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The name Waterloo has become synonymous with final, crushing defeat. Now this legendary battle is re-created in a groundbreaking book by an eminent British military historian making his major American debut. Revealing how and why Napoleon fell in Belgium in June 1815, The Battle of Waterloo definitively clears away the fog that has, over time, obscured the truth.
With fresh details and interpretations, Jeremy Black places Waterloo within the context of the warfare of the period, showing that Napoleon’s modern army was beaten by Britain and Prussia with techniques as old as those of antiquity, including close-quarter combat. Here are the fateful early stages, from Napoleon’s strategy of surprise attack—perhaps spoiled by the defection of one of his own commanders—to his younger brother’s wasteful efforts assaulting the farm called Hougoumont. And here is the endgame, including Commander Michel Ney’s botched cavalry charge against the Anglo-Dutch line and the solid British resistance against a series of French cavalry strikes, with Napoleon “repeating defeat and reinforcing failure.”
More than a masterly guide to an armed conflict, The Battle of Waterloo is a brilliant portrait of the men who fought it: Napoleon, the bold emperor who had bullied other rulers and worn down his own army with too many wars, and the steadfast Duke of Wellington, who used superior firepower and a flexible generalship in his march to victory.
With bold analysis of the battle’s impact on history and its lessons for building lasting alliances in today’s world, The Battle of Waterloo is a small volume bound to have a big impact on global scholarship.
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Jeremy Black is professor of history at the University of Exeter. He is a senior fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY WARFARE AND THE CHALLENGE OF REVOLUTION
At waterloo, the army that apparently encapsulated change, the French army of the Emperor Napoleon, was stopped by another, the British army of Arthur, Duke of Wellington, that was essentially an eighteenth- century force in its composition, culture, and methods. This contrast needs emphasizing because it undercuts much of the standard analysis of military history, with its repeated stress on the positive consequences of change and its ranking of military capability in terms of the welcoming of change. This is an issue that is pertinent for warfare and that we will also address more generally in Chapter . Waterloo, of course, was more than an eighteenth-century victory over the Napoleonic aftermath of the French Revolution, yet that description captures an important aspect of the battle. It is therefore appropriate to begin by considering eighteenth-century ancien régime (old regime, pre-1789) warfare before turning to the impact of the French Revolution, which broke out in 1789. The space this book devotes to conflict before the Napoleonic Wars might appear surprising, but it is important to remember that standard modern linear perceptions of warfare as a condition experiencing continual change, with past episodes appearing anachronistic due to very different conditions, notably weaponry, were not pertinent for the period of this book and, indeed, are of only limited value for modern warfare.
By modern battle standards, both ancien régime and French Revolutionary/Napoleonic combat relied on close-quarter fighting by soldiers who could see each other. In terms of the proximity of the combatants, Waterloo encapsulated this point, even if gunpowder smoke ensured that they could not see clearly, and indeed this smoke led both to confusion and to a high level of unpredictability at the level of individual combatants. This confusion and unpredictability affected the accounts they left and help explain discrepancies between them. In Europe, the weapons of the various armies (and navies) of the period were similar, and differences between the weapons did not generally account for victory or defeat. The key infantry deployment was linear, as the standard weapon, a flintlock musket equipped with a bayonet, led to long, thin linear formations based on a shoulder-to- shoulder drill designed to maximize firepower. This ensured that casualty rates could be extremely high, particularly as a result of the exchange of fire at close quarters between lines of tightly packed troops. Low muzzle velocity led often to wounds without the victim being knocked over, but these wounds were dreadful, because, the more slowly a projectile travels, the more damage it does as it bounces off bones and internal organs. As a result, the real point of drill and discipline was defensive: to prepare a unit to remain intact, and tractable to its commander, in the face of death and injuries and regardless of the casualties. Waterloo provided numerous instances of this, notably from 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m., with the British squares exposed to deadly French artillery fire in support of repeated cavalry attacks. Despite the bayonets on the firearms carried by infantry, hand-to-hand fighting on the eighteenth-century battlefield was relatively uncommon, and most casualties were caused by shot, which indeed remained the case at Waterloo. The hand-to-hand fighting that occurred at Waterloo reflected the breakdown of conventional tactics, notably in the struggle for particular strongpoints such as La Haie Sainte. Alongside the relative infrequency of hand-to-hand fighting, the accuracy of muskets and, indeed, of most musketeers was limited, which led to deployment at close range. In 1985, the historian Arthur Ferrill discussed how the Macedonian leader Alexander the Great (r. 336–323 b.c.), popularly regarded as the greatest general in antiquity, could have beaten the British at Waterloo in a.d. 1815, an argument that was an ironic commentary on the apparent timelessness of conflict between the two periods. Ferrill conceded that the classical world lacked firearms, but he argued that the effectiveness of the latter in 1815 was not a quantum leap greater than those of the projectile weapons of the classical period, namely arrows, spears, and slings.
Indeed, the difficulties created by muskets, which had both a short range and a low rate of fire and had to be resighted for each individual shot, were exacerbated by the serious and persistent problems associated with poor sights, eccentric bullets, heavy musket droops (firing short), recoil, overheating, and misfiring in wet weather. As most guns, both muskets and cannon, were smoothbore, with no rifling (grooves) in the barrel, part of the explosive force of the gunpowder charge was dissipated, so that the speed of the shot was not high, while its direction was uncertain. Non-standardized manufacture (a result of craft-production techniques), as well as wide clearances, meant that the musket was difficult to aim or hold steady, and the ball could roll out if the barrel was pointed toward the ground. To counteract these problems, training stressed rapidity of fire (to build up the volume of shot) and thus drill and discipline. Yet what could be achieved was affected by serious difficulties at the tactical level. In particular, given the poor state of communications, coordination along the long front line of troops posed a problem. An increase in the number of officers and non-commissioned officers helped address the issue at the tactical level, although this tactical solution could not secure matters of general command, especially of responding to the unpredictable flow of battle. In responding to this flow, commanders relied on mounted couriers to communicate orders, but the couriers sometimes suffered accidents or were wounded, problems that affected Wellington’s army at Waterloo.
At best, the command situation was generally slow and, at worst, serious problems could arise when couriers failed to deliver orders or they were misunderstood. The latter were especially serious, as it was impossible to check orders except by the long process of dispatching and receiving couriers. Such issues of command effectiveness recurred frequently during the Waterloo campaign, including at Waterloo, and were a particular problem for commanders trying to move their forces and to coordinate advances. Indeed, because Wellington rested on the defensive at Waterloo, this problem gave him an advantage. Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of command and of individual commanders, there were major issues in fighting effectiveness. As Waterloo demonstrated, combat readinesss was not simply the sum of what individuals could do with their weapons. Unit action was crucial, and therefore unit cohesion was a key factor in fighting effectiveness. Rather than employing individually aimed fire, soldiers fired by volley, in a process designed not only to maximize the continuity of fire, but also to establish a relative superiority that could help sway the conflict. Within the pattern of volley-fire, there were variations in the order in which ranks or platoons fired, and these variations remained the case during the Napoleonic Wars. In particular, there were contrasts between firing by rank and platoon, although such contrasts were far less significant than those, in both defensive and offensive formations, between lines, columns, and squares.
Whatever the method, the speed of fire was enhanced from the eighteenth century by the use of paper cartridges, with the ball, powder, and wadding in a single package. This packaging made reloading easier and allowed each soldier to carry more ammunition. Another instance of variety between armies was the stress placed on the battlefield use of artillery, either for counterbattery fire (bombarding the opposing cannon) or for firing on opposing troops. The latter was a practice developed by Napoleon, who massed cannon successfully to that end, but had also been a practice advocated and used by ancien régime commanders such as Frederick II (Frederick the Great) of Prussia (r. 1740–86). Wellington, in contrast, generally used his artillery for close support and made very few attempts to create “grand batteries,” the one exception being at his victory over the French at Vitoria in 1813. At Waterloo, Wellington certainly did not create such a battery, and this was understandable due to his determination to mount a strong defense along the entire line and not simply in the central section.
Cannon were deadly, firing both round shot—solid cannonballs—and canister shot (also called case-shot)—canisters that shattered on impact, spreading their contents. But cannon were affected by muzzle explosions, defective caps, and unexpected backfiring, although the key problems were poor accuracy (by later standards) and the fact that cannon could not fire indirectly. They could not be placed behind cover, but had to be trained directly on their targets. Mortars and howitzers, in contrast, with their high trajectories, could provide indirect fire, although their range was affected by these higher trajectories, and the absence of aerial reconnaissance seriously limited the value of indirect fire. This lack of reliable information would have been a factor had it been possible for Napoleon’s cannon (as it was not) to bombard Wellington’s troops on the reverse (hidden) slopes, which he used so skillfully at Waterloo to provide cover. The absence of smokeless powder meant that all firearms were badly affected by smoke. After the first shots, battlefield visibility was limited, a major factor at Waterloo, and one that contributed to a confusion that commanders sought to counter with tight formations. The problem of battlefield visibility put a premium on the fire discipline required to delay shooting until a short range had been reached. Moreover, short-range infantry fire was more deadly than longer-range fire as velocity was lower in the latte...
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