Monday, 29 June 2015

Book Review - Waterloo: The French Perspective - Andrew Field

Formidable! A really excellent and long overdue addition to the English language Waterloo literature.

Ever since acquiring what has grown into something of an obsession with Napoleonic history in childhood - and for me it all started with Waterloo - I've always been more drawn to the French than the English. It was after all their revolution that precipitated the whole period and and their leader who gives it his name. 

So as the years have passed and the book collection has grown, it's always been something of a disappointment for me that Waterloo has, until recently, been almost always treated, within the voluminous English language literature, from the Allied, or to be more accurate, the British perspective. This has galled me to such a degree that until very recently I've deliberately sidelined the campaign that was my original intro to the period, and instead explored such campaigns as those of 1809 (France vs. Austria) and 1812 (France and her allies/vassals vs. Russia).

Ligny, Ernest Crofts.

Fortunately things are changing, as Andrew Field himself says in his intro to this superbe book. In more recent times people like Peter Hofschröer have been highlighting the very significant German contribution to Waterloo; not just the deal-sealing arrival of the Prussians, but also the very large contingents of Germans - not to mention Dutch and Belgian troops - within Wellington's army. And now, to his great credit, and reversing two centuries of near complete Anglo-centric bias, Field has, in the spirit of hussar and participant in Waterloo Sergeant Major Edward Cotton, who he quotes at the end of the book, given the French 'the tribute of respect and admiration which their bravery and misfortunes claim'.

Near La Belle Alliance at Dawn, Ernest Crofts
(Milntown Trust).

The book itself, which draws on numerous French accounts, some published as standalone books, but many buried in French military archives (Carnet de le Sabertache, etc), benefits from the excellent literary organisational principle of many short chapters, which makes reading it a great pleasure, as you feel you're always making good rapid progress ('en avance!'). After an excellent introduction, Field starts with the state of the French Army in 1815, before moving rapidly through the events that lead up to Waterloo, including brief synopses of Ligny and Quatre Bras.

The Morning of the Battle of Waterloo, Ernest Crofts
(Museums Sheffield).

The book is also subdivided into sections. The aforementioned stuff forms section one. Sections two to seven cover the battle, starting with the night before, progressing through to the morning of the battle, during which long period activity was more or less constant; Napoleonic warfare was a round the clock affair, with all arms and ranks susceptible to the possibility of being called upon for all manner of duties, at any time of day or night!

Each section is full of fascinating detail, and uses, as much as possible, firsthand French accounts to flesh out the narrative and the action. There are still quite a lot of quotes from Allied and English sources, sometimes to fill gaps in the French records, and sometimes to either show another side to long held Anglocentric versions of events, or to illustrate how the Allies reacted to certain French actions. The level of detail is fantastic, and the use of firsthand accounts masterful. The whole thing is both highly informative and tremendously engaging.

Closing the Gates at Hougoumont, Richard Gibbs
(National Army Museum, Scotland).

The moments worthy of mention are innumerable, so I'll leave them, and let you enjoy them for yourselves, direct from the horses mouth, so to speak. There's a lot here, both in terms of characters and events, that readers of Napoleonic literature will already know to some extent. But there's also a lot, by virtue of taking the French perspective, that revitalises this so oft-discussed battle. And just as the book looks closely at the build up to the battle, Field also uses his sources to look at the aftermath, as the French army disintegrated and fled south. 

Some excellent additional material - analyses of tactics, summaries of the various events, OOB, a list of French sources (in addition to a more conventional broader bibliography), and a very enjoyable chapter of anecdotes - all conspire to make an already excellent book even better. Pen & Sword titles can be quite varied in terms of editorial finesse. I just read an abridged version of Mercer's Waterloo journal that was strewn with lamentable typos. Waterloo The French Perspective is, thankfully, a heck of a lot better in this regard [1].

On the Evening of the Battle of Waterloo, Ernest Crofts
(National Museums Liverpool).

This is a truly excellent and long overdue addition to the vast literature on Waterloo. And it's such a wonderful thing that a British soldier and historian has, like Edward Cotton so long before him, seen that it doesn't tarnish British martial glory - if anything instead enhancing it - to look at what has for so long (and so understandably) been trumpeted as a key British victory, from the perspective of the vanquished yet valiant foe. Superbe!


It turns out that British Victorian painter Ernest Crofts was very useful for illustrating this article. He did all but one (discounting the book cover image) of the paintings reproduced here! Like Field, he's an Englishman helping us all enjoy a better view of the French perspective!

[1] If I were nit-picking, I could point out that there are numerous occasions of tautology, including several instances - some avowedly deliberate, others probably not - of reproducing segments from certain sources. 


  1. Thanks Seb, for such an interesting review and nice illustrations. It sounds a very worthy read.

  2. You're more than welcome Chris, and thank you for the positive feedback.