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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Napoleon's March, Quote by Quote

What is most annoying thing about the following paragraph?

"Napoleon goes back to spend the evening in a ruined village called Ukarino 'at the point where the plains open up in front of Mojaisk.' But when the Guard turns up it finds Ukarino already occupied by the 23rd dragoons who have spent the dreary day 'picking up leaves and cutting pine branches' to give their horses something to eat. They're just settling down for the night in the village when the Guard 'which so far hadn't fired a shot' comes and ejects them. Meanwhile, 'a hurricane of snow' had started to fall."

Like every passage, without exception, in "1812: The March on Moscow," the prose is absolutely bulging with quotations. Alone, that is no sin: More irksome is that so many quotations are fairly colorless statements of fact that probably should have been paraphrased.

Paul Britten Austin set out on a trying journey when he decided to recount Napoleon's disastrous cross-continent attempt to conquer Russia. Using the diaries and memoirs of eyewitnesses, the author aimed to compile a firsthand account of the fighting, what he describes as "word-film shot by over 100 of the survivors." The idea for the book surfaced in 1973 and it was not published until last year.

Although Austin's work has its moments, it often reads like a random list of observations. It probably proves that readers cannot be expected to be keenly interested in diaries and memoirs if they know little or nothing about the people who wrote them.

Austin, for some reason, chose to quote the 100 or so eyewitnesses not just on the horrors of war, but on very mundane things like the location of a village or a river. Take this geographical gem:

"On 23 July the Italians, farther to the south, reach the village of Botscheikovo on the Oula, 'a river joined to the Berezina by the Lepel Canal and linking the Dnieper with the Dwina, the Baltic with the Mediterranean.'"

A professional translator and writer, Austin says that "as a boy I was dotty about Napoleon." His father, F. Britten Austin, apparently shared the same predilection, writing two historical novels about Napoleon's time in Egypt and his Italian campaign. But probably the most intriguing thing about Paul Austin is that he married the Swedish novelist Margareta Bergman, the sister of the movie director Ingmar.

As a young man Austin was rejected for a commission in Britain's Rifle Brigade and instead went to sea in 1941 as a cabin boy in the merchant marine. He lived in Paris and Sweden, and at one time was in charge of English-language radio broadcasts from Radio Sweden. From 1957 to 1969 he ran the Swedish government tourist office in London. Austin has written books in English and Swedish, including a biography of Swedish poet Carl Michael Bellman.

Austin's story is told only from the French side, disappointing for readers seeking a Russian point of view. "War, unless one is taken prisoner, is always a one-sided experience," he writes in his preface, explaining why he avoided the Russian half in his account.

Still, in this case, even half a story is enough: Napoleon's attempt to conquer a cold and stubborn Russia has inspired entire libraries of non-fiction and fiction. Of more than a half million French soldiers who set out for Moscow, only about 50,000 struggled out of Russia, victims of poor supply lines, winter, disease and hunger, not to mention the Russians' fighting spirit and some crucial blunders by Napoleon.

The book has some interesting detail. The description of the East European and Russian countryside should be of interest to anyone curious about this part of the world.

The best passages include snapshot images of Napoleon, as at a charred battlefield near Semenovskaya.

"'The Russian wounded sat stoically clutching their St. Nicholas' crosses. The emperor carefully examined every bit of battlefield'... The most terrible sight of all is the interior of the ravines. The wounded who have crawled there to avoid further exposure are 'piled up on top of each other, lacking all succor and swimming in their own blood, groaning terribly. Begging to be allowed to die, they asked us to put a term to their horrible sacrifice. There weren't enough ambulances. There was nothing anyone could do for them.'... 'During this time the Emperor's face remained impassive, only he was very pale.'"

Fans of military history will enjoy Austin's attention to the clothing, equipment and language of the day: The book has enough bivouacs, salients, abatis, dragoons and pontoons to please any closet Little General.

In fact, Austin's work is ideal for the reader who has devoured everything about Napoleon and seeks to know that little bit more. For the rest, Tolstoy tells a better story in "War and Peace."

"1812: The March on Moscow" by Paul Britten Austin. Greenhill Books, 416 pages, ?30. This book is available through Zwemmer's.