In which the famed French emperor seals his doom by marching headlong into a country that would not be tamed.
Polish historian Zamoyski (Holy Madness, 2000, etc.) has an eye for irony, and though he does not specifically point out parallels, the French invasion of Russia in 1812 finds echoes in current events. His aides warned Napoleon not to invade, fearing that while the French army was distracted, subject states across Europe would take the occasion to revolt. Alexander, the Russian tsar, had warned a French diplomat that “if it came to war he would go on fighting, in the depths of Russia if necessary, and would never sign a peace dictated to him in his capital,” and it was evident before the war began that partisan forces and the weather could combine to do more damage than any Russian army. Still, Napoleon decided to take the battle to Russia, citing threats that did not appear to have much basis in fact. He must have thought he could beat the Russian army, which was made up of mostly non-Russian officers commanding a force of men who were all but serfs under arms: as Zamoyski writes with characteristic attention to detail, a Russian private’s enlistment term was for 25 years, and his family was likely to write him off as dead the moment the induction notice came; whenever possible, it seemed, Russian soldiers deserted by the drove. Yet the Russians stood and fought, as they always did when their homeland was threatened; as Zamoyski writes, the Battle of Borodino alone was “the greatest massacre in recorded history, not to be surpassed until the first day of the Somme in 1916.” And then there was the winter, of course, which trimmed the French army logarithmically even as Napoleon decided to resort to Plan B: “He resolved to hasten back to Paris, where he would raise a new army in time to sally forth in the spring and not only reassert his control over central Europe but also defeat the Russians.”
There’s not much news here, but fans of Sharpe, Aubrey, Bezukhov, and the like will appreciate Zamoyski’s vivid reconstruction of events.