Sunday, November 09, 2008

To Moscow

As we enter the final months of the Bush Administration I have to wonder if W. has any additional foreign policy surprises up his sleeve to unleash on us before he goes away. Parting gifts, as it were; fresh disasters for us to remember him by. If so, then to judge by the quality of his earlier foreign policy decisions, I think it will most likely be the immediate invasion of Russia just in time for winter. That’s the only international fiasco he and his neo-con pals seem to have avoided. In which case, the recent republication of Defeat: Napoleon’s Russian Campaign by Philippe-Paul de Ségur will be required reading.

Ségur (1780-1873) was a French aristocrat who served as Napoleon’s aide-de-camp and witnessed the French Emperor’s doomed invasion of Russia first-hand. His account, published in 1824, is fascinating and brilliant, an accomplishment of the highest literary quality. So high, in fact, that Tolstoy took whole sections of the book and put them into War and Peace. Ségur is a fantastic author. I earlier posted about books I couldn’t finish, this is a book I had trouble putting down. Here is the opening paragraph of Ségur’s book:

Napoleon had moved his troops in Poland and East Prussia from Koenigsberg to Gumbinnem. At the close of the spring of 1812 he reviewed several of his armies. He spoke to the soldiers in a jovial, bluff, often brusque manner, fully aware that by these simple, war-hardened men bluntness was looked upon as sincerity; rudeness as strength; haughtiness as true nobility; while the refinement and elegance that certain of the officers brought with them from the Paris salons were considered signs of weakness and faint-heartedness. Gentle speech was like a foreign language which they did not understand, and whose tones struck them as ridiculous.
It’s been a long time since I’ve come across a book with so strong and vivid an opening. We immediately get a sense of the type of man Napoleon is - intelligent, commanding, willing to put on an act but never losing a certain lordly air (he’s “brusque” and “bluff” but also “jovial” – like Jove), a master of self-command and self-consciousness. We see the class gulf that separates the soldiers from their officers. A whole society and a whole drama are sketched out before us.

And what a drama it is. In August 1812, Napoleon crosses the Russian border with 600,000 troops. As he advances, the Russians retreat, never giving battle and destroying every town, farm and settlement along his path. By the time Napoleon gets to Moscow he has only 130,000 troops left – most of them killed by disease, hunger and heat. Moscow is deserted; Russian arsonist begin to burn the city. By the end of October Napoleon has to retreat. The Russian winter sets in. Temperatures plunge to 20 below zero. With no food, no horses and eventually no weapons the remnants of the army trudge on through a frozen tundra of death and horror while the Russian army picks them off piecemeal. In early December Napoleon abandons his troops and rushes back to Paris. A month later only 40,000 of them make it across the border into Poland.

Ségur brings the whole spectacle to life. He has a remarkable ability to depict a scene. Early in the campaign the French reach the city of Smolensk where they hope to engage the Russian army in battle. Instead they find the city empty and still burning from fires set by the departed inhabitants. Ségur writes:

As soon as Smolensk had been reconnoitered and the gateways cleared of debris, our army marched in. We passed through the smoking ruins in military formation, with our martial music and customary pomp, triumphant over this desolation, but with no other witness to our glory than ourselves. Spectacle without spectators, victory almost without fruits, bloody triumph, of which the smoke that hung heavy around us was a symbol only too clear!
Napoleon had hoped that the Russian serfs would rise up against their masters as he approached. They didn’t. (Of course, if Napoleon had promised to abolish serfdom – which he refused to do – he might have gotten a better reaction.) Instead, the serfs burned their homes and their crops to destroy a man they regarded as literally the anti-Christ. The gravity of the situation starts to sink in to him. Ségur, again:

The Emperor by now was fully aware of the enormity of his undertaking. The farther he advanced, the greater it grew. So long as he had encountered only kings, their defeat had been child’s play. But all the kings were beaten, and now he had to deal with the people.
I like how deftly (and eloquently) Ségur moves from Napoleon’s psychology to the broader causes of his defeat. At the battle of Valoutina the story begins to take on a surreal and comically nightmarish tone. After a day of battle (which killed or wounded 18,000 French and Russian soldiers) Napoleon decided to review his troops. His ranks gather

on top of Russian and French corpses, in the midst of mutilated trees. The earth was beaten hard by the feet of the combatants, plowed by cannon balls, and littered with broken weapons, torn clothing, military equipment, overturned wagons and human limbs…The Emperor was unable to pass before them without stepping over or walking on corpses and bayonets twisted by the violence of the encounter.
Napoleon decides to buck up his troops with a speech, telling them “This battle has been the most brilliant exploit in our military history. You soldiers who are listening to me are men with whom one could conquer the world. The dead here have earned immortal names for themselves.” (Can you name a single one? Even Ségur doesn’t.) He then begins handing out promotions. One regiment is given an eagle standard to carry. Ségur is transported by enthusiasm. “Everything about [Napoleon] was admirable; there was nothing to criticize. Never has a field of victory presented a more exalting spectacle.” As for the soldiers present “their names would be famous over the whole world, especially among their fellow townsmen and families.”

During the retreat from Moscow, hunger and the freezing cold take their toll. “The day following the departure of the Emperor,” Ségur notes, “the sky became still more terrible. The air was filled with infinitesimal ice crystals; birds fell to the earth frozen stiff.” Under such circumstances the army starts to fall apart.

An immensity of woe stretched out before us. We were going to have to march forty days more…Some of the men, already overburdened with present miseries, were completely overwhelmed by the dreaded prospect. Others rebelled against their fate; no longer counting on anyone but themselves they resolved to live at all costs. From that time on, the strong plundered the weak, stealing from their dying companions, by force of by stealth, their food, their clothing, or the gold with which they had filled their knapsacks instead of provisions.
A body of French reinforcements manages to meet them and are shocked at what they see.

When…instead of the expected column of splendid warriors, conquerors of Moscow, they saw in Napoleon’s wake a mob of tattered ghosts draped in women’s cloaks, odd pieces of carpet, or greatcoats burned full of holes, their feet wrapped in all sorts of rags, they were struck with consternation. They stared in horror as those skeletons of soldiers went by, their gaunt, grey faces covered with disfiguring beards, without weapons, shameless, marching out of step, with lowered heads, eyes on the ground, in absolute silence, like a gang of convicts.
On a somewhat lighter note (and, let’s face it, almost all other notes are lighter) I’ve always been intrigued by the fact that even in the midst of such carnage and human misery the committed booklover will still be ruled by his mania. For instance, while the French are occupying Moscow, Baron Paul de Bourgoing billets himself in the abandoned palace of Count Rostopchin, the Governor of Moscow. He spends hours browsing through the library and when he discovers a copy of a book written by his father he writes on the flyleaf: “It is with real pleasure that the son of the author has found one of his father’s books so far from his fatherland. He only regrets that it should be war that brought him here.” Even the chaos of the retreat couldn’t stop the true booklover. Sergeant Adrien Bourgogne recalled:

The road was strewn with precious objects, such as paintings, candlesticks and many books, and for the best part of an hour I would pick up books which I would look through and which I threw away in turn, to be picked up by others who in their turn threw them away.

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