Waterloo Commanders: Napoleon,
Wellington and Blücher
Waterloo Commanders: Napoleon,
Wellington and Blücher.
Huddersfield: Pen & Sword, 2007. 222 pages. Hardcover. ISBN# 1844152499/ISBN-13: 978-1844152490. $39.95/£19.99.
Despite the passage of almost two centuries, the
Waterloo campaign still draws great interest. The
four-day campaign of June 1815, which resulted in one of the most famous
battles in history and brought the ultimate downfall of Napoleon, remains
hotly debated and will continue to be so for many years to come. Napoleonic
historian Andrew Uffindell argues in this, his latest title, that popular
views of the three key commanders, namely Emperor Napoleon of France;
Field Marshal the Duke of Wellington, commander in chief of the allied
armies; and Field Marshal Gebhard Lebrecht von Blücher, commander
in chief of the Prussian Army of the Lower Rhine, has distorted the
significance of the battle. The author examines this extraordinary
combination of commanders and their intriguing contrasts in personalities,
styles of leadership, strengths and weaknesses. This book is intended
as a companion to Waterloo Armies by Phillip Haythornthwaite
and a supplement to Waterloo: The Battlefield
Guide by Andrew Uffindell and Michael Corum, published as part
of Pen & Sword’s Battleground Europe series.
Waterloo Commanders is divided into six parts. The first
three provide biographical sketches of Napoleon,
Wellington and Blücher, followed by an overview of the Waterloo
Campaign, the subsequent lives of these three men, concluding with
an assessment of each commander. Each is assessed according to personality,
style of leadership, method of command and control, strategy and tactics.
As compelling as the five previous parts are, this latter part was
the most interesting as the author challenges certain aspects of
Waterloo it seems, was less remarkable a battle than it has
been made out to be.
Wellington and Napoleon were skilful at manoeuvre, but the battle was
largely one of attrition that came down to a “hard pounding” between
British infantry and uncoordinated French attacks; it finally ended
with a crushing flank assault by the Prussians.
Waterloo was not, as it has sometimes been called, one of the great
duels of history, for Bonaparte and
Wellington met there for the first time at the end of their military
Wellington did not think much of it; “it is generally thought
that the battle of
Waterloo was one of the greatest battles ever fought,” he once
remarked, “such is not my opinion…” (p. ix).
Uffindell contends the subsequent fame the battle earned has overshadowed
the earlier careers of all three commanders and “simplified the
way in which we see them”
(p. 200). Napoleon’s brilliance did not decline over the years
and in reality, he exhibited some of his most brilliant generalship
in his later years. His failure was not as a general, but as a statesman
where he refused to employ accommodation with his opponents and other
states. Those historians attempting to explain away his defeat further
obscure the point by failing to acknowledge the general improvement
in the strategies and armies of his opponents. Defeat offers the best
impetus for reform and as time progressed, more comprehensive and solid
coalitions emerged from among Napoleon’s opponents, who fielded
better trained and led armies, guided by more effective strategies.
Wellington too, had faults and regularly under- or over-estimated
his opponents. He was also a skilful commander, who in
sought to win battles decisively, with as little loss of life as possible.
He was not simply the master of the defence, he could also seized the
initiative and bring vigorous and disciplined attacks that gained dominance
over his enemy. Yet, he never faced either Napoleon or the Grande
Armée in its heyday or previously felt the powerful French
cavalry and artillery as he did at
Waterloo, something Blücher was painfully aware of, having experiencing
ignominious defeat in 1806. Blücher’s character offers many
interesting contrasts and similarities to Napoleon and
Wellington and reflected the changes to the Prussian system of war
that emerged after 1806. Encirclement, bold action and decisive battle
were as much of Blücher as they were of the Prussian Army. More
than the figurehead commander he is often painted as, Blücher
gained experience in the higher art of war during 1814, where he faced
Napoleon six times, losing on four occasions and winning twice—he
helped defeat Napoleon as part of an allied force at
Leipzig, as well as
Waterloo. While often considered a secondary commander during 1815,
Uffendell presents Blücher as having a far more important role
than is generally acknowledged: “It was he that bore the
burnt of the first two days of the campaign when Napoleon lost is best
chance of victory. It was Blücher who gave battle at Ligny and
thereby won time for the Allies to concentrate their armies for cantonments.
It was Blücher who insisted on taking the bold and risky decision
to march to
Wellington’s support on 18 June and it was Blücher who thus
united the two Allied armies on the battlefield and enabled them to
defeat Napoleon by their combined numerical superiority.” (p.
The book concludes with an excellent guide to further reading, with
titles in English, French and German. There are also 19 well-executed
maps, 17 images and six illustrations. The index is very useful and
is dividing into two parts, one covering general topics, the other
armies and formations.
My only criticism of Waterloo Commanders is of the few notes
provided, 15 in total. The author used a great many quoted passages
throughout the book, that are usually attributed to an individual,
but not the source work, creating a problem in finding them, perhaps
even for the most experienced Napoleonic scholar. This oversight however,
is likely attributable to the publisher’s editorial policy rather
than a decision by the author. Striking the balance between academic
and popular presentation is a difficult one and endnotes are often
eliminated as a result.
Enthusiasts of the Napoleonic era will be likely to be familiar with
Uffindell’s earlier works, including The Eagle’s Last
Triumph: Napoleon’s Victory at Ligny, On the Fields of
Glory: The Battlefields of the 1815 Campaign (with Michael Corum)
and others. His The National Army Museum Book on Wellington’s
Army won the Royal United Services Institute Duke of Westminster
Medal for Literature for 2004.
Overall, this is an excellent book offering a treasure of insights
into these three men and the
Waterloo campaign. It challenges certain perspectives and offers fresh
insights, making it an excellent addition to the literature on
Review by John R. Grodzinski
Placed on the Napoleon Series: September 2007
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