Saturday, 7 July 2012

A fine piece of historical writing from one of the 19th C’s greatest

Book Review: Napoleon's Invasion of Russia, by Theodore Ayrault Dodge
(Images courtesy of the publishers. Please do not reproduce without first seeking permission)
Frontline Books published this extended excerpt from volume III of Theodore Dodge's Napoleon: A History of the Art of War, under the title of “Napoleon's Invasion of Russia”.
Even the foreword of this book is full of interest. Written by George Nafziger, it outlines Dodge’s amazing career. Nafziger points out that Dodge is considered to be “the greatest American military historian of the 19th century”, and I am not surprised. Born in 1842, Dodge served in the Union and US Army from the Civil War until 1870, having lost his right leg at Gettysburg. He did not begin writing until he retired, but managed, in the remaining 38 years of his life, to produce an impressive list of historical works; The Campaign of Chancellorsville (1881), Bird’s Eye View of the Civil War (1883), Parrocius and Penelope (1885, Riders of Many Lands (1894), History of the Art of War (in twelve volumes): Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Gustavus Adolphus, Frederick the Great and Napoleon (1889). He certainly made the most of his 66 years!
The heart of this book is Dodge’s analysis of the actions and mistakes of the key ‘actors’, chiefly focussed on Napoleon, which is only natural given he is the topic of Dodge’s study. It took me a little while to get into this book, but I found Dodge’s critique, using evidence and analysis to explore the pros and cons, engaging, interesting and insightful.
The book begins with the background to the campaign and the failed ‘negotiations’, which Dodge notes were largely for show, since neither France, Russian nor England were prepared to compromise and Napoleon’s overtures of peace were rejected outright by Russia and England. He provides an overview of the political situation, strategic movements, supply and logistics. Dodge writes at length regarding Napoleon’s detailed preparations for the campaign, which were to prove to be so drastically insufficient.
An example of one of the line drawings

Each stage and phase of the campaign is described in detail, principally from the French perspective, supported by numerous quotes and Dodge’s insightful analysis and critique. As one would expect from a book that covers the entire campaign, the battles and actions are described in strategic rather than tactical terms, with only the main movements or actions mentioned. Detailed line drawings of generals and figures from specific military units, so often seen in books published in the late 19th and early 20th century, are dotted throughout the text. These are fine pieces in themselves, add a nice touch and break up the blocks of text nicely.

One of the numerous maps: not the most elegant,
but functional and  complement the text well
Pleasingly, the book features numerous, detailed maps. While these are not as clear as those we have come to expect in more recent publications, they complement the text well. All of the towns that Dodge mentions are either indicated on a map or clearly evident from the location of forces indicated on the maps. That said, it takes some effort to track the movements of the formations and this would have been greatly enhanced by the addition of arrows and the like on each map, rather than simply towns, roads and rivers. One can hardly criticise the book for this though and I am pleased that the publishers have reproduced it in the original format with original maps.
His description of the great battle of Borodino provides an excellent overview of the battle and its phases. Dodge provides a clear overview of Napoleon’s plan of battle, an aspect that seems to be all too often missing from other accounts that I have seen. The grand tactical view of the battle does not make it any the less compelling to read, with Dodge painting a fine word picture of the colossus struggle. “This massing of men and the tremendous array of guns opened the way for frightful losses” (p. 157). Contrary to many authors and commentators, Dodge’s conclusion about the battle, and particularly Napoleon’s decision not to use the Guard, is that it was justified at the time based on what Napoleon knew of the situation, but, with the benefit of hindsight and knowledge not known to Napoleon, was incorrect (pp. 166–171).
Dodge’s overall thesis is that Napoleon’s failure in 1812 was principally a result of his uncharacteristic indecision and, at crucial times, lack of action.
“All this may sound hypercritical; but we must try Napoleon by his own standard; our question is how far his own decrease in energy affected his power to wage war; and here he was quite behind his better days. It were absurd to explain blame his shortcomings; but his failure must be explained. There is no desire to make too much of small lapses; yet each tells its story. Something like mental weariness based on a physique no longer equal to the strain of his gigantic conceptions seems to have been at fault” (pp. 125–126).
It is a compelling argument, that has often been used in subsequent analyses. Everyone has their limit. We have a saying about people being promoted one level above their capability (which seems to happen all too frequently!). Perhaps Napoleon had reached the limit of his own capacity, which until then had appeared almost limitless. Running an army of nearly half a million men, with some ineffectual subordinates, under limited intelligence and harsh conditions, while at the same running a large empire, to which he was so central, nearly 3 000 km from home, would test anyone. The Russians were suffering similarly despite being within their home country, a point that has been brought to light in more recent studies of the campaign.
Dodge’s main criticism is of Napoleon’s decision to leave Smolensk. He argues and concludes, contrary to other analyses by Jomini and Clausewitz, that a cessation of the 1812 campaign at Smolensk would have been the best course of action by Napoleon (pp. 140-41), ready for a thrust on Moscow in 1813. This argument will continue as long as people write books about Napoleon and about the campaign. I suspect that the military man in Dodge is chief in this conclusion, which ignores the very real and important geo-political considerations that no doubt weighed heavily on Napoleon’s thinking.
Interestingly, Dodge suggests that, despite the poorer supply situation of the French-Allied army compared with the Russian, Napoleon should have followed up and attacked Kutuzov again after Borodino (pp. 183–184). This may well have been successful, given the strong performance of the Grande Armée at Borodino, which in no way reflected conditions of poor mounts and poor supply. Perhaps Napoleon feared another battle so soon after Borodino for fear of the losses that would be incurred on his already reduced army, or he was still shaken by the losses at Borodino (and in fact all of the battles of the campaign so far) and did not wish to engage in another slog, or he truly believed that Alexander would sue for peace once Moscow fell, or perhaps he had even lost faith in his own ability to beat the Russians in an open battle? Dodge concludes that the lack of a follow-up battle was due solely to the poor victualling of the Napoleon’s army.
It is often indicated that Napoleon was forced back to the invasion route during the retreat due to the inclusive result of Maloyaroslavets, but Dodge suggests that Napoleon’s movement south was a deception designed to initially disguise the retreat and that “he proposed to retire by way of Smolensk, for although the country was eaten out, yet the amount of supplies which had been accumulated on this road, and were still being wheeled up, would be the equivalent of all that they could get on any, except a route much further south” (p. 203).
The latter stages of the retreat, Krasnoi, Ney’s rearguard and the crossing of the Berezina are covered in detail and make for compelling, if harrowing, reading. There is little mention of the hardships and losses encountered by the Russian army during the retreat of Grand Armée, but the hesitation, poor information and bad decision-making of the Russian generals is stressed, as this, combined with the generally good performance of Napoleon and his generals when cornered—and some luck—assisted the Grande Armée to escape complete destruction, particularly at the Berezina.
The book concludes with a reproduction of Napoleon’s 29th bulletin in full. As Dodge notes, “whatever its prevarications, in view of the fact that those were not the days of special war correspondents and telegraphs, and compared with the reports of other unsuccessful campaigns by the commanding generals, it will hold its own”. It is salutary reading and is a fine way to conclude what is a fine book.


  1. I have some of other Dodge's other books, but not this one. I agree, Dodge does take a bit of getting into, as he is generally focused at the more strategic level than the tactical, but I've not regretted the time spent on any of his books.

  2. His analysis of events and causes are really valuable aren't they? I have a pdf of the entire "History of the Art of War: Napoleon" that I downloaded from the fabulous website (a brilliant resource for freely available, legitimate, out-of-copyright material)--haven't got to that one yet either, but am more spurred on to do so having enjoyed this published version of the 1812 section.
    I still can't get over how prolific and broad the man was with his writing; what a guy!