In the Service of the Tsar Against Napoleon:

The Memoirs of Denis Davidov, 1806–1814

Translated and Edited by Gregory Troubetzkoy

London: Greenhill Books, 1999

Review by J. David Markham

 

In an era of dashing young military heroes, Denis Davidov was a hero’s hero. He was, in some senses, a Renaissance Warrior: a man comfortable with the men on a battlefield, in a camp singing and telling stories, with the aristocratic leaders who were often both his friend and foe, and also comfortable in his continuous pursuit of ladies. Most unusually, and here is the essence of his Renaissance nature, Davidov was not only a warrior but was also a wonderful writer. His poetry and his prose were each popular in Russia in measure equal to his military heroism. Davidov was such an unusual man of his time that none other than Tolstoy used him as a model for the devil-may-care character Denisov in War and Peace. The great Russian poet Pushkin also remembered him, referring to him as a singer and a hero.

 

Until now, Davidov’s words were available only to readers of Russian. Now, thanks to the efforts of Gregory Troubetzkoy, they are brought to life in English. And to life they are indeed brought. Translation is not a science, but an art, and a bad translation can kill words as easily as a good translation can enliven them. This is an excellent translation: Davidov’s humor, insight, and emotion literally pour from the pages of this book.

 

Davidov was in some ways a rough individual, as he came through the ranks and made his reputation as a leader of irregular partisan guerrilla groups. He found it difficult to adhere to the more standard discipline of regular units. Yet he had a civilized, romantic nature about him as well. The campaign of 1812 was bitterly fought, and seen by many Russians as something of a holy war. As a result, prisoners were not always taken, especially by the partisan groups. Davidov was always careful, however, to obtain receipts for his prisoners, and he treated them with respect.

 

One of the funnier stories shows this civilized approach as well as Davidov’s humor. After a discussion of the Bashkir, horsemen who still fought with bows and arrows, he continues:

 

During the course of an exchange of fire, we took prisoner a French lieutenant colonel whose name I have now forgotten. To this officer’s ill-fortune, nature had bestowed on him a nose of extraordinary size, and to make matters worse, this nose had been shot through with an arrow which was embedded to half its length. We helped the lieutenant colonel down from his horse and set him on the ground so that we could free him of this distressing adornment.

 

A few Bashkirs were among the curious people who gathered around the sufferer. Our medic grabbed a saw and prepared to cut the arrow in two so as to remove it painlessly from either side of the enormous pierced nose, when one of the Bashkirs recognised the weapon as one of his own and seized the medic by both hands.

‘No,’ said he, ‘my good sir, I won’t let you cut my arrow. Don’t offend me, sir. Please don’t. It is my arrow. I’ll take it out myself.’

‘Are you raving?’ we said to the fellow. ‘How will you get it out?’

‘Well, sir, I’ll take one end and pull it out, and the arrow will stay in one piece.’

‘And the nose?’ we inquired.

‘And the nose,’ he answered, ‘the devil take it!’

You can imagine the roar of laughter that greeted his words. Meanwhile, the French officer, not understanding a word of Russian, was trying to guess what was going on. He begged us to chase the Bashkir away, which we did; the affair was settled, and in the end the French nose triumphed over the Bashkir arrow.

 

Even in his youth, Davidov was aware of the political and other considerations that sometimes overrode the ideals and single-mindedness of youthful fervor. Just before the peace of Tilsit, he was informed of impending peace. At first, he was not pleased, as he wanted to avenge the Russian loss at the Battle of Friedland. When he saw the people who were close to his commander, however, he understood the reality of the situation:

 

I galloped over to headquarters. There were crowds of people there: Englishmen, Swedes, Prussians, French Royalists, Russian military and civil servants who knew nothing of either military or civil service, men of intrigue and without employment. It resembled a market-place for political and military speculators whose previous hopes, plans and actions had already thrown them into bankruptcy…

I looked around at the fashionable crowd that had gathered, reflecting that these were the very people who were recently so confident that Napoleon could be easily defeated…With hangers-on such as these, how could we even think of continuing our struggle with the enemy? I had stumbled into the midst of what was to me a new world – people who lived under a real roof, never giving a thought to what might be happening on the battlefield. How different from the world I had left a couple of hours ago, where men spent their time under open skies, facing bullets and cannonballs, geared up for endless fighting.

 

Davidov’s reputation mostly stems from his leadership of the Partisan activities against Napoleon’s army in the 1812 Russian campaign. While it must be said that much of his success came against stragglers and soldiers weakened by the awful conditions experienced during the withdrawal from Russia, it is also true that his efforts, using only a few hundred mounted horsemen at a time, caused the French army a great deal of difficulty. His success must be measured not only in terms of casualties inflicted, but also in terms of the psychological damage done to those who survived. Davidov’s descriptions of his 1812 campaign activities make for some of the best reading of that nature, and present a very different picture from that normally read by western readers.

 

Davidov was a true Russian hero whose efforts, especially in 1812, were instrumental to Russian success. But it is his writing ability that brings his campaigns–and his insight–to life, and presents a view of this period only now available to the English–speaking public. Thanks to Troubetzkoy’s lively translation, amateur and serious historians alike will want to read this book.