Peasants in Arms

Geoffrey Hosking

  • Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 by Dominic Lieven
    Allen Lane, 618 pp, £30.00, October 2009, ISBN 978 0 7139 9637 1

We are not short of descriptions of Russia’s war against Napoleon; so at least you might think. This was, after all, Russia’s first ‘great patriotic war’, and Russian historians, pre-revolutionary, Soviet and post-Soviet, have not missed the opportunity to extol the heroism and patriotism of their soldiers and peasants. The spirit of War and Peace still hovers over them. Western accounts are more sober, and tend to see things from the French point of view, thanks to the massive amount of available French documentation. They emphasise Napoleon’s mistakes, the effects of winter and the travails of the French soldiers in their long retreat through the snow.

Dominic Lieven offers something that has hitherto been lacking, a lucid and detailed account of Russia’s diplomatic, administrative and military leadership, without which the people’s heroism would have remained diffuse and ineffective, and Napoleon might well have won the war. Lieven argues that Tolstoy actually underestimated Russia’s achievement by dismissing the contribution of its generals and statesmen (especially those with German surnames). Making exhaustive use of Russian archives, Lieven explains how the Russian commanders equipped and moved hundreds of thousands of men, as well as their weapons and horses (crucial participants in early 19th-century war), not just across Russia, but all the way to Paris. Not the least virtue of this book is that it devotes as much attention to the campaigns of 1813-14 as to the more celebrated one of 1812. Lieven illuminates his narrative with a clear and cogent analysis of European geopolitics in the Napoleonic era. His book will undoubtedly become the standard account of the Russian aspect of the Napoleonic wars.

David Bell has recently argued that Napoleon introduced ‘total war’ to Europe. Following the 1789 Revolution, all male Frenchmen, on reaching a certain age, were called up as citizens to the armed forces. As a result of the levée en masse the French army soon became much larger than any other in Europe. In other countries monarchs were still nervous about arming too many of their subjects and training them to fight. With a huge and well-motivated force at his disposal, Napoleon could deploy large and flexible formations – divisions, corps and armies rather than regiments – backed up by professional staff and his own charismatic leadership. Most European armies of the time consisted of regiments commanded by aristocrats; on the whole they tried to avoid all-out combat, which was expensive and risky, and to achieve their aims by conspicuous but cautious manoeuvring. Napoleon, on the contrary, had abundant reserves at hand and so could risk heavy casualties. The call-up of whole age groups for a (relatively) short period of military service enabled France to put much larger armies in the field, and also to have a reserve of trained and able-bodied men who could be remobilised if reinforcement were needed. Confident in their patriotism and martial spirit, Napoleon could let his soldiers live off the land, finding food where they could, rather than depending on supply trains; most earlier commanders had avoided this, as damaging to discipline. He was thus in a position to confront rather than avoid any opponent’s main army, in the expectation (usually fulfilled) of being able to overwhelm it by force of numbers, stronger morale and superior leadership. In this way France repeatedly defeated the two most powerful countries in Central Europe, Austria and Prussia, and indeed Russia too in 1805-7.

How well was the Russian army equipped to fight ‘total war’? As Lieven shows, it was in most respects a traditional monarchical army, but with distinctive features which made it especially formidable when defending its own territory. Recruitment took place once a year, at the rate of between one in a hundred and one in five hundred male ‘souls’ (i.e. serfs). Nearly all ordinary soldiers were peasants by origin, but their induction into the army ended their contact with peasant society, since military service lasted for 25 years. When a new recruit left home, his fellow villagers expected never to see him again, and accordingly gave him a kind of civil funeral. In normal times communities avoided sending married men for military service, but in 1812-14 the need for recruits was so great that they often had no choice. Many families lost their breadwinner, and for the wife the loss of her husband was a catastrophe: she would probably never see him again, but could not remarry, and her status in the village was abruptly downgraded.

As a mark of his changed status, the new recruit’s head was shaved (peasants of Orthodox faith normally had beards and long hair); he was also freed from serfdom and became in a sense a patriotic citizen – though harsh army discipline precluded any element of civic freedom. Ordinary soldiers could be decorated for exceptional courage in battle, and they could be promoted, though not beyond the rank of NCO, so the army was a place where the former serf could achieve a status unthinkable in the village he had left behind. The regiment became the new recruit’s home, and the members of his platoon his family and close friends. Most contemporary accounts of the Russian army agree that its infantrymen enjoyed high morale and were prepared for adversity and hardship by their previous experience of using collective action to cope with deprivation.

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