1815: The Waterloo Campaign: Wellington, his German Allies and the Battles of Ligny and Quatre Bras, by Peter Hofschröer, Greenhill Books, $49.95.
Winston Churchill once remarked that there was only one thing worse during a war than having allies–and that was to have none of either, enemies or friends. Let it now be said at once, however, that this large book (398 pages) is important and interesting, carefully considering the Prussian point of view. But it is necessary to read the whole title, or some people may be shocked to discover that Peter Hofschröer has only covered half of the Battle of Waterloo–that is to say up to the end of June 16, 1815. Clearly, a second (or even third?) book or books will follow. Anyway, we shall have to see.
Defeats of allies are invariably blamed on their mutual friends, as are many shared victories. Waterloo is certainly no exception. Hofschröer is half English, half German, and it is clear that he has chosen to support Field Marshal Bebhard Leberecht von Blücher, as opposed to Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington. After all, this battle is equal only to Gettysburg in notoriety. Consequently, there are numerous arguments concerning the battle, many of which have been anticipated frankly by the author.
Arguments were ripe in the 1840s and again in the early 1900s, but they died down from 1914 to 1945. Berlin was heavily bombed and many historical documents were destroyed–or so we thought. However, the author has carefully rediscovered many letters–originals or copies–among important German documents, which had been hidden by the Soviets. The fruition of all this hard work is this important book.
There have already been a fair number of comments made about Hofschröer’s book, in both the British press and in the better history magazines. Some reviews are critical, supporting Wellington; others agree that the Prussian allies have been somewhat slighted by the duke. For one hostile example see Bob Elmet’s “A Pre-emptive Strike,” The Waterloo Journal, actually written before the book was published. Another was “Redistribute the Laurels” (The Spectator), by Colonel Allen Mallinson, who was particularly annoyed by Hofschröer’s claim that Field Marshal Hans von Ziethen’s Prussian I Corps was sacrificed by Wellington on the 16th. Mallinson also took issue with the claim that Wellington should have promised to bring his help to Ligny for Blücher earlier on the 16th. But after all, the argument runs between “would” or “could.” Wellington was wholly tied down against Marshall Michel Ney four miles away at Quatre Bras. Very balanced and exceedingly fair remarks were made by the Marquess of Anglesey in his “Ducal Deception in the Field?” (The Daily Telegraph)–but in the end Lord Anglesey strongly defended the duke’s reputation. However, Maurice Chittenden’s “Iron Duke ‘Left Ally in Lurch’ at Waterloo” (The Sunday Times) was very critical of the duke, as was Andrew Roberts in The Mail on Sunday. Perhaps the most perceptive and critical review of all was by Neil Carey, “Published and be Damned,” in the magazine First Empire. Another good comment was from Richard Partridge in “Reviews” in The Age of Napoleon.
From my own personal point of view I feel Hofschröer’s fine book is certainly an important work. There are certain errors of judgment. I feel that the author has been tempted to overclaim Wellington’s wickedness. After all, the duke had indeed put his full trust in Field Marshal Blücher during this period. However, some other British officers were not so admiring of the Prussians and their country. Many could only remember that King George III had lost his German influence as elector of Hanover. Since 1806, Prussian troops had been compelled to support Napoleon, and in 1812 they went deep into Russia (eventually breaking away from the French in early 1813). But could the British really trust its Prussian and other allies, remembering that the Dutch and the Belgians had still been under Napoleonic orders only one year prior? Perhaps even worse, the Saxon regiments had only recently mutinied.
These points explain the doubts of the British. However, our writer–understandably (but possibly wrongly)–strongly supports the Prussian points of view. Indeed, he may in some ways have fallen victim to Prussian propaganda throughout much of this volume–“My Country Right or Wrong”–according to some of his British critics. Personally, I do not believe these charges. Hofschröer is certainly entitled to establish his views in support of Prussian positions, but as a gifted military historian he must be equally fair in understanding the British point of view. Most of his book is well judged, and for new material discovered (or re-discovered) about the 1815 saga, we must be grateful. Nevertheless, he sometimes rather overpaints in his Germanic arguments. Personally, I trust him to be balanced as a historian–verified hopefully in his next volume.
Whether or not a higher academic understanding has been attained, no final judgment can yet be made. We must await the growth of an informed and critical consensus. However, it is certainly not overly rash to suggest that his book may be accepted for several years as a standard work on its subject. Strangely, Hofschröer’s book has not yet been published in Germany, but that will only be a matter of time. The author has a good case. Let us hope he does not spoil it in his future efforts. Yes, the Anglo-American viewpoint on this famous battle has certainly been overplayed for “…dozens of sycophantic British historians” (as noted by Andrew Roberts). We need some fresh air. Peter Hofschröer has achieved this. As for the Great Duke, he admitted his mistakes, praised his allies–but then he refused to write any more on the subject. He was correct, of course; if only more modern generals would be as sensible as Wellington.