In the Legions of Napoleon: The Memoirs of a Polish Officer in Spain and Russia 1808-1813
by Heinrich von Brandt. Translated by Jonathan North.
1999, Greenhill Books
I have always been drawn to memoirs relating to military history because they serve as such an excellent counter balance to traditional accounts of battles and campaigns. They tend, for example, to make vivid the long periods of boredom that make up the experience of many individual participants. Likewise you will often find even a participant in a major battle has not much to say. After all, a few hours, or even a couple days of battle might, for may participants be a period of anxiety because they do not know what is going on.
Heinrich von Brandt’s In the Legions of Napoleon: The Memoirs of a Polish Officer in Spain and Russia 1808-1813 presents us with a very interesting and perceptive account of both campaigns. Brandt served as an officer in the Vistula Legion, and was clearly an enthusiastic soldier (at least at the beginning). His memoir is exciting, wry, well written, and in places even amusing. He has a natural eye for human detail and relates quite a few priceless anecdotes.
Von Brandt is swept up in the enthusiasm for Napoleon resulting from his victories against Austria and Prussia and joins the 2nd East Prussian Battalion as an ensign. As a result of Napoleon’s victories, von Brandt finds himself and his family are become Polish. His commission was then transferred to the Duchy of Warsaw, where he became a second lieutenant. He is then promptly assigned to serve in Spain.
In Spain von Brandt serves mainly in Aragon. It was in Aragon that the French counterinsurgency efforts were most successful. This memoir gives us a graphic picture of what life for the victims of the guerilla war was like. Von Brandt tellingly describes serving on detached duty thus:
The commanders of these little outposts in the mountains were placed in the position of a man sitting astride a keg of gunpowder surrounded by people trying to set it alight and would consider himself fortunate not to be blown sky high. If he was blown to smithereens - well, he had only himself to blame.
Von Brandt found himself in this position on numerous occasions. His accounts of the minor skirmishes he was primarily involved in are most interesting. As wide a variety of behavior is recounted in these fights - bravery, cowardice, fortitude, compassion are all present. The cumulative effect is that one can sense the constant anxiety the French and their allies must have suffered while in Spain. Further, he shows a real admiration for his enemies. He admires the Spanish tenacity and bravery, and salutes their ability to suffer defeat after defeat and yet rise to fight again another day.
The other feature many memoirs is that they focus on what was important to the writer, rather than the reader. Thus one of the central episodes in the book is his romance with a young Spanish girl. It occupies several chapters and was clearly an important even in the young Heinrich’s life. While he took part in sieges (on both sides of the wall) and battles, personal episodes like this occupy just as much of the book. I especially like this memoir because it so vividly recalls one aspect of a junior officer’s experience. Namely that their part in major battles, at the time, consists largely of periods of waiting punctuated by brief periods of terror.
The second part of the memoir describes his campaign in Russia. He is present at Borodino and is wounded later on October 4 forcing the Tschernitskaja. His is truly a million-dollar wound. Moved to a hospital he was among the first to be evacuated at the beginning of the famous retreat. Even so it took a great amount of luck and help from comrades to see him home again. Rejoining his regiment at the crossing of the Beresina, he reports there were just 29 survivors, including 18 cripples.
The translator, Jonathan North, has provided a helpful introduction to the Vistula Legion and its campaigns. He has also provided brief biographical sketches of some of the leading figures (this is helpful to those who may not be familiar with, for example, Joseph Rogniat, Anne-Gilbert Laval, or Joachim Blake. Nine adequate maps and 25 illustrations add further texture. Finally there are some appendices and a helpful bibliography.
Review posted January 10, 2004