I’ve just finished reading this book. It is Volume I of 2, so I’d normally wait to read the second book before reviewing here. But it proved too good to wait.
There is no shortage of books on Waterloo. Modern ones are often disappointing, while older ones have their own flaws. John Hussey’s aim is to look at the campaign as a whole, and to get the big picture right. This volume sets the scene in 1814, and covers Napoleon’s return up the the battles of 16 June 1815, at Ligny and Quatre Bras. This does mean taking a look at the what happened and why of the battles, but he avoids a lot of the detail, which is what most books on Waterloo take on.
Mr Hussey is not an academic, but he is a serious historian – which sets him apart from most modern writers on the Napoleonic Wars, who don’t get beyond being hobbyists or controversialists, or both. I like that. I am an avid follower of politics, and studied History in my final year at Cambridge. I enjoy the top-level stuff, along with the military narrative. Mr Hussey handles this confidently. The tensions between the main powers occupies a lot of the book, and some readers might think he overdoes it. There is also a lot on Wellington and Blucher/Gneisenau’s planning for the campaign – again this might be too much for some. But I was left with a very clear appreciation of the agendas of the various parties. By contrast there isn’t so much on Napoleon, after he reaches Paris.
But eventually we get into the meat: the day before the campaign starts (the 14th), and the first two days. Mr Hussey paints a compelling picture of this. The Allied deployment was flawed, because each commander was working to a different agenda. Wellington’s army was deployed in depth, so that he would concentrate his army for the second or third day of the campaign to defend Brussels, the critical objective from his point of view. Wellington’s main error was not picking up the evident signs on the 14th of what Napoleon was up to. He had the intelligence but he didn’t act. Mr Hussey doesn’t get to the bottom of why – but he just seems to have been too busy. The Prussians (and it is hard to distinguish between Blucher and Gneisenau), on the other hand, deployed forwards, with I Corps very close to the border. That pointed to concentration earlier and further forward than Wellington; they were not so bothered about Brussels, but more about their communications with Germany. They did respond to the intelligence (much gathered by Wellington’s men, especially Dornberg in fact) on the 14th, which ultimately allowed them to concentrate three corps at Sombreffe on the second day (their intended concentration point, near Ligny). Their massive mistake on the 14th was not giving clear orders to the fourth and more distant corps (Bulow’s), meaning that it couldn’t be there for another day or two.
Napoleon seems to have understood the weaknesses in the Allies’ deployment, as he so often did, and decided to hit the Prussians first before Wellington could help them. But muddled orders meant that he didn’t concentrate properly, and Gerard’s corps in particular was a day late. One important feature of the Allies’ deployment concerns the main road from Charleroi to Brussels – which went through Gosselies, Quatre Bras, Genappe and Waterloo. At the border up to Gosselies, this was in the Prussian sector; after this it was in the Anglo-Netherlands sector. On the 15th Ziethen, the Prussian I Corps commander, abandoned this road in his hurry to get to Sombreffe, without higher authorisation and without warning Wellington. The road to Brussels was left wide open and Wellington didn’t realise this until very late in the evening, and got quite a shock (“Humbugged, by God!”). He managed to concentrate a large part of his army with remarkable speed to get to Quatre Bras the following day however – this was critical to both cover Brussels and the Prussian flank.
A huge amount of ink has been spilt over two centuries about who is to blame for what in these first days. A lot of it is nonsense. Mr Hussey feels he has to deal with the main controversies (such as what did Wellington promise to the Prussians?). But from a grand tactical perspective the Allies got the better of things. Blucher managed to get three corps to Sombreffe, and significantly outnumbered Napoleon. Wellington stopped two French corps from joining the battle (or strictly one, the other was more a French shot in the foot). The problem was that the Prussians still managed to lose.
One disappointment is that Mr Hussey doesn’t spend much time trying to understand why so many of the French were slow to get going on the morning of the 16th. This delayed the serious fighting to the afternoon. The 15th had been a long and tiring day, but the troops were carrying three days of rations. Was it that distrust between commanders and troops meant that the former did not feel they could push as hard as they might in 1805?
Mr Hussey’s accounts of the battles are quite high level. He gets a decent overall perspective. He doesn’t quite manage to explain how the Prussians lost at Ligny, though he does point to mistakes in their deployment, which he thinks should have been further back – this had been the original plan in fact. How the Prussians lost bothers me, as I want to be able to simulate it on the tabletop. I have conducted a few games based loosely on Ligny, and the problem is always the same: the French are short of infantry, especially since the Prussians are defending built-up areas, which get quite a big bonus under many rules systems (such as Blucher). I suspect that there is a vital aspect of simulating larger battles that is missing from the rules systems – but I haven’t found it yet! Mr Hussey follows the conventional story that Vandamme’s two divisions attacked St Armand from the west, alongside Girard. Personally I’m convinced they came in from the south. But that’s a detail. All that we can say is that Prussian tactical management in this battle was weak, and they fed their reserves in too quickly – whereas Napoleon’s management was masterly.
What if d’Erlon hadn’t backed off when he approached the battlefield in the early evening? Mr Hussey does not address this question. Almost every commentator suggests that the Prussians would have been annihilated – but I think this conventional view needs to be challenged. It was late; the French were tired and the Prussians hadn’t yet exhausted their reserves (which Blucher did as soon as d’Erlon backed off). The Prussians may simply have started their retreat earlier.
The battle of Quatre Bras gets rather more coverage than Ligny (30 pages to 20), which shows up the book’s greater interest in the British story. In a couple of places I don’t think he quite gets it right. In describing the battlefield he misses the hedges to the north of the Gemioncourt stream – which I think are a tactically critical feature, as they blocked cavalry, as well as providing an important obstacle to infantry. Also he describes two charges by Kellerman’s cuirassiers, where most people think there was only one. But, as he says, untangling the sequence of events at this battle is very difficult given the very scrappy nature of the evidence.
There’s not a huge amount for gamers in this book, apart from getting a better understanding of the context, and the controversies surrounding the campaign. But here are some thoughts that the book provoked in me, relevant to gaming:
- The French corps commanders seem remarkably uncommitted to the cause and hesitant, when confronted with uncertainty, when not directly under Napoleon’s eye. They remind me of what people say about Austrian generals in their earlier encounters with Napoleon. They are more afraid of getting it wrong than keen to do the right thing. Once in the battle French tactical handling (more down to divisional commanders perhaps) was top rate, however.
- The role of wing commanders under Napoleon (i.e. Ney and Grouchy) was a problem because they lacked staff and proper authority. Ney was initially energetic in pushing the French practically up to Quatre Bras, but seems to have lost his way the following morning. He really needed his corps commanders to be on the ball. How to reflect all this in command systems on the table is an interesting challenge.
- The command of I and II Corps for the Prussians got very entangled at Ligny. Often brigade-level integrity was lost too. This was function of having so many units in a tight space, and using the nearest units to hand to cover gaps. This again presents a challenge. Something similar, though more deliberate, is evident in Wellington’s army at Waterloo.
- There is also the question of feeding in reserves to bolster tired units, as opposed to using fresh unit to conduct operations on their own. Both sides used both ways of using reserves at Ligny. Feeding is isn’t well simulated in rules systems, however, which like to deal with brigade or division sized units as a whole.
- Artillery often seems to be used at longer ranges than the oft-quoted “effective” range of up to 700 paces or so, and had tactically significant effects these longer ranges. I noted this at Wagram too. Also overhead firing played an important role at Ligny (and also significant at Quatre Bras), something that some rules writers suggest was not done.
- On the subject of artillery, Mr Hussey suggests that the Prussians were outgunned at Ligny, with their grand battery being initially effective but subsequently outclassed by the superior quality of French artillery. I wonder if quality difference was not so important as exhaustion and management of reserves. This is something that Blucher covers well (unlike BUA fighting) and most rules systems don’t. Most rules (including mine) don’t bother with quality differences in artillery – but I do find the issue quite hard to relate to hard evidence as opposed to boastful claims by contemporary commentators, which so often turn out to be based on hot air.
I’m looking forward to volume 2 – though I might read something else from my extensive library of books I haven’t read yet first.