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German Soldiers and Russia, 1812

by Leighton James

Commenting on the centenary of the Russian campaign, the German author and historian, Paul Holzhausen, wrote that there was no campaign that was so ‘abysmally written on the soul of the people. Not the war, which the great Frederick fought with the Austrians, French and Russians, with the finely coiffured Louis XV, with the wild Croats and Pandours of Maria Theresa, not the year of the battle of Leipzig, not the the campaign of Waterloo, not 1870. None’.

He pointed out that one could visit the ‘fields of honour’ of those other campaigns. But not for 1812. ‘Did not return! That was the terrible phrase that passed through thousands of...

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Sheona Davies

Publishing about 1812 in the Long Nineteenth Century

A weekly journal began on the 8th January 1814 in which accounts of eyewitnesses from the campaigns of the French and the allied troops of 1812/13 were published under the title War Stories from the Years 1812/1813, or Representations and Narratives from the Campaigns of the French and the Allied Troops, Morals and Character Traits of Battles and Sieges, detailed Description of Individual Rallying manoeuvres Drawn from the Reports of Eyewitnesses (Darstellung und Schilderungen aus den Feldzügen der Franzosen und der verbündeten Truppen, Sitten- und Characterzüge aus Schlachten und Belagerungen, ausführliche...

Leighton James

The Cossacks in the Memoirs of German Soldiers in the Grande Armée

The figure of the Cossack looms large in the memoirs of German soldiers of the Russian Campaign. Initially, the Cossacks were a people inhabiting the lower Dnieper, Don and Ural river basins. In the early modern period they had allied themselves to the Russian Tsars and had played a key role in the extension and subjugation of the imperial frontiers. The Cossacks had become a special military estate within Russian society by the end of the eighteenth century. The relationship had, however, often been tense. Russian attempts to control and reduce the autonomy enjoyed by the Cossacks hosts had led to episodic revolts, the most...

Leighton James

Jews and the Russian Campaign

Alongside the Cossacks, the Jewish population of Poland and Russia are the most commonly depicted peoples in German soldiers’ memoirs of the Russian campaign. Indeed, Jews rarely appear in German officers’ memoirs of other Napoleonic campaigns, but one of abiding memories of the 1812 campaign appears to be the large number of Jews encountered by the soldiers. This is in part a consequence of the size of the Jewish population inhabiting the so-called Pale of Settlement, which lay across the Grande Armée’s line of march to Moscow. Until the last quarter of the eighteenth century the Jewish population of Russia had been...

Leighton James

Violence and the Russian Campaign

The Russian campaign was particularly bloody and costly in human life. The Battle of Borodino, which resulted in some 70,000 casualties, was the bloodiest battle of the whole Napoleonic Wars. Trache and the print produced by Campe can see representations of this type of warfare in the painting. Moreover, like the Peninsular War, the campaign was characterised by a high level of violence that breached the normal ‘laws of war’ of the time. Anton Graf von Wedel, a former Prussian officer who served in the French Army during the campaign, compared the invasion to the Iberian conflict and even suggested that it was worse. ‘We saw all the cruelty of the Spanish War, but in the most terrible form, in an unfavourable climate, in a desert, a bare land...

Leighton James

Women and 1812

The Grande Armée that invaded Russia in 1812 was not a homosocial, male-only organisation. It was composed not only of thousands of men drawn from across Europe, but was also accompanied by hundreds, if not thousands, of women. Throughout the early modern period women had been involved in military campaigns in a variety of capacities and the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars were no exception. At the top of the social and military hierarchy, officers sometimes took their wives with them on campaign. More common, however, were lower status women who often acted as sutlers, selling food, drink and other necessities to the soldiers. Many sutlers were also the wives of soldiers and ...