Category Archives: Book reviews

Nafziger’s 1813 trilogy: a useful resource but a poor history

Back to this blog’s original focus: Napoleonics! My reading about this era has focused mainly on the Waterloo campaign, the Peninsula War (1808 to 1813) and the Austrian campaign of 1809. I have dabbled in other campaigns: Napoleon in Italy 1796/7, Suvarov’s campaign 1799, Marengo 1800, Austerlitz 1805, and Russia 1812. That left a huge gap: the epic Central European campaigns of 1813 (and to a lesser extent the battles in France in 1814). I thought I needed to do something about this, saw an offer on George Nafziger’s three books on the subject, and bought them.

I started the first book, on Lutzen and Bautzen, last year, read the second, centring on the battle of Dresden, during lockdown, and have now finished the third, centring on Leipzig. I have very mixed feelings about the whole experience.

Captain Nafziger is well-known amongst wargamers for his intricate research whose main output is orders of battle for many encounters in Napoleonic and other wars, where he went much deeper than the usual British and French sources. He has also ventured into wider military history, with an account of the 1812 campaign, which I have, and others which I haven’t). Unfortunately his ability to ferret out and absorb multiple sources does not make him a great historian, and this series of books doesn’t show him at his best. His prose is leaden. His editorial choices are rather strange. No detail about which unit was to the left or right of another unit is too small for him to note down, but swathes of more strategic information get left out. His accounts include strings of place names, many of which do not appear on the (usually) sparse maps, and little geographical context is offered. It really is very hard to understand what is going on. The result is that I’m still pretty confused about how the earlier campaign, resulting in the battles of Lutzen and Bautzen, unfolded and why things happened as they did. The other books are generally a bit better, but still very hard going. Occasionally there do seem to errors. I found one case of what looked like the same episode being repeated. There are almost no eye-witness quotations to provide context and atmosphere (though in some ways this is a relief: some modern historians give too many undigested eye-witness accounts, and not enough interpretation).

Occasionally Captain Nafziger’s method works. His account of the prelude to Liepzig, the battle of Liebertwolkwitz, is much clearer than the two versions I had previously read (one by Digby Smith). but mostly it is thoroughly confusing. How accurate is all of this? I suspect him of giving too much credence to French accounts of their own prowess, though he does try to be objective. At Bautzen he describes dreadful execution done by French batteries firing across the river. And yet it was very hard to tally these with what he describes as happening to the Allied troops at the other end (which has a single horse battery being forced to retreat, if I remember correctly). There were other cases where praise for the conduct of French commanders is made for achievements that look quite modest. Where French sources are the main ones available, such as for many of the sieges a the end of the book, the accounts are very lopsided.

There is a lack of strategic commentary. Where he provides it, it reads more like thinking aloud than properly-developed argument. Overall there is a very 19th century feel to his commentary. In this era commentators (including military theorists) felt that Napoleon’s early campaigns (from 1796 to 1805 in particular), with their rapid manoeuvre and decisive battles were the epitome of good generalship, and the standard to which all military leaders should aspire. So they are continually critical of Napoleon’s more “lethargic” later campaigns, and have a good laugh at the floundering grand tactical leadership of the Allies. But war was changing, with massed armies, deficient training and stretched officer cadres. You had to fight wars differently. I suspect many of Napoleon’s “errors” can be explained by such considerations, which, for example, did not allow him to expose the logistical centre of Dresden. And, there is a plausible interpretation of the the Allies’ second campaign, masterminded by the Austrian Prince Schwartzenberg, as being one of the most brilliant of the era. There is a more modern flavour to these campaigns, compared to the more 18th Century earlier campaigns. It reminds me rather of the classic comparison of the generalship of Lee and grant in the American Civil War: one seems to look forward and the other back.

What are the takeaways? First I was right about 1813: this is in many ways the pinnacle of the Napoleonic Wars. In a wargamers’ terms (let’s dance lightly over the pain and suffering) this is very rich source of action – with the two sides remarkably well-matched. The sheer scale of it is clearly one of the big problems the author faced in his account. I might very well like to compare this work unfavourably with such masterpieces as Rory Muir’s book on Salamanca, or Eric Gill’s trilogy on the 1809 campaign – but these were much smaller affairs. It is very strange that these epic battles in 1813 are so weakly covered by English-language historians. Captain Nafziger is to be congratulated on taking such a challenge on. The level of detail in this book will make it a useful resource. But I badly need to read a more strategic account to get a clearer idea of what was happening (there are a couple around).

Incidentally, something rather interesting does emerge from wading through the mass of detail: it is how well the Austrians performed, right up to leadership level. I would go as far as to suggest that they were the most aggressive of the troops in the alliance in the second campaign (they were the freshest of the combatants, so this should to be too surprising). This is a far cry from the standard English language account which suggests that they performed poorly because their heart wasn’t in it. Indeed Austrian and Prussian leadership at corps level seems to be every bit as good as that of Napoleon’s veterans, and often better.

There are some mysteries to me that these books throw up, and which my further reading will address. The first is to get some kind of coherent narrative around the first campaign. I don’t buy the standard account that Napoleon outwitted the Allies and had them on the ropes when the armistice was agreed. After all, why then did Napoleon agree to the armistice? There is surely a strategic narrative that tells a rather different tale. Second is why did the Allies accept battle at Dresden when they realised that Napoleon was there in strength, especially when their deployment was so flawed? Third, was Napoleon really so close to crushing the Army of Bohemia after the Allied calamity of Dresden? And finally how close was Napoleon really to achieving victory against the Army of Bohemia on the first day of Leipzig?

That last needs to be explored in a wargame. I really don’t understand why this part of the battle isn’t attempted more often by wargamers. It’s big, but so is Borodino. And it has everything – Guard units and cuirassiers aplenty on both sides, and lots of drama. There are lots and lots of other wargames ideas to be found in these books (though I in many cases these will require the finding of much better maps). There are a couple of very interesting smaller battles that caught my eye too.

Conclusion. 1813 is where I need to be directing my future energies on Napoleonic wargames, following the realisation of my Ligny project for 1815.

Review: Patton versus the Panzers

This book is written by US author Steven Zaloga, who is an expert on WW2 armoured warfare. As I try to get to grips with warfare in this era, especially in the Western theatre (including Italy), I thought this would be an interesting study. It has indeed given me a lot to think about.

The main purpose of this study is to use a series of battles in 1944 to gain an understanding of the dynamics of tank battles between the US and German forces, and in particular the idea that German tanks were vastly superior to their US counterparts. Somewhere there is a powerful meme that the Americans (or Allies perhaps) lost five Shermans to every Panther they engaged. Mr Zaloga shows that this is nonsense; his main case is that tactical factors determined which side fared better, more than the quality of their tanks.

The subject is a series of encounters between General Patton’s Third Army and an attempted counteroffensive by the Germans, in September 1944, in the French province of Lorraine, near the border with Germany. It is interesting because it is a rare encounter battle between two forces moving forwards, and it stands alongside the bigger Battle of the Bulge as being one of the very few big tank battles that the US Army experienced in Europe in the WW2. In Normandy the Germans concentrated their tanks against the British/Canadian forces. Mr Zaloga concentrates on the main tank engagements, rather than providing a complete picture of the campaign. It starts with two disastrous attacks by the Germans on the US 90th Infantry Division and the French 2nd Armoured Division. The main substance is a series of battles against the US 4th Armored Division around the town of Arracourt. The book is topped and tailed by discussions of US v German armoured clashes and the relative merits of the main tanks involved (the US Sherman and the German Panther and Panzer IV). This includes a contemporary article by an American tanker Lt. Col. Albin Irzyk on why the Sherman was a superior tank to the Panther or Tiger tanks.

The quality of the account follows the availability of the evidence. There is a fair amount of detail on the plans and senior command decisions of either side, and tallies of vehicles involved (quite a few tables, not all of wh9chnadd much value), but not all that much on the tactical detail. There are maps (though the topography is a little hard to make out) and photos of the ground now, as well as what photos there are of the fighting in Lorraine. At this stage in the war the Germans didn’t produce after-action reports, so there is only the sketchiest detail from that side, mainly highly exaggerated claims of tanks knocked out. There is more from the US side, but this is very patchy; I wanted much more detail on what happened, but at least the outcomes of each phase are clear.

The whole episode was a disaster for the Germans in terms of losses, though they did stabilise the front, which had been completely open – though this has as much to do with stretched US supply lines as German action. It has received little attention from historians. For the Germans it was doubtless forgettable; the Americans didn’t realise the significance of their success, and for them it was overshadowed by the heroics of the Bulge. At the time was also overshadowed by the Arnhem offensive further north. Mr Zaloga has interesting things to say on this, and on armoured warfare generally. The only fault I would pick is that I would be interested to know how the US experience differed from the British one; we only get some airy references which only invite more questions.

As wargames scenarios there is a big problem with these battles. This is in spite of the fact that they are encounter battles over relatively open ground – the easiest sort of battles to game. The problem is that they are too one-sided. The Americans destroyed large numbers of German tanks while losing very few of their own, and a lot of these were the obsolete M5 Stuart light tanks, even though the Germans generally had a numerical superiority. It’s lambs to the slaughter, if your rules are going to reflect the reality at all. Actually not so different from sending British tanks into the German trap in Normandy, or the US experience in Kasserine.

Of course the interesting question was why were the battles so one-sided? The Germans were mainly equipped with newly manufactured Panthers, and the Americans (and French) with old 75mm Shermans with only a few of the better armed M4A3 76mm. There were quite a few Panzer IVs too, and M10 and M18 tank destroyers on the US side (as well as those Stuarts). Under the war-games rules I was brought up with, the battles would have been one-sided all right, but not in the US’s favour.

There were two main reasons. The most important was that the Germans were mainly fresh recruits with very little training, and mainly in freshly raised units that had only been together for days – whereas the Americans and French were confident, well-led veterans. A lot of the German leadership had been drafted in from the Russian front, so not used to fighting Americans, and besides they were not being given any latitude by the German High Command, who insisted on premature attacks (of course Patton’s constant movement forward made the German command problems even more difficult). In the fighting it is clear that the Americans often got the first shot in, and were able to achieve several shots to every German one. Their leaders often charged in with heavy concentrations of armour but little reconnaissance – an approach that may have worked against the Russians, but were fatal in this theatre. The Americans were often able to counterattack the Germans in the flank. The second reason for the one-sided outcome was that the Americans had vastly superior artillery support, as well as air support. The Germans often didn’t have any of either; even when they did have artillery it often ended up in the wrong place and unable to assist. American artillery in quantity and doctrine was the best of any army in the war. Air support was intermittent because of the weather, and Mr Zaloga suggests that its effect was exaggerated especially by the Germans (as a convent excuse), but its effect on inexperienced tank crews was clearly considerable. They sometimes abandoned their tanks under air attack.

There are specific points that are highly relevant to wargames rules, apart from the importance of troop quality. The 75mm and 76mm guns were effective enough at the ranges used, generally about 800 yards, and often closer. Irzk reckoned that the problem with superior German armour and guns was at ranges in excess of 1,500 yards. A lot of popular rules systems (Battlegroup, Iron Cross, I Ain’ Been Shot Mum and Bolt Action, for example) reflect smaller scale actions at shorter ranges. At 1mm to 1m, for example, 1,500m would be five foot; some of these rules have an even bigger distance scale. The 75mm/76mm weapons should be quite effective at these ranges: I’m not sure how well rules reflect this. On reflection the issue may be the number of shots the US tanks can fire to each German one.

Which brings me to another interesting point, which is the effect of such things as gunsights and turret rotation. The Sherman’s were much superior (the periscopic sight gave the gunner much greater situational awareness; the rapid traverse enabled it to line up on target much quicker, even on the move). This surely allowed the Sherman to get more shots in and quicker, but I haven’t seen it reflected in any rules. One further thing intrigues me. Mr Zaloga isn’t very interested, but the US tank destroyers (M10s and M18s armed with the 3in AT gun) seem to have performed very well, doing more than their fair share of the killing. This is interesting because I had read that the US doctrine that tank destroyers should do the heavy lifting in tank hunting was considered a failure because they were too lightly armoured. Mobility was not a substitute. In war-games the life expectancy of these weapons is pretty short, in my experience, as wargamers use them as if they were tanks. But in the context of these battles, and with correct tactical use, the US doctrine looks sound enough. Interestingly in one engagement later in the battles a unit of M18s refused to get engaged; the tactical context was wrong (in this case charging over a ridge line to engage tanks already in action). Actually it’s quite hard to use a tank destroyer correctly on the confines of a war-games table – you need to move them as soon as they’ve revealed their position. But I’m convinced of a further point too: their open-topped turret gave the crews better situational awareness, so that they could react to battlefield events more quickly than tanks. In wargames rules open-tops are a purely negative characteristic.

And finally, Mr Zaloga mentions some of the tactics developed by Sherman crews – such as firing white phosphorus smoke shells at German tanks, or even HE shells. These served to distract the German crews and give the Sherman time to get out or work round the flank (something that slow German turret traverse wouldn’t have helped them deal with); inexperienced tank crews might even think their tank had been damaged and even abandon it. There was also an incident where a German tank was forced back by small arms fire, after its commander was killed. Modern wargames rules have a useful concept of “suppression” or being “pinned”. This clearly applies to tanks, though these have the option of retreating, and can arise from fire that is very unlikely to do serious damage to the tank.

So a lot to ponder. Do I want to recreate these battles on the tabletop? They would be a good test of wargames rules. My 20mm WW2 armies are 1943 British and German. But I do have a job lot US 6mm miniatures, and some German models that might be used. 6mm armies are quick to build, so I might well give it a go in this scale. Maybe it is a good opportunity try out Battlefront rules, which seem to have been designed with US-German encounters in mind.

The Persian War – William Shepherd

As part of my lockdown reading I have just read William Shepherd’s The Persian War in Herodotus and Other Ancient Voices, on the attempt by Persia to conquer Greece in 479/480 BC. This is a bit off-period for me, but it looked to be a very interesting book. It was.

First a word of caution. The book is published by Osprey Books, and the author has written the Osprey Campaign study on this topic. But an Osprey book it is not. It is heavy with 488 pages of text plus bibliography etc. There are some pictures in two sets of plates, but these aren’t integrated with the text. It is heavy where an Osprey is light. It is a serious study.

The driving structure of this book is the narrative of the campaign by the ancient Greek author and near contemporary Herodotus, which comprises most of what we know of the episode. This is by no means all of the ancient work – Mr Shepherd misses out great chunks not relevant to the military narrative. The quoted passages are interspersed with the author’s own commentary, and fragments of what other ancient authors have said about the events. The result is a narrative of what happened and why, and an exhaustive study of what little evidence there is. The extensive quotation of the sources is a necessity I think for ancient history. In an earlier life I took up the Second Punic War (i.e. Hannibal et al). I found I had to get a copy of Livy, and then Polybius, to get any feel for the history.

The book is interesting on a number of levels. Herodotus’s narrative is the earliest piece of historical writing we still have, certainly in the Western world. He is known, justifiably, as “the father of history”, as it is possible to trace a succession from this all the way from this piece of writing to the modern art of history, but nothing before it. Modern historians don’t count his work as a true history, but more a collection of stories strung into an overall narrative. Herodotus does not attempt to resolve conflicts in the evidence, and his critical faculties are only employed sparingly: the numbers he gives for the size of the Persian army are nonsensically huge. Thucydides, who wrote about the Peloponnesian War, which followed the Persian War, is usually given the accolade of being the first historian. But Thucydides was following Herodotus’s lead. What is so interesting about Herodotus is that he spent so much time gathering stories from all sides. He shows real interest and respect for the Persian side of things. In fact a huge part of his book is about explaining the Persians and their empire to his Greek audience. He was originally from Halicarnassus, on the south cost of what is now Turkey, and a Greek colony that was part of the Persian empire, fighting on the Persian side in the war. Not that you are left with any illusion about whose values he sympathises with. Democracy, as then understood, is equated with freedom, where as the royal Persian system was enslavement. It is the earliest development of this sort of narrative, which still rings out in modern Western thought.

A further reason to be interested is that the events Herodotus describes are of seminal historical importance. It is generally agreed that if the Persians had won this war, then modern Western civilisation would have been a very different thing. It was a pivotal moment in world history. Mr Shepherd treats this as self-evident, as writers from that day to this generally do, though the contrarian in me would like to explore an alternative view. But the events, taking in the battles of Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis and Plataea, form part of our cultural heritage. The war was the making of Athens as a major power, and Athens is second only to Rome as a centre of Western heritage. Strangely enough, from our distant historical perspective the Persians civilisation seems no stranger to us than the Greeks’. The Persian empire looks more like a modern state, and its religion, Zoroastranianism, is much closer to our own. The Greeks thought it was unmanly to wear trousers. We find the importance they placed on oracles and portents a bit baffling; the Persians look a bit more modern on this front, though they had to play the game for the benefit of their Greek allies.

The book is a good read, though on occasion I find that Mr Shepherd comments a bit too much. But he is very knowledgeable and it is clearly a labour of love. I do enjoy the detective work that goes into the working out of ancient history, and there is a lot of it here.

Is there much here for the Wargamer? Not as much as I hoped. The battles are few; most of the drama is around the wider campaign, the diplomacy and the various ructions, especially amongst the Greeks. Little is actually known about the land battles, and not much more about the sea ones, and the climactic battle, Plataea is messy. There was a ten-day stand-off between the two sides, and an accidental quality to the final day’s fighting, with many forces on the field not taking part (apparently on both sides, though the Persian element of this is a bit mysterious). The two sides were highly asymmetric, with the Greek heavy infantry on one side, and the Persian lighter infantry and cavalry on the other. Neither side wanted to fight unless it could play to its own strengths, which meant that it was rare that both sides wanted to fight at the same time. In fact there is an accidental quality to all the main battles. Trying to convey this tactical essence of only engaging by mistake would be something of a challenge. A campaign board game, on the other hand, could be an interesting proposition.

And there are some mysteries about the way they fought, and how this could be represented on the tabletop. Each Greek hoplite took with him one or more servants, who apart from carrying armour and supplies while on the march, and so on, took part in the fighting as psiloi. But how many? Where did they go? What did they do? They seem to have taken cover in the hoplite formations (only much later referred to as “phalanxes” incidentally) when the Persian cavalry attacked – otherwise they would have been massacred. Also the hoplite formations seem to have been a bit more flexible than I had supposed too. Each file (if that is a correct concept) took about a metre frontage – something a later era would call “loose files”. The depth of the formation varied according to need. Representing all this on the tabletop would be a bit of a challenge. The Persian side is relatively less mysterious – though there are complexities too. The heavier infantry had shield bearers to carry and deploy their shields up front while they used their bows; once close quarter fighting was imminent the infantry would take up their shields. The Persians had a lot of hoplites too from allied greek cities, though mostly these fought less hard than the other side, it seems. One thing would be a definite plus for warmers though: visually both armies would be a lot of fun. That goes for the ships too: the naval side was critical (Salamis was a sea battle), but no less challenging to recreate – though at least much more symmetric.

But much as I would enjoy putting together tabletop armies for this era, I will give it a miss!

Waterloo – the Truth at Last by Paul Dawson

This is an utter disaster of a book. I was very critical of Paul Dawson’s companion book on Quatre Bras, but I started this one on the main battle of the campaign more hopefully. But that wasn’t to last. I have gained a few new insights, but I would only recommend this book to Waterloo fanatics who don’t have a blood pressure problem.

Mr Dawson’s claim to have found the truth rests on some new data that he has unearthed in 2016 from the French archives, with unit rolls and casualty reports. The best bit of the book is the Introduction where he explains what these are and what he did with them. If he had confined himself to presenting this material along with some basic interpretation, then this would have been fine. Alas he wanted to write a much bigger book in too short a space of time – a task that would have defeated a more talented writer than Mr Dawson.

What to say? Based on another book I have been reading, it is a very left-brained affair. Right-brained skills of common sense and grounding in context are absent, as is any empathy for the reader, or anybody else. There is a lot of formulaic repetition, and the book is padded out with short biographies of the French participants that really don’t tell you very much at all. A few of these would have provided a bit of colour: repetitive lists should be in an appendix if they are to anywhere, rather than interrupting the main text. A lot of his conclusions look very shaky. For example he rightly puzzles about the high casualties suffered by Donzelot’s division in d’Erlon’s corps. He points out that it was not hit by the cavalry charges which destroyed Marcognet’s division – something that I did not know, but for which he provides compelling evidence. He then assumes it must have come from attacks on the farm of La Haye Sainte. Elsewhere he criticises historians for describing the battle for Hougoumont as a version of Rourke’s Drift. But if he’s right about Donzelot, the battle for La Haye Sainte, was a Rourke’s Drift with muzzle-loading muskets and rifles in place of the Martini-Henrys. In fact the issue is mainly to do with large numbers of men posted as missing – and I suspect this has something to do with being caught by the Prussians at the end of the battle while the French army was disintegrating. That’s just one example of how he makes breathtaking leaps to conclusions, while criticising others for wandering beyond the evidence.

Alas weak analysis and loads of extraneous data are far from the only problems. There appears not to have been an editor. This is not something publishers do these days, so authors have to rely on their own self-criticism and make use of friends. But Mr Dawson doesn’t seem to be a good self critic, and probably was in too much of a hurry to allow friends to do much editing. The book is disorganised (the chapter heads are random), riddled with errors and in places incoherent. There are many quotes, which Mr Dawson mostly leaves uninterpreted (he said something somewhere about letting them speak for themselves). Often these are in the wrong places, sometimes they appear more than once, and frequently  it isn’t clear how he draws the conclusions from them he does. And much of the analysis is contradictory. For example he bangs on quite a bit about how Lobau held off the Prussians for hours near Frischermont, before later concluding that he must have retreated rather rapidly, given his low casualties. There are no maps. Maps are more than just a decoration. They make things much clearer for a reader and force authors to face up to contradictions in the evidence. This failure is evident in his extremely confusing account of the Prussian advance to Plancenoit.  Contrast this with Mark Adkins’s account (which Mr Dawson likes to pick holes in), where maps are central to the narrative, and he presents a clear account of the same episode.  Of course, trying to put together a clear account of this complex battle with its many contradictory sources, with maps, and disciplined editing takes time – and this work was published not much more than a year after its central research. So he should have attempted something much less ambitious.

So what were the useful bits? The new data clearly has value. But it is problematic. The casualty data was compiled in chaotic conditions after large numbers of men had deserted, and others and had been rounded up as prisoners. There are large numbers of missing. So it is very hard to separate the battle from the aftermath. Mr Dawson does try to take this on, but not very successfully. The most useful thing I learned was about d’Erlon’s first attack. I have already mentioned that he shows that Donzelot’s division was not broken by cavalry at this time, which almost every account I have read has suggested. The data also help clarify what happened to the other divisions. This is very helpful. When devising wargames rules, I keep coming back to this episode to see how well any new system copes. That it now appears that the three regiments of the Union Brigade concentrated on just Marcognet’s division (and then moved on to one of Durutte’s brigades) makes much more sense of things. Another valuable insight comes at the end of the book when he looks at the data on the level of experience of the French army. He convincingly shows that it was not composed largely of veterans – but was comparable in experience to the Prussian, Netherlands and Hanoverian contingents (and unlike most of the British, which were in true veteran formations). The Guard seems to have been a shadow of its former self. This is contrary to what many historians have claimed, but does help make sense of both Waterloo and Quatre Bras.  I am also a bit clearer on what happened at Hougoumont, where the involvement of the different French regiments was very variable; not all of them seem to have been fully committed.

That’s about it. I am left with a number of mysteries. First and foremost is the advance of the Prussians. I really can’t make sense of the sequence of events – though Mark Adkins’s version looks entirely plausible. I want to do more work on this, and maybe I will find some nuggets if I trawl back through Mr Dawson’s book. But the absence of evidence from the French side must itself be quite revealing. I haven’t been able to find much from the Prussian side either – and Mr Dawson doesn’t seem to have bothered much with the Prussians, in spite of lecturing us on how important this episode was to the whole battle. This runs alongside the other big mystery of the campaign, which is why the Prussians did so badly at Ligny. One theory, that the French had tougher, more experienced troops is now looking shaky. Back to Waterloo  another mystery is why Bachelu’s attack was beaten back so easily. Mr Dawson makes a big deal on how this episode is overlooked by historians, but doesn’t throw light on how the whole division appears to have been beaten back by four battalions of the KGL in square formation. One theory is that they had been messed up by the fighting in Quatre Bras – but in his other book Mr Dawson suggests that they were not as heavily engaged as many thought. Perhaps they were low on ammunition?

Waterloo is the gift that keeps on giving. You would have thought that after all this time we would be quite clear on what happened. Alas no. This book offers some new evidence, but isn’t worth over 500 pages.

Marshal Ney at Quatre Bras – a huge disappointment

In a recent post I complained at the poor quality of analysis in military history writing for the Napoleonic wars. That was when I was doing some earlier research into the Battle of Ligny on 16 June 1815. I have just bought a new book on the simultaneous battle of Quatre Bras: Marshal Ney at Quatre Bras by Paul Dawson, published in 2017 by Frontline Books. It is enough to drive me to despair.

There is real tragedy here. Mr Dawson is one of the few authors that does original research, and tries to bring fresh evidence into the picture. In this case it is muster returns for the French Army, which are in the French archives and have been untouched by historians to date. And if you look hard you will find the occasional fresh insight based on his voracious appetite for documentary evidence. And this easily might have been a much better book. What it needed was a robust dialogue between the author and an experienced editor to produce a book that would have been much clearer and easier to read. That is not how modern publishing works, however.

The basic style of the book the book is to present piles of evidence – eye witness accounts and (separately) data from the muster rolls – though not other evidence from maps and the ground itself. He gives primacy to the French sources, but Netherlands sources get their due, as do British sources too – though since my interest in the well-worn British sources is not great, I cannot give a view as to its completeness on that account. Like many modern authors, he seems to take the view that these accounts should speak for themselves, and he adds very little interpretation and challenge. This is a bit odd since in the introduction he explains how careful one has to be in interpreting these reports. The exception to this are the various communications between Napoleon, his chief of staff Soult, and the various field commanders, and especially Ney. Like pretty much every author covering Quatre Bras, he takes a great deal of interest in these. Which is fair enough, since these are central to the two main controversies which have raged from the day of the battle to the present. First is why Ney to did not press his attack much sooner in the day. And the second  concerns the movements of d’Erlon’s I Corps, which was diverted from Quatre Bras to Ligny and back again, managing not to play more than a minor role in either battle.

Mr Dawson ends up by saying very little new on either controversy. His writes history on the principle that it should allocate blame, and he heaps it on both Ney and d’Erlon. He gets quite outraged at times in condemning the laxity or perfidy of the various actors. I find this jarring in a modern author, though he is not unique (Digby Smith does this too). I prefer the great historian AJP Taylor on this: history should be about explaining what happened and why. Alas Mr Dawson is weak on both the what and the why. Which is a bit of a pity, because his book provides an all-too-brief peak at some rather interesting lines of enquiry on both controversies. The first is whether it actually made much military sense for Ney to press ahead with an early attack, given his relatively weak forces and lack of knowledge of the enemy dispositions. It could have led to the annihilation of II Corps for no real gain. And without II Corps, could Napoleon have taken on Wellington, even if he had been able to take the Prussians completely out of the picture? A second point presented by Mr Dawson but not followed through is that I Corps started the day very scattered (over 20 miles, he claims), and that the staff of its leading division, Durutte’s, had defected the previous night. However, when describing the corps’ movements later in the day (from about 5pm), he presents it as largely concentrated and ready to take part as a whole in either of the day’s battles. 20 miles is a long way to walk in a single day in full kit – so just how quickly the four divisions were able to concentrate near the field of battle looks like an interesting line of enquiry. If only one or two divisions were in practice available before dusk, then that would be an interesting new perspective. And if it the conventional account is in fact correct, why does he lay on the scattered nature of the d’Erlon’s corps with a trowel earlier in the book? The book is full of such inconsistencies.

While on the subject of d’Erlon and Ligny I found a couple of other points irritating. When the leading elements of the corps approached the battlefield, it threw Napoleon and his staff completely because they were approaching they were approaching from the south rather than the west. To such an extent that he halted the last phase of his attack to try an find out who the troops were because he did not think they could be d’Erlon. Mr Dawson completely fails to mention this, even though he has done a good job of laying the groundwork in explaining why Napoleon would have been so surprised. He was expecting them to come from Quatre Bras, because he did not realise that Ney had held back his attack, and that Wellington’s forces had arrived there in strength. This meant that d’Erlon’s corps was not in the right place to attack the Prussian rear. However Mr Dawson then goes on to accept at face value the claim that if Durutte’s division had pressed its advance more vigorously, it would have been catastrophic for the Prussians and stopped them taking part in Waterloo. This is exactly the sort of thing that defeated French commanders always claim in order to say that they could have saved the day if only they had been allowed to. Durutte only had one division with a bit of cavalry support; the Prussians might have had enough troops to present a rearguard long enough to allow the failing light to complete their retreat; or Drutte mat simply have been in the wrong place too late. Ligny is beyond the scope of Mr Dawson’s book perhaps. In which case the right thing to say is that he cannot offer an opinion on the claim – something he is happy enough to do elsewhere in the book. He can’t quite get the balance between being an impartial presenter of evidence and the wish to get his opinions off his chest.

What of his account of the battle itself? This is the book’s biggest failure. On the big controversies he at least presents arguments, even if he is often repetitive and laboured. For the battle itself you get a very muddled account. On the famous charge of Kellerman’s cuirassiers, for example, at one point he suggests that it might have happened much earlier in the battle than it is often supposed. This is very strange, because he has spent much of the earlier narrative telling us that it was a miracle that the troops reached the battlefield at all, let alone two hours early. In the course of his account of Kellerman’s corps he does have interesting things to say, to be fair. He highlights worries over royalist loyalties amongst the officers of the Carabiniers. He also makes it clear that three of the four brigades reached the battlefield with the battle in progress, when normally historians say just one did.

But the biggest problem concerns his new evidence, the muster rolls. Mr Dawson extracts previously unpublished casualty figures for French units from these rolls. Alas there is clearly a problem with these figures. So, for example, his reported casualties of the 2nd Leger , which led the French attack, were just 31 with 3 killed. And yet Martinien lists one officer killed and 13 wounded, which suggests a much heavier toll. For the 108 Ligne, also Bachelu’s Brigade, and heavily engaged, even he can see the records are incomplete: It records 23 killed, 5 prisoners, but no wounded. He lamely says “we cannot give any further comment”; which does not stop him adding these incomplete figures in to his overall casualties for the corps. What about extrapolating the numbers of wounded from those killed? Or comparing with Martinien’s lists of officer casualties? Another example, which he makes much more of, is that the 8th and 11th Cuirassiers suffered just 49 casualties between them. But pretty much all eye-witnesses from both sides suggest a much heavier toll (Kellerman himself estimated 200); Martinien lists 17 officers killed and wounded. In many (but not all) cases the casualties reported by the muster rolls look far to low. This would have been quite an interesting point of discussion. But instead Mr Dawsontrea treats his new evidence at face value, as a gold standard. He suggests that only one infantry brigade of the six involved was seriously engaged, that two barely took part in the battle, and that the French suffered half the casualties of the Allies. Though it is not uncommon for eye witnesses to exaggerate casualties, this all looks a little steep.

Paul Dawson is a diligent researcher, who takes more trouble with compiling evidence than most current authors. Alas he seems bereft of the analytical skills needed to interpret it. This book may have some value as a secondary source for lazy historians like me. Other than that it is a waste of time, I am afraid. It is hard to read: long tracts of direct quotation, argument that is laboured and repetitive and yet often seems to miss obvious points. And a lot of his evidences, like his casualty figures, poses questions which he makes no attempt to answer. And you have to endure him sounding off his armchair criticism of people long dead as if they were contemporary politicians. This does not bode well for Mr Dawson’s much bigger work on Waterloo, just published, which I have also acquired. But I will give it a fair crack.

Ligny 1815. The failure of English language historians

I like to focus the development of my Napoleonic rules around specific battles. Waterloo and Quatre Bras are regulars. My most recent finished rules were developed to refight Vitoria. As my latest rules stagger towards the playtest phase, I am focusing on the battle of Ligny on 16 June 1815.

This battle was fought on the same day as Quatre Bras as Napoleon attacked three out of the four corps of Blücher’s Prussian army. In spite of being outnumbered for most of the day, he scored a remarkable but costly victory – which might have been enough to win him the campaign, had not the Prussians withdrawn towards their British-led allies, instead of on their line of communication. In spite of its importance, and a scale that matches Waterloo, this last victory of Napoleon is rather neglected by historians. But it is an interesting battle nevertheless. At the heart of it is a mystery: how did the French perform so well against a numerically superior enemy?

I have four English language books focusing substantially on the battle. There is Andrew Uffindel’s The Eagle’s Last Triumph, my edition published in 1994, though I think there is a later version out there. Then there is Peter Hofschröer’s 1815, the Waterloo Campaign, the first in a two part account of the Waterloo campaign published 1998. Next is John Franklin’s Osprey: Waterloo 1815 volume 2, published 2015. Lastly, relatively fresh off the press, is Andrew Field’s Grouchy’s Waterloo, published 2017. Alas all these accounts are deeply flawed. There is a further important resource: Pierre de Wit’s website, The Waterloo Campaign.

I am at the beginning of my study of this battle, and I have focused mainly on is opening stages. But it is enough to  confirm the usual flaws in Napoleonic military history in the English language. Actually these flaws are almost certainly not confined to the Napoleonic era, and not tot he English language either; it just what I know. There are three problems: “lamppost syndrome”, a lack of forensic analysis, and poor maps.

By lamppost syndrome, I am referring to the story of the drunk found at night scrabbling around under a street lamp. “What are you doing?” he is asked; “Looking for my keys,” he replies. “Did you drop them there?”; “No, but I can see here”. Historical writing concentrates too much on where the evidence is, and especially if there are first hand accounts. And yet important things happen in places where these accounts do not exist, and you can’t understand what is going on until you try to work out what happened where the evidence is thin. The second problem I have called lack of forensic analysis. The word “forensic” really means associated with criminal justice, but it has now assumed a wider meaning that I am using here. And that is a careful piecing together of the witness evidence with other evidence, and an understanding of what is physically feasible. In the history of this era this  evidence includes the lie of the land, casualty figures, and an understanding of the technology and human capabilities. On top of this must come the persistent examination of motive: why did somebody do that? All this is familiar enough to viewers of television crime dramas or readers of detective fiction. Given the popularity of these genres, it is very surprising that so few modern military historians want to turn detective. Not all writers are as bad as each other. For an example of how it should be, there is  Rory Muir’s masterpiece on the battle of Salamanca, though even this lacks a decent map, a problem I will come to.

But what we usually get is mistakes by one author being repeated by the next uncritically, and very little in way of genuinely new perspectives. There is one interesting example in the early stages of Ligny: the defence of the village of St Armand, where the battle started. The normal story is that the village was defended by three battalions of Jagow’s brigade, and the French attack encountered bitter resistance. In fact a careful study of the evidence (as Mr de Wit makes clear) shows conclusively that these three battalions were in the nearby village of St Armand la Haye (or Longpré), which was more defensible and closer to the Prussian positions. And all the other Prussian infantry is accounted for. In fact the French faced artillery fire from the hill behind the village, and few skirmishers, and that was all. They quickly took the village, but found it impossible to move beyond it. The Prussians (Steinmetz’s brigade) then counterattacked.

So how do our four accounts handle the episode? Mr Uffindel gives us a lot of drama (“corpses littered the streets”) and sticks to the story that they had to fight hard to push out the unidentified Prussians. Overall his account is extremely thin on this stage of the battle. Mr Hofshröer, a German speaker, makes much more use of Prussian sources. He initially says that Jagow’s three battalions were in St Armand, he then goes on the say that the French found the village largely unoccupied, and then gives a very muddled account, including quotations from officers of those three battalions. At various points he suggests the fighting was in St Armand, St Armand la Haye, and then the neighbouring St Armand le Hameau (or Beurrre). Mr Hofshröer is a controversial author and in my view completely unable to tackle his subject forensically. His value is in his extensive quotation of German language sources. Mr Franklin is a more careful author, but tends to focus on French sources. He suggests that the French had to fight hard to capture the village, with the first brigade of Lefol’s division having to call in the second. Again there is extraneous detail (“the front files were decimated”) . Finally Mr Field: he is explicitly majoring on the French sources, and he likes to quote at length; there are two accounts of this episode: one from General Lefol, and one from Captain Gerbet of the 37 Ligne. This reveals the source of  a lot of the colourful detail of Messrs Uffindel and Franklin. After these extensive quotes Mr Field says that the village (though a strong position, he says) was lightly held and the French did not face determined resistance. But he makes no attempt to reconcile this with Gerbet’s account of a rather fierce struggle. I suspect it conflates episodes from later in the battle. Incidentally the statement that St Armand was a strong position is not my view, and that is one reason why the Prussians decided not to hold it strongly. As with other works, Mr Field is unwilling to pull apart his witness statements, but at least he is more transparent than other authors, and he is careful with his facts.

And the maps? Wargamers love a good map, from which they can create a decent table. 19th Century historians did too, but they generally compiled them without properly surveying the ground, and with only a schematic representation of relief. A simple matter, surely, to take modern contour maps, and use these as a basis for updated maps? Alas, far too often not. For Vitoria I had to do this for myself, and the two maps I did are now nearly top of the Google ratings for maps of the battle. All the offerings on Ligny are flawed.

Mr Uffindel doesn’t try. He illustrates his work with schematic diagrams that do not attempt to give a feel for the terrain. Mr Hofshroer gives us two detailed maps. One gives us a representation of relief, but taken from Ferraris map of the 1760s, and with no detail of the extent of the villages, and with a later highway missing; this is not actually all that helpful: what you need is a contour map. There is then a reproduction of a Prussian military map, with lots of detail, including the initial troop dispositions. But no contours. The Prussian dispositions look accurate to the battalion – but it shows Jagow’s three battalions in St Armand and not la Haye. This may be the source of the error in other accounts; perhaps these battalions went there first but were moved to somewhere less exposed. Hofshröer does have a proper modern map showing both Quatre Bras and Ligny, which is decent enough but lacks detail for the individual battles, though it illustrates what Napoleon intended with d’Erlon’s corps very well. Franklin has only Osprey’s 3-D maps, which promise more than they deliver. You can’t see the folds of the ground. He has Habert’s division of Vandamme’s corps in a different place to everybody else, interestingly enough. This is clearly wrong in my view. It is shown on the right of the corps, in a position that looks exposed to artillery fire; it came into action on the left. Of course it may have started out on the right.

And what of Mr de Wit? This is a very valuable resource, as he squeezes as much as he can from from the evidence. It is pretty heavy going, though. He can be quite forensic, but he suffers severely from lamppost syndrome. This is less a defect for Ligny, so far, than it is for the Prussian advance at Waterloo, which has big gaps. There are no maps. He does include some very nice surveys of the terrain, mentioning anything from the era that has survived, and including some old photographs of various features.

And so, like Vitoria, I am going to have to piece together my own account, and map. This will take a while, but it is a part of the hobby I love.

Barossa and Bussaco: unsatisfactory histories

Back to the Napoleonic Wars. I have been doing a little steady reading of accounts of the Peninsular War. English-language histories of battles between the British and French are very stereotyped – one of my ambitions is to develop an alternative narrative of the infantry tactics in particular. My hope is that my reading will shed some light on. This time there was less light than I hoped.

The first book was The Battle of Barossa 1811 by John Grehan and Martin Mace, published in 2012 by Pen & Sword. This battle near Cadiz was dramatic and historically important – though often overlooked by historians, because it was away from Wellington’s main army. Though the book centres on the battle, it takes on the whole siege of Cadiz – which is interesting enough. But the book is a big disappointment. Though quite well written it is little more than a rehash of British accounts of the affair, with no attempt to extend the usual sources; all the (limited) primary sources are British, as were the overwhelming majority of secondary sources. If recent Napoleonic history teaches us anything, it is that new insights are likely to come from overlooked foreign sources. Since this particular campaign is neglected, that would be particularly the case. So far as the main historical narrative is concerned, the main feature is the tense relations between the British and the Spanish, and between various Spanish factions. This very nearly led to disaster in the battle itself, where the British contingent ran into a superior force of French, with the Spanish failing to come to their aid – they nevertheless secured a remarkable victory. Alas this book throws no new light on proceedings, and contents itself with condemning the Spanish inconstancy. 200 years on we really should do better than that. And as for the battle itself, the narrative is the familiar one. There are no new insights, and no attempt to pull the usual accounts apart and put them back together again. Tactically it is an interesting battle, but I’m going to have to do that pulling apart myself if I want to get to the bottom of what happened and why.

My reading on Bussaco, the main battle during Masséna’s invasion of Portugal in 1810 is a bit different. This is an important battle, and much has been written about it. It is usually characterised as a standard French column versus British line encounter – but I wanted to understand how much that was based on actual evidence, and how much people were filling in the blanks with how they think it must have happened. It started when I picked up a translation of Colonel Pelet’s account of the campaign. Pelet was a senior aide to Masséna. I was drawn to this book because it contained a very interesting account of Ney’s attack, describing an intense skirmish duel between the French troops and the Light Division. This account is widely quoted in forums and such. It is an interesting and colourful account of the campaign from the French perspective. It was translated by the American academic Donald Horward. This drew me to Horward’s account of the battle: The Battle of Bussaco, published in 1965; I managed to find a second-hand copy, formerly belonging to the late Paddy Griffiths.

Horward’s book is quite slim but interesting. This is proper history, unlike so much of the amateur stuff published these days (including that book on Barossa). The sources have been properly compared, and the disagreements and controversies tackled head-on. It is quite interesting because it is written mainly from the French perspective; and in fact there seem to be a lot of French sources. His account of the battle itself has a very different feel to the normal ones based mainly on British sources. I only wish that more history of this quality was written today. For comparison I read the relevant chapter of David Buttery’s 2007 work Wellington against Massena, which I had bought but not read, and René Chartrand’s Campaign Osprey, which I had read before.

Chartrand and Buttery do not see the need to pick apart the standard British account, nor refer to controversies – but prefer to dramatise things a bit. For the former, that rather goes with the Osprey format, which allows little space for analysis. Buttery can’t resist filling in the blanks a bit – though Horward does that a bit too. Horward always describes the British artillery as raking the French with “grape and canister”; in the same cases Buttery says they fired shot. (This was also the first battle in which shrapnel was used, though Wellington was unimpressed). In one passage Buttery describes the British using rapid fire tactics – even though this was against British doctrine at the time. And I’m afraid that reveals a major limitation in all three works. They aren’t actually interested in the French and British tactics, and so they don’t press the evidence very hard.

My working hypothesis on Bussaco was that French tried to use heavy skirmish tactics to beat the enemy, but were thwarted by the superior skirmishing ability of the Light Division. The evidence doesn’t really hold up for this. There was indeed a lot of heavy skirmishing (in contrast to Vimiero and Talavera), but the most important encounters were between denser bodies of men. And the French suffered a clear disadvantage from exposed flanks, even though they had superior numbers. This fits the column and line thesis – but that doesn’t quite work either. The terrain was very broken, by steep slopes, crags and gorse. It was very difficult for either side to hold formation. Descriptions come through as disorderly melees. The tiredness of the French advancing up steep slopes with packs may have been a factor, as well the momentum of the fierce Anglo-Portuguese counterattacks. And the Allies did not have it all their own way. Foy was able brush aside the Portuguese 8th and 9th Regiments (probably only one battalion of the 9th); Buttery and Chartrand dismiss this as being down to overwhelming strength but that looks far too glib in view of how the French struggled to use numerical superiority elsewhere (Foy outnumbered the Portuguese by about 2:1).

Foy’s attack, effectively the third and last wave of Reynier’s corps was actually remarkably successful, capturing the plateau at the top of the ridge. It looks to me that at this point Reynier had Picton beaten. It required well-time reinforcements from neighbouring divisions (especially Leith) to restore the situation. If the French had reinforcements at the ready, perhaps the outcome would have been different. But Junot’s corps was in completely the wrong place. And that leads me to an observation relevant to the grand tactical level, and more relevant to my rules project. The Anglo-Portuguese were able to beat off the French easily enough, but at the cost of considerable disorganisation. If there were French reserves ready to exploit this disorganisation, then they had an opportunity. That’s how Foy’s brigade captured the summit at Bussaco – though by then the French were themselves disorganised.

I have less to say on Ney’s attack. It strikes me that the terrain here was much more complex, and that I need to look at it again to get any new insights.

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.