Russia Against Napoléon: The True Story of the Campaigns of War and Peace, by Dominic Lieven, Viking, 2010, $35.95
Many books claim to fill a critical void in historical knowledge. Dominic Lieven’s Russia Against Napoléon actually does. A professor of Russian history at the London School of Economics and Political Science, Lieven has written a comprehensive analysis of the successful Russian efforts in 1812–14 to overthrow Napoléon Bonaparte. His book is important not only because it is the first English-language account of the conflict from the Russian perspective, but also because it reconceptualizes the invasion of 1812 as the first phase of a war that took Russian armies from Moscow to Paris. The author suggests it was careful strategic planning and military professionalism rather than the bitter cold or the elemental patriotism of the Russian soldier that defeated Napoléon.
By 1810 Franco-Russian relations had so deteriorated that the tsar’s government began to prepare for war. Through their efficient intelligence service, the Russians knew by early 1812 that Napoléon was planning a massive invasion. To counter it, War Minister Michael Andreas Barclay de Tolly and Tsar Alexander I planned a strategic withdrawal to wear down Napoléon’s forces and leave them vulnerable to a devastating counterattack. The Russians realized it was essential to avoid the decisive battles Napoléon sought and instead draw him into a prolonged defensive struggle in the heart of enemy territory. Complementing this Fabian strategy were unprecedented efforts to mobilize the Russian population and economy, as well as diplomatic initiatives to neutralize potentially hostile neighbors. Lieven’s convincing analysis of these preparations makes it clear Napoléon met disaster in Russia because he was outthought by his opponents.
Despite the destruction of the Grande Armée in 1812, Napoléon raised substantial new forces and concentrated them in central Germany the following spring. Faced with the prospect of a new campaign, some of the allies, notably Austria, hesitated and even offered Napoléon peace on generous terms. Alexander, however, understood there could be no lasting peace with the French emperor and used all his diplomatic skill to keep the coalition against Napoléon in the field. Emphasizing Alexander’s determination, Lieven concludes that “more than any other individual he was responsible for Napoléon’s overthrow.” To make good his commitment to end Napoleonic dominion, the tsar sent into central Europe a huge, proficient army. More than a half-million Russians served in Germany and France during the campaigns of 1813 and 1814. Counting many veterans of 1812, as well as highly trained reserves, the Russian forces also included large numbers of superior light cavalry. These not only threatened French lines of communication, they denied Napoléon crucial intelligence by masking the movements of the allied armies. The Russians had to supply these forces—men and horses—as they crossed virtually the entire length of Europe. In accomplishing this, the Russian military administration performed the most impressive logistical feat of the era.
Russia Against Napoléon is a must-read for anyone interested in the Napoleonic wars. Describing how Russia fought and why it won, it shows that a modern military machine directed by shrewd strategic thinkers was the agent of Napoléon’s downfall.