Book Review – The Burning of Moscow, Napoleon’s Trial by Fire, 1812

 

BurningMoscow

This book provides a detailed account of the burning of Moscow and is the third volume 
of the author's in-depth reassessment of the war between the French and Russian empires. 
This is a work of scholarship, but one which is written in a lively style It has been very 
thoroughly researched and draws on a wide range of sources and eyewitness accounts, 
including French, Russian, German, Polish, and Dutch accounts. It is particularly interesting 
in that it has been released at the same time as “Stalingrad to Berlin” providing the opportunity 
to use two well researched and written works to compare the French experiences of 1812 and 
the German experiences between 1941 and 1945.

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NAME: The Burning of Moscow, Napoleon's Trial by Fire, 1812
CATEGORY: Book Reviews
DATE: 220414
FILE: R1956
AUTHOR: Alexander Mikaberidze
PUBLISHER: Pen & Sword
BINDING: hard back
PAGES: 
PRICE: £25.00
GENRE: Non Fiction
SUBJECT: Napoleonic Wars, invasion of Russia, Moscow, burning of Moscow, French 
Army, Russian Army, retreat from Moscow, 1812
ISBN: 1-78159-352-3
IMAGE: B1956.jpg
BUYNOW: http://tinyurl.com/n2syxcx
LINKS: 
DESCRIPTION: This book provides a detailed account of the burning of Moscow and is 
the third volume of the author's in-depth reassessment of the war between the French and 
Russian empires. This is a work of scholarship, but one which is written in a lively style. 
It has been very thoroughly researched and draws on a wide range of sources and eyewitness 
accounts, including French, Russian, German, Polish, and Dutch accounts. It is particularly 
interesting in that it has been released at the same time as “Stalingrad to Berlin” providing 
the opportunity to use two well researched and written works to compare the French 
experiences of 1812 and the German experiences between 1941 and 1945.

Inevitably, there are some questions about the burning of Moscow that are not fully answered, 
because there was some confusion at the time and the inevitable fog of partial accounts that is 
not entirely dispelled by taking information from surviving records and correspondence on 
all sides.

What may have seemed like a good idea to Napoleon at the time can now appear as a deeply 
flawed set of decisions. Of course, Napoleon was no better provided than Hitler with the 
ability to foresee the consequences of actions that now appear so blindingly obvious. Both 
dictators had been undefeated on land, having no reason to question the supremacy of their 
forces. Both had large gaps in their intelligence of Russian military and social capabilities 
and constraints, and that extended to terrain and climate, simply because Russia was a vast 
geographic area that was little travelled by Western Europeans.

Both Napoleon and Hitler started their invasions of Russia very well. Early advances made 
it seem easy. Where the enemy was brought to battle, the skirmishes encouraged the invaders 
to under-estimate their enemy. Where the opposition melted away it looked like a rout, when, 
in many cases, to was a strategic withdrawal. Both invaders viewed towns as targets of 
greater importance than the Russians viewed. Both came upon the capital Moscow after 
rapidly covering considerable distances, but had little idea of the distances still to go to 
occupy the entire country. Hitler never covered the final miles into the centre of Moscow 
but did occupy an apparently equally important city of Stalingrad.

Some have expressed surprise that the Russians should eventually set fire to their own 
capital, but that is perhaps a misunderstanding of the Russia character and view of the 
capital city. Once Napoleon was inside the city he was vulnerable. All of his supplies had 
to come considerable distances across terrain that was only really navigable during the short 
months of summer. On either side of this period of dry and dusty ground with easily fordable 
rivers, there were periods when the ground turned to thick and dangerous mud, with winters 
that were harsh and hostile to the movement of armies and supplies. An important percentage 
of the French Army was strung out along the lines of communications and vulnerable to 
hit-and-run attacks. The French soldiers required much more supplies than the Russian 
peasants who were accustomed to surviving on very poor and meagre supplies. The Russian 
soldier was similarly accustomed to hash conditions. French soldiers were used to fighting in 
more densely populated areas with rich supplies that could be easily looted and where the 
capture of a capital could encourage the enemy to sue for peace.

The mystery is why Napoleon allowed himself to walk into a trap and then wait around 
until it was sprung. The author does not fully explain this but then it may be something 
beyond explanation. Napoleon was a very successful commander who had a community 
of Marshals able to very ably support him in the battles of Western Europe. Those skills 
did not entirely migrate to a campaign in the East. His opponents before the invasion of 
Russia had fought in a similar manner to the French. Set piece battles, where French artillery 
was often the decider, followed a formal plan where both armies manoeuvred in a relatively 
small area and fought until one was the commander of the field, or where an army laid siege 
to a town until it surrendered. If it was the enemy capital, taking the city could end the war.  
Bringing large numbers of troops together in one battle was a major challenge when the 
areas were as huge as in Russia. In short, the Russians fought a war in a familiar manner 
to them. The French failed to learn that approach to fighting.

Once inside Moscow, the Russians were free to regroup. As Moscow did not hold the same 
value to the Russians as Western capital did,  there was now fear of burning it to the ground 
if, in the process, it caused serious damage to the invaders. Once Napoleon was denied the 
shelter of an intact city, he had very little choice but to withdraw. Had he not entered the city, 
or withdrawn immediately, he might have been able to pull his troops back to areas where 
defence was more assured and supplies more likely to arrive. In the event he used up valuable 
time in attempting to negotiate and settling into Moscow. That made the eventual withdrawal 
much more difficult and gave the Russians ample opportunity to harry a retreating French 
army that was short of supplies and unable to forage for supplies along the route of retreat. 
A lack of adequate shelter and the increasing levels of illness created as much damage as 
Russian attacks and reduced the ability to withstand those attacks.

The author's account paints a strong picture of the conditions and the political environment 
that influenced the military outcome and this is supported by maps and a plate section that 
reproduces in single colour paintings and sketches of the time. Most readers will want to 
collect a set of volumes by this author covering the Franco-Russian War if they have come 
into the story at the Burning of Moscow.