Sunday, 11 November 2012

A useful little book

This is a useful little book and one of the sources that we used when designing our Borodino game.
The book contains chapters on the background to the campaign, opposing plans, the battlefield, each stage of the battle, the immediate aftermath and the stages of the campaign after Borodino. It is rounded off by a brief chapter containing biographies of a few, selected commanders (chiefly Russian) and detailed appendices of orders of battle.
Being such a short book, the introductory chapters are the weak point. These are too perfunctory, to be of great value. However, this short-coming is more than made up for by the other chapters of the book.
Smith’s description of the battlefield is clear, easily followed and is aided greatly by the fact that he has actually visited the site! He describes how the battlefield has changed since 1812 with the construction of monuments and rebuilt fortifications from 1812 and 1941–2, leading to the features that are present today. His description is accompanied by a few photos of key points, including views towards the Shervardino mound and the Grand Reboubt. These are useful additions to the descriptions—my only complaint is that it would have been great to have had more of them!
The heart of the book is the chapters about each stage of the battle; “Borodino Village—First Blood”, “The Bagration Flêches—Allied Accounts”, “The Bagration Flêches—a Russian Account”, “ The Raevsky Battery—the First Assaults”, “Semenovskaya—Last Bastion of the Russian Centre”, The Southern Flank—the Struggle for Utitsa”, “The Northern Flank—the Russian Raid”, “The Final Assault on the Raevsky Battery”. By dividing the battle into these brief chapters, Smith presents a clear and easy to read account of what was one of the most confusing battles of the Napoleonic wars (I have seen several eyewitness reports indicating that those present did not have a sense of the battle amongst the mayhem and terrible carnage of that titanic struggle). His writing is lucid, readable and aided greatly by numerous, extended quotes from eyewitnesses.
These quotes from participants provide many interesting observations. Two examples of these are from Captain Franz Morgenstern of the 2nd Westphalian Line Infantry who says, in part, “our regiment was drawn up on parade when the order reached us to put on full dress as quickly as possible [Smith’s note: this was often done for set-piece battles and usually involved putting on plumes, shako cords, epaulettes, and medals and decorations]” (p. 61). A later quote from Morgenstern relates an observation regarding some of the young conscripts in his unit, “my senior sergeant, who had seen much action in his past service in the armies of Hessen-Kassel, Prussia, and Austria, delighted me with is sense of humour when he came to me and suggested that I order the three flankers next to me to stick out their tongues. This I did and was surprised to see that all their tongues were as white as their uniforms... of course, I had to put this to the proof and demanded that he show me his tongue; he obliged immediately—it was lobster red!” (pp. 63–64). Whether interesting, humorous, or more harrowing descriptions of the action and losses, these eyewitness accounts add to the depth of the presentation.
The book is well served by a large quantity of detailed maps. While not works of art, they are clear, functional and plentiful—publishers and authors please note; this is the level that is required! There is at least one map in each of the chapters about the stages of the battle, showing clearly the locations of the action and units described in the text.
Example of one of the maps, in this case of the southern flank, around Utitsa. Apologies for the poor quality of the scan!
An important part of Smith’s description of the battle is his identification of the key role of what he calls the ‘northern raid’, Platov and Uvarov’s attack around the northern, left flank of the French-Allied army. It may be argued, and is done so by Smith, that while this ‘raid’ was meant purely as a feint and was a seeming distraction that achieved little directly, it was in fact the critical movement of the battle and a key factor in limiting the French-Allied victory. It stalled the attack by Eugène’s IV Corps on the Grand Redoubt by two hours, it diverted units of IV Corps creating a gap in the front line “that had to be hurriedly filled by other allied units, thus distracting them from their primary tasks and further easing the pressure on the battered Russian centre” (p. 112). Thus, while “Russian high command did not appreciate the breathing space that had just been won or the confusion that had been caused in the enemy’s ranks” (p. 115), Smith does not underestimate it at all and concludes his book; “the significance of Uvarov’s raid on the northern flank during the battle is completely overlooked in practically every work” (p. 151).
The greatest negative of the book for me is Smith’s editorialising. I know what to expect, having read a few of his books, but at times I found it to be too pointed and too one-eyed. He comes to “bury caesar, not to praise him” and does not have the objectivity and balance of a Chandler, Mikaberidze, Field, or even Dodge. Whilst critical of mistakes by the Russians, he does not write about these with the level of vitriol that he reserves for Napoleon. A particularly extreme example of this is his comment about garrisons west of Moscow that he claims Napoleon “callously abandoned to the tender mercies of the Russian partisans...” (p. 145) when he began his initial withdrawal from Moscow in a south-westerly direction, which was blocked at Maloyaroslavets, leading to the retreat along the original line of invasion and the rapid disintegration of the remaining 100 000 men of the main, Grand Armée. Smith continues, “In none of the accounts of the 1812 campaign, which I have read, have I found any mention of orders being sent to these unfortunates to concentrate anywhere to survive the winter, for them to fight their way out to the west, or to join up with the Emperor on his new, southerly line of operations. They were expendable; they had apparently outlived their usefulness” (p. 145). Fortunately, whilst there are numerous such value-laden statements and observations, the bulk of the book is dedicated to Smith’s account and description of the battle.
Whether you find Smith’s point of view galling, agree wholeheartedly, or sit somewhere in between this book is a clear account of the terrible battle of Borodino, and a fantastically useful source for maps, orders of battle, dispositions and movements of the troops.


  1. Great review again, James! Does it have OBs with actual battalion sizes?

    BTW, I've nominated you for the latest round of virtual backslapping, the Lieber Blog Award. FOr details, see my latest blogpost.

  2. Thanks Ben and especially thanks for the nomination; too kind.
    Smith's book has divisional strengths for the Russians, but none for the French. We complemented his OBs with those from Hourtoulle and Mikaberidze.