Saturday, 9 March 2013

A Must

Book Review: Into Battle with Napoleon 1812: The Journal of Jakob Walter, Edited and annotated by Bob Carruthers
(Book cover art kindly provided by the publishers. Please do not reproduce without obtaining permission)
Pen and Sword have recently begun publishing affordable, paperback editions of accounts from eyewitnesses under the series entitled “Military History From Primary Sources”. Having seen numerous quotes from Jakob Walter in the books on the 1812 campaign that I had read last year, I was keen to read his memoir in full.
 Jacob Walter’s memoir was originally translated in 1938 by Otto Springer from the University of Kansas. Springer’s preface to that original translation tells of the remarkable events by which he first learned of the manuscript.
“Two years ago I learned through my colleague, Professor Frank E. Melvin, of the existence of a manuscript written in German and containing a private soldier's recollections of his experiences in the Napoleonic Wars. The manuscript was in the possession of Mr. Frank Walter, Postmaster of Lecompton, Kansas” [Jakob’s grandson].
So it was by such serendipity that the manuscript was ‘found’ and entered the English-language literature of the Napoleonic period.
The re-publication of this remarkable memoir is true to the original translation, even down to the inclusion of several mis-translations1, but sadly does not include the index, bibliography nor map that were included in the original. Presumably this was an editorial decision intended to keep the price of the book down (this title sells for under £10).
1For example, Walter’s small arms are consistently referred to as a rifle, rather than a musket and sabre, rather than bayonet and his shako as a helmet. These errors come from Springer’s original literal translations of ‘gewehr’, ‘sabel’ and ‘runden hut’ and have been faithfully reproduced here!
It’s an engrossing, but easy read. Walter has a simple, conversational and straightforward writing style and I, who am not a fast reader but one who tends to read a section or short chapter at a time, was able to read the book over a single weekend. 
Jakob Walter was born in Rosenberg near Ellwangen in Württemberg. He was conscripted into the army of Württemberg in late 1806. The back cover and introduction to the book states incorrectly that he was Westphalian. This is a surprising mistake since Walter states this clearly at the beginning of his memoir and particularly since Springer’s original got it right. He was drafted into the Infantry Regiment Von Romig which became the Infantry Regiment Von Franquemont in 1808 and then the Infantry Regiment Nr 4 in 1811. His brother was drafted into the Infantry Regiment Von Lilienberg, which became Prinz Friedrich in 1808 and then the Infantry Regiment Nr 5 Prinz Friedrich in 1811. 
Walter’s journal begins with two chapters describing his experiences during the campaign in Poland during in 1807 and in the Tyrol in 1809. These chapters have been put, logically, at the beginning of the book instead of at the end as was done in Springer’s translation.
Walter’s first experience of combat was at the siege of Colberg in which he was part of an unsuccessful assault on the fortress on Pentecost Night2. His account, which is told in his straightforward, narrative style, provides an clear impression of the mayhem, struggle and horror of an assault. The regiments left camp at midnight, marched across the swamp outside the city and “...we were commanded to attack by wading through the rampart ditches and fascines, to tread these in, and to scramble up the earthworks by chopping and shovelling. ...each soldier had to pull up the next one with his rifle.(p. 16)
2Frank Melvin’s note regarding this attack which accompanies Springer’s 1938 version reads “This attack of May 17-18, 1807, by 1600 Polish, Italian, and Württemberg troops under General Teulie was directed not against the fortress itself, but against the earthworks on the Wolfsberg, east of the city. After a storm detachment under the Württemberg Colonel von Berndes had occupied the earthworks, the invaders were driven back by a counterattack of the Grenadier Battalion Waldenfels, which was sent there from the suburb of Lauenburg at 2 o'clock the same night. The Wolfsberg was finally conquered on June 11, 1807.”
After four weeks besieging Colberg, the Württemberg regiments transferred to Silberberg. Then, after two weeks before that fortress, a covering force was left while “... the others, in which I belonged, had to begin the siege at Glatz” (p. 19). Walter describes the siege of Glatz, in fact sieges in general as being, “... a more remarkable sight by far than a battle on a field.” (p. 21)
In addition to the military aspects, Walter describes a number of humorous incidents and close calls that he had while being involved in duties such as escorting prisoners, supplies and money. Throughout this phase Walter’s description focusses greatly on the items, supplies and transport (chiefly horses) that he ‘liberated’ in the exercise of his duties. The importance of Jewish merchants and his frequent use of various forms of ‘persuasion’ are a feature of this section of his account. One example was in Poland in 1807 where he had to requisition food supplies. “I wanted to take the first Jew I came across as a guide... the first escaped and likewise the others I chased...finally... I caught him among many women and children... I took him, dragged him down the two flights of stairs, and... kicked him forward for two hours, threatening him if he should fail to lead me to the right village.” (p. 8)
When the Württemberg regiments transferred to Silberberg, their knapsacks and other items were carried on horses. Walter’s ”...knapsack, cloak, bayonet, and money which I had packed in a belt of my cloak, were lost.” He commandeered a horse to travel back to local villages to try to find these items, but to no avail.
In 1809 Walter’s regiment was involved in actions against the ‘insurgents’ in the Tyrol from the regiment’s base at Lindau. In a manner similar the Iberian peninsula, the Württembergers were able to beat off enemy attacks on the city, with the help of their artillery but, pursuing the ‘insurgents’ into the hills they were outflanked and had to retreat back to the safety of the city and its guns.
During this campaign the soldiers entered the town of Bregenz and “... there was much disorder amongst the soldiery. Cellars were broken into, and wine was carried out in buckets everywhere. Even several kegs were left running. Everyone became intoxicated... We drank especially a great deal of very thick red Tyrolean wine.”3 (p. 31)
Later Walter’s regiment was moved to Dornbirn and he was billeted in the house of a furrier who had a child of “about three-quarters of a year old... Once I gave this child some brandy to drink. Little by little the child took a liking to it, so that it became a bit intoxicated and so gleeful that I had to keep it from falling down from the pillow; this was great fun and did not do the child any harm.” (p 31)
After the campaign ended, the regiment marched home, but were quartered “for some time” in villages around Biberach. Here Walter’s trickery extended to a nun who was the sister of of the well-to-do peasant in whose house he was billeted. “Since I would read books frequently on certain days and the nun noticed my behaviour... she asked others about my situation... I spoke to my comrades... saying that they should call me at times “Miller,” at other times “Walter,” and again Kapuziner.”... Then the nun said to me, “Now I know, indeed, where your devout reading comes from. You may as well confess it to me.” So then I did her the favour and told her that my brother had been a priest and I, a Capuchin monk, that I had already vowed my chastity, and also that my name had been Miller instead of Walter. [...] From now on, these pious hosts were very sympathetic toward me, and the nun told me her entire cloister story, and they had a liking for me above all the other soldiers...” (pp. 33–34)
The majority of the memoir is dedicated to Walter’s experiences of the Russian campaign, beginning with the gathering of Napoleon’s army from early 1812 until his arrival at Ellwangen on 24th February 1813 and then his eventual homecoming (presumably to Rosenberg) some 40 days later. 
His tale begins with the Württemberg army marching through Wurzburg, initially rumours in the ranks suggested that they were heading for Spain. They then travelled through Saxony and the Saxon duchies until they reached Leipzig and “...anyone could see what was going to happen, since as many “Frenchies” as could slip through came crowding through the gates” (p 38). In Leipzig they enjoyed luxurious eating “...everybody ate and drank while eight servants brought in the warm meal, which consisted of white soup, two kinds of meat, and several kinds of vegetables. [...] dessert and drinks were served in abundance throughout the whole afternoon.” (p. 39)
After two days in Leipzig the march continued through Brandenburg. “It was the region where my regiment had lain in fixed quarters for eleven weeks in 1807... several women also found their once beloved soldiers, although several men were hiding for good reason and did not wish to be found for fear they would be called a father.” (p. 41)
Their march took them through the region of East Prussia and Poland familiar to Walter from 1807. Conditions on the march became progressively more difficult and food of poorer quality and harder to obtain. “Bread was rare, and there was nothing at hand to buy” (p. 42). Walter describes the declining supply situation “daily hardships increased [...] One also heard everywhere that several men had already shot themselves because of hardship...” (p. 46)
When they reached the Memel River (Niemen) and town of Poniemon in Lithuania “Everyone rejoiced to see the Russian boundary at last... and everyone thought that he should make his knapsack as light as possible... and threw away vests, unnecessary cleaning articles, trousers, etc. [...] We now believed that, once in Russia, we need do nothing but forage - which however proved to be an illusion.” (p. 46–47)
On the border of the Niemen by Faber du Faur
[Source: Wikimedia Commons]
The conditions of the march were challenging with at first heat and dust and then heavy rain “ceaselessly for several days, and the rain was cold... I had on only one pair of blue linen trousers,... since I had thrown away my underwear because of the former heat.” (p. 47) The discovery of a cellar full of brandy lead to a rush “I, too, pushed myself into the cellar and filled my field flask. I returned to the shelter with this and drank it without even any bread. [...] The brandy helped, but many a man drank himself to death because he would become numbed and would freeze on account of the wet and cold.” 3 (p. 48)
3Incidents such as these regarding how troops accessed alcohol are interesting with respect to a recent post. It appears that obtaining it by force or luck were more prevalent than an issued, fortifying ration, but perhaps I am being too selective in my reading of the evidence?
Foraging was difficult so that when “...we obtained some meat... most of the men could no longer digest the pure meat, diarrhoea seized many, and they had to be abandoned.” (p. 49) Fresh water was also hard to come by “ most districts there was no water fit for drinking, so that the men had to drink out of ditches in which were lying dead horses and dead men. I often marched away from the columns for several hours in search of water, but seldom could I return with any water and had to go thirsty.” (p. 50)
As they went deeper into Russia, Walter and his comrades became more adept at ‘uncovering’ hidden stores in the largely deserted villages of western Russia. In one such village near Polotsk, Walter and eight of his comrades went seeking provisions “There were no peasants left [...they] broke open everything that was covered, and searched all the floors and still nothing was found. Finally we assembled and were ready to leave. I once more inspected a little hut somewhat removed from the village. Around it from top to bottom were heaped bundles of hemp and shives, which I tore down; and, as I worked my way to the ground, sacks full of flour appeared.” (p. 50–51) Walter called his comrades, they put the flour and some sieves into sacks and loaded them onto two horses which they managed to ‘find’. As they were returning back with their booty a group of about 50 peasants ran towards them. “What could we do but shoot at them?” The peasants dispersed somewhat allowing Walter and his comrades to hurry toward their bivouac. They successfully crossed a deep stream, urging the horses to cross with stones and finally reached the bivouac. “That was a joy! Whatever each person could not use was distributed.” (p. 51)
In another incident on a farm near Vitebsk, Walter and his comrades broke into a wooden hut that “the peasants would not open” and found a “booty” of “...pots full of sausages stuffed into casings four to five feet long and filled with pieces of bacon and meat an inch thick... Here were also hidden pots filled with lumps of cheese...” Walter notes, somewhat sardonically “I am telling of this undertaking to show the ways of the Russian subjects. If they had voluntarily removed the simple covers (of their storage places), much of the household furniture would have remained unspoiled, for it was necessary to raise the floors and the beams in order to find anything and to turn upside down everything that was covered.” (pp. 52–53)
Walter’s first action of the campaign came at Smolensk. “On the morning of August 17, every regiment was set in motion, and all advanced in columns against the Russians. Here every regiment without exception was under fire. Again and again the troops attempted assaults, but because of the greater number of the Russians we were forced back every time on this day, since their heavy artillery stood on the heights and could hit everything. [...] Finally by night we had made good our position on the heights overlooking the city, and the battle was discontinued. [...] As soon as the day broke - here I cannot omit the description of the length of the day and the shortness of the night. [...] So, as soon the day broke-we marched against the city. [...] Finally, while cannon balls kept on raining out of the city, we stormed it. [...] We broke through the gates, pressed from all sides against the city, and put the enemy to flight.” (p. 54–55) As part of III Corps, Walter’s regiment was engaged again at Valutino (Lubino) (the “Holy Valley”) and, of course, at Borodino. 
“Like thunderbolts the firing began both against and from the enemy.... Several trenches were stormed and taken with terrible sacrifices, but the enemy did not move from their place. [...] Nine entrenchments were stormed, the French threatened to surround the enemy from the front, and finally the enemy gave way. [...] the suffering brothers had no help, no hope of rescue: hunger, thirst and fire were their death. [...] the people had, nevertheless, become so indifferent to their feelings that they all ran numbly like shades of death away from the pitieous crying. [...] we not only had nothing to eat but also no water to drink, because of the high camp site; and the road through the fields was covered with dead Russians.” (pp. 59–61)
Dead soldiers of the Grande Armée by Faber du Faur
[Source: Wikimedia Commons]
After Borodino they approached Moscow “...with the expectation that we should clash again with the Russians, but the Russians thought themselves too weak and went through the city setting fire to many parts... [...] Our troops came unexpectedly, something which the Russians before had believed impossible, because there never had been a foreign enemy who had reached and conquered the old city of the Tsar, the capital city.” (p. 61)
In Moscow they established a strange settlement and mini-economy “Here one could find and buy provisions; for each soldier was now citizen, merchant, innkeeper, and baker of Moscow.” (p. 62) The illusion that the war had been won, from which Napoleon too suffered, was soon shattered and “After we had been citizens of Moscow for four weeks, we lost our burgher rights again.” (p 62) Initially marching south towards Kaluga, the Grande Armée was blocked because “The Russian, however, hindered us and drove us past Vereia and Verina and to the right into our old, desolate highway.” (p. 66) Thus began the infamous, terrible retreat.
Moscow by Faber du Faur [Source: Wikimedia Commons]
Walter’s memoir of the retreat makes for particularly compelling reading. The words from Hugo’s L’Expiation, “Hier la grande armée et maintenant troupeau” are transformed into prose by Walter’s accounts of how he survived the ordeal. He was one of the ‘stragglers’ so spent the retreat looking for sustenance, avoiding Cossacks and other half-starved members of the former Grande Armée. His story shows that he survived because he kept his wits about him, ensured that he remained near the van of the retreating army, kept command of a horse for nearly the whole time (although not the same horse) and, at times of greatest despair, was driven on by his faith and/or his desire to see is friends and family again. I have included just a few episodes from this amazing story below.
Luck played a large part in Walter’s survival. In one case he recounts how, when returning one night from fetching some water he spied “...a round ball resembling a dead sheep was lying on the ground. I picked it up and in astonished joy unwrapped a rolled-up Crimean fur that reached from my head down to my feet besides having a peculiar collar which could be clapped over my head” (pp. 67–68). Returning to his major (he was a valet) he swapped the fur for the major’s “...which was also beautiful, having a green silk lining so that it could be worn right side out or inside out.” (p. 69)
An even greater piece of luck was when, travelling by horse and sled “...through the burned out cities of Viasma, Semlevo, and Dorogobush... while I was eating some of my aforementioned bread, several Frenchmen saw me. These inhuman men surrounded me with the pretext of buying bread; and, when the word “bread” was mentioned, everyone bolted at me, so that I thought my death was near, but through an extraordinary chance there came along some Germans, whom I now called to my aid. They struck my horse so that most of the French men fell back from me and then were entirely beaten off. [...] Not they, I could see now, but rather their hunger and my bread were both my redeemers and, at the same time, my robbers. Although I had already given them a loaf, they robbed me! [...] There are stories in which people have murdered and eaten each other on account of the hunger, but certainly this incident was a long way from murder.” (pp. 72–73)
As the situation became more desperate, survival instincts brought about more ‘inhuman’ acts. “Again and again people died, and sometimes froze to death; these were people who pressed toward the fire but were seldom permitted to get there; so they died away from the fire, and very often they were even converted into cushions in order that the living would not have to sit in the snow.” (p. 79) 
A particularly moving story, and perhaps the most salutary tale of Walter’s memoir, relates to a comrade “B. by the name of Sch. ...the third man from my district whom I met on the way from Smolensk to Moscow and back to this place [Borissov].” Being countrymen they befriended one another and shared what they had to make a meal of rice from Moscow, dog meat from a head near their fire “...just to give the water flavour and to warm our stomachs, we boiled the two together.” As they prepared to move again “he said to me, “I had a loaf of bread for my master. You have taken it from me.” This was a pain to my feelings which I can never in my life forget. It is noteworthy how an opinion which is entirely false can turn a friend into a scoundrel and change him into a shameful caricature of a human being on account of a bit of bread. [...] I swore and said, “Comrade, you are wrong. I have not seen or taken any bread. He remained firm in his opinion, and death soon found him.” (pp. 82–84)
As a ‘straggler’, Walter did not take part in any of the fighting, although he does mention some of the battles, particularly Krasnoe and Ney’s circuitous march to rejoin the army. At the Berezina he describes vividly the crush at the bridges, how they sank into the water and their poor construction, but seems to have been oblivious of the sacrifices made by the pontonniers and engineers to have made the crossing possible at all. This, of course, is hardly surprising since self-preservation was the order of the day and all that the majority of that once grand army had the energy or focus for.
Crossing the Berezina by Faber du Faur
[Source: Wikimedia Commons]
Eventually and after several more close encounters, even once he had reached ‘friendly territory’, Walter reached his homeland on 24th February 1813. Remarkably his struggle for survival was not over. The returned “Russians” were “...shut into a house together so that we should spread no sickness, for everywhere in Württemberg we were shunned like lepers.” (p. 121) Six days after his return “...the fever shook me again [he had first suffered from it in Thorn]... I ran a high temperature; and my nosebleed grew so bad that for several days a wet cloth had to be put around my head and neck every five or six minutes and the bed had to be arranged for sitting up instead of lying down. [...] When I had grown so weak that I became delirious and everyone doubted that I would recover, I was loaded upon a wagon with several “Russians” and driven to Vaihingen. [...] Finally, after eight or nine days had passed, I longed for vinegar, and I poured some into my soup. my desire increased for vinegar and lettuce. [...] My appetite gradually rose so that I had potato salad, pure vinegar, pork, potatoes and cabbage, and cooked meat from the butcher... and then I took no more medicine.” (pp. 121–124)
Jakob Walter returned to his trade as a stonemason and lived, as so often seems to be the case with veterans who have survived such testing circumstances, to the relative old age of 76 years, dying on 3rd August 1864. Frank Melvin notes that it was one of Jacob’s sons, Franz Walter, who had emigrated to the USA in 1849 and, following a visit to Ellwangen in 1858, brought to Kansas “...the accounts of the father's campaigns...” (Springer and Melvin 1938, p. 187).
As I have mentioned, unfortunately there is no map provided with this publication. Springer’s original included “A map, drawn by Professor F. A. Russell of the University of Kansas, will aid the reader in tracing the route of march, especially during the fateful Russian campaign” and it is a shame that this map or similar was not included here.
Russell's map from "A  German Conscript With Napoleon - Jakob Walter's Recollections of the Campaigns of 1806–1807, 1809, and 1812–13"
Interspersed throughout the text are black and white reproductions of paintings by Albrecht Adam and some portraits of key people in the campaign. These are merely decorative though as neither the specific images nor their placement relate to anything directly in the adjacent text. In fact it would have been preferable to have used some images from those painted by Faber du Faur as he was with III Corps and painted many images of Württemberg troops. At the very least the images used could have been appropriately organised chronologically and to coincide with descriptions in the text.
Even I can admit that these criticisms are somewhat ‘picky’.
This is a valuable memoir of the period and particularly the 1812 campaign and it is fabulous to have a version that is easily available to enthusiasts, wargamers and other ‘students’ of Napoleonic history.
A must read.
Carruthers, B (Ed.) (2013) Into Battle with Napoleon 1812: The Journal of Jakob Walter In 'Military History From Primary Sources' (Ed. D Mcwhinnie). Pen & Sword Books Limited, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, England. 128 pp.
North, J (Ed.) (2001) With Napoleon In Russia: The Illustrated Memoirs of Faber du Faur, 1812 Greenhill Books, London. 208 pp.
North, J (2005) Napoleon's Army In Russia: The Illustrated Memoirs of Albrecht Adam - 1812. Pen & Sword Military, Barnsley, South Yorkshire. 176 pp.
Springer, O and Melvin, FE (1938) A  German Conscript With Napoleon - Jakob Walter's Recollections of the Campaigns of 1806–1807, 1809, and 1812–13. According to a manuscript found at Lecompton, Kansas. University of Kansas Department of Journalism Press, Lawrence, Kansas, USA. 231 pp. Downloaded from


  1. Thanks for the comprehensive review and critique - I might get this book, seems like a damn good holiday read!
    The painting on the front cover is from the 1814 campaign in France if I recall correctly, it does the 1812 job well enough though!
    Best wishes

    1. Yeah, spot on Jeremy, it is Meissonier's 1814 Campagne de France. How often does it mistakenly get used for/associated with the 1812 campaign? It's a far too orderly march through the snow for the Russian campaign!
      That aside the book is a good read and at 126 pages of large print with plenty of piccies and compelling text, an easy one to boot!

  2. Excellent review James!

    Thank you for it.