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 1812 Moscow march and retreat

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Caro
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PostSubject: 1812 Moscow march and retreat   Thu 31 Jul 2014, 00:48

I'm never sure where to put things but since this book was about war I will put it here.


I have just finished reading 1812: Napoleon's Fatal March on Moscow by Adam Zamoyski.  I know an awful lot now about the dreadful conditions in a war where there is no food, temperatures well into the minus degrees, and where no one seems to have totally sure of what they were doing. (Perhaps excluding Marshall Ney, who I was distressed to see from wikipedia was condemned later as a traitor.)


Mr Zamoyski did not seem to accept the view of Kutuzov as a hero and saviour; indeed he is rather scathing about and obviously thought General Barclay de Tolly much preferable as the Russian leader.  He says things like "He disdained the proper channels, issuing orders through whoever came to hand.  He was secretive and mistrustful...he had an unfortunate habit of assenting to some suggestion without considering its implications for other measures he had taken...Some of this may been the result of senility."  "A natural laziness." "Bennigsen informed anyone who would listen that Kutuzov was an imbecile and a coward who had lost the respect of the army."  But he does say that he very good at telling everyone how good he was and how well he had done.  "'Yet another victory!' Kutuzov wrote to his wife with touching swank the day after he let Napoleon slip through to Orsha."


Zamoyski isn't very praising of Napoleon's tactics either, saying that he dithered this time, and took far too long to leave Moscow, with many of his decisions meaning far more people died than should have.  But he constantly mentions in what high regard he was held by the soldiers, even when everything was going wrong they didn't criticise Napoleon personally, and when he arrived in person there was cheering till the end. 


Every chapter of this book got more chilling (literally and figuratively) than the last.  I would read a chapter about emaciation leading to cannibalism, drowning while crossing rivers, horses and people crushed to death, civilians dying in great numbers as they accompanied the army or were straggling behind, cossacks - how awful were the cossasks, like hyenas really - picking off anyone they could, even prisoners of war, and then it would end, "In fact the worst was still to come."  or "It would have been better for them if it (Vilna) had been a burnt-out shell like Smolensk."


Stories throughout the book show both how inhumane and inhuman people can become in wartime, and how much some of them can rise above their surroundings and situations.  There are examples of people setting fire to huts just to get some warmth for themselves, even though there were people inside, people pushing down others to get across muddy rivers and people refusing to even allow people to get a light from a fire to start their own.  Then there are others who refuse to leave dying masters or servants and die themselves, or look after enemies who they had known in earlier times, or protect their children instead of themselves.  Zamoyski suggested that one thing that saved soldiers best was sticking to their units (not always that easy when there are only a few left from a regiment) and forming a marching force rather than just straggling in dribs and drabs.  


I suppose the fate of the horses was one of the most distressing things in this book.  Right from the start horses were, of course, killed in battle, but they were also badly fed most of the time.  The eventual lack of horses was instrumental in the failure of the expedition, but reading of them trampled and drowning was unpleasant.  And then they were eaten.  Everything was eaten, including humans (Mr Zamoyski said that was disputed but almost certainly took place).  I was interested in this passage taken from Duverger, paymaster of the Compans division, describing the Spartans' Gruel necessary to eat.  "First melt some snow, of which you need a large quantity in order to produce a little water; then mix in the flour; then, in the absence of fat, put in some axle grease, and, in the absence of salt, some [gun]powder.  Serve hot and eat when you are very hungry."


I have marked a couple of passages about Joachim Murat (a General with the Grande Armee) and courage.  The first one said, "Although not without a certain cunning, he was stupid, which allowed him to be absurdly and recklessly brave even though he lacked real courage.  He was, in Napoleon's words, "an imbecille without judgement."  But he was also an instinctively brilliant cavalry commander in battle." Much later in the book he says, "Murat held reviews and talked of regrouping, but his abandonment of Vilna, which he had been ordered to hold, and the Kovno, which he had himself promised to hold, did not inspire confidence. There was no question of his bravery, but there was also no question of his limited intelligence and strength of character.  And his efforts at rallying the army were undermined by the wider political situation."


I am not sure just how courage and bravery are defined but I think perhaps there is a feeling that courage requires more thought and consideration than bravery, which is perhaps more instinctive and natural to some personalities.



I also know a lot more about the political machinations and the varying alliances of the times, and the fears individual leaders and countries had about others.  But I suppose I will forget that rather too quickly.  I won't be forgetting the dreadful conditions the horses and people had to endure.  It puts walking round London with sore legs into perspective.
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PostSubject: Re: 1812 Moscow march and retreat   Thu 31 Jul 2014, 07:36

I expect you've seen this - Charles Joseph Minard's famous 1869 chart showing the decreasing size of the Grande Armée as it marched to Moscow (brown line, from left to right) and back (black line, from right to left) with the size of the army equal to the width of the line. Temperature is plotted on the lower graph for the return journey and is in degrees Réaumur descending from zero in increments of 5° down to -30°R, the lowest line (multiply Réaumur temperatures by 1¼ to get Celcius, e.g.  −30°R = −37.5°C).



The French disaster was essentially all due to lack of adequate contingency planning in that their whole plan relied on them completing all their objectives before winter. Consequently the Grande Armée was completely ill-equipped for cold weather with the troops only issued summer kit and there was no plan on how they would supply the transport horses with fodder once grazing was no longer available. (I suspect feeding the thousands of draught horses alone would probably always have been impossible to achieve given the limitations of horse-drawn transport and that steam railways had yet to be invented). The Russians actually considered it a relatively mild winter.
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PostSubject: Re: 1812 Moscow march and retreat   Thu 31 Jul 2014, 09:28

Suddenly, it's more than 50 years ago and I'm sitting in the chemistry lecture theatre listening to a discourse on the allotropic properties of tin, illustrated by the tale of the buttons on the uniforms of the Grande Armée gradually crumbling in the extreme cold. I can even recall the exact words - It's hard to march and fight when your trousers are falling down

The science is, I believe, sound under the right conditions but is there any mention of this phenomenon in the records of the campaign or personal memoirs I wonder or is it a myth? As a teaching aid it obviously worked though, as evidenced by this post!
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PostSubject: Re: 1812 Moscow march and retreat   Thu 31 Jul 2014, 09:40

And didn't Hitler make exactly the same mistake?

http://waltersworldhistory.weebly.com/3/post/2011/05/purposely-ignoring-the-lessons-of-history.html


The Nazis invasion of Russia, named Operation Barbarossa after a German medieval emperor who conquered much of Europe, began on June 22, 1941 almost one hundred and twenty nine years to the day of another invasion of Russia.  Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion began on June 24, 1812 with his main objective to punish the Russia’s for breaking his Continental System which forbade any open trade with Great Britain.  By 1812 Napoleon like Hitler in 1941 controlled virtually all of Europe.  Napoleon marched a 400,000 man army towards Moscow in what would lead to his ultimate downfall.  French general Michael Ney amply summed up Napoleon’s attempt to subdue Russia to his will in the following quote, “General famine and general winter, rather than Russian bullets have conquered the Grand Army.”  After the Grand Army’s retreat from Russia, Napoleon’s force of 400,000 was reduced to 10,000.    In giving a summary of Napoleon’s attempt to conquer Russia, General Ney’s comment would be prophetic for Hitler’s attempt to invade Russia in 1941.  Hitler would indeed fulfill Ney’s prophecy and like Napoleon would never totally recover from his invasion of Russia.  One has to ask why Hitler would repeat the same mistake and begin his invasion around the same day as his counterpart...
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PostSubject: Re: 1812 Moscow march and retreat   Thu 31 Jul 2014, 10:15

Hitler had actually studied Napoleon's battle tactics in detail, and thought, against the advice of many of his advisers, that he could succeed where Napoléon had failed.

From wiki:

"Hitler, however, had learned lessons from Napoleon's defeat, and used different tactics that ultimately made the war against Germany even more costly for Soviet Russia than the war against the French. During Operation Barbarossa, Hitler spurned a single centered attack on Moscow and ordered the Wehrmacht to attack in fast assaults along a broad front from the Arctic to the Ukraine in order to deny the Russians any rear territory they could use to outflank the enemy. The Germans also brought along Gestapo agents and Waffen-SS forces to brutally subjugate the conquered areas and to fight guerrillas and partisans they knew would erupt in areas they occupied. Finally they fought hard to hold on to every inch of territory during Russian counterattacks, resulting in heavy casualties among both Soviets and Germans in many battles. Ultimately the Russians lost more than 27 million soldiers and civilians (along with more than 4 million German deaths) and saw its economy and western territories utterly devastated before the Germans were defeated in May 1945."


PS : The tin buttons thing is a bit apocryphal although there is some truth in it. Pure tin does indeed undergo an allotropic transformation at low temperature which can in time damage and destroy tin articles (so-called tin pest or tin disease), but the effect is retarded if not completely suppressed when alloyed. That even now, over 200 years later, the exhumed bodies of Napoleon's soldiers can be readily identified as to their regiments by the buttons on their non-existant uniforms, is clear evidence that the metal has resisted corrosion and transformation very well. Some tin alloy buttons, depending on the impurities present, may well however have rapidly disintegrated in use due to stress-corrosion cracking combined with brittleness at low temperature. Either way, as you say ferval, a good story is very effective in getting students to remember facts.


Last edited by Meles meles on Thu 31 Jul 2014, 10:59; edited 3 times in total (Reason for editing : added the bit about tin)
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PostSubject: Re: 1812 Moscow march and retreat   Thu 31 Jul 2014, 10:19

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PostSubject: Re: 1812 Moscow march and retreat   Thu 31 Jul 2014, 11:05

I don't recall from my book anything about tin buttons (but it was a long book) but the soldiers were at times reduced to wearing the furs they had bought for their women back home, and even their dresses, just to have some warmth when their uniforms had disintegrated.  They also had problems with diarrhoea and frozen fingers.  Some of them, to their humiliation, had to cut the back out of their pants so they could quickly defecate.  And they had to be careful of their penises freezing, too.

One thing that was unexpected was that when they were able to get fresh reinforcements in as they retreated, the new recruits died from the cold almost immediately, when the older recruits had held on for months, gradually getting in some way used to the conditions (though at all stages some were dying or shooting themselves).
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PostSubject: Re: 1812 Moscow march and retreat   Thu 31 Jul 2014, 12:54

Caro wrote:
I don't recall from my book anything about tin buttons ....


That's probably because I believe none of the first-hand accounts of soldiers that were there mention anything to do with buttons failing. Nevertheless the memorable comment: "It's hard to march and fight when your trousers are falling down", remains true and probably does remain a truthful reflection of the parlous state of the French "Grande" Armée during the retreat.

Incidentally, and at the risk of wandering off topic a bit, the same tin pest problem has been suggested for the failure of Robert Scott's 1910 South Polar expedition. On their return from the pole they were reliant on caches of food and kerosene that they'd deposited on the way in. In 1912 when the first cache was rediscovered unused, it was found that the kerosine tins were all empty, and it was immediately suggested that tin pest was to blame for failure of the tin-lead alloy solder. But recently in some old Antarctic bases similarly soldered tin cans now over eighty years old have been discovered still in good condition, so it seems likely the problem was just badly soldered kerosine cans.
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PostSubject: Re: 1812 Moscow march and retreat   Thu 31 Jul 2014, 16:13

The Battle of Maloyaroslavets, practically forgotten about nowadays, though the French finally won ,they found their way south west blocked by the entrenched Russian Army forcing them to retreat over ground they had already used up on the way to Moscow and taking them back over the Borodino battlefield.



http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Maloyaroslavets
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PostSubject: Re: 1812 Moscow march and retreat   Thu 31 Jul 2014, 16:23

A collage of clips from Sergei Bondarchuk's War & Peace;

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PostSubject: Re: 1812 Moscow march and retreat   Fri 01 Aug 2014, 09:15

Cutting the arse from your trousers because of dysentry - known to have been true of the Rangers at Myitkyina in WWII, widely reported as true of the British at Azincourt.
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PostSubject: Re: 1812 Moscow march and retreat   Sat 02 Aug 2014, 03:08

When I wrote this I did mean to add Zamoyski's summary of the effects of this war.  He said, "If Russian liberals had been disappointed at the betrayal of their hopes by Alexander and Russian society in general, the german dreamers who had envisaged a great new Germany taking a spiritual lead in Europe were appalled at the way in which their aspirations were quashed. Prussia merely modernised her despotic constitution and, in common with Russia, stamped on even the most innocent indulgences of liberal students and patriotic poets.  When a great Germany did arise, in 1870, it was...the militaristic and autocratic one of Bismarck and the Kaisers.

Far from rolling back those he had called the 'northern barbarians' Napoleon had brought them into the heart of Europe. His own defeat and France's resultant eclipse as a Great Power had paved the way for the dominance of both Russia and Prussia.  They used that dominance to protect a status quo that impeded social, national and religious emancipation, economic enterprise and political development in central Europe, thereby generating militant nationalisms and creating tensions that led to revolution and upheaval in the first two decades of the twentieth century and fed the ideologies which accounted for tens of millions of lives in the third, fourth and fifth decades."

Does that all sound reasonable to you?  Can we blame both world wars on Napoleon's failed Moscow march?  What would have happened if he had succeeded?
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PostSubject: Re: 1812 Moscow march and retreat   Sat 02 Aug 2014, 21:23

Caro wrote:
When I wrote this I did mean to add Zamoyski's summary of the effects of this war.  He said, "If Russian liberals had been disappointed at the betrayal of their hopes by Alexander and Russian society in general, the german dreamers who had envisaged a great new Germany taking a spiritual lead in Europe were appalled at the way in which their aspirations were quashed. Prussia merely modernised her despotic constitution and, in common with Russia, stamped on even the most innocent indulgences of liberal students and patriotic poets.  When a great Germany did arise, in 1870, it was...the militaristic and autocratic one of Bismarck and the Kaisers.

Far from rolling back those he had called the 'northern barbarians' Napoleon had brought them into the heart of Europe. His own defeat and France's resultant eclipse as a Great Power had paved the way for the dominance of both Russia and Prussia.  They used that dominance to protect a status quo that impeded social, national and religious emancipation, economic enterprise and political development in central Europe, thereby generating militant nationalisms and creating tensions that led to revolution and upheaval in the first two decades of the twentieth century and fed the ideologies which accounted for tens of millions of lives in the third, fourth and fifth decades."

Does that all sound reasonable to you?  Can we blame both world wars on Napoleon's failed Moscow march?  What would have happened if he had succeeded?


Caro,

"If Russian liberals had been disappointed at the betrayal of their hopes by Alexander and Russian society in general, the german dreamers who had envisaged a great new Germany taking a spiritual lead in Europe were appalled at the way in which their aspirations were quashed. Prussia merely modernised her despotic constitution and, in common with Russia, stamped on even the most innocent indulgences of liberal students and patriotic poets.  When a great Germany did arise, in 1870, it was...the militaristic and autocratic one of Bismarck and the Kaisers."

"stamped on even the most innocent indulgences of liberal students and patriotic poets. "

yes the Liberals from 1848 are stopped by the dominating Prussia...
but "patriotic poets" that's another kettle of fish...
Among them some stupid archi-nationalists who are jubilating (new word from me in English) at even the most militaristic (other word not found in the dictionary) Prussian regimes...and it was perhaps the time then...? And yes "stupid" is a personal opinion from me and as a value judgment as such not honest history writing...

"When a great Germany did arise, in 1870, it was...the militaristic and autocratic one of Bismarck and the Kaisers."

Zamoysky is in the line of "Die Deutschen in ihrem Jahrhundert" from von Krockow
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adam_Zamoyski
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_Graf_von_Krockow
http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Germans-Their-Century-1890-1990/dp/071908086X


Since I started my research on this subject in the time for the ex-BBC board I learned that it was all rather a mixed and rather complicated picture...and to compare the autocratic imperial Russia with the by Prussia dominated new German empire isn't fair I suppose, while there are nevertheless big differences...

"Far from rolling back those he had called the 'northern barbarians' Napoleon had brought them into the heart of Europe. His own defeat and France's resultant eclipse as a Great Power had paved the way for the dominance of both Russia and Prussia.  They used that dominance to protect a status quo that impeded social, national and religious emancipation, economic enterprise and political development in central Europe, thereby generating militant nationalisms and creating tensions that led to revolution and upheaval in the first two decades of the twentieth century and fed the ideologies which accounted for tens of millions of lives in the third, fourth and fifth decades."

That's also a "value judgment"...

Was a Napoleon that  much better...? I agree perhaps not a Hitler...bu with his secret police countering inland social aspirations and dictactorially ruling out any outland opposisition...there in the far away New Zealand you have no rememberings of a French occupation...complete (I read about it) with its collaborators and resistants...

"Does that all sound reasonable to you?  Can we blame both world wars on Napoleon's failed Moscow march?  What would have happened if he had succeeded?"

No, no, not a Napoleontic thousand years "Reich"...so lucky that the British could restore the balance of power again in Europe...you can say what you want about the British Empire but near to the United States it was till then the most "democratic" power on earth, which despite all its flaws had nevertheless a core of some democratic intervention...as perhaps the Dutch Republic in its glory days...

"What would have happened...?" We simply don't know...Some other lunatic taking power on the European peninsula...? followed by a stupid mass of adepts...?

Sorry Caro, for all this "black" thoughts...and by the way reading about Zamoyski and his "nobility" side...is there some historical biass by all this...in that I prefer Count von Krockow, who seems never to let interfere in his history writing his nobility roots...?

Kind regards from your old acquaintance, Paul.

PS: I didn't forget your "democratic country war motivation" thread...but simply a lack of time for such an in depth elaboration for the moment...youtube fragments introducing on these boards is much more easier and not so burdening for the brain Wink ...
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