Horse Power

Russia Against Napoleon by Dominic Lieven

Books France History Russia
Tsar Alexander I, Napoleon's most implacable opponent in 1812

The subject of this book is, in Dominic Lieven’s own words, “one of the best stories in European history”. It is an epic struggle between two fascinating men, two vast empires and two irreconcilable world-views. Lieven tells it with all the verve of the enthusiast and the erudition of the fine scholar that he is. He presents the conflict from the Russian perspective, but not as a Russian: his wide-ranging research and his own family background give him unique insights into how it appeared from that side, and his evident admiration for the Russian soldier and many of the Russian commanders inform his narrative, but his account is never partisan. While he is kinder to Alexander I than most modern historians, according him perhaps too great a role in creating the anti-Napoleonic coalition, he does not ignore his failings or indulge in special pleading. The result is a balanced, informed and entirely convincing explanation of how Russia was able to defeat the Napoleonic empire. It is also a perfect marriage of scholarship and engaging narrative that fills a yawning gap in the historiography of the period, while entertaining the general reader.

The story has been told before, by one of the greatest story-tellers of all time, but, as Lieven points out, Tolstoy’s War and Peace actually only tells half of it: to stop at the retreat of the French from Russia in 1812 is to leave out the vital concluding act in the tale of hubris and nemesis that took Napoleon from a position of unrivalled dominion in 1807 to humiliating abdication seven years later. Lieven’s more specific point is that the story of 1812 makes no sense without its second part, since it was what was accomplished in 1814 that had lain at the heart of Russian policy and strategy in 1812.

The story is made up of a number of plots, the most obvious being the emotionally charged rivalry between Napoleon and Alexander. Another is the dramatic sequence of military operations which took hitherto unheard-of numbers of troops from as far afield as Portugal all the way to Moscow, and even greater numbers from the depths of Russia and Central Asia to Paris. The epic battles were only the most visible aspect of a deeper conflict between two empires, whose global implications involved countries as far away as Britain and America. It was underpinned by a clash not so much of cultures as of ideologies, for what divided the Russians from the French was, at bottom, the unbridgeable chasm which separated the defenders of the feudal order that had been challenged by the Enlightenment and the French Revolution from the protagonists of the modern world that had replaced it in Western Europe.

The conduct of the war was subject to an intricate diplomatic process involving a large number of states, each with its own, often conflicting, priorities, while Napoleon and his enemies carried on continuous negotiations aimed at weaning away each others’ allies and constructing coalitions of their own. To complicate matters, this was also the first war in which espionage came into its own. And since it was fought on an unprecedented scale, it also involved economics and finance to a degree not seen before. Finally, since it relied on the movements of such vast numbers over such extraordinary distances, it was largely dominated by logistical considerations.

Lieven does not neglect any of these areas. He explains how the political and social structures of the Russian empire differed fundamentally from those of the rest of Europe and the bearing this had on the unique nature of the Russian army — whose command structures, tactics and weaponry he describes in authoritative detail. He is very sound on the diplomatic background, demonstrating how the differences of opinion, personal feelings and occasional bloody-mindedness of the principal actors impacted on allied policy and crippled strategy. He does not neglect to mention the profound suspicion with which most Russians viewed their British ally, with its global ambitions, and how such seemingly irrelevant geopolitical considerations affected military operations on the Continent. His sure grasp of the strategic situation and vivid depiction of the gruelling conditions that faced the Russian soldier bring those operations to life. But it is in the area of finance and logistics that he excels, demonstrating graphically how Russia’s ability to absorb France’s might and then mobilise vast resources made her proof against any military brilliance on the part of Napoleon or anyone else.

Lieven devotes much attention to how the war was financed by Russia and above all how its human, animal and vegetable resources were marshalled for the cause. He takes us step by step through the process by which men were procured for the army, how they were uniformed, armed and trained, how they were marched nearly 2,000 kilometres to the Polish border and then across Europe. 

He does not spare us the personal misery involved and the huge social costs for villages the length and breadth of Russia. The men had to be fed and this was the greatest challenge facing the Russians in 1813-14. As Lieven explains, “More than half a million Russian soldiers served outside the empire’s borders in 1813-14, and this in a Europe where only two cities had populations of more than 500,000.” The only means of supplying them with rations was horsepower and enormous effort was put into providing this vital element without which the army could neither eat nor move.

The horse was also a vital piece of operational equipment, and it was the Russians’ ability to corral vast numbers of mounts and train peasants to use and care for them that gave the allies the overwhelming superiority in cavalry over Napoleon that undermined his strategy and made his defeat inevitable. So while he accords huge credit to the Russian quartermaster Georg Kankrin and the many lesser figures along the logistical chain, Lieven concludes that, “In many ways, the greatest hero of the Russian war effort in 1812-14 was not a human being but the horse.”