Waterloo: The Campaign of 1815

Waterloo: The Campaign of 1815. Volumes 1 and 2. By John Hussey. Greenhill Books, Barnsley, 2017.
Reviewed by Dr Gregory P. Gilbert

On 1 March 1815 nobody at Vienna (where the Allied powers were holding a congress) foresaw a war against France; three weeks later the talk was of little else. This was recognised as requiring 100,000 troops in Belgium and hundreds of thousands more marching west across Germany to assemble on the middle Rhine.
Hussey, Vol. 1, p. 123

MANY books reach my desk every year but very few stand out as a substantive work of military history that also offers an enjoyable escape from the routines of everyday life. John Hussey’s ‘Waterloo: The Campaign of 1815’ is this year’s stand out work. It is much more than a 21st century reworking of the most studied military campaign in modern history – it is a modern masterpiece of military history. This two volume collection is of immense value to anyone interested in national strategy, command, leadership and coalition warfare.

Over the last 200 years thousands of books have been written on Napoleon’s final campaign of 1815 but far too many have emphasised tactics at the expense of strategy. Hussey draws together the geo-political circumstances and individual commander’s experiences of the Waterloo campaign within a detailed and comprehensive narrative of events. He included the events leading up to the invasion of Belgium and the double battles of Ligny and Quatre Bras in Volume 1. The second volume covers the retreat of 17 June, the main battle at Waterloo and the fighting at Wavre on 18 June. It continues with the subsequent Allied invasion of France, surrender of Paris and the restoration of peace in Europe. The length of the narrative has mandated the separation of the main text into these two volumes although I would have preferred even more discussion on the events following the 18th.

‘Waterloo: The Campaign of 1815’ is enhanced by its appendices and notes. Controversial topics are not allowed to lengthen the narrative but rather have been included at the end of each chapter or as notes at the end of each volume. The reader needs to be aware that to avoid repartition the list of sources consulted, the orders of battle and the index for both volumes are only contained in the end of Volume 2.

The leadership styles of the three commanders-in-chief – Napoleon, Blücher and Wellington – are worthy examples for modern military leaders however much more intriguing is how each of these commanders utilised their general staff officers to translate their strategic intent into action. Hussey explains how this relationship worked within the context of the French, Prussian and British systems. Interestingly the Prussian general staff model has become somewhat of a gold standard for modern armed forces, however Hussey’s description of the general staff limitations and errors, under General Gniesenau during the Waterloo Campaign, highlights the very real shortfalls of such a system in practice. Wellington also suffered numerous deficiencies in staff work during the campaign, not only due to too few staff and a certainly inexperience but due to the complexities of the Anglo-Dutch Army’s structure. For example, as Hussey explains, although the British Army’s logistic support arrangements were generally superior to those of the Prussians or the French, who relied upon local confiscations and looting to a certain degree, the British logistics failed to adequately support the Allied contingents under Wellington’s command.

Of course the relationship between Napoleon Bonaparte and his general staff is one that has exercised the minds of historians and arm-chair generals over the last 200 years. The d’Erlon fiasco of 16 June 1815 is a classic example of incompetence but Hussey suggests that this, along with a number of similar major staff errors, was evidence of a systemic failure in the French staff. There was clearly an inability of French staff officers to translate Napoleon’s commands into clear executable orders. Napoleon’s failures on the battlefield of Waterloo on the 18th of June have been attributed to his having a bad day, however I would tend to agree with Hussey’s interpretation that Napoleon in 1815 was just as brilliant as he had been 10 or more years before but he lacked the experienced staff who could fill in the blanks left by the genius whose mind charged ahead of others at an astonishing rate. The French generals Ney and Grouchy have also tended to get a bad press by historians however they too must have suffered from the systemic failures of the French general staff system. Interestingly the much maligned Grouchy almost overnight changed into a good independent commander following the rest of the French Army’s defeat at Waterloo on the 18th. This suggests that the earlier problems resulted from confusion from Napoleon and his general staff. It can be fair to say that all three general staffs failed their commanders-in-chief in some way or another but it was Wellington and Blücher who managed to fight their way through the friction.

Hussey includes the Orders of Battle for the major forces of the Waterloo Campaign – the Anglo-Allied Army, the Prussian Army of the Lower Rhine and the French Army of the North. One of the outstanding features of these lists is that every one of these armies consisted largely of average-quality units or below. The British included many 2nd battalions which had not fought in the Peninsular. The Dutch-Belgians and German allied contingents included many young conscripts as did the Prussian Army of the Lower Rhine. Many of the experienced soldiers in these Allied units had gained their experience serving alongside the French under Napoleon. The French units were not much better. Many regiments were short of trained men and had filled their ranks with new young conscripts. Recruitment to the French forces was also complicated by the competing loyalty between King Louis XVIII and Napoleon – many French officers were considered to be turncoats by their soldiers to have Royalist loyalties. Overall each of the armies assembled for the Waterloo Campaign were more the Second Eleven teams rather than the national bests.

The Waterloo Campaign of 1815 remains one of the most important case-studies in military history. The fact that the strategic events of importance lasted only 100 days and Napoleon’s invasion of Belgium lasted just 5 days means that the modern student does not have to get too bogged down in politics or geo-strategic considerations. In fact the Napoleonic Wars were effectively ended in 1814 with the exile of Napoleon to Elba, and the Waterloo Campaign was an aberration. Napoleon could not have won strategically in 1815 rather he hoped to entrench his position by fostering the collapse of the Allies’ will to work together to defeat him. ‘Waterloo: The Campaign of 1815’ reveals the strategies behind this campaign whereas many others in the past have been far too narrow in their approach to truly understand the lessons of Waterloo. Carl von Clausewitz used Waterloo as a major case-study for his famous work ‘On War’, indeed he served as a Prussian staff officer attached to one of Blücher’s corps. Because of the writings of Clausewitz and others Waterloo has become a sign-post for the modern idea that the land campaign is the most important component of a joint campaign. This again is a direct result of simplified interpretations of the Waterloo Campaign that have emphasised tactical level of operations and grand tactics in place of military and national strategy. Hussey helps to overcome this bias.

With almost 1000 pages of main text it is not a short work however it is not your average paper filler; every page adds substance to the events unfolding. ‘Waterloo: The Campaign of 1815’ is an authoritative masterpiece that is eminently readable. It draws one in, engrossing while challenging the reader’s preconceptions, and simply it is very hard to put down. These books are highly recommended for those who have an inclination for higher command.