The 1812 Russo-French war: A passage about strategy long remembered II

I was telling you all about a passage from a book by Evelyn Anthony about the Tsar of all Russias, Alexander I and his strategy to counter Napoleon, following the latter’s invasion of Russia. Marked by captivating dialogue and a slight tilt towards stereotypes of … well I’ll leave you to discover them…., it is not difficult to see why this particular episode has remained fixed in my memory since I read this book almost a quarter of a century ago. I was glad to find that the book survives with me in the remanants of my sadly-depleted library.


…… Barclay de Tolly spent long hours conferring with him. A dour man, hard-headed and cautious, he was convinced that the Prussian strategy would mean disaster.

‘If we fight Napoleon before Drissa, we’re lost!’ he declared as he rode beside the Emperor. Alexander shifted the reins to one hand and wiped his seating face with a handkerchief.

‘Pfuhl has perfect confidence in the plan,’ he replied. They had been riding for some hours and for most of the time, de Tolly had been warning him not to listen to the Prussian and risk a pitched battle.

‘Pfuhl’s a German, Sire. He’s sure he’s right, and, by God, when a German thinks he’s right there’s no more obstinate fool alive! We are dealing with Bonaparte, not Frederick the Great! Is it likely he’ll oblige us by attacking Drissa and let Bagration encircle him?’

‘No Sire, I tell you I wouldn’t fall into that trap, and no more will he. He’ll wipe out Bagration, that’s what he’ll do and then come after us. And small use Pfuhl’s plan will be then. For God’s sake, Sire, abandon it, send for Bagration, and link up your armies before it’s too late.’

‘Bagration says the same,’ Alexander answered. ‘And my sister writes urging me to listen to him.’ He turned to Barclay, frowning, and the commander-in-chief realised how tired he looked. The Czar’s face was drawn and lined from lack of sleep.

‘If Pfuhl’s wrong, I’ll abdandon him. I’ll abandon anyone – you, Bagration, Arakhcheief, anyone – but I won’t lose this war. We’ll inspect Drissa as soon as we arrive. There may be some news of Napoleon’s movements by the time we get there.’

At Drissa Alexander set out to look over the artificial bastion, followed by General Pfuhl himself. The general, red-faced and scowling, stamped along a few paces behind the Czar. He took the inspection as a personal insult. Years had been spent in working out his plan, his invincible theory, and now these miserable Russians were trying to alter it. He intended to question the Emperor, but somehow the opportunity did not arise. Alexander seemed suddenly cold and aloof, walking through the encampment in a silence that no one dared to break. And in silence he returned to his headquarters, where he found a courier waiting with Araktcheief.

‘Sire!’ Araktcheief burst out as soon as he entered. ‘Sire, Bonaparte’s sent Marshal Davout and his forces out towards Volhynia.’

‘I knew it,’ Barclay swung around. ‘He’s going to attack Bagration! God in Heaven, he’s splitting us up. If he meets Bagration and defeats him, we’re lost!’

‘Nonsense, nonsense. It’s a feint. He’ll attack Drissa; he’s bound by my theory…’ Pfuhl interrupted, and Barclay turned on him.

‘Damn your theory! Now see where it’s brought us.’

‘Gentlemen. One moment!’ Alexander’s voice cut through them harshly. He was white and the expression on his face closed even Pfuhl’s mouth.

He took off his gloves and threw them on to a chair. Then he spoke softly. ‘Your plan is abandoned, General Pfuhl. You may go.’

Pfuhl stared at him and seemed about to speak, then he bowed stiffly and went out. There was a moment of dead silence after the door had closed behind him……

….There is lots more about what new strategy is framed but I’ll close my account here only, since it is not my intention to put up the whole book here. I suggest you find it and read it.


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