There are literally scores of personal accounts of this great historical disaster that have been published to date, many of them translated into English, mostly from French originals. Some of them were written by highly-placed officers and officials of the Grande Armée, who were in close proximity to Napoleon (undoubtedly the single architect of this great tragedy), during the whole adventure. They have left comprehensive accounts of their experiences; sometimes these are extremely controversial, such as that of Count Philippe de Segur. His representation of certain aspects of the Emperor’s character so enraged General Gaspard Gorgaud, one of Napoleon’s most devoted ADCs, that Gorgaud challenged Segur to a duel over them, in which the latter was wounded.
All the English-language accounts that I have read so far concentrate on the fate of the main body of the Grande Armée, under Napoleon’s direct command, as he drove them on and on to certain death, either on the road to Moscow, or in the inevitable, humiliating retreat. It is often a surprise to those new to the study of this campaign to realise that almost all the regiments of this central column had lost fifty percent of their march-in strength of 24 June by mid-August, before any serious actions had been fought. Astounding - but true.
In selecting our ‘war correspondents’ for this work, I have been at pains to:
• Select only the best parts of the most genuinely informative of previously published memoirs.
• Introduce characters new to English-speaking readers.
• Introduce accounts from the flanking formations in Latvia, Polotzk and in Volhynia, all of which have previously been steadfastly ignored.
Research into the Latvian theatre of the war, where Marshal Macdonald’s X Corps operated almost independently against the Baltic port of Riga, has revealed an environment so totally at variance with the grim hell of Napoleon’s central sector, that one could be forgiven for doubting that the two sequences of events took place in the same year or in the same war.
On the southern front the Austrian auxiliary corps of Prince Karl Schwarzenberg, together with the VII (Saxon) Corps, operated around the area of the Pripet Marshes in Volhynia, now the Ukraine. Their incredibly difficult attempts to fight – even to move – in the largest, most dangerous marshes in Europe must excite our admiration for what they achieved.
Schwarzenberg’s somewhat rash, aggressive operations placed his army in awkward predicaments on several occasions; good luck, and clumsy Russian opponents, allowed him to escape just retribution.
Gouvion-Saint-Cyr’s army at Polotzk (II and VI Corps) was largely destroyed by the dumb incompetence of Saint-Cyr and the indifference of the Emperor. Together they presided over its demise in the full knowledge of its causes and its effects.
I have not attempted to give detailed accounts of the various battles and clashes that took place; many other books cover them in great detail. This work concentrates on the individuals and their experiences.
As with so many of my recent works, I am deeply indebted to the generous cooperation of many correspondents of the Napoleon Series and Napoleon Series New Forum on the Internet. Gregory Troubetzkoy and Ronald Pawley kindly allowed me to include quotes from their own books to enrich the narrative.