This is a raw account of Napoleon’s Russian 1812 Russian Campaign from not just an eye witness, but a French officer and aide to Napoleon. Phillipe-Paul de Segur was rarely more than a few feet from Napoleon’s side throughout this campaign and doesn’t swerve from making observations on Napoleon both positive or negative. But a great deal of the power of this book comes from the stark observations of the horror this heedless march into Russia caused.
There is good reason that this account, first published in 1824, has been republished so many times – It is very good – and was used as a main source for a number of authors including Tolstoy (who cobbled a number of events for War and Peace from it), Victor Hugo and Chateaubriand. Interestingly it was not until 1965 that the first English version was published.
It is such a short period of history, fewer than six months, but the foolish action cost Napoleon his dominance in Europe and marked his turn in power. For it is here that he lost thousands of men, and showed just how vulnerable he could be.
In the Spring of 1812, Napoleon, angry that the Russian Emperor had deifed the Treaty of Tilsit and ignored his Continental system, decided to throw all his forces into invading Russia. The Russian Army met and tried to stop the relentless onslaught of the French at the River Neimen, but defeated they fell back in retreat, burning everything as they went.
Napoleon pushed hard on to Moscow – thinking the Russians would sue for peace once he was in that all important city. They didn’t – and by October 19th with a huge army, few supplies and the harsh winter approaching, he realised had to retreat through the burnt decimated country back to the safety of the west. Napoleon knew, as all the army did, it was already too late….yet they had to go.
That is the background to this very moving account
Paperback: 306 pages
Publisher: Greenwood Press Reprint
List Price: from £5.50
This is a strange mixture and I have to admit to very much disliking it when I first picked it up. It is a translated version of what was originally a French work and the English to me seemed a bit florid and dramatic. I am not sure if that is the translation or if the French naturally write in that style. I would, however, recommend people who are interested in Napoleon to persevere – it is a strange sort of book but worth the read.
I say this for two other reasons – firstly because Kauffmann has read just about every primary source about Napoleon’s exile on St Helens – a tiny island pretty much in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and secondly because Kauffmann knows first hand about captivity.
After reading this book a little, and not enjoying it, I read the author biography – this man spent some years as a captive in Beirut in the 1980’s. Returning to the book I started to realise that this is more than just a book about Napoleon, or about a travellogue to the island. This is a story about captivity and its psychological side. Kauffmann is very clearly the right man to write about it. The oppression of captivity overwhelms the writing sometimes. Kauffman clearly found the place oppressive – he keeps talking of the town itself squeezed between two mountains – it is one of his repetitive themes and I get the sense that if he didn’t sail out there expecting to dislike the place, his dislike of it coloured his later writings about it.
I think this book could just as easily be named 8 days on St Helens as the book is divided into chapters for each day. So his trip is dealt with chronologically – the information about Napoleon ducks and dives – often with seemingly little logic to it. However if you are looking to learn about Napoleon’s last years they are touched on – more so Napoleon as a man is revealed. His impatience (he drove each day on the island in a carriage with two wives of his officers – but went at such high speed as to throw them around – a demonstration of power?) and his arrogance.
There are also interesting insights into the man prior to his captivity – for instance I never knew Napoleon couldn’t speak perfect French – (he spoke it badly and confusingly at times – muddling his words and pronunciations). However I don’t think Kauffman explains anything new to most scholars of Napoleon. He mentions that Napoleon considered going to America before settling for surrendering to the English – why did he change his mind?
You can read this book on many different levels – a story of St Helens, a mixed bag of Napoleonic history, or a story of captivity. All have different merits in this – but they are all mixed together. I don’t know that I would recommend making a special trip to get it – but worth reading if you haven’t much else to do.
Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Four Walls Eight Windows
List Price: £7.85
Anne Woodley is an Amazon top 500 reviewer as well as the patroness of Janeites, the Internet discussion, as well as mistress of the Regency Ring. Her excellent page, The Regency Collection is a treasure trove of information.