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Moscow 1812 by Adam Zamoyski

Evan Gillespie

Zamoyski blames Napoleon's tactical leadership with the campaign's failure, and the list of errors the author attributes to the emperor looks surprisingly like the kinds of mistakes that continue to doom military campaigns to this day.

Moscow 1812

Publisher: HarperCollins
Length: 672
Price: $29.95
Author: Adam Zamoyski
US publication date: 2004-08

Given the high profile of Napoleon's 1812 invasion of Russia on my side of the Atlantic (the western side), you would think that there would be widespread knowledge of the ins and outs of the military campaign. After all, the fall of Moscow is commemorated by Americans at Fourth of July fireworks celebrations all across the country, and the war is the subject of arguably the most recognized novel in the entire canon of world literature. I suspect, though, that most Americans think that Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture has something to do with the American Revolution, and North American students are more likely to brag about not having read Tolstoy's War and Peace than to have actually read it. I'd wager the percentage of residents of the Western Hemisphere who understand the significance of Napoleon's ill-fated venture into Eastern Europe is pretty small; it marked the beginning of the decline of French hegemony in Europe, and it put in place the political grudges that would fuel two world wars in the 20th century -- but over here, as is often the case, we're blissfully unaware. Adam Zamoyski's new account of the Russian campaign of 1812 is not going to change that, but if any hefty history book could do the trick, this would be the one.

The facts of the conflict are dramatic. As Napoleon struggled with Britain at the beginning of the nineteenth century for political control of Europe, the French emperor toyed with the center of the continent, rearranging kingdoms and duchys in an attempt to construct a stable eastern boundary of alliances. Those commentators favorably disposed toward Napoleon tend to characterize these machinations as the project of an enlightened leader spreading egalité through the dark eastern lands, but Zamoyski is less kind to the ruler; he sees Napoleon as a volatile egotist and the French eastward expansion as a program of exploitation and plunder. Russia viewed Napoleon in much the same way at the time, and after an ill-conceived and short-lived alliance (following a minor defeat of a Russian army by Napoleon), the Russian tsar, Alexander, became more and more belligerent in the face of French political demands.

Zamoyski portrays the relationship between Napoleon and Alexander as something more like a rivalrous friendship than outright animosity. Napoleon hoped to enlist Alexander's aid in his ongoing struggle with the British -- and perhaps even in a foray onto the Indian subcontinent -- and he was certain that the tsar could be a valuable and dependable ally. Alexander, like most of the rest of Europe, idolized and envied Napoleon, and if Napoleon had done nothing to alienate him, Alexander no doubt would have willingly ridden the French emperor's coattails across Europe.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given Zamoyski's national heritage (he is descended from Polish nobility and is the author of numerous Polish history texts), the author identifies Poland as the deal-breaker in the negotiations between France and Russia. Napoleon was determined to hold the possibility of the reunification of the Kingdom of Poland as a carrot before the Poles, a semi-sincere promise to ensure loyalty. Alexander, on the other hand, saw a reunified Poland as a serious threat to the integrity of Russia (Poles tend to think that Russia lives in fear of Polish aggression, even if Russians don't realize it), and the tsar demanded a guarantee that Napoleon wouldn't let reunification come to pass. When the disagreement ended in an impasse, war was inevitable.

Napoleon gathered a gigantic army on the Russian border, hoping that Alexander would flinch. When he didn't, Napoleon invaded, chasing Russian armies that retreated deep into their own territory. Eventually, Napoleon reached Moscow, and the city was destroyed. It was a dubious victory, however, because bitter winter weather and Russian resistance forced the French emperor's army to retreat, suffering great losses as it went, until there was almost nothing left of the once massive invasion force.

Whatever the reasons for the 1812 campaign, it was an unqualified disaster for Napoleon; his army's retreat and decimation set the stage for his eventual fall from power. Romantics like to think that it was the Russian winter that stopped Napoleon's Grand Armée, while Russians prefer to credit their own army's fierce resistance with repelling the invasion. Zamoyski blames Napoleon's tactical leadership with the campaign's failure, and the list of errors the author attributes to the emperor looks surprisingly like the kinds of mistakes that continue to doom military campaigns to this day. Napoleon did not have a clear objective for his invasion, Zamoyski argues, and he failed to build a strong coalition of his most powerful allies before taking action. He mistakenly thought that the peasant population would greet his army as liberators. He had supply problems, and his troops abused the locals. His army was already in grave danger, Zamoyski claims, long before the winter set in or the Russians offered any real resistance.

Zamoyski consults primary sources -- letters, journals, memoirs, in French, Russian, German, Italian, and Polish -- to construct a history of the campaign that is both thorough and engaging. This is no historical fiction -- it is well-researched and scholarly -- but it is also human in its depiction of the individuals involved in the colossal struggle. Alexander is an inexperienced but determined leader, while Napoleon is troubled and fatally arrogant. Nor are the armies portrayed merely numbers lined up in charts; the French alliance is a professional, well-trained military organization, the Russians a motley mass of abused peasants.

Most significantly, Zamoyski does not give in to the popularly accepted notions of either Napoleon or Alexander. Napoleon was aging and scattered in 1812, Zamoyski argues, and he was more focused on extending the reach of his power than on promoting French enlightenment in the hinterlands. Alexander, although initially progressive, was hardened by the struggle and later clamped down brutally on his own population, paving the way for revolutionary discontent.

Even if Moscow 1812 will appeal primarily to history buffs, the dabbler could do worse in selecting an accessible, entertaining account of one of the most important military campaigns in European history. And at about 650 pages, it's big, but still only about half as big as War and Peace.

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