Dithering in a (well-stocked) foreign-language bookshop in Moscow, I felt compelled to pick up something (for the trains) at least vaguely related to either Russia or China. Apparently 1421 is not that great, and I really didn’t want to lug around War & Peace, so settled on 1812, a factual review of Napoleon’s march on (and then back) from Moscow. My background knowledge of the period essentially comes watching Sharpe, but the book is well written, with a good structure and decent amounts of detail without getting bogged down in trivialities of military units, the Russian aristocracy or French politics.

Apparently the story of the French invasion has been retold (with ‘interpretation’) many times since the original events, as the relative status of Bonaparte has varied in the public perception, and as different ruling factions in Russia have sought to emphasise political causes du jour – such as defence of the country by the peasantry, the competence or incompetence of the aristocratic Russian officers (or indeed the Tsar), or to instill a fear of foreign invasion.

The book took some time to finish – it’s about the right length (allowing for the voluminous footnotes), but depressing reading – at every stage in the events, the suffering and loss of life is immense. Of course that’s the nature of conflict, but the sheer pointlessness of the exercise at the strategic level, and the utter incompetence of the commanders at the tactical level, combine to bring home the futility of the undertaking. It’s all here – men freezing to death as they stand, cavalry charges where five men survive from three hundred, troops being held in reserve for an entire battle, broken chains of command due to personal rivalries, all of it. 

Posted Sunday, July 6th, 2008 under books, history, travel.


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