Tag Archives: 1815

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.

John Hussey’s Waterloo Vol I

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.

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.

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.