Spending an extremely cold Christmas in Norway where temperatures never rose much above -10C, what could be more appropriate than to read an account of the disastrous Russian campaign of 1812?
What an excellent if harrowing read it is.
Based on numerous accounts of those who experienced it, Zamoyski paints a detailed picture of human misery on a scale which has thankfully rarely been witnessed in history.
A number of images and impressions stay with me:
• the way in which Napoleon almost blundered into the campaign - his aim was to bring the Czar to the negotiating table and to break Russia's alliance with Britain: he assumed that the presence of such a large army assembled on Russia's borders would make the Czar sue for peace.
• Napoleon's pleasure at receiving a portrait of the infant King of Rome which he showed to his entourage and then placed outside his tent, where the soldiers formed a queue to see it;
• the disappointment of Moscow: the French entering Moscow and finding nobody to formally surrender the city - totally contrary to the custom of warfare - and then the Russians setting fire to it, and Napoleon having to leave the city until the fire was under control.
• Napoleon working late into the night in the Kremlin corresponding with his Government in Paris and insisting that lamps were put in the windows to show his soldiers that he was working;
• the French army leaving Moscow, its soldiers borne down with books, pictures, gold, silver and other valuable items which they imagined would make their fortunes back in France;
• and of course the extreme cold, the lack of food and the shortage of forage for the horses without which the army could not fight effectively nor move its supplies.
• and, on a lighter note, Napoleon, his Marshalls and his old guard sliding down the approach to Dubrovna on their bottoms, because it was too slippery to stand up and walk down.
Amidst the horrendous conditions the soldiers remained remarkably loyal to Napoleon, and some talked of joining the Russians in an attack on India at the end of the campaign.
As the army retreated this loyalty was not significantly eroded. Zamoyski quotes a French sergeant who watched as two grenadiers went looking for dry wood for Napoleon:
Everyone eagerly proffered the best pieces he had, and even those who were dying raised their heads to whisper:"Take it for the Emperor!" (1)
The Dutch General, Dedem de Gelder, who did not like Napoleon, was nevertheless impressed by the way he dealt with the adversity:
I have to do justice to this man hitherto so spoilt by fortune, who had never yet known serious setbacks; he was calm, without anger, but without resignation; I believed he would be great in adversity, and that idea reconciled me to him.. I saw then the man who contemplates disaster and recognises all the difficulties of his position, but whose soul is in no way crushed and who says to himself: "This is failure, I have to quit, but I shall be back. (2)
As Zamoyski concludes, the catastrophic failure of the Moscow campaign punctured the aura of invincibility that had hitherto surrounded Napoleon. Although he waged a brilliant defensive campaign in 1813-1814, the odds were hitherto stacked against him.
1. Quoted in Adam Zamoyski, 1812 Napoleon's Fatal March on Moscow (Harper 2004), p. 455
2. Zamoyski p. 378