Defeat: Napoleon's Russian Campaign

Overview

In the summer of 1812 Napoleon gathered his fearsome Grande Armée, more than half a million strong, on the banks of the Niemen River. He was about to undertake the most daring of all his many campaigns: the invasion of Russia. Meeting only sporadic opposition and defeating it easily along the way, the huge army moved forward, advancing ineluctably on Moscow through the long hot days of summer. On September 14, Napoleon entered the Russian capital, fully anticipating the Czar’s surrender. Instead he encountered an...
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Overview

In the summer of 1812 Napoleon gathered his fearsome Grande Armée, more than half a million strong, on the banks of the Niemen River. He was about to undertake the most daring of all his many campaigns: the invasion of Russia. Meeting only sporadic opposition and defeating it easily along the way, the huge army moved forward, advancing ineluctably on Moscow through the long hot days of summer. On September 14, Napoleon entered the Russian capital, fully anticipating the Czar’s surrender. Instead he encountered an eerily deserted city—and silence. The French army sacked the city, and by October, with Moscow in ruins and his supply lines overextended, and with the Russian winter upon him, Napoleon had no choice but to turn back. One of the greatest military debacles of all time had only just begun.

In this famous memoir, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, a young aide-de-camp to Napoleon, tells the story of the unfolding disaster with the keen eye of a crack reporter and an astute grasp of human character. His book, a fundamental inspiration for Tolstoy’s War and Peace, is a masterpiece of military history that teaches an all-too-timely lesson about imperial hubris and its risks.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"This is War and Peace without the peace and the love interest, and therefore a fraction of the length. But it was Tolstoy's major source: the History of Napoleon and the Grande Armée in 1812, the diaries of Bonaparte's aide de camp, Philippe-Paul, Comte de Ségur, was first published in 1824. Defeat is a reissue of the 1958 translation by the late David Townsend, with an introduction by the journalist and historian Mark Danner...His account of the march on Moscow is a work of reflection and justification as well as narrative, but it still conveys the horror." --London Times

“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…it’s 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. It’s close-up view of Napoleon vacillating and apprehensive, blundering into defeat, is fascinating.” –The New York Times (July 25, 1958)

The Barnes & Noble Review
The Wars of the French Revolution were the first to prove a boon for the publishing industry. Quite a few of the survivors of the quarter-century of warfare set down their thoughts in the decades that followed the final bell at Waterloo. From the simplicity of Rifleman Harris to the braggadocio of the Baron Marbot, these works have an incalculable historical value. Only a few can lay claim to literary merit, and high on that list is Philippe-Paul de Ségur's History of the Expedition to Russia, Undertaken by the Emperor Napoleon in the Year 1812. Philippe-Paul, comte de Ségur, was from a long line of French officers. At 19, he heard the young Bonaparte haranguing his troops during the coup of the 18th Brumaire and promptly joined up. He served with distinction, rising to general, and took part in the disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812. Twelve years later he recollected this catastrophe in tranquility. His bestselling history was critical enough of the emperor that Ségur was called upon to fight a duel. He survived, and so does his memoir. He shaped his story with a novelist's eye, and if there are things that a historian will tell you are exaggerated, they guarantee a narrative that never flags. (Tolstoy drew on it when writing War and Peace.) In the 1890s, Ségur's grandson made an abridgement that cut back on the details of military logistics. Translated into English in the 1950s, it is available again from the wonderful reprint series New York Review Classics. Defeat remains the finest portrait of how an army dies. --Robert Messenger
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781590172827
  • Publisher: New York Review Books
  • Publication date: 10/21/2008
  • Series: New York Review Books Classics Series
  • Pages: 200
  • Sales rank: 463,919
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Philippe-Paul de Ségur (1780–1873), the scion of an old French aristocratic family, was the son of Louis-Philippe de Ségur, a diplomat and historian who welcomed the Revolution and aligned himself with Napoleon. Sharing his his father’s sympathies, the young Ségur enlisted in the French cavalry in 1800 and quickly rose to became a member of Napoleon’s personal staff. Ségur distinguished himself repeatedly in battle and supported the Emperor until the final defeat at Waterloo. His History of Napoleon and the Grande Armée in the Year 1812 was published in two volumes in 1824, and the book, a great success which sold out ten editions in three years, was widely translated. Effectively retired from the army during the Restoration, Ségur was promoted to lieutenant general and received a peerage after the establishment of the July Monarchy in 1830. He was enrolled in the French Academy in 1830 and received the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor in 1847. His other books include a History of Russia and Peter the Great as well as his posthumously published memoirs.

Mark Danner has written about war and politics for two decades, covering conflicts in Latin America, the Balkans, and the Middle East, among other stories. His books include The Massacre at El Mozote, Torture and Truth, and The Secret Way to War.

J. David Townsend was a Methodist minister who served for sixteen years as a missionary in Algeria and was the pastor of churches in Paris and in Cohasset, Massachusetts. His translation and abridgement of Ségur’s masterpiece was first published in 1958 as Napoleon’s Russian Campaign.

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