to finally hunt down the Grail and his cousin Guy Vexille.

One of the main differences between Harlequin and Vagabond is the shift in plot direction. In the first one the Holy Grail itself is only a minor part of the story and takes on the guise of a “what if?”, barely mentioned at all. But in Vagabond, and indeed in the final in the trilogy, Heretic, the Grail becomes the central focus of the story. This is a good change, though, because Harlequin lacked a definitive idea of where the story was going until the final few pages.

I liked Vagabond more than Harlequin. I liked that the story had progressed and gained a clear identity and purpose with the quest for the Holy Grail becoming the main focus of the plot. But, still, Thomas as a protagonist lets it down for me. He is still very much the same character of Harlequin and critically the believability is not there. At times he just seems weak and feeble and not someone scores of men would rally behind. But the story itself does not lose any of its entertainment factor and was every bit the good read Harlequin was, made better by a clearer defined plot, that made it into a good read all the same.

7.5/10.

“Harlequin,” by Bernard Cornwell

27 Sep


“Harlequin,” by Bernard Cornwell (484p)

In the first of Bernard Cornwell’s series set during the Hundred Years War, Harlequin (The Archer’s Tale in the US), takes fictional archer Thomas of Hookton to France on a quest to defeat the French but also to one day find the Holy Grail. The first in a series of three, Harlequin is set on the backdrop of the Battle of Crécy.

At the start of the novel Thomas is a young man, mid-to-late teens, living in the fictional seaside English village of Hookton as the illegitimate son of a priest and his mistress. Thomas is learned; he can read and write and has studied the Bible, he can speak French and Latin. He seems destined for the church despite professing his love of archery, England’s national sport at the time (on Edward III’s orders). But all is not well in Hookton, and at Easter of 1342 raiders from Normandy led by Sir Guillaume d’Evecque and a mystery man named The Harlequin come and attack the village, killing Thomas’ father, and stealing a valuable family treasure – the lance of St. George. Thomas vows to get revenge on the attackers one day and recover the lance.

It is now 1346 and Thomas has joined up with a band of archers in the employ of the Earl of Northampton sieging La Roche-Derrien. We are introduced a typical Cornwell heroine in the form of Jeanette, Countess d’Armorica, beautiful yet dangerous as she tries and protects her city. Eventually the English find their way in and Jeanette runs afoul of the knight Sir Simon Jekyll when she rejects his overtures of sex. Thomas is called to defend Jeanette and when he learns of the attempted rape he plans revenge on Jekyll, but fails, and so he must leave La Roche-Derrien if he wants to escape with his life.

Thomas and Jeanette go on the run across Brittany and into Normandy, not helped when Jeanette’s pleas for help is turned down and then some by the Duke of Brittany. While they had been fugitives Edward III had led the main English army into Normandy and began laying siege to Caen. When Caen falls, Jeanette attaches herself to the Prince of Wales and leaves Thomas. Thomas has now spied the herald of Sir Guillaume and tries to kill him, but fails, and is then caught unawares by Sir Simon Jekyll and left to hang. Thomas is rescued by a girl named Eleanor, who is Sir Guillaume’s daughter, and she nurses the two of them back to health. They become friends and Sir Guillaume educates Thomas on his French ancestry – it seems that Thomas and the man called The Halequin have a lot more in common than he realised.

Harlequin moves into its conclusion after the siege of Caen with the English army successfully crossing the ford at Blanchetaque after a fierce fight, and then fighting the decisive battle at Crécy when the English longbow causes such devastation. As it descends into hand-to-hand fighting Thomas encounters Jekyll and The Harlequin on the battlefield and kills neither; Sir Guillaume tries to do the same and only manages to kill Jekyll, and The Harlequin escapes. Thomas manages to recover the Lance of St. George on the body strewn battlefield.

Harlequin, in many ways, is a typical Bernard Cornwell novel. Once you have read one you can pretty much predict how the rest will go. They are told at a quick-pace, full of action where the hero joins battle countless times, falls in and out of love, runs afoul of somebody important and then reconciles. Harlequin is no different in that respect either. Thomas, the protagonist, is a bit different from Cornwell’s other heroes. He is a more wholesome character, I think, than Sharpe. He can read and write and, curiously, has a fairly firm faith in the Christian God that most Cornwell characters reject. In that way it is a refreshing change. Thomas is also different because he lacks that cloak of invincibility that Sharpe has, he does not have the all-powerful warrior feel that Derfel or Uhtred have either. As a fighter, at least in Harlequin, Thomas is defenceless without his bow and lacks that unstoppable warrior feel that his other heroes have in spades.

That is probably why of all of Cornwell’s novels, the Grail Quest series is my least favourite. I still enjoyed it immensely. It is a pleasant and easy going read. Harlequin a top notch adventure story with twists and turns that keep the pages flowing, and the villains are as good as always with a wonderful heroin. The cameo of Edward III and the Prince of Wales was a good few passages, too. But it is Thomas himself that probably lets it down, as he just does not hold a candle to other Cornwell creations. But as far as fast-paced adventures stories in the Middle Ages go this is a great, entertaining read, and I recommend any fan of this sort of thing to read it.

7.5/10.

“Sword of Attila,” by Michael Curtis Ford

27 Sep

“The Sword of Attila: A Novel of the Last Years of Rome,” by Michael Curtis Ford

(432p)

Sword of Attila is the fourth of five novels set in the ancient world by American author Michael Curtis Ford, depicting the final years of the Western Roman Empire through the combined stories of the last great Roman general Flavius Aetius and Attila the Hun leading up to the decisive Battle of Châlons in 451.

The first half of the novel travels back several decades from 451 when the Huns and Romans are in one of the typical alliances that were so common at the end of the empire. Flavius Aetius has ascended to be the effective leader of the Western Roman Empire as its best general, and he must deal with an utterly useless emperor, Valentinian III, and all the problems and conspiracies of court life care of Honoria while running an empire under increasing threat from invaders. Meanwhile, Attila has risen to the top of the ruthless Hun tribes and has brought them deep into Roman territory, pacified by the offer of land and an agreement to defend Rome’s borders from minor “barbarians”. These early chapters narrate their once good friendship as Aetius juggles his various roles in keeping relations with Attila in the east, Theodoric of the Visigoths and Merovech of the Franks in Gaul.

But all is not to be, and their alliance with each other begins to crumble as Attila gets ambitious and launches a campaign to attack the Visigoths, infamously crossing the frozen Rhine in 451. Attila cuts a path of destruction across Germania and Gaul while Aetius tries to assemble and allied army of Romans, Goths, Franks to have any chance of defeating Attila. The Battle of Châlons is well described as Ford cuts back and forth from the two different perspectives until the Romans claim victory – in reality there were so many dead bodies strewn over such a confined area there was no room to move – finishing with Attila, injured, escapes.

I had enjoyed the other of his novels that I had read, The Last King, but there were many things that just annoyed me about Sword of Attila. Mainly, plenty of historical details were blatantly ignored to overly dramatise the narrative. For one thing there were not over a million men at Châlons, it was more like 50,000 for either side at the most, and two second Google check would tell anyone that. This is compounded even further by the way the massive amount of soldiers on hand at Châlons is talked up in the narrative, as if Ford is attempting to make the battle seem more important than what it really is. Why do that? The Battle of Châlons is one of the important moments in human history – the Hunnic advance into far western Europe was checked and they soon faded from history, the Visigoths lost their King and as a result this allowed the Franks to eventually push them out of Gaul and into Hispania, and the damage to the Western Roman Empire was terminal enough to end within twenty years. That more than did its part in shaping Europe and the next 1,300 years of history. It is simple enough to accomplish that as a writer, I would think, without the need to invent a strength size of over a million.

Secondly, Ford describes the legionaries wearing uniforms similar to what Mark Antony and his lot would have worn when in reality the Roman war uniform of the 5th century was more or less the same as any early Middle Ages “barbarian” warrior – woollen trousers, undershirt, leather breastplate, mail (if they could afford it), and helmet. Raw recruited soldiers at the time of Châlons did not wear gold plated armour with leather trimming and they did not wear brand new gold helmets with lavish dyed red plumes. In reality most of the Roman soldiers (most of which were Goths and Franks anyway) would have been dressed almost the same as their Hun opponents. This sort of lazy research really does annoy me as even the most basic book on Roman history for school children would make it quite obvious that the army of Rome in 450 was not the army of Rome in 50BCE.

Aside from that, Ford’s writing style really can grate at times. He has a tendency to over-describe something, especially the unimportant. From the colours of the walls in a room to a pattern on a plate, it just screamed that it needed thorough editing. At 432 pages I would hazard a guess and say that a proper edit could trim close to a hundred pages out of Sword of Attila, such is the frequency of pointless narrative, and improve the novel considerably.

But I should not be too harsh on the book as it was enjoyable for the most part providing the obvious inaccuracies are ignored. The story of the relationship between Aetius and Attila is a good one, and told in an easy to understand and relatively flowing manner when Ford wasn’t spending a page describing a ribbon colour. Where the novel does succeed, however, is the way the story of the Roman-Hun alliance descending into war unfolds. One particularly memorable passage is during one of the final meetings between Aetius and Attila, where Aetius mentions that a Hun victory over some marauding Germans (early Saxons, probably) will bring glory to Rome again, and Attila angrily throws Aetius out by telling him the Huns do not live to serve Rome, and so forth. This, by an Aetius biographer, supposedly happened a couple of years before Châlons and Ford really did an excellent job capturing the tense situation between the two.

I find it hard to recommend to anyone to go out and buy Sword of Attila. There are better novels about Attila out there – see William Napier, for example – so the only recommendation I can give for Sword of Attila is that if you see in the library and feel like something easy to read, this is okay.

5/10.

“1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow,” by Adam Zamoyski

21 Sep

“1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow,” by Adam Zamoyski (656p)

1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow is a 2005 non-fiction historical study of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 by Polish historian Adam Zamoyski. Using a combination of contemporary diaries, later historical studies and interpretations from drawings by Johann Adam Klien and Faber de Faur Zamoyski constructs a descriptive analysis that tells the story of France’s invasion of Russia, both proceeding and during 1812.

The first part of the novel provides the lead-in and sets the tone for the events of 1812. Zamoyski spends a chapter detailing the face of the European landscape at the beginning of the second decade with Napoleon virtually as its master. At the end of 1811 Napoleon controlled the French lands and made himself King of Italy, his puppet-states in Germany (the Confederation of the Rhine), his brother-in-law Joachim Murat as King of Naples and Sicily, and his brother older Joseph as King of Spain. He had also married Archduchess Marie-Louise of Austria making his father-in-law Emperor Francis II, thus dragging Austria into an uneasy alliance by marriage. Lastly, he had entangled Russia in a treaty signed at Tilsit in 1807 after he had crushed them in the previous three years, and he had beaten the only other continental nation, Prussia, so badly it was only the intervention of Alexander I that kept Prussia on the map. Meanwhile, Britain had been hemmed into the southern half of Portugal and posed next-to-no threat to Napoleon’s control over Central Europe.

Zamoyski then moves onto the second half of his background to 1812 by analysing the complicated relationship between France and Russia. Throughout, it is placated by Napoleon’s wish for peace with Russia but also his demands of them to adhere to the Continental System, a policy devised by Napoleon to damage Britain economically by blocking access to ports and making British trade redundant. Russia, of course, imported many goods from Britain as she only had limited agricultural options and as a result they blatantly ignored the Continental System, enduring Napoleon’s wrath as a result. Zamoyski hypothesises of Napoleon’s reasons for invasion, but Zamoyski believes the most likely reason for it was that he had always intended to formally put Russia under his thumb through conquest than any well-meaning treaty. Intermittent between this is the goings on at the Russian court and Alexander’s position amongst the nobility, where Zamoyski details Alexander’s tenuous grip on the throne. It had only been a few years since Alexander played his part in the assassination of his father, Paul I, and coup d’état to snatch the throne. As a result he had a less than frosty relationship with his boyars, of whom Alexander was largely dependent on to draft troops.

Nevertheless, why would Napoleon fight two wars on two campaigns, so far apart from each other at the opposite ends of Europe? He was already well entrenched in the guerrilla war in Spain, although he had been conspicuous by his absent, leaving it up to Masséna and Soult to command the campaign. But this question, of why Napoleon would fight two major campaigns simultaneously, is the main question Zamoyski asks (the second being the question of Poland) as the narrative rumbles along leading up to his mobilisation of le Grande Armée in spring of 1812.

Napoleon assembles the largest army to date to march on Russia. Le Grande Armée consisted of an estimated 610,000 soldiers and officers drawn from France, Italy, Germany, the Duchy of Warsaw and a nominal corps from Austria and Prussia that had been required by treaty and marriage. Through Napoleon’s adjutant, Armand Caulaincourt, Zamoyski constructs the early weeks of the campaign as the French stormed through modern Lithuania and Belarus and into Russia itself more or less unopposed. Russia’s tactics to fall back deeper and deeper into Russia were already at work.

When not discussing and analysing the French advance into Russia, Zamoyski, through Caulaincourt, poses the question how much of an affect did Napoleon’s ailing health have on the campaign? Throughout, Napoleon was uncharacteristically undeceive and unable to make a clear aim for the campaign. Likewise, Zamoyski shifts back to the goings-on at the Russian court and the demise of Barclay de Tolly and his replacement with the popular charismatic yet incompetent Mikhail Kutuzov. From there, come the battles that led to Borodino, which of course did irreparable damage to le Grande Armée as they collapsed into a Moscow on fire.

France is devastated as Moscow burns. It had been Napoleon’s goal to capture the city, with its obvious large food stocks for the coming winter, and billet there until winter had passed. Russia had other plans and instead set Moscow ablaze, burning about a third of the city (mostly comprised of wooden buildings) completely and rendering it about 70% destroyed as a whole. Napoleon demanded Russia’s defeat but Alexander and Kutuzov did not even give it a thought – why would they? They were safe behind Moscow; or in Alexander’s case, in his imperial capital at St. Petersburg, hundreds of miles to the north in safety. But Moscow was lost for both sides. Gone was food and housing and the French soldiers went on les maraud. Churches and other places of business were ransacked, homes of the nobles were looted, women were raped and gangs of Russian men roamed the city, looking for a fight with the largely drunk soldiers. Zamoyski describes les maraud in intricate detail, owed to a painting by an unknown artist depicting French soldiers storming a house and looting and raping the inhabitants as well as the diary kept by Caulaincourt. They spend around three weeks in Moscow as Napoleon is forced to lick his wounds and come up with an escape plan.

But Napoleon has no plan other than to run for the Prussian border, some 900km west. Here is the greatest triumph of 1812 with Zamoyski’s brilliantly detailed description of France’s flight from Moscow. Winter was already setting in, food was scarce, uniforms and equipment were falling apart, and they were constantly harangued by Cossacks out for revenge. The retreat to the border is not for the weak of stomach as every bloody gory horrible detail is described. This includes one particular story of a woman breastfeeding her newborn that had frozen to death, but the child was still living and crying, so a soldier pulled the child off the frozen woman’s breast ripping the breast clean off the woman’s body. The hopelessness of the retreat is brought to life as le Grande Armée dies by the thousand as Napoleon flees ahead of the main pact and hurries back to Paris, but eventually they make it to the Prussian border after the terrifying crossing of the Berezina, where even more die after falling into the freezing water when the bridge boats collapse. As the last men cross the border, with Marshal Ney one of the final to cross, le Grande Armée had been reduced from 610,000 soldiers to barely 25,000. So too had Napoleon’s myth died.

1812 truly is an excellent, detailed and historically accurate historical study of Napoleon’s disastrous campaign into Russia. If there is one criticism of this novel to bad had is that it mostly tells the story from the French perspective, there being more French sources than Russian available, but the Russian side does get plenty of attention regardless. But otherwise, it is a superb read, not least of all because Zamoyski’s writing style is easy on the mind and eyes.

The descriptive style flows from page-to-page and you really do get wrapped up in the narrative. I would almost say Zamoyski’s easy style, use of diaries and quotes makes it like reading fiction. While he gets down to the nuts and bolts of the campaign it never gets boring, like many non-fiction novels can do, and leaves you constantly wanting more. It’s engrossing, comprehensive, detailed and brilliantly written. If you have some interest in Napoleon, Russian history or the Napoleonic wars I just cannot recommend it any higher, it is a top notch read.

9.5/10.

“Royal Flash,” by George MacDonald Fraser

21 Sep

“Royal Flash,” by George MacDonald Fraser (294p)
1843, 1847-1848: Lola Montez, Otto von Bismarck and the Revolutions of 1848

Royal Flash is the sequel in George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series, written in 1970. The second packet of Harry Paget Flashman’s memoirs, edited by Fraser, is set in two parts – the first deals with Flashman’s downtime in 1843, and the second depicts the Revolutions of 1848 and the Schleswig-Holstein Question in the fictional German state of the Duchy of Strackenz, making it the only fictional setting in the Flashman series.

The first part of the novel is set in 1843 with Flashman on leave on half-pay from the army. He is toasted across London as the hero of Afghanistan and in typical Flashman form uses his new fame to the full. After a brief relationship with the woman (Rosanna James) that would become the infamous Lola Montez, Flashman runs afoul of the dour and serious Otto von Bismarck. Flashman and Bismarck engage in a series of one-ups-manship, quickly becoming enemies. Montez soon returns to Flashman’s life as he gives a first-hand account of Lola’s debut as a Spanish dancer and the scandal that followed when she is spotted for her real identity, Flashman took the full credit for exposing her much to his own amusement.

The story then shifts to 1847. It is peacetime and there is little to do for a man in the army, especially one that has no desire to go abroad again if he had to, which angers his in-laws immensely. But a chance opportunity arises, and Flashman is spirited away to Germany and to the court of Ludwig I of Bavaria. There, he meets an old acquaintance, but Flashy’s mission to Bavaria is not as pleasant as it seems when he meets another old acquaintance. Otto von Bismarck had a plan for Harry Flashman.

Bismarck conspires to put Flashman in an impossibly dangerous scheme as a substitute for Prince Carl Gustaf in his marriage to the Duchess of Strackenz, Irma. The story meanders along at this point as Flashman’s arrival in Strackenz and false-wedding to Irma take place, which seemed like it went forever. But it all goes wrong again when Flashy learns the truth of Bismarck’s scheme and his life is placed into immediate danger, least of all when his true identity is uncovered by anti-German Danish sympathisers from Holstein that force him into a desperate attempt to free the real Prince Carl Gustaf from his holding cell.

If the plot sounds familiar to Anthony Hope’s Prisoner of Zenda, then it is. In Flashman’s own words Hope stole the story off him and his life experiences. But of all the Flashman novels I have read this is by far the weakest of them all. The story seemed disjointed at times and Fraser put words for the sake of it in places. I had a hard time of keeping interested in some sections, particularly during the wedding as I just wanted it to move forward and for something to happen. Is it a case of second book-itis? Probably, as I already know the quality of later novels is much improved.

I did enjoy some parts, though. The opening chapters when Flashman meets Montez and Bismarck were good, as was Bismarck’s time spent in the company of Flashman’s friends. But it was the part that really let this novel down. It was, well, boring. I could not keep myself interested and I had a hard time of taking the words in simply because I was not concentrating properly due to a lack of real interest. I love Flashman and I love this series, but there is a reason Royal Flash is considered to be the weakest in the Flashman series.

6/10.