(From The New York Times)
‘Russia Against Napoleon’
By DOMINIC LIEVEN
Napoleon made great progress in the first stage of empire-building, took some steps towards creating imperial institutions but still had a very long way to go in legitimizing his power. To do him justice, he faced a daunting task. A thousand years after the death of Charlemagne, it was rather late in the day to dream of restoring a European empire. Three hundred years after the printing of the vernacular Bible, the imposition of French as a pan-European imperial language was unimaginable. An imperial project backed by a universalist, totalitarian ideology might have gone some way towards establishing empire in Europe for a time. But Napoleon was in no sense a totalitarian ruler, nor was his empire much driven by ideology. On the contrary, he had put the lid on the French Revolution and done his best to banish ideology from French political life. Even the uprooting of local elites in conquered Europe went well beyond Napoleon's desires or his power. In 1812 his empire was still very dependent on his personal charisma.
Many European statesmen understood this and acted accordingly. On the eve of his departure for the Americas in 1809, Count Theodor von der Pahlen, the first Russian minister to the United States, wrote that despite the triumphs of France and its current dominance, within less than fifty years nothing will remain to it but the empty glory of having overthrown and oppressed Europe. It will have acquired no real benefits from this for the French nation, which will find itself exhausted of men and treasure once it can no longer raise them from its neighbours. France's immense current influence depends wholly on the existence of a single individual. His great talents, his astonishing energy and impetuous character will never allow him to put limits on his ambition, so that whether he dies today or in thirty years' time he will leave matters no more consolidated than they are at present.
Meanwhile, added Pahlen, as a new European Thirty Years War continued, the Americas would grow enormously in strength. Of the European powers only the English would be in a position to derive any advantages from this.
The implication of this comment is that in the eyes of history the triumphs and disasters of the Napoleonic era would seem the proverbial tale full of sound and fury, not (let us hope) told by an idiot but also not adding up to much. There is some truth in this. Aspects of the Napoleonic saga were more spectacular than significant. Nevertheless it would be wrong to be too dismissive of the fears and efforts of Europe's statesmen in these years.
Like all political leaders, Russia's rulers had to confront pressing contemporary realities. They could not live on hopes for a distant future. They might well share Theodor Pahlen's longer-term perspectives and believe that, if they could buy time and postpone the conflict with Napoleon, it might actually pass them by. The emperor himself could die or lose his fire. That after all was the rationale behind Nesselrode's spies assiduously reporting whether Napoleon was still eating a good breakfast. Unless fortune intervened, however, Russia's leaders from mid-1810 had to confront the reality that Napoleon was preparing to invade their empire. No doubt if they caved in to his demands war might be averted for a time. But to subscribe to his current version of the Continental System was to undermine the financial and economic bases of Russia's position as an independent power. By definition, this would leave it open to Napoleon to establish a powerful Polish client state which would shut Russia out of Europe.
The chances of Napoleon establishing a lasting empire across Europe may have been poor, though this was far from self-evident in 1812. His regime certainly could put down deep roots west of the Rhine and in northern Italy. It was also well within his power to implement the strategy set out in Champagny's memorandum of 1810, which Russian espionage had acquired for Alexander. There was every reason to fear in 1812 that Napoleon would defeat the Russian army and force peace on Alexander I. This would have resulted in the creation of a powerful Polish satellite kingdom, with its own ambitions in Ukraine and Belorussia. Austria could easily have become the loyal client of Napoleon after 1812, as it became Prussia's first lieutenant after 1866. With its ambitions turned to the Balkans and against Russia, it would have been a useful auxiliary of the French Empire against any threat from the east. Within Germany, a stroke of Napoleon's pen could have abolished Prussia and compensated the King of Saxony for losing his largely theoretical sovereignty over Poland. Meanwhile for at least a generation the combination of French power and regional loyalties would have kept the Confederation of the Rhine (Rheinbund) under Paris's thumb. Russia would be permanently under threat and at the mercy of a Europe organized along these lines. On top of this the consequences of defeat might well include a crushing indemnity and the sacrifices a victorious Napoleon might require Russia to bear in his ongoing war against the British. In 1812 the Russian state had much to fight for.
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from RUSSIA AGAINST NAPOLEON Copyright © Dominic Lieven, 2010
But it is of great interest to Mr Lieven, one of the ablest historians of imperial Russia. He dedicates half of “Russia Against Napoleon” (which was published this week in America though it came out in Britain a few months ago) to those events. Conducted outside Russia’s borders by commanders with distinctly foreign names, the 1813-14 campaign does not fit with national mythology. But it demonstrates the strength of Russia’s multi-ethnic empire and the depth of its integration in European affairs and security.
As he pursued his empire’s geopolitical interests, Alexander I managed to rally support from Prussia and Austria, presenting Russia’s invasion of Europe as liberation. In creating this favourable impression of the campaign, the tsar was helped not only by propaganda but by the remarkably disciplined behaviour of his troops who neither stole nor marauded as they advanced through Europe.
The central point made by Mr Lieven’s witty and impeccably scholarly book is that Russia owed its victory not to the courage of its national spirit or to the coldness of the 1812 winter, as some French sources have argued, but to its military excellence, superior cavalry, the high standards of Russia’s diplomatic and intelligence services and the quality of its European elite. Thanks to the intelligence he obtained, Alexander was able to outwit Napoleon, anticipating his invasion.
Napoleon’s intention was not to occupy Russia or overthrow Alexander by stirring a domestic revolt against him. He was counting on his superior force and his own military genius to destroy the Russian army swiftly and force the tsar to accept his peace terms. Alexander’s intention, on the other hand, was to destroy Napoleon and break his Grand Armée. Mikhail Barclay de Tolly, his war minister, devised and implemented the strategy of drawing Napoleon deep inside Russia, away from his supply base, exhausting his army by defensive war and then attacking.
An army of 120,000 men and 40,000 horses, according to Mr. Lieven, needed 850 carts just to carry a single day’s food and forage. Powder and shot for the artillery, medical care for the sick and wounded, tents and other supplies required many more. Napoleon’s vast army could not possibly have transported the food and fodder it needed and had to live off the resources of the lands he was invading. The Russians did their very considerable best to deny the French those resources.
The Cossacks were Russia's secret weapon
And here was one of the Russians’ secret weapons, the Cossacks. Bred to irregular warfare, the Cossacks, along with Russia’s far superior light cavalry units, were the Russian forces most feared by the French (and admired by Napoleon, who wished they were on his side). Able to move quickly, informed by the local peasants of French units, they were able to harass the enemy’s foraging parties mercilessly.
When Napoleon reached Moscow, matters got even worse for him and his vital cavalry. A stationary army in this time quickly exhausted the local food supply for the horses, and foraging expeditions had to reach further and further, ever more exposed to partisan forces. Napoleon’s cavalry had been badly mauled at Borodino, but it was the six weeks in Moscow that largely destroyed it as a fighting force as well as decimated the artillery horses.
This had grave strategic consequences for the French, not just tactical ones. Napoleon had lost not only most of the men he had led to Russia but 175,000 horses as well. The men could be replaced, as indeed they largely were before the next year’s fighting, but the horses could not. In 1813, despite scouring the French Empire, only 29,000 could be procured, and most of them were not of top quality. This would cripple the French in the campaign of 1813 and be a considerable factor in Napoleon’s reverses of the summer and autumn of that year.
Despite the fact that the so-called 'new military history' is now fifty or more years old, no Russian specialist in Britain or the United States (or, for that matter, France or Germany) has ever seen fit to embark on a detailed monograph-length study of the Russian war effort in 1812, let alone the struggles of 1805-7 and 1813-14. Equally, while campaign histories exist by the score, in the main they rely almost entirely on French sources...
Fortunately for all students of the Napoleonic era, this massive gap in the historiography has now been filled by a massive book. Crafted by Dominic Lieven, perhaps one of the most distinguished specialists in nineteenth-century Russia of his generation, Russia Against Napoleon truly reaches the parts that other works do not.
Aspects of this exhaustive work are markedly different from other accounts. Most Western histories of Russia versus Napoleon are almost wholly focused on 1812. Russian military operations during 1813–1814 are usually overlooked. Western authors have also concentrated on Napoleon, his huge army of 1812, and the Russian winter. They have all but dismissed Russian government actions and military operations.
In addition to battle and maneuver, this book explores political and economic factors. Lieven claims most European and American accounts of the subject have portrayed Russian resistance to Napoleon exactly as Leo Tolstoy did in his 1869 novel War and Peace: Ordinary Russians uniting in a passionate and patriotic defense of their native soil. The author says Western scholars have not given proper credit to the government in Moscow and the leadership of the tsar's army. In fact Lieven describes a functional Russian government and an army that succeeds despite enormous disadvantages.
Mr. Lieven debunks various myths that play down the achievements of Russia's military. As he notes, France itself—but also Russia's allies and even Russia's great nationalist writer, Leo Tolstoy— preferred to portray Russia's victory as the triumph of a hardy, resistant people and the vagaries of circumstance. Mr. Lieven insists on restoring credit to Russia's military forces, as well as to its leaders.
In Mr. Lieven's eyes, this story has two great heroes, and neither is Mikhail Kutuzov, the Russian general lionized by Tolstoy and, later, Stalin. Mr. Lieven praises Kutuzov, the commander in chief of the Russian forces, for his courage, skillful soldiering and mastery of public relations, but the author does not consider him the military genius that tradition has trained us to see. Rather it is the czar, Alexander I, and the historically undervalued Mikhail Barclay de Tolly, minister of war and the commander of the Russian forces before and after Kutuzov, who inspire Mr. Lieven's admiration.
Barclay de Tolly was responsible for Russia's successful strategy of "deep retreat," which he had recommended as early as 1810. The idea was to lure the French far into Russia's heartland, stretching out their supply lines and making a potential French retreat crippling and costly.
Tsar Alexander proved to be a formidable foe for Napoleon
And Czar Alexander, often portrayed as unpredictable and ungrounded, frequently shows good leadership and diplomatic finesse in Mr. Lieven's telling.
Russia's triumph is also a story of logistics, supplies and, above all, the horse. The country's leaders mobilized what Mr. Lieven calls "the sinews of Russian power": its vast population (although much smaller than the combined numbers at Napoleon's disposal); its outstanding and plentiful horse stock; its arms manufacturing; and even the sometimes unstable Russian economy. Of these, it is the horse, and Russia's ability to mobilize its light cavalry to harass Napoleon's rearguard as it retreated across the great European plain, that receives the greatest attention in "Russia Against Napoleon."