Haythornthwaite, Philip J. Borodino, 1812: Napoleon’s Great Gamble. (Campaigns, 246)

Oxford, UK: Osprey, 2012.

This author is a well-known expert in the minutiae of military history — uniforms, equipment, and so on — but he also does a very good job with tactics and wider strategy. Half his forty-odd books have been written for Osprey and this one, on the first modern European invasion of the vastness of Russia, is well up to his usual high standard.

Russia at the beginning of the 19th century was still medieval in many of its social institutions (serfdom and all) and the young Czar, Alexander I, was a puzzle to many — an absolute autocrat with liberal ideas. At first, he admired the French Revolution and Napoleon, and Russia and France came to an accommodation that allowed the Emperor to concentrate his attentions elsewhere. But the “Continental System” of embargo against all non-French-controlled nations (the few that remained) put a severe strain on the Russian economy and Alexander began speaking privately to Turkey and Sweden (Bernadotte was having similar problems) and, finally, to Britain. Napoleon had to bring Russia back into line, and so he determined on a program of military invasion to defeat the Russian army. In other words, he was telling the truth when he said he had no interest in the conquest and occupation of that vast country. He simply wanted to bring Russia under the heel of France.

All this background and context is smoothly described in the opening section of the book, followed by biographical sketches of the principal military personalities on both sides and a very detailed table of organization. Then the reader is led through the chronology of the invasion (and a long, exhausting slog it was for the French and their German allies and clients, even to reach Russia), up to the climactic battle in September 1812, involving 250,000 to 350,000 men on both sides — the largest battle of the entire Napoleonic wars — which Haythornthwaite explains action by action, almost minute by minute. It was a bloody and close-fought confrontation, with 70,000 to 100,000 casualties (including some seventy generals), but the French were theoretically victorious. However, this was mostly because the Russians finally withdrew, preserving their strength for later. Napoleon went on to capture Moscow, but much good it did him. And when he was forced to retreat at the end of the year, the Russians were there to harry the French armies all the way back to the West. The Russian campaign, and especially Borodino, is really where it all changed for Napoleon.

Osprey books are always short — usually, like this one, around 96 pages — but they don’t waste space. They’re also heavy on illustration, in this case with many of the drawings, battle paintings, and portraits produced by both French and Russian artists after the campaign. There are several large tactical maps showing clearly each stage of the battle, and three double-page modern drawings by Peter Dennis of key incidents. All in all, even if you aren’t reading War and Peace, a knowledge of Borodino (and the Russian campaign generally) should be in the background of anyone with an interest in modern military history.

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Published in: on 26 August 2014 at 3:27 am  Leave a Comment  
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