by Eric Byrd
Defeat: Napoleon's Russian Campaign is the graspable handle New York Review of Books Classics has given David Townsend’s translation-abridgement of General Philippe-Paul de Ségur’s Histoire de Napoléon et de la Grande-Armée pendant l’année 1812, published in 1824. In his original two volumes, Ségur interleaved tedious statistics and technical disquisitions in archaic military French with a vivid memoir of Napoleon and the Russian campaign. The book incensed cultic Bonapartists. A few years after the book’s publication, Ségur fought and was wounded in a duel with another of the emperor’s former aides. No contemporary reader can read Defeat as a scandalous takedown or tell-all. While Ségur did not think Napoleon a faultless demigod – as the opposing duelist must have – he did class him among the Great Men, with exceptional (if fallible) powers of concentration and self-mastery, a majestic (though volatile) pride, and (usually) decisive timing; the hubristic human genius, in short; the hero fated to fall. And Ségur’s view of the Russian campaign as a clash of higher and lower civilizations is really quite chauvinist. Whatever Napoleon’s political overreach and blunders in the field, Russia is a barbarous domain of superstition and slavery. Its greedy lords scorched the earth to keep Enlightenment from the priest-ridden, icon-bludgeoned serfs, and its generals resorted to guerilla tactics because cowed by the hyperpuissance of the Grande Armée. Ségur goes so far as to call the Russians the spectators, not the authors, of the army’s woe.
It is a salute to Ségur’s dramatic craftsmanship that Tolstoy lifted whole scenes from the Histoire, even as War and Peace repudiates Ségur’s Great Man bias and disdainful picture of the Russian people at war. (The Histoire is also the basis of forgotten works by Hugo and Chateaubriand.) Ségur’s is an absorbing narrative. A welter of calamity and terror, yet the style is terse, sententious, and the figures classically posed – just the style you'd expect from a remnant of the old military nobility (Ségur’s grandfather was Louis XVI's Minister of War and appointed a teenage Napoleon to the École Militaire), and a writer whom Baudelaire, after visits to the elderly Academicians, called a “Romantic Tacitus,” Xenophon with touches of le pathétique. The Histoire is a story of slow breakdown and group degeneration, and recommended for readers who enjoy accounts of that horrible sorting which leaves some of the shipwrecked with their wits and courage, others with nothing but predacious urges, callous despair, and the purest fear. The Histoire is also an interesting specimen of Romanticism. Once the retreat from Moscow begins, every page is a canvas of Delacroix or Géricault: pathetic calamities under exotic skies, in turbulent colors. Negligible cannibalism, which is a surprise, but there are cities in flames, emptied jails, starving plundering mobs; and Ségur does infant-clutching dashes across ice floes in the pitch dark better than Mrs. Stowe. “It was no longer a war of kings we were fighting,” he writes, “but a class war, a party war, a religious war, a national war – all sorts of war rolled into one.”
“Bonaparte” – the British used his surname, that of a swart southern bandit if you can imagine Wellington’s pronunciation – is fascinating in Ségur’s portrayal. He’s grand in optimism and in fatalism, in paralysis and in combat; here an emperor sighing and sluggish amid his entourage, distracting himself with long dinners and pompous reviews in the courts of the Kremlin – as the first flakes fall – there a reinvigorated chief waving his sword and marching in the snow, rallying the Old Guard to fight a way through the blizzard and the Cossacks. Napoleon brooded over the defeat of Charles XII, as Hitler would brood over Napoleon’s.
Here is one incident. Marshal Ney’s rearguard, like the army as a whole, was a core of still-disciplined units marching in formation amidst a desperate horde of unarmed, leaderless wretches scrambling about in tatters of uniforms. This is what happened when Ney was cut off and attacked:
Our unarmed stragglers, still numbering about three thousand, were terrified by the noise. This herd of men surged madly back and forth and rushed into the ranks of the soldiers, who beat them off. Ney succeeded in keeping them between himself and the enemy, whose fire the useless mass absorbed. Thus the timid served as a protection for the brave. Making a rampart of those poor wretches for his right flank, the marshal moved backward toward the Dnieper, which became a cover for his left.