Friday, 3 July 2015

War! What is it good for?

When I was at school we learned our history the old-fashioned way. Lists of battles were dutifully memorised. I remember exams in which we had to mark each of the main incidents of the Peninsular War on a map of Iberia. When it was over, I had no idea why the British had been fighting in Spain, or what the importance of the campaign was in terms of Napoleon's ultimate defeat.

Nowadays, we have put this approach behind us. Children are taught to imagine the lives of "ordinary people", especially if these people are women, poor, or otherwise disadvantaged. There's an emphasis on social history; a move away from kings and queens and those interminable lists of battles. It's a humane response to an idiotic way of teaching history.

So why, then, was I talking about Waterloo a couple of weeks ago, the Crimea last week, and, in the weeks to come, will I be writing about the siege of Cawnpore during the Indian Mutiny?

I've written five historical novels. Three are about a spy in the Napoleonic wars, so I imagine that some degree of military action was inevitable. The other two, though, are about issues of colonialism in the mid-19th century. They are essentially about misunderstandings between cultures – misunderstandings that, in theory, do not have to end in bloodshed. The fact is, though, that each of these books includes acts of horrendous violence. This cannot be explained simply by saying that the history of British colonialism is a history of military conquest, for my account of Cawnpore centres on the military aggrandisement of an Indian princeling.

I write books that centre on conflict. Some literary theorists would say that this is true of all books, but my conflicts are more explicit than some others. In the case of the books about James Burke, the conflict is there principally to provide adventure and excitement for the reader, so you could argue that, for example, the battle of Waterloo inevitably features because if you want excitement in the Napoleonic wars, the field of Waterloo is an obvious place to find it. However, in the first of the series, Burke in the Land of Silver, the conflict is the struggle for Argentinian independence, a struggle waged principally between the people of Argentina and the government of Spain. Yet the battle that features in this novel is waged by Britain. It's even less obvious why a story about the dynamics of ruling a small country in Borneo (The White Rajah) should climax with a battle involving the British Navy, especially as the country that the Navy was acting for was not even a British colony.

Brooke's and HMS Dido's forces attacking pirate stronghold 

Part of the problem, I think, is that since the end of World War II we have come to think of armed conflict as an aberration. Economic or political crises should be settled diplomatically. After all, nobody is suggesting that the Bundeswehr is going to march into Greece to demand that it give the Germans their money back. Historically, though, this is arguably an unusual state of affairs. Bismarck famously said that war was the continuation of diplomacy by other means and the idea that disputes between nations should be settled militarily is much older than the concepts of the United Nations and the International Criminal Court. Arguably, our modern notions that history is not about battles are about to be set aside. It is interesting to see the difficulty that the international community has in trying to discuss the future of Ukraine whilst carefully ignoring the reality that that future has already been decided by the presence of Russian tanks on Ukrainian soil.

This does not explain, though, why Britain invaded Buenos Aires at a time when the principal conflict in the area was between the Argentinian people and their Spanish rulers. Nor does it explain the intervention of the British Navy in a conflict between the rulers of Sarawak and a tribe of marauding Sea Dyaks. To a degree, of course, the British were taking advantage of a period of uncertainty in order to strengthen their political and military position. I think, though, that this does not imply that these were calculated moves. There is a lot of truth in the aphorism that the British Empire was acquired mostly in moments of absentmindedness.

When there is cultural or political conflict, there is a tendency for people to resolve the situation with force. Violence is often a response to political or economic upheavals, even when the violence does not in any way address the factors that created it. Thus, there is a clear correlation between economic conditions and the number of lynchings in the southern states of America, although those lynched were more likely to be accused of a sexual crime or a lack of respect rather than anything related to the economy.

It seems, perhaps, that my teachers were at least partly right. History can be taught as a series of military conflicts. However, I do not think that it makes sense to see military achievements as shaping the course of history. Rather, it is that periods of great change are punctuated by military adventures. Waterloo, for example, did not initiate the end of a revolutionary era and bring peace to Europe. After decades of war, Europe was ready for peace and the Great Powers had united to end revolution. The military defeat of Napoleon was an inevitable consequence of social and political change at the beginning of the 19th century: the changes that followed 1815 were not caused by Napoleon's defeat but were the product of the movements that had destroyed him. History can only be understood by looking at social and economic changes, but to pretend that these are not accompanied by violence and conflict is to ignore reality. War is the punctuation of history and to teach the history of an era without teaching about the military campaigns that took place at the time is to present the student with a book in which sentences and paragraphs are run together.

I do not want to spend my life writing about war, but I'm fascinated by the drama of periods of radical change in history and the clashes between different ways of looking at the world. It is not inevitable that writing about these issues will always mean writing about battles, but I suspect that I haven't seen the last of war in my stories. Fortunately, armed conflict, however terrible in reality, can always be turned to good account in fiction. As pedagogue in fashions change, I hope that it might also find its way back into the teaching of history.

Friday, 26 June 2015

The truth behind Jack Lark

Time to put Waterloo behind us and turn to another battle, later in the 19th century.

A few weeks ago I reviewed Paul Fraser Collard’s novel, ‘The Scarlet Thief’ which tells the story of the Battle of the Alma in the Crimean War (1854). It’s told from the point of view of Jack Lark, a common soldier, who has stolen the identity of an officer and now finds himself leading a company against Russian troops. I looked at some other reviews and saw that many people were uncomfortable with the central idea that a regular soldier could pass himself off in this way. It's an interesting question for two reasons.

Firstly there's the whole issue of how realistic fiction needs to be. I have had criticism of ’The White Rajah’ on the grounds that my narrator, like Paul Collard’s hero, is unrealistic, because an illiterate sailor could not have learned to express himself so well on paper. But both Paul and I are using our character as a sort of "Everyman" to allow more insight into the events they are describing. It's a well-established technique in fiction where, strange to say, not everything the author writes is absolutely true. That, after all, is what fiction is.

Secondly, and rather importantly, it's not always clear that these "unrealistic" characters are all that unrealistic at all. I had that problem in ‘Cawnpore’ where my European protagonist disguises himself as an Indian. It is, as I’ve explained on this blog, not nearly as unlikely as some critics claim. Today, though, I’m handing over to Paul Collard to explain why Jack Lark isn't necessarily as unrealistic as you might think.

The Epaulette Gentry

Jack Lark is an imposter. I make no bones about it. He steals other lives, taking them as his own, and these assumed identities plunge him into adventures that he could never have dreamt of experiencing when he was just an ordinary redcoat serving on garrison duty in a quiet English town.
To some the notion of such an imposter is mere twaddle, the premise so wholly unlikely that Jack’s stories are just not credible. I do not agree with this accusation. For one, it plays to stereotypes, something that I do not like one bit. It assumes that all officers of the period were highly educated gentlemen from a world unrecognisable from that lived in by the men under their command. It also assumes that the men in the ranks, the fabled British redcoats, were uneducated brutes, who had no idea how to pass the port, or how to talk about fox hunting, or any of the other things that a stereotypical upper class officer would clearly have talked about at all times.

The Battle of the Alma

Neither of these two assumptions is necessarily true. I worked hard on Jack’s story, taking the time, and thought, to give him the skills he would need to succeed as an imposter. I am happy to say this part of Jack’s story now forms a central part of the three short stories that are being published alongside the main series, and it was a real treat to be able to show more of where my Scarlet Thief came from.
You see, not every redcoat was an uneducated ruffian, and rudimentary reading and writing skills were more common than some may imagine. Around one in six redcoats were literate, a number shocking by today’s standards, but not perhaps, as scarce as the stereotype requires. These skills were essential for any redcoat looking to progress up the ranks, and many regiments actively encouraged their acquisition. It would be true to say that the education of the men in the ranks was largely dependant on the mindset of the regiment’s colonel, but many regiments had libraries, albeit stocked by the colonel himself and likely to reflect his thoughts on what was suitable for his men. Soldiers deemed worthy were given the chance to use these facilities to acquire the clerking skills they would need to progress to a higher rank, but there would often be an older soldier happy to help in their education that could be as broad as many found in a school of the period. Many redcoats would have become quite as educated as their officers.
We should also consider what manner of man became a British army officer at the time Jack carries off his scandalous imposture. Would they really be cut from such a different cloth from the men they commanded, that a ranker pretending to be an officer would really be as noticeable as a peacock in a henhouse? We must remember that this is the period where no qualification was required to become an officer, and there was no formal military training provided outside of that given by a new officer’s regiment. Quite simply, if you could afford to buy your first commission then that was deemed the only qualification needed.
It is true that a number of officers would hail from the upper classes, especially those who purchased commissions in the fashionable guard and cavalry regiments. But what about those regiments with a little less dash, those humble line regiments that came from the counties of Britain? Many of these regiments were officered by the epaulette gentry; men from respectable enough backgrounds, but for whom their purchased commission was really their only evidence of belonging to some notion of gentry. Such men hailed from a world surprisingly close to that inhabited by some of the men they would command.
I believe that these younger sons of country squires, clergymen or successful tradesmen, would not be so vastly different to a man with a keen mind and the brains to use his time in the regimental library to acquire some degree of learning. In such company Jack would hardly have stood out, his time as an officer’s orderly giving him an insight into the officers’ world and the opportunity to learn, and then ape, their ways.
He is given time to practice his imposture, the long journey to the Crimea offering him the opportunity to play his assumed role in the company of his fellow travellers, but not in the familiar setting of an officer’s mess where perhaps his deception would be revealed all too quickly. Once in the Crimea, there is little time for any to doubt him, the start of the campaign against the Russian Empire consuming every officer’s energy, and surely enough of a distraction to let them put aside any concerns about a fellow officers manners or accent. In battle, social distinction means nothing, and Jack’s true talent as an officer comes to the fore. It is there that he demonstrates the courage and leadership that his men need so desperately in the maelstrom of battle.
So perhaps he does stand out after all. He is a fighter and a leader of men, traits rare in any period of history. His education may be lacking in parts, but he has the vital ingredients that any officer requires.
For me, and for my story, that is enough.

Paul Collard

Paul's love of military history started at an early age. A childhood spent watching films like Waterloo and Zulu whilst reading Sharpe, Flashman and the occasional Commando comic, gave him a desire to know more of the men who fought in the great wars of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. At school, Paul was determined to become an officer in the British army and he succeeded in winning an Army Scholarship. However, Paul chose to give up his boyhood ambition and instead went into the finance industry. Paul stills works in the City, and lives with his wife and three children in Kent.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Waterloo summary and a request

So, finally, the Battle of Waterloo is behind us.

Two hundred years ago, things weren't quite over. Despite what Abba tells us in the song, Napoleon did not surrender at Waterloo. He left the field and fled south in a carriage. After Waterloo, though, the dream of a return to power was over. Despite a heroic final stand by French soldiers north of the capital, Paris fell to the Prussians and was soon occupied. Napoleon headed west, believing that he would fare better as a prisoner of the British than if he fell into Prussian hands. Eventually, of course, he did surrender to the British who, despite calls for his execution, allowed him to live, but exiled on St Helena.

Last week I blogged on the battle of Quatre Bras, the Battle of Waterloo, and the aftermath of the battle. I also had a guest post on Antoine Venner's "Dawlish Chronicles" blog, which discusses the implications of Waterloo for today. On my own blog, there was a discussion of the importance of Waterloo to British history published in April.

So there you are, over 5,500 words telling you everything you need to know about Waterloo. And all free, thanks to the wonders of blogging, Which makes this an obvious point at which to mention that my work on the facts of Waterloo was background for my novel Burke at Waterloo. It's a spy story, starting in Paris with British agent, James Burke, hunting down Bonapartist spies. (There really were an awful lot of them about.) The pursuit moves north and, when Napoleon escapes from Elba James Burke finds himself fighting alongside Belgian troops, so he sees the Battle of Waterloo from the perspective of the Belgian cavalry. It's an exciting read and will give you an idea of what Waterloo and the buildup to the battle would have felt like. It's only £2.99/$4.59 on Kindle and also available in paperback. If you have enjoyed reading the blog posts, you might well enjoy the book. In any case, you might like to buy a copy if you are appreciated my efforts here. Thank you.

Friday, 19 June 2015

The Aftermath of Waterloo

It's the day after Waterloo and anything I write is going to be an anti-climax, but I feel that if were going to celebrate the battle, we have to remember the consequences.

Nobody really knows how many people died at Waterloo. Wellington's dispatch gives the, frankly ludicrous, figure of 1,759 British dead. In fairness it adds 5,892 wounded. Given the medical treatment available at the time, most of these will have died too. Elizabeth Longford estimates Wellington's total losses at close to 15,000. This would include Netherlanders and Hanoverians. She claims the French lost 25,000 killed and wounded and the Prussians over 7,000. Most modern commentators seem to agree that close to 50,000 people would have lain dead or wounded on the field at the close of the battle. Remembering that the area was quite small. The battlefront was about two and a half miles long, with the armies drawn up just over a mile apart. By the end of the day, this relatively small area was covered in the bodies of the dead and dying.

The French had, as usual, attacked in columns. This meant that the flanks of the columns were most exposed to enemy fire and, after the battle was over, their path of advance could be plotted by the parallel lines of dead French soldiers. At every point where they paused in their advance, a horizontal line, like the rung of a ladder, joined the parallel corpses of the flanks as those standing at the front had been mown down by Allied fire.

Generally the bodies of the infantry were in groups, marking the places where the fighting was most intense. There were particularly large numbers of corpses around the Hougomont, where at one point the French were climbing on the bodies of their dead in their attempts to scale the walls. The bodies of cavalrymen, by contrast, were scattered across the field, as were the bodies of their horses, whose bulk proved a substantial obstacle to those trying to clear the dead in the days that followed.

In my research, I came across this contemporary account of the condition of the field that night. The tale is told by a private trooper who was (like so many others) out to plunder the dead.

... the ground, whithersoever we went, was strewed with the wreck of the battle. Arms of every kind, cuirasses, muskets, cannon, tumbrils, and drums, which seemed innumerable, cumbered the very face of the earth. Intermingled with these were the carcasses of the slain, not lying about in groups of four or six, but so wedged together that we found it imposible in many instances to avoid trampling them, where they lay, under our horses' hoofs ; then, again, the knapsacks, either cast loose or still adhering to their owners, were countless. I confess that we opened many of these, hoping to find in them money or other articles of value, but not one which I at least examined contained more than the coarse shirts and shoes that had belonged to their dead owners, with here and there a little package of tobacco and a bag of salt; and, which was worst of all, when we dismounted to institute this search, our spurs forever caught in the garments of the slain, and more than once we tripped up and fell over them. It was indeed a ghastly spectacle ...
Whilst the Allies did attempt to remove the casualties and give them medical care, the sheer scale of the exercise meant that people lay in the open for days. The French had a proper system for clearing casualties with dedicated sprung carts that were used as ambulances, but the French had fled. The English approach was less organised. it took three days to clear the wounded – by which time, of course, most of them were already dead. Only after the Allied troops had been cared for did the British turn to the French. An anonymous Staff officer who was there wrote:
I have reason to believe it was not till the fourth day after the battle that the last of the French were taken up; and it is painful to think of the suffering they endured from pain, cold, and even hunger, during so many weary days and nights, – numbers of them, doubtless perished who would have survived had they been taken care of. Neither does it appear that any food was regularly supplied to them ...
The dead, of course, were the least of anybody's problems, but the sheer quantity of corpses created an obvious health risk. The same Staff officer wrote:
The bodies of the killed were all completely stripped in an incredibly short time, and many in the course of a few days became horrible objects; such as lay exposed to the sun turning nearly black, as well as being much swollen ... Entirely to clear the ground of dead men and horses occupied period of ten or twelve days ... The human bodies were for the most part thrown into large holes, fifteen or twenty feet square ...
The idea that the bodies should be treated with respect seemed alien at the time – although there were efforts to bury officers with some measure of dignity. Over the years that followed, the bodies were routinely dug up and their bones crushed for use as fertiliser.

Battlefield tourism is not a new invention and English visitors to Brussels was soon at the site of the battle, but so horrible was the scene that, even in those days, it proved too much for the visitors to take and they were quick to turn around and ride back to town.

Strangely, there seems to have been no memorial to the Allied dead. (The Lion's Mound honours the Prince of Orange). This was rectified only in the past week or so, when a small plaque was erected at Waterloo station. It bears the words of the Duke of Wellington after the battle.
My heart is broken by the terrible loss I have sustained in my old friends and companions and my poor soldiers. Believe me, nothing except a battle lost can be half as melancholy as a battle won.

Thursday, 18 June 2015


So today's the day!

Two hundred years ago today, the armies of Britain, France and the Netherlands met in a field just south of the Belgian village of Waterloo. It's doubtful if what happened there really changed the history of Europe, but it certainly brought an end to Napoleon's career and probably changed the history of France. It also changed the way that the British saw themselves for the rest ofthe century and beyond.

In my novel, Burke at Waterloo, my hero, James Burke, is riding with the Belgian 8th Hussars, who were part of a Netherlands light cavalry brigade which, contrary to the stories of Dutch-Belgian cowardice, behaved with conspicuous gallantry on the field.

Putting my hero at the centre of the action at Waterloo made me very nervous. Waterloo is a tricky thing to write about. It is, for most British military history enthusiasts, the battle of the 19th century. Hundreds of books are written about it. The Internet is full of websites, including some very erudite ones, discussing various aspects of it. War-Gamers refight Waterloo all the time. Anything you say is likely to be read by quite a lot of people who know enough about what happened to pick up any mistakes.

This should make research easy. Unfortunately, although much has been written about the battle, it was not particularly well documented as it happened. Wellington’s dispatch to the Secretary of State for War, formally describing the battle, runs to just over 2,300 words. This created considerable controversy at the time for its failure to mention many of the acts of valour performed on the field. Wellington started writing it on the evening of the battle and he had, by any standards, had rather a hard day. Even if he had delayed and written a longer account after he had had time to consult with his generals, it would still have had errors and omissions.

Although Waterloo was fought on a very small field (barely three square miles) it was a large and complex battle. Napoleon had around 72,000 troops and Wellington commanded just under 68,000. (Even these figures are much disputed: I’ve used Elizabeth Longford’s.)  

Wellington’s force included troops of the Netherlands Army (Dutch and Belgian) and 5,000 men of the Brunswick contingent. Although all accepted him as the supreme commander on the field, they had different command structures, different languages and different uniforms. On at least one occasion, confusion as to the uniforms led to British troops opening fire on their allies with significant loss of life. Confusion was not only possible, but practically guaranteed.

We talk nowadays about "the fog of War" but it is difficult to imagine the chaos of a 19th-century battlefield. There was no radio or other means of long-range communication. Wellington's orders were carried to his commanders by riders who would cross the field of battle to take them to the people who would carry them out. It was dangerous work and many of his staff officers did not survive – and thus the orders did not necessarily get through. 

Wellington positioned himself on the ridge overlooking the battlefield because he had to rely for information about where his troops were on what he could personally observe. Unfortunately, once the firing started the smoke from the muskets and cannon fire obscured much of the battlefield, so generals often had no idea where their forces were. The reason that military flags (the colours that are trooped at Trooping the Colour) are so significant is because that gave everybody at least a chance of seeing them through the smoke.

With the chaos and confusion that threatened the field, it is hardly surprising that both Wellington and Napoleon made really serious mistakes. Napoleon, in particular, was not the brilliant strategist that he had been before Elba. Much is made nowadays of the fact that he suffered from piles, no joke for a man who spent much of the day in the saddle. He was also probably suffering from other diseases picked up in a lifetime of campaigning across Europe and in the Middle East. Some of his most valued military commanders were no longer at his side. He had been particularly distressed by the loss of Louis-Alexandre Berthier, who had refused to join him on his return from Elba and who had fallen from a window in mysterious circumstances at the beginning of June. Tired, sick and no longer confident of the support of his people or some of his oldest friends, Napoleon delayed his attack and then threw men away in what had been intended as a diversionary attack on Huguemont. He failed to reinforce his centre with infantry when it could have made a difference and then, too late, threw away the Old Guard when the battle was all but lost.

Louis-Alexandre Berthier

Wellington's strategy was, essentially, to hold his position and pray that the Prussians would arrive before he was over-run. It was a sound (and ultimately successful) approach, but it was hardly the stuff of strategic genius. Basically, the British held their ground and took their punishment for over six hours. Inevitably, thousands died.

At the end of the day, pursued by Prussian cavalry, French losses were even greater. Famously, the Old Guard, surrounded by the enemy, refused to surrender and were slaughtered to a man. No one knows how many died altogether, but it must have been close to fifty thousand.

The loss of life is even more appalling when you consider what this battle achieved. It is often described as having shaped the history of Europe. This is nonsense. The whole continent was united against Napoleon and the armies of Austria and Russia were ready to move on Paris. Napoleon faced opposition even within France – many of his troops had to be left behind to protect against monarchist opponents at home. Victory at Waterloo might have bought Napoleon time, which he could have used to consolidate his domestic position and negotiate improved surrender terms with the Allies. It might well have changed the history of France: it can hardly be claimed that it would have changed the history of Europe.

What Waterloo did do was define the character of Britain for the next hundred years. Wellington's famous calmness and "stiff upper lip" (typified by his insisting that the Duchess of Richmond go ahead with her ball, even as the French crossed the Belgian border) may have been nothing more than a propaganda ploy to reassure nervous civilians, yet it came to define how an English gentleman should behave. The steadfastness of the British troops, who held their positions all day under heavy fire, also came to typify the martial virtues of the British Army. It is significant that the British attribute heroism to stoicism under fire, such as that shown by British troops in the trenches during the First World War or Dunkirk in the Second, rather than enthusing about the kind of strategic genius that can lead to victory without heroic losses. Waterloo was also seen as confirming Britain's pre-eminent military position in Europe. Although the battle had been an Allied effort – less than half of Wellington’s troops were British and he admitted that it could not have been won without the Prussians – it was presented as a British victory. Wellington (although Irish – a fact that he did not care to advertise) was the Commander-in-Chief of the Allied forces. Britain was the only country to have fought against Napoleon consistently throughout his rule and now a British commander had put an end to Boney once and for all. Waterloo has therefore attained a mythic status in British history and inconvenient details that do not fit with this narrative are forgotten or ignored.

Unfortunately, my hero is fighting in a Belgian cavalry regiment. As everyone knows since it was a British victory, the role of regiments like the Belgian 8th Hussars has been quietly forgotten. Many historians claim that the Dutch and Belgian troops made little, if any, contribution to Wellington's success. In fact, the First Netherlands Light Cavalry Brigade, of which the 8th Hussars were a part, covered the retreat of the Scots Greys, saving the remnant of that regiment after their famous charge. The brigade was described as fighting with "insane gallantry".

In the end, I am sure that much of what I write about Waterloo could be debatable. Burke's experiences, though, do reflect one view of the reality of Waterloo  – and a view more firmly rooted in the reality of the battle than many others. At least Burke recognised the courage of the Dutch-Belgians who were so often dismissed as 'Waterloo cowards'. Two hundred years after the battle, perhaps it is time to put the record straight.

Images are from Wikipedia. This is an edited version of an article I first wrote for Carol McGrath's blog, 'Scribbling in the Margins'.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Quatre Bras

Wellington fought two battles against Napoleon in June 1815. The first was 200 years ago today – two days before Waterloo.

In England, a tiny hamlet like Quatre Bras would probably be called Four Ways. It was a few houses and some farms clustered around a crossroad on the main route north from Charleroi to Brussels. Napoleon was pushing as fast as he could toward the Belgian capital, desperate to get his army between the armies of Prussia and Britain so that he could pick his two opponents off one after the other.

Wellington had not expected Napoleon to move into Belgium through Charleroi and only a small force was positioned on that road. These were troops under the command of the Prince of Orange. Books like Sharpe's Waterloo present Prince William as an incompetent ass and his troops as cowards. You can't really blame Bernard Cornwell for taking this line: it's been a commonplace since Wellington returned victorious from a battle which everyone in London needed to believe had been won by the British. The role of Prince William and his Netherlands Army was played down then and has been played down ever since. Only recently have people began to question this story.

Prince William had 7,000 men and eight guns at Quatre Bras when the French arrived with 20,000 men and 60 guns. Another 20,000 Frenchmen were marching north to join them. There was, it seemed, no realistic prospect of Prince William's troops holding the position. Indeed, by 2:30 the French were close to taking the crossroads. Prince William's forces had increased to sixteen guns and 8,000 men, but this was all that stood between Marshall Ney and Brussels.

Nobody knows why Ney hesitated. It seems likely that Napoleon's orders had been unclear and that Ney was reluctant to commit himself without definite instructions. It was the first of a series of command blunders that suggest that Napoleon was no longer the brilliant general in complete command of his forces, as he had been before Elba. Some of his most solid and dependable marshals were no longer available to him and he was forced to put too much reliance on Ney, who, though undoubtedly brave, was not a master of strategy.

Brunswickers during the Battle of Quatre-Bras by Richard Knötel
While the French hesitated, Wellington was desperately moving forces from Brussels to defend the position at Quatre Bras. Throughout the afternoon both sides moved more troops into the fight. On several occasions, it seemed that the Allied positions must be overrun, but, every time, reinforcements arrived at the critical moment. The fighting was intense. Much of it was in fields of rye which grew up to eight feet high. The infantry could not see each other. (It's quite possible that if Prince William had been able to see how many French he faced at the beginning of the fight, he would have withdrawn.) There was extensive use of skirmishers and the cavalry often advanced in very loose order, unable to group for a classical charge because of the amount of woodland at key points around the battlefield. The result was a very fluid fight, much of it very close quarters. At one point, the Duke of Wellington himself was almost captured, riding a little too far ahead of his line. He famously escaped by fleeing at a gallop toward his own troops and ordering them to lie flat as his horse jumped across the British soldiers who then rose to their feet and drove off the French cavalry that had been pursuing their general.

Black Watch at the Battle of Quatre-Bras, 1815, by William Barnes Wollen
At the end of the day, both armies were in a similar position to where they had been when the engagement had started. To the east, though, Napoleon's troops had been successfully driving back the Prussians in a separate battle at Ligny. Wellington feared that, as the Prussians withdrew, Napoleon would be able to do exactly what he had planned: defeat the British the next day at Quatre Bras and then turn his army against the isolated Prussians. Wellington therefore took the decision to withdraw back toward Brussels, in the hope that he would be able to form a common front with the Prussian army further north. We now know that that was exactly what happened. The Prussians were able to join up with Wellington's forces at Waterloo, and it was their arrival which finally produced an Allied victory. At the time, though, Wellington was taking an enormous gamble. With no proper communications with the Prussian army, he could not be sure that they would not just retreat for home. In fact, there were elements in their command who wanted to do just that, and Napoleon was confident that they were not going to assist the British forces. The French, then, saw Quatre Bras as a victory. The day after the battle, the British were withdrawing northward, and the French were in pursuit. The British, by contrast, have always considered Quatre Bras as an Allied victory. An overwhelming French force was held at bay for a full day, with the British making an orderly withdrawal to a previously planned position in order to meet up with the Prussians at a strategically optimal point.

In fairness, I think that Quatre Bras is best regarded as a score draw. The French were not defeated, but they were delayed. The British were able to withdraw in good order and prepare themselves at Waterloo for the battle that would take place there two days later. What is clear is that if Ney had smashed through Prince William's lines at the point when he had overwhelming superiority, the French troops would have been on Brussels before the British could position themselves to mount an effective defence. It is quite probable that Napoleon would have ended by defeating the British. The Prussians, already beaten at Ligny would have withdrawn to Prussia, leaving Napoleon in control of Belgium. Many of the Belgian army would have rejoined the Eagles.

Could victory at Quatre Bras have saved Napoleon? In the long-term, probably not, but he would have seen off the British and Prussian Armies and been in a much stronger position to negotiate some sort of settlement with the great powers. It is possible that the young Prince William, inexperienced and totally out of his depth – and maybe only trying to hold the position because he lacked the strategic understanding that it should have been impossible to do so – changed the course of European history. It is also clearly true that the British victory at Waterloo was made possible because of the outstanding courage of the Dutch and Belgian troops who were later to be dismissed as "Waterloo cowards".

Monday, 15 June 2015

The Duchess of Richmond's Ball

Two hundred years ago today the Waterloo campaign started as Napoleon crossed the Sambre at Charleroi. It was a move that displayed a flash of his old strategic genius and fooled Wellington who had expected an attack further to the west. In Brussels, the British civilians, who had flocked to the town since Napoleon was sent to Elba, were sublimely unaware of the advance of the French. It was the night of the Duchess of Richmond's ball and la crème de la crème of British society was  joined there by Wellington and many of his officers. It was there that Wellington received the news that Napoleon was on his way and, the story goes, pointed at a map provided by his host and marked a field just south of Waterloo as the point where the decisive battle would be fought.

There are many fictional accounts of this ball, starting with Thackeray's in Vanity Fair, and carrying on right up to Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe's Waterloo. Most of them (especially those that have made it onto film) have a happy disregard for details of what the ball would actually have been like. Many people have said that we cannot know exactly where it was held or how the evening would have progressed, which is odd as there are accounts of it by people who were there (including a convenient plan of the house where anyone who wants to look at it) and there are some modern accounts with details of the guest list and the food that was served.

I have not read all of the modern research, but my version is based on eyewitness accounts from the time and should give a reasonable idea of what the evening would have been like.

Here's a taste (edited to take out the spoilers):

The roads to the east of the Place St Michel were little more than lanes and the throng of carriages – and even the occasional coach – that the Richmonds’ ball had attracted meant that the drivers were reduced to jostling for position and they travelled well below walking pace. Indeed, had the road not been so dirty, Burke might well have suggested that they walk the last quarter-mile, but Lily’s dress was very fine and it seemed wiser to wait. The occupants of the other carriages had obviously come to the same conclusion and they sat, more or less impatiently, the ladies fluttering their fans and the gentleman staring ahead impassively as the lower orders gathered at the side of the road to gawp at this unwonted spectacle.It was not until eight that their carriage finally rolled up at the gate in the Rue de la Blanchisserie. A liveried gatekeeper took one look at Burke’s uniform and Lily’s splendid dress and barely glanced at the invitation before bowing them through.Other servants lined the carriage drive that swept to the rear of the house, directing them away from the main entrance that faced onto the road. Looking at the parade of vehicles ahead of them, Burke could see why they were being sent this way. There would be more space for the carriages to manoeuvre around the back. The Richmonds had a large garden and Burke expected much of it to be trampled into mud by the morning, but they could afford gardeners and such inconvenience was part of the cost of entertaining on a lavish scale.The arrangements for the carriages meant that guests entered the house through the doors at the rear, but these were every bit as grand as those at the front, normally allowing the Richmonds and their friends to walk as a group into the gardens. Now, with a canopy to protect guests in case of rain and a positive army of servants to hand ladies down from carriages and direct drivers, the entrance was as imposing as the Duchess might have wished.The doors opened into a hall that ran right through the house. Burke could see other servants waiting by the front doors, presumably ready for the guests of honour who would be speeded to that entrance without having to jostle with those being admitted from the garden. There was, he understood, a hierarchy of privilege even amongst those singled out as suitable to obtain tickets to the Duchess’s entertainment. Indeed, his own invitation was discreetly scrutinised in the hallway to see whether it was on the list of those who should be formally announced on their entrance to the ballroom or if he was even amongst those so specially privileged as to be guided first to one of the other rooms of the house, where they might be greeted in person by the Duke or Duchess. Being, though, a mere mortal, he was directed towards a passage off on the right, which led to an anteroom which, in turn, opened out into the ballroom.Given the excitement that gripped Brussels society over the evening, Burke was surprised that the room was by no means grand. It was long and low, and made to appear still lower by a gallery that ran around it. The gallery was crowded, as the floor was far too small to allow for more than a fraction of the guests to be dancing. Not that this seemed to be worrying anyone. There was a constant buzz of conversation, more animated than usual at such occasions. Besides the inevitable gossip about Lady John Campbell and the various other unsuitable companions that the Duke of Wellington had been seen with, Burke heard, unusually for such occasions, remarks about the deployment of troops or the likely plans of the French.They edged their way through the crowd and found space on the dance floor. To Lily’s delight, they were playing a cotillion. Burke suspected that she had their hostess to thank for that. The Duchess of Richmond was quite old-fashioned in her tastes and had probably insisted on some more traditional English dances. The cotillion was soon over, though, and it was back to quadrilles. Another cotillion and then, as if to make up for such unfashionable music, the band started a waltz. Burke, like every other man in the place, had practised the steps so that if he ever found a girl daring enough to dance it, he would not be found wanting. He was gratified to discover that Lily had obviously practised it as well. The two of them whirled around the room until the music stopped, their cheeks red with excitement, and half dizzy from turning so enthusiastically.The master of ceremonies took to the floor and asked that everybody should clear a space there. Burke and Lily found themselves pressed back towards the wall. At least they had the advantage of being close to a window, which allowed some much-needed air.Above them, the gallery creaked alarmingly as more guests gathered there to see the spectacle below, but any creaking was soon drowned out as the sound of bagpipes announced the entry of a body of Highlanders into the room.Burke’s own, brief, experience of serving alongside the Highlanders had not endeared them to him, but, unlike many Englishmen, he admired their music, and enjoyed the spectacle of the kilted figures as they marched onto the dance floor. The Duchess herself was in the first rank of the spectators and the enthusiasm betrayed on her face suggested that she was happy with the selection of the troops who made up this band. It was clear that they had been carefully chosen, for, even in a regiment noted for the size and strength of its soldiers, these men stood out. Marching in in their bearskins, they seemed as much like heroes of antiquity as soldiers in the British Army.As the cream of Brussels society looked on, the Highlanders performed a string of reels one after the other to the accompaniment of their traditional instruments. The reels were followed by a strathspey and then swords were laid on the floor so that the four handsomest of the company could demonstrate their skill in the sword dance. At the conclusion of the display, the men formed back into columns and followed their piper out of the room, to the applause of the crowd. It occurred to Burke that, if any of the rumours he had heard were true, they could well be marching directly from the ball to the battlefield.