Imperial Russia in hot pursuit : the April 2015 Slavonic item of the month

A University Library exhibition commemorating the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo opens to the public this Friday.  Among the exhibits is a Russian book reporting the Imperial Army’s offensives against the French in 1813.  One of its contributors, Field Marshal Kutuzov, was the subject of the first Slavonic item of the month, exactly two years ago.

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The opening which will be on display in the exhibition.  It shows the list of casualties, in French (right) and Russian translation (left), of the French 5th regiment of Tirailleurs after withdrawal from Smolensk.

The book in question is Izviestiia o voennykh” dieistviiakh” Rossiiskoi Armii protiv frantsuzov”, pervoi poloviny 1813 goda [Reports on the military operations of the Russian Army against the French in the first half of 1813; 8586.d.84].  This 155-page volume, the second of two published, contains sources from the Russian pursuit of the Grande Armée far into Prussia in the months that followed the catastrophic close of Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia.

The very first section contains returns of casualties suffered by some units in the French army.  These returns were seized from the enemy and therefore represent, as the covering note from Field Marshal Prince Kutuzov to the Tsar says, ‘incontrovertible proof’ that previous Russian reports of enormous French losses were ‘not exaggerated’.  Four regiments of the French Guards are covered by the returns, which are provided in the original French with a Russian translation provided on the facing pages.  The reports show the situation in December 1812 following the French withdrawal from Smolensk.  They make grim reading.  There are four categories of losses: those left on the field, those too wounded to follow the army and left in the hands of the Russians, the dead from cold and hunger, and those left behind through cold, illness, or fatigue (this category sees by far the highest figures).  For all four regiments, the figures of those lost far outweigh the number of those who remained with the army.  Overwhelming casualties had, of course, already crippled the French long before they reached Smolensk on their way back from Moscow.

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A view of Smolensk from Thomas Hartwell Horne’s 1816 An illustrated record of important events in the annals of Europe, during the last four years : comprising a series of views of the principal places, battles (Harley-Mason.bb.84)

The remainder of the book contains day-by-day reports from the army’s headquarters and senior staff as the Russians pursue the French far beyond Russia’s borders.  Occasional intelligences from Imperial Russia’s other active conflict of the time, the Russo-Persian War, also appear.  The Tsar himself makes frequent appearances in the book, as his own headquarters travels to follow the French retreat.  Some events are covered more than once, as different sources follow one another to give a fuller picture.  Some sections contain very detailed figures.  In the description of the siege of Toruń, for example, we are given a daily summary of the numbers of projectiles thrown into the fortress.  Others, particularly sections which look back at the events of a particular part of the campaign, are more emotional and colourful, with commanders paying homage to the bravery of their troops or describing the army’s reception in a newly taken town or village.

Towards the end of the book, we find a report of the death of Field Marshal Kutuzov, whose words opened the volume.  The Tsar had honoured him with the victory title High Prince Smolenskii in late 1812, to mark his decisive role in the Russian victory at Smolensk.  He died in April 1813 at the age of 67 in Bunzlau, having led the victorious army far from the bounds of the empire they served.  [A biography of Kutuzov published in 1813 was the first Slavonic item of the month, in April 2013]

The whole book makes for exciting reading and is to be recommended to Russian-reading researchers of the period.  The University Library copy bears on its title page a stamp from the library of Prince Aleksandr Nikolaevich Golitsyn.  Golitsyn was not a military man, but was a significant figure within the Imperial administration.  A trusted adviser of the Tsar, he would have been carefully apprised of the events the book covers, and it is intriguing to think that our copy once belonged to him.

The Slavonic item of the month feature aims to celebrate, through examination of particular pieces, the diversity and riches of Cambridge University Library’s Slavonic collections. It has been running for two years. Items featured in previous months can be found here on the Slavonic webpages.

Mel Bach

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