Mark Danner

Defeat: Napoleon’s Russian Campaign

Read Mark’s Introduction:

Philippe-Paul de Ségur was a young aide-de-camp to Napoleon, privy to the councils of the emperor’s inner circle. There he witnessed the debates surrounding the decision to invade Russia in the summer of 1812. The emperor’s generals opposed the venture, and even Napoleon entered on it against his better judgment. Nonetheless, overcome by the desire to further what he saw as France’s civilizing mission in the world, and furthering too the glory of Napoleon, he found the undertaking too tempting to resist. Ségur describes the subsequent campaign with a crack reporter’s eye both for the big story and for the telling detail: we witness the dizzying forward march through the long hot days of the summer; the supply lines growing more stretched with every apparently effortless victory; the Grande Armée suffering unanticipated losses even in its triumphal progress; the taking and sacking of Moscow, and its abandonment; the disastrous winter retreat that destroyed Napoleon’s army and insured his downfall. In the end, the only regime that was changed was Napoleon’s own.

Ségur’s account of what is to this day one of the greatest military disasters of all time is a masterpiece of military history and was an essential source for Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Ségur’s book also provides a vivid and unmistakable lesson about imperial hubris.

Book Praise:

“Count de Ségur’s famed diary of Napoleon’s Russian campaign is not just another book about Bonaparte; it is the main source of a thousand schoolbooks, cartoons, legends, sermons and second thoughts for would-be conquerors…Ségur wonderfully evokes the opening scenes of the disastrous war…[he] was a war chronicler ranking with Herodotus and Bernal Dí­az.” —Time magazine

“The influence of the work now made available in a new translation, was felt for many years. The giants of literature used it as a source book and as an inspiration…It is still the most vivid account of that apocalyptic disaster…its appeal is eternal.” —The New York Times (June 22, 1958)

“The book is valuable…a most entertaining and interesting work.” —The New York Times (June 5th, 1895)

“Ségur served throughout the Napoleonic era as an aide-de-camp to the Emperor, becoming a brigadier on the eve of the Russian campaign. His memoirs remain the classic account of the destruction of the Grand Army.” —Parameters, The US Army War College Quarterly

Military History Appeal: “One of the most celebrated debacles in all military history, it is the subject of a brilliant eye-witness account…extremely well written…Filled with exact observation and filled also with the grief and horror Ségur had personally experienced, it is one of the enduring classics of war memoirs. Its narrative of battles and routs, starvation and panic, is outstanding. Its close-up view of Napoleon vacillating and apprehensive, blundering into defeat, is fascinating.” —The New York Times (July 25, 1958)