In this final volume of the trilogy horror is piled on horror as the remnants of the Grand Armee, of its camp followers, and of the pathetic survivors of the pre-war French colony in Moscow struggle westwards through snow and ice, dogged at every step by swarms of Cossacks and the focus of converging Russian armies. Almost every page finds heights of human heroism and sacrifice contrasted with extreme examples of cowardice, selfishness and cruelty. One always knew that the Retreat from Moscow was an unparalleled disaster, but until one reads this fusing of so many first-hand accounts once never realised just how bad it was. The collapse of discipline, hope and decency is graphically depicted yet in the midst of it perhaps the greatest surprise is how effectively some units, not always necessarily elite ones, still managed to stage effective defensive and rearguard actions, without which the disaster would have even more total. (Readers will inevitably find close and indeed uncanny echoes of Anthony Beevor's recent "Stalingrad"). The story is inevitably dominated by Marshal Ney, who comes across as an even more magnificent battlefield-commander than even his "Bravest of the Brave" title suggests, but Prince Eugene Beauharnais, runs him a close second as a splendid, resourceful and indomitable leader in adversity. The pace of the narrative never lets up and indeed the chapters surrounding the loss of the Berezina bridge to the Russians and the subsequent efforts to get the survivors across by improvised field bridging, in appalling conditions, achieve an almost unbearable level of suspense. It is a measure of the writing that, though one knows the outcome, one still hopes page by page that some miracle will still happen. Many of the personalities whose accounts feature in the earlier volumes appear here again, adding to the reader's sense of familiarity. Like its predecessors, this volume cannot be too highly recommended - it is a magnificent achievement and must surely assume classic status.
I currently have one copy each of the entire set. Buy all three and get a discount of $15.
1812 The Great Retreat: Told by the Survivors
1996 Greenhill London