Tuesday, 2 July 2013

A book full of bonuses

Book Review: With Napoleon's Guard In Russia: The Memoirs of Major Vionnet 1812 by Louis Joseph Vionnet. Translated & Edited by Jonathan North.

(Book cover art and plates kindly provided by the publishers. Please do not reproduce without obtaining permission)

Louis Joseph Vionnet was born in Longevilles on 16th November 1769. He enlisted in the artillery in 1789 and was designated to the constitutional guard of Louis XVI in 1792, but did not serve as it was dissolved before he joined. On 5th August 1792 he became a sublieutenant in the 6th battalion of Doubs. He distinguished himself at Wissembourg in 1793. He served in Bonaparte’s first Italian campaign, being wounded at Rivoli. He was wounded again at Marengo but served in the Grande Armée in 1805, being present at Ulm and Austerlitz.
In 1806 he was transferred to the Imperial Guard in the newly formed Fusiliers-Grenadiers and served in the campaigns in Prussia and Poland. He transferred to Spain in 1808 and, following service in the 1809 campaign, went to the Iberian Peninsula again from 1810 until early 1812. Then followed the Russian campaign, burning of Moscow, the terrible retreat, the 1813 campaign, the hundred days and, finally, service in the royal army.
In 1820 Vionnet commanded the département of the High Alps, in 1821 the Drôme. He returned to Spain in 1823 this time to fight in support of King Ferdinand VII, cousin of Louis XVIII. He retired on 1st May 1831 and died 29th October 1834. Vionnet wrote his memoirs between 1820 and 1823, a period of consolidation for the Bourbon-Restoration and in which the Ultra-Royalists, a faction considered to be “more royalist than the king”, dominated the cabinet.
With Napoleon's Guard In Russia presents the section of Vionnet’s memoirs dealing with his experiences in 1812 and 1813, which was first published in 1899 & 1913 with the title “Campaigns in Russia and Saxony. Souvenirs of a commander of the Grenadiers of the Old Guard”. This fine edited reprint was published in 2012, the bicentennial of the 1812 campaign. Translated by the experienced Jonathan North it is a book that is full of bonuses.
The memoir dealing with his experiences in 1812 and 1813 was first published in 1899 & 1913 this fine edited reprint, produced for the bicentennial of the 1812 campaign. This book was translated by the experienced Jonathan North and is a book that is full of bonuses.

In the first quarter of the book North provides a brief history of the Fusiliers-Grenadiers, the regiment and its campaigns. This is the book’s first ‘bonus’. In this chapter North includes information about Vionnet’s comrades-in-arms in the regiment plus quotes from several of them and other officers in Napoleon’s Guard. This inclusion of quotes from other eyewitnesses, most of them comrades of Vionnet, provides us with a vivid and often moving summary that puts in context beautifully the detailed memoir of Vionnet’s experiences in the 1812 Campaign which comprise the bulk of the book.
As one would expect from an officer of his rank and experience, Vionnet’s memoir provides many deep insights into the campaign and what it would have been like to have been in the Grande Armée of 1812. He describes the initial confidence and optimism of the army, that soon turned to dejection following the losses on the march and lack of supplies.
As a member of the Imperial Guard, Vionnet was an ‘observer’ of the Battle of Borodino, so his account of the battle reads as such, describing the main phases of the battle. More vivid is his account of the battlefield the following day as he toured around witnessing the dead, the wounded and the piles of shells that had rolled into the bottom of the ravines “...that was simply beyond comprehension and the sight had to be seen to be believed. I swear that I myself first thought that the shells must have been stored there and I could barely persuade myself otherwise” (p. 62).
Vionnet’s memoir is full of interesting, often quirky anecdotes—along with the harrowing tales that we’ll come to later in this review. An example of the former is when, on 11th September, he was charged by Marshal Mortier to lead a foraging party. He gathered together 100 fusiliers, but suggests that “when word was made known in our camp that I was to lead the mission, everyone wanted to be part of the expedition and I had at least a hundred more men than I had initially been ordered to take with me” (p. 66). He set out with his party for the villages of Gholovko and Yakshino and, being informed by two scouts, Polish Cossacks, that there was a Russian Cossack division of “around 1 800 regular Cossacks” in the villages, sent “a detachment of sixty men and had thirty sent forward as skirmishers and the rest deployed as though they would cut the Cossack’s retreat. This ruse worked as I expected it to and the Cossacks wheeled about. I had some of my men pursue them beyond the village” (p. 67). Vionnet and his men gathered “bulls, cows and calves, and the bread and flour” along with “a good ration of brandy”. He suggests that “the lord of the manor spoke perfect Latin and he thanked me for the care I took to preserve order. [...] Our entry back into our encampment was the cause of something like a real celebration. All the regiments had some meat, some flour and some brandy. [...] I received a number of compliments from the marshal himself and I was praised to the skies by the soldiers themselves” (p. 69).
Vionnet was a fine observer and records his observations in some detail. One such example, and a highlight of this memoir, is of Moscow. He describes the initial entry of the army into Moscow, the wonder at the city, the look of dejection on the faces of the few Muscovites who remained in the city; “all this combined to make one pensive” (p. 73). He provides a detailed description of “those appalling events which saw the destruction of one of Europe’s most beautiful cities” which he “could not predict, or even imagine, that a modern people would have so much anger within them so as to be able to destroy their own city in order to deprive an enemy” (p. 74). He describes the organised destruction, bemoans the loss of so many buildings in a beautiful city, but also considers the plight of the remaining inhabitants, the pillaging by soldiers following the fire and “those piles of expensive furs, fine embroidery and other precious items left there in the mud” (p. 81) once the pillaging was stopped.
Vionnet seems to have travelled extensively in the city and its environs during the month that the Grande Armée waited in the Russian capital. He describes it’s buildings, surrounds, geography, the lives of the people, rich and poor their religion, work, art and recreation. This section reads like a travelogue, something one would expect more in a memoir of Marco Polo than of a major in Napoleon’s Grande Armée. It is a ‘distraction’ from the campaign, which mirrors the unreality of the French-allied army’s occupation of the Russian capital.
His interesting eye-witness observations continue after the army leaves the Russian capital, but these become more and more harrowing with every page. As with other memoirists, he shows us how rapid was the decline in morale and discipline “the cold continued on the 29th and misery began to make its presence felt amongst us. Our food supplies were now exhausted [...] A habit of stealing had established itself so strongly in the army and nothing was now safe” (p. 102).
Vionnet puts paid to the idea that the horses in the Grande Armée were improperly shod. “On 5th [of November] rain began to fall, and it was a cold as ice. [...] The horses could not keep themselves from slipping and the frost nails on the horseshoes were soon worn through” (p. 103).
The onset of snow increased the suffering of the men and beasts. “On the 6th November it began to snow heavily. [...] The number of men and horses dying from want suddenly increased to extraordinary levels. [...] I was on duty guarding the chateau where the emperor was housed. In the midst of all this misery, he had a generous amount of provisions and all kinds of wines. We received a little flour and some beef or veal” (p. 103).
Vionnet vividly describes the cold and its effects, painting a pen picture of misery, suffering and survival at other’s expense. “On 14th of November, with the cold now unbearable... The snow was six feet deep. The road was completely iced over, and the horses kept on slipping and falling. Many hundreds were then killed,... One of my servants, who was leading two of my horses, which were carrying some provisions, was murdered by some soldiers who stole everything they could...” (p. 105). Later, “...on the 23rd, we were at Bobr. The cold was absolutely unbearable, and was especially so as the army had absolutely nothing to eat. A vast number of men were now dying from want” (p. 107). Vionnet’s description of the latter stages of the retreat are plain harrowing.
Throughout his account of more than two months of the retreat, Vionnet weaves occasional vignettes of individual stories. The events of the crossing of the Berezina—the desperate battles, the struggle for the bridges and the fate of the many stragglers—he describes in more detail. His descriptions are at their most affecting as the last remnants of the former Grande Armée made its way to Vilnius and beyond to re-cross the Nieman. One is left to ask the question, as ever after reading anything about this campaign, how did any of the members of the retreating army survive?
Vionnet was one of those members of the Grande Armée who not only survived the Russian campaign, but then went on to take part in the campaign in Germany in 1813. In April of that year he became colonel of the 2nd Tirailleurs of the Young Guard. He arrived at the front on 4th May, just after Lützen. His memoir contains a detailed description of the Battle of Bautzen. “I had never seen such a struggle like this one, entire files of soldiers were blown apart and the number of wounded had risen to horrifying proportions [...] The regiment had lost sixty-nine men on a day which had been one of the most glorious for the armies of France” (pp. 138–139).
His service continued through the armistice, in which he gives a particularly detailed description of conditions in the regiment’s billets, the resumption of war, marching and counter-marching until they arrived at Dresden on 26th August. After resting for nearly ten hours, Vionnet’s brigade took part in the attack on the Gross-Garten, during which he “received two bullets and two fragments of canister in the chest...” (p. 148). He remained with his brigade, having the wound treated and, due to the promotion of General Rottembourg to general of division, took command of the brigade of the 1st and 2nd Tirailleurs on 27th August. He finally had his wounds treated on the 28th, rejoining the regiment the same day. While being reviewed “...my torn tunic all covered in blood. [...] made an impression on the emperor, who kindly asked, ‘Have you been wounded, colonel?’ and closely examined those points where I had been hit. He made me a knight of the Order of the Iron Crown, and gave me the title of baron and an endowment which I never received but nor did I ever claim” (p. 150). 
The book ends, fairly abruptly at this point. North states in his introduction that this was done deliberately as it concludes “...the story of the Russian campaign, and it goes to show that few of those who survived that catastrophe remained unscathed in the disaster in Germany in 1813” (p. xiii).
Vionnet is generally less-than complimentary about Napoleon, particularly about his motivation for the invasion of Russia and the handling of that campaign. Two notable exceptions to this are regarding his decision to ‘quit’ the army in December 1812, which he states “the wiser officers believed that he had been obliged to act thus in order to save France, re-establish the honour of our troops and create another army capable of resisting the Russians and maintaining allegiance of our allies” (p. 116) and his performance at the Battle of Bautzen—although he is damning of Napoleon’s refusal of peace following that victory (p. 143). It is not certain whether this reflects Vionnet’s view at the time of the events, or something that he developed because of his experiences, or was influenced by the timing of the writing of his memoirs. Whatever the reason(s) it is a counterpoint to the memoirs of most other officers from Napoleon’s guard.

Vionnet is generally less-than complimentary about Napoleon, an exception being regarding his decision to 'quit' the army on 5th December 1812, illustrated here (from p. 115 of the book). 

Two of the other ‘bonus’ aspects of this book are North’s numerous and quite detailed explanatory notes on the text and his inclusion of extracts from the memoirs or letters of other members of the Fusiliers-Grenadiers as annexes. The explanatory notes on the text explain details, provide more information about cities and towns or relate Vionnet’s memoir to those of other officers of the guard such as Bourgogne, Rouget and Serraris.
This latter aspect is a key feature of the last ‘bonus’ section of the book, the two annexes of extracts from the memoirs or letters of other members of the Fusiliers-Grenadiers about the burning of Moscow and the second Battle of Krasnoe (15th–18th November 1812). The first of these reinforces Vionnet’s detailed description of the deliberate destruction of so much of the Russian capital by the fire; and resulting pillage at the hands of the invaders. The second provides graphic and moving detail of the first great battle of the retreat, an example of Sun Tzu’s observation of the power of a trapped enemy, which saw much of the French-Allied army ‘saved’ and the cost of the destruction of most of the Young Guard.

The book includes numerous plates have been selected and positioned to accompany the text perfectly, such as this one of fortunate troops travelling by sled, which was how Vionnet was transported in the final stages of the retreat (from p. 124 of the book).

This is a fine publication. The maps allow the reader to follow the 1812 campaign quite well. Most of the places mentioned are shown or it is possible to work out where they are based on the preceding or following location mentioned in the memoir. Unfortunately thought, there is no map for 1813. The selection of plates that accompany the text is perfect. The images, often graphic, are relevant to the sections of text in which they appear, and illustrate the conditions described adding greatly to the overall ‘experience’ of reading these memoirs.
Highly recommended.


  1. Thanks for sharing that helpful review.

    1. Thanks for reading it Jack. I am pleased that your verdict was "helpful" rather than "long"!

  2. Thanks for the in depth review, James. I must confess that I find coverage of the Retreat painful to read, the suffering was so great.

    Being employed as an official of the Royalist government when he was writing the memoir certainly might have impacted what he put down in print re Napoleon, in a number of ways!


    1. That's the strong suspicion Peter, especially at a time when the Ultras were establishing themselves. It does not detract from the memoir in the least, but needs to be borne in mind. I guess that it is a reminder of the fallibility of all memoirs, even those from letters written at the time, which come with bias, interpretation and some form of justification of the memoirist!