Category Archives: Book reviews

Borodino by Alexander Mikaberidze

This book (published in 2007) has become the definitive book on the great battle of 1812, as the Russians downloadsought to stop Napoleon as he approached Moscow. It is not quite the biggest or bloodiest battle of the era – but it wasn’t until the First World War that as many combatants were killed in a single day.  It lies almost at the point when Napoleon’s military career turned from triumph to disaster. Both sides claimed victory. Tactically the French had the better of the day – with the Russians abandoning the field overnight. But the Russian army was unbroken, and soon enough turned the tables on the French.

One of the many recent developments in the writing of Napoleonic history has been the availability of Russian sources. The Russians kept rather extensive records, perhaps contrary to western European prejudices. However in the Soviet era history was regarded as a purely political exercise. Access was restricted only to historians who would offer a politically correct version of events – which meant glorifying the Russian achievement rather than trying understand what happened and why. Mr Mikaberidze examines the sources afresh, as well as giving interesting details on the historiography of the battle.

The book mainly focuses on the events of the the three days: the battle of Shevardino on 5 September, the main battle on 7 September, and the moves on the day in between. Events leading up to the battle, and after it, are covered only briefly – though he does review the criticism of Barclay and his replacement by Kutusov in some depth. The point of view is distinctly Russian, which compensates for the distinctly French-sided view of earlier histories in English – reflecting the availability of sources, as well as the language skills of British and American historians. Which is not to say that the French-Allied side of things is neglected in this book.

What the book does best is to analyse each episode. He describes the various accounts, and then evaluates which he thinks is closer to the truth. This is good, solid history. He doesn’t follow the fashion of adding colourful novel-like descriptions of events, filling in the missing bits from his imagination. Or the alternative fashion of relying too heavily and uncritically on eye-witness accounts to carry the narrative. He does quote eye-witnesses extensively – and this gives a lot of colour – but he evaluates them too. Controversies are dealt with in some depth. By the way various myths are dealt with – for example that the early death of Russian artillery commander Kutaisov meant that many Russian reserve batteries were never deployed. This is just untrue.

If the book has a failing, it is that the analysis does not go up a level. I find two issues of particular of interest. The first was Napoleon’s conduct. Mr Mikaberidze pretty much accepts the standard view that had Napoleon been more vigorous he could have achieved a much more decisive result, missing more than one opportunity – most famously not committing the Guard, but also exploiting some of his earlier success more decisively. Interestingly this view is not shared by the great military philosopher Clausewitz – who was actually at the battle, working for the Russians as a staff officer. This is quite interesting. What would have been the practical outcome of a “more decisive” result? It would not have hastened the capture of Moscow, which Napoleon thought would end the war. Neither, on the way things actually worked out, would it have made much difference to the catastrophe that enveloped the French later. It might have taken a little longer; the French might have got a few more men out. Would these extra achievements have warranted extra risk or damage to the Allied army? A discussion on this would have been illuminating – and may have gone some way to explaining Napoleon’s apparent apathy. He surely was physically ill – but perhaps he saw no reason to rise above that. The reason that the French Empire’s glory days were behind it was less perhaps that his generalship deteriorated, and more that his opponents made fewer mistakes.

A second question I find of interest, given my interest in simulation – though it’s not one that I have seen discussed properly anywhere – is the discrepancy in losses between the two sides. The French-Allied losses across the two days of battle were in the region of 35,000 men from an army of over 130,000. The Russians had a similar number of men, or perhaps more, although it included 30,000 or so Opolchenye – militia of much diminished military value, that was not heavily engaged – but their losses were significantly higher – perhaps as many as 45,000. Given that they adopted a defensive posture, this raises the question of why they suffered higher losses. A similar discrepancy does not emerge in the great battles on the Marchfeld against the Austrians in 1809. The Russian tendency to use dense formations in the face of artillery fire is often mentioned – but the French clearly attacked in dense formations as well. To me it speaks of the highly effective use of artillery by the French army in support of its attacks – though it is still a bit of a mystery. It also is striking that no major formation on either side broke. This may reflect the nature of the fighting, as much as the motivation of the troops.

These are quibbles though. There is a lot of material in the book that will allow simulators to gauge the realism of their models. This book inspires me to take this battle on as a future project. Even if hat will not be for some time to come!

A Bold and Ambitious Exercise – the British in the low countries in 1813-1814

This book covers a neglected episode in the Napoleonic wars: the British Bergen-op-Zoomexpedition to the low countries (on the modern Dutch-Belgian border), which had its climax in a disastrous attack on the fortified town of Bergen-op-Zoom. It is written by Andrew Bamford, and it is a thoroughly competent work. It forms an intriguing backdrop to the Waterloo campaign rather over a year later.

There isn’t a huge amount of history to tell. The book briefly covers an earlier episode when British troops cooperated with Wallmoden’s force, including the battle of Gohdre. There were three actions of significance. Two attacks on the Antwerp suburb of Merxem, and the attack on Bergen-op-Zoom. Mainly the book is about the dealings with the nascent government of the Netherlands under the Prince of Orange, and various Prussian, Russian and Saxon allies, as well as Bernadotte, as Crown Prince of Sweden. This is an interesting vignette on how allies behave to each other, weigh strategic priorities and behave with incomplete information. The way in which the British scraped together the forces required for the mission, in spite of Wellington’s still raging campaign in Spain and the south of France, as well the USA’s attack on Canada, is also interesting. The force was an odd mix of veterans and raw troops. Its leaders, from Peninsular veteran Graham down, where generally quite capable.

The writing of military history in this era is no longer a mainstream pursuit, and is largely left to enthusiasts and amateurs, with the odd professional whose main expertise is elsewhere. So the quality tends to be very uneven. Mr Bamford handles his task confidently, being able to tackle grand politics down to small-scale tactics with ease. Some of his arguments about who was to blame for what, building on old controversies, is a bit laboured, but overall the book is very well written. Thankfully he resists the temptation to fill in colour (“the sun glinted on the frosted trees, etc. ..” Yuk!). In common with so much British writing, the sources are almost entirely British; for all that it does not feel biased.

I have only a few quibbles with the book. The maps aren’t very good. A strategic map would have been useful; the general map of the campaign area is very bare. The plans of Bergen-op-Zoom are not as helpful as they should be (I can’t tell the difference between ditch or rampart; there are no streets) – though the ones of Merxem are good. On the great battle itself I was left with a puzzle. The most important question to my mind was whether if the largest incursion, made by General Cooke with the Guards, amongst others, had been more active, could the town have been taken? This is mentioned as question, and Cooke’s passivity is criticised – but an analysis of his options and how plausible each was would have been useful. Could he have forced his way through to the Antwerp Gate and secured it?

What else did I get from this book? I am struck with how well even this scratch British force performed, which says a lot for the traditions of the British army. Command broke down in the battle of Bergen-op-Zoom (generals behaving like subalterns was one contemporary criticism), but troops and officers behaved bravely and fought well. I would like to understand a bit more about how this sort of success was achieved.

Another intriguing point is how the political connectedness of the Guards casts a shadow on the writing of history. The conduct of the two senior Guards men, Cooke and Lord Proby, was questionable to say the least. But all the official criticism was heaped on others (especially the dead General Skerett) – and history has tended to follow their lead. And the whole episode is neglected, lest serious questions are posed. Some say that too much glory is given to the Guards at Waterloo (largely the same units – the second battalions) – which seems to reflect the same phenomenon, if with rather less justice. Also that Guards generals (the convention was that Guards could not be led by mere line officers) were often unenterprising, as Cooke was in this case. Proby, who was duly promoted to generalship later, is portrayed as downright defeatist and even (though Mr Bamford does not use the word, I will) cowardly. This Guards immunity is something historians and simulators need to allow for.

The attacks on Merxem lack the meat to make into a good wargame.  The attempt on Bergen-op-Zoom is another matter. It would be hard to do. You would need a much better map of the town than the ones in the book, though. And how you would allow for the fog of war and difficulties in communication I don’t know. But the forces are well balanced, and it should be an exciting game.

Three of the four British attacks gained entry to the town, and the forces on the failed attack were switched rapidly to one of the successful points. That gave the British more troops in the town than the French – but the British did not seem to know what to do once they got in. The French did not understand where the British were coming from at the start, and tended to overreact. But they acted decisively and made use of their central position. These are exactly the elements of a good game.

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Quatre Bras – Prelude to Waterloo.

Field Quatre brasThis book Follows Andrew Field’s book Waterloo – the French Perspective. This in turn follows a book on Talavera. I have read both earlier books. The book on Waterloo was excellent, though I was less impressed with his book on Talavera. And I would recommend this latest book to anybody who wants to understand more about the Waterloo campaign. It does not add all that much on the battle itself, but it still presents one of the most coherent narratives that you will find. It would, however, have worked better as a bigger book, written before rather than after his Waterloo one, and taking in the battle of Ligny.

Mr Field’s chosen angle is to concentrate on French sources. This redresses a gross imbalance in English language accounts, which depend heavily on British witnesses. More recently Germans have been getting the prominence they deserve, and even Dutch sources are being brought into the picture. The problem with focusing on French sources, though is that they are comparatively scarce, and most of those that exist have in fact been quite well used. Indeed it might be said that Mr Field’s job has already been done by Henry Houssaye, the French historian of the late 19th Century, who successfully married British research with a clearly French perspective to produce one of the best accounts of the 1815 campaign. Still further sources have emerged in the subsequent century, and Mr Field’s works offer more depth. But their main value is in the analysis. 19th Century historians can’t resist a rather polemical approach – deriving a lot of energy from attributing blame to this or that individual. Modern tastes are to understand “What happened and why,” to quote A.J.P. Taylor. So it isn’t enough to conclude that Ney, for example, was grossly negligent (or not) – we want to understand why he did what he did. This is the main focus of this work.

French sources on the battle of Quatre Bras itself are few. So few that in his recent book on the battle Mike Robinson ignored the French side of story altogether, to give his dramatic blow by blow account, drawing together individual accounts from British, Netherlands and Brunswick armies. Mr Field’s book serves as a complement. He covers the French side of the battle itself – but he takes a step back to look at the way the campaign evolved, the communications between the French commanders, and their strategic and grand-tactical decisions. Inevitably the marches and countermarches of Drouet d’Erlon’s corps, which failed to intervene in either of the twin battles of Quatre Bras and Ligny, commands much attention. This is thoroughly warranted, as it was one of the most important episodes of the 1815 campaign.

For a wargamer like me, this can be a tad boring. It does throw light on grand tactical communications and decision making – which is part of army level gaming – but you want more of the gritty battle detail. Field’s work here is a bit thin, but what there is is excellent. It is a succinct and coherent. He can fill in the gaps a bit too much with speculation (especially the fighting in the Bois de Bossu), but there’s a strong guiding narrative, backed up by some very clear battle diagrams. Since the French held the initiative for most of the day, you really have to look at their side of the story to try and make sense of it all. So this work is far superior to Mr Robinson’s in overall coherence. He also offers some interesting observations on French tactics – especially the use of skirmishers by the French, and the way their infantry seemed to avoid close combat with the British. For those interested in battle tactics, this is one of the most interesting aspects of an interesting battle.

He is generally convincing on the bigger picture too, pointing out the problems of command in Napoleon’s hastily assembled army. Ney had no time to prepare for the campaign, and started it with a single staff officer. He points out that a lot of the vagueness in and orders was because of incomplete information, and the hope that matters would be clarified in the next hour. Things were no better on the Allied side. He attributes blame for the day’s mistakes quite fairly between Ney, d’Erlon and Napoleon. Any wargamer wanting to model the French army in 1815 should allow that command was not as polished and coherent as it had been in earlier campaigns.

There are some niggles though. Mr Field is an ex-army officer, and is relatively new to serious history. He is getting better at it, but a certain lack of confidence still manifests itself. Some of his points end up being a bit laboured. He is also not as steeped in Napoleonic military matters as long-term wargamers like me (though slicker and more professional historians make mistakes too). For example he seem to think that French light Infantry regiments were specially trained light infantry on the British model. In fact they operated on the same tactical doctrines as all French infantry, where all infantry were expected to cover both light and line duties – though by tradition the Light regiments were favoured for light infantry tasks. Also I think a deeper understanding of tactics would arise by studying theatres where the British were not involved – a common failing for British historians.

Speaking of which, the battle of Ligny is a bit of hole in the account, when it is trying to take a strategic view of events. I think the work would have been more successful if this battle had been brought into scope fully – though it would have made for a longer book. I think there are revealing similarities and contrasts between the two battles – and it would certainly help get a deeper understanding of Napoleon’s views. That’s a quibble though – it is easy enough to understand why he didn’t do so.

A couple of other niggles. One of the crucial points about the day’s events is why Ney did not concentrate the forces on his wing more quickly. Mr Field shows some understanding of this, but I would like to have seen a bit more analysis to get an understanding of how easy this would have been to achieve in practice. A second is that the commentary on tactics could have been deeper – though he already goes further than many authors. In particular I’m not entirely convinced that the French dependence on skirmishers was purely a tactic to avoid confrontation with the British. Bachelu’s division, in particular, had suffered badly in its first encounter with Picton’s division. Perhaps after this it was simply too weak to consider anything more solid than skirmishing, relying on cavalry to do the rest. French accounts are thin, but an attempt to follow through what happened by regiment and battalion would perhaps reveal more about why things happened the way they did.

But these are minor quibbles in a work that is well worth reading. A century on, some might ask what the point is of yet more historical writing on the campaign. The answer is that so much of what has been written is formulaic and simply rehashes the work of its predecessors. There are too many ripping yarns and gratuitous controversies – and not enough of what happened and why. I am glad to say that Andrew Field’s work is about these last questions.