Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Review: The Fox Of The North

To start 2018, I thought a book review might be in order. A biography of General Mikhail Illarionovich Kutusov caught my eye last year when I was looking for some possible information on the Russo-Turkish War of 1806-1812. Although my expectations for such information were low, the book could not disappoint. Roger Parkinson managed to acquire enough information to give some brief information on that subject to at least present it in a way that it was not just a passing reference or foot note. The information I was looking for didn't really present itself but other details of the life of this often forgotten army commander were presented.

The book's 236 pages covers his life from a privileged birth status, apprenticeship and tutelage under Suvorov to his struggles as commander of the Russian army during the grim 1812 campaign. His health failed him as old head wounds, failing eye sight, head aches and continual weight gain prevented him from being the sort of confident commander that one might expect from his position. Of enemies, he could count nearly everyone. Of friends, he seemingly could not find any. In many ways, his style of command mirrors that of Wellington in that he wished to spare his men's lives, distrusted subordinates and was more than willing to let an enemy wear itself down with partisan attacks and inclement weather.

His early life and the introduction of his father and the references to Catherine The Great were a little dull. It isn't until the author moves into the assassination plot on the Mad Czar Paul that the story picks up. The near insane Czar Paul and Kutusov did correspond and managed to get along with each other. Admittedly, it seems to me that Kutusov was more of an unwilling audience than a friend. Although Alexander was involved in the plot to kill his father, his paranoia and worry of Kutusov was more interesting to me.

I went into reading this biography largely ignorant of the details of the subject at hand. Since I didn't have a bias going into the book, it was easy to follow along with the persuasive writing technique that I picked up on from the author. It's clear the author felt that Kutusov was a victim and was a gifted commander that bested Napoleon but the world just wasn't aware of it and he wished to pen that narrative. At first, I could go along with some of this as indeed, Kutusov does appear to be unnecessarily suspected of intrigue and possibly even a hidden Bonapartist. As I read on, nothing further from the truth could be the actual case. Kutusov lacked personal friendships to attempt a coup of any kind and his behavior in the 1812 campaign shows a deal of fear and respect for the Grande Armee and Napoleon that should not be misinterpreted as concern for his enemy's well being.

His role in the ill-fated 1805 campaign was fleshed out by the author with some details about his command being mostly in name only. Alexander not wishing to share the glory and being entirely ignorant of tactical sense, held most of the control. Kutusov seems to have been resigned to being a set character and handling more of the administrative matters. His reluctance to advance rapidly with his army and protect Vienna earlier in the campaign foreshadows his future behavior in defending his own homeland. Just as he would fail to defend Vienna, Moscow too would be handed over without a real fight.

General Benningsen, the Hanoverian foreigner in Russian Service, Wittgenstein or the British military attache Sir Robert Wilson, who was his biggest enemy? They all despised Kutusov for his irresolute behavior in going after the Grande Armee. From the time he is in command up until the departure of the Grande Armee, he avoided battle far too often for everyone's liking. Alexander appears to have only retained his services out of popular concerns among the army and upper classes who felt Kutusov was the man for the job.

The battle of Borodino almost didn't happen. Kutusov did wish to prevent the capture of Moscow and the humiliation it would bring, but lacked the resolve to do that on his own. Without strongly worded letters from Alexander it is quite likely he would have danced and maneuvered his army out of the way and the French would have been permitted a swifter entry. The lost battle of Maloyaroslavets was again another failure to monitor the enemy's position and intentions. The constant retreating without major resistance destroyed his reputation among his peers. It wasn't enough to cost him his command, but neither does it place him among the greatest generals of his time.

I found myself feeling some sort of liking Kutusov to eventual pity and then loathing. Although the author Roger Parkinson would try to lead his readers into thinking Kutusov was playing some sort of 4D chess with the mind of a grandmaster, the results of Kutusov's fear of Napoleon/Grande Armee are inescapable. In constantly avoiding direct battle and not pressing outflanking maneuvers, the Grande Armee and Napoleon managed to escape from Russia. Kutusov's claims of wanting partisan attacks and weather conditions to do their work only holds credibility up until Berezina crossing. Placing his army along the line of retreat for cutting the Grande Armee off from home is more wishful thinking. Kutusov and the author seem to believe this but Kutusov's actions show he wasn't firmly committed to executing this strategy.

His dispatching Platov's cossack horde and Admiral Chichagov's force to attempt to check the Grande Armee's retreat was another half-hearted decision. Citing the preservation of the Russian army and wishing other external forces to wear the Grande Armee down, a major opportunity was lost. Such an important death blow should have been carried with far more strength and oversight. Hiding with the main army far away, Kutusov failed to act with any vigor. His critics were certain not to let this go unnoticed and let Alexander know of his major blunder.

His performance in 1813 shows more ability in army administration rather than an aggressive commander who could or rather, would follow up upon a victory. His command ability were responsible for winning the war against the Ottoman Empire but his reluctance or fear to engage the Grande Armee managed to make the war more costly than it had to be. The Russian praise heaped upon him doesn't appear to be just when his actions are under examination.

The book lacks the romance and dialogue of a Bernard Cornwell novel, but the odd details made it an interesting read. The intrigue and erratic behavior of so many of the major players is strikingly similar to that of the Spanish leaders in the other corner of Europe. If you enjoy slow reads and can follow narratives similar to a Charles Oman book, then this is a book you will want to read.

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