"Different books have different motivating forces behind them. A trilogy that has taken twenty-five years to write must have had a very special motive. And I believe this was my abiding obsession with the mystery of nine and space.
The place remains. The events, actions and people that happened there have vanished. This, I believe, is the metaphysical hook every historian is caught on. The only core is to try to reconstitute some long-vanished conjunction of time and place.
There are two basic ways of doing this. One is to take some historical event/place and, after properly researching the 'documents' (runestones, fragments of old uniforms, or what have you), to use one's (informed) imagination to invent might-have-been actors and events. The results can be quite satisfactory, in their way.
The other procedure is the opposite: to invent nothing, hardly even a phrase, and certainly neither events nor persons. But resurrect them - in their own words.
This is what I have done in my three volumes - The March on Moscow, Napoleon in Moscow, and The Great Retreat - with altogether 160 people of the many thousands who made up the Grande Armee, doomed to annihilation in 1812. Though thousands and thousands didn't get back, almost all of my 'cameramen' did. By weaving their verbatim accounts together, I thought, and without any impertinent comments of my own (after all I wasn't there), I might be able to reconstitute, as authentically as ever can be done, six months of vanished time.
Naturally I have had to take my thousands of vivid fragments, longer or shorter, snip them and put them together in what I came to think of as a 'marching order', and generally help the reader not to go astray.
I have read almost no histories, not even Thiers. lndeed, after this twentyfive year effort to piece together my 'word-film', I have become profoundly skeptical of historians. Like those of my own witnesses who aspired to being real authors (Stendhal, Segur), the more readable they are, the less historically reliable they tend to be! I have just let the immense events, beyond the wildest imaginings, constitute their own drama.
The other day I re-read in print a chapter of The March on Moscow, concerning the 6th of September 1812, when the French and their Allies at last draw up in battle order at Borodino, in front of the Russian guns that are preparing to blow them to pieces the next day: 'A strange thing, modern battles,' soliloquies Sgt-Maj. Auguste Thirion of the 2nd Cuirassiers:
'Two armies gradually turn up on a piece of ground, place themselves symmetrically facing each other, their artillery 100 meters to the front. All these preliminaries are carried out with barrack-square precision. From one army to the other are heard the commanders' sonorous voices. In a lugubrious silence you see being turned toward you the mouths of the guns which are going to send you death.'
Fezensac (one of Berthier's brilliant aides-de-camp) is also finding, something sad and imposing in the appearance of these two armies preparing to cut each others' throats. 'All the regiments had been given orders to put on their parade uniforms, as if for a holiday.'
The thought struck me that my ambition, perhaps unconsciously, has been to drag my reader by the scruff of his neck to a specific time and place. There. Then.
The effect is almost creepy. No-one who was there that drizzly cold hungry September day, with the Russian guns tidily drawn up in front of him, would ever forget it. The diary jottings, even the later memories, bear the stamp of an unforgettable immediacy. My Napoleonic soldiers become literary artists, one and all.
And I have had 160 of them, of all ranks, from Master-of-the Horse Caulaincourt (Napoleon's left-hand man) down to obscure little Swiss voltigeur Jean-Marc Bussy, to write my 1,000 pages of text for me, shoot every frame of my 'word-film'. If the result is enthralling it is them the reader should thank: for being there."
1812: The Great Retreat now published, concludes Paul Britten Austin's magnificent trilogy. The first two books, already available, are 1812: The March on Moscow and 1812: Napoleon in Moscow.
Other related titles include:
ARMS AND THE WOMAN by Baron Boris UXKULL
CAMPAIGN OF 1812 AND THE RETREAT FROM MOSCOW by Hilaire BELLOC
CAMPAIGN OF 1812 IN RUSSIA by CLAUSEWITZ
FRENCH INVASION OF RUSSIA by General Sir Robert WILSON
HISTORY OF THE EXPEDITION TO RUSSIA by SEGUR
NAPOLEON 1812 by Nigel NICOLSON
NAPOLEON'S RUSSIAN CAMPAIGN by FOORD
WITH NAPOLEON IN RUSSIA by General de CAULAINCOURT