The Great Waterloo Controversy: The Story of the 52nd Foot at History’s Greatest Battle
Pen and Sword (2020), Hardback
Illustrations: 16 black and white illustrations
I will confess to picking up this work with some trepidation: the title smacked a little of a sales pitch, when previous Waterloo-related books have already given us ‘The German Victory’, ‘The Truth at Last’, ‘Hidden Heroes’ and other such hyperbole, and I was very aware that the same author had produced a similar work only five years previously (Waterloo: The Defeat of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard, Frontline Books, 2015). Considering that the 2015 book was subtitled as ‘the End of a 200-year-old Controversy’, could there be anything more to say?
The answer, thankfully, is yes, although inevitably there is also a fair amount of duplication. The idea of following a single regiment through the Hundred Days is not completely new – David Blackmore has done it for the 16th Light Dragoons, and, on a slightly larger scale, Bob Burnham and Ron McGuigan have done it for the Foot Guards – but there are plenty of primary sources, both official and unofficial, to illuminate the story of the 52nd Foot and they are used to good effect to bring the story to life. Indeed, for this reviewer (and I accept that I may be in a minority here amongst Waterloo buffs) this portion of the narrative was my favourite part of the whole book. The exploration and interpretation of the regiment’s internal organisation was extremely interesting, and the theme of indiscipline during this campaign, particularly post-Waterloo, is something that picks up on my own research into the 12th Light Dragoons during the same timeframe and suggests the existence of an Army-wide problem which merits future investigation in more detail. Linked to this subject, the book also has much to say on the role of Sir John Colborne as commanding officer of the 52nd, calling for a certain amount of reassessment of his abilities in this role and of the merits, or otherwise, of his indulgent approach to offences against military discipline.
That is one part of the book: what about the controversy? Although the author does not explicitly name names, giving only dates of publication, the book is written in response to Nigel Sale’s work on the same regiment in the same battle (Wellington’s Waterloo Secret – How the 52nd Light Infantry Beat Napoleon, Alden, 2005, and The Lie at the Heart of Waterloo: The Battle’s Hidden Last Half Hour, History Press, 2014). Mr Glover takes strong exception to Sale’s ‘conspiracy theory’ narrative which posits that the 52nd played the decisive role in the defeat of the Imperial Guard and that the regiment and its officers were robbed of their laurels in a subsequent ‘cover-up’. Although highlighting how imperfect recollections and regimental pride laid the groundwork for such ideas to take root within the traditions of the 52nd and its successor regiments, the book has little time for conspiracy. Instead, it presents a more balanced analysis which recognises the key role played by the 52nd but also sites it within a wider narrative that takes the reader through the whole of the Imperial Guard attack and makes it clear that its failure was down to the actions of multiple allied regiments. The account given is one of the clearest analyses of the ‘Crisis’ at Waterloo that I have read, and an entirely convincing one. Just to make certain, however, Mr Glover has included in his work a lengthy chapter, expanded from the similar analysis appearing in his 2015 book, to address the various ‘conspiracy theory’ claims in turn. To be honest, this is rather superfluous: the case has already been made in the main body of the work, and such tangents as whether Wellington slept with Napoleon’s former mistresses are rather too far removed from the story of the 52nd to really merit inclusion here.
As might be expected from a writer who has made his name through his work on primary sources, Mr Glover has packed this book with such accounts. The way in which he has done so, however, is likely to divide the crowd. Nearly all the sources used are ones that have appeared in print before, primarily in Siborne’s publications or in Mr Glover’s own extensive Waterloo-related output, although Ensign William Leeke is also extensively drawn upon. The main new source is the Journal of Lieutenant Charles Holman, but while this is interesting it is terse and does not add a great deal that is new to the story. Nevertheless, we are presented with large – often multi-page – extracts from sources with which many readers will already be familiar. This at times can rather break up the narrative, as we hear what such-and-such an eyewitness has to say, and then drop back to an earlier phase in the fighting to review the same events from the perspective of someone else. This reviewer would have preferred to see shorter, more focussed, extracts deployed in support of the book’s case. However, it must be acknowledged that by quoting at such length Mr Glover does ensure that all the support for his argument is contained within the covers of the book, thus making it very accessible for any reader coming to the topic without prior knowledge.
Whether or not one cares for the way in which Mr Glover deploys his sources comes down to a matter of taste, but there are a few areas in which the book does undoubtedly fall short. The maps are frequent and beautifully drawn but are nearly all reproduced at a very small size so that the details are extremely difficult to make out – about the only exception is that on p.195 depicting the final advance, which is full-page and perfectly legible, but which sadly has the appearance of having been flung together in a hurry using a pretty basic graphics package. As noted, many of the primary sources are ones which Mr Glover has published as part of his multi-volume Waterloo Archive, and unfortunately these are all cited to those volumes (in one case, to a volume not yet published) and not to their original archival source. This makes following up a reference inconvenient if one does have the relevant volume, and impossible if one does not. Secondary sources are for the most part not directly engaged with at all, although reference is made to the work of other scholars who have aided the project and an appendix summarises in table form the multiple sources from which the French part of the ‘Crisis’ narrative has been assembled. However, because no secondary sources are directly cited it is impossible to tell where some assertions and interpretations – for example, that the French cavalry charges during the afternoon at Waterloo were explicitly intended to replicate the success of Murat at Eylau – have come from. Furthermore, considering that a major part of the book’s raison d’etre is to engage with and refute claims by other historians, this failure to engage directly with the secondary literature seems rather odd. Lastly, and unusually for this publisher and for a work of this magnitude, the work is lacking an index.
Although the work’s imperfections do, therefore, detract a little from its major strengths, it is ultimately those strengths which recommend the title. If one is seeking a detailed account of how a battalion of light infantry functioned on campaign and in battle in 1815, one needs to look no further and for that portion of the narrative alone the book deserves its place in a Waterloo library. If one is seeking the last word on the events of the ‘Crisis’ at Waterloo, with a clear and convincing account of who engaged who and what the outcome was, one again needs to look no further. It is unrealistic to hope that we will stop arguing about Waterloo, and no doubt fresh controversies will emerge, but it is to be hoped that on this controversy, at least, Mr Glover has had the last word for a good long time to come.