Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles – Book Review
Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles. Bernard Cornwell. Harper, 2014. 342 pages of text, 38 pages of illustrations (many in color), 12 maps, and 4 pages of bibliography. Hardback. $35.00.
June 2015 marks the bicentennial of the Battle of Waterloo. A very readable version of the campaign and battle is Bernard Cornwell’s Waterloo. Cornwell wrote this book because “The battles of 16 June and 18 June 1815 make for a magnificent story. History is rarely kind to historical novelists by proving a neat plot with great characters who act within a defined time-period, so we are forced to manipulate history to make our own plots work. Yet when I wrote Sharpe’s Waterloo my plot almost entirely vanished to be taken over by the great story of the battle itself. Because it is a great story, not only in its combatants but in its shape. It is a cliffhanger. No matter how often I read accounts of that day, the ending is full of suspense. The undefeated Imperial Guard climbs the ridge to where Wellington’s battered forces are almost at the breaking the point. Off to the east the Prussians are clawing at Napoleon’s right, but if the Guard can break Wellington’s men then Napoleon still has time to turn against Blücher’s arriving troops. It is almost the longest day of the year, there are two hours of daylight left and time enough for one or even two armies to be destroyed. We might know how it ends, but like all good stories it bears repetition.”
Each of the twelve chapters starts with a map showing the area being described in the chapter. I really appreciated the clarity and appropriate level of detail in the map. Every place mentioned in the chapter can be found on one of the chapter maps, which is too often a rarity even with military history books.
Each chapter focuses on what happened for a specific time period, shifting the point-of-view between the three forces and especially the four leaders: Napoleon, Wellington, Blücher and his chief of staff, Gneisenau. The chapter titles make more sense after you read the chapter. For example the 6th chapter is entitled “A cannon ball came from the Lord knows where and took the head off our right-hand man”. That chapter describes the evening before and the early morning of the Waterloo battle with that phrase in one of the descriptions of the fighting.
Chapter 1 starts with a bored Napoleon in exile at Elba, angry over the French king Louis XVIII’s broken promises. When the British Commissioner watching Napoleon left with his blockading force to visit his mistress in Italy, Napoleon sailed for France, taking with him his 1,000 troops including the old Imperial Guard and Polish lancers. Cornwell takes this well-known story, enriching it with details such as the information that the British Embassy in Paris used to belong to Napoleon’s sister or that violets representing the emperor spreading throughout Paris in the color of women’s dresses. A French newspaper described Napoleon’s return to France and journey to Paris:
The Tiger has left his den.
The Ogre has been three days at sea.
The Wretch has landed at Fréjus.
The Buzzard has reached Antibes.
The Invader has arrived at Grenoble.
The Tyrant has entered Lyon.
The Usurper has been glimpsed fifty miles from Paris.
Tomorrow Napoleon will be at our gates!
The Emperor will proceed to the Tuileries today.
His Imperial Majesty will address his loyal subjects tomorrow.
Chapter 2 covers Napoleon stealing a march on Wellington and the confusion over where Napoleon is really headed. Wellington had concerns that Napoleon would head west and cut him off from the sea. The British and Prussians had to spread out over 100 miles, because they had to avoid exhausting the local supplies and because the allied intelligence was blinded by Napoleon closing the borders. It didn’t help the allies that “the local population, all French-speaking, was either sympathetic to Napoleon or sullenly apathetic.”
An unusual aspect of the campaign was that “officially, the allies were not at war with France, only with Bonaparte.” This had the unexpected consequence of prohibiting allied scouting parties from entering French territory, adding to the allies uncertainty to what Napoleon was doing.
The battles of Ligny and Quatre-Bras are covered in chapters 3 through 5, from the morning of June 16 through the afternoon then evening.
Napoleon had decided to focus on the Prussians at Ligny, with Marshal Ney being sent to secure Quatre-Bras to prevent the British from reinforcing the Prussians. Quatre-Bras ended up being a story of missed opportunities for the French as Ney did nothing for a long time then moved too little, too late. Cornwell says Ney “could have captured the crossroads any time that morning with little effort … Ney knew he was facing the British-Dutch army that was commanded by the Duke of Wellington … He had been at Busaco in 1810 when 65,000 French troops had attacked Wellington’s 50,000 and been bloodily repulsed … Ney, south of the crossroads, could not see what awaited him at Quatre-Bras … His experience in Spain, and his knowledge that he faced Wellington, could well have convinced him that the innocent-looking landscape actually concealed the whole of the British-Dutch army. This was a moment when Wellington’s reputation served him well.”
While Ney waited, a small force of Nassau troops from Wellington’s army, disobeyed orders to march to Nivelles to protect the British army’s route to the sea and instead marched east to Quartre-Bras, closer to the Prussians. By the time the French started moving, they had to fight instead of marching into an empty town. The Nassau troops held off the slow French attack, giving Wellington time to concentrate more of his army there.
In the meantime, Wellington met with Blücher near Ligny and said he would send troops if he wasn’t attacked at Quartre-Bras.
Ney finally did attack, but only after Wellington gathered a large part of his army at Quatre-Bras.
At Ligny Napoleon, though outnumbered (58,000 French soldiers vs. 76,000 Prussian soldiers) “was not dismayed at the disparity of numbers … the Emperor had troops in reserve, primarily a strong Corps of 22,000 men under the command of Count d’Erlon,”… and “Napoleon also fully expected that Ney’s massive force would fall like a hammer on the Prussian right.” Unexpectedly, neither reserve would take part at Ligny because of Ney.
The rest of the book, chapters 6 through 12, detail the events at Waterloo and Wavre on June 18.
Cornwell brings up an interesting “what if” with what happened the morning of June 17, right after the battles of Quatre-Bras and Ligny.
“Then [around 2am] Napoleon heard that Wellington’s army … was still at Quatre-Bras … (H)e saw his opportunity and sent orders for Ney to hold Wellington in place while the Emperor brought 69,000 men to fall on the Duke’s exposed left flank. Meanwhile Napoleon detached a quarter of his army … under Marshal Grouchy, and ordered them to pursue the Prussians.
This was the morning when Napoleon could have won the campaign. He had Ney’s men close to Wellington and the rest of his army within an hour’s march of the British-Dutch forces. If Napoleon attacked at dawn Wellington would surely be doomed, but the Emperor had let the morning go to waste, and when he did reach Quatre-Bras in the early afternoon he found the last units of the British-Dutch army just leaving, undisturbed by Ney’s troops, who were cooking meals in their bivouacs.”
Napoleon and Ney both were slow to act at many times during the campaign, passing up opportunities for victory. The downpour during the evening through to the morning of the 18th did little to make the French speed up their pursuits of the British-Dutch and Prussian armies. In fact, Grouchy lost contact with the Prussians and did not know which way they went.
The battle started with the attack at Hougoumont, led by Napoleon’s youngest brother Jérôme. “Relations between the two were often fraught, because Jérôme was a spendthrift wastrel. He was thirty-one years old in 1815, but his troubles with his brother began much earlier when, aged nineteen, he had met and married an American, Elizabeth Patterson from Baltimore. The marriage drove Napoleon into a fury. He needed his siblings to marry for dynastic reasons, not for something as trivial as love, and so he forbade Elizabeth to enter France and insisted his brother divorce her.”
Even with animosity between them, Napoleon appointed Jérôme “the leadership of the largest division of infantry … Now Jérôme had something to prove. He wanted to show his brother that he was not base, cowardly and spoiled by stupidity and, ordered to attack Hougoumont, he was determined to capture it.
Nothing wrong with that, except … Napoleon wanted it besieged … to persuade Wellington to reinforce the château’s garrison … weakening Wellington’s line.”
The Napoleon of 1805 or even 1812, would have reigned in unruly subordinates, but the Napoleon of 1815 seemed unable or unwilling to exert himself to make Ney, Grouchy, or even Jérôme follow his orders. Consequently, once Napoleon released a commander or force, he didn’t intervene, leading to disjointed attacks. Even so, Wellington was close to defeat until the Prussians showed up, diverting French forces. This made Ney’s mishandling of the French cavalry a disaster, as the Imperial Guard was committed to attack Wellington’s center without proper reconnaissance, leading to their repulse by three of Wellington’s strongest units.
“They were on the reverse slope, so the French, marching up the slope, saw no enemy infantry. They saw the flash of gunfire from blackened cannon muzzles, saw the smoke billow thick, saw their own ranks fall as the roundshot slashed through, and as they got closer the gunners switched to double-shot, loading canister over roundshot, and the carnage got worse, but it was never enough to stop the Guard. They were the Immortals and they were marching to destiny.
“It is strange that this climatic clash between the Imperial Guard and Wellington’s infantry is still wrapped in mystery…The fight that ensued is one of history’s most famous passage of arms, we have eyewitness accounts, thousands of men took part and many retold their experiences, yet still we do not know exactly what happened. There is even disagreement about who should take the victor’s honours, yet perhaps none of that is surprising. No one on either side was taking notes … And the men who were there, the men who made history, could only see a few yards around them, and what they saw was obscured by thick smoke, and their ears were assailed by the buzz of musket balls, the crash of cannons firing, the cries of the wounded, the clamour of officers and sergeants shouting, the explosions of shells, the incessant hammering of musket volleys, the pounding of more distant guns, the drums beating and trumpets screaming.”
The confusion extended to which force the British were facing: “the whole (British) Brigade of Guards (believed), that they faced the Grenadiers of the [French] Middle Guard, when in truth they were facing the Chasseurs of the Guard, and that mistake is why to this day (the British army has) a regiment called the Grenadier Guards. The 1st Foot Guards were honoured with the name of their enemy …
“And when they [the French Imperial Guard] broke, so did the hopes of France … The morale of the French troops collapsed, panic set in, men saw the undefeated Guard fleeing in defeat and they fled too. Even Napoleon admitted it.”
Cornwell wrote at the end of the book that “It is impossible to tell the story of a battle, because there are too many stories woven together and no one can unpick the strands.” And yet, he did a good job at doing the impossible in telling the story of the Waterloo campaign.
This a good book for someone who is not familiar with Napoleonic battles, because Cornwell provides good introductory explanations on formations, tactics, and personalities, such as this explanation of how a column works.
“(T)he preferred method of advancing men across open country was to form a column. That is a slightly misleading term, suggesting a long thin block of men advancing like a spear shaft towards the enemy line. In fact the column was short and squat. A French battalion of around 500 men arrayed in column … might have a frontage of one or two companies. If the 30th of the Line closed on Ligny in a column just one company wide, then the Prussian defenders would have seen thirty men in the French front rank, and seventeen other ranks behind them….
“The column had three advantages over the line. It was much easier to manoeuvre over rough ground, it was much less vulnerable to cavalry because there is no weak point that can be overwhelmed, and the very density of the formation was good for morale … Half-trained men could be marched into battle easily, and enemies were often over-awed by the sheer size of the attacking columns …
“Yet if the column was psychologically powerful it also had two weaknesses. A column was desperately vulnerable to cannon fire, and only the men in the outer two ranks and files could use their muskets … fewer than a quarter can shoot their muskets. If they are approaching a line then they will be massively outgunned, because every man in the line can fire.”
While Cornwell is British, he does give the French their due, as in his description of the medical services. “The French tended their wounded far better than their enemies, or at least attempted to, mainly through the influence of Dominique Jean Larrey, Chief Surgeon to the Imperial Guard. Larrey realized that treating men as soon as possible after they are wounded produced far better results than leaving them to suffer, and so he invented the ‘flying ambulance,’ a lightweight vehicle, well-sprung, with a swiveling front axle to make it manoeuvable on a battlefield crowed with corpses and wreckage, and with a floor which could be rolled out of the rear to make an operating table or help load the wounded.”
This is a very readable book on the campaign and the three battles. I recommend this book for everyone who has an interest Waterloo, especially if you enjoyed Cornwell’s Sharpe’s Rifles or Saxon Tales books.
Steven M. Smith has been an Armchair General contributor since 2010. He has a life-long interest in history especially the Napoleonic and Victorian periods. He was the owner of The Simulation Corner gaming retail outlet in Morgantown, West Virginia, until 1983. He is currently a member of the Historical Miniatures Gaming Society and works for Lockheed Martin in Baltimore, Maryland.