Friday, November 14, 2014

"Waterloo" ..a review

There aren't many authors mainly known for their fictional work, who venture into the realms of non-fiction, and of those, there are even fewer who are good at it...  Len Deighton is one of the few that immediately springs to mind (and I seriously recommend both "Fighter" [clicky], and "Bomber" for an excellent, easily readable, and informative history of those formations in WWII), but based on this book I would whole heartedly, and happily, elevate Bernard Cornwell to that rare company (bet you wondered what I was going to say there... ) as this is without a doubt one of the most readable, and enjoyable, histories of the battle I've ever read... and over the years there have been a few...

Starting off with the return of Napoleon to Paris following his short exile on Elba, the Cornwell follows the campaign from the perspective of Wellington and Blucher, and of course Bonaparte himself...

Cornwell described the build up, how quickly Bonaparte managed to collect a quite astonishingly big army, and how he then set out to split Wellington and Blucher from each other and defeat each in turn using his now traditional technique of holding one with a small force while he beats the other with his main force, and having done that then turns on the second... it was a tried and tested strategy, and one that Bonparte had used again and again with great success...

It is the difference between the manoeuvre in the 100 Days campaign, and earlier that fascinates Cornwell...  and there is no single answer...

Firstly, Bonaparte seems to be lacking in energy and drive throughout the whole campaign, was it purely due to a massive under assessment of Wellington's abilities? He didn't rate him it was clear - he called him the "sepoy general", I wonder if his personal pride was also stubbornly affected by the number of his staff who had faced him, and kept warning him about both Wellington's abilities, and the quality of the British infantry...  his delays in launching the start of the battle (to allow the ground to dry) may well have even caused him to lose the day....

Second, for this campaign, Bonaparte was missing the exemplary Berthier, who was his chief of staff throughout all the previous campaigns. Berthier had died in mysterious circumstances earlier in the month (fallen/pushed from a window - murder/suicide??) and without a doubt his lack may have contributed to some of the confusion bought out by poorly written orders - d'Erlon's I Corps spent the entire marching uselessly between Quatre Bras and Ligny (and back), at both of which they could have made a decisive difference...Cornwell includes some of these orders - it was clear to me that either Bonaparte thought his divisional commanders didn't need their hands holding, or up until this campaign Berthier had drafted clearer orders out of what appear to be Bonaparte's rambling thoughts...

Third - his staff were not the best - Grouchy was indolent, Ney was both indolent and the opposite (and never stopped to think in either mode), his brother squandered thousands attacking Hougemont and no one thought to say "no", and as for the French cavalry charge - what was originally intended to be a small action snowballed out of control, while Ney wasted them in repeated and fruitless attacks...

But Waterloo was supposedly "the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life" so what balanced out the preceding??

First of course, Cornwell points out that Wellington was definitely outnumbered - not by a great amount, but the second, greater, issue was in troop quality - Wellington's army was only a third British, Wellington relied heavily on the British battalions (many of them Peninsula veterans), and of course the Kings German Legion, but the rest of his troops were of poor quality, and in some cases had been fighting for Bonaparte only a few years before..

Where Bonaparte definitely had the advantage was in his "beautiful daughters" - his 250 guns vastly outnumbered Wellington's 150 - and Bonaparte massed them in a grand battery...  despite the fact Wellington used his tried and trusted reverse slope deployment, Bonaparte's artillery were almost a battle winner...

In the end then - and purely in my view - Wellington won mainly because
  1. the incomparable (he's a hero of mine!) Blucher got there on time (despite Gneissenau!), but also 
  2. because Grouchy seemed to treat the entire affair of following up on the defeated Prussians after Ligny as some kind of Sunday afternoon picnic exercise, 
  3. because the French were unable to string an all arms attack together all day (the closest they got was probably the attack by the French heavy cavalry when they managed to bring some horse artillery up at the same time.... if the Imperial Guard had struck then who knows...)
  4. because he had just enough British and KGL troops to anchor the line and cause the rest to stand...
  5. because of the poor French staffwork
  6. because of the weather earlier int he day
  7. because because because....
What a cracking book...  I'm going to give this my first 10 of the year..

6 comments:

  1. Good Evening Steve,
    I have nearly finished this book and I am thoroughly enjoying it. I must admit seeing Bernard Cornwell talk about the research helped. He is a great raconteur. I wouldnt recommend the book if one is looking for a blow by blow account of the battle, I would probably opt for the Waterloo Companion. But as a great read, it is Cornwell at his best.Coming from a pro French sude, if Napoleon had been at his best I think he would have made short work of the allies. But to be fair to Wellington, it was a good position and he made sure that the troops he had fought.
    I only wish Davout had been with Napoleon, because I think the Iron Duke would have made certain that Jerome wasnt allowed to throw away his command, and he certainly wouldnt have sacrificed the best cavalry in Europe. This is the beauty of Waterloo, there are so many ifs.
    Thanks Robbie.

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    1. Robbie - you're a lucky man to have met Mr Cornwall... W.r.t who won the battle, I thought the same as you... if Bonaparte had pulled his finger out the day would have been his...

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  2. Thanks for the review, on the subject of the allies, my understanding was that they took a real pounding and stood and took it which suggests they were a lot better than they are given credit for.

    Ian

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    1. Ian - they did stand, and they did take a pounding - but I think they were saved by the Prussians.. One of the reasons they believe Ney launched the charge of the cuirassiers is because he could see what he believed to be a retreat - it may well have been some of those may have been allied battalions that had simply had enough... as well as wounded etc...

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  3. Excellent and useful review. I keep picking it up and then thinking "Do I really need another book on Waterloo?" and then putting it down again. One to put on my Christmas list, I think.

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    1. Legatus - hugely readable versions of the battle are few and far between.. :o)

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