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Saturday, 18 August 2012
A fine memorial
Book Review: Crossing the Berezina, A Victory During The Retreat, by Francois-Guy Hourtoulle, Denis Gandilhon and André Jouineau
I was so pleased to collect this book from our PO Box today that I had to read and review it immediately! This wasn’t a big task as Crossing the Berezina, A Victory During The Retreat is predominantly a picture book. The combination of the uniform plates, reproductions of famous paintings and diagrams all in a beautifully produced, hardcover publication make it a wonderful book to drool over. This, plus the details of units, commanders and, with cavaets, the main text, make for a useful source of information and a fine memorial to Francois-Guy Hourtoulle.
It was only when I became aware of the publication of this tome that I found out about the death in 2009 of Dr Hourtoulle and his editor at Histoire et Collections, Denis Gandilhon. This unfinished book was completed by others at Histoire et Collections, “...to offer it to you without betraying the joint wishes of these two specialists...”. Fittingly, the book commences with a brief dedication to Francois-Guy Hourtoulle, outlining the three stages in the life of this amazing man; in the military, medicine and as an author.
At the heart of the book is the uniform plates by André Jouineau. These are presented, in colour, grouped by troop type, and provide examples of units in an array of uniforms, from full dress to greatcoats. The figures represented are predominantly from the ranks, but NCOs, officers, trumpeters, fifers, drummers, standard bearers and sappers are also shown, along with the flags or guidon’s for many of them. With a few exceptions, the figures in the uniform plates are shown in profile for cavalry units and front-on for the infantry. In all cases the figures wear regulation uniforms, rather than the assortment of uniform items, civilian dress and whatever else could be found that we know was improvised by the men of both armies, most particularly those in the retreating ‘grande armée’.
A few of the individual figures are the same as those in the sister volume, Borodino-The Moskva: The Battle for the Redoubts, but the majority are of troops from completely different units to those that are presented in that book. Particularly pleasing is the large number of French allies that are represented: Polish, Italian, Swiss, Croat, Spanish, Portuguese, Bavarian, Westphalian, Würtemberger, Saxon, Hessian, Badener, Cleve-Berger, Neapolitan, Prussian, Austrian, Danish and Illyrian (plus the Mediterranean and Walcheren Regiments).
The book also contains large, clear reproductions of many of the most famous paintings of the retreat, the battles and the crossing, the majority of which are in full colour. Eighteen of these are printed at approximately the size of half of a page (around 16 cm x 19 cm), while the remainder are either printed on a full page (four paintings, including Peter von Hess’ “Crossing of the Berezina” on the cover of the book) or as a double-page spread (a further four paintings). The size and clarity of these reproductions makes them ideal for closer inspection of the details in each painting.
The book also includes clear reproductions of uniform prints from Knötel, Philippoteaux, Chappell, Job and some unspecified artists (one of which is by Rousselot). Once again, the vast majority of these are in colour. Lastly are the numerous pictures of some of the main commanders of the two armies.
Another feature of the book is a ‘sidebar’ entitled ‘The Heroes of the Bridges’, which covers four pages. Here Hourtoulle lists the officers and men of the engineers and pontonneers who were responsible for the construction of the two bridges over which the French-Allied army crossed the Berezina, with a brief biography of each. There are also illustrations of the structure of the trestle bridges and of a campaign forge plus paintings of Elbé and Chasseloup-Laubat and of the crossing point on the Berezina, shown in summer. This is a fine piece of research and a fitting tribute to those brave men who made the crossing possible.
The orders of battle, which are a standard feature of the books of this series, are also present here. Those for the three Russian armies, or part thereof, that were present in the battles around the Berezina, list, for each division, the names of the units and their strength. It is not specified what stage of the battles these strengths reflect, but the numbers of troops and statements in the text suggest that they are ‘initial’ strengths in early to mid November. The order of battle for French-Allied army is fully detailed, providing the names of generals, staff officers and unit commanders, with a one-line to one-paragraph biography for each, the units that were included in each ‘higher order’ formation and, in most cases, estimated strengths. Together these provide a useful and detailed source for planning wargames or researching units or commanders.
Having waxed lyrical about the good features of the book we come to its weaker points. The first of these is the maps, of which there are three. The first shows the manoeuvres of the four armies in the area bounded to the east by Orsha, the west by Smorgoni, the north by Lepel and south by Minsk/Mogilev. The second is a reasonably detailed map, complete with the positions of troops, showing the battles of Studianka and Stakhov-Brili. The third is in the same style as the second and, quite strangely, shows the second Battle of Polotsk (which is barely mentioned in the text). These three maps are good, but are too few in number and are not clearly linked with the text.
Unfortunately, the weakest point of the book is the text. I have enjoyed reading Hourtoulle’s other books, with his conversational style, copious use of quotes from eye witnesses, interesting insights and strong statements. While there are glimpses of those features in the text of Crossing the Berezina, much of it is disjointed and somewhat confusing. More critically there are several errors, such as the naming of Lambert as the commander of the cavalry sent by Chichagov (Tchichagov), following his capture of Borisov on 21st November, to reconnoitre Oudinot’s approach (it was in fact Phalen), the statement that the bridge building began on 26th December (it was 26th November) and the assertion that the soldiers in the mass grave that was uncovered in Vilnius in 2001 were massacred. Scientific investigation of the site has shown that the majority died either from typhus and other diseases that were spread by the lice that were rampant amongst the retreating soldiers and/or as a result of illness caused by the sudden intake of food in previously starved bodies. The reasoning for these mistakes and the confusing flow of the text seems to be that the publishers decided to make minimal additions or changes to Hourtoulle and Gandilhon’s unfinished manuscript. While this is to be applauded, a little firm editing would have improved the publication no end.
All in all this book is a fine memorial to the soldiers and civilians, from both sides, who suffered, fought and died in the winter of 1812 and also to Francois-Guy Hourtoulle and Denis Gandilhon. Notwithstanding the errors and omissions in the text, it is a fine addition to their many works that will give pleasure and inspiration, plus much useful information, to the many wargamers and history buffs for whom, like the authors, the Napoleonic period generates great interest, passion and considerable debate.