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A starring role for the Tsar

In reviewing Robert Harvey’s The War of Wars: The Epic Struggle Between Britain and France, 1793-1815 in these pages three years ago, I asked the question, ‘Who, in the end, defeated Napoleon Bonaparte?’; or rather, I repeated the question that Harvey himself posed at the end of his comprehensive account of the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.

14 October 2009

12:00 AM

14 October 2009

12:00 AM

Russia Against Napoleon Dominic Lieven

Allen Lane, pp.617, 30

In reviewing Robert Harvey’s The War of Wars: The Epic Struggle Between Britain and France, 1793-1815 in these pages three years ago, I asked the question, ‘Who, in the end, defeated Napoleon Bonaparte?’; or rather, I repeated the question that Harvey himself posed at the end of his comprehensive account of the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.

In reviewing Robert Harvey’s The War of Wars: The Epic Struggle Between Britain and France, 1793-1815 in these pages three years ago, I asked the question, ‘Who, in the end, defeated Napoleon Bonaparte?’; or rather, I repeated the question that Harvey himself posed at the end of his comprehensive account of the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. The question was, and remains, pertinent, he maintained, since all the coalition members at one time or another lay claim to the honours. His answer was unequivocal — that the lion’s share of the honours must go to Britain. Pitt’s, and then Grenville’s, continental coalition-building, the Royal Navy’s ‘astounding feats’ under Nelson and others like him, and Wellington’s ‘relentless performance’ in the Peninsula: these were the pillars of victory. But he prefaced this by laurels for the other three of the coalition’s principal members.

Dogged Austria deserves a large share of the credit, for rising from defeat again and again. Prussia, after its lamentable initial performance, renewed some of its national pride at the end. And Russia can claim credit for the 1812 campaign, in which, although there was no great feat of Russian arms, the French were completely routed.


Dominic Lieven, Professor of Russian History at the LSE, would dispute both Harvey’s apportionment of the honours, and his judgment of Russian feats of arms. He opens up an intriguing debate, with interesting parallels — that of the Eastern v. Western Front in the second world war — or indeed, as Professor Norman Stone would argue, in those of the first world war. Lieven is certainly a name to conjure with. Princess Dorothea Lieven, one of the author’s forebears, was the Russian ambassadress in London from 1812 to 1834 (and thitherto in Berlin), a beauty who used her looks and intellect tirelessly to support her country, and in particular Tsar Alexander I. Professor Lieven works tirelessly with this book to promote — rehabilitate? — Alexander’s image and that of his army.

For 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’. And, by heavens, did that morale need boosting!

Besides the invitation to re-think the honours, the book makes many challenging assertions. It is one thing, for example, for Bonaparte to claim in a letter to his brother Joseph in 1814 that ‘this [Prussian] army of Silesia was the allies’ best army’ (he would, wouldn’t he, after his drubbing at Leipzig?), but another for Lieven to write that this ‘was true enough’. Or to imply that the Russian cavalry was the most disciplined in Europe.

That said, their light cavalry, not always irregular Cossacks, did some superb reconnaissance and interception in both the 1812 and subsequent campaigns. The horse was, indeed, a key component in the whole strategic equation. Lieven suggests that Bonaparte’s loss of horses in 1812 was more significant than his loss of men: ‘In 1813 he could and did replace the men, but finding new horses proved a far more difficult and in the end disastrous problem.’ In contrast, the author throws some fascinating light on Russian horse-breeding.

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.

In all this, Lieven makes a compelling case that Russia is the biggest gap in contemporary Western understanding of the Napoleonic era, and that study reveals a hitherto hidden military quality. The book stands, therefore, as an essential reference; and although it stops well short of hagiography, the Princess would have approved.

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 ‘reflection on empires and nations’ the author deprecates as ‘a mistake [seeing] everything in the imperial tradition as harmful and the nation as the inevitable embodiment of virtue’. Is it not a pity, therefore, as well as counter-productive, to go on to say that ‘This is in no sense a justification for neo-empire in today’s world’? For how much nearer today are we to the nation’s being the ‘inevitable embodiment of virtue’?


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