Friday, 22 November 2013

Taken Prisoner By Cossacks

The adventures of Albrecht Nicolaas van Aerssen in Russia provide a nice insight into the less glorious part of Napoleonic warfare that is often glanced over. Albrecht is an ambitious Dutch officer in the army of the French emperor that marches into Russia in the summer of 1812. As winter comes the Russian army counterattacks and Albrecht is wounded in battle and later captured by Cossacks.

From that moment he enters a continuous struggle for survival. He needs to relocate frequently in search of better places to let his wound heal. After a few weeks he receives a regular subsistence fee from the Russian government, which does make things easier. In small groups he moves on, but it´s tough going where everybody has to think of himself in the end, just like the monks and civilians where he finds shelter.

The book is especially interesting because between the lines it portrays a society in which nobles and bourgeois from different countries (even enemies) have more in common with each other than with their poorer compatriots. There is an occasional sense of embarrassment as Albrecht spews his views on the ugly Russian serfs and the practices of Jewish traders where he is quartered. On the other hand he is treated with full honours by the Russian gentry and officers. Of course the rank and file of the French army are not treated as well, but that doesn´t seem to bother him.

This insight has been preserved for us through the notes that Van Aerssen made in captivity. Their sudden ending and the questions that leaves us is part of the charm. Some of those questions are answered by the author, his greatgrandson, who provides a broad introduction. That is helpful, because Albrecht wrote his notes for his family, who of course knew the background already.

All in all a nice and appealing book that gives a human face to a conflict involving more than a million Europeans.

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