Wednesday, 14 March 2018

The Long March Home

A Matter of Character

A friend recently did us a good turn.  Over recent days we have been reading through his copy of Adam Zamoyski's 1812: Napoleon's Fatal March on Moscow.  It is a magisterial work, yet accessible to the non-specialist.

We would recommend it to folk who have a vague or general idea that Napoleon went to war against Russia and that bad things happened.  It is a sequence of events that has affected the West until present times.  [The "dream" for a united Europe--a new model state--comes directly out of Napoleon's revolutionary secularist fervour.]  

Napoleon personally survived (just) the horrors of Russia, but from that point on his empire was to all intents and purposes broken.  The humanist revolutionary spirit would occasionally break out again, but thereafter it was more out of a longing for past glories.  Nevertheless, secularism in France has effectively controlled that country ever since--and now it faces slow demographic decline as a result.  Nationalism, of the Napoleonic variety, is a spent force in France: it could never survive the Revolution's tumbrels, nor the eventual defeat of Napoleon.  France, now the sick man of Europe, faces the ineluctable, inevitable take over from the Islamic Borg.  

The defeat of Napoleon, then, at the hands of Tsarist Russia--or more accurately, at the hands of the Russian winter--marked the beginning of the end.  Napoleon was broken; the Revolution was effectively a spent force.
Zamoyski writes sympathetically about the main characters and protagonists.  His knowledge is encyclopedic.  The suffering endured on the long retreat from Moscow in winter is hard to comprehend.  But Zamoyski makes a good fist of it.  Such was the suffering and starvation of La Grande Armée  that cannibalism eventually began to take hold.  [The isolation endured by the respective armies is hard to grasp in our day.  We have been raised in an era of flying machines that can deliver food and necessary supplies out of the sky.  Not so, then.]
There are those . . . who deny that any cannibalism took place . . . .  But the evidence is against them, as is probability.  "One has to have felt the rage of hunger to be able to appreciate our position," wrote Sergeant Bourgogne, who admits that he might well have resorted to the practice.  "And if there had been no human flesh, we would have eaten the devil himself, if someone had cooked him for us."  Ravening hunger drove people to anything.  "It was not unknown even for men to gnaw at their own famished bodies," wrote Vossley, and Raymond Pontier, a surgeon attached to the general staff, also noted this phenomenon.   [Adam Zamoyski, 1812: Napoleon's Fatal March on Moscow  (London: HarperCollins, 2004), p.485.]
Zamoyski then goes on to make this startling, coruscating observation:
One of the more interesting things to emerge from the written accounts of the retreat is that there seems to have been a threshold beneath which the men cheated, killed and even ate each other, and above which they clung to human dignity, a sense of duty and even aspired to happiness.

As thousands froze and some were engaged in acts of cannibalism around Pleshchenitse on the night of 30 November, one of Napoleon's orderly officers who happened to have a good singing voice entertained his comrades with a recital of songs as they shivered in the ruins of the manor house.  While some died cursing and raging as they gnawed like hungry dogs at some carcase, one young officer was found by his comrades frozen stiff in the act of lovingly contemplating a miniature of his wife.

Although circumstances obviously had a major effect, this threshold does not seem to have had anything to do with luck, and everything to do with character.  [Ibid., p. 485f.]
We thoroughly recommend the book.  It is too good, too instructive, to miss. 

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