(On Screen): Once I discovered Belmont Club last year, I soon became a regular reader. I'm happy that Wretchard has gotten a lot of exposure, because what he writes is both good and important.
As part of commentary about Iraq, yesterday Wretchard discussed the Battle of Waterloo, and included an extensive quote from a work by Conan Doyle which imagined the end of the battle.
For students of military history, Waterloo must occupy a special place. There are few battles in history more famous. Waterloo was the last battle of the Napoleonic era. And in that battle, Napoleon was defeated so decisively that he was forced to return to Paris and to abdicate for the second – and final – time.
The Waterloo campaign was a desperate one. Napoleon's first defeat had been at the hands of a coalition consisting primarily of the British, the Prussians, the Russians, the Austrians, and the Swedes.
In 1810, the Swedish king died leaving no heirs. The Swedes offered the crown to Jean Baptiste Jules Bernadotte, who at that time was one of Napoleon's top generals. Napoleon consented, and Bernadotte accepted the Swedish throne. His loyalty thereafter was only to Sweden, and in the end it was Bernadotte who was most critical in creating that coalition and holding it together. It was Bernadotte who came up with the overall strategy which defeated Napoleon in the campaigns of 1813 to 1815.
After Napoleon's return from Elba, the nations which had combined to defeat him once again prepared for war. Even if Napoleon had won the Waterloo campaign, it would not guarantee his survival as Emperor or ultimate victory for France.
But he had to win the Waterloo campaign if there was to be any chance at all. The Russians and Austrians were not yet ready. However, the British and Dutch collected their forces under Arthur Wellesley, 1st duke of Wellington. And the Prussians collected a large force which the King placed under command of Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher. Napoleon scratched together a force to face them, as best he could in the short time he had.
The French overall were badly outnumbered, but had at least some expectation of being able to defeat each enemy army individually as long as the other was kept away from the battlefield. The Anglo-Dutch army and the four corps of the Prussian Army were bivouacked in Belgium, in preparation for the anticipated campaign.
But Napoleon stole a march on his enemies, and showed up before they expected him. His goal was to try to fight each enemy separately, in hopes he could defeat them in detail.
The first day of battle in the campaign was 16 June 1815, with the parallel battles of Ligny and Quatre Bras. Marshall Ney commanded a relatively small French force which made a demonstration against the Anglo-Dutch at Quatre Bras, while Napoleon took the bulk of the French force and attacked the Prussians at Ligny. The Prussians were viewed as the weaker, more vulnerable of the two armies, and Napoleon hoped that if he defeated the Prussians decisively, they'd shatter.
Ligny was a ferocious battle, and it is generally viewed as a significant French battlefield victory, Napoleon's last. But the Prussians were not shattered, and continued the campaign.
17 June was a day of maneuver. Napoleon determined to try it the other way. He detached Grouchy and gave him orders to pursue the Prussians and to make sure they did not join up with the Anglo-Dutch army. He took the remainder of his force and marched to join up with Ney, in hopes of engaging the Anglo-Dutch army and defeating them.
Wellington gave him that battle, the one which comes down to us as "Waterloo". And what is most remarkable about Waterloo is that for the last 150 years the standard account of the battle was wrong. It was a fabrication. In its essence, it was historical fiction.
Few battles in history have inspired more books than Waterloo, and virtually all of them repeated the same basic fable. Historians writing those books relied on earlier books, whose authors in turn used even earlier books.
About 20 years ago, David Hamilton-Williams set out to write yet another history of Waterloo. But unlike so many previous authors, he sought out original sources of material, located in libraries and collections all over Europe. And as he did, something puzzling became impossible to ignore: they didn't seem to be describing the battle he thought he knew about.
In the end, he wrote his own book. I recommend it highly. Not only does he write a deep and important analysis of the Waterloo campaign as it actually happened, but he also explains why the standard account was so badly wrong.
It turned out that a book written in the early 1840's by Captain William Siborne became the definitive history of the campaign. All later accounts were directly or indirectly based on his.
Siborne was not a very successful man in life. He was deeply in debt. He had tried to create a massive diorama of the battlefield which would have included some 70,000 figures, for instance, and had engaged in other similar projects.
To keep these projects going, he had borrowed money from many wealthy Brits who had participated in the ac