Waterloo Battlefield Guide

By Paul Robinson 19 Jun 2013 0

Waterloo Battlefield Guide

If you are off to visit the battlefield of Waterloo then look no further for your companion.  David Buttery has produced an excellent guide to exploring the terrain of perhaps one of the most famous clashes of military history!  Indeed in his Introduction the author quotes the great Napoleonic historian David Chandler who wrote that ?In the long history of Western civilisation, probably only Zama and Tours have proved of equal importance and only Gettysburg has been written about as often?.

The author is a leading historian of nineteenth century British military history.   In particular he has expertise in the Napoleonic and Crimean Wars.  Published in many leading military history journals his books include ?Wellington Against Massena: the Third Invasion of Portugal? and Wellington Against Junot: the First Invasion of Portugal?.

Obviously the book concentrates on the battle of Waterloo but the author makes clear that this battle can only be understood in the context of the Hundred Days Campaign as a whole; including Waterloo four major battles all took place in the four day period between 15-18 June 1815; the other three being Quatre Bras, Ligny and Wavre (which took place simultaneously with Waterloo nine or so miles down the road).  Therefore these battles are also described but for obvious reasons not to the same level of detail.

The book is obviously a guide to help one tour the field of a battle.  It is made clear by the author form the outset that ?Its primary intention is to act as a helpful tool for people wishing to visit the location?.  But whilst it is not a detailed analysis of the battle it does more than just show you how to get from point A to point B and what to look at when you get there!  Over the first ten chapters we are taken from Napoleon?s return from exile to reclaim, albeit for only a brief period, his crown; through the battles of Ligny and Quatre Bras; the French attacks on the fortified chateau of Hougoumont; the grand assault by D?Erlon?s Corps, the mass attacks by the French cavalry on the Allied squares; the fall of Le Haye Sainte; the attacks by Grouchy on the Prussians at Wavre; the Prussian arrival and the street fighting in Plancenoit; the final and ultimately unsuccessfully attack by the French Old Guard and finally the tactical and strategic aftermath of the battle. 

All but the first of these chapters follow a similar layout; a description of the action as it unfolds normally following the generally accepted course of events (no revisionism here!).  This is then followed by a section on Viewpoints.  So salient buildings, viewpoints, key elements of the terrain and of course the numerous commemorative plaques and memorials that are spread across the battlefields.  This isn?t just a dry description but continues to add detail about the battles and its participants.  So even if you never make that trip to the ?hallowed ground? this part of the book will still have a great deal of interest to anyone interested in this campaign and its associated battles.  One really useful aspect that crops up time and again in these ?Viewpoint? sections is a reminder about what is private property and what is not and to remember to respect the privacy of the locals.  Basically take your photographs safely and sensibly, leaving the local population in a state where they are still prepared to tolerate a great many tourists year on year!

Each chapter is supported by a number of photographs (largely in colour) of the memorials and buildings-so if you are a first time visitor to the site you have a good chance of knowing you are looking at the right things!  I have to say that I was surprised how recent some of the memorials are. For example the memorial to the Dutch cavalry regiments that fought at Ligny was only built and erected in 1990.   

Anyway I digress.  Also there are full colour maps showing the position and movements of units.  These show the Corps and Divisions involved and often the individual Regiments or Battalions. The maps are perfect.  Not so detailed that you lose the overview you?ll need for your trip around the sites but not too strategic that you loose the sense of the smell of the gunsmoke and the roar of the cannons. As you might expect however the maps showing the action around Le Haye Sainte and Hougoumont are far more detailed. A sign that the author has thought of everything is the concise but informative key to the map symbols at the start of the book.

A nice touch are the brief biographies of many of the key participants that are spread over the Chapters.  Of course the obvious characters of Wellington and Blucher are covered but also many of the lower ranked participants are covered including Sergeant William Wheeler of the British 51st Regiment of Foot and Lt General Ziethen of the Prussian 1st Corps.  These biographies are ?boxed? in grey to make them stand out from the main text.  So you can skip these if you just want to follow the course of events. 

Also in the first chapter, which gives the general background and the build up to the battles there are similar ?boxed? sections. One gives a brief description of the three key arms of Napoleonic Warfare-Cavalry, Infantry and Artillery; another explains the influence the musket had on the tactics of the period.  I suspect most people who buy this book will already know this information but this is a good example of the author?s thoroughness.  And separating these sections from the main text means you can skip over them with ease. 

The final chapter is a guide to the practicalities of visiting the battlefield.  Obviously this relates specifically to the battles in the book but contains sensible advice for any battlefield explorer.  This chapter covers the strategic element of your visit-how to get to Waterloo (and not just from a European point of view) and the most  tactical of elements-accommodation.  There is a nice section on the merits of organised tours and the advantages of doing it yourself.  Also some sensible advice on having actual maps to back up SatNavs, that the weight of extra drinking water is usually worth it and mobile phones are essential if you are going off the beaten track (eg if you fall in a ditch whilst re-creating some grand movement of one of the armies engaged you have some chance of getting help!).    Respect for the locals is emphasised and the various museums detailed along with one or two restaurants and an interesting observation on souvenirs-based on an examination of the souvenirs available you might be surprised by which two generals led the armies that won the battle.  The cult of Napoleon is still very powerful. 

The book finishes with an annotated biography and a battlefield chronology for Waterloo and Wavre which sets out the timings of the movements of the French, Anglo allied and Prussian forces.   

As well as maps and photographs that specifically support the text of individual chapters there are a number of strategic level maps and artwork showing the ?troops inaction? or personalities of the campaign.  These all had flavour to the book.  All of this detail would be of less value if the basic text upon which it hangs is not upto scratch.  And once again the author doesn?t disappoint in this key aspect.  The book is written in a clear, uncomplicated style.  The basic chronology of events is explained in sufficient detail and throughout the author emphasises the difference walking the battlefield makes to ones understanding of the events.  This is something to which I can testify to at first hand having visited battlefields as far apart as Gettysburg, Hastings and Rorkes Drift.  Although as Mr Buttery points out the building of the Lion Mound memorial has significantly lowered the levels of some parts of Waterloo.

Overall I would highly recommend this book to anyone planning a tour of the Waterloo and associated battlefields.    It won?t quite do all the work for you in terms of organisation but it will inform and enlighten your visit.

Available now in Hardback from Pen & Sword Books, normal price £19.99/$34.95 (ISBN 9781781591215): http://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/waterloo-battlefield-guide/p/3797/


Review written by: Paul Robinson



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