Yesterday was the 204th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo making this week’s WW post a perfect time to recommend two excellent books and an interview I conducted with author (Waterloo Betrayed) Stephen Beckett. Always a risky thing recommending books on Waterloo as there have been a multitude of books published on the topic but I feel confident of these two choices.
The first book, Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies and Three Battles by Bernard Cornwell of Richard Sharpe series fame, is one I recommend for those unfamiliar with the battle as it serves as an excellent introduction into both the battle and tactics of the Napoleonic age. Many books on the battle and this period have been pounced guilty of an overwhelming British point of view but Cornwell’s book does justice to the French point of view and also the usually neglected Prussians, who were essential to the final victory.
I am not a novice when it comes to Napoleonic military history but have to say it may be a little unfair to recommend the book “for those unfamiliar with the battle” because the book was always informative and entertaining and can credit it with revealing some facts and insights I had not previously known.
Wargamers will find the book interesting. Below I’ve copied a passage on the “arithmetic” of cavalry versus infantry in a square. Before that, for those unfamiliar with Napoleonic tactics think of a game of rock, paper and scissors. Cavalry will beat infantry deployed in a line but infantry deployed in a square will handily beat the cavalry. Form your infantry in a square in the face of cavalry and artillery will decimate your squares though artillery is vulnerable to both infantry and cavalry if they can reach the guns.
“Thousands of horsemen were now struggling to attack the squares, but the arithmetic was fatal to them. Assume that a British battalion had 500 men and made a square of equal sides, then each face of the square would present four ranks of about thirty men each. That makes 480 men in the four sides of the square, the rest are officers or sergeants who are in the square’s centre. Now take one side of the square. Thirty men are kneeling and holding their muskets braced and pointing outwards with fixed bayonets. Thirty more men are crouching in the second rank with their bayonets also bristling outwards, and behind them stand sixty men firing muskets. Thirty men take up about fifty-two feet, which is the width of our notional square, but a horseman needs much more space, well over three feet and closer to four, so only about fourteen or fifteen horsemen can charge at the square’s face. They can come in ranks, but the front rank cannot hold more than fifteen men, and those fifteen are faced by 120 men, half of whom are firing muskets. That is notional. Squares were usually oblongs, but the arithmetic still holds.”
What I have learned from Cornwell’s book was that luck was on the Allied side. Blucher was almost captured after the defeat at Ligney the day before. He was overrun by French cavalry but an aide covered his uniform, preventing him from being specifically targeted for capture. Also, a French general who followed his orders to the letter could have blocked the Prussian advance for hours at the Lasne River but kept his troops in place. I’d say those extra hours were the difference between a loss or victory.
On the next page a recommendation for anyone interested in the battle and Napoleonic warfare, from the novice to the expert. At the very end there’s a link to a video on a 15 foot long Lego diorama of the fighting a La Haie Sainte. Must see. Additionally, there is a link at the bottom of the next page to an interview with author/historian Stephen Beckett. For those with an obsession with the 1815 campaign he’s soliciting volunteers to help with primary documents.
Over the years I have recommended many books but The Waterloo Companion by Mark Adkin is on top of my all time recommendations list. I’m afraid the book is out of print and used copies sell for a premium so if you see one available for a price you can bear, snatch it up. Of interest is Adkin has also written The Sharpe Companion, The Early Years.
The cover advertises the book as “The complete guide to history’s most famous land battle”. Waterloo may or may not be the most famous land battle but the Companion is definitely a complete guide. The book is divided into ten different sections, covering all aspects of the battle and the campaign:
The Campaign describes Napoleon’s escape from Elba and the dramatic events of the “100 days”, and examines the strategy of the three commanders in chief up to the eve of the battle.
Orders of Battle – unit strengths and commanders’ names , down to battalion and battery level.
Command and Control – describes the command structures plus the backgrounds and careers of the three commanders and all their corps and division commanders.
The Battlefield – this is where the book comes into its own. The maps and photographs are of such quality and detail to serve both the visitor to the battlefield and the most hardcore of wargamers.
Dedicated sections on The Infantry, The Cavalry, The Artillery and Other Arms and Services (engineers, medical and logistics).
The Highlights describes key events in the battle and along with the detailed maps allows the reader to trace the course of the battle “in some cases down to the level of individual companies”.
The final section is Myths and Controversies. This section is devoted to “demolishing some well-established versions of events that have long been accepted as “facts” and analyzing the opposing views of historians on matters such as the importance of the Prussian role in the battle, Wellington’s use of his artillery, Ney’s persistence in mounting the fruitless cavalry chargers against Wellington’s squares, and the formation adopted by the Imperial Guard for their final attack.
If or when I return to the battlefield I’ll either be carrying this book in my luggage to read in the hotel and take extensive cell phone pictures and hand written notes to carry around the battlefield.
A couple of pictures from the book, both serving to show how useful the Companion is for gamers and battlefield tourist:
A photo in the book made me laugh when recalling a visit. The Waterloo Companion was published in 2001 about a year after I visited the battlefield with my father. We spent most of the visit walking the British lines from La Haie Sainte to the Hougemont and back. It was getting late but we decided to walk towards the French lines up the slope to La Belle Alliance.
Before I go on, let me state that I’m not against Belgians flying the Stars and Stripes but around the turn of the century this famous building was doing duty as a local pub with a large American flag prominently flying on the highway side. Kind of spoiled the Napoleonic vibe and a little too far north from the Ardennes to be appropriate for my taste but, anyway, the picture that Adkin used to show the contemporary building on Page 141 was taken from the rear.
I’m guessing they were still flying the flag which is hidden on the main highway side. The entrance to the dimly lit pub was to the rear, and was the door closest to the barn door. Since it was late I’d figured we’d splurge on a cab back to Brussels but when I asked in my limited French if they had a phone we could use I was told they didn’t have one. We trekked back to the British lines, found a nice restaurant with good food and the added benefit of a phone and a proprietor that called a cab for us.
I came across this Youtube video of a Lego reproduction of the fighting at La Haie Sainte. After watching it, I now have another book to add to my reading list. The story about a Kings German Legion sharp shooter that shot three French officers, each time leaving the compound to go rob the bodies of coins and eventually getting captured and looted of his looted coins is too much to resist. The creator of the Lego diorama said he recreated the buildings “brick for brick”.
The new discoveries led to the Operations of the Armée du Nord : 1815. So much more is
known, and in my final volume, The Analysis, I propose some bold theories. In the conclusion, I
point out that there are still hundreds if not thousands of documents in private collections.
We found two additional registries of Soult – yet another is still in private hands! And the
original of Registre du major-général that Grouchy published remains missing.
We found d’Erlon’s registry, but it ends on June 12. Vandamme, Gérard, Lobau – all never
I knew that with Soult on a mission and absent from Paris during the final concentration orders,
Bertrand was someone to pursue. And after a diligent search, we found Bertrand’s registry and
notes – which includes June 10, the Mons plan, and so much more. Yet 27 pages of Bertrand’s
notes from the cent-jours remains in a private collection. Are they about Theater budgets – as
that topic is covered in the materials found? Or, do they cover military events in June!?
That is the major project I am working on now – using the Operations of the Armée du Nord :
1815 as a catalyst to show key organizations, individuals, and the world, that we must access
these private materials to have an accurate history. Napoleon’s concentration on the Sambre
was a disaster. How many more truths are waiting to be discovered? This is the project I hope
unites everyone – we can debate our interpretations and conclusions later.
For now, let’s work together to gain access to these private collections – step one is awareness.
SC: How can folks help?
SB: Those interest can contact me via the Mapleflower Publishing web page. Contact info with a mailto is at the bottom of the page.
Anyone who wishes to help I would love to have them contact me. I have thousands of documents scanned and friends with tens of thousands more. Processing, transcribing, translating these…..there will always be something to do.”