Russia’s defeat of Napoleon is one of the most dramatic stories in European history. It has many twists and turns. Not just in 1812 but also for much of 1813 the outcome remained very uncertain with most of the odds seemingly in Napoleon’s favour. His personal history in these years is a tale of hubris and nemesis. There is a rich supporting cast of fascinating personalities who enliven the story and with whom it is often easy to empathize. The story contains two of the greatest battles in European history, Leipzig and Borodino, and many other episodes of great fascination for the military historian. It also tells one much about European society, culture and politics in that era. From the Russian perspective the story has that crucial element, a happy ending. Napoleon’s first Grande Armée was destroyed in Russia in 1812. His second was defeated on the battlefields of Germany in 1813. In the longest campaign in European history, the Russian army pursued the French all the way from Moscow to Paris and led the victorious coalition into the enemy capital on 31 March 1814.
For very many years I have wanted to tell this story. At one level that is the simple purpose of this book. But I am an old-fashioned historian who likes his stories to be true, or at least as close to the truth as an honest, knowledgeable and meticulous study of the available evidence allows. Many years ago I came to the conclusion that the story as told in Western Europe and North America was very far from the truth. Hearing an untrue tale told over and over again annoyed me. Another purpose of this book is therefore to tell the story of how and why Russia defeated Napoleon in what seems to me to be a more truthful way.1
It is not surprising that what happened in 1812–14 is usually distorted in British, French and American books. Popular works on the Napoleonic era necessarily follow a rather set pattern. In Britain, for example, the bookshelves groan under the weight of works on Nelson and Trafalgar, or Wellington and Waterloo. These are the heroic narratives and the icons of British national identity. Napoleon and his army have also retained their fascination for the English-as well as French-speaking public. In any case, most authors cannot be expected to read many languages or consult archives in a range of countries. They expect to draw their information from the research of specialists. As regards Russia’s role in the defeat of Napoleon, this research and these specialists do not exist. No Western professor has ever written a book on the Russian war effort against Napoleon. The surest way to make yourself unappointable in any British, let alone American, university is to say that you wish to study the history of battles, diplomacy and kings.2
In many areas of military history the gap left by the universities is filled by army staff colleges. There are some excellent books by military specialists – often but not always serving officers – on the Napoleonic era but almost none of this work covers Russia.3One reason why military specialists have avoided Russia is that the military archives have only become accessible to foreign researchers since 1991. More important, however, has been the belief that the French and Prussian armies of the Napoleonic era are much more worth studying, because they appear more modern. In the case of Napoleon, one had the timeless lessons to be learned from military genius, but the French army was also seen as pioneering aspects of modern warfare such as the all-arms division and corps. In the Prussian case one had Clausewitz, generally seen as the greatest of all thinkers on modern war. In addition, Prussia was believed to have created two other key elements of military modernity in this era: the first modern general staff and a highly effective and motivated mass conscript army. By contrast, there seemed little point in struggling to learn Russian and scrounge for information outside the archives in order to study an army that was still unequivocally Old Regime. The result is that the Russian side of the story is ignored or misinterpreted, with historians largely seeing Russia through the prism of French- or German-language sources.
As regards the French sources,4 there are obvious dangers of interpreting any army or campaign largely through enemy eyes. Of course French officers usually wrote reports or memoirs to win promotion, boost their egos, achieve glory or justify their actions. No one who looks at the uniforms of the era can expect to find much modesty or self-effacement from the men who wore them. On the contrary, aggressive and boastful self-promotion often flourished in the armies of both Napoleon and his enemies. If the French were more boastful than most of the others, they had some reason to be, since their army was in most respects the best in Europe until 1812. When facing the Russians, their normal sense of superiority was sometimes heightened by an almost colonial scorn for the irrational barbarians of Europe’s borderlands. Napoleon himself set the tone by finding few words of praise for any Russian troops other than Cossacks. This to some extent perhaps reflected a French variation on the theme of exoticism and Orientalism. Blaming defeat on the Cossacks or the weather was also useful. Since the French army had no Cossacks and the weather was an ‘unfair’ act of God, no French officer need fear that by invoking these sources of disaster he was questioning his own superior virility or professional skill. The way in which the English-language literature often uncritically repeats French accounts is likely to drive to distraction anyone who has studied the Russian sources or even just walked over the battlefields in question.
The German-language sources are much more mixed. In 1812–14 Germans fought both with and against Russia. Germans who fought with Russia in 1812 were either ethnic German subjects of the tsar or officers who had left their own armies in order to fight against Napoleon. There are actually a number of German-language memoirs which tell one a great deal about the Russian army and the Russian war effort in 1812. For example, of all the Russian generals’ memoirs, probably the best are those of Prince Eugen of Württemberg, which are written in German.5 Even so, they are very little used by English-language authors. The same is true of a number of other valuable memoirs written in German, for the most part by men who were Alexander’s subjects.6 By far the most frequently cited source is Clausewitz, both because of his fame and because his history of the 1812 campaign is translated into English.7
Clausewitz’s history is extremely interesting and useful but one does nevertheless need to remember the context in which it was written. Under Frederick the Great the Prussian army had been considered the best in Europe. Foreign officers studied it as a model. But in 1806 it was not just defeated but humiliated, with rearguards and garrisons sometimes disintegrating and surrendering in the face of much smaller enemy forces. When Frederick William III sided with Napoleon in 1812 the humiliation increased, especially among those hyper-patriotic officers who like Clausewitz resigned their commissions and entered the Russian service. The xenophobic and faction-ridden Russian army of 1812 was a deeply frustrating place to be for a foreign officer such as Clausewitz who spoke no Russian and had inevitable difficulties in understanding the army and society he had joined. When reading Clausewitz I sometimes think of parallels with an intelligent staff officer in the Free French forces in London in 1940–44. Such an officer might have written a fascinating corrective to standard accounts of the British war effort but it would be surprising if we were to understand the conflict through his eyes alone.8
Studies of the 1812 campaign in English mostly concentrate on Napoleon’s mistakes, on the problems created for the French by Russia’s geography and climate, and on the horror but also the heroism in evidence in Napoleon’s army during the retreat from Moscow. The year 1813 traditionally belongs to German authors celebrating the resurgence of Prussia and the triumph of German patriotism. Some of the Prussian general staff historians, and above all Rudolph von Friederich, are excellent.9 But of course most of the memoirs and many of the histories put forward a Prussian view of events, which subsequently influenced British and American authors. So too do the views of the Austrian official history, not written until just before 1914, some volumes of which have a distinctly anti-Russian tinge.10 If anything, the Russian angle on events gets even less attention or sympathy when it comes to the 1814 campaign. Military historians enthuse about Napoleon’s reinvigorated genius after his disappointing performance in 1813. Historians of diplomacy and international relations on the other hand focus on Metternich and Castlereagh as the creators of a stable and orderly European system. Sometimes this literature has a Cold War feel to it, celebrating the alliance of British and German statesmanship to secure Europe against a threat of Russian hegemony.11
Of course national bias in the writing of history exists in all countries and especially when it comes to writing about war. War is generally the best source of heroic nationalist myths.12 The Napoleonic Wars occurred at the dawn of modern European nationalism. It was exactly at this time that many of the ideas behind modern nationalism were first expressed. Shortly afterwards the Industrial Revolution would create cities, mass literacy and all the other aspects of modern society which helped nationalism to flourish. Traditionally, for example, the British grabbed Waterloo for themselves and it is only very recently that the decisive Prussian contribution to victory has been recognized in the English-language literature.13 In this context it is not at all surprising that the Prussians elbowed Russia aside when it came to interpretations of 1813 or that French historians of the period have gloried in the exploits of Napoleon and his army, without paying too much attention to what enemy accounts and foreign historians had to say.
One crucial area of Napoleonic warfare has attracted too little attention from historians of every nationality. This is logistics, in other words the equipment and feeding of the armies. Commissariat officers had little status in any of the rival armies and societies. Their efforts have won little attention from historians. This is unfortunate because their role was often crucial. Napoleon destroyed his army in 1812 in large part because of logistical failures. By contrast, one of the key triumphs of the Russian war effort was its success in feeding and supplying more than half a million troops outside Russia’s borders in 1813–14. How this was done in a European continent which in those days only had two cities with populations of more than 500,000 is a key part of the present book. The contrast with the Seven Years War (1756–63), when logistics helped to cripple the Russian military effort, is very much to the point.14
In many ways the greatest hero of the Russian war effort in 1812–14 was not a human being but the horse. To some extent this was true of all European land warfare at that time. The horse fulfilled the present-day functions of the tank, the lorry, the aeroplane and motorized artillery. It was in other words the weapon of shock, pursuit, reconnaissance, transport and mobile firepower. The horse was a crucial – perhaps even the single most decisive – factor in Russia’s defeat of Napoleon. The enormous superiority of the Russian light cavalry played a key role in denying food or rest to Napoleon’s army in the retreat from Moscow and thereby destroying it. In 1812 Napoleon lost not just almost all the men but virtually all the horses with which he had invaded Russia. In 1813 he could and did replace the men but finding new horses proved a far more difficult and in the end disastrous problem. Above all it was lack of cavalry which stopped Napoleon winning decisively in the spring 1813 campaign and persuaded him to agree to the fatal two-month summer armistice, which contributed so much to his ultimate defeat. The final allied offensive in 1814 which led to the fall of Paris and Napoleon’s overthrow was sparked off by the Russian light cavalry’s interception of secret French dispatches revealing all of the emperor’s plans and his capital’s vulnerability. This was a fitting end to two years of warfare in which the Russian light cavalry had been superior from the start and totally dominant after September 1812. But this dominance was not an act of God or nature. The historian needs to study the Russian horse industry and how it was mobilized by the government in 1812–14. Also crucial is a grasp of how the Russians managed, preserved and reinforced their cavalry regiments during these campaigns. Again, this is a key part of the present book.15
Naturally, humans in general and nationalist historians in particular were interested in soldiers’ heroics on the battlefield, not in how their stomachs were filled or their horses kept healthy. This was just as true in Russia as elsewhere. Like the other great powers, Russia mined the Napoleonic era for national myths. The official tsarist myth of 1812 was that the Russian people had united around the throne and under the leadership of the nobility to destroy the invader of the country’s sacred soil. There was if anything rather more truth to this Russian myth than to its Prusso-German equivalent, which stated that the Prussian nation had sprung to arms in 1813 to liberate Germany after Frederick William III’s appeal ‘To My People’.
One entirely true reason why Russia defeated Napoleon was that many able young officers were promoted on merit to key positions during the war. Among the Russian leaders, Aleksandr Chernyshev and Johann von Diebitsch became lieutenant-generals aged 28, and Mikhail Vorontsov aged 30. They were just the tip of the iceberg. Count Karl von Nesselrode was only 28 when he took control of Russian espionage in Paris in 1808. He served subsequently as Alexander’s chief diplomatic adviser in 1813–14. Even the older generation of military leaders was often not that old: Petr Mikhailovich Volkonsky, who served as Alexander’s chief of staff, was only 38 when the war ended. These men were to dominate Russia’s army and government for many subsequent decades. The official histories of the war by Dmitrii Buturlin and Aleksandr Mikhailovsky-Danilevsky were very careful not to offend these grandees. There are British parallels. The Duke of Wellington lived for almost four decades after Waterloo and was in a position to make his own view on the battle almost canonical in Britain.16
There were, however, important differences between Wellington and the Russian leaders. Although the duke had many political enemies in the 1820s and 1830s, by the time he died he was a national icon. The same was far from true of the Russian generals who lived as long as him. Just after Alexander I’s death in 1825 a group of officers, the so-called Decembrists, attempted to overthrow the absolute monarchy and install a constitutional regime or even a republic. Among them were officers such as Mikhail Orlov and Prince Serge Volkonsky who had distinguished themselves in the wars. The coup was crushed. Key heroes of the wars such as Aleksandr Chernyshev, Alexander Benckendorff and Petr Volkonsky played a part in its suppression and went on to serve as ministers under Nicholas I well into the mid-nineteenth century.
The Decembrist revolt and its suppression was the beginning of the exceptionally bitter split between right and left in Russia which ended in the revolution of 1917. The violent hatred between the two camps helped to poison and distort memories of 1812–14. In the Winter Palace in Petersburg there is a fine gallery with portraits of almost all the generals from 1812–14. As a graduate student in the Soviet Union in the 1970s I once got into a fierce argument with a young woman who was furious at the fact that among the portraits is that of Alexander Benckendorff, who subsequently served as Nicholas I’s chief of the security police. My attempts to argue that Benckendorff was a war hero got nowhere. When I called him a partisan leader, which is exactly what he was for much of 1812–14, she stormed off in disgust. The young student was not at all pro-Communist but she was a product of the Moscow radical-liberal intelligentsia. For her, heroes of 1812 in general and partisans in particular were ‘friends of the people’ and therefore by definition honorary members of her radical political camp and tradition.
When it took over the 1812 myth and made it an integral part of Soviet patriotism, the Communist regime to a great extent set such ideas in stone. The historical reality of Russia’s war effort had to be startlingly distorted to suit official ideology in the Stalinist era. Alexander I had to be marginalized and vilified, and the war’s international context distorted; Kutuzov was elevated to the level of Napoleon or higher, while his aristocratic origins and court connections (together with those of Prince Petr Bagration) had to be overlooked; the significance of mass resistance to Napoleon had to be exaggerated and occasional resistance to landlords and government officials somehow interpreted as constructive elements in the people’s war against both domestic tyranny and the French. Official norms of this sort crippled Russian scholarship on the Napoleonic era for a time and have left a mark on how many ordinary Russians of the older generation think about 1812–14. Contemporary Russian historians have mercifully long since escaped the Stalinist myths about the Napoleonic era, however.17
Nevertheless, for all its crude distortions, the Soviet-era official interpretation of the Napoleonic Wars still in many ways remained true to the spirit of Leo Tolstoy, who was by far the most important nineteenth-century mythmaker as regards his impact on Russian (and foreign) understanding of Russia’s role in the Napoleonic era. Tolstoy depicts elemental Russian patriotism as uniting in defence of national soil. He paints Kutuzov as the embodiment of Russian patriotism and wisdom, contrasting him with the idiocy of so-called professional military experts, whom he sees as Germans and pedants. His conception of history in any case leaves little room for skilful leadership or even for the attempt to direct events in rational fashion. Instead, he celebrates the moral strength, courage and patriotism of ordinary Russians. Perhaps most important in the context of the present book, Tolstoy ends his novel War and Peace in December 1812 with the war only half over and the greatest challenges still to come. The long, bitter but ultimately triumphant road that led from Vilna in December 1812 to Paris in March 1814 plays no part in his work, just as it was entirely marginalized in the Soviet patriotic canon and in contemporary Russian folk memory. For every one publication in Russian on 1813–14 there are probably more than one hundred on 1812. The most recent attempt to write a grand history of 1812–14 which is both popular and scholarly devotes 490 pages to 1812 and 50 to the longer and more complicated campaigns of the two following years.18
The popular or ‘Tolstoyan’ Russian interpretation of the war fits rather well with foreign accounts that play down the role of Russia’s army and government in the victory over Napoleon. Napoleon himself was much inclined to blame geography, the climate and chance; this absolved him from responsibility for the catastrophe. Historians usually add Napoleon’s miscalculations and blunders to the equation but many of them are happy to go along with Tolstoy’s implied conclusion that the Russian leadership had little control over events and that Russian ‘strategy’ was a combination of improvisation and accident. Inevitably too, Russian lack of interest in 1813–14 left the field free for historians of other nations who were happy to tell the story of these years with Russia’s role marginalized.
Of course it is not difficult to understand why Russians found it easiest to identify with a war fought on national soil in defence of Moscow and under a commanding general called Kutuzov. It was harder to be as enthusiastic about campaigns waged in Germany and France under commanders called Wittgenstein and Barclay de Tolly in defence of a true but somewhat metaphysical concept of Russian security rooted in ideas about the European balance of power. As the war’s centenary approached in 1912 there was great interest, and many new publications resulted. By this time, however, Russia was on the eve of war with those very same Hohenzollerns and Habsburgs with whom she had allied herself in 1813. Obviously, this was not the best of moments to celebrate Russo-German solidarity. In 1813–14 the two most brilliant Russian staff officers were Karl von Toll, a Baltic German, and Johann von Diebitsch, the son of a Prussian staff officer who had transferred to the Russian service. Almost two-thirds of the troops in the most successful allied force – Field-Marshal Blücher’s so-called Army of Silesia – were in fact Russian but Blücher’s two Russian army corps’ commanders were Alexandre de Langeron and Fabian von der Osten-Sacken. By now too Nikolai Rumiantsev and Aleksandr Kurakin had been marginalized and there were no ethnic Russians at all among Alexander’s chief advisers on foreign policy. Meanwhile the emperor himself gave many Russians even at the time the feeling that he saw Russia as backward and unworthy of his ideals, and was willing to sacrifice Russian interests in the name of European security or even so as to win applause for himself in fashionable Europe.
At the root of all these issues is the contrast, very familiar to historians, between Russia as empire and Russia as nation and people.19 In 1814 the British, French and Germans were, or were in the process of becoming, nations. The nationalist myths generated from the Napoleonic Wars suited this reality and endeavour. Russia in 1814 was a dynastic, aristocratic and multi-ethnic empire. Its core was the Russian land, people and nobility but these did not yet constitute a nation and could never entirely do so as long as the dynastic empire existed. The Russian Empire won the war of 1812–14 but the myths which have subsequently lived in Russian memory have above all been ethno-national ones. That is the most important reason why – uniquely, and in total contrast to the Germans, French and British – Russian national myths derived from the Napoleonic Wars greatly underestimate the Russian achievement in 1812–14.20
A key aim of this book is to get back beyond the Russian myths to the realities of the Russian war effort in 1812–14. I am above all interested in establishing how and why Russia overcame the enormous challenge presented by Napoleon in these years. There are also other reasons for questioning aspects of Russian mythology about the Napoleonic era.
One reason is a reflection on empires and nations. Both generally and in the Russian case it seems to me a mistake to see everything in the imperial tradition as harmful and the nation as the inevitable embodiment of virtue. This is in no sense a justification for neo-empire in today’s world. But empire in its day – unlike very many nations – was often relatively tolerant, pluralist and even occasionally benevolent in its attitude towards the many communities who sheltered under its protection. This was true too as regards the Russian Empire’s treatment of most non-Russians, most of the time. It was certainly one of the empire’s strengths in the era of Alexander I that it was willing and able to employ and trust the loyalty of so many non-Russian elites. More specifically, it seems a mistake to see Alexander’s foreign policy as ‘imperial’ and as not serving the interests of Russia, however ‘Russia’ is understood. Before 1812 Napoleon had shown rather clearly why his domination of Europe was a great threat to Russian security and economic interests. In 1813 Alexander was entirely right to seize the opportunity of driving the French out of Germany and restoring the foundations of a European balance of power. The subsequent decision to take the Russian army over the Rhine and remove Napoleon is more debatable. In my view, however, Alexander was once again right to believe that Russia above all needed peace and stability in Europe, and that Napoleon’s survival would make both peace and stability impossible. The Napoleonic era is a classic example of how interdependent are Russian and European security. It was also a time when Russia made a great contribution to restoring peace and stability in Europe.
Russians therefore have every reason for pride in what their state and army achieved in 1812–14. Ironically, the traditional obsession of Russian historians with military operations in 1812 at the expense of the two following years does no service to the Russian army’s reputation. Even more than in most activities, there is a huge difference between training for war and its reality. By 1813–14 the army had learned from experience. By then many of the generals were first-rate and staffs were performing much better than at the beginning of the 1812 campaign. On the battlefield in 1813–14 reserves were often utilized and cavalry, infantry and artillery coordinated much more effectively than had previously been the case. Given the enormous distance of military operations from the army’s bases, the reinforcement and supply of the field armies was managed with remarkable skill. Discipline, regimental pride, loyalty to comrades, and pre-modern religious and monarchist loyalties motivated the ordinary soldiers of the emperor’s army whether they fought on Russian soil or abroad. To anyone who has read accounts of the battles of (to take three examples) Kulm, Leipzig and Craonne, the idea that the army’s motivation or fighting spirit declined after 1812 seems very strange.
The final crucial reason for not forgetting 1813–14 is that the history of 1812 makes no sense without it. Alexander and his war minister, Mikhail Barclay de Tolly, planned before 1812 for a war which would last two years at a minimum and probably longer. They made their plans partly on the basis of excellent intelligence about Napoleon’s intentions and about the strengths and weaknesses not just of his army but also of his regime. From the start, their plan was to wear down Napoleon by a defensive campaign in Russia, and then to pursue the defeated enemy back over the frontier and raise a European insurrection against him. There is ample evidence of this thinking in Russian military, intelligence and diplomatic documents. The whole manner in which Russian resources and manpower were mobilized makes sense only in the context of a long war. One key reason why Russia defeated Napoleon was that her top leaders out-thought him. In 1812 they planned and then successfully imposed on him a drawn-out campaign, knowing full well that it was precisely the kind of war he was least equipped to wage. In 1813–14 Alexander’s combined diplomatic and military strategy contributed to isolating Napoleon first in Europe and then even from French elites. Of course Napoleon played a huge part in his own downfall. But his enemy’s capacity for self-destruction was always part of Alexander’s calculation. Russian policy in these years was intelligently conceived and was executed with consistent purpose. It was very far removed indeed from Tolstoyan mythology.
The core of this book is a study of grand strategy, military operations and diplomacy, in other words of power politics. Military and diplomatic policy were closely intertwined in these years and must be studied together. This is particularly true as regards the Russo-Austrian relationship, which was the most sensitive but also probably the most important aspect of Russian foreign policy in 1813–14.
From the summer of 1810 until Napoleon’s invasion, though in principle diplomacy was central, Russian policy was strongly affected by military considerations. The exceptionally valuable information provided by Russian intelligence in Paris persuaded Alexander I that Napoleon was intent on attacking Russia and greatly influenced Russian diplomacy and strategic planning. The Russian emperor’s preference for adopting a defensive military strategy more or less ruled out any possibility that his attempts to secure an alliance with Prussia would succeed. In the campaigns of 1812 and autumn 1813 diplomacy was of little importance and military operations were decisive. This was not true in the spring 1813 and 1814 campaigns, in which diplomatic and political considerations influenced and at times even determined military strategy. In the spring 1813 campaign this almost resulted in disaster. Alexander I decided Russian grand strategy and diplomacy, and often had a big influence on military operations. His views, personality and modus operandi were of crucial importance. Without him the Russian army would probably not have pursued Napoleon into Germany in 1813 and would certainly never have reached Paris. So this book truly is a study of kings and battles.
Power politics requires the existence of power and is influenced by how much power a state has and what forms this power takes. The book looks at the sources of Russian power in Alexander’s reign. That of course means the imperial army, and in particular its structure of command, tactics, ‘doctrine’ and personnel. But it also means Russian military industry, public finance, horse industry and manpower. Russian strengths and weaknesses in these areas help to explain how the empire fought the war and why it triumphed. As is always the case, the political regime and the social context heavily influenced both the mobilization and the use of the empire’s resources. The basis of the Russian political and social order was serfdom. The imperial army was a professional force whose soldiers were a separate estate of the realm and who served for twenty-five years of their lives. How could and did such a society and army meet and overcome Napoleon’s challenge? The Russian officer corps, and in particular its senior ranks, were very much a part of the overall imperial elite, itself still largely aristocratic. Army, aristocracy and government were a maze of family and patronage networks. It is often impossible to understand how the army functioned unless we take this into account.
The same is true as regards the values and culture of the imperial army’s generals and officers. Honour, publicly displayed courage, and loyalty to regiment and fellow-officers all mattered greatly. So too did living up to one’s status and rank. The battlefield, like the duel, allowed honour to be publicly displayed and defended. In some respects the ‘field of honour’ – in other words the battlefield – was also the ancestor of today’s sporting match. ‘Winning’ meant holding one’s ground and capturing trophies such as cannon and standards. These male warrior values appear not just archaic but also sometimes childish: nevertheless they mattered greatly because they affected morale and kept officers steadfast in the face of death and mutilation. A key problem in the 1812 campaign was that these values cut right across Russia’s strategic imperative to retreat.21
Though the historian can write with some confidence of officers’ values and motivation, understanding the mentalities of the rank and file is far more difficult. In 1812–14 more than 1.5 million men served as privates or NCOs in the army and militia. Only two left memoirs.22 These can be eked out by a few oral reminiscences recorded decades later and by the personnel records of many regiments preserved in the archives. Often, however, one is forced to interpret soldiers’ values through their actions and through what their officers said about them. This has obvious dangers. But a book which simply took as a given the courage, endurance and loyalty of Russian soldiers in the face of awful privations and – sometimes – brutal treatment by their superiors would be ignoring one of the most vital but also at times puzzling elements in the wars.
Russia is the biggest gap in contemporary Western understanding of the Napoleonic era. The aim of this book is to fill that gap. But a more knowledgeable and realistic understanding of Russian power and policy can also change overall perspectives on the Napoleonic era. In this period Russia was less powerful than Britain. Its global reach was much weaker. Unlike Austria or Prussia, however, Russian interests and perspectives were not just narrowly continental. For a significant section of the ruling elite the Napoleonic Wars were in one sense a distraction and a sideshow. They saw Russia’s main interests as lying in expansion southwards against the Ottomans and Persians. These men seldom saw France itself as Russia’s main or inevitable enemy. Most of them believed that the Napoleonic empire was a transient phenomenon, born of exceptional circumstances and Napoleon’s genius. The most impressive member of this group was Count Nikolai Rumiantsev, who was in practice Russia’s minister of foreign affairs from late in 1807 until Napoleon invaded Russia. In his view the greatest long-term challenge to Russia lay in Britain’s growing domination of global finance, trade and industry, and in her monopoly of naval power. This view of Russian interests was ultimately overruled by Alexander I. Above all, it was undermined by Napoleon, who forced the Russian government to make fighting France its top priority. But Rumiantsev’s perspective had some impact on Russian policy in 1812 because it was shared in part by Mikhail Kutuzov. It also provides an interesting insight into some of the underlying realities of the Napoleonic era.
The Napoleonic Wars of 1800–1815 were a global, not just a European struggle.23 This may seem a strange view since the overwhelming majority of the battles in these years occurred in Europe. In that sense the Napoleonic Wars were more European and less global even than the Revolutionary Wars of the 1790s. They were far less global than the Seven Years War or the American War of Independence, in both of which much of the most significant fighting occurred in the Western hemisphere and in Asia. In reality, however, the Napoleonic Wars were largely confined to Europe because the British were getting closer to winning their hundred-years-war with France for global supremacy. The most basic fact about the Napoleonic Wars was that British seapower locked French imperialism into Europe. For many reasons it was far harder to create any species of empire in Europe than overseas. As a number of Russian observers understood, it was in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras that Britain consolidated its hugely powerful global empire, both territorial and commercial. Looked at from one angle, Napoleon’s attempt to create a European empire was simply a last, heroic effort to balance British imperialism and avoid defeat in France’s century-long conflict with Britain. The odds were very much against Napoleon, though by 1812 he had come seemingly very close to success.
It is in fact possible to study the Napoleonic Wars on many different levels. At one extreme one has the God’s-eye view. This looks at events in the round and in the long term. It is interested in the impact of geopolitics, at shifts in European ideology and cultural values after 1789, and at global patterns of trade and finance. At the other extreme one has what might be described as the view of the worm. This includes the day-to-day perceptions of ordinary people in this era. It includes, too, important details such as the firing locks and cartridge paper which contributed to the unreliability of Russian musketry. Here, too, for example, one finds discussion of the events of the afternoon of 21 May 1813, when Marshal Michel Ney’s mistakes robbed Napoleon of decisive victory in the battle of Bautzen and probably thereby denied him the chance to decide the 1813 campaign and keep Austria out of the war. Between the levels of God and the worm one finds the other matters commonly discussed by historians. As regards this book, for example, they include Russian infantry tactics, the Russian armaments industry, or Russian perceptions of Austria and the Balkans. In the present book all these levels are covered, since all of them are relevant to understanding how and why Russia defeated Napoleon.
The basic approach of the book is chronological. I begin with the negotiations at Tilsit in 1807 and end with the Russian army’s entry into Paris in 1814. One reason for doing this is that any other approach would ruin the story. Not even a professor has the right to do this to one of the best stories in European history. But another reason for using narrative and chronology is that this is usually much the most truthful way to explain what happened in these years. On the battlefield an opportunity for victory that existed at two o’clock in the afternoon had often gone by four. Chance, misperception and confusion accounted for much of what happened. Decisions had consequences which rippled through the following days and weeks. At a number of points in the book I pause from the narrative to explain the background, however. In Chapter 7, for example, I turn aside from the narrative of the 1812 campaign to explain what was happening on the crucial Russian home front.
The book progresses as follows. Chapter 2 introduces the reader to two of the book’s ‘heroes’, namely the imperial army and Emperor Alexander I. It provides essential information on the Russian political system, the sinews of Russian power, and the nature of international relations in the Napoleonic era. It concludes with the negotiations at Tilsit in 1807 and seeks to explain Russian thinking at the conference and the bases of the Franco-Russian ‘deal’ to run Europe and put their relations on a long-term peaceful footing. Chapter 3 is a narrative of Franco-Russian relations from Tilsit until Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in June 1812. It is mostly but by no means exclusively about diplomacy. A crucial element of this chapter is a discussion of Russian intelligence operations, above all in Paris, and of their impact. The chapter ends with an attempt to put Franco-Russian relations into the broader global context. It is this chapter which most obviously combines all levels of explanation, from God to the worm. Chapter 4 looks at how the Russian army prepared and planned for war between 1807 and 1812.
There follow four chapters on 1812 and four on 1813. Six of these eight chapters are essentially narratives of the campaigns. In all six chapters, however, I devote much attention to how the armies were fed and supplied. This is always important. At some points in 1812 and 1813 it was decisive. The chapters on 1812 and autumn 1813 are largely military in content. Once these campaigns had begun, diplomacy took a back seat. On the contrary, in the first eight months of 1813 Russian strategy was largely determined by the need to bring Prussia and Austria into the war if Alexander’s goals were to be achieved. Diplomacy therefore plays a big role in Chapter 9 on the campaign of spring 1813. Two of these eight chapters are devoted to the Russian home front and to how Russian resources were mobilized in 1812 and 1813. It is impossible to understand the war effort or Russian victory without them. Chapters 13 and 14 cover the 1814 campaign. They too are a narrative, though a complicated one because of the need to weave together military operations, diplomacy, logistics and even French domestic politics, since all four elements were closely intertwined and essential to understanding Russian policy and the eventual allied victory.