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Book Review:
With Napoleon in Russia

(The Illustrated Memoirs of Faber du Faur, 1812)

Edited and translated by Jonathan North

With the vast amount of literature published on the Napoleonic period each year, it is difficult to imagine that something totally new, unique and valuable could possibly be produced. With Napoleon in Russia is just that.

This work is something exceptional in the field of Napoleonic publishing. It is a collection of 92 colour pictures depicting scenes from Napoleon's 1812 campaign in Russia, all produced by one Faber du Faur.

Christian Wilhelm von Faber du Faur was a 32-year-old lieutenant in the 2nd Foot Artillery Battery of the Wurttemburg Army, part of the vast force assembled by Napoleon for his invasion.

Faber du Faur had the dubious distinction of being but one of 100 Wurttemburgers to return to Poland in December 1812, out of 15,000 who started the campaign.

He was also an artist and made numerous pencil, ink and watercolour sketches whilst on campaign, almost on a daily basis.

These sketches were later drawn up and published as plates, and Faber du Faur and a fellow survivor of the Russian Campaign - Frederich von Kausler - added a commentary to each picture.

These pictures are now preserved in the Anne S.K Brown Military Collection in Rhode Island. They pictures are as near to a photographic record of the campaign as is possible to get and represent a superb pictorial account of Napoleon's invasion from the crossing of the Niemen in June to scenes of the retreat in December 1812.

We are presented with a highly detailed look at all aspects of the campaign, as well as life as soldier from the viewpoint of the Wurttemburg Army.

Scenes depicted show us camp life, the requisitioning of supplies from the local populace, problems posed by the weather, and scenes of the Wurttemburg Army (and their allies) in action throughout the campaign.

Aside from the story of the Russian Campaign, the plates and text provide a vivid account of life as a Napoleonic soldier, and the problems faced by such men in order to survive in an often-hostile countryside.

The pictures are highly detailed, and each one demands a long and close scrutiny to see all of the fascinating and interesting features.

No detail or scene was too trivial to be recorded by the artist. There is a delightful scene of a soldier selling an animal skin to the local Jews to raise money with which to purchase food, and this only two weeks into the campaign.

The Wurttemburg Army was part of the III Corps under Ney, and this force included the Portuguese Legion, who also suffered greatly.

While many pictures do depict French troops, the main subjects are the Wurttemburg troops and their immediate allies. A number of the pictures show Portuguese soldiers in camp or plundering to survive.

All such scenes are set against a backdrop of the Russian countryside, and are very much a social comment on the people and places that the soldiers encountered.

The exceptional nature of the pictures is further enhanced by the detailed and descriptive commentary that accompanies each one.

An interesting watercolour depicts one of the problems encountered by the mounted troops on the advance in that many of their horses succumbed. French Carabiniers and Cuirassiers were remounted on the small Russian ponies. The commentary on this is that 'it was both sad and amusing to see these stubborn and emaciated beasts trot past our camp, ridden by massive carabiniers and cuirassiers with their shiney boots virtually touching the ground'.

The retreat is portrayed by some highly detailed pictures of the army leaving Moscow, scenes of fighting during the retreat, and the onset of the Russian winter.

The pictures of the soldiers leaving Russia convey the suffering and privations of the retreat, with scenes depicting the sick and dying being stripped of their clothes to help those still on their feet.

The last plate depicts a scene 'between Braunsberg and Elbing, 21 December' with the commentary'.

As 1812 came to an end, so too did the incredible suffering; the fatal retreat from Moscow was over. So too was the Grande Armée: it no longer existed. It left its glorious remains on the fields of Krasnoi, Smolensk, Valutina, Polotsk, Borodino and Malojaroslavets and over the endless steppes of Russia. It had been consumed by disease, hunger, want and the rigours of a wrathful climate'.

All this is depicted in graphic detail by Faber du Faur and described in the text.

Aside from being a series of colourful pictures of the campaign, With Napoleon in Russia provides a detailed source of information, both pictorial and textual, that enhances our knowledge of Napoleonic warfare.

Each picture has to be viewed closely and repeatedly to take in all of its detail, and this means that not only is it a joy to look at, but it is one of the most informative books to be published in recent years.

Hardback, 208 pages, 92 colour plates.

- Paul Chamberlain


(This review first appeared in First Empire magazine)



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