Category Archives: Napoleonic War

The Waterloo Collection DVD: Victory and Pursuit

This is the final part of a four volume series of DVD’s, looking at the Waterloo Campaign of 1815. I enjoyed the other three DVD’s very much, but for me this was the best of the bunch.

We all know about the last-ditch advance of the Imperial Guard, and of Wellington shouting ‘up guards and at ‘em!'; must of us military nerds will probably already know about Napoleon’s desparate attempts to rally his army, before making a desparate flight back to Paris.

But what is really ingenious about this DVD, is that it really does tell us what 95% will know next to nothing about. For almost 200 hundred years the focus of historians looking at Waterloo has radiated out from that valley south of Mont St Jean. But the whole campaign was fought on a much broader canvas. Of particular interest here is the epic march of the Prussians from Wavre to Waterloo. We are shown around Wavre itself, and told like never before how they managed to evade Grouchy.

We are also given a very good summary of the pursuit of Napoleon after Waterloo, back towards Paris; and how Grouchy attempted to check the Prussian Cavalry. I was also very impressed by the attention given to the aftermath of the battle in terms of the numbers of dead and dying, and the thoughts of the Duke of Wellington regarding the loss of so many of his friends.

It has always been an ambition of mine to go to Waterloo. I haven’t managed it yet, but this is the next best thing. Call me a geek, but I love the shots of re-enactor units massed on the field. What I really thought was invaluable about this DVD in particular was the in-depth look at a Black Watch Highlander’s clothing and equipment, courtesy of a couple of re-enactors. Most of it was completely new to me, and a real eye opener. I had no idea that Highlanders wore Moggins, for example. And I have read about the Trotter knapsack in Sharpe, but never really seen one before. Its things like that that really make for an interesting experience.

One change I would possibly make is the number of presenters. They are all very knowledgeable, but our ‘host’ changes too often for the viewer to build up a rapport. Perhaps it might work better to have perhaps one or two key hosts who address the viewer directly, and then they interview other expert guests? But apart from that rather superficial point, I think this is an excellent DVD. I found it interesting, informative, educational, and very well presented. History DVD’s are definitely here to stay.

Victory and Pursuit is published by Pen and Sword

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Thomas Picton

Sir Thomas Picton, by Sir Martin Archer Shee (...

Image via Wikipedia

I was interested to read this article about the Waterloo General Sir Thomas Picton. Picton was famously played by Jack Hawkins in the film Waterloo by Dino de Laurentis, complete with civilian top hat. A portrait of Picton has hung for many years in Camarthen Court in Wales. A criminal solicitor, however, has suggested that it should be removed, as there is evidence that Picton mistreated a young native girl whilst a colonial governor in the West Indies, prior to Waterloo. Picton was killed commanding the 5th Division at Waterloo on 18 June 1815, when his Division was repelling the attack of D’erlon’s Corps early in the afternoon. Picton’s uniform had not arrived, and he fought wearing a civilian coat and top hat.

Picton was known for being irascible. But he was a bloody good General. Wellington was known as cold fish. But he was a bloody good General. Montgomery was egotistic and abrasive. But he was a bloody good general. Churchill was a poor strategist and an alcoholic. But he was an inspirational leader. And Nelson was an adulterer and van. But he was a winning admiral. And it is more often than not these kind of people who go into battle for us and defend us, personality flaws and all, rather than lawyers safe in their chambers.

I can’t help but wonder whether some people tend to highlight cases such as this in an attempt to boost their own liberal credentials. All I’m saying, is that we need to be very careful looking back at history through modern lenses. Of course mistreating anyone, regardless of race, is wrong and should never be condoned. But we do need to remember that we have very different prevailing social attitudes to the early Nineteenth Century, and cruelty was happening all over the world – not least in the mills and factories of Industrial Revolution Britain. We need to bear that in mind before we come to screaming assumptions about people who are no longer around to defend themselves.

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Hougoumont and D’Erlon’s attack – the DVD by Battlefield History TV

Much to my regret I’ve never managed to visit the battlefield at Waterloo – the closest I have got was a realisation at Brussels main station that we didn’t have enough time to get to Waterloo, have a good look, and get back again in time for the Eurostar. But in lieu of a visit in the past 10 years, this DVD, and the others in the Waterloo series, are easily the next best thing.

I’m somebody who has devoured everything about the battle of Waterloo that I could lay my hands on – down to playing with little cut out squares of paper, each representing a unit, when I was but a wee lad. Not to mention being ever so slightly obsessed with Sharpe.But even I learnt something from this programme – in particular, the amount of depth given to the attack on Hougoumont was fascinating. I also enjoyed the little ‘diversions’ from the battle, to explain aspects such as the British heavy cavalry sabre, or the French Artillery system.

What I really like about this programme, is that you actually feel that you are there. You are given a very good feel for the lie of the land – what Montgomery would have called ‘smelling the battlefield’. That’s one thing that is very hard to put across without actually being there, so to convey that sense by DVD is a great achievement. The height of Hougoumont’s walls, the steepness and proximity of the French and Allied ridges, and the feel of the cropfields. There are some great graphics in this as well, perfectly illustrating the conduct of the battle, and some pretty interesting scenes of living history enthusiasts on the battlefield itself.

Using experienced battlefield guides at experts makes complete sense – the experience in showing visitors round the battlefield shows. In fact, the programme feels very much like a virtual battlefield tour, from the comfort of your own armchair. I enjoyed it immensely.

Hougoumont and D’Erlon’s attack can be purchased from Pen and Sword

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Wellington and Montgomery: General swapping?

The Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterl...

Mont... sorry, the Duke of Wellington (Image via Wikipedia)

I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the Battle of Normandy recently for my forthcoming book. And I have always been a big fan of Wellington.

Which got me thinking – what if Wellington had fought the battle of Waterloo in the style of Monty? And what if Wellington had been in command in the summer of 1944?

Montgomery after Waterloo:

Montgomery: ‘the battle went exactly as I planned. I fully intended to draw the French reserves onto my front, thus allowing the Prussians to arrive unhindered. Hougoumont was not important as long as I pretended to hold it. At all times I was in complete control of the situation. We will no crack-about south of Caen’.

At which point Blucher is mortally offended, and Prussian historians spend hundreds of years belittling his every move. Meanwhile, German film-makers all but obliterate Montgomery and the British from Waterloo, apart from oblique and stereotypical references.

Almost one hundred and 30 years later, at the St Pauls School Conference in May 1944…

Wellington, to the assembled crowd of Allied senior officers, politicians and King George VI: ‘what I intend to do depends on what Rommel intends to do, and as the Desert Fox has not informed me of his plans, then I cannot inform you of mine’

At Southwick House, 5 June 1944…

Eisenhower: ‘so Wellington, what are your plans?’
Wellington: ‘to beat the Germans’

Actually, were Wellington and Montgomery really that different? The only difference to me seems to be that American historians have had no reason to villify Wellington. Even so, during his lifetime Wellington was ridiculed and lambasted for both his adulterous affairs and his politics. Time, however, tends to see petty criticisms fall away and victories stand the test of time.

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Fears over armed forces morale and the Defence Review

Portrait of Sir Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Well...

Wellington: he 'got' morale (Image via Wikipedia)

I’m very selective over what I post relating to the SDSR nowadays – otherwise we all run the risk of SRSD-itis, and in any case, a Defence Review where the MOD is a bystander is pretty dubious. But there is a very interesting report in today’s Portsmouth News that I wanted to comment on, and draw on some historical parallels. The funny thing is, the letter that the article is based on is slightly dubious – apparently written by a ‘senior naval officer’, the individual concerned is currently at sea – so no higher than a Captain, and considering only the Carriers, Landing Ships and some destroyers are commanded by Captains, and few of them are at sea, it looks like its someone who is a Commander of below. Not too senior then.

Morale is possibly the most unquanitifiable resource that any armed service can possess. You cannot buy it (well, not in a bottle anyway), and you cannot measure it by any accountant-friendly matrix. But it wins battles, and a lack of it loses battles. Yet all too frequently, it doesn’t feature at all in planning, or in debates.

Admiral of the Fleet Viscount Andrew Cunningham‘s quote before Taranto that ‘ it takes a day to lose a battle, but hundreds of years to build a tradition’ shows how hard morale is to build, and how quickly it can be shattered. You cannot say, ‘I am going to improve morale’, you have to actually do things to lift it, and it doesnt happen overnight. Look at the oft-quoted Japanese Commander, who decreed to his troops that ‘beatings will continue until morale improves’.

With the Duke of Wellington in command in the Peninsula and at Waterloo, the British Army knew that it had a gifted commander who was on top of his game, and was not going to squander their lives needlessly. Which does wonders for morale – men are more likely to fight well if they know their Generals are good, if they think they have a chance of winning, and most importantly, if they have a good chance of surviving. The same principles could be applied to Marlborough as well as Wellington.

There are some tragic examples of how things can go badly wrong when morale is ignored. Whilst much has been written in the ‘Lions led by Donkeys‘ debate about the Western Front, it would be hard to argue that British Generals in 1914-18 were overly concerned with their men. Its also probably the time in British military history where there was a bigger gulf in understanding between field officers upwards and the rank and file. Living and fighting in miserable conditions, in a war where the men knew very well that the commanders were struggling, could more have been achieved if the men had simply been treated like human beings? It is hard to know for sure, but it cannot have hurt.

The men who commanded the British Army in the Second World War were the platoon, company and battalion commanders of the previous war. As junior officers on the western front they had very much shared the hardships of their men, and most of them came to despise the Generals who had commanded them. Men such as Montgomery, Slim and Horrocks showed a strong concern for their men. Montgomery expressed an opinion that if you want men to risk their lives for you, then you owe it to them to explain exactly WHY. Slim of course was from very humble beginnings himself, having served as Private in a University Cadet unit. Horrocks was famously incredulous when he discovered that the Americans were not giving their men hot meals in the Ardennes. Men fighting in the snow need and deserve a hot meal first, he told them. On the other side of the coin, Generals who had little regard for their men were not liked – Ivo ‘Butcher’ Thomas, for example.

But bringing thinking back to the Royal Navy, the RN is possibly the most prominent example of how an armed service, morale and national identity are inherently intertwined. Rule Britannia, Heart of Oak, Nelson, Victory, Trafalgar… the Navy might not have the vast numbers of ships any more, nor the frequent opportunities to use them, but the tradition is still there. Look at the Falklands… Commander Chris Craig taking HMS Alacrity through Falkland Sound, HMS Coventry and HMS Broadsword on picket duty off West Falkland, and Captain John Coward of HMS Brilliant. They are the descendants of Drake, Rodney, Vernon, Hawke, Howe, Nelson, Collingwood, Cochrane, Jellicoe, Beatty and Cunningham.

Yet, if you gut that sense of tradition, and the feeling of being part of something special, you lose a vital resource that has been built up over hundreds of years, and once thrown away, is lost forever. Morale.

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40 years since the end of the Rum Ration

Its 40 years ago today that the Royal Navy ended the tradition of serving sailors a daily Rum ration. The age-old practice was a firm part of Naval heritage and tradition, and its abolition was viewed with dismay by many sailors. Yet it was argued at the time that serving sailors with free alcohol on a daily basis had no place in a modern, computerised and missile based navy.

The tradition of giving spirits to sailors originated in the 18th Century. Originally neat rum was served, until Admiral Vernon ordered that the strong spirit be cut with water to make it slightly weaker – hence the term ‘Grog’, from Vernon’s Grogram boat cloak. British Army soldiers were also served alcohol – Gin or Rum – at around the same time.

Various reasons have been advanced for the Rum ration. It helped keep sailors anaesthetised, against both the hard life at sea, and also the stresses of battle. Alcohol Spirits were also much easier to store, as water would putrify in the hold of a ship, whereas the alcohol in rum would preserve it. Originally beer was used, but as the size of the British Empire expanded, and ships spent longer and longer at sea, the sheer volume of Beer caused problems, and so spirits were used instead. Rum – brewed from molasses – came to the Navy’s attention during Seventeenth Century Wars in the Carribean.

There are also many cases of Rum being used in a medicinal way – survivors of sinkings were given rum or brandy after being fished out of icey waters, for example. In other cases, I have read of men who had swallowed oily water being given spirits to make them vomit. Rum was the only anaesthetic given to sailors before having limbs amputated. Soldiers and Sailors were even given rum before and after a flogging.

Yet we also need to remember, that the Rum ration was born – and existed – in a time when people drank far more than we do nowadays, despite what is said about binge drinking in the media. Looking back, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that people could handle their drink much better in years gone by, and that perhaps modern lager and alcopops are more to blame than alcohol in general.

There was also a strong social aspect to the Rum ration. The practise of every crew member over 20 stopping work once a day to drink together was no doubt good for espirit-du-corps. Terms such as ‘splice the mainbrace’ became a part of naval folklore. After Admiral Nelson was killed at Trafalgar, his body was preserved in a cask of various alcoholic spirits, leading to the term ‘Nelsons blood’. The rum ration and its elaborate ceremony must have been greeted with amazement by foreign visitors to Royal Navy ships, particularly those from ‘dry’ navies.

The legacy of the Rum ration lives on, however. A read of David Yates’ Bomb Alley onboard HMS Antrim leaves the reader in no doubt that a culture of drinking existed in the Royal Navy well beyond 1970. And not always when the sailors were off-duty, either. I guess its not surprising that groups of young men pitched in together will enjoy a drink or ten, and in many ways it cannot be bad for teambuilding.

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The Fields of Death by Simon Scarrow

Like me – and, indeed, thousands of others out there – Simon Scarrow is obviously a big Sharpe fan. This book is the final instalment in his lightly-fictionalised series on the careers of Wellington and Napoleon.

The story of Wellington and Napoleon’s military careers is an epic one, and for the most part Scarrow does not overcook what are fantastic stories in the first place – the Peninsular War, the battles of Asspern, Essling and Wagram, the Invasion of Russia, the Battle of Borodino, the retreat from Moscow, the Battle of Leipzig and Napoleon’s defeat and abdication in 1814, before his return and final defeat at Waterloo.

The reader is left with a feeling that Napoleon, early in his career a gifted general, gradually became a tyrant, exactly of the kind that he fought to overthrow during the revolution. And Scarrow’s depth of understanding when describing British contemporary politics is clearly very good. The description of diplomatic intrigue between charcaters such as Talleyrand, Fouche and Metternich is insightful – after all, a good historical novel should inform as much as it entertains. And Sharpe fans will enjoy the respectful nod to Bernard Cornwell’s famous character during the Battle of Vitoria – something that could so easily have gone wrong, but works.

There are several downsides, however. I feel that by calling the Duke of Wellington ‘Arthur’, Scarrow allows the reader to develop a sense of familiarity with the him, that the man himself would almost certainly have not allowed in real life, given his well known coldness and aloof nature. Most of Napoleon’s Marshals come across as bumbling, disloyal and incompetent – Soult and Davout in particular have not been kindly treated here, compared to history’s view of them.

But most notably, the fictional meeting between Wellington and Napoleon just after Waterloo just does not work, not for this reader anyway. Wellington had no desire to meet Napoleon, and there was nothing to negotiate anyway. The great advantage of historical fiction is that the writer can take historical license. But in order to work and ring true; it has to be believable… which, sadly, is not the case here. But this is a difficult story to write, as anyone who picks it up is bound to know what the ending is. So its not surprising that Scarrow has looked for ways to freshen it up.

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