In this new study about one of the best-known and much-studied periods of history,Dominic Lieven has finally offered us a beautifully-crafted history written from the Russian point of view.It looks like he has combed every possible Russian archive and the result is mesmerizing.
In 1812 Napoleon's army proudly marched and invaded Russia,but only less than two years later,the Russian army was marching into Paris.As the author points out from the very beginning,the personal history of Napoleon during these years,1812-1814,is a "tale of hubris and nemesis".The story contains two of the major battles in European history,Leipzig and Borodino.If at first Napoleon's first army was smashed in the battlefield of Russia, his second was defeated on the battlefields of Germany.To quote,"In the longest campaign in European history,the Russian army pursued the French all the way from Moscow to Paris and led the victorious coalition into the enemy capital on March 21,1814".
Prof.Lieven adds that he is an old-fashioned- historian who has always wanted to tell this story and came to the conclusion that the "story as told in Western Europe and North America was very far from the truth".Thus he set out to correct things and decided that the best way to do it was to write about this era from the Russian perpective.We are also told that three of his direct ancestors were generals in the Battle of Leipzig! The Napoleonic wars occurred at the dawn of modern nationalism and the result is a national bias in the writing of history which exists in all countries especially when it comes to writing about war.
One area of Napoleonic warfare which has attracted too little attention from historians of every nationality is that of logistics,namely the equipment and feeding of armies.One of the key triumphs of the Russian effort was its success in feeding and supplying more than half a million troops outside Russia's borders in 1813-1814.Another factor which is discussed in the book is one greatest hero of the war effort.This was not a human being but an animal:the horse.The horse fulfilled the present-day functions of the tank,the lorry,the aeroplane and motorized artillery."It was the weapon of shock,pursuit,reconnaissance, transport and mobile firepower"(p.7).Napoleon lost almost all the horses with which he invaded Russia.In 1813 he managed to replace the men but finding new horses proved a far more difficult and in the end disastrous problem.It was the lack of cavalry wgich stopped him from winning decisevely in the spring of 1813 campaign and persuaded him to agree to the fatal two-month summer armistice,which contributed so much to his ultimate defeat.The study of the Russian horse industry is discussed here for the first time and is the key part of the present book.How and why Russia overcame the enormous challenge presented by Napoleon is another main feature of this book.Military operations,strategy and diplomacy constitute the core of the book and the basic approach of it is chronological.The author starts with the negotiations at Tilsit 1807 and then commences with the Franco-Russian deal to run Europe until Napoleon's invasion of Russia.In the summer of 1810 the Russians, who were far from trusting Napoleon,sent a number of young and competent officers to Germany in order to gather intelligence.The reasons for this were the words spoken by the French minister of war who boasted that Napoleon's army had never been so well equipped.
The next chapter gives a very long and informative description of Russia's generals and minister of war Aleksei Arakcheev.There are four chapters devoted to 1812 and Borodino and four more chapters on 1813 while the year 1815 gets two chapters.Prof.Lieven discusses in detail the main differences between the two armies.If the Russian army under Alexander the First and Kutuzov was deeply religious and imbued with patriotic themes,the French adversary was
secular and never spoke about patriotism.There was also a partisan warfare in 1812 and the reader is informed that this movement was not the same as the partisan one during the Nazi occupation in 1941-1945.
Another myth dispelled here in the best possible convincing way has to do with the Russian winter-the factor which was regarded so far as responsible for Napoleon's defeat.This was not true and is nonsense, because it was only in December,after the French army had already been destroyed, that the winter became unusually and "ferociously cold"(p.265).However,not only Napoleon's troops suffered tremendous losses.Kutuzov reported to Alexander in December 1812 that the army's losses had been so enormous that he was obliged to hide them not just from the enemy but also from his own officers.A new enemy was at the gates of Russia at the end of 1812:typhus.The disease was rampant among the prisoners of war whom the Russians were capturing in droves and it spread quickly.The main factor which contributed to Napoleon's defeat in 1812-1814 concerns the Russian soldier and officer.The Russian army showed great heroism and suffered immensely in 1812,and the year after the Russian army fought with more skill because of the experience it had gained in 1812.The Russians were skilled and intelligent enough in order to arrive at the conclusion that to remove the enemy threat required taking the war beyond the
country's borders.This was to achieved by recruiting allies.The kudos goes to Alexander, who managed to grab his allies by the scruff of the neck in order to get them to serve their own and Europe's interests.Russian and European security depended on each other.Napoleon's final chance and hope to be the master of Europe by controlling Germany were dashed by the mistakes he and his generals made on the battelfield of Leipzig.Though the allies lost 52000 men at this battle,they fought with more courage and tenacity than their counterparts.Napoleon got back to the Rheine with 85000 men but thousands of them succumbed ,again,to typhus.
How Russia's home front was mobilized against the enemy is discussed in detail.The book also contains sixteen maps-some of them extremely detailed and informative.Although there are many details on each aspect of the Russo-French campaign,the reader never gets bored and has the feeling of actually being on the battlefielld or present during the relevant diplomatic talks. Fresh analysis and insights and a very good and intriguing narrative make this one of the best books written on this fascinating era.