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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > Books on military subjects

The Dutch-Belgian Cavalry at Waterloo – A Military History

Dellevoet, André. The Dutch-Belgian Cavalry at Waterloo – A Military History. Uniform illustrations by Marius Niemietz. Den Haag, Belgium: André Dellevort, 2008. (Distributed by de Cavalerie). 231 p. ISBN# 9789787129265. Hardcover. €63.

The British Army in the West Indies cover

I own over 200 Napoleonic books, including some thirty odd books on Waterloo, but this is the first title I have read in a very long while that feels like I was viewing the great battle through a fresh pair of eyes. Eschewing the usual Hougoumont / d’Erlon / Union Brigade / French cavalry charges / Guard dance-card (a mainly infantry approach) for instead, a view of the battle as seen by the Netherlands cavalry division, Dellevoet has created a testimony to seven regiments that suffered 30 percent casualties (and were awarded 200 Knights of the Order of William for bravery) without the recognition awarded to other units.

The book points out that Netherlands cavalry were not, as others down the years would have us believe, a raw force. In the 2nd (Belgian) Carabiniers nineteen out of thirty officers and nearly 40 percent of the men were veterans of the Grande Armée. The divisional and brigade commanders were virtually all veteran former Genereaux de Brigade and holders of the Legion d’Honneur. But these were awkward times for the new Netherlands, and the South Netherlands (read, Belgian) units in particular were subjected to suspicion about their loyalty. But as Dellevoet points out, it was much more common for officers in that era to serve multiple masters during their career. Nonetheless, it must have been difficult for officers like van Merlen (who had a brother attacking Hougoumont as part of Reille’s Corps) and Lieutenant Dubois of the 5th (Belgian) Light Dragoons, whose father was a French general.

What really stands from this book out are the small details; the 5th Light Dragoons calling out to former colleagues whilst engaged in a prolonged melee with French Chasseurs â Cheval at Quatre Bras, and then being shot at by British troops whilst retiring because their uniforms looked too much like the enemy; of the 92nd Highlanders standing to arms in the wee small hours of the 18th because a returning Belgian dragoon vedette answered a challenge in French; of the Dutch Carabiniers being mocked by the French cavalry on account of their old-fashioned bicorne hats and long-tailed coats.

Most interesting is the fact that the Netherlands troops were reassigned to different commands on the morning of Waterloo, the Netherlands cavalry division being assigned to Lord Uxbridge, even though the Earl acknowledged that “…it is unfortunate I (should) not have had the opportunity of making myself acquainted with any of the officers or their regiments.” This reassignment gave Uxbridge eleven cavalry brigades under his command on the day, with no intervening divisional structure, explaining why the Allied response to the massed French attacks was almost invariably piecemeal, unless Uxbridge was on the spot. This situation not helped by the fact that the Netherlands brigades were ordered to act independently and opportunistically after the French fashion, rather than waiting for orders in the British fashion. It also explains the famous scenario when Uxbridge appeared in front of the Dutch Carabiniers dressed as a British hussar Colonel, exhorting them to follow him into action - presumably in English or French. Quite likely they had no idea who he was (or what he was saying), and declined.

The appendix containing the timing and composition of the French cavalry charges, and the contribution of the Netherlands cavalry division to the repulse of the French, is amongst the clearest expositions of these confused two-and-a-half hours that I have ever seen. The descriptions of the confused cavalry melees that followed in the wake of the Union Brigade charge also feel like new information and are a welcome addition to the battle.

This is a sumptuous book, lavishly illustrated and self-published, with copious extracts from rare Netherlands sources. My only criticism is the quantity of typographical errors, understandable perhaps in the translation to English, but distracting nonetheless, and the maps, which need additional annotation. However the detailed uniform plates are worth the price of admission alone.

It is an essential book for anyone interested in a balanced Allied view of the great battle, especially as seen from a cavalry perspective.

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Reviewed by Steve Brown
Placed on the Napoleon Series: June 2011