Saturday 28 March 2015

Book Review: The Longest Afternoon - Brendan Simms

I wrote this review some while ago now, having not long before finished Andrew Roberts 800 page Napoleon The Great. After that I wanted something that would continue my Napoleonic jag, but wouldn't be quite such a demanding investment in time. Having read Napoleon's own early writing effort, Clisson & Eugénie, in about 10 mins [1], Brendan Simms' The Longest Afternoon turned out to be just what I was after.

Subtitled 'The 400 Men Who Decided The Battle Of Waterloo', it sounds at first a little like it might be trying to re-tell this oft-covered story in the style of what is now termed 'revisionist' history: 'You thought you knew the story? Let me tell you what really happened!' That kind of deal. 2015 is bound to see many new books on the subject, as well as old books recycled or reissued, and in the effort to be noticed a dramatic title could help attract sales and interest. A potentially good example of this kind of attention-grabbing idea is a book I haven't read as yet, entitled The Lie At The Heart Of Waterloo!

Simms also references the works of Peter Hofschröer several times - Hofschröer is well known in Napoleonic circles, partly for his rather confrontational and controversial stance on one issue very relevant here, his position being succinctly summed up in one of his own titles, Waterloo The German Victory - and his (Simms, that is) choice to call his last chapter 'Legacy: a 'German Victory'?' might appear to strengthen this apparent link.

I'm part way through reading the above-mentioned Hofschröer title, so my verdict isn't in on that just yet. But I have to say I really loved his book Wellington's Smallest Victory, which tells the fascinating story of Capt. Siborne's travails in the course of building his famous Waterloo diorama.

La Haye Sainte as pictured on a postcard about a century after the battle.

Actually, although Simms addresses a few areas that have been seen by some interested in Waterloo as difficult or contentious, if not necessarily controversies, I certainly don't think he's really intending to start any arguments, or even stoke the fires of such as already exist. But he does make the point, and very well, that perhaps the action at La Haye Sainte, and in particular the role of the King's German Legion in it, hasn't received the attention their part of the story deserves.

With the approaching bicentennial of Waterloo (it was December 2014 when I originally wrote this) the already gargantuan field that is Waterloo literature is only set to get more crowded, and finding interesting angles on the whole shebang becomes more important for both authors and readers. Simms has done a great job in this respect, focussing on the actions at and around La Haye Sainte, a key feature of the battle of Waterloo. The buildings that comprise La Haye Sainte are described thus on Wikipedia: 'a walled farmhouse compound at the foot of an escarpment on the Charleroi-Brussels road'.

One of several key forward positions in Wellington's defensive line, situated centrally between the other two exposed bastions of Hougoumont and Papelotte, it proved to be a small but crucial stronghold in this most famous of battles, absorbing Napoleon's troops in a manner he'd hoped and planned to avoid. Simms' sources are diverse, and woven well into his account, and his writing style is obviously erudite, but also fluent and easy. He certainly isn't stuffily over-academic; it's not often you see a book by a Cambridge academic on Waterloo quoting Abba under a chapter heading!

A nice C19th print: Centre of The British Army, at La Haye Sainte.

Another populist reference - and I'm not someone who needs or even wants my history leavened with such things, unless they're pertinent, as they are here - is to the Waterloo episode of the TV series Sharpe, which he notes because it features La Haye Sainte heavily, even portraying Major Baring, who comes as close to a hero as you'll find in Simms' account.

Sergei Bondarchuk's incredible Waterloo movie also depicts some of the action involving La Haye Sainte. In this epic film, although it isn't so central to the film's action as it is in Sharpe's Waterloo, it's certainly portrayed as central to the battle, a fact made abundantly clear when Rod Steiger as Napoleon says 'La Haye Sainte, the one who wins the farmhouse wins the battle'. One of the potentially contentious ideas attached to this subject is whether or not Wellington underestimated the strategic importance of this point of the battlefield, and in doing so risked losing the fight.

The Longest Afternoon is divided into eight chapters, with a short preface, appendices, bibliography and notes. The graphic elements of the edition I have, pictured at the very top of this review, include the cover, a near isometric view of the farm complex used as endpapers, and three maps (La Haye Sainte, the battlefield, and a strategic view of Frech and Allied deployments in Western Europe, in May, 1815). These are all done in a bold linear graphic style that very much resembles old-fashioned woodcuts.

Although this visual style is beautiful, adding to the attractiveness of this particular edition of the book, the maps aren't the greatest I've ever seen, in terms of conveying detail and information. And uniform buffs - and we all know the Napoleonic breed are particulalry tetchy - may find this cover (some editions feature a fantastic oil painting of a scene inside the farmhouse courtyard, as shown below) has some oddities about it. These graphics are by artist and anarchist Clifford Harper [2], a regular contributor of illustrations to the Guardian, amongst other things, who sounds most intriguing!

I think this may be the cover for the US edition. It's a small detail of a much larger (and excellent) painting by Adolf Northern, which I reproduce in full below.

Chapters are, like the book as a whole, short and easy to read, and remain engaging and informative throughout. The action unfolds chronologically, after a bit of scene-setting concerning the role of Germanic elements in British armies of the era in general, and the Hanoverians in Wellington's force in particular. I found it a compelling read. A real page-turner that was very hard to put down.

Simms avoids giving too much in the way of time-specific details, and after the main body of the text discusses his reasons, which boil down more or less to the ol' 'fog of war' chestnut. He also notes, after citing numerous personal accounts, that we must be cautious in being too trusting of personal memoirs and the like. Perhaps rather like Wellington on the day of battle itself, Simms uses his materials very adroitly, weaving a very colourful, believable, and engaging portrayal of the events depicted.

I won't go into a blow by blow account of the action - buy and read the book for that, Simms does it very well! - but I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed it. Simms himself has high praise for Barbero's The Battle, and I agree with him, certainly that's the most compelling account of the whole battle of Waterloo I've read so far. Simms' short and masterfully executed work offers something refreshingly different, giving us a window onto a small but crucial aspect of this fascinating and horrifying battle. His contribution to this crowded field is terrific, and a real joy to read.

Adolf Northern: Die Verteidigung des Meierhofes La Haye Sainte bei Waterloo, 1815.


I don't know if this is amongst the Waterloo dioramas I've already covered elsewhere on this blog, but, whilst researching the topic of La Haye Sainte for this post I found this:

The defence of La Haye Sainte ... which looks terrific!


[1] Only 18 of the 128 pages of Clisson & Eugénie are the story itself! most of the Gallic Edition being given over to commentary either side of the rather slight text.

[2] The link in the main body is to a Wikipedia entry on Harper. To visit his own website, click here.

Thursday 19 March 2015

Napoleon at The Fitz: An exhibition of Napoleonic themed prints at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (UK).

Simply title 1813, this lithograph by August Raffet helps mythologise the 'little corporal'. His ADC's are busy behind him, as he stands heroically beside a bivouac fire, as some ghostly bearskin wearing grenadiers march past.

Much to this old grognard's delight, an exhibition entitled Modern Heroism: Printmaking and the legacy of Napoleon Bonaparte is currently showing in a small room at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. 

NB: Please note, the images that appear here are, unless otherwise indicated, taken on my iPad at the exhibition, and Photoshopped a little to improve the contrast, etc. Consequently they are not of museum display quality! If you want that, go see the show!

I've always had a soft spot for The Fitz, as this wonderful museum is known to many Cambridge locals.  But in all the time that I've been visiting the museum - and that goes way back to the years of my childhood - I've never known the institution to have held a show of any size, large or small, dedicated to the Napoleonic era.

A very nice lithographic version, by an artist called Victor Adam, and here simply called Chasseur (c.1825-9), of Gericault's hugely famous 1812 work The Charging Chasseur (sometimes also known, more fully, as An Officer of the Imperial Horse Guards Charging).

As a regular visitor to this venerable institution, which really feels like a London museum, having an exhibition dedicated to a passionate interest of my own feels like a dream come true. Actually Cambridge is spoiled, in that it has way more than normal the number of museums for a town of its size, many of which punch well above the average weight of your more common parochial town museum. The Fitz is the prime exemplar of this lucky situation, looking like a scaled down British Museum of sorts, replete with an impressive neo-classical façade, and some very regal lion statues.

The sort of print that might appeal to uniform buffs. Of course it would be more helpful if in colour!

I've been told more than once that these were models for some lions in London (Trafalgar Square... are there any lions there?). However, my Google researches threw up no such connections. But I did learn that according to old folklore 'when the Church of Our Lady and the English Martyrs’ clock strikes midnight, the Fitzwilliam Lions rise from their plinths and make their way to drink from the gutters that run along Trumpington Street, a few metres from where they sit'!

Bacchants Riding on Panthers, by Michelangelo, c.1506-08. Currently being displayed at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (until August 2015). Photo credit: The Fitzwilliam Museum

Anyway, moving on from the lions, and glossing over the much more trumpeted Michelangelo sculptures that are currently on display (pictured above; you can read about there at the museum's website, or in this Guardian piece, if you like), let's get to the Napoleonic prints. The prints are culled from the museum's extensive collection, and number amongst them such illustrious and well known names as Delacroix and Gericault, both known for famous Napoleonic imagery, and the slightly later satirist, Daumier.

Pretty damn heroic! and living up to the exhibition title. This one's by Nicolas Toussaint Charlet, and is called At the second shot.

As much as I loved the work of these better known artists (and the British satirist Gillray even gets into the picture), the real delights for me were Charlet and Raffet, neither of whom I knew about until seeing this show. And there are of course many others.

Rather less heroic! At the first shot, by Charlet (1824). Perhaps this guy's not quite living up to the exhibitions title? [1]

Alas, the show is deemed, so it seems, to be too minor to merit a catalogue, or even any postcards. Damn shame! But the museum, which used to forbid photography, now allows it. So you can take snaps to your hearts content. I've catalogued the entire show and all the accompanying texts, for my own refence and general enjoyment, a small portion of which pics and info adorn this post.

'Serrez les rangs!' An veteran sergeant remains calm amidst the battlefield carnage. Listed at the Fitz as Close Ranks, by August Raffet (1831).

Most of these prints are actually post-Napoleonic, and some, like Le Réveil (1848), also by Raffet, clearly illustrate the sense of loss felt in France, with the passing of Imperial glory. Here a drummer summons dead soldiers to further glories in some sort of martial after-life!

The show began on February 3rd, and runs until 28th June. If you're anywhere Cambridge during this period, go and have a look. It's well worth it. If you do, drop me a line via the comments, and we can meet for a drink in the lovely café, and talk Napoleonic turkey.

The metropolitan French enjoyed print shop windows, much as their English contempories did. This one's by Pierre Nolasque Bergeret, and is called Dawdlers on the Rue Du Coq (1818).

An example of their print shop wares: this one by the famous painter Eugéne Delacroix, depicts a British soldier avec 'le bagage de campagne'!

Gillray's The Spanish bull fight, or the Corsican matador in danger (1808). Helping to prove that British satirical prints were a cut (across Boney's rump, in this instance), above French - or any other European country, for that matter - equivalents.

Each of the 30 main prints and ten supplementary prints - the 30 are ranged around the walls, the ten are in cabinets - has a small plaque conveying the basic information about it, plus there are also two general signboards, explaining basic stuff about the era, such as key dates, and simple summaries of the artisitic milieu and techniques used, etc.

It's a small but excellent show. I'd highly recommend going, should you be in or near Cambridge before the end of June.


[1] Actually these two 'shot' prints were a pair: the featured soldier in both being one and the same man. In The first shot, which rather disingenuously comes second in my listing above, he's a combat virgin, cacking his breeches. But by The second shot he's become a true Napoleonic warrior!


Monday 16 March 2015

Book Review: The Campaign of Waterloo - Antoine Henri Jomini (Leonaur)

A momentary return to things Napoleonic

Despite all the WWII 1/72 armour I'm building, I'm still avidly reading Napoleonic material, with a particular emphasis on Waterloo-themed works, it being 2015 and all.

This slim paperback from Leonaur was originally just one small part of a much larger multi-volume work by the famous Napoleonic military strategist Antoine Henri Jomini. The short extract is presented here as a work in itself, centred around 130 pages of unbroken text - i.e. there are no subdivisions such as chapters - book-ended by a brief appendix [1] and an even shorter preface, both also by the author.

One might well wish, as I did, that a slightly stricter editorial eye had been applied, as sadly this book is marred somewhat by numerous typos. Was some kind of scanning software used in preparing the book? Most instances are fairly innocuous, such as 'but' rendered as 'out', on the first page of the preface, or the several instances where 'march' became 'inarch'. But there are occasionally more egregious occurrences, such as when Ney becomes Key, or, even worse, when what results is pure nonsense, as on p.88, where we're informed of 'three corps, together 00,000men'!

Having just come to this from the very vivid 1815: The Return of Napoleon, by Paul Britten Austin, this also felt, initially, like a rather dry account. Indeed, much of this book is, in fact, more philosophy of government (what Jomini himself at one point refers to as 'governmental metaphysics') than campaign of Waterloo. And Jomini himself, on p.59 in this rendering of his text, confesses that 'I perceive that I am led away by my theme, and that it is time to return to Napoleon...' Too right, I thought!

It's not actually until p.78, i.e. more than halfway through the core text of this little book, that the narrative finally turns in earnest to the subject Leonaur have chosen for their title, the campaign of Waterloo! But once Jomini gets on to the subject the title suggests is the central theme of the work, the prior effort starts to feel worthwhile. And also, once Waterloo is over, and Jomini is once again 'led away by my theme', one realises that this is all very worthwhile material, even if much of it falls outside of the area suggested by the title. In fairness the books subtitle, 'A political and military history from the French perspective' does hint at this broader brush-stroke overview. 

Given the way the European powers ranged against Republican and Napoleonic France noisily waved the banner of legitimacy during this period, it might be surprising to find an heir to the French Revolution, such as Jomini, defending the institution of constitutional monarchy, as he does at the outset of this extracted selection from his writings. As already alluded to, he returns to this theme once Waterloo is over, and, despite this at first appearing a bit off-topic, it's actually very interesting - the essence of the matter being the issue of powerful centralised leadership vs. potential mob rule - and Jomini writes about it all very well. 

Perhaps also this is simply, and despite the typos, just a better translation than some foreign writers are apt to endure? I recall the Greenhill Books Clausewitz work on the 1812 campaign being an uncommonly hard slog, simply terms of reading, as the Prussian author's writing either was, or had at least been rendered as, a very verbose and stodgy style. Sadly I couldn't find anything anywhere in this edition of Jomini's writings crediting the translator. A dedication is reproduced at the beginning of the book, and suggests it was the work of an American, as it's dedicated to 'graduates of the The United States Military Academy of 1849 ... By their classmate.'

Jomini at the time he was in French service. He won the Légion d'Honneur whilst attached to Napoleon's HQ at Eylau, and was Ney's chief of staff at Lutzen and Bautzen.

On numerous occasions Jomini - born in Switzerland, of Italian descent, and during almost all of the Napoleonic wars serving with the French - is at pains to point out that he's being as impartial as he can. This has a bearing not just on his more general political stuff, but also on the events of the Waterloo campaign itself, and especially those areas somewhat obscured by both the fog of war, and the rival claims about what actually either happened, or was intended to happen.

He considers all the options, as the campaign unfolds, as befits a famous military strategist. But unlike Clausewitz, who comes over as a pompous ancien-regime 'you don't want to do it like that' know-it-all (at least that's how he struck me in his 1812 book), Jomini is, as one might perhaps expect, or at least hope, in the post-revolution meritocracy of Napoleonic France - recall Napoleon's pride at being elected to the Institute of France, and how he took all those savants to Egypt [2] - cut much more from the Enlightenment man cloth, despite his quite conservative political stance.

Jomini's also very candid and even-handed regarding the errors the French made, including Napoleon himself, and particularly so between the 16th and 18th June, noting how, in contrast, Bonaparte's enemies exhibited both clarity of thought and celerity of execution. Having said this, he regards, and ably defends, Napoleon's actual plans as the best chance for French success, and attributes their failure to a combination of factors, including French mistakes, the evident learning - schooled by Bonaparte - of his opponents, the fact that the French didn't rally behind their national cause and leader in anything like the way the Russians or the Spanish did under French invasion, and, in the longer term, the overwhelming odds that France and Napoleon faced.

Jomini chooses to deal with the several days of battle - covering the build-up, Ligny and Quatre Bras, and finally Waterloo itself - in, for the most part, chronological order, and, naturally, from the French viewpoint. He does have to double-back on himself a little to catch up with the movements of Grouchy and the Prussians, but the way he covers it all is, in my view, and given the complexity of the situation, an exemplary model of clarity and simplicity; easy to follow, and enjoyable to read. [3]

Given the abundance of very jaundiced coverage an English reader has to contend with when reading about Waterloo - my childhood introduction to the subject was a fairly chest-thumping piece in an Eagle Annual about the charge of the Scots Greys and the capture of a French Eagle - it's refreshing to get an eloquent and intelligent account from the French perspective. And, unlike the Clausewitzian treatment, which, whilst worth reading, was a real chore, this is both obviously worth reading, and very enjoyable. And that's despite the lack of chapters and the numerous typos!

This later portrait of Jomini was painted during his stint in Russian service.

As noted above, whilst Jomini's not a Frenchman born and bred (neither was Napoleon!), he nevertheless took part in the events of this period in French service, and was deeply personally  involved in the military glories of the Imperial era. Unsurprisingly he's angry at how the chambers, or the doctrinaires and utopianists, as he calls them, meaning men like Benjamin Constant, conspired against and undermined Napoleon at the end: 'all their measures ... attest a miserable spirit of mediocrity', he observes, eventually noting (with evident satisfaction) 'Lastly, we will also recall the fact, that the chambers receive the reward of their deplorable conduct.'

One might be forgiven for feeling Leonaur have bulked out what seems like a very small portion of an originally much larger and more comprehensive work by Jomini. This could even be construed, especially during the 2015 bicentennial of Waterloo, as rampant opportunism. The slightly slap-dash quality - a visibly pixellated cover image (on an otherwise very nicely designed cover) and numerous typos - doesn't help. 

But this is still an excellent account, and a worthwhile addition to any Napoleonic or Waterloo themed library. It very helpfully saves one from needing learn to read French (although there are one or two untranslated quotations and terms), in order to wade through Jomini's original multi-volume work. I'm very happy, far all that might be wrong with it, that Leonaur have made this material easily available to those, like myself, with an interest in such things.



[1] The 15 page appendix comprises Jomini's replies to correspondence from The Duke of Elchingen, son of Marshal Ney, and concerns the latter's attempts to vindicate his father's actions, and exculpate him from some of the blame that was attaching to him after the disastrous defeat at Waterloo (and his subsequent execution). This is doubly interesting as Jomini had spent periods very close to Ney, as a high ranking member of his staff. He attempts to address this thorny issue with his characteristic even-handedness. The whole episode is intriguing in showing how history plays out so close to the events, with the confusion that arises when multiple variations of a story are vying for acceptance.

[2] Thanks to which knowledge of ancient Egypt increased massively, both through the works eventually compiled under the auspices of Denon, and also as a result of England ultimately taking custody of the Rosetta Stone, eventually leading to the cracking of the long-unsolved translation conundrum presented by Egyptian heiroglyphics.

[3] Or near enough the exact opposite of Clausewitz's treatment of the 1812 campaign, in essence! See my review of that work here.