Home About Membership Contact Despatches Supplies Forum Gallery News
A Birthday, A Battlefield and Two Books
A Review of Two Books on Waterloo
by Peter Hunt

The Birthday was mine.  The “Big Four-Oh”.  Instead of the normal mid-life crisis - quit job, leave wife, buy sports car, drive to Baja California and start writing The Great American Novel - I took the easy option and went to France and Belgium to spend the big day on the battlefield - Waterloo.  The two books are both fairly recent accounts of the battle, but that is about all that they have in common: Bernard Cornwell’s “Sharpe’s Waterloo” and “Waterloo, New Perspectives. The Great Battle Reappraised” by David Hamilton-Williams.

I assume that if you are a wargamer you have a rough idea of the course of the battle.  Indeed if you have only ever seen the film of the same name you should have a pretty fair idea of the course of events.  Therefore this article will not dwell on the battle itself but will discuss what to do on the battlefield and where to do it; and compare and contrast the two books.

The Battlefield

Brussels is the place to start.  A great town.  It has old buildings, beer, seafood and chocolates in equally large measures.  Also remember that you are in the birthplace of the chip!  You can get a half day package tour to the battlefield on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays which will pick you up at your hotel.  However a few hours on the battlefield and then back on the bus will probably leave you apoleptic with frustration so I advise you do what I did and arrange your own transport.  Its not difficult.  The Avis office is in the Hilton Hotel and they gave me an upgrade because it was my birthday!  The Hotel captain is used to directing people to the field and will give you a basic map.  I also took  the Michelin 1/200,000 series map number 213 - “Brussels, Oostende, Liege - which covers all the main sites of the 1815 campaign and many from Marlborough’s Wars and The First World War as well.

From the Hilton its about a half hour drive through the Forest of Soignies to the village of Waterloo.  Nowadays the forest stops well north of the village but in 1815 the woods went much further south, almost to the battlefield itself.  Right in the middle of the village is The Wellington Museum which is in a coaching inn that the Duke used as his headquarters.  The museum is open every day, except Christmas and New Year’s Day, and is well worth a visit.  They still have the bed that he slept in.  This is also a good place to pick up David Howarth’s Guide to the battlefield.

From the museum its a five minute drive to the battlefield itself.  You can’t miss it.  The only developments since the battle have all been concentrated on the centre right of the allied position.  On the cross-roads itself there is now a restaurant and a hotel.  More of the latter later.  About 200 metres further west are the visitors centre, the Lion Mound, the Panorama building containing Moulin’s huge circular depiction of the French cavalry charges, three restaurants, a wax museum, car parks and souvenir shops.  This may sound enough to ruin any battlefield, especially when you remember that to raise the Lion Mound the Dutch took about six feet of the height of the ridge, but, in fact, the rest of the field is untouched, just like it was in 1815, and instantly recognisable.  OK, so we have lost the so called “Sunken Road” and the site where the smaller column of the French guard almost broke through, but every thing else remains just as you expected it to be.

Much as you expect, except much smaller that is.  For this is my overwhelming impression of Waterloo-how small it is compared to other Napoleonic fields I have visited like Rolica, Vimiero, Aspern and Wagram.  It is easy to see how Wellington could exercise his personal leadership style and be at the decisive points of the battle whenever he was needed.  From the centre of the allied position you can walk to the extreme of either flank in half an hour.  You could probably do it in less than ten minutes on a horse.

I spent four hours on the battlefield and still didn’t do half of what I wanted.  La Haie Sainte, Hougoumont and La Belle Alliance are practically unchanged.  I marched up the slope on the route of the Garde Chasseurs taking a photograph every 20 metres until I could see Mrs. Hunt obligingly waiting at the top, (range about 40 metres, point blank for musketry - bang your dead!). I marvelled about how little of the allied position you can see from the French centre right.  Wellington could see everything the French were throwing at him.  Napoleon, on the other hand, had most of the battlefield in “dead ground”.  He has been criticised for spending most of the battle in the rear at his headquarters at La Caillou.  But even if he had spent the whole day at La Belle Alliance he would only have been able to personally supervise D’Erlon’s attack against the allied left and the attacks on La Haie Sainte, he could not see anything else.

Then back in the car and off to Placenoit, a few minutes drive from La Belle Alliance.  Only a fleeting visit with no time to visit the church or the sites where at different times the Young Guard, and later two battalions of the Old, cleared the village.  Then back to the “chausee” and a twenty minute drive down to Quatre Bras with a detour to try and find the old bridge at Genappe where the French rout turned into disintegration.  Alas not enough time to find it!

Quatre Bras lacks the commercialisation of Waterloo but suffers from one massive change - the Bossu Wood which anchored the allied right has completely disappeared so the battlefield looks much larger than it really was.  My two major impressions of this field are how strong the defences of Gemioncourt Farm are, its a veritable mini-fortress; and how relatively steep is the French approach to the battlefield from Frasnes.  Having seen it myself I am now in full agreement with Jac Weller’s interpretation of the battle - that Ney was so uncharacteristically cautious to begin with because he thought that he was in another “Peninsular” battle with the entire British army hiding at the top of the slope.  It was not until the French had cleared the initial allied position and reached the brook at Gemioncourt that Ney reverted to form and started throwing everything he had at the allied army - too little, too late.

From Quatre Bras its a fifteen minute drive to the battlefield of Ligny.  Here however scale and time were against me.  The Prussian positions cover several miles with the French approaches correspondingly longer.  I do not think that you could walk the battlefield in less than a day, and even using a car to visit the main points would take up an afternoon.

So far we had spent seven hours and much was left undone.  Ligny, Wavre, La Caillou, Genappe, Placenoit and Frischermont were all largely unexplored.  This leads me to conclude that to do this campaign justice, not to mention sating the appetite of someone who has travelled 8,000 miles to get there, will take two full days, preferably three!  Which brings me back to the hotel.  You would certainly get a head start if you could stay overnight on the battlefield of Waterloo.  For this “Hotel Le 1815”, situated right at the allied cross-roads, less than 30 metres from the tree that now grows on the sight of Wellington’s famous elm seems ideal.  It is new, well appointed, although we didn’t stay there, and has five Belgian stars, (say three and a half Hong Kong).  Prices start at about $750 Hong Kong a night.  The food and wine is good, but not brilliant.  Someday I hope to return to the battlefield and this is where I shall be staying.  If you would like to try it, the telephone number is 32 2 387 0060.

So what about the books?  It may seem funny but the two books make a good pair.  One is best described as “pulp history” whilst the other is “revisionist” in the same way that some recent histories of World War Two are, mixing reasonably good scholarship with poor judgement and, perhaps, dubious politics.  Together however they give a good account of the battle.

Sharpe first.  Well the quick review is: if you like Sharpe you will love this.  Our hero, and his trusty sidekick Harper, proceed through the campaign showing equal contempt for Napoleon and the aristocrats on their own side.  Cornwell doesn’t make the mistake of trying to have Sharpe at every significant action but he still gives a standard account of the campaign.  Indeed his little vignettes describing the important bits where Sharpe isn’t are some of the better bits of the book.  For instance, his account of D’Erlon’s attack and the Allied counterattack borrows very heavily from Jac Weller but it is a really good description for all that.  His description of the aftermath of the battle also appealed to me.  Harper sums it all up with; “God save Ireland, but we made a right bloody shit-heap of this place.”

Cornwell’s history is unashamedly British and biased.  The Brits are brilliant.  The Duke practically a deity.  The Emperor is below contempt.  Gneisenau is almost as bad, well he would have to be - he had the misfortune to be born German.  The Prince of Orange is a dangerous twit.  The Dutch-Belgians, in general, are unreliable, treacherous cowards.  Enjoy the book but take it with a pinch of salt.

On the other hand David Hamilton-Williams,(DHW from now on,) is a serious historian.  The quick review of his book is: just like the parson’s egg - good in parts.  However when it is good it is very, very good and when it is bad it is pretty awful.  The whole problem is well summed up in the Duke of Angelsey’s introduction.  The Duke, no mean historian in his own right, notes that, whilst DHW is “for some tastes perhaps a little too spellbound by the Emperor”, nobody who reads the book “will doubt that the reassessment he offers is an essential step towards the truth”.

The great truth that DHW has uncovered is that Siborn, who’s “Waterloo Letters” and account of the campaign is the original source for practically every English language history of the campaign, doctored the letters and twisted the account to make officers who were supporting him financially look good.  Siborn’s son compounded this in his version of the campaign because he didn’t want his dad remembered as a deceptive bankrupt.  Later historians, not least amongst them Sir Charles Oman, and everyone since, screwed up by using Siborn’s edited letters as their source rather than checking the originals.  DHW did check the originals.  What did he find?

Firstly, the Dutch-Belgians come out of things in a far better light.  Having compared many unedited bits of the letters with Dutch and German archives, DHW finds that most of the cases of Dutch-Belgian cowardice turn out to be misinterpretations by xenophobic Brits.  In truth the attitude of the Brits to their allies was probably coloured by the poor relationship they had with the Spanish in the Peninsular War.  However, DHW’s argument that Siborn purposely perpetuated this myth for his own ends seems persuasive.  For instance, DWH quotes a letter from a British officer facing D’Erlon’s attack that specifically states that Dutch-Belgian units were in the forefront of the counterattack.  Siborn edited out this inconvenient paragraph.  There are many similar little revelations throughout the book which make the footnotes almost a better read than the main text.

Secondly DHW provides a good reappraisal of some of the characters involved in the campaign.  Both Gneisenau and the Dutch general Rebecque get good write ups.  The latter especially for pulling Wellington’s chestnuts from the fire at Quatre Bras.  However in other cases the reappraisals are less convincing.  DHW tries to whitewash the Prince of Orange.  His decision to put Halket’s brigade into line at Quatre Bras is described as “logical” even though it was subsequently run down by Kellerman’s charge.  DHW argues that the Regiment that was broken, the 69th., did so because of a bungled order, (evidence of which Siborn suppressed,) whilst the brigade could not have been surprised because it should have heard or felt the oncoming cuirassiers even if it could not see them.  Since the brigade was, undoubtedly, surprised, we can only conclude that either the officers of all three regiments were deaf incompetents or that the Prince of Orange and DHW got it wrong.  By similar leaps of logic Wellington is rated as a bad general because he did not counterattack in the afternoon at Waterloo.  DHW’s argument goes that because of his passive tactics Wellington allowed Napoleon to inflict casualties on him with the artillery bombardment after the cavalry charges.  Unfortunately DHW does not consider how much higher the casualties would have been if the Allies had left their relatively safe positions behind the ridge and advanced into the teeth of Napoleon’s grand battery and reserves.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly in my view, DHW gives a really good account of the last act of Waterloo.  He stresses not the attacks of the Guard, although these are covered well, but events on the Allied left where Prussians of Zeithen’s Corps broke through the “hinge” of the French line where the front against Wellington turned 90 degrees to make the front against Blucher.  Thus the French collapse was so complete and so fast because the French opposite the Allied right saw the Guard go down the tubes whilst, at practically the same time, those opposite the Allied left found Prussians behind them.  No wonder they ran!

DHW’s main failing is that he loves Napoleon so unquestioningly that he seems to lose all sense of proportion when it comes to those who opposed him.  If Wellington gets a bit of a hard time then the Bourbons get totally vilified!  Even worse are those Frenchmen who “betrayed” their Emperor.  Even Davout gets hit with this stick.  DHW subscribes completely to the murder theory of Napoleon’s demise so this gives you an idea where he is coming from.  Still, for all this nonsense, DHW’s account is so well researched, and reasonably well written, that it makes a very good read.  It left me with many new ideas about the Waterloo campaign.  I still believe that the best general on the battlefield spent most of the day underneath a shot torn elm tree not 30 metres from where I raised a glass to my 40th birthday.  I advise you to read this book and to make your own mind up.

back to the contents page    back to napoleonic wars