Russia against Napoleon

 Alan Forrest admires a new history of the battle for Europe in the early 19th century

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Reviewed by: Alan Forrest
Author: Dominic Lieven
Publisher: Penguin
Price (RRP): £30

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This is, by Lieven’s own admission, a labour of love, the result of years of study and reflection. It brings genuinely new insights, eschewing the conventional concerns of British and French historiography to examine the Napoleonic Wars from a Russian perspective, through the eyes of Tsar Alexander I and his generals, through the experience of Russian officers and soldiers, and against the backdrop of Russian political and diplomatic ambitions. There is a wealth of detail on Russia’s geography, its natural resources, its social structure and temperament. There is a breadth of imagination, too, combined with gentle humour and a lightness of touch that stem from complete mastery of the subject. The author is by turns provocative and discursive, analytical and extremely witty. His judgments are pithy and incisive.

This was a campaign which Russia planned, a war that Russia won, and not simply – as it is so frequently characterised in western Europe – one that Napoleon lost in the snows of the northern winter. That is just one of many myths that surround the 1812 campaign which Lieven seeks to correct. Some of these myths were Russian. In the 19th century, in the tradition of Tolstoy, 1812 was depicted as a nationalist rising against a foreign invader, akin to the Wars of Liberation in Prussia. The author remains unconvinced, seeing it as a victory less for the people than for the empire, and he offers a multi-layered account that ranges from court politics to the vagaries of logistics and supply.

At its core is a study of grand strategy, an insistence that, from Russia’s standpoint, this was a global struggle and not just a European one. The defeat of Napoleon resulted from diplomatic manoeuvres and military alliances.

Of course, it was a victory won on the battlefield, too, and this is a distinguished work of military history. If it underlines the weaknesses of the Russian army, like a vacillating high command, relatively poor musketry, and routine parade-ground values in training, it also points to its strengths, an astute commander in Barclay de Tolly, young officers promoted on merit, and logistical superiority. It gives due credit to Russia’s military structures, which allowed the army to feed half a million troops outside its borders in 1813–14, and its seemingly endless supply of men. Of men, but also, crucially, of horses, “with which Russia was better endowed than any nation on earth”.

It was no accident, he insists, if the Russian horse artillery was the most mobile and flexible on the battlefield, for the horses of the steppes were different in kind from those of western Europe. They were speedy and resilient, and there seemed to be an inexhaustible supply. They were a resource that contributed significantly to Napoleon’s defeat in 1812 and to Russia’s ultimate victory in the war. They were in their way as crucial for the success of the Russian army as battlefield tactics or grand strategy.

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Alan Forrest is professor of modern history at the University of York