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The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier Paperback – February 1, 1993

4.2 out of 5 stars 33 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Of the half - million men who invaded Russia in Napoleon's army in June 1812, barely 25,000 survived. One who did was the author of this diary, Jakob Walter (1788-1864), a German private soldier from Westphalia. First conscripted in 1806, he was recalled to duty in 1809 and again in 1812. Walter's writing is unemotional and non-interpretive; he describes straightforwardly what he experienced. The account of the 1812 campaign--Napoleon's march on Moscow and inglorious retreat--takes up three-quarters of this short volume and constitutes its most interesting portion. In a chronicle of progressive demoralization, Walter observes how the instinct for self-preservation, under the pressure of Cossack attacks and treachery by erstwhile allies, leads to savagery among Napoleon's troops. The common-soldier perspective is rare among the mass of material left by veterans of the 1812 campaign and the book will be of interest to the general reader as well as the scholar. This edition includes six short letters home by other German soldiers in the Grand Army, all less interesting than Walter's diary. Raeff is professor of Russian studies at Columbia University. Illustrated.
Copyright 1991 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Library Journal

More memoir than diary, this slim volume contains the reminiscences of a young German conscript into the army of Napoleon in the campaigns of 1806, 1807, 1809, and 1812-13. As such, it represents one of the few historical documents that portray the life and death of common soldiers of the period. As the army fought its way back and forth across Eastern Europe, young Walter encountered Poles, Russians, Jews, and other groups, and his descriptions of his interactions with these "others" illuminates attitudes and prejudices of German troops of the period. The firsthand description of the retreat of a starving army from Moscow and the attendant breakdown of discipline and morale will interest military historians as well. Walter's book is reminiscent of Guy Sajer's World War II memoir The Forgotten Soldier ( LJ 12/15/70) and should be popular with a similar audience; it belongs in libraries with Napoleonic history or fiction collections.-- Stanley Planton, Ohio Univ.
Chillicothe Lib.
Copyright 1991 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (February 1, 1993)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140165592
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140165593
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.5 x 7.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #219,207 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By A Customer on July 28, 1997
Format: Paperback
This diary reads very fast, maybe not so much because it's a small book with large-ish text but more because it is written with surprising skill-- surprising considering the author was a Napoleonic "foot" soldier, a non-officer (i.e. a common man that most likely had little access to a "quality" education). Walter himself mentions that many of the people he meets on his journey to Moscow are without any schooling whatever, even the simplest of religious teachings, and that many children can not read or write. That realization obviously attests to Walter's own level of learning compared to the average citizen, and Walter's writing is obviously well above that level -- even if it does not approach genius -- making this work very accessible.
What I appreciated most about this diary was the point of view, that of the poor, starving, battered, exhausted soldier in the ranks, which serves as a definite counterpoint to a commanding officer's battlefield or campaign memories. Reading an account by a Napoleonic general's aide on the building of bridges to cross a river during the Moscow retreat and reading Walter's impression of the same event is quite enlightening. The general's experience, one of honor, valor and sacrifice, seems world's away from Walter's experience of horror, squalor and pointless death. Without placing one account or type of account above the other in terms of "rightness," I view it as extremely valuable to be exposed to both.
Still, as interesting as this work is, it is necessary to point out that many, very many, of Walter's observations and assertions, particularly those involving his own motives, are questionable.
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By Edward on January 27, 2005
Format: Paperback
An outstanding book for anyone interested in history. Although it was somewhat common for politicians, generals and admirals to keep logs, it was extremely rare for a person of lower rank to write anything. Mainly because few of them could read or write.

The main part of the book and by far the most interesting is the authors diary of Napoleon's march into Russia during 1812. Nearly half of million men entered Russia. Jakob details the problems of such a large army and the lack of food. The Russians were destroying everything whilst in retreat. These problems however were nothing compared to that which was to come after the army left Moscow to return home. Only 25,000 from 500,000 survived. Jakob barely got out alive despite the hunger, attacks from other soldiers in his own army and the Cossack raids onto the rear of the retreating army.

The book was not written as a daily diary. That was just not possible. Jakob wrote the diary years later. The main item that stands out is that he details the facts without clouding the images with any political views or emotions.

I truly wish that there were more books of this nature by the common solider or sailor.
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Format: Paperback
I had absolutely no knowledge of war in general or of this era but just happened upon this book and found it a totally compelling read. Absolutely fascinating. Keep in mind too that I am female, college educated (engineering/art) but one who avoided all history and related classes like the plague in high school & college--but I truely enjoyed this book and it made a huge impact on my mind. I plan to insist that my children read it. It certainly makes one thankful for what one enjoys in our society today.
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Format: Paperback
Obviously the reader below my comments have no idea of what was like being someone who have little education and being conscripted to a foreign army on an insane path of conquest of Russia by a human being many Europeans and Englishs considered as "The Little Monster", aka Napoleon. This footsoldier was just a man who just observed the long journey of the Grande Armee, taking only what he knew and understood without any intellectual pretentious babbles commonly founded in other books written by highly educated scholars and researchers. The book was the perspective of a simple soldier jutting notes based on his casual observations. So it's worth reading it. I think this reader below should take a lesson in history for himself.
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Format: Paperback
At this time, just two centuries past, Napoleon led the Grand Armee in his most ambitious conquest. A massive force of approximately 600,000 French and allied troops crossed the Polish border in June of 1812. All summer long, the campaign was an overwhelming success, driving the Russian army before it, ...until Napoleon occupied the burnt-out remains of Moscow in the fall. With no shelter or adequate supplies, Napoleon was forced to withdraw. Only a small fraction of Napoleon's army survived the miserable retreat out of Russia...

This is the reminiscence of Jakob Walter, a German enlisted-man who survived not only this infamous expedition, but several shorter campaigns in the years prior to 1812. The bulk of the retrospective centers on the ordeal of trekking westward back to Germany. With the onset of winter (which was exceptionally cold that year, ...even for Russia), all discipline vanished amongst the ranks. Walter describes the various precautions taken toward ensuring one's survival, particularly the advantage of acquiring (stealing) a horse, ...for as long as the horse survived, or until it was stolen from you. Small groups attempted to cooperate for mutual protection, but most of the retreating mass were simply surviving day to day on an individual level. Units of Cossack cavalry and Russian partisans harassed the army endlessly well into Poland, ...but most of Napoleon's soldiers were preyed upon by those who wore the same uniform, or that of their "allies".

So they marched homeward, in sub-zero temperatures, with sparce shelter or none at all, very little food, and the hourly potential threat of a violent death at the hands of either the enemy or your own comrades-in-arms.
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