Book Review: “La Victoire de la Grande Armée”

If – like me – you’re interested in history, you might also have fallen for the cover and title. If – like me – you’re familiar with the author’s name and read the cover’s small print “de l’académie Française“, you might also have bought this pocket. Yes, “La Victoire de la Grande Armée” was written by one of France’s former presidents, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.

So like me, you might also have been duped into thinking his book might add something to your acquired knowledge on Napoleon. Especially, as the blurb on the front and back never state this pocket is not a work of fact, but fiction.

The book is a mix between fictional historic novel and adventure story. As Valéry Giscard d’Estaing mentions in his introduction, he used several sources. Being familiar with a few of these, I suspect that they are the reason a reader might swallow the first fourteen or so chapters.

From chapter fifteen till chapter twenty-five, the story turns into a highly improbable and unlikely “what if” fabrication. What if Napoléon had had enough of war, what if he took on the Russian army again, what if nobody in France had had enough of him and had not plotted against him while he was in Moscow, what if …, what if …, what if. In short: the reader is expected to forget all about facts and swallow this fiction.

The novel’s hero is François Beille. His family supported the King, but survived the terror. He attended a military academy and is now part of Napoléon’s army. We meet Napoléon and François in Moscow, where Napoleon selects him for a special mission. François is promoted to general and he and his troops are to pretend to be the rear guard of the retreating Grande Armée. This should trick Russian generals into believing the Grande Armée is not where it actually is.

The idea of a French general being ordered to perform such a trick, is an idea which might have been turned into a brilliant adventure story. But such an idea needs a very good author for it to work. For it needs the right balance between fact and fiction, as well as convince a reader into totally forgetting actual history. It also needs pace, action, challenging situations, and totally convincing characters.

The author kind of succeeds during the first fourteen chapters, as these follow historical events – more or less. But even during these fourteen chapters, the reader already has a problem accepting the mix of fact and too much fiction. After page 194, things go downhill very fast and do not improve even on the very last page 383.

The retreat is orderly. The army has no problems crossing the Berezina. Napoléon and his Grande Armée are able to beat the Russian Army again. Napoléon has not fled to Paris leaving his army to fend for itself. Our hero Beille even arrests the fleeing Kutuzov and Platov. In Warsaw, the reader does come across the countess Walewska – but no hint of what took place between Napoléon and her. No, there is no revolt going on in Paris and Napoléon abdicates of his own free will. There is no Elba and no St Helena. Josephine does die, but never meets Czar Alexander. Her son Eugene is nominated regent untill the King of Rome will become of age. Even the Congress of Vienna never took place. Oh: and of course women swoon at the feet of Beille. Bah!

If this is the kind of make-believe fib you like, feel free to waste your time reading this novel. I will probably ultimately forgive myself for buying this pocket second-hand for 3.50 Euro.

If you’re interested in an account of the Grand Armée and the Russian Campaing, there are far, far better reads. Valéry Giscard d’ Estaing mentions one of these as a source: Adam Zamoyski’s “1812, Napoleon’s Fatal March On Moscow”. Having read this some time ago, I can certainly recommend it wholeheartedly.

Valéry Giscard d’Estain also mentions personal accounts of people who actually were in the Grande Armée as sources for his historical fib. There are plenty of these autobiographies and eye-witness accounts available, written by soldiers of the Grande Armée, either in the original language or translations. However, I’ve not read the one the author mentions: the journal of Anatole de Montesquiou-Fézensac, one of Napoléon’s aide-de-camps. Try to find the accounts by General Druout, de Caulincourt, von Brandt, or Lieutenant Mertens, and many ordinary soldiers.

So instead of reading “La Victoire de la Grande Armée“, you might be far better off spending your time reading Adam Zamoyski’s books, or real accounts by people who actually took part in and witnessed Napoleon’s Russian campain and its aftermath.

“La Victoire de la Grande Armée”, Valéry Gisgard d’Estaing, 2010, is also available in Kindle version.
“1812: Napoléon’s Fatal March on Moscow”, Adam Zamoyski, Harper Collins, 644 pp, first published 2004, is available through Amazon.

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