“Winter 1812. Retreat from Russia” by Michel Bernard: account of a military disaster

Winter 1812. Retreat from Russia

by Michael Bernard

Perrin, 292 pages, €21

Victor Hugo found the best thing seen, in The punishments : yes, ” it was snowing “. For the first time since Arcole and Rivoli, sixteen years earlier, Napoleon was defeated by his conquest and by his incompetence. Head bent, often on foot in filthy slush, amid stripped and frozen corpses, horses dismembered and devoured on the spot, abandoned cannons, burned villages, he saw his army become a herd stretched over sixty kilometres, decimated by the Cossacks and the looters, before abandoning the debris on a makeshift sledge to return to the Tuileries dreaming of revenge.

In War and peaceTolstoy had the last word: “Everyone was going without knowing where or why. And Napoleon with all his genius knew it even less than they did, since he took no orders from anyone. “. And no one will forget the 27e and last bulletin of the Grande Armée which was ending, indecent to the point that the secretary hesitated to transcribe it as ” Her Majesty’s health has never been better “.

Caulaincourt, Henri Beyle, Lieutenant Lyautey…

Michel Bernard recounts this catastrophe which shook all of Europe. He had already been right in 2019 in his Winter 1814. Campaign of France (Perrin). He convinces again today: the same clear prose, the same sense of the story without blabla or sentimentality, the same respect for the pain of men. Moreover, in the ocean of correspondence, memoirs, stories and history books, he knew how to choose witnesses whose suffering gives the book its leitmotif.

Here is Sergeant Bourgogne, stoic and shrewd, who will save his skin and die in his bed at 82; Caulaincourt, the Emperor’s right-hand man, who nevertheless had dared to say that this Russian campaign was madness; the commissioner of wars Henri Beyle, future Stendhal, a little paunchy but very efficient in finding food and equipment, but who loses his first manuscript. Here, less known, is Lieutenant Lyautey, grandfather of the future marshal; two Württemberg allies, Lieutenant Faber du Faur who fills his sketchbook, the brave soldier Walter; and, the only woman lighting up the sad picture, Louise Fusil, the miraculous theater actress. Still others, all of whom have sent letters or written memories that Michel Bernard knows how to use.

Napoleon’s tactical hesitations

The book opens with the burning of Moscow, conquered in September 1812 after a thousand kilometers of march from the Niemen in the heat wave and which had to be abandoned, in ashes, a month later. It follows Napoleon’s tactical hesitations too far from his bases, the disunity of the marshals, the heroism of Ney in the rearguard, the patience of Kutuzov, the refusal of Tsar Alexander to read the peace demands, the incessant guerrilla warfare , while the mounts burst, the men were exhausted, the deserters and the wounded swarmed, the cold and the snow arrived much faster than expected: soon, Hugo noted, ” we no longer knew the leaders or the flag “.

Here is the carnage of Maloïaroslavets, with thirteen thousand men cut down by a Franco-Russian artillery duel. The cannon and the mob that crumbled the bridges heroically thrown over the Bérézina by Eblé and his men. Smolensk abandoned. Orcha ransacked. Wandering in the fir forests of the Lithuanian forest. And, the Niemen finally ironed out, the squeaky welcome in Poland and Prussia. For a few lucky ones, the ordeal ended in Königsberg, where Kant had meditated and had just published Towards perpetual peace.

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