In the Service of the Tsar Against Napoleon, by Denis Davidov, translated and edited by Gregory Troubetszkoy, Stackpole Books, Harrisburg, Pa., 2000, $29.95.
“Disorder was beginning to grip our troops,” wrote Denis Davidov in his eyewitness account of the Battle of Eylau on February 8, 1807. “The whole field of battle…was covered with scattered ranks of soldiers that stretched out toward the Königsberg highway, still protected by their comrades… shedding their blood over every inch of contested ground.”
Denis Davidov’s memoirs, translated and edited by Gregory Troubetszkoy, form a marvelous new first-person work. This is one of the best combat accounts from the Russian side of the Napoleonic Wars, particularly since it details Cossack and “People’s War” operations behind French lines before the disastrous French flight from Moscow in the winter of 1812.
Davidov in person appears to have been a modest man and an astute observer of others’ strengths and weaknesses–on the battlefield and off. He calls Napoleon I the “foremost soldier of all time, anywhere in the world.” Although he would fight Napoleon’s troops at Eylau and in Russia, Davidov always remained respectful of Napoleon, the general.
Describing grand strategy as well as personal impressions, Davidov offers us the calculation that had the French emperor cut his 34-day stay in Moscow in half and reached winter quarters in Smolensk, his Grande Armée would have been saved from destruction. His description of Russia’s war against the Finns differs little from accounts of combat between the Soviets and Finns during the 1939-40 Winter War.
From vignettes of great battles to characterizations of French marshals Joachim Murat and Jean Lannes, to descriptions of the odd episode of the capture of Marshal Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte’s underwear, and the near-capture of Napoleon himself by bold Cossack horsemen, Davidov thrusts the reader into the heart of the scene with an immediacy and intimacy that lovers of military history rarely get.
The book closes with a biographies of major Russian commanders of the period. All in all, this little volume is a real gem.