Tag Archives: Quatre Bras

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.

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.