Anne Applebaum at the Washington Post
By the end of the book, the tragedy is so vast that it’s hard not to feel some more recent echoes. The movement of mass armies over vast tracts of Central Europe, the terrible privations suffered by ordinary soldiers, the devastation of the landscape, the loyalties sworn to various vague causes — all are eerie precursors of much later wars. It is no accident that many at Stalingrad were reminded of 1812, or that Napoleon and Hitler are sometimes compared. In some sense, Napoleon’s wasteful, hubristic march on Moscow was truly a harbinger of the greater devastation to come. For that reason alone, it is worth retelling.
Read even more from Paul Britten-Austin about Napoleon’s disastrous retreat.
The faster the Russians withdrew, the further Napoleon was dragged into Russia. Tens of thousands of soldiers, many of them very young French and allied soldiers, died of exhaustion, thirst or starvation in its summer heats (‘worse than anything we’d known in Egypt’).
Then at Borodino, a week’s march from Moscow, the French and Russian armies, by now about equally matched, fought to a sanguinary standoff. Napoleon was undeterred, however, and marched on to the almost deserted Moscow, which the next day was sent up in flames – burnt down by its Russian governor. The French leader hung around for eight weeks, arrogantly waiting for the Tsar – who was in St Petersburg – to make peace. The Tsar, however, was by now in no mood for negotiation. ‘My campaign, led by General Winter, is just beginning’, he said. ‘There can be no peace with Napoleon.’ Napoleon, laden with booty, eventually set off to lead his army back to France, just as winter was approaching.