Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Illustrious Dead

When you think of Napoleon's invasion of Russia (as I'm sure you often do, doesn't everyone?), you probably think it failed because of the Russian winter, hunger, and the Russians' clever, though somewhat accidental, strategy of leading the Grande Armee deep into their territory, too far from supplies or reinforcements. All those, along with a strange combination of lassitude and hubris on Napoleon's part, certainly played a role. But The Illustrious Dead (Stephan Talty, 2009) gives the lion's share of the credit to typhus, showing how the disease burned its way through the army from the very beginning of the campaign to when the handful of survivors staggered into Germany.

This is a good, readable work of popular military history. I'd recommend it to just about anyone interested in the era--it's straightforward and clear enough for those who haven't read much military history, but the focus on typhus gives a different spin for those who already know Napoleon's campaigns well. And Talty knows how to make nonfiction history read like a page-turning novel.

I've never been an admirer of Napoleon's, but I try very hard to understand why so many people have been, then and now. And sometimes I think I've almost grasped it until I read another account of the invasion of Russia. So much death and destruction for the sake of one man's ambition and hubris.


Shako said...

How dare you. So much death and destruction for one man's ambition? So WHAT? Napoleon couldn't stop death! Yes he should have done his ambitious general impression where he does his homework but still, this is upsetting! How is Napoleon supposed to stop the disease? I agree that it was his fault and he should have done it in a much better way and I get what you're trying to say, but please, that last sentence mucks it all up! It isn't hard to realise why people love Napoleon, it was because he was a very influental figure, and so epic and interesting to read about, and he's revered for his heroism. And he gave me something to fight about. Also known as life-saving. But that's my own unique story. I wish I had never seen that sentence. The post would have been so much better. I'll look for the book on your recommendation. =(

Napoleona said...

I've read worse
I've met worse people
You're a heroine but
Napoleon still rules*

Susan Wilbanks said...

Well, Napoleon was a polarizing figure then, so it's not surprising he remains so now. My opinion is just that, and it's certainly not going to make a dent in his reputation one way or another!

Shako said...