The French at Waterloo Eyewitness Accounts: 2nd & 6th Corps, Cavalry, Artillery, Imperial Guard and Medical Services
Pen and Sword Military (2020)
Illustrations: 20 black and white illustrations
We have often seen the immortal struggle at Waterloo, vividly presented for us in the descriptions passed down through the letters and memoirs of British and Allied Officers. The overwhelming number of sources from the Allies has left the men of Napoleonic France’s armies as relatively silent antagonists in the Waterloo epic, with few of their memoirs translated into English. Andrew W. Field’s The French at Waterloo offers a glimpse from the other side of Mont-St-Jean.
This is Field’s second volume to draw on the accounts written mostly by officers serving in the French Army during the Hundred Days Campaign. In this book Field turns his attention to Comte Honoré Reille’s 2nd Corps, Comte de Lobau’s 6th Corps, the Grande Batterie, the cavalry reserves of Generals François Kellerman and Comte Édouard Milhaud and the Imperial Guard. Field keeps his translations focused on the Battle of Waterloo itself, with little detail of the build-up and aftermath of the campaign. This focused approach produces a slim volume filled with a great range of material for historians, raising many new questions about the already hotly contested 18th June.
These questions will be familiar to readers of Field’s previous history of this campaign, Waterloo: The French Perspective (2012), where extracts from the sources presented in The French at Waterloo, were previously used. This volume thus supplies some context to the arguments presented in Waterloo: The French Perspective, making this a great companion text to further explore the French army’s experience of the battle.
As already mentioned, many of the accounts translated have come from officers and Field is very quick to warn us of the potential biases lurking in their accounts. These biases are born from the turbulent history of which many of these officers were writing their memoirs. Many of the generals had won their spurs under the Revolutionary Armies and then earned their commands in the Napoleonic Grande Armée, and their service in the Hundred Days made them vulnerable to the Second White Terror, which came with the restoration of Louis XVIII in 1815. This leaves many of the French accounts infused with contemporary politics, with many pro-Bonapartists actively seeking to exonerate Napoleon while his more reluctant supporters at Waterloo are more open with their criticism. To help with identifying the political leanings of the authors Field has translated, he includes a short biography before each account, giving the reader a sense of each memoirist’s career before and after Waterloo and their declared beliefs either for or against Bonapartism. While the officer class overwhelming dominates this collection there are a few very welcomed additions of accounts from non-commissioned officers and rankers included in this book, providing some sense of the battlefield from the proverbial coalface, of the fightin
While the general reticence of the French army following their defeat at Waterloo makes this a short collection of first-hand accounts, the information contained within is an invaluable addition to the ongoing study of Waterloo. As the Duke of Wellington famously said, ‘All the business of war [… is] guessing what was at the other side of the hill.’ The French At Waterloo gives the reader that much needed glimpse into the other side of hill of Mont-St-Jean.
 Quoted in John Croker, The Croker Papers: The Correspondence and Diaries of the Late Right Honourable John Wilson Croker, LL. Dm F.R.S, Secretary of the Admiralty from 1809-1830, Vol. III (London: John Murray, 1884), p.276.