Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Packed with useful and interesting information

Review of The Russian Officer Corps in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, 1792-1815 by Alexander Mikaberdize
This book is packed with useful information from the introduction to the end.

Mikaberidze’s somewhat patriotic introduction sets the scene, describing the importance of the Russian army in the period of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars and noting some of the better-known officers who served and, in some cases, “paid the ultimate price for the well-being of Russia”. The author’s note prior to the start of the book proper discusses the Russian habit of “numbering” their officers. Mikaberidze points out that this was due to the large number of officers with the same last name, an interesting piece of information that I had not considered previously. I found it particularly interesting, and somewhat strange, given the Russian habit of referring to people by their ‘son of’ (-ich) middle name—no doubt the need for brevity lead to the numbering system!

A 66-page history of the Russian officer corps precedes the main, biographical section of the book. In this section Mikaberidze discusses the origins of the Russian officer corps (which began with the reforms of Peter the Great), the level of education, social composition, ranks and military orders. As a mild “arithmomaniac” I particularly enjoyed Mikaberidze’s inclusion of numerous tables and graphs in this section. These, along with the line drawings of the decorations associated with the various military orders, add greatly to the look and content. The tables and graphs are packed with information; for example the age of officers at enlistment, which ranged from 2 years of age(!) to 36 and was a reflection of the nobles’ habit of enlisting their children in guard units to accelerate their promotion!
The bulk of the book, 480 pages, is dedicated to the A to Z of Russian officers of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. There are, according to Mikaberdize’s introduction, “more than 800 biographies”, ranging from one or two paragraphs for the ‘lesser’ officers, to a single column or both columns of a page for ‘mid-range’ commanders, and up to two pages for officers who featured in numerous campaigns and/or held high command—the likes of Peter Ivanovich Bagration, Leontii Leontievich Benningsen or Mikhail Illarionovich Golenischev-Kutusov.
Each biography includes the usual, expected but critical information of dates of birth and death, details of military service and particular achievements or incidents and concludes with awards and orders received. Entries for the more significant generals also include a summary and concluding assessment of the officer’s worth; or otherwise! More than half of the biographies are accompanied by a well-produced portrait of the officer. As would be expected in such a publication, the writing is straight forward and factual. There are a few typos and grammatical errors, such as missing articles, incorrect tense and the odd spelling error, e.g. “loosing two thirds of his troops”, but none of those that I found related to more important information such as names, dates, places or ‘facts’. Overall I found this section to be complete, sufficiently detailed and, like any encyclopaedic dictionary, the sort of work to be browsed through or used to check a specific entry.
The book ends with a detailed bibliography of archival, primary and secondary sources. These included sources in English, German, French and Russian. The latter are written using the latin alphabet, with an English translation. Whilst not of interest to every reader, this provides a great pointer for further study for the keen student, researcher or enthusiast.
This is a landmark work, a fine reference source and one that we will be ‘dipping’ into regularly as we plan games involving Russian forces and their leaders. As Donald Horward states in his foreword, “readers interested in the Russian army during the Napoleonic period now have a valuable research tool available”. I could not agree more.

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