“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.