The Fog of War Lifts on Waterloo

Two new and remarkable books prove how Waterloo will continue to divide historians for centuries

Andrew Roberts

The bicentenary of Waterloo next June has spawned the publication — and all too often the re-publication after many years of well-deserved obscurity — of over a dozen books about what is probably the world’s most famous battle. Two new and remarkable additions to this avalanche of literature are Gareth Glover’s superb explosion of literally dozens of myths about the campaign, and Brendan Simms’s equally well-argued and gripping concentration on the struggle for La Haye Sainte, the walled farmhouse in the centre of the battlefield. That these excellent books disagree merely proves how Waterloo will continue to divide historians for another two centuries at least.

Glover is the editor of easily the most important publishing phenomenon in Waterloo studies for decades, the six-volume Waterloo Archive series of 500 hitherto-unpublished letters about the battle, written by people from every country that took part. These prove that what Glover calls the “increasingly xenophobic claims by the competing nations in the centuries since the battle” have completely skewed the historical record. Once xenophobia is added to the discrepancies, misunderstandings, and sheer confusion that is usefully summed up in the phrase “the fog of war”, we can appreciate that we actually know much less about the battle than we thought, beyond the fact that the French lost. (As Glover jokingly points out, the pop group Abba’s claim that “at Waterloo Napoleon did surrender” is also false.)

Even the route taken by Napoleon’s Imperial Guard in its final, doomed attack on Wellington’s line is disputed, largely because of the various competing claims by British and other Allied troops that it had been their own bravery that turned back the cream of the French army and thus finally decided the outcome. By painstakingly connecting the original sources together, using the expertise of 40 years’ study of the battle, and also employing a good deal of military knowledge and common sense, Glover radically reinterprets the evidence to piece together what really happened on the more than one route that various sections of the Guard actually took. “I believe that this version of events is by far the most likely,” Glover modestly avers, “although it may never be proven beyond all doubt.”

Brendan Simms, professor of the history of international relations at Cambridge, has written a very short but genuinely exciting account of the defence of La Haye Sainte by the 2nd Light Battalion of the King’s German Legion (KGL) during the battle. The KGL were part of the British Regular Army, most of them German subjects of George III in his capacity as Elector of Hanover. Their doughty defence of the strategically vital farmhouse from 2pm on June 18, 1815, when it was attacked by French forces more than six times larger than the number of defenders — which Simms puts at 378 effectives — to when it finally fell at 6.30pm, is credited by the author as being the key factor in Wellington’s line holding, making Waterloo, for Simms at least, more a German (or even Hanoverian) than a British victory.

The problem with this approach to apportioning glory is that the defenders of La Haye Sainte, stupendously brave though they undoubtedly were, were supported by Wellington’s artillery and infantry across part of the Anglo-Allied front. With the Prussians arriving in force on the battlefield after 4.30pm, Napoleon had to send increasing forces eastwards to check them, and a major contribution was also made by the troops holding the other farmhouse, Hougoumont. Not one of the 13 Anglo-Allied squares broke under French cavalry attacks, so those men can also be credited with having “decided” Waterloo by saving Wellington’s line. Moreover, as Glover points out, if one adds the men who reinforced La Haye Sainte during the day, from the 1st Light and the 5th Line battalions of the KGL and the 1st battalion of the 2nd Nassau Regiment, the total number of defenders was 871 rather than 378. The total number killed, wounded and missing was 323 out of the 871, which is very high but not the 90 per cent of popular legend.

“It is clear that all the nations involved played their full part in the defeat of Napoleon on that fateful day,” is Glover’s judicious summing-up. “Wellington would not have stood against Napoleon had he not received solid assurances that [the Prussian commander Field Marshal Gebhard von] Blücher would join him that day. During the campaign many German and Dutch/Belgian units fought equally bravely alongside their British allies and played significant roles.” There’s more than enough glory to go around, he therefore argues. For all that the defence of La Haye Sainte equates with Rorke’s Drift in its desperate heroism, it didn’t actually “decide” the battle.

In one area alone do both Glover and Simms fall into a common error, and that is in their absurd demonology of Napoleon himself. Simms believes that in 1815 Napoleon “threatened another generation of fighting”, whereas in fact he sent out genuine peace offers to the Allied governments at their Congress in Vienna, desperately hoping to avoid a conflict that he knew he was unlikely to win in the long term as hundreds of thousands of Russians and Austrians marched to the support of the Prussian and Anglo-Allied armies in Belgium.

Glover meanwhile states that “to the vast majority of Europeans in 1815, Napoleon was an insatiable warmonger, a despot, a criminal, a monster or an ogre; in many respects he was the Idi Amin or Saddam Hussein of his day.”

Since far more wars had been declared on Napoleon by the Allies than he had declared on them, the charge of warmonger simply does not hold good unless William Pitt the Younger and Metternich can also be described as such, and the equations with Amin and Saddam amount to little more than vulgar abuse of a giant of European history whose monumental achievements can still be seen in the Civil Code, the lycées, the Légion d’Honneur, the Banque de France, the Empire style of art, the Conseil d’État, as well as French architecture, culture and society to this day.  

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