Saturday, June 18, 2016

Waterloo - Le 18ème Juin 1815

The Battle of Waterloo by Jan Willem Pieneman* (Source)
Those of you who have been reading The Chant for at least a year know that I always do a Waterloo post. I have done so since the year we started doing the blog in 2012. Last year (it being the bicentennial of the battle) there were four posts, one for each critical day in the Waterloo campaign. Being the 15th through the 18th of June, inclusive. You can read those here, here, here, and here. I rather enjoyed doing those and reread them myself the other day. (If you're interested in the other old Waterloo posts, they are here, here, here, and here. The last two have lots of nice artwork. Well, they all do, but...)

Having read even more about the battle since then, I spotted a few historical anomalies in those posts. I won't say "mistakes" (not out of vanity mind you) because the things I spotted which may be in error may not be. Two hundred years after such a momentous event and not every story has been told about that battle. Not every "fact" about the affair is generally agreed upon in the historical community, for as the great Duke himself wrote -
The history of a battle, is not unlike the history of a ball. Some individuals may recollect all the little events of which the great result is the battle won or lost, but no individual can recollect the order in which, or the exact moment at which, they occurred, which makes all the difference as to their value or importance. - Letter to John Croker (8 August 1815) from Sir Arthur Wellesley, First Duke of Wellington.
I wasn't sure what to post about this famous battle this year, it seemed as if I had already covered just about everything in the past. But it's not an anniversary I have ever let pass without thinking of that event so long ago. It seems I have been reading about Waterloo since, well, since I learned to read.

This year I purchased a new book on Waterloo which had been recommended to me by my friend Geoff in the U.K. He said it was excellent and he really stressed just how good it was, so I did the research and sallied forth onto and bought it. I am just now finishing it up and have to say this, Geoff wasn't lying as to how good this book is. If anything he undersold it! (Perhaps it's that classic British knack for understatement at work?) Here's the book...

Worth every ducat it is.

The story is primarily from the soldier's point of view, the privates, sergeants, and junior officers. The occasional colonel wanders in, but this isn't a book about what the generals saw. It's the gritty, nasty business of 19th century warfare down on the ground, in the mud if you will, for the battle was fought on rain-sodden fields. Very muddy it was.

Another superb book on the battle, at a somewhat higher level is this one...


Mr. Barbero has written a superb account of Waterloo and I would say this book is essential to really understanding the battle. I am somewhat miffed at the moment because my copy of the book is currently "missing in action." Can't seem to find it anywhere. No small chore as I have a lot of books.

Which The Missus Herself is always chiding me about. "What? Another book? We're going to have to add an addition onto the house to store all of your books! And you're buying more?!?!"

Here are a few (maybe a fifth, perhaps a third?) of the books I have on the Napoleonic era...

That book in the upper right of the photo, Swords Around A Throne by Col. John R. Elting is perhaps the best single volume history of Napoléon's army which I have ever read. It covers the troops, what sort of people they were, how they were trained, their equipment and the tactics they used.

Their enemies are also discussed and the attitudes of the French towards their enemies. Their are any number of amusing anecdotes as well. To include the many odd nicknames Napoléon's men referred to him by. (Le Tondu, "the shorn one" is a favorite. The Emperor's Guard tended to have long hair tied back in a queue. As the Emperor wore his hair short...)

The book by Bernard Cornwell (one of my absolute favorite authors) Waterloo, The History of Four Days, Three Armies and Three Battles, is, to me, another must have to really understand the Battle of Waterloo. Mr. Cornwell is a brilliant storyteller, his descriptions of battle are unequaled.

If you're wondering, the answer is "No, one cannot have too many books about Waterloo." Maybe it's just me. When I was a kid a teacher asked me why I read so much about Waterloo, what was the point? My answer was that my goal was to know everything about the battle, even down to having a list of every single person who fought and died there.

She said that I would need a lot more time, and a lot more written material. Oh, and good luck with that.

Note above that I said "every single person" and not "man." That was intentional. Two stories of Waterloo have always resonated deeply with me. One, mentioned again in Barney White-Spunner's masterpiece Of Living Valour, is the dead tortoiseshell kitten seen on the field, remarked upon by more than one soldier. That kitten joined thousands of her animal brethren lying dead upon that field. Upwards of 10,000 horses died at Waterloo. The other involves a dead woman, said (of course) to be quite beautiful. The one woman, who has been mentioned in a few sources, but not in Of Living Valour, apparently died in action wearing the uniform of the Dragoons of the Imperial Guard** (one source says she wore a colonel's uniform!)

An estimated 55,000 men (and one woman) were killed or wounded at Waterloo. It was a bloody, decisive affair. One prays we don't see its like ever again.

Though I think we might...

The book on the bottom row, second from the right, The Battle of Waterloo, is the book which started it all. It is the very first book I ever read on the battle. Some years ago I managed to acquire an old, dog-eared copy. I probably paid too much for it, but I cherish that book. It is in no way the best book on Waterloo. But it was my first.

You never forget your first.

Dedicated to those who fought in the Waterloo Campaign of 1815: be they English, Irish, Welsh, Scottish, Dutch, Belgian, Hanoverian, Brunswickers, Nassauers, Germans, Prussians, Swiss, or French. And (at least) one Spaniard.

You fought hard, you fought well. We remember, we salute you across the centuries. May you rest in peace...

The Battle of Waterloo by Clément-Auguste Andrieux (Source)

* Because it's such an interesting painting, here's all the key figures in it - The Battle of Waterloo, 18 June 1815. View of the battle field on the moment that the British commander Wellington receives the message that help from Prussian troops is underway. Bottom left the wounded Prince of Orange is being carried away. The commanders and other officers are depicted in the center on horseback. Bottom right a number of wounded and dead soldiers. In the background the battle is raging. The people portrayed include Lord Uxbridge, Sir Rowland Hill, Staff Colonel Sir William Delancey, Major-General George Cooke, Colonel Harvey, Colonel Campbell, lieutenant-general Don Miquel de Alava, lieutenant-colonel F.C. Ponsonby, Major William Thornhill, Jean Victor, baron De Constant de Rebeque, Colonel Sir John Elley, lieutenant-colonel Aberson, General-major A.K.J.G. d'Aubremé, Captain Aberson, Captain H. Roepel, Colonel H. Detmers, Major J.L.D. van der Smissen, Lieutenant-colonel A. van Thielen, Lieutenant-colonel Jhr. W.F. Boreel, Lieutenant-general D.H. Baron Chassé, Colonel Sir G.A. Wood, General Major J.B. Baon van Merlen, Lieutenant-general Ch. von Alten, Major General Sir Colin Halkett, Lieutenant-Colonel William George Harris, Captain C. Nepveu, Fitzroy James Henry Somerset, H.D. Graaf De Cruquenbourg, N.C. Ampt, General-Major Jhr. A.D. Trip, John William Fremantle, General-Major Graaf van Rheede, Major-General Lord Edward Somerset, Charles Gordon Lennox, Lord March, Colonel Dennis Pack, Major P.S.R. van Hooff, Major-general John Ormsby Vandeleur, Major Georg, Freiherr Baring, Colonel C. Von Ompteda, Colonel L.J.H.F. De Caylar and Général de Division Cambronne, Maréchal de Camp. The painting was done by Jan Willem Pieneman (1824) and is now on display at the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam.

** Also known as Les Dragons de l'Impératrice (The Empress' Dragoons), in honor of Empress Joséphine,


  1. I truly enjoyed Cornwell's book and, I agree, there can never be too many books! One of my regrets is that the topography of the battlefield has been altered to the point where it becomes difficult to visualize the ebb and flow of the battle.

    1. The Butte du Lion really destroyed the Allied side of the field. The immediate vicinity around Hougoumont looks much ad it did in 1815. (Though the wood to the south is long gone.)

  2. Thank you for this post, as I have not previously had much interest in this battle. I have added Mr. Spunner's book to my must read list and will attempt to get to it before I die.

    Paul L. Quandt

    1. I just finished it this morning Paul, it is superb from start to finish. The author knows his stuff, his full name is Lieutenant General Sir Barnabas William Benjamin White-Spunner KCB, CBE. A veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan. Tells a mighty fine story he does.

  3. Great post Sarge! Just imagine the envy with which most 19th century people would gaze upon your library. I greatly appreciate your recommendations for reading -- you could charge money for that list!

    I've been buying up copies of olden books I read as a ute. All completely worthless to anyone but me, each one overpaid for, and the whole enterprise deeply satisfying..

    Regarding the last painting, do you suppose it's artistic license or were the heavies really that concentrated at that moment in time?

    Again, super post and thanks!

    1. The French cavalry (primarily heavies like the cuirassiers and dragoons, with support from light cavalry) made an estimated seven charges in the fields between La Haye Sainte and Hougoumont. An estimated 9000 troopers on a front perhaps 800 yards wide. They were packed knee to knee.

  4. "Not every "fact" about the affair is generally agreed upon..."

    Ain't it the truth.
    One ship, two logs.
    Each contain a report of the same instance.
    Each is an official report.
    There are statements from each which are in direct conflict.
    Neither of the individuals who were keeping the log were in a position to be held responsible for the incident. Neither report made the other look bad, except for the contrary nature of the report.
    We never heard what the same two logs from the other ship had in them.
    But the Board of Inquiry was inconclusive.
    Nobody was relieved of command.

    1. Which is why eyewitness testimony at a crime scene is considered dicey. Two people, seeing the exact same event, from two different perspectives will give completely contradictory accounts of what they saw. Both accurate? Both wrong? I guess it depends on circumstance.

  5. THE BATTLE OF WATERLOO has the Charge of the Scots Greys on the cover, so it has that going for it. Why is Woodrow Wilson riding the brown horse with the white blaze in the top painting?

    One can learn a lot on your site!

    1. Hahaha! I believe that is actually Sir Rowland "Daddy" Hill, commander of Wellington's II Corps. Unless you mean the chap in the center of the painting, which would be His Grace Duke of Wellington.

      (Just realized today that there were two guys in the foreground on brown horses with a white blaze. And they both kinda look like Woodrow Wilson. My bad.)

  6. I guess I shall have to buy Swords Around A Throne, then, if you like it.

    1. I am quite certain that I have read that book at least 15 times. Love it every time. My copy is rather ragged, I would get a new copy but that book is indeed an old friend.

      I highly recommend it.

  7. Perhaps you might mention to the Misses that collecting books is far less expensive than other activities. For examples, cars, boats, airplanes, and firearms.

  8. I hvae been reading your blog for a little while now and I enjoy it very much. I took your advice on 2 Waterloo books, Cornwell's and Corrigan's. I really enjoyed Corrigan's and look forward to reading some of his other books, written very differently. About a quater way through Cornwell's right now and like it very much as well. Thanks and keep up the good work. A retired AF Msgt as well.

    1. Welcome aboard Master Sergeant!

      Glad you like those books, I know I did.


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