Napoleon’s invasion of Russia cost the lives of hundreds of thousands and changed the course of history. Europe had never seen an army quite like the one gathering in Poland in 1812 – half a million men in brilliant uniforms, plumed shakoes and shimmering helmets. Six months later, it was the ghost of an army, frozen and miserable, that limped back to their horrified homes.
While the story of this epic military disaster has often been told, it has never been described before from the viewpoint of the tens of thousands of Polish soldiers who took part, and that is why this selection of their vivid eyewitness testimony is of such value.
Most of their accounts – letters, diaries and memoirs – have not been translated into English before, and they come from a variety of authors. Some of them were patriots who were keen to wage war on the Russians in order to regain independence for their country. Others were charmed by the glory of Napoleonic warfare or were professional soldiers who did their duty but had seen too much war to be seduced by it.
They all tell an unrivaled tale – of muskets and drums and burning villages, of Borodino and Moscow and ruthless battles, and of the numbing hunger and biting cold. By the end the great army had been reduced to a pitiless mob and the Polish soldiers, who had set out with such hope, recalled it with horror.