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A documentary on Waterloo

6 years 5 months ago #1 by Calvin809

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  • After almost a year of no activity for this section of the forum I thought I would post something I came across on Youtube recently:



    How does this show do with the history of the battle?
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    6 years 5 months ago #2 by Saddletank

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  • Eh, sorry for the textwall. I began making notes as I was watching it... and got carried away!

    Its a fairly good documentary and covers the main points quite well. The actors playing the main roles - Napoleon, Wellington, Ney, Blucher have a reasonable similarity to their historic counterparts (Blucher in particular) and the thumbnail sketches of their abilities and tactical skill are pretty good.

    The meeting between Ney and Napoleon on the latter's march north through France is pretty accurate - Napoleon had a few more hundred men by then and would have been riding a horse, as would Ney.

    The politics between Napoleon's arrival in France in March and the battle in June are not covered and there was much for Napoleon and his chief ministers to do - rebuilding the army, reintroducing many laws, producing equipment and uniforms - and of course their diplomatic approaches to the Coalition. These weeks were packed with activity and the campaign of Waterloo was the iceberg tip of this effort.

    Wellington's army was less than half British. The documentary mentions the Dutch-Belgian contingent but there were also large contingents from Hanover, Brunswick and Nassau (a minor state belonging to the Dutch ruling family). Apart from the Hanoverians and Brunswick troops, almost all Wellingtons Allied contingents until a year prior had fought for years for the French, so he was dubious of their loyalty. There were also political pressures on him to place Dutch-Belgian commanders into significant positions of authority in his army and to ensure at least a portion of the Dutch-Belgian army remained in being and wasn't destroyed in the campaign. He had a lot on his plate.

    There's a good few errors in some of the details of the documentary though. Politics are key to this campaign.

    There's almost no mention of the Austrian, Bavarian and Russian armies that were moving west through Europe to threaten France from the east. Schwarzenberg commanded 250,000 Austro-Bavarians and The Russians under Barclay de Tolly had over 200,000. There were battles on France's eastern border where fortress garrisons and minor armies attempted to delay Schwarzenberg. The Prussians also had two more reserve corps in Germany - the Guard and a coalition Federal German corps on the Rhine made up of the forces of the minor German states. The Federal corps saw action only in July and August against some of the remaining French fortresses west of the Rhineland.

    The threat of these armies was the main reason Napoleon chose to attack the Anglo-Dutch and Prussians in Belgium and this key point is missing from the documentary. If Napoleon didn't act quickly after his political offers were rejected, half a million enemy troops would invade France and he'd be back in the desperate situation he was in in the campaign of the previous year. So he had to make a decisive offensive against his nearest and weakest enemies - Wellington and Blucher. If he could defeat them, knock the British back over to their island, secure the Dutch-Belgian Kingdom as a forced ally to give him more troops, even perhaps capture King Louis XVIII who was at Ghent, he might then have enough bargaining chips to negotiate further.

    That's why he attacked.

    The Battle of Ligny on 16th June is hardly mentioned in the documentary - its where three of the four Prussian corps attempted to make a stand on ground Wellington and Blucher had agreed on against the right wing of Napoleon's army. The Prussian army only collapsed and retreated at the end of a very long and hard day's fighting. Given how many Prussian regiments were landwher (militia) this was a very creditable performance.

    On the same day Ney fought a second battle to the west of Ligny at Quates Bras, a vital crossroads that Wellington attempted to hold but initially only placed a single Dutch division to protect. Quatres Bras was a very messy and uncoordinated battle and the Anglo-Dutch suffered a lot of casualties here. By evening however they held onto the crossroads but had been kept pinned down by Ney's left wing of the French army so that Wellington was unable to send even a single soldier to Blucher a few miles away at Ligny - which he had promised to do.

    With the Prussians retreating north and north east from Ligny, Wellington saw his left flank was exposed so despite a successful fight that day, he ordered a retreat north up the axis of the main road to Brussels so he could continue to cover that city (where the King of Belgium was - the king and his court/government had to be protected).

    The retreat lasted all of the 17th June and that day and night saw very heavy rains. There were rearguard actions along the march, especially at Genappe in the evening which saw a sharp clash between British and French cavalry.

    Commentators have said that Ney's failure to follow up the retreating army of Wellington from Quatres Bras cost the French the campaign but its doubtful that any one single decision was the cause. Like most events a whole string of errors, good and bad luck and other factors combined robbed Napoleon of victory.

    As for the battle itself, it is true that Napoleon waited until about 11:30 am before ordering the attack. Muddy ground was partly to blame from the overnight storms but also Napoleon's illness was rampant and as the documentary says he really wasn't fit to command. My personal take on a Waterloo OOB would be to not have Napoleon as French C-in-C but put Ney in that role. Ney however unlike the documentary suggests didn't start the battle without orders, Napoleon was the one to do that and he also ordered the initial series of attacks. The documentary is incorrect on that.

    The first attack on Hougoument was not a surprise as the documentary makes out. South of the fortified farm was a woodlot and this was held by a battalion of German jagers (light infantry) and these fought hard to hold their ground but were pushed back to the walls of the farm, so the British defenders certainly knew an attack was coming. The woodlot ended about 30m south of the chateau's walled garden and a lane ran along this open strip of gound outside the south-facing garden wall (which was over 8 feet high and had been loopholed for defence). This open space became a killing ground and the French suffered many casualties trying to get out of the cover of the woodlot to assault the wall.

    Their attack columns went around the west side of the farm and did assault the north gate, breaking it open for a while but it was eventually closed and every Frenchman who got in was killed. After that the French never got close to breaking into Hougoumont although throughout the day Wellington sent in more and more foot guards as reinforcement until the garrison had consumed two entire battalions as well as the German jager battalion and a company of Hanoverian militia. Later in the day French howitzer fire also set much of the complex ablaze.

    The documentary fails to mention the equally important farms held on the Allied far left at Pappelotte, La Haye and Frischermont. These were smaller but equally strong walled farms and were held by Dutch and Nassau troops all day against strong French attacks. By maintaining a grip on these forward outposts on his left Wellington was able to maintain a line of communications with the advancing Prussians. Wellington was told as early as 09:00 two hours before the battle began that Blucher was sending at least a corps of Prussians to join his left flank. Blucher had also promised in correspondence during the Allied planning for the campaign that if Wellington made a stand to defend Brussels then Blucher would send help.

    There's a good few more errors in some of the details.

    During the opening bombardment the Allied army was almost completely hidden by the ridge, only one Dutch division took significant casualties during this phase. The Allied artillery definitely returned fire, but not counterbattery fire, instead the Allied gunners targeted the waiting French assault formations.

    When the first main French assault took place about 14:00 this was D'Erlon's I Corps and it was thrown back by a combination of musketry, artillery fire and a cavalry countercharge. The documentary omits to mention that the Allied army had only 3 brigades of heavy cavalry - the Household Brigade of guard cavalry, the Union Brigade of English and Scottish heavy dragoons and the Dutch brigade of Carabiniers. Both British brigades were released for the countercharge against D'Erlon's corps and these did terrible damage, throwing the withdrawal into a rout in places. However no reserve squadrons were kept and the entire two brigades charged across the valley until they sabred French gunners at the bottom of the valley who were drawing some artillery forwards in support of the attack. The French countered with light cavalry and these fresh troops cut the British heavies to pieces. After this one charge the British heavy cavalry did nothing else all battle except stand in lines behind the wavering foreign troops behind the ridge and 'encourage' them not to retreat. This charge was both a tactical masterstroke and a disaster.

    The Prussian attack isn't given the importance it deserves. French cavalry on their right had made contact with Prussian scouting cavalry before the battle began and by midday significant numbers of Prussian troops were reaching the far eastern French flank, causing Napoleon to draw troops from his reserve of Lobau's VI Corps and the Young Guard to defend that sector. The idea given at 36 minutes in the documentary that neither side knew the Prussians were there is a complete fantasy. By 18:00 there was heavy fighting in the French rear as the Prussians attacked the village of Plancenoit.

    The final attack of the French guard and its defeat is reasonably accurate.

    By 20:00 the French army was spent and Wellington orderd a general attack. He and Blucher met at La Belle Alliance, the inn that had been Napoleon's headquarters, at 21:00. The Anglo-Allied army was also spent and the pursuit was given to the Prussians to conduct.

    Due to the confusion of the French retreat there are no records of the numbers of French casualties that day.

    Generally its a fairly good documentary and covers the main points well. I'd recommend a good book though.

    There's a very different and extremely good dramatised documentary in the BBC series "Warriors". I think this also goes under the title of "Heroes and Villains" and concerns Napoleon's rise and his part in the siege of Toulon in 1793. Definitely try and catch that if you can; it places a great deal of emphasis on the poltical backstabbing that goes on in all military affairs.

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    6 years 2 months ago - 6 years 2 months ago #3 by Saddletank

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  • Another good documentary that tries to answer the question of why the French lost using modern battlefield archaeology techniques, climatology studies, etc.



    For the modders out there, there's some good sound clips to be had from this - musketry, and period cannon firing solid shot and canister as test rounds on a range, as well as re-enactors cannon.

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    Last edit: 6 years 2 months ago by Saddletank.

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    6 years 2 months ago #4 by Gunfreak

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  • An ok documentary, but very Anglo centric.

    One of the biggest mistakes was when it came to the last attack by the middel guard, notice how the say imperial guard not middel guard. "forgetting" to mention that the old guard had already seen action aginst the prussian earlier that day.

    Making the british victory all the greater...

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    6 years 2 months ago - 6 years 2 months ago #5 by Saddletank

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  • Remember this is aimed at a TV audience. Terms like "Middle Guard" will just confuse people. Saying "Imperial Guard" is much clearer and its actually not incorrect.

    I didn't see this documentary as Anglo-centric as some older ones from 15-20 years ago. At least the army was constantly referred to as "Allied" or "Anglo-Dutch". In the bad old days we just called Wellington's army "The British" ;)

    The voice-over narration stressed the importance of the Prussian contribution as well.

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    Last edit: 6 years 2 months ago by Saddletank.

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    6 years 2 months ago #6 by Gunfreak

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  • Tried to watch the first documentary, but had to turn it off, it was so riddles with mistakes the first 4 minutes....

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    6 years 2 months ago - 6 years 2 months ago #7 by conjotter

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  • Hey Saddletank.

    Could you please recommend a good readable (well-researched) book on the Waterloo campaign?

    And one that has some decent maps?

    The last full book I can remember reading about Waterloo is a A Near Run Thing by David Howarth, but that was a long time ago.

    Excellent book, but it was published in 1968.

    Thanks, CJ
    Last edit: 6 years 2 months ago by conjotter. Reason: dropped word

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    6 years 2 months ago #8 by Grog

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  • Replied by Grog on topic Re: A documentary on Waterloo

    I've been doing a spot of revision myself :)

    For a good balanced narrative but maps are not great:
    www.amazon.co.uk/The-Battle-New-History-Waterloo/dp/1843543109

    I like this for a refreshing look from French perspective, English author
    www.amazon.co.uk/Waterloo-French-Perspective-Andrew-Field/dp/1781590435/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1432308692&sr=1-1&keywords=waterloo+french+perspective

    My recommendation for the whole campaign ( and I think 'tank might agree ) would be the two books by Peter Hofschroer:

    www.amazon.co.uk/1815-Waterloo-Campaign-Wellington-Battles/dp/1853673048/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1432308860&sr=1-4&keywords=peter+hofschroer

    www.amazon.co.uk/1815-Waterloo-Campaign-German-Victory/dp/1853673684/ref=sr_1_5?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1432308860&sr=1-5&keywords=peter+hofschroer

    There's great maps covering the whole campaign. He does have a strong German bias and is very scathing of Wellington but not without reason IMHO.

    This one is an amazing illustrated study of the battle of waterloo but does not cover the preceeding days in any depth

    www.amazon.co.uk/Waterloo-Companion-Complete-Historys-Famous/dp/0811718549/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1432309383&sr=1-1&keywords=mark+adkin+waterloo
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    6 years 2 months ago #9 by con20or

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  • I love books - nice collection.

    I read the Hofschroer ones recently from an earlier recommendation and would second those as ones to check out. I'm reading 'The Campaigns of Napoleon' by David Chandler right now to brush up on my strategic tactics, it's very interesting but I am only at 1809, just before Wagram. Those 1809 books Grog, what are they?

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    6 years 2 months ago #10 by Fassan
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  • Replied by Fassan on topic Re: A documentary on Waterloo

    Those 1809 books Grog, what are they?


    John H. Gill, 1809 Thunder on the Danube.
    These 3 volumes were so much enlightening to me about the typical opening moves, minor engagements, etc.
    A must-have to understand the operational part of any Napoleonic campaign imho.

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    6 years 2 months ago #11 by conjotter

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  • Thanks for the suggestions.

    And thanks for not including any Bernard Cornwell books. :)

    Regards, CJ.

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    6 years 2 months ago - 6 years 2 months ago #12 by con20or

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  • BC has been mentioned before, and I would be surprised if he was not mentioned again in combat balancing posts after release :)
    Last edit: 6 years 2 months ago by con20or.

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    6 years 2 months ago #13 by Saddletank

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  • Nice bookcase. I'll buy it, no need to empty it first!

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    5 years 8 months ago #14 by Volunteer

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  • Mark Adkin's Waterloo Companion has been revised for this 200 anniversary year. I got a mint copy of it from here:

    www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/185410764X?psc=1&redirect=true&ref_=oh_aui_detailpage_o00_s00

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    5 years 8 months ago #15 by con20or

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  • Mint copy?

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    5 years 8 months ago #16 by SJDI

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  • Replied by SJDI on topic Re: A documentary on Waterloo
    Hey, is that a copy of "Lui" I see on the book shelf ?
    :laugh:

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    5 years 8 months ago #17 by Volunteer

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  • Mint copy?


    Yep new, unblemished, it has a 200 anniversary cover, hardback, got it on Amazon from the "paperback" seller for £29 NOT the full price £45. Just spent 20 minutes looking at it: luvverly! :)

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    5 years 8 months ago #18 by con20or

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  • ok, had a look at this online and in the library and it does look good. Shame the Euro conversion rate is so bad now though, it was €44 including postage. It can be my Christmas present.

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