The conventional wisdom is that it was the Russian winter that defeated Napoleon in 1812. That is what we learned from historians and from Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
A book has just appeared that has a different explanation. It was Russia’s superior military strategy, it says, that defeated Napoleon. Specifically, it was Tsar Alexander I’s and his Minister of War, Mikhail Barclay de Tolly’s, refusal to give Napoleon the quick victory he wanted. Instead, they made plans for a long defensive war – one that would last at least two years or more. Initially avoiding a big battle, the Russian army would systematically retreat further into Russia, drawing out and weakening French supply lines. Stalin followed a similar strategy when Hitler also counted on a quick victory. Hitler and his generals had studied Napoleon’s campaign but obviously failed to draw the logical conclusion.
The book is Russia Against Napoleon: The True Story of War and Peace, by Dominic Lieven. What sets it apart from the handful of other accounts is his prolific use of Russian sources, particularly regimental histories available to Western researchers only since 1991.
It was reviewed for Barnes and Noble by Reginald Hindley. For the first half, Hindley writes, Lieven wages a surreptitious war with Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which has shaped cultural and historical perceptions of the Russian war against Napoleon. Tolstoy the novelist celebrates the patriotism of the Russian peasant, while heaping scorn on the feeble brains of the professional soldiers. Lieven shows that professionalism and planning – along with patriotism – carried the Russian army through to the end. The Russians stored six months worth of food at strategic points. They made sure that each battalion was properly outfitted. The Russian army that met the Grande Armée wasn’t a ragtag peasant force, but a rationally planned fighting machine. Lieven calls “mostly nonsense” the idea, promoted by Napoleon and his admirers, that the brutal Russian winter destroyed the French army. The Grandee Armée, exhausted from marching across Europe and living on poor rations, was in bad shape even before the fighting began. Indeed, most of the army had perished by December when the weather became unusually fierce. But what crippled the Grande Armée was a poor supply line.
As Russia’s forces retreated, Alexander faced the choice of defending Moscow or saving the army. He chose the army. After installing himself in the Kremlin, Napoleon made what Lieven regards as a fatal mistake by dallying in Moscow for six weeks. The emperor foolishly believed that Alexander would accept his peace overtures. He also thought he could manipulate the Cossacks into revolting or, failing that, ignite the Russian peasants into dethroning their tsar. After a month it became clear that Napoleon was the one who had been duped; he had no choice but to retreat.
Lieven also throws another wrench into Russian patriotic mythology by singling out the pivotal role played by the horse. “In many ways the greatest hero in the Russian war effort of 1812-14 was not a human being but the horse,” he notes. The enormous superiority of the Russian light cavalry, which he regards as the most disciplined in Europe, prevented Napoleon from getting food or rest as he retreated from Russia. In 1814 the cavalry intercepted French dispatches detailing Napoleon’s plans and information about the weak spots in the defence of Paris.
The review concludes:
“Having waged a long campaign with the Russians, Lieven deserves accolades for crafting an insightful and sometimes mischievous book. It will be difficult in the future to discuss the sweep of the Napoleonic Wars or debate what country deserves credit for defeating Napoleon without giving Russia its due. In many ways, Lieven’s book is akin to the works on the Eastern Front in the Second World War that have provided a corrective to the dominant Anglo-American narrative.”