Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
2021-032
3 May 2021
Review by Mark Klobas, Scottsdale Community College
Waterloo: The Campaign 0f 1815, vol. 2: From Waterloo to the Restoration of Peace in Europe
By John Hussey
Barnsley, UK: Greenhill Books, 2017. Pp. xxv, 582. ISBN 978–1–78438–200–1.
Descriptors: Volume 2021, 19th Century, Napoleonic Wars, Waterloo Print Version

The clash between the French and a British-Prussian coalition army at Waterloo in 1815 may be the most written about battle in history. Its bicentennial spawned a new list of titles about it. Among them is John Hussey's magisterial two-volume study of the Hundred Days campaign.


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Hussey, a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, brings an unconventional background to his project. After studying history at Cambridge, he worked for British Petroleum for three decades, a job that took him around the world and gave him the chance to learn both French and German. In retirement, he turned to military history and in the late 1990s began to publish a stream of articles on Waterloo. He has also participated in efforts to restore the battlefield to its original condition. The volume under review here completes a project that required decades of research and study about the events of 1815. That expertise is apparent on every page of this magnum opus.

Volume 1 covered the events of the Hundred Days through the battles of Ligny and Quatre Bras (16 July 1815); volume 2 opens (the next morning) with a discussion of their aftermath. Having invaded Belgium (then part of the Netherlands), Napoleon enjoyed limited success in his efforts to defeat his enemies in detail. Though defeated at Ligny, the Prussian army had not been destroyed and was reforming around Mellery. Hussey faults Napoleon for failing to order Marshal Emmanuel Grouchy to pursue the Prussians until the morning of the 17th, while he himself pursued the Duke of Wellington. Though advance units of Napoleon's forces clashed with British pickets early that afternoon, a sudden thunderstorm gave the British and their allies time to prepare positions near the village of Waterloo.

Hussey's description of the battle that commenced the morning of the 18th naturally forms the heart of his book. He follows the five-attack structure used by James Shaw Kennedy (the assistant quartermaster general of the British Third Division at Waterloo) to describe the actions outside of Mont St Jean, starting with the attack on Hougoumont (11:30 a.m.) and ending with the defeated charge of the Moyenne Garde nine hours later. The author walks his readers through the various actions and clarifies the motives that shaped their results. Throughout, he revisits the many debates and counterfactuals that have emerged over the decades, especially regarding who made key decisions and why. This involves sifting through the often fragmentary and confused orders issued during the battle, the impressionistic after-action reports, and the later, often self-justifying, memoirs and accounts of survivors. Hussey admits the limits of his sources. His caution in drawing conclusions from them indicates the degree of thought that went into his assessments.

Though the British and their Dutch and German allies managed to withstand the French assaults, victory depended ultimately on the arrival of the Prussians. Here Hussey credits their commander, Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, for his nearly heroic exertions on behalf of the alliance—his horse had fallen on him at Ligny—despite the counsel of his chief of staff, August von Gneisenau, who doubted the British commitment to the campaign and whose orders that morning would have ceded the initiative to Grouchy. Blücher countermanded Gneisenau's orders and drove his reluctant subordinates westward toward the battle. His engagement with the French right flank at Plancenoit pressured Napoleon to resolve the battle by ordering the Moyenne Garde to make the famous final charge at Wellington's center, whereupon the 52nd Foot's counterattack broke the French assault.

Hussey offers a concluding succinct assessment of the conduct of the battle:

Napoleon as the attacker at Mont St Jean could not afford sophisticated and complex manoeuveres if he were to reach Brussels that night [as he intended]. He had only some nine hours of daylight to play with. But he ignored Reille's wise warning that Wellington knew exactly how to conceal and shelter infantry. The Emperor's initial plan was brutal and simple, while massed artillery destroyed the enemy centre Reille would take or neutralise Hougoumont; then d'Erlon would frontally assault the ridge, regardless of infantry casualties. It only just failed. Wellington's tactical dispositions reduced the casualties the Grand Battery expected to inflict; and his order that his relatively few guns should not waste ammunition on an artillery duel but should concentrate on the massed infantry, was wise. D'Erlon's assault proved costly, and it just failed, albeit that Picton's infantry and Uxbridge's cavalry took heavy losses in overturning that assault. Thus far it had been the French who must have suffered the heavier casualties and the hours of daylight were passing. But thereafter the toll became less unequal. Ney's cavalry charges were savagely rent by Wellington's guns, but the Allied infantry was forced into squares and were for long hours shredded and pulverised by Napoleon's artillery, and so while hedges and buildings like La Haye Sainte and Hougoumont gave a degree of cover, the fighting along the Mont St Jean ridge had to be in exposed conditions that gave little advantage to the defence. It was indeed "a very near run thing." (252)

Hussey ends with Napoleon's flight to Paris, abdication, and failed attempt to escape to America, as well as the coalition's occupation of Paris and the settlement that ended for a generation the warfare that had consumed the European continent. He maintains, however, that these events would have occurred in some form regardless of which side had won at Waterloo:

such were the French losses in the day that even had Napoleon won on the Mont St Jean slopes that evening of 18 June, his army would have been too shattered to reap much benefit the next day, with the Prussians now on hand and at least part of Wellington's right wing still in being. Brussels was still a long way off, and who could now hope for "Antwerp by the 21st," the true measure of success? (377)

This interpretation is buttressed by Hussey's masterful command of the full range of pertinent primary and secondary source materials in three languages. Such erudition makes his account an indispensable starting point for all future studies of the British-Prussian side during the Waterloo campaign.

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