South African Military 
History Society


Newsletter No. 505
March 2018

Roy Bowman
Land-line; 031 564 4669
Mobile; 084-951 2921

The Chairman, Roy Bowman welcomed members and visitors to the February meeting and remarked how pleased he was at the number of visitors there were for the night and hoped that they would become members and enjoy all of the benefits of membership. He then welcomed new member Andrew de Souza.

He called for a minutes silence to remember the recently deceased member Dr. Lynn Graham Coggin and the members who had passed away during December 2017.

The members were reminded of the upcoming AGM at the meeting of 12th April 2018.

On Saturday 3rd February members of the KZN Branch joined a group named Durban Beset on a walk from NMR HQ to the historical edifice of Natal Command and the site of the gun batteries at Battery Beach before returning to NMR HQ and the stories of NMR and the historic buildings that they occupy which used to be the old Stamford Hill Aerodrome. The members were asked if they felt that the event gave value to those who are interested in the military history of Durban and the answer was an overwhelming positive.

He then welcomed Mark Coghlan (PhD) and asked him to present his talk “Moscow Tram Stop – Do we learn from History?”

‘”Before a month is out we shall be in Moscow; in six weeks we shall have peace.”’

(Napoleon Bonaparte, Smolensk, August 1812, cited in Armand de Caulaincourt, With Napoleon in Russia, p78)

The German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 was by far the largest military campaign in World War II, itself by the far the most extensive conflict in history. Was this the advent of Total War? Had trench warfare and the massive offensives of World War I marked the advent of Total War? Not so, asserts David Bell, who sees modern Total War’s genesis in the Napoleonic Wars. In Bell’s view, ‘nothing illustrates the implacable logic of Total War more than Napoleon’s decision to attack Russia.’ (p256) A perfect-storm combination that included ‘imperial overstretch’, lack of a defined military goal, and the enormous expansion in the size of armies and battles to unmanageable proportions, proved the undoing of the Napoleonic genius. Napoleon’s Grande Armée that assembled in June 1812 was to date, and until the Wehrmacht gathered in June 1941, the largest ever assembled in European history. In 1812 Total War concluded with a comment on ‘an army transformed into a starving, skeletal, lice-ridden, barely human mass, covered in motley rags, its eyes blank and hopeless.’

HUBRIS (1941 and 1812): Underestimating the Opposition

The term ‘hubris’ is the sub-title to the second volume of Ian Kershaw’s magisterial biography of Adolf Hitler, and has also been applied to numerous military commanders and conquest scenarios throughout history. Alistair Horne deploys the term in the title of his book, Hubris: The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century (2015). Horne covers only five battles or campaigns, and one is Moscow 1941: General Summer and General Winter. Hubris means overbearing pride and presumption, or arrogance that leads to downfall and ruin. In the summer of 1941 Hitler confidently assumed he would sweep the Red Army before him. Within four years his Third Reich was destroyed. In 1812 Napoleon assumed much the same thing, yet less than two years later his empire lay in ruins.

Both had reason to be over-confident: Hitler had indeed swept all before him, especially in Europe, while since 1793 Napoleon had essentially done the same. He undoubtedly possessed a particular brilliance as a military leader and earned an almost mythical aura akin to Erwin Rommel in World War II. Fueled by victories such as Austerlitz in 1805 where he defeated a combined force of Austrians and the selfsame Russians he was to face in 1812, he was deemed by most to be unstoppable. Hitler may have earned his place in Hubris, but it was Napoleon’s ill-advised foray into Russia in 1812 that earned him a spot in History’s Worst Decisions and the People who Made Them (2010). Bear in mind that this is quite a select club – there are only 50 names on the list!

Napoleon also harboured contempt for the Slavic ‘barbarians’ of Europe’s borderlands, a contempt that Hitler was to emulate. Politically Napoleon also underestimated Tsar Alexander I, and the latter, to his credit, realizing he was no martial match for the French Emperor, didn’t seek to take the military reins in the manner that the German Fuhrer did with such disastrous consequences. Alexander ‘fought smart’. Napoleon thrived on quick decisive military victories. The Russian Tsar instead wore him down with a masterly defensive strategy, avoiding big battles where Napoleon excelled, and utilizing the vast expanse his country offered, as well as its seemingly inexhaustible manpower reserves. This strategy was, nevertheless, unpopular at the time. The consequence, especially in terms of retreat, was also to lead to a scorched-earth devastation of European Russia. Ironically, in the light of the almost exterminatory race war of 1941-1945, Alexander boasted numerous Germans in his ranks, especially in positions of command, and they mostly performed with distinction. Also serving in the Russian ranks was Karl von Clausewitz, the most renowned military theoretician of the Nineteenth Century. Curiously, the other great military thinker of that age, Antonie de Jomini, was serving on the French side!


In both 1812 and 1941 the images of French and German columns trudging and dying in the sub-zero snowbound Russian winter wastes, have come to epitomize Barbarossa and the Campaign of 1812. However, both invasions commenced in the baking heat of summer, Napoleon’s on 24 June 1812, and Hitler’s on 22 June 1941, and for the French infantrymen, at any rate, that soon meant a descent into parched torment. Both armies, over a century apart, assumed quick victory and hadn’t counted on being on the Russian steppes in the depths of bitter winters. They were woefully ill-equipped, in terms of clothing, equipment, strategy and tactics, and paid the price.


The French martial maestro finally, on 7 September 1812, got his set-piece battle – at the village of Borodino, 124 kilometres west of Moscow. Napoleon’s mission wasn’t so much about the conquest of territory (Hitler’s was arguably more so), but the destruction of the Russian armies. However, Borodino, as a defensive engagement for the Russians didn’t suit the French flair for the battle of manoeuvre. Consequently, the problem for Napoleon at Borodino was that, albeit a narrow and hard-won French victory, the Russian armies hadn’t been destroyed, denying the French Emperor the necessary leverage to secure political submission. It was a bit like the Germans encircling and capturing entire Soviet armies in the summer of 1941 – great, but not decisive.


Napoleon confidently assumed that in occupying Moscow, especially following Borodino, which he duly did on 15 September 1812 (setting up residence in the Kremlin), would compel Tsar Alexander to sue for peace, handing him victory. He had convinced himself that Alexander was ‘fickle and feeble’. He wasn’t. To his mounting consternation, Alexander did nothing of the kind. While abandoning Moscow was painful for the Russians, especially when most of the City burned to the ground, its defence wasn’t a priority. If the Germans had occupied Moscow in late 1941, would Stalin and the Soviet Union have surrendered? Probablynot. This is one of the tantalizing counterfactual scenarios that historians toy with. Many students of World War II are also familiar with the Soviet adoption of the rallying cry of the Patriotic War. Fewer, perhaps, realize that Alexander had similarly exhorted his people in 1812, mobilizing Russian society. Although they were both autocratic regimes, the main difference was that in co-opting this call-to-arms the Soviets, and Soviet historiography, focused almost exclusively on the heroic Russian people (the ‘patriotic masses’) rather than on the aristocratic military leadership in Tsar Alexander’s Russia, and the Romanov dynasty and that they themselves had overthrown. There were also analogies made between Russian partisan warfare in 1812 and 1941. Another curious factoid is that, while Hitler and Stalin never met in person, Napoleon and Alexander did, most notably on 15 June 1807, on a raft moored in the River Nieman.


Napoleon lingered in Moscow for little over a month, a few fatal weeks too long, awaiting in vain Tsar Alexander’s confidently anticipated peace overtures. Historians have debated whether the Russians, in ‘allowing’ Napoleon to occupy Moscow had effectively set a trap. Napoleon was very astute – why didn’t he spot it? Hubris. Was Hitler likewise duped? As it also turned out, the Grand Armée was much less adept at retreating than advancing. Could the same be said of the Germans in World War II? They did fight on for another four years. Finally, on 19 October, he departed and headed back westwards and into the clutches of General Winter. A rearguard that departed on the 23rd blew up the Kremlin for good measure. The first snow arrived in early November. Once Napoleon’s Grande Armée limped across the River Nieman and out of European Russia, the French Emperor had lost 370 000 men killed and 200 000 prisoners. Fewer than 20 000 survived to serve him again. On 18 December 1812 the Emperor himself arrived back in Paris, his capital.

In 1813 and 1814 Russia joined a coalition with Prussia and Austria to take the offensive against Napoleon. In a curious and prescient irony, Russian forces entered Berlin on 4 March 1813, but on this occasion to a tremendous reception. They were, after all, liberating the Berliners from French occupation. It was to be very different in 1945!

A popular adage states that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and one, Adolf Hitler, a victim of hubris, failed to learn from another creator, and victim, of history, Napoleon, and did just that. One man who could have cautioned Hitler in 1941, had the Fuhrer bothered to consult his memoirs, With Napoleon in Russia, was General Armand de Caulaincourt (1773-1827), Duke of Vicenza, who in 1802 had been appointed an aide-de-camp to the then First Consul. His perceptive insight into the events of 1812 had been heightened by an assignment as French ambassador to St Petersburg. De Caulaincourt was able to get away with often very direct advice to the Emperor as well as daring admonitions, but was seldom able to change his master’s obstinate mind.

De Caulaincourt sought repeatedly, but in vain, to warn his master not to underestimate Alexander or the Russians. Before the invasion even got underway, Napoleon’s arrogant self-assurance was predicting easy victory. A few months later his aide-de-camp commented dolefully that it ‘looked as if we were fated in this cruel campaign to suffer all the most infuriating reverses of which Fortune is capable.’ He was even more specific with regard to General Winter: ‘What I have related about the effects of extreme cold, and of this kind of death by freezing, is based on what I saw happen to thousands of individuals. The road was covered with their corpses.’

A Final Summation

In both 1812 and 1941 Russia wore down the finest military forces of their respective times, assisted on both occasions by space and climate, and then counterattacked with devastating effect. The French and Armand de Caulaincourt didn’t know what hit them, and in 1941 the Germans and Heinrich Haape didn’t either.

A Footnote for Historians: The historian’s reconstruction and interpretation of events during 1812 tends to rely heavily on the recollections of the educated aristocracy who commanded the vast armies. The usually illiterate peasantry who, for example, would have furnished the bulk of the Russian Army in 1812-1814, left only two written memoirs for this entire period.

The Chairman then invited questions from the audience which invoked a number of questions regarding the comparison set.

A 5 minute recess was called after which guest speaker Peter Williams was invited to tell the audience about, “32 Battalion – my formative years”.

Peter recounted many stories about his experiences about his time during the Border War with 32 Battalion. Unfortunately at the time of publishing no copy of his talk has been received. If and when it does turn up it will be included in a supplementary newsletter.

There was a vigorous question and answer session before the Chairman called on Maj. Gen. (Ret) Chris le Roux to present the Vote of Thanks from the audience.

The Chairman then announced the talks for 8th March.

The DDH will be presented by Professor Philip Everitt and is entitled, “No Known Grave – South African Infantry, September 1917”.

The Main talk will be presented by the inimitable, Professor Donal McCracken and his subject will be “Brigadier General John Nicholson”.

Roy Bowman

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South African Military History Society /