Tolstoy began writing War and Peace in 1863, just over fifty years after the Napoleonic invasion of Russia and the catastrophic retreat of the Grande Armée. Though the novel opens in July 1805, and Tolstoy carries the story well into the 1820s, most of the narrative centers on the events of 1812, culminating in the horrific battle of Borodino and the evacuation of Moscow. As Adam Zamoyski notes in his superb 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow (2004)—easily the best recent account of the whole savage fiasco—the engagement at Borodino “had been the greatest massacre in recorded history, not to be surpassed until the first day of the Somme in 1916.” The Russian army lost half of its fighting men in that encounter; the entire French cavalry was, in Zamoyski’s words, “all but destroyed.” In War and Peace, Tolstoy described the slaughter at Borodino unforgettably in all its...


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