Napoleon's invasion of Russia is a well-known event, but how much is generally known about it? The usual picture is of a bunch of French soldiers freezing, a rag-tag band of men trudging their way out of the depths of Russia and back to where they came from, the snow and cold a greater threat than the Russians. Some people may have heard of the battle of Borodino but have no idea that it happened during this invasion. This lack of historical knowledge can be greatly rectified by picking up Adam Zamoyski's Moscow1812: Napoleonís Fatal March. This book is excellent, brought down just a touch by the extensive detail Zamoyski gives us about the retreat. While I wouldn't normally call that a bad thing (and it generally isn't in this book), it does occasionally get a bit oppressive for the reader.
Zamoyski covers a wide range in this rather large book (550-plus pages). He begins by giving a bit of the history of the Napoleonic conflicts. He doesn't go into great detail about them, but he does set up the political situation in both France and Russia immediately before Napoleon's decision to invade. He also gives a chapter to each of the rulers involved, detailing Alexander's strengths and weaknesses (Alexander is generally less known among the history non-fans) in regard to military as well as political matters. The politics of the situation set up, Zamoyski then sets the stage for one of the greatest debacles of all time. Napoleon keeps insisting that he doesn't want war with Russia, and if Alexander would just be a good boy and subjugate himself like he should, then Napoleon wouldn't have to do this. He doesn't seem to realize that the humiliation he's already forced Alexander to suffer will keep Alexander from doing it again. Napoleon's arrogance will finally cause him to meet his match.
Zamoyski sets the scene beautifully in clear, interesting chapters that give the reader just enough detail without going too far. He delves into the make-up of Napoleon's army, the various satellite states (Bavaria, Warsaw, Switzerland, and a wide variety of others), and even how the French soldier was typically outfitted. Some of this may sound boring, but Zamoyski keeps it fairly light, and it has even greater meaning later on in the book when soldiers are casting off as many possessions as they can to lighten their load, or when national divisions start to show their cracks as conditions worsen.
It's amazing, in a campaign that took at least five months, how little fighting there actually was. Sure, there was skirmishing, and the Russian pursuit of the fleeing French army which resulted in a few pitched battles and a lot of sniping, but Borodino was the only major battle. Zamoyski does a great job detailing this battle as well as all the subsequent ones in which the French had to turn and fight during the retreat in order to avoid annihilation. The maps in this book give positions of all the various armies, the leaders and the units they led, neatly matching the description on the same page or two of the map. My one major complaint about many military history books is how the maps are often elsewhere, but Moscow 1812 does a wonderful job with this. The reader can follow along with no problem and see, both visually and mentally, exactly what happened.
Zamoyski details the capture of Moscow, the Russian flight from the capital, and finally the retreat. He covers the politics of the situation well, showing how much the Russian general Kutuzov was disliked by both his underling generals and Alexander himself, yet loved by his men. Especially vivid are his descriptions of the various personalities, such as the general Murat, the flamboyantly dressed general in Napoleon's army who was always recognizable on the field.
Almost half of Moscow 1812 is spent on the actual retreat, and this is where it drags slightly. Not that it isn't interesting, but what happens is that the book almost becomes oppressive. Zamoyski gives us a lot of detail about the retreat, all the way down to the cannibalism at the end when there was no food to be had. He details the cold, the snow, how the soldiers managed to survive, and how many of them didn't. Granted, there are some actual battles in this part, and Zamoyski does his usual good job with these, but then we get back to the retreat and the freezing to death. I alternately loved and hated this part, and I do think it went on a bit too long. Some of the detail is not for the squeamish, including vivid descriptions of the effects of frostbite on a man walking.
That being said, I think it is important to get a lot of that detail. I had always known about the great retreat in concept, and that it was bitterly cold, that Napoleon lost many of his men, and that his army was basically destroyed. I had, however, no idea just how horrible it was, and this book brings that home. The Cossacks in this book are especially effective; they almost seem to be a horrible force of nature rather than a group of men. They are always hovering on the outskirts of the retreat, waiting for people to fall to the roadside, swooping in to strip them of their valuables. We hear much about the brutality of the Cossacks, both in the raiding as well as the escorting of prisoners. This is an important story, and I'm very glad I read this book.
The best part of Moscow 1812 is that it is extensively researched with a lot of footnotes. Most of these notes are from primary sources - letters home from the soldiers, or journals. Some of these are from letters that Zamoyski later says were never delivered, implying that a Russian soldier found them and kept them. This is the story of the retreat told by those who were there, and it's all the more powerful for it.
If you have any interest in military history or Napoleon, and if you don't have a weak stomach, Moscow 1812 is the book for you.