Defeat: Napoleon?s Russian Campaign

The Wars of the French Revolution were the first to prove a boon for the publishing industry. Quite a few of the survivors of the quarter-century of warfare set down their thoughts in the decades that followed the final bell at Waterloo. From the simplicity of Rifleman Harris to the braggadocio of the Baron Marbot, these works have an incalculable historical value. Only a few can lay claim to literary merit, and high on that list is Philippe-Paul de Ségur?s History of the Expedition to Russia, Undertaken by the Emperor Napoleon in the Year 1812. Philippe-Paul, comte de Ségur, was from a long line of French officers. At 19, he heard the young Bonaparte haranguing his troops during the coup of the 18th Brumaire and promptly joined up. He served with distinction, rising to general, and took part in the disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812. Twelve years later he recollected this catastrophe in tranquility. His bestselling history was critical enough of the emperor that S‚gur was called upon to fight a duel. He survived, and so does his memoir. He shaped his story with a novelist?s eye, and if there are things that a historian will tell you are exaggerated, they guarantee a narrative that never flags. (Tolstoy drew on it when writing War and Peace.) In the 1890s, Ségur?s grandson made an abridgement that cut back on the details of military logistics. Translated into English in the 1950s, it is available again from the wonderful reprint series New York Review Classics. Defeat remains the finest portrait of how an army dies.

April 19: "What you see first, after the starting gun's crack, is a column of bobbing runners, thousands of them, surging downhill..."

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