The latest historian’s interpretation of Napoleon’s biggest defeat
It’s amazing that the invasion of Tsarist Russia in 1812 is the subject of another and quite different interpretation of the main causes that contributed to Napoleon’s crushing defeat after the burning of Moscow.
Here is an excerpt from that book – Russia Against Napoleon: The True Story of the Campaigns of War and Peace by Dominic Lieven recently published by Viking Books:
Still, Lieven has a serious argument to make, and he makes it persuasively. “One key reason why Russia defeated Napoleon,” he writes, “was that her top leaders out-thought him.” As early as 1810, it became clear to the Tsar and his men that the fragile French-Russian alliance would soon collapse, and that Napoleon would invade. They understood that the French emperor would attempt to destroy the Russian army in series of quick major battles, so as to force the country into political subordination. In response, they planned for “a war exactly contrary to what the enemy wants,” to quote a key memorandum from 1812: namely a strategy of “deep retreat” to exhaust and deplete the French, followed by a full counter-attack that would bring Russia’s massive armies back into the heart of Europe, and ultimately (along with its allies) to the gates of Paris.
In 1812-1814, Lieven argues, the Russians followed this strategy, and with brilliant success. In doing so, they could count on several key resources, including superior cavalry (in some ways, Lieven nicely quips, the greatest Russian hero of the war was the horse), and the masses of serfs who were ruthlessly conscripted with little hope of seeing their homes again. In 1812-1814 alone, the Russian army conscripted some 650,000 men. Thanks to their status as semi-slaves, they were cheap, receiving pay equal to only 1/11th of what British soldiers received.
Finally, and in sharp distinction to Tolstoy and the Russian nationalist historians of the conflict, Lieven believes that the “aristocratic, dynastic and multi-ethnic” qualities of the Russian empire constituted a real strength as well. In particular, he highlights the effective cooperation of the nobility and the tsar, and the key role played by military officers of foreign descent, especially Germans from the Baltic states such as his ancestor. (They made up 7 percent of all Russian generals.) While he gives due credit to Tolstoy’s idol Kutuzov, he reserves his greatest praise for the war minister and then supreme commander Mikhail Barclay de Tolly, the descendant of Baltic Germans and Scots.
Another interesting side of this book is that one of Lieven’s forebears was a general in the Russian military.
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