Reviews: Military Books


Waterloo Commanders: Napoleon, Wellington and Blücher

Uffindell, Andrew. Waterloo Commanders: Napoleon, Wellington and Blücher. Huddersfield: Pen & Sword, 2007. 222 pages. Hardcover. ISBN# 1844152499/ISBN-13: 978-1844152490. $39.95/£19.99.

Waterloo Commanders

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 historiography.

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 careers. Even 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 India , Portugal and Spain 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. 199).

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 Waterloo.

Review by John R. Grodzinski

Placed on the Napoleon Series: September 2007

 

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