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 horse's 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. 

Wednesday 24 June 2015

Book Review - Ardennes 1944: Antony Beevor

I bought this, my second Beevor book (Stalingrad was the first) at a recent Topping Bookshop talk delivered by Mr Beevor himself. Without any explanatory preamble he plunged us straight into the freezing bloody conflict of the Hürtgen forest, a messy prelude to the what is now best known as 'The Battle of the Bulge'.

For a while I was really rather confused, but as he built up to his central theme, what the Germans initially called Wacht Am Rhein (Watch on the Rhine), a deliberately defensive sounding name (they later renamed it, rather poetically, Herbstnebel, or Autumn Mist) for the offensive that was to be Hitler's final throw of the dice in the West, things gradually fell into place. At first I felt annoyed by what appeared to me a deliberately confusing gimmick. But then I warmed to it, realising Beevor had rather cleverly imparted to us, as we sat listening in a church in Ely, something of the confusion of battle.

The German attack certainly came as a surprise
but it quickly lost steam and bogged down.

It may sound fatuous or redundant to describe a book as highly readable, but of course different authors have different voices, and different approaches, making some more or less easy to read for their equally varied readership. Beevor is, it seems to me, the consummate popular modern military historian, able to tell an engaging story, whilst weaving in a lot of detail on numerous levels, from the strategic or tactical to the political, whilst also giving both the big picture and the small vignettes, the broad sweep of events being enlivened with enough ground level detail to keep it humane and stop it being drily academic.

After setting the scene, the central core of the battle is described day by day, rounded off by a kind of 'mopping up'. During the course of telling the tale of this epic battle - in which Hitler's German war machine managed to scrape together a very sizeable strike force (far larger than anything the Allies deemed the Germans capable of raising, hence the 'calculated risk' which left the Ardennes sector so poorly defended), and then inspire them to attempt a last-ditch effort to reverse the flow of the Allied forces over the Rhine and into the Fatherland - certain themes emerge.

One theme follows the rise and fall of German hopes and morale, whilst another charts the mirror image in the mostly American Allied camp. These contrapuntal themes are further complicated by a parallel and dissonant theme, which Beevor more or less lays at Montgomery's door, even going so far as to speculate on the possibility of Monty suffering from Asperger's syndrome. As Allied fortunes revived, thanks, according to the story as it's told here, to Monty's overweening egotism and a tub-thumping British Press [1] (some things never change, eh?), Britain's attempts to maintain a central role backfired, seeing them levered out of the decision making process. In a way this isn't so surprising, as the statistics speak for themselves: by this stage of the war the Western theatre was clearly and irrefutably an American 'show'. Even the French, fighting to reclaim their own territory, had to play second fiddle to the Yankee Doodle Dandies.

Where there's brass, there's muck?

Monty's repeated demands for overall command
of forces in the north really cheesed off the
American chiefs.

Bradley's ill-preparedness, distant and ill-informed
command from Luxembourg, slow reactions, and then his
spat with Monty, don't show him in the best light.

But although Beevor's account might be seen, rather intriguingly, Beevor being a British author, to pander somewhat to a U.S. viewpoint, he doesn't let the American brass off scott-free: everyone from Eisenhower to Bradley can be seen to dither, or put their own reputations (prestige is a word that crops up a lot in discussions about the internecine strife in the command structure) before the best laid plans or the well being of their troops. And the other side of the American coin is all too often the kind of blusterous bravado of commanders like Patton, who give the impression (as does this account of Bradley) of being every bit as egomaniacal as Monty.

Beevor's decision to progress chronologically rather than by theatre or operation gives the narrative zest and pace, but, as some other reviewers point our, can be confusing, as he jumps around. In relation to this, this book has better maps than many on such subjects, but I still found I couldn't always keep the topographical picture in focus, especially as the narrative hops all over the place. And it also switches constantly between the various sides, Allied and German, or nations within a side, American and English (not to mention Canadian, French and Belgian!), or even between military and civilian.

This pic. appears in one of the several sections
of black and white photos.

Another interesting theme, only obliquely alluded to in the text, is the way in which war, such a horrifying and wastefully destructive process, remains so seductive and alluring (another more critical review of this book rather amusingly refers to WWII as 'the gift that keeps on giving', in relation to Beevor's professional success). Abraham Lincoln aptly describes it thus: 'Military glory - that attractive rainbow, that rises in showers of blood - that serpent's eye, that charms to destroy...' I sense that for all his handwringing, Beevor kind of revels in the horrors of war, as do us readers, rather like the traffic that inevitably slows down and rubber necks in the opposite lane when there's been an accident in the motorway. Whatever the truth of this complex and uncomfortable area, Beevor's account is a richer and better one for the inclusion of this dimension.

What will be the fate of these 'doughboy'
prisoners? They certainly look anxious!
(This pic. is also in the book.)

I recently watched the superb Brownlow and Mollo film It Happened Here, about a successful Nazi occupation of England. I admired that film for its unflinching depiction of such awful yet ultimately mundane horrors as the casual execution of prisoners, by both sides. It's to Beevor's credit that he highlights the hypocrisy, albeit tempered by some considerations (I won't go into the detail here, you can read the book!), that must inevitably surround the condemnation on the one hand of the SS massacres of prisoners and civilians, and the 'reprisals' carried out by Allied troops (war, it seems, is almost always a 'reprisal' for some real or imagined wrongs visited on the aggressor at some prior point!).

By the end of the book the German offensive has failed, in the process draining troops from the far greater threat posed by several millions of Russian troops knocking on the door [2] of Germany's Eastern Front. Beevor delivers the story in an engagingly compelling form, turning the applying suffering and carnage into something very enjoyable for the reader. What a bizarre alchemy military history effects! I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, and now want to re-read Stalingrad, and get/read Beevor's Berlin and D-Day books.


I was reading this whilst in Belgium for the Waterloo 2015 celebrations. Whilst in our local supermarket (which was small but absolutely fabulously well stocked) I saw these:

... bloody Bastogne, eh!?


On a more sobering note, this is worth watching, as a reminder of the potentially traumatising legacy of warfare:


[1] The Daily Mail was conspicuous in this role, and is the only paper mentioned by name as contributing to the souring of Anglo-American relations thanks to its part in this sad episode of nationalist chest-beating.

[2] Ironically Hitler's comment at the opening of Operation Barbarossa - 'We have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down' - proved much truer when the roles were reversed.

Saturday 20 June 2015

100th post! Battle Of Waterloo Bicentenary, Belgium.

The fields of Waterloo, June 2015.

En avance, mes enfants! Drilling at the
French bivouac, 18th June.

17th June

Over the last few years the number of times I've read about some Napoelonic memorial event after it's happened, cursing my head-in-the-sand ability to miss out on so many wonderful opportunities, doesn't bear thinking about.

I suppose this might be explained in part by the fact that I've only just been getting back into these interests? As 2012 unfolded, and I occasionally read about events commemorating Napoleon's ill-fated excursion into Mother Russia, I was particularly galled at my forever behind events knack for missing stuff, as I was at that time reading voraciously on that very campaign.

Mind you, I doubt I could've afforded a trip to Russia just then anyway!

The 'scum of the earth'! (Sorry guys,
nothing personal!)

A couple of German Highlanders!

'Old Nosey', aka The Iron Duke, aka Arthur Wellesley,
1st Duke of Wellington, the Sepoy General, etc.

Some French brass.

So, it is with great and extraordinary pleasure that I find myself typing this, my 100th published post for A Question Of Scale, lying in bed in a cool AirBnB holiday rental property, in Sint-Genesius-Rode, a southern suburb of Brussels, just a few miles north of the town and battlefields of Waterloo. Later today my wife and I will be exploring the bivouacs, and then watching the opening ceremony (billed as a fire and fireworks spectacular, called the 'Inferno'!).

This - the tiny little wooden shed-like thing,
smack-dab in the centre of the pic - is where
we stayed. Very green!

It might perhaps seem odd to some, as indeed it does to me, that the actual re-enactment battles are going to be happening not today, on the 18th, the 200th anniversary to the very day, but tomorrow, and the day after, i.e. the 19th and 20th.


18th June

On the 17th we visited the battlefield and environs, to scout out the set-up, and check out where we'll be parking. It was a bit chaotic, and it wasn't at all clear where we'd end up parking. But we did at least get to hang out in the Waterloo 'village', where we had a couple of beers and a couple of Boulettes de Crevette, at a swank new restaurant opposite the swank new subterranean visitor centre.

I was very pleased to learn that our expensive 'Combi' tickets, which give us access to the bivouacs, the Inferno, and The French Attack (on Friday 19th), also give us access to the visitor centre. More on this later!

Follow the drums!

A beautiful French flying ambulance, an humane
invention of the famous French surgeon Baron Larrey.

Could this be a bivouac romance?

We also met, talked to, and photographed, numerous re-enactors. It was properly cosmopolitan, to the point of confusion, with German Highlanders, an English contingent of Prussians, and all sorts of nationalities dressed up in the uniforms of some other country!

The Duke of Wellington, who I talked to and photographed, was sitting atop a rather skittish horse. He at least was actually English! I had read somewhere that Napoleon was being played by American re-enactor Mark Schneider. But it turns out they have a French lawyer in the role, Frank Samson.

I filmed a really cool march past of the band of the Imperial Guard, lead by a group of ten drummers. I've tried uploading the clip below in numerous formats, and numerous time, but it always comes out looking pixellated and very low res (not like the actual video I shot!). There's also a lot of rumble from wind across the microphone (that is the same as the original clip!). Can anyone more au fait with blogger advise me as to how to improve the video image quality?

The Imperial Guard band. If I can remove the 
wind rumble, if/when time allows, I'll do so.

More drilling at the camp.

This lot were a very friendly bunch of English 'Frogs',
of the 45eme Ligne.

Imperial HQ. I'd hoped to snap Boney here,
but we didn't catch a glimpse of him.

The brass milling about. Several poulet were
cooking on an open fire nearby.

The accoutrements of the ol' Grognards.

A dapper and friendly line infantryman. I do
like his greatcoat! I think it's the stripes
that really set it all off!

More Frenchies, en tenue de campaign.

As well as some Czech Prussians, Canadian, American and German Englishmen, and British Frenchmen - I had a particularly friendly and gratifying chat with a contingent of the 45eme Regt. de Ligne, who were from all over the UK - I did actually find a couple of groups of French Frenchmen: one group were some ranking brass, whilst another were a distinguished (and appropriately haughty) group of old grognards of the Imperial Guard. 

It turns out almost all the re-enactors are listed (as aggregate figures by nation) in the programme, with the UK coming second to Germany for the highest number of participants. Peter Hofschröer might find that gratifying! It kind of jibes with the German dominance in Allied numbers (though not by the same margins) at the time.

Just outside the French bivouac was a small
stall selling cheap vintage postcards.
Here's the little stash I poichased.


19th June

The 18th, day of the actual historical battle itself, was the day of our visits to the bivouacs. We only went to the French ones. I was a bit miffed when we finally got home (at long gone two a.m!) to realise, upon consulting my paperwork, that we'd missed the opportunity of exploring the Hougoumont bivouac. Access to this latter site, the Allied encampment, was - on our tickets - strictly limited to between 18.00-21.00 of the 18th, which was the period we were at the French bivouacs.

This poor planning on my part resulted from some confusion which had arisen, in my view, due to poor displaying of info on tickets and elsewhere; some of which info related to multiple components, without making it clear enough which bit of info related to which element of the various component events. This wasn't the only organisational element which, to my mind, left a lot to be desired!

Another logistical pain in the derriere concerned what turned into something of a pain for us (quite literally), in that the parking arrangements were not clearly signposted, either on the ground, in the online literature, or in the printed program and other material. The maps of the event do display disabled parking, bicycle parking, and even campervan parking, but not ordinary automobile parking. As the latter is the form of transport which probably accounts for the vast majority visitors who aren't using public transport transport, that seems a bit odd, to say the least!

The bizarre and not very good Inferno event of the 18th, which was staged very late (and actually ran significantly later than the 22.00-24.00 advertised) - oh, and walking miles and miles between bivouacs, etc.- left us both, and me in particular, so drained that I spent most of the 19th recovering in bed! Teresa made us something to eat whilst I typed most of this. I realised, as I sat typing this at our accommodation in Sint-Genesius-Rode on the 19th, that we might've screwed up, and missed our opportunity to see the new visitor centre. I'd far rather have seen that than the damned Inferno!

This guy told us he was a surgeon. 'Baron
Larrey?' I inquired.'If you like m'sieur!' 

The picture above was taken outside the new visitor centre, on the 20th, when we did indeed find out that we had missed our opportunity to use our Combi tickets to explore it on this visit! The downside to this is missing the contents, the upside is the necessity of another visit!

The 19th is the day of The French Attack. Like the Inferno this is on at an oddly late hour. I read on the day, somewhere online, that this is for economic reasons (apparently so the local working populace can do their day jobs and then come and see the event afterwards!). Fortunately this was on 8 till 10, and not 10 till midnight, like the Inferno was. We intended making strenuous efforts to park north of Waterloo for The French Attack, after the tortuous round trip to Nivelles in the wee small hours of the night of the 18th-19th!

I had rather hoped to run a smooth operation, posting to the blog as events unfolded here. But I ended up always trying to conserve the battery on my iPad, as things seemed to take forever to charge in Belgium, for some unknown reason! So all my initial pics (some removed now) were either taken on my iPhone (a few), or our digital camera (the vast majority till today), with only a very few on the iPad (and not those were not very good ones at that!). For the French Attack I was planning to use the iPad a lot more, as well as the digital camera (and perhaps even the iPhone?).

Anyhow, at this point the time had arrived to get ready for battle. The French Attack was imminent! En avance... Vive l'Empereur!

This, alas, is typical of the views we had of The French Attack.

The zoom on our Canon IXUS 85 IS proved
to be the best of a bad bunch.

A small group of what appeared to be dismounted
lancers acted as skirmishers.

One of the few instances of my camera
catching gunpowder flashes.

French cavalry attacks the British and allied squares.

... the cavalry have moved from the square in front
to the one behind. Infantry advances left.

... the cavalry gone, the infantry looks isolated!

Boney on one of his several ride-bys.

I shouted Vive l'Empereur. So did one other guy! 

Damn those 21st century lights (and the g'damn PA!).

Dragoons return to the French artillery lines on the crest.


It turned out that parking was almost as big a pain on this occasion as previously. This time we were on the right (as in correct, or northern) side of Waterloo. But we were a very, very, very long way from the event. Despite paying for parking on both days, we ended up walking what felt like a Napoleonic campaigns worth of miles around the various sites. The traffic in both cars and pedestrians was far busier on this day, the event being a much larger one. Despite logistical annoyances, however, the excitement was intoxicating.

When we finally got to our stand, after a 45 minute trek, a slight sense of disappointment at our view of proceedings caused me to ruminate on the fact that it was turning out to be an odd experience, this here Waterloo 2015 malarkey. As I've already said, I thought the Inferno was, as well as being downright weird, pretty awful. I don't really dig these sorts of giant spectacles - from Dennis Taylor to Dame Edna, via Elton John, such things have, I've always felt, tended to be the epitome of naff... ;o)  Boom boom!


I s'pose all this belly-aching - some of which was may perhaps have been brought on by a 'hamburger' bought at one of the myriad stands? - makes me a right proper old grognare. Well, never mind, here goes, on to the French Attack: for starters we were, I guess, a tad unlucky in that the block we were seated in (M) wasn't exactly the best placed for viewing the battle.

Indeed, a good deal of the seating, especially those stands along the main axial north-south road - the Brussels/Waterloo to Charleroi road - suffered from the same issues. Numerous blocks, including ours, had, to all intents and purposes, very little other than empty fields directly opposite them, with the bulk of the action occurring either on the reverse slope of a hill, also directly in front of us, or so far away as to be nigh on invisible, especially once the smoke started to build up.

Now all this does of course illustrate perfectly what Napoleonic troops and their commanders had to contend with. But they were fighting a war, whereas we were paying customers who imagined we would be enjoying seeing the battle. I have to say that even though, in my mania for things Napoleonic, and on this occasion Waterloo in particular, I managed to enjoy this much more than the dratted Inferno, nevertheless I was, to be honest, sorely disappointed. 

Combine the distances involved, the problems of geography or topography, and the selection of poor quality cameras I had at my disposal - iPhone, iPad, and a Canon IXUS 85 IS point-&-shoot - and this meant that photography was not going to provide the wonderful record of the battle I might've hoped for, as a few of the accompanying pics here amply demonstrate. Thankfully other bloggers have fulfilled that need!

And also rather fortunately, our time slogging round the bivouacs over the three days of the 18th, 19th and 20th June, whilst very physically draining and painful, did at least provide us with many moments that ultimately yielded a plethora of decent photo-opportunities, and, I hope you'll agree? a hoard of relatively decent pictures as well! You can be the judges!!


The Lion Mound, truly a carbuncle on the face of an old friend! 
But it does at least look good here, viewed from afar under a tree,
as we walked from Hougoumont towards the visitor centre.

20th June

On the 20th we decided, despite having the ferry home to catch in mid-afternoon, to risk another visit to the champ de bataille. We had indeed missed out on the new visitor centre on the 18th, so we figured we'd try our luck at getting in a day late. Sadly this didn't work, as it turned out. So, we'll save that for another trip! This also lead to day three in our footsore saga. 

But the bonuses of this last jaunt around the battlefields were numerous: we passed the Hougoumont bivouac site, where the Allied forces were based, and saw loads of these diverse troops being marched about. We also saw loads more re-enactors of all nations, including numerous Austrians, who weren't taking part in the battle, but clearly felt the need to be there for this slice of historic action.

I think these guys are Middle or Young Guard.

More brass, the guy at left's a Gendarme, I think.

Dragoons, or, 'Dragon', as the french have it!
That's a rather foxy officer they have there!

Austrians at Waterloo?

French artillerymen.

A real proper dandified beau sabreur of le hussards.
I think this guy was French? But I couldn't understand
what unit he said he belonged to when I asked him.

Light infantry.

More Austrians!

One of the few pics I took of Allied/English troops.
This was shot over the fence of the Allied bivouac at 
Hougoumont (we did miss out on actually going in!).

As we walked this section of the battlefield Teresa thought she saw Jeremy Paxman stroll past us. I was too busy photographing people in their fab period gear to confirm if this was indeed a genuine Paxo sighting! Rather than run back and harass him - which I did really want to do! - we continued on our march towards the Lion's Butte. 

En route we passed a memorial to artilleryman Cavalie Mercer, Captain of Troop G, the Royal Horse Artillery. This really gave me a thrill - the first time such a memorial has done so - as I'd been reading an abridged version of his memoirs during our trip. So, to stand where his battery had fought actually had a powerful resonance. 

My Waterloo Waterloo reading!

Blücher and some of his Prussian staff.

We met Blücher and some of his staff, as attested to by the above pic. I'd been doffing my cap, and exclaiming 'Vive L'Empereur' as a thank-you, every time I snapped any French troops, so I tried to recall the catchphrase associated with the old Prussian commander - 'Vorwarts, mein kinde'. But my head was so addled with trying to think and talk French that it came out as 'En avance, mes enfants!' The stony-faced General looked distinctly unimpressed!

I'd photographed a far more friendly Wellington on one of the preceding days. But, aside from the really rather pathetic long distance shots of Napoleon, taken when he did one of several ride-bys along the stands during The french Attack, I didn't get to see Boney up close. This last point has a funny relation to both historic and fictional sightings of the emperor that I've encountered during this sojourn, in that during Sharpe's Waterloo it's the desire to see Napoleon that causes Sharpe and his Irish pal Harper to return to Waterloo, after leaving 'Silly Billy's' staff and the battlefield, and Mercer mentions his two sightings of Napoelon with evident glee.

Even now, 200 years on, Napoleon - or even someone pretending to be Napoleon! - exerts a magnetic and charismatic effect!

Can you spot Boney?


And Finally...

We're now back at home, eating dinner sat on our couches in front of the TV, watching Rod Steiger as Napoeon, in the epic Waterloo film by Dino de Laurentis and Sergei Bondarchuck. I now need a second holiday to recover from all the Napoleonic footslogging we've been through in the last few days!