1812 - The Great Retreat, Paul Britten Austin

1812 - The Great Retreat, Paul Britten Austin

This is the third part of a remarkable trilogy looking at Napoleon's invasion of Russia from the point of view of the participants in that disastrous campaign. This final volume looks at the retreat from Moscow, starting when Napoleon abandoned his attempts to move south and instead chose to retreat west along the same road he had used to reach Moscow. This was the period that saw the Grand Army fade away, partly because the ever-present bands of Cossacks made it impossible for the French to leave the main army to forage but mainly because of the terrible winter weather. As a result this is a fairly grim read - all of our eyewitnesses are describing an ongoing catastrophe, and even successes such as the victory at the Berezina came at a terrible cost.

This book is a stark reminder of the horrors of war. Almost every account describes some deaths or finding the dead, with starvation and the cold responsible for most of them. The discipline of the army collapsed, and there were soon more stragglers than men still under arms. The lack of any proper organisation right from the start has to have played a part in dooming the army - there doesn't appear to have been any efforts to make sure that the available transport was used for essential supplies and even quite late in the retreat some of the soldiers were still carrying loot from Moscow while one officer described his sadness at having to abandon an entire dinner service!

Despite the grim tone this is a compelling read, perhaps because of the scale of the disaster. Austin has picked an excellent group of eyewitnesses, who between them remind us of the multi-national nature of Napoleon's army, and the vast number of camp followers and other non-combatants who took part in the retreat (amongst them a group of French actresses who had been working in Moscow before the invasion and left with the army to avoid persecution). The entire trilogy is a brilliant piece of work and this is a fitting conclusion to it.

Phase One: To Smolensk
1 - A Word Unknown in the French Army
2 - Borodino Revisited
3 - Getting Through at Viazma
4 - Handmills at Doroghboui
5 - Snow
6 - Disaster at the Wop
7 - How Witebsk Was Lost
8 - Smolensk Again

Phase Two: Towards the Berezina
9 - The Icy Road to Krasnoie
10 - The Guard Strikes Back
11 - Marching, Marching, Marching
12 - Ney's Amazing Exploit
13 - The Terrible News at Toloczin

Phase Three: Across the Berezina
14 - Struggles for the Borissow Bridge
15 - How Ever Shall We Get Through?
16 - Two Fragile Bridges
17 - Partonneaux Surrenders
18 - Holocaust at the Berezina
19 - Two Prisoners

Phase Four: Beyond the Berezina
20 - Cortege through the Snows
21 - The Emperor Quits
22 - The Very Air Seemed Frozen
23 - Panic and Chaos at Vilna
24 - Ponari's Fatal Hill
25 - Ney's Last Stand
Two Epilogues

Author: Paul Britten Austin
Edition: Paperback
Pages: 464
Publisher: Frontline
Year: 2012 edition of 1996 original

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