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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > Books on military subjects


By Bernard Coppens and Patrice Courcelle

Hougoumont, Waterloo 1815 Les Carnets de la Campagne N°1; Editions de la Belle Alliance; 1999. 87 pages. 160 FF ($25)

Another Waterloo book... but please read on, even if you're convinced you know everything about the 18th June 1815. Now here are a few questions for you:

  • What did the well look like at Hougoumont?
  • What was the uniform of Jerome Bonaparte's ADCs?
  • What was the name of the officer of the 1er Leger who broke through the gate with an axe?
  • Did the French know exactly what was beyond the woods of Hougoumont; did Napoleon really want to start the battle there?

Maybe now you're starting to understand. Even the most written-about battle can still conceal hot debates and topics for research and new facts!

This booklet is the first in a series of 12, which will explore the Waterloo Campaign from a fresh perspective. Bernard Coppens and Patrice Courcelle combine a number of talents that make them perfectly suited for this. They reside in Waterloo and have researched the period extensively for over twenty years. They are both historians AND illustrators, thus being able to convey graphically what could otherwise lead to lengthy argumentation.

Foremost they always base their works on primary sources, but examining each source to determine if it is truly a primary source. For them, it is not sufficient that a set of memoirs was written by a participant. They also analyze it to see if the author didn't simply "remember" long after the events and is giving what is actually only a testimonial polluted by other secondary works.

So, here we are with another book on Hougoumont, but from a different viewpoint. Coppens and Courcelle have gone back to the maps and the various accounts, and examine them minute by minute to try and understand why the events happened as they did. For example, why did wave after wave of French troops pour into the Hougoumont woods to try to capture an extremely well-defended building? The building, by the way, what did it really look like? After all, the main chateau was destroyed by fire during the battle and no contemporary illustrations of it has been left to us. There is considerable evidence that it was quite well concealed behind the woods, and illustrations of the view from what were to be the French positions at the start of the battle show no sign of it. Nor did the maps of the time help, since they were rather inaccurate. Did the French do a reconnaissance of the British lines? Not really it seems. The authors argue that Jerome's troops went in, not even knowing what they were going to find! This is one of the many questions they bring up from a pure historical perspective. Of course, as always, this will be a topic of debate.

Coppens and Courcelle, however are best known as gifted illustrators and this is where the book truly shines! In addition to all of the information on the battle, it also depicts the uniforms. There are full page color plates and numerous smaller illustrations interspersed within the body of the text.

Finally, they interlace their own text with selected passages from the memoirs of those who participated in the fighting. A very nice touch is the "aftermath" portion; there is the text and a photograph from the speech of at the 1913 dedication of a monument at Hougoumont. They end it with a page covering Hougoumont today and some tips on how to visit it. The overall feel of the book is one of a carefully researched work, but one written with a true passion for the topic. They effectively convey their own excitement to the reader.

As usual, with Coppens & Courcelle, quality of illustrations is matched by careful research and original sources. In addition there are numerous color illustrations throughout depicting the troops involved. Apart from these original graphics, only period illustrations have been used, including Dighton's painting of the attack on Hougoumont with an extensive analysis of it. The following are the uniforms that are covered:

  • Guards' Light Company
  • 2nd Light Regiment of Nassau-Usingen
  • 1er Regiment d'Infanterie Legere
  • Royal Waggon Train
  • The Light Luneburg Battalion
  • 1er Chasseurs a Cheval (the famous "helmeted" Chasseurs du Roi)

The next volumes in the series are the following:

  • June 1999: Le Chemin d'Ohain which will cover the attack of the 1st Corps
  • September 1999: Papelotte
  • December 1999: La Haie Sainte.

All in all, along with Haythornthwaite and Fosten's soon to be released The Men of Waterloo, the "W" word still has much to live on, but who can complain with such excellent works.

In a nutshell: at 160 FF ($25) very highly recommended!

Hougoumont can be obtained through:
Tondeur Diffusion
9, av Fr. Van Kalken
1070 Bruxelles
Phone: (322) 555 02 18
Fax (322) 555 02 19

Reviewed by Yves Martin