Mark Danner

On Segur’s “Defeat: Napoleon’s Russian Campaign”

Some stories, ancient and eternal, are inscribed in the world. The Fall of the Hero is one such, an endlessly reenacted drama that turns on the precariousness of greatness and its inevitable overreaching.

Introduction to Defeat: Napoleon’s Russian Campaign by Phillipe-Paul de Ségur, published by New York Review Classics, October 2008.

…the mirage of victory which lured him on, which he seemed so often on the point of grasping, had once more eluded him. He determined, however, to keep pursuing it.

Some stories, ancient and eternal, are inscribed in the world. The Fall of the Hero is one such, an endlessly reenacted drama that turns on the precariousness of greatness and its inevitable overreaching. In the early summer of 1812, as his vast Grande Armée gathered on the banks of the Niemen, no one was greater than Napoleon and none had so vastly overreached. Born of minor Italian nobility on the obscure and distant island of Corsica, he had risen at age twenty-four to brigadier general in the French Re­volutionary Army. Scarcely half a dozen years later, after a series of dazzling military exploits in Italy, France, and Egypt, he installed himself as First Consul of the French Republic. On December 2, 1804, at his coronation in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, with Pope Pius VII officiating, he seized the imperial crown and placed it upon his own head, crowning himself Emperor of the French. He was thirty-five years old.

To find a parallel for the string of astonishing military victories that followed, one must look to Julius Caesar, or Alexander the Great: Napoleon defeated the Austrians and Russians at Austerlitz in 1805, crushed the Prussians at Jena in 1806, and humbled the Russians again at Friedland in 1807. Now, at forty-two, he controlled all of Europe, from the Atlantic to the Niemen, either directly or through his system of alliances and satellite kingdoms, many of them ruled by siblings and protégés he had personally ennobled and crowned. His rise from unknown outsider to emperor and founder of a new and multifarious royal house ruling much of the Continent was unprecedented in European history. Conqueror, administrator, lawgiver, he seemed to be everywhere at once, raising and leading armies, redrawing maps, smashing ancient dynasties, a ubiquitous blur of energy rushing about the Continent as he dictated his commands and laws and ideas to half a dozen scribbling secretaries scrambling in his wake. His status as military and administrative genius—the brooding, solitary Great Man—draped him in a transnational personal celebrity of a peculiarly modern character. He embodied at once the highest aspirations of the French Revolution, its hungering after modernity, openness, and opportunity, and the overwhelming power of modern militarism born of mass conscription and industrial technology. He seemed to be something entirely new, undreamed of, and that something—whether worshipped as the great transformer of nations and liberator of peoples, or cursed as the Antichrist, the brutish destroyer of the old order—now stood poised with a vast army to conquer Russia and extend his reach beyond Europe and deep into Asia.

And scarcely three years later it was all gone. The Grande Armée had been destroyed—destroyed as few armies in history have been—and Napoleon, stripped of power and glory, found himself an impotent captive, confined to a tiny, rainy island in the South Atlantic. He who had had everything now had nothing, not even the simple freedom to walk on the desolate shore unaccompanied. It is hard to think of a comparably vertiginous fall from power, and, while the three intervening years were crowded with astonishing incident—from Leipzig to Elba to the Hundred Days, to Waterloo and Saint Helena—it was Russia, the Russian campaign, commenced with such splendor and such glory, that had begun it all.

So: the Fall of the Hero, ur-text. The story awaited only a teller equal to it and of all the accounts of this epic catastrophe, many told by eyewitnesses, Napoleon has been best served by his young aide-de-camp, Count Philippe-Paul de Ségur, a nobleman from an ancient line. Grandson of Louis XVI’s minister of war—a military innovator in his own right who had had the distinction of nominating the adolescent Napoleon to the French military academy—son of a distinguished courtier and diplomat, former ambassador to the court of Ca­therine the Great, Philippe-Paul de Ségur was a teenager when he first set eyes on Napoleon and this glimpse of the hero determined the course of his life. Ségur’s vastly rich family had been ruined by the Revolution; they had known flight, exile, fear; his father had only narrowly escaped arrest. By 1799 the young man, whose background and wealth and connections should have fitted him for a brilliant career under the ancien regime, found himself impoverished, unemployed, at loose ends; he tells in his memoirs how, playing desultorily at a literary career—like soldiering, a well-established family tradition—he “rhymed without a vocation, laboriously, expending in the polishing of my couplets the few resources of my mind, and succeeding but poorly.”

I was nineteen years old, but it seemed that I was not fit for anything, not even to be a clerk in an office…Time pressed, and it was humiliating to remain a burden on my family. I was on the point of resigning myself to my fate; already I was sadly striving to become a very poor copyist when a last journey brought me back to Paris…

It was a fateful decision: the young nobleman had arrived in the capital on the 18th Brumaire, at the very moment Napoleon and his allies were seizing power:

Revolution was then following revolution; I foresaw one coming. In my destitute state, and in the midst of the ever-increasing proscriptions, any change could but be a change for the better, as far as I was concerned. Disenchanted of my dreams and thrust back by misfortunes into the world of reality, I for the first time felt one of the great public. Curiosity and even a keen interest led me on, drawing me out of my own way, regardless of any risk to myself. Not being able to be an actor in this new agitation, I at any rate wished to be a witness of it. I knew nothing; I did not dare to ask anyone, but was led on by a powerful instinct, which guided me straight towards him whose destiny was soon to control my own.

That instinct would lead the young man to the Tuileries, where Ge­neral Bonaparte, elected First Consul by the Council of Ancients, was at that moment “haranguing the garrison of Paris to make sure of it against the Directory…”

I was stopped by the garden railings. I leant up against them and gazed eagerly upon this memorable scene. Then I ran around the enclosure trying all the entrances; at last, when I had reached the gate of the drawbridge, I saw it open. A regiment of dragoons came out,…marching on towards St.-Cloud with their cloaks rolled around them, their helmets on their heads, sword in hand, with that warlike exaltation, that proud determined air which soldiers wear when they approach the enemy, resolved to conquer or perish! At this martial apparition, the warlike blood, which I had inherited from my forefathers, coursed madly through my veins. I had found my vocation; from that moment I was a soldier.[1]

And he would remain, from that moment, a witness. Having found a way “to be an actor in this new agitation,”Ségur enlisted as a private and for the next dozen years served Napoleon faithfully as soldier and diplomat from Switzerland to Spain; months before the great expedition to Russia, he was promoted to general and served through­-out that campaign on the imperial staff as maréchal de logis, respon­sible for commandeering housing for the Emperor and his suite. And yet if Ségur makes of his History of the Expedition to Russia, Under­taken by the Emperor Napoleon in the Year 1812[2] a great book it is surely in part because he manages to maintain the cast of a wide-eyed young man, pressed up against the garden railings, gazing in awe at the splendid martial display enacted within. Except the splendor now has become disaster and the warlike blood coursing madly through his veins has become the literary ambition to do justice to the magnitude of the catastrophe and the historical significance it would afterward attain.

That “afterward,”of course, is crucial. Ségur’s is above all a literary book—an eyewitness account, yes, but one composed long after the events it depicts, when those events had taken on the sheen of legend. By 1824, when the first edition appeared and almost instantly sold out—the book would quickly go through eight editions and be translated into all the major European languages—Napoleon had been dead nearly four years. A decade after his exile the Emperor’s Russian campaign had become wholly inseparable from the tolling historical and literary lessons it seemed to sound: the Downfall of the Great Man, the retribution inevitably brought forth by hubris, the inexorability of fate. Both the strength and, less obviously, the weakness of Ségur’s account lie in its eager accommodation to this mythmaking. If we feel an uncanny sense of déjí  vu on encountering some of Ségur’s more vivid scenes—the Emperor taking solace from the portrait of his infant son that arrives from Paris on the eve of the battle of Borodino, or fretting in indecision during that titanic battle that he can’t “see his chessboard clearly,”or gazing down for the first time upon the glittering domes of Moscow (“There, then, finally, is that famous city…”)—if we feel a haunting familiarity before these epic tableaux, it is likely thanks to Tolstoy, who could not resist appropriating them and other dramatic moments for War and Peace. As he surely knew, however, Tolstoy was borrowing not from history but from a process of literary appropriation that under Ségur’s able pen was already well advanced. Ségur’s is something far more than, or anyway far different from, an “eyewitness account.”

We can see this in the splendid series of portents that precede the crossing of the Niemen, beginning with the vignette of the three French sappers who reconnoiter the far side of the river and encounter the first enemy of the campaign:

All was calm on this foreign soil which had been painted to them in such threatening colors. However, a single Cossack officer commanding a night patrol soon appeared. He was alone, and seemed to think he was in the midst of peace, wholly unaware that all Europe in arms was at hand. He asked the intruders who they were. “Frenchmen,”they told him. “What do you want?”he questioned further. “And why have you come to Russia?”One of the sappers answered bluntly, “To make war on you! To take Vilna and set Poland free!” The Cossack withdrew into the woods, whereupon three of our soldiers, carried away by enthusiasm or to see how matters stood in the forest, fired their muskets. Thus the insignificant noise of three shots—to which no one replied—advised us that a new campaign was opening, that a great invasion had begun. This first signal of war made the Emperor violently angry, either from prudence or presentiment.

Those lonely shots fired into an implacable forest—which will have their own literary echo eight decades later in Conrad’s shipboard cannon firing into the indifferent African jungle of Heart of Darkness—herald a sequence of eerie premonitory incidents that loom over the commencement of the campaign: the Emperor’s ominous fall from his horse; his solitary and futile sprint on horseback into the empty immensity of the forest “as though he wanted to overtake the enemy all by himself”; the sudden unleashing of a great thunderstorm “as grandiose as our undertaking”which seemed to some “a condemnation of the colossal aggression.”And finally, the most haunting of these vignettes: the doomed mission of the Polish lancers whom the Emperor ordered to ford the river and who “obeyed without a moment’s hesitation”:

At first they advanced in order, and when they were beyond their depth they still forged manfully ahead. They swam together to the middle of the stream, but there the swift current swept them apart. Then their horses took fright. Helplessly adrift, they were carried along by the violence of the current. They no longer tried to swim and lost headway completely. Their riders splashed and floundered in vain. Their strength failed, and finally they gave up the struggle. Their doom was certain; but it was for their country and her liberator that they were sacrificing themselves. As they were about to go down, they turned toward Napoleon and shouted: “Vive l’Empereur!”We noticed three in particular who, their mouths still above water, repeated the cheer and immediately sank. The army was gripped with horror and admiration.

These celebrated scenes—the drowning Polish squadron also makes its appearance in War and Peace—form an almost perfect reflection in miniature of Ségur’s work as a whole. The vast and blank malignity of the natural world, the increasingly desperate quest for an enemy who would not appear, the attempt to overcome by heroism and élan alone what are in the end overwhelming material and logistical obstacles: all these themes are here, perfectly encapsulated, made vivid and precise. Whether that precision is more literary than historical—whether the actual fact of it was, as other memoirists were quick to claim, “vastly exaggerated”—tells us only what we know: that Ségur’s is a work as much of art as of history. Consider another “eyewitness account”of the drowning of the Polish lancers, that of the Baron de Marbot:

Beyond Kovno flows a small stream called the Vilia, the bridge over which had been cut by the enemy…The Emperor came up just as I reached the spot with my regiment. He ordered the Polish lancers to sound the ford and one man was drowned. I took down his name, which was Tzinski. If I emphasize the detail it is because the accident…has been vastly exaggerated.[3]

Marbot was not alone, on the book’s appearance, in denouncing Sé­gur’s liberties, particularly in his portrait of the Emperor; still, one might do better to speak here of the overlap between literature and that absurd category of the modern bookshop, “nonfiction.”If the narrative skeleton of Ségur’s work is fashioned from facts—of deeds witnessed and words spoken—the flesh of its prose springs from a mixture of facts and greater truths, and some of those latter flowered only with the passage of time. Signs and portents loom larger in his telling, for what came after proved them not the impositions on an indifferent world of a foolish trepidation but the emanations of a doom that was shortly to follow. The Fall of the Hero, to attain its full grandeur, must have a protagonist who not only challenges fate but does so knowingly. And so Napoleon, waving off the portents rising up all about him, “without faltering…took that first step toward his ruin.”He becomes in Ségur’s telling not a man seeking after power but one who in his self-conscious lust for it has made himself willfully blind to all else.

Though we make use of the word “power”with careless promiscuity, its meaning remains elusive and mysterious. Napoleon’s Grande Armée was, by count of men and arms, perhaps the most powerful the world had yet seen: 600,000 men, 150,000 horse, well over 1,000 cannon yet these impressive numbers[4]—and the overwhelming spectacle of its presence so vividly evoked by Ségur and others—obscure more than they tell. The fact, for example, that French troops comprised little more than half of its effectives; that a third or more of its numbers—especially the Austrians and Prussians—were drawn from “allies”who, having been only recently defeated by Napoleon, brought at best a limited enthusiasm to the venture; that many of the French troops themselves were relatively green recruits, the hard core of Napoleon’s veterans being mostly deployed against the British and Spanish to attend to the Emperor’s “running sore,”the Peninsular Campaign.

Power, depends finally, not on men and machines alone but on political resilience. An enormous force of the sort assembled by Napoleon in the spring of 1812 would surely have won an overwhelming victory, had the battle been fought immediately. On campaign, however, the Grande Armée was a vast, moving city, voracious of food and supplies, hugely destructive of any country through which it traveled—in a word, unsustainable. The great force was built to fight; the genius of Czar Alexander’s strategy of retreat and scorched earth—which had at its heart, as did Stalin’s 130 years later, surrendering space for time—meant that it was forced to march: to chase, over thousands of miles and in greater and greater desperation, after the one decisive battle that would not come. For two months and more, the Russian generals, Barclay de Tolly and then Kutuzov, would not give battle, contenting themselves, apart from the occasional smaller engagement, with teasing the French by retreat, leaving them with little else but burned cities and towns, ravaged fields and exhausted storehouses. And as Napoleon’s throbbing need for that “prompt victory”grew, the forced marches became longer and longer, leaving the supply wagons far behind; the food and forage grew scarcer, the hunger and exhaustion mounted, and the Grande Armée, so splendid and stirring in its pageantry and power, began rapidly to die. Horses, deprived of forage, fell and perished by the tens of thousands; men, weakened by the bad food and the unrelenting pace, collapsed in hunger, sickness, or exhaustion. More than half a milion men crossed the Niemen; when the battle of Borodino finally came, fourteen weeks later, Napoleon would fight it with fewer than a quarter that many. And the following December, after the 30,000 casualties of Borodino and the epic deprivations of the retreat from Moscow that form the unforgettable heart of Ségur’s account, only a few tens of thousands would emerge from Russia alive. However haunting and terrifying Ségur’s tableaux from that march—the soldiers seated in frozen death around their still-smoldering campfires, the thousands of snowy hillocks along the road marking the collapse of soldier after soldier, “the carts of amputated limbs which were going to be thrown away,”the terror and chaos of the hundreds tumbling off the makeshift bridge into the half-frozen Berezina—however concrete and brutal and unforgettable these pictures, the blank numbers of the dead, in their impossible magnitude, still leave one stunned and disbelieving.

The grim fascination of the retreat from Moscow lies, not least, in Ségur’s patient and terrible account of the methodical destruction of an army, laying bare its muscles, sinews, tendons, and bones, as each is stripped away and discarded, until finally the soldiers, reduced from members of a grand and proud collective to atomized, shivering, starving animals, begin to turn on one another. “From now on,”writes Ségur, “there existed no fraternity of arms, no society, no human ties.”

An excess of hardship had made brutes of our men, and hunger, ravenous, devouring hunger, had killed everything in those unfortunate beings but the instinct of self-preservation, sole driving force of the fiercest of animals…A harsh, violent, merciless nature seemed to have communicated her fury to them. Like true savages, the strong despoiled the weak: they crowded around the dying, often not waiting to rob them until they had breathed their last. When a horse fell, you would have thought you were witnessing the fatal moment of a hunt, as the men swarmed upon the animal and tore it into scraps, over which they fought like famished hounds!

This stage of savage animal vitality was but the prelude to the end, in which the famished, exhausted, freezing soldiers, gazing out on the snowy wasteland—”the immense, dreary uniformity…like a great white shroud that Nature was winding about the army”—and feeling the will to live slip away, begin to collapse and claw the earth. General Armand de Caulaincourt, Napoleon’s master of horse, describes trying to save these men, in the days when “the cold was so intense that bivouacking was no longer supportable”and yet there was no shelter, no firewood, no food to be found.

One constantly found men who, overcome by the cold, had been forced to drop out and had fallen to the ground, too weak or too numb to stand. Ought one to help them along—which practically meant carrying them? They begged one to let them alone. There were bivouacs all along the road—ought one to take them to a camp-fire? Once these poor wretches fell asleep, they were dead. If they resisted the craving for sleep, another passer-by could help them along a little farther, thus prolonging their agony for a short while but not saving them; for in this condition the drowsiness engendered by cold is irresistibly strong. Sleep comes inevitably; and to sleep is to die. I tried in vain to save a number of these unfortunates. The only words they uttered were to beg me, for the love of God, to go away and let them sleep. To hear them, one would have thought this sleep was their salvation. Unhappily, it was a poor wretch’s last wish; but at least he ceased to suffer, without pain or agony. Gratitude, and even a smile, was imprinted on his discolored lips….The road was covered with their corpses.[5]

The Grande Armée, having attained its peak of grandeur in those sunny days of pomp and display by the banks of the Niemen in early summer, had finally reached, in the hunger and exhaustion and sub-zero blizzards of November and December, the point of voluntary mass destruction, where death at last became salvation.


The plot, like that of any genuine tragedy, had in its broad outlines been known, or anyway foretold, well in advance—by none other than the Czar himself. Almost precisely a year before he crossed the Niemen, Napoleon had the most important of a series of grim conversations with General Caulaincourt, who had just returned from service in Saint Petersburg as envoy to the court of Alexander I. During this long meeting Caulaincourt recounted to his master the prophetic words of the Czar:

“If the Emperor Napoleon makes war on me,”the Tsar Alex­ander said to me, “it is possible, even probable, that we shall be defeated, assuming that we fight. But that will not mean that he can dictate a peace. The Spaniards have often been defeated; and they are not beaten, nor have they submitted. But they are not so far from Paris as we are, and have neither the climate nor our resources to help them. We have plenty of room…we need never accept a dictated peace, whatever reverses we may suffer.”

Victory, that is, depends not on power alone but on capitulation. Victory depends on the willingness of the vanquished to accept and recognize defeat. The Czar, looking toward Spain, has learned from the tactics of the Spanish irregulars (dubbed now “guerrillas,”or “small warriors”) who had refused terms and, with vital British support, had fought Napoleon’s armies to a standstill. In so doing, they had revealed the Emperor’s great strategic vulnerability, which was time: he could not afford to lose the initiative. The political constellation which his genius had conjured into place would hold its position only for a moment before all the planets and suns and galaxies went spinning off into space and he would be forced to rush back to Paris to put the entire vast and complicated machine back into balance. Defeat—or indeed stalemate—in one theater would sap his power in all the others, including finally in France itself. For Napoleon, as the Czar explains to Caulaincourt,

Results have to keep pace with his thoughts, because, being often absent from Paris, he is always anxious to return there. This is the teaching of the Master. I shall not be the first to draw my sword, but I shall be the last to sheathe it. The Spaniards have proved that lack of perseverance has been the undoing of all the States on which your master has made war.

Perseverance will withhold from Napoleon the one element he needs like oxygen to keep his empire breathing: victory. “You have beaten the Spanish armies,”the Czar tells the French diplomat, “but you have not subdued the nation. The nation will raise other armies.”Thus a year before the French armies cross into Russia, the young Czar—once Napoleon’s protégé (“if he was a woman, I should make him my mistress!”he had written Josephine), now his most powerful antagonist—sends to the Emperor a clear prediction of what will await him in Russia:

People don’t know how to suffer. If the fighting went against me, I should retire to Kamtchatka rather than cede provinces and sign, in my capital, treaties that were really only truces. Your Frenchman is brave; but long privations and a bad climate wear him down and discourage him. Our climate, our winter, will fight on our side. With you, marvels only take place where the Emperor is in personal attendance; and he cannot be everywhere, he cannot be absent from Paris year after year.

It is hard not to imagine these words echoing in Napoleon’s mind as, General Caulaincourt at his side, he leads his slowly dying army, day after day, week after week, ever deeper into Russia. “I beat the Rus­sians every time,”says the Emperor, “but that doesn’t get me anywhere.”Yes; and the Czar had set out clearly the grim implications: “In such circumstances, the victor is forced to accept the terms of the vanquished.” Here there would be no terms. After gazing down on the grandeur of Moscow, Napoleon rode into a deserted city, peopled only by the ghostly forms of released convicts and madmen who will shortly deploy their torches to make of the great capital a vast inferno. That image, of the all-powerful Emperor leading his Grande Armée into possession of the Czar’s greatest city and yet forlorn, powerless, defeated, trapped by his own audacity and daring like a rat in a cage, with no food to give his troops and no enemy with whom to make peace, and separated from Paris by thousands of hostile miles: the image of the vanquishing hero imprisoned in his burning conquest remains haunting in its pathos. Napoleon, as he said, had lost no battles; he ruled unchallenged in his enemy’s greatest city. And yet he could not win. From this point on he could struggle only to prevent annihilation. It seemed impossible, unacceptable; and indeed for a crucial four and a half weeks, as the seasons turned and the cold came on and his Grande Armée deteriorated into a rabble of famished and desperate looters, the Emperor would not accept it. He wrote Alexander offering—in fact, asking for—terms; and as the days passed and no reply came, he told himself that of course the Czar must settle; he need only wait. Caulaincourt, whom Napoleon asks to carry the message, is once again forced, as the year before, to play bitter truth-teller: “These overtures will be useless. As long as Russian territory is not entirely evacuated, Alexander will not listen to any proposal. At this season of the year Russia is fully aware of her advantages.” And yet is not the weather, despite all he’d been told of its famous terrors, uncommonly fine? The Emperor turns to another great idea: he shall march on Saint Petersburg! Seeing the dismay on the face of his generals he appeals to their love of glory:

What! You, you are not inflamed by this idea! Has there ever been a greater military exploit? Henceforth nothing short of that conquest will be worthy of us. We shall be overwhelmed with praise! What will the world say when it learns that in three months’ time we have conquered the two greatest capitals of the north?

Ségur recounts the objections of senior commanders, who wearily point out the doleful facts standing in the way of this rash project: “the season of the year, shortage of food, a barren, deserted road.”And yet he understands that the Emperor, in putting forward this new campaign, is voicing only “the fruit of a fit of anger, an inspiÂration of despair at seeing himself obliged to yield, to abandon a conquest and retreat before the eyes of Europe.”Here, as elsewhere, Ségur’s understanding of his Emperor is acute; the idea of Saint Petersburg is quickly dropped. And yet this despair, this refusal “to retreat before the eyes of Europe,”would lead him to wait, to cling stubbornly to the conviction that the Russians must eventually treat with him. “I was wrong in not…leaving Moscow a week after I entered the city,”he would later confess to Caulaincourt, as they lay shivering together in the sled racing through the snow in secret flight back to Paris. “The reverses I have met with are due solely to that. I thought that I should be able to make peace, and that the Russians were anxious for it. I was deceived and I deceived myself.”Yet this deception was born of a reluctance to contemplate, let alone accept, the damage such a rapid defeat would have brought. Though he was loathe to acknowledge it, especially in public counsel with his commanders, Napoleon was well aware of the “gravity of the situation,”as Ségur tells us. Indeed, he alone understood how far-reaching its consequences—above all, its political consequences—would be:

Fully aware of the power he reaped from the prestige of his infallibility, he shuddered at the thought of dealing it its first wound.      “What a frightful succession of perilous conflicts will begin with my first backward step!”he argued. “You must no longer find fault with my inaction. Oh, don’t I know that from a purely military point of view Moscow is worthless! But Moscow is not a military position, it is a political position. You think I am a general, while I am really an Emperor.”

This is of course the very point that Alexander had made to Cau­laincourt a year earlier. The military imperative might have been clear—rapid retreat from Moscow—but the political implications were too grave to bear. If it is true, as Napoleon tells Ségur, that “in affairs of state one must never retreat, never retrace one’s steps, never admit an error,”then such a course in military terms was catastrophic. Straddling unsustainably his two roles, Napoleon waiting in Moscow for a message from Alexander that never came, gambling all in the hope of avoiding the political destruction he saw following on a rapid retreat. The loss of that gamble would embody itself in those tens of thousands of frozen corpses lining the road back to Poland.

One is deafened here by echoes. How often have those with the most men-at-arms, the finest guns and most shattering bombs, taken this wealth in tools of destruction, and the prestige accompanying it, for the endowments of power itself? “I beat the Russians every time, but that doesn’t get me anywhere.”The tone of aggrieved bewilderment might be drawn unaltered from our present history. “You know, you never defeated us on the battlefield,”a U.S. Army colonel told his North Vietnamese counterpart in 1975. “That may be so,”replied the Vietnamese. “It is also irrelevant.”[6] Indeed, and it remained so in Anbar Province in November 2003, when an American colonel, asked about the metastasizing Iraqi insurgency and the spread of the war, burst out to a reporter, “What war? I mean, this is pretty much the Old West here. Peacekeeping. Where are the…division on division engagements? Basically this is not a real war.”7 The “real war”is what one plans for, what one counts on—what one can win. But as soldiers like to remind themselves, “The enemy also has a vote.”Leaders know this as well, of course; this is why they speak of a “plan B.”The gravest ventures, those of greatest risk, are those where there can be no plan B—and where its absence leads one not to abandon the undertaking but to push on, clear-eyed, self-aware, but forcing oneself to press all the harder for the single outcome that alone will prevent disaster. A quick win, shock and awe, the force of displayed and gaudy power: this alone will remove all ambiguity, obliterate the anxiety over insufficient numbers of troops, questionable casus belli, fragile political support. Faith must rest in a quick and devastating victory for that will wipe away the haunting nightmare of what will come if shock and awe does not work. And when that faith is not fulfilled, the nightmarish political consequences of failure emerge fully formed; the hobbled, sickened, sluggish Napoleon we glimpse throughout Ségur’s account is a man struggling to cope not with surprise but with a catastrophe foretold—and with the impossible and incredible reality that “his star”for the first time has utterly failed him.

Easy to say, of course, that the astonishing images of death and suffering in Ségur’s masterpiece resulted in the end from a terrible and foolish mistake: Had not Napoleon been warned, and warned explicitly? And yet, as one deposed leader ruefully put it early in the last century, “Every enterprise that does not succeed is a mistake.”[8] It is no accident that Hitler was haunted by Napoleon’s Russian campaign (as Napoleon was haunted by Charles XII’s defeat by Peter the Great at Poltava a century earlier), and no accident that he would repeat it. Both men knew the great risks; both men had advisers aplenty who warned them darkly against undertaking such a venture; and both had learned from long practice that they alone could judge best what was possible and what was not. They had learned to be daring and had acquired, as the fruit of undreamed-of success, distrust of those who counseled caution. They had learned that caution also holds dangers. Both saw their empires poised at a moment of vulnerability—in both cases, Britain refused to come to terms—and both leaders hoped triumph over Russia would force a final capitulation in the West. Both needed desperately a rapid victory—a triumph of shock and awe that would yield not only a compliant Russia but an England, newly sundered of all help, that was willing at least to treat for reasonable terms. Both had learned to put faith, finally, in their “star”; and both could not forget that millions of others had learned to follow that faith.

Both invasions were thus grand metaphysical gambles, undertaken in the conviction that luck, so lavish in its past endowments, surely would not fail when the stakes had grown so immeasurably great. Only success could prevent disaster, so how could success not come? The magnitude of the stakes should not blind us to the similarities to other such gambles, undertaken in the conviction that shock and awe must produce nothing less than the triumph sought, for the alternative—well, the alternative was simply inconceivable.

As he told his protégé, Napoleon was not a general but an emperor. It took another emperor, the Czar Alexander, to perceive that Napoleon’s gamble sprang, in the end, not from a mistake, or indeed from hubris, but from the felt need to find a point of rest: a lasting, stable peace. This Napoleon, thanks not least to the undying efforts of the British, was never able to do. “He was,”Ségur writes, “a monarch, but the monarch of the Revolution”—and if this unprecedented reality made his soldiers “love this self-made man, who also made others,”it made the British fear and detest him and determine, finally, that they could never and would never accept a continent dominated by his rule. To them, he came to represent a rare embodiment in a single person of a mortal danger both ideological and strategic, threatening not only the overthrow of the old order but the domination of all of Continental Europe by one hostile force. With such a one there could be no peace.

So “the invasion of Russia,”in the words of E.H. Carr, “was undertaken in order to make Napoleon strong enough to defeat Great Britain.”[9] Prevented by the “wooden wall”of the British Navy from invading England directly, he had imposed the Continental System to starve the “nation of shopkeepers”into submission. While Napoleon advanced the policy, essentially a continent-wide blockade on British goods and trade, as a way to build up the Continent’s industry at the expense of the British (it would be, he told Caulaincourt, “a source of wealth which would replace the foreign trade which we were at present missing”), in fact it was enormously costly and deeply unpopular throughout Europe, not least in Russia itself, and greatly increased the instability of Napoleon’s rule. Russia’s failure to adhere to the system—the Czar’s de facto opening of his ports to British goods—was a prime cause of the war, more so than the grandiose and insincere vows to “set Poland free.”Even as he shivered in his coach racing away from the Russian disaster and toward Paris, hoping to outrun the shocking news of his defeat, the Emperor, desperate to find anything positive that might be drawn from the catastrophe, mused aloud that his defeat at least would “put an end to all jealousies and quiet all the anxieties that may have sprung from [France’s] power or influence. Europe should think of only one enemy….the Russian Colossus.”To this the faithful Caulaincourt, shivering beside his master, retorts with withering frankness:

“As a matter of fact, it is Your Majesty they fear. It is Your Majesty who is the cause of everyone’s anxiety and prevents them from seeing other dangers. The governments are afraid there is going to be a World State. Your dynasty is already spreading everywhere, and the other dynasties are afraid they will see it established in their own countries….All these causes and considerations, which are perhaps partly hidden from Your Majesty, make their hatred of you a national force.”

No army, however great, can vanquish hatred; on the contrary. “You can do everything with a bayonet,”the Emperor is reported to have said, “except sit on it.”He might have been speaking as much of the Russian campaign as of his larger imperial project. Cannons and cavalry can destroy—but how to create out of that destruction a lasting order? How to defeat an enemy who refuses to acknowledge defeat? If shock and awe do not in the end persuade, then how to construct the political settlement that war was meant to achieve—especially when all the advanced arms and men and materiel and technology, all the fearsome panoply of war, can not disguise the political weakness that, given enough time, will slowly erode the foundation of the entire overbuilt edifice. That power depends first of all not on weapons of war or the men who bear them but on the political constellation necessary to their deployment; that it depends, in the end, on time and the subtler whisperings of politics—that lesson, as we know from other wars and other times, from Saigon to Baghdad and beyond, still remains to be learned, and learned again. Among those dazzled by the trappings of power it will perhaps always need to be learned. It is this lesson, among many others, that Napoleon’s young aide-de-camp—who, having fought and survived a duel to defend the veracity of this best-selling account of his mentor and hero, went on to live a full and fruitful life and to die greatly honored in his ninety-third year—teaches so vividly and so well.

 —Mark Danner



[1]An Aide-de-camp of Napoleon: Memoirs of General Count de Ségur (Appleton 1895), pp. 1-3

[2]This is the title of the original two-volume work, which the author’s grandson, Count Louis de Ségur, later edited – deleting many of the details of logistics and transport – and republished as The Russian Campaign: Memoirs of Napoleon’s Aide de Camp (1894-95). It is this abridged version, containing roughly half the original text, on which the present edition is based.

[3]See Jean-Baptiste Marbot, Memoirs of Baron de Marbot (London, 1900).

[4]Ségur’s numbers, particularly those of men, are conventional. Modern scholars tend to estimate the troops crossing the Niemen at the outset of the campaign at about 450,000, though more would come later. See, for example, Richard K. Reihn, 1812: Napoleon’s Russian Campaign (McGraw-Hill 1990).

[5]See General Armand de Caulaincourt, With Napoloen in Russia (Dover 2005 [1933]), p. 259.

[6]See Harry G. Summers Jr., On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (Presidio, 1982), p. 1.

[7]See my report, “Delusions in Baghdad,” The New York Review of Books, November 19, 2003.

[8]The words belong to the exiled former Greek premier Eleuthérios Venizélos, who, “smiling ironically,” uttered them on reading in a history book that “the Greek invasion of Asia Minor in 1919 was a mistake.” See E.H. Carr, The Twenty Years’ Crisis (Perennial, 1964 [1939]), p. 67.

[9]“Every stage in the Napoleonic Wars was devised to prepare the way for the next stage: the invasion of Russia was undertaken in order to make Napoleon strong enough to defeat Great Britain…” See The Twenty Years Crisis, p. 111.