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Four Days that changed Europe’s Destiny
Tim Clayton Little Brown, Septmber 9th, 2014
Clayton starts off this weighty (500+ pages) tome in pacey style. His second chapter provides a good overview of the fluid state of European politics and boundaries at the start of the nineteenth century. The key players in this titanic battle – which truly can said to have reshaped Europe – are all fascinating characters. Perhaps this goes someway to explaining the particular rush to write new reviews of the period to celebrate the battle’s bicentenary. Clayton elucidates how the British conception of Napoleon became misplaced. ‘Boney’ was not that small in fact – he was 5’6 or 7” – average height for the period, but English writers had forgotten that French inches were larger than the Anglo-Saxon! And by the start of the 19th century he was far from bony!
He points out the European nature of Wellington’s background – this Anglo-Irishman, after Eton, was educated, ironically, at the Ecole Royale d’Equitation in Angers in France. The key allies – the Prussians – provided their own cast of characters. Many were named after famous WW2 battleships (or perhaps it was the other way round!). Some measure of the fluid nature of Europe was that Gneisenau, for example, was worried about the 30,000 element of Rhinelanders and Saxons in his army, since they had fought for France until 1813. Blucher, of whom a biography sounds as though it would be fascinating, had an interesting tactic to deal with such dubious loyalties. After the Saxons failed to salute him, he disarmed their Grenadier Guards, “ordered them to hand over 10 men, had these executed by firing squad, and had the regimental flag, which the Queen of Saxony had embroidered personally, publicly burned.” !!
Wellington was under no illusions about the sort of man that joined his own ranks: “the very scum of the earth. People talk of their enlisting from their fine military feeling – all stuff – no such thing. Some of our men enlist from having got bastard military children – some for minor offences – many more for drink, but you can hardly conceive such a set brought together, and it is really wonderful that we should have made them the fine set of fellows they are.” No different from today’s army then. One character who Clayton reintroduces throughout the saga is Thomas Playford – “a big, handsome Yorkshire lad [aren’t they all?] left his South Yorkshire village to join the army at fifteen after getting his schoolmistress pregnant” !!
Knitting this band of allies together was of course a crucial task, and Wellington seems to have been lucky in securing one Karl von Muffling as his Prussian liaison officer.
Clayton covers the days preceding the battle in some detail – and this adds to the reader’s sense of foreboding, since we all know what happened next. Nowadays it seems extraordinary that Wellington could pursue his very active social life (and philandering) right up to the moment of battle. It is hard to envisage the current CGS attending the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball before embarking on an apocalyptic campaign! The Iron Duke escorted a demure sixteen year-old (again related to the Duchess of Richmond, I suspect) to a cricket match. Periodically during such events Wellington would pause to dictate orders. On a parade to celebrate King Charles’ Restoration Day, “One of the ‘staff people’ overheard Blucher compliment Wellington on his horsemen, ‘When the English cavalry gets to Paris each soldier must make a child in order to regenerate France.’” English cavaliers have been trying ever since….
Wellington was deceived about Bonaparte’s tactics, in much the same way as Hitler was in the Pas de Calais. In the days before aerial reconnaissance, let alone spy satellites, the scope for being misled was enormous. Clayton gives a good flavour of the style in which Boney went to battle “a convoy of fourteen carriages”, “thirty green-liveried valets”, etc, etc. If Churchill was fuelled by champagne, Boney ran on Burgundy!
Clayton allows the reader to absorb the conclusions over many chapters. Napoleon was let down by his poor choice of staff officers. Whilst the armies were relatively evenly matched, Boney had much superior artillery, and knew how to use it. Clayton exploits a lot of first person accounts of the battle (some recently unearthed by other researchers). These do not spare the reader the horrors of the battlefield. Not only was the effect of ball and shot horrific, but the weather was also extremely unseasonal: the rank and file on both sides spent a miserable night soaked to the skin, smoking tobacco in a vain attempt to warm up.
Another very personal vignette: Mrs Ross the Quartermaster’s wife, who was only with reluctance persuaded not to join the battlefield (caring for the wounded), and who instead mounted the belfry of the nearest church to monitor her husband’s men in action!
Waterloo was a battle to destroy the enemy, rather than one to gain territory – it was almost an afterthought that the Allies progressed to Paris. It was a battle where the battlefield was completely laid waste. Moreover its hinterland had been scalped of food in the days preceding – one feels very sorry of the Belgians caught in this meat grinder (though, as in 1914-15, there appear to have been many who seized entrepreneurial opportunities with both sides).
It is ironic that the Dutch are nowadays the most obvious physical presence on the battle site - due to the looming Lion’s Mound, erected to mark where the Prince of Orange was wounded. For the Dutch do not emerge with much credit. The prince was more a figurehead than a warrior, and their artillery seem struck with mass cowardice. Indeed whilst Wellington emerged with huge credit, and a fortune to accompany it, Clayton points out that elements of the British Army were not universally courageous and brave. Whilst many reputations were made, some were broken, if they existed at all.
Clayton does a good job in bringing some order to the chaos of a battle which was more a series of battles spread over a few miles. The Prussians really did not move Westwards to Wellington’s men until near the close, and a decisive move that was. But with all this movement, and many actions within the overall battle, more maps would have made this volume vastly more accessible – the author spends many words (and the book is not short of them!) drawing pen portraits of the landscape of each skirmish and battle. Yet it is usually difficult to place these in the few small scale maps contained (usually somewhere else) in the book. But a suitably authoritative coverage of an epic struggle.
Not so much the Lion's Mound, as the Cub's Pimple!