John Hussey’s Waterloo Vol II – a flawed offering

And now I have finished volume two! I have to say I’m rather disappointed. As with the first volume, the book’s strength is that it tackles the high politics with confidence. But there is a lot less politics in this stage of things. And after a while Mr Hussey’s style starts to grate, on me anyway.

The biggest problem is one that he shares with most other histories of the Napoleonic Wars. It’s too judgemental. This is not done in a sneaky way by hiding facts, but he is too quick to present his conclusions on whether particular actors were good or bad at their job. He is especially harsh on the Prussians. This is how 19th Century histories tended to be written, when the events were still quite fresh, and had some sort of bearing on political and military events. But the distance of time should change the tone, so that the focus, in the words of the great 20th Century historian AJP Taylor, is “what happened and why”. The reader should be given insight. Instead most modern historians, who tend not to be academics, feel the need to join in the ding-dong started by those judgmental 19th Century historians. Mr Hussey has disappeared down this rabbit hole.

The descriptions of the battles (mainly the great day itself) are quite brief. That’s fine: the book was always intended as a strategic narrative. But he still could have presented more clearly what we do know and what we don’t. Too often he simply follows an old narrative that he must know is questionable. For example, when he describes the great cavalry attacks we get a completely conventional British version of events. The cavalry came on; the plucky British gunners fired at them, then escaped to the nearby squares wheeling one of gun’s wheels as they went; the cavalry than retired and the gunners went back to their guns an recommenced firing. This is a very problematic account, that many historians reject (where were the limbers and the ammunition supply train?), and leads neatly into one of the more interesting Waterloo controversies, which is why Wellington seems to have thought that he was let down by his artillery. The suggestion is that many gunners abandoned their pieces never to return, and had to be replaced by Wellington’s reserves of horse artillery. This controversy does not get mentioned. In fact not a hint of this debate is presented. I would also have liked a discussion of the French account of this period of the battle, which talks of their cavalry controlling the ridge for a substantial period, rather than the quick in-and-out of a number of waves, suggested by the British version. Mr Hussey does present a few of the controversies, such as the performance of the Netherlands troops, but the selection seems distinctly random.

On one matter he does choose to stick his head out and break free from the standard British account. He suggests that both commanders failed to realise the significance of the farm of La Haye Sainte, in the centre of the field. He suggests that the French should have pulverised it with artillery and taken it quickly, allowing them to press an infantry attack on the centre. Meanwhile Wellington failed to fortify it, unlike Hougoumont. Leave aside the point that these criticisms are mutually exclusive (if the farm was so easy to demolish, why waste time fortifying it?), and I think this account presents problems. My first thought is that I don’t think I can think of a case where massed field artillery (mainly 6pdrs) ever demolished a brick-built farm – this job was usually left to howitzers, which could set the buildings ablaze. Then again, I’m not sure that a relatively small farm in the open ever proved to be a decisive strongpoint in this era, before that day – maybe that was because they were vulnerable, unlike the much more substantial villages, like Aspern and Essling, that so often dominated battles. There is another issue though – the farm was in a distinct hollow, and sheltered by orchards and gardens. It was not as visible as many assume. From the French side the main feature providing the shelter was the “grand-battery ridge”, a low rise which is where most, including Mr Hussey, assume the French placed their artillery, even if “grand battery” is not an accurate description. At the left end of this feature the farm would have certainly been visible, but only one or two hundred yards from it – and quite vulnerable to rifle fire from the farm and the nearby sandpits. Further to right and the lining up and visibility would have been a problem, as the feature curves back a bit. This seems to sum up the problem of Mr Hussey’s whole approach. If your focus is what happened and why, you would start to look for explanations as to why La Hay Sainte might have been neglected, and why the French made no attempt to concentrate artillery on it. And if you had, you might well have spotted the problem. Instead Mr Hussey wants a bit of ding-dong. Incidentally, I tumbled on the visibility issue when setting out wargames terrain using a contour map.

So given this it is no surprise that Mr Hussey has nothing to say on what I think is one of the big puzzles of the battle – the speed with which the Prussians reached Plancenoit. At 4pm, according to this book (and it is generally accepted) the Prussians were nowhere to be seen. They then started to merge from the Bois de Paris; that is over 2km from Plancenoit. They faced Lobau’s forces of two divisions of cavalry and two of infantry. They had numerical superiority but they had decided to press forward before they had consolidated IV Corps for the attack – with only two brigades (actually sizeable divisions) and some cavalry available. By 6pm, according to Mr Hussey they hadn’t just reached Plancenoit, but they had taken it the first time and then been thrown out. Something about this account does not add up. Unfortunately records on both sides are very sketchy. I think Lobau must have pulled back very quickly without putting up any real fight when the Prussians first emerged.

And of course the book was published before Paul Dawson’s recent research suggesting that French casualties were lower than generally thought (though making sense of that book would be a big project, so Mr Hussey was perhaps fortunate there).

Overall Mr Hussey brings forward little fresh evidence. He has unearthed some neglected insights from some secondary sources from Germany and the Netherlands. His coverage of the more strategic aspects of the campaign – right up to the peace treaty – is welcome, given how many people focus on just four days in June 1815. Here his judgemental style can grate, but it I don’t generally disagree. His account of the climactic day is distinctly weak. Waterloo is one of the most written-about battles in history, and I have still to find a satisfactory account of what happened and why.

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