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he scored a remarkable but costly victory – which might have been enough to win him the campaign, had not the Prussians withdrawn towards their British-led allies, instead of on their line of communication.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.

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