Tag Archives: Napoleonic Wars

Russia Against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814, by Dominic Lieven

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“War,” Thomas Hardy once wrote, “makes rattling good history.” If you would like an example of exactly what Hardy meant, I commend Russia Against Napoleon by Dominic Lieven.

Never in history, perhaps, did a man of such extraordinary military genius suffer so extraordinary a military disaster. On June 24, 1812, Napoleon Bonaparte, the master of continental Europe, led nearly half a million men into the depths of Russia to enforce his will upon Czar Alexander I. With greatly inferior forces, Russia could not afford to confront Napoleon head on. Instead, the Russian commander, Mikhail Kutuzov, of necessity adopted Fabian tactics, harassing the invaders but avoiding pitched battle when possible.

The one really big battle, Borodino, was more or less a draw, after Napoleon gave up personal command for reasons never satisfactorily explained. On Sept. 14 Moscow fell to Napoleon, and he sent peace overtures to Alexander, thinking the czar had no option but to negotiate.

The Russians stalled and hinted but never gave a firm answer, seeking to keep Napoleon in Moscow as long as possible. On Oct. 19, with the czar still dawdling, French food supplies dwindling rapidly, and the Russian winter closing in, Napoleon had no choice but to begin withdrawal. The weather, disease and constant Russian harassment then destroyed his Grande Armee. He started the invasion with 450,000 men; 6,000 returned home.

The myth of 1812 was, he maintains, largely of Tolstoy’s creation in War and Peace — the idea being that it was essentially Bonaparte’s vaunting ambition and Generals Janvier and Fevrier which did for the French. On the contrary, says Lieven: ‘One key reason why Russia defeated Napoleon was that its leaders out-thought him’. Bonaparte failed to understand Russian society, whereas Alexander knew perfectly the strengths and weaknesses of his enemy. The Tsar and his war minister, Field-Marshal Barclay de Tolly, fully expecting that Bonaparte would at some stage march on Moscow, planned all along what Lieven calls a ‘people’s war’, which is perhaps more evocative than ‘guerrilla war’, but which was conducted nevertheless on the lines of that against Bonaparte’s armies in Spain. Indeed, Alexander seems to have drawn comfort, perhaps inspiration, from the Peninsular campaign, and Wellington’s bold strategic retreats, in his own plans for ‘deep retreat’ in Russia. Lieven is always generous to Wellington: of the duke’s great victory at Salamanca, he writes that not only did it ensure that even more French troops would be tied down in Spain in 1812 and beyond, but that it ‘boosted the morale of all Napoleon’s enemies’.

What he is keen to demonstrate is that because the campaigns of 1813-14 are generally buried, so to speak, beneath the snows of 1812, the real quality of the Russian army remains unseen. For here was an army that followed up its success by fighting through Prussia all the way to Paris, a considerable feat of logistics, command and control as well as of arms — and without the depredations of the Red Army the following century. Indeed, when they marched home again, Alexander’s troops were feted in many a German town.

Then why — besides the Tolstoy factor — has the extent of the Russian contribution been concealed until now? The author suggests that the Prussians ‘elbowed Russia aside’ when it came to interpreting the campaign of 1813, just as ‘the British grabbed Waterloo for themselves’; and that Soviet-era history has been keener to emphasise the ‘people’s war’ side of 1812 than Tsarist military prowess in 1813-14.

This leads to the central message of Lieven’s work. For him, the Russian army of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was clearly a force of great strength and versatility that was more than capable of meeting the challenges posed by the French Revolution and Napoleon without having to engage in fundamental change. And, as with the Russian army, so with the whole of the Russian state. Far from being some ramshackle eastern despotism, this was in many ways a vibrant and forward-looking organism that possessed extraordinary resources and even offered a number of the advantages that are normally associated only with the French Revolution: a regime that could place such a figure as Mikhail Speransky at the head of its affairs was hardly one in which careers could not be said to be open to talent. In writing about the Russia of Alexander I, Dominic Lieven has also made a major contribution to wider debates on the Napoleonic epoch, and for this, as for so much else, he is to be congratulated.

This is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the Russian campaign; it re-evaluates the balance of responsibility for the course of events, and presents a new interpretation of the strategy used by the Russian command. A very enjoyable and thought-provoking read.

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Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke

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There is a prophesy. Long ago, Albion’s greatest magician, the Raven King, wrote ominously that “two magicians shall appear in England. The first shall fear me; the second shall long to behold me; the first shall be governed by thieves and murderers; the second shall conspire at his own destruction.”

We are in an alternative 1806 with the same king (George III, just as mad), the same politicians; the Napoleonic War; Byron; pedantic, provincial, learned societies; gentlemen living on their estates, and (mostly) the same back history. But there is such a thing as magic and, furthermore, northern England has been under supernatural rule for centuries.

Hanoverian hegemony over the territories north of the Humber is theoretically a stewardship pending this entity’s return. The church exists as a social institution, but not as a religious one. For a couple of centuries, magic has been purely academic; there have been no successful spell-casters. But first one, then another, magician arises: a pedant called Mr Norrell, then a country gentleman called Mr Strange.

A partnership arises between these two magicians, but it is an uneasy one. Norrell is conservative, secretive, and fearful, whereas Strange is innovative and attracted to the most dangerous, wildest kind of magic. His interest in the shadowy figure of the Raven King becomes more than academic; this quest puts at peril all he holds dear, and especially the woman he loves. The Raven King, John Uskglass, moving beneath and beside the early 19th century, is attempting to set upon the throne of England a king to rival the current occupant, the befuddled George III. In order to preserve their world, and save his wife, Strange must unite with Norrell and seek to defeat the most powerful magician of all.

At just over 780 pages, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell clicks along at such a comfortable pace that it seems, if not much shorter, just stunningly well-structured for its size and scope. In all its length there is not a single instance of padding, never an eye-glazing moment of pure, dull self-indulgence. To a degree, the story is episodic, but every event is precisely positioned in the narrative to build upon previous events and lead smoothly into upcoming ones. Rooted in two unique and memorable characters, the story just sweeps you up and carries you along, never lapsing to tired clichés nor trading in sentimentalism for its emotional depth. Clarke’s best thematic conceit is her often hilarious depiction of the politicization of magic, leading to the kinds of rivalries you always see in real-life politics, or the arts and sciences. The efforts of politicians and generals to grasp the practical applications of magic is particularly amusing:

‘Can a magician kill a man by magic?’ Lord Wellington asked Strange. Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question. ‘I suppose a magician might,’ he admitted, ‘but a gentleman never would.’ Lord Wellington nodded as if this was just as he would have expected.

Sophisticated, witty, and ingeniously convincing, Susanna Clarke’s magisterial novel weaves magic into a flawlessly detailed vision of historical England. Clarke’s fantasy is more akin to Laurence Norfolk, Umberto Eco or a slightly touched Dickens, than a Tolkien or Peake, but it is the equal of any of those august names. Perhaps it appeals as much to the historian as to a fantasy-lover, but the humour and sheer skill of the writing must appeal to all lovers of great literature. The leisurely pace of the novel is more than made up for by the astonishingly imaginative footnotes, which are folktales, anecdotes and mini-essays that enthrall the reader as well as inform the plot.

I have always had a soft spot for the epic, the imaginative, and the nostalgic glance into the past. I have more than a soft spot for this book; it contains all these things and more, and if one is brave enough to open ignore the thick spine and heavy cover, the journey that awaits you is worth every second.