Alexander Mikaberidze, Berezina 1812 (Osprey, 2022)
Even by 1812, the reasons why you do not invade Russia were well known, and it would take an ego the size of Napoleon’s to ignore them. But he did, resulting in a frustrating military campaign followed by a disastrous retreat as the Russian winter enveloped his army. That any of his army survived at all probably comes down to a heroic defence of the crossing of the Berezina river. In this addition to Osprey’s Campaign series, Alexander Mikaberidze takes us into the heart of the action.
Mikaberidze begins by surveying the diplomatic background to the war between France and Russia, which seemed mutually acceptable by 1812. But Mikaberidze notes that while Russian knew what was coming, they were hardly prepared with only 250,000 men spread around three armies. Their only option was to retreat in the face of the French juggernaut, though they too had mounting problems as they pushed into Russia’s vastness. Fighting followed, which turned the French army. Thus, Napoleon’s famous retreat began pursued by the Russians who now held almost all the cards.
We are introduced to the main commanders on both sides with potted biographies and portraits. Then Mikaberidze moves onto the armies, beginning with the French Grande Armee, nearly 600,000 strong when the campaign started. By the bloodbath at Borodino in September 1812, that was already down to 180,000 for various reasons. More fell there and on the subsequent retreat, and losses in officers impacted command and control. By the time he reached the Berezina in late November, Napoleon could call on about 35,000 effectives to protect the crossing. Most of the Russian army ambled along behind the French, so not all could fight at the Berezina. Mikaberidze provides Orders of Battle for those who did.
After a consideration of strategies on both sides, Mikaberidze comes to the campaign leading to the crossing of the Berezina. The latter involved the French attempting to build bridges while the army held off the Russians. In this, they were aided by Russian intelligence failures and mismanagement. Finally, the Russians got into the fight, but by then much of the French army was over the bridges. The combat with the French rearguard was as fierce as anything in the whole campaign. That included the loss of a French Division at Borisov, which should have united 75,000 Russian soldiers, but petty command squabbles prevented that. Meanwhile, Napoleon deployed his reduced force for action on the west bank where he held some tactical advantages, but even then, it took an incredible Swiss counterattack to stall the Russian advance. Mikaberidze adds here that it was mainly non-French Allied forces that did much of the fighting. On the East bank, the French fought with equal courage, holding the bridge open for stragglers, aided by the weather and incompetent Russian command. The French escaped across the river overnight, but Napoleon barely had an army to command on his return to France such were his losses.
Mikaberidze concludes with the battlefield today and the contending views on where various events happened and what it all meant. Having read the book, I’m still not sure how to describe this battle, though Mikaberidze’s subtitle is ‘Napoleon’s Hollow Victory’. What is clear is that Mikaberidze has written a lively and coherent account of a series of complex events that formed the crucial passage of Napoleon’s inglorious retreat from Russia. He is helped by Osprey’s usual skill in illustrating their Campaign series books with maps and artwork. Students of the Napoleonic Wars will enjoy Mikaberidze’s book on its own or as a steppingstone to further reading.