Tag Archives: waterloo

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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Filed under Book of the Week, Napoleonic War

Guthrie’s War: A Surgeon of the Peninsula and Waterloo by Michael Crumplin

I’m not the greatest of people with squeamish stuff – graphic descriptions of nasty wounds make me toes curl. I studied ‘medicine through time’ for GCSE History, and even then medical history, although interesting, would make my stomach churn. Yet despite that, I could never deny that Medical History is interesting. Its at an intersection between history and science. And more often than not, most medical advances are inspired by war. And this book is a prime of example of a skilled medic who honed his skills during war time.

George Guthrie is one of the unsung heroes of the Napoleonic Wars. Not only was he one of the most forward thinking surgeons of his time, he also kept detailed case records and statistics, which here are edited by Michael Crumplin, himself a retired surgeon.

There are some pretty gruesome cases described here. Its not surprising that terrible wounds shock us, as most Hollywood films show the hero being shot cleanly through the heart, saying ‘tell Jane that I love her’ and then lolloping his head to one side. As Guthrie shows, bullets do not make nice neat holes, neither do swords. As a Historian I would be pretty much lost trying to make sense of some of the more scientific details, so its a smart move for Guthrie’s account to be edited by a doctor.

War gives the surgeon many more opportunities to examine the human anatomy, that in peacetime would only come from dissecting dead bodies. And the opportunity to get to grips with complex trauma wounds led to discoveries and innovations – Guthrie found that when amputating limbs a tourniquet was not always necessary, and that all an assitant needed to do was apply firm pressure on the right arteries. Guthrie also developed an understanding of how to run hospitals with minimising the risk of infection and disease in mind.

We often find that the treatment and suffering of wounded during wars brings about a national outcry – particularly the Crimean War, the First World War and to a lesser extent the current Afghan War and Help for Heroes. The Napoleonic Wars might not have caused a revolution in nursing like the Crimea, nor the forming of charities such as after 1918. But its effects were more subtle – slowly, the authorities began to see the importance of good medical services to warfighting. Much as Wellington won his battles partly through solid logistical organistation, he also made medical services an inherent part of planning, and not just a bolt-on.

Interestingly, it seems that Guthrie came up opposition from his contemporaries, particularly on his policy of only amputating when absolutely necessary. If we believe other contemporary accounts – such as Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series, and also accounts of Naval surgery, it would seem that Napoleonic military surgeon’s were knife-happy butchers.

Maybe the historical convention that all Napoleonic-era military surgeons were butchers needs to be re-thought? There also seems to be a convention that the only Napoleonic doctor with any kind of forward-thinking was the Empereur’s personal surgeon, Dr Larrey. Yet this account of Guthrie’s war service suggest that medical science in the British Army was not as barbaric as we might immediately think.

Guthrie’s War is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, Napoleonic War, Uncategorized

The Face of Battle by John Keegan

I must confess to being quite tired of narrative military history. As much as ‘the history of…’ accounts are important, in that they are the building blocks of history, they can be rather dry and predictable. I much prefer to read books that either take a long view and look at trends, changes and continuities, or attempt to drill down and investigate mysteries, explode myths or answer questions.

Therefore I was pleasantly surprised to pick up this book by John Keegan for the princely sum of £2.99. John Keegan is one of the main figures in late twentieth century school of military historiography, alongside other figures such as Basil Liddell Hart, John Terraine and Michael Howard. Among Keegan’s books that I have read and enjoyed are Churchill’s Generals – a study of senior British Army officers in the Second World War – and Six Armies in Normandy – A look at the national contingents that fought in the Battle of Normandy.

I often feel that military histories that look at just one battle, at one particular point in time, are like listening to one particular second in a much longer symphony. What becomes before and after makes all the difference, by isolating it we remove it from its natural habitat. Therefore I much admire this work, which sees Keegan looking at the human experience of war over hundreds of years. To do this in detail is a tall order, so three case studies are used – Agincourt, Waterloo and The Somme. Each provides an extremely useful yardstick for comparison to what came before and what came after – what changed, and why? What stayed the same?

Keegan does very well to make some very complex events more understandable – such is the essence of well-written history, after all. An approach that I particularly like is breaking each battle down into the different kinds of combat that were experiences – ie at Agincourt various combinations of Archer, footsoldier and knight; at Waterloo infantry, cavalry and artillery; and at the Somme infantry, artilley and to a lesser extent machine gunners. What is noticeable is how the change in combat was motivated by technology – from Agincourt to Waterloo the development of gunpowder, and from Waterloo to the Somme by rifling, more efficient high explosives and machine guns.

Against this framework looks at more human factors – how the social composition of the armies in question evolved, and how the development of weapons changed the type of wounds that a soldier might expect to suffer. Keegan even considers such interesting points as historical trends in looting. A salient point, however, is one that seems obvious to us only after we read it – that over the time in question battles involve more and more people, over a bigger and bigger space, and lasted for longer and longer. Such was the evolution towards total war.

Critics of Keegan might point out that he gives little consideration to political factors, but personally I find his refreshing. Im not sure if any Tommy Atkins was particulary worried about politics when lying wounded in the Mud at Agincourt, Waterloo or the Somme. As important as Clausewitz’s maxim is about war being the pursuit of politics through other means, does politics really have to overshadow every facet of military history? If we are studying strategy, yes. But when it come to the face of battle, no.

My only criticism is that the Somme was coming up for 100 years ago, and thus Keegan’s arguments are somewhat adrift, bearing in mind we are now in the nuclear age. Perhaps a new edition including an example from the Second World War might be pertinent, and put the Somme in greater context than leaving it as a bookend?

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Filed under Book of the Week, historiography, Medieval history, Napoleonic War, World War One