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Warfare in the Age of Napoleon—Volume 6

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Warfare in the Age of Napoleon—Volume 6
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Author(s): Theodore A. Dodge
Date Published: 2011/08
Page Count: 468
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-0-85706-710-4
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-0-85706-709-8

The final volume of a major work on warfare in the Napoleonic age

The author of this substantial multi-volume history, Theodore A Dodge, was not only an historian of stature and note but also a soldier. He wrote several well regarded histories of the campaigns and battles of the Civil War and other works of military history. Perhaps his most outstanding achievement was a series of books, published under the umbrella title ‘the Art of War,’ focusing on different historical periods as typified by their most notable military commanders—including the campaigns of Alexander, Hannibal and Caesar in the ancient world and the wars of the 17th and 18th century as fought by great captains including Gustavus Adolphus, Frederick and Marlborough. This volume is part of his in depth study of the Napoleonic period, which in its entirety was comprised of four huge volumes that benefited from the inclusion of almost 800 small scale uniform drawings, portraits of notable personalities and numerous theatre, campaign and battlefield maps. This retitled Leonaur edition has been revised to form volumes of approximately equal size reformatted to enable us to enlarge all the illustrations and maps for the benefit of the reader. This series is an excellent history of the campaigns and battles of the Napoleonic Age but it goes far beyond the historical record. Dodge critically examines the strategies and tactics of all the military commanders in such a clear and authoritative manner that the student of military history can clearly understand the errors of those about to suffer defeat and the expertise—or in the case of Napoleon Bonaparte, the military genius—of the victors. This is an invaluable guide to warfare in the age of Napoleon and is highly recommended. This final volume of Dodge’s brilliant account of the ‘art of war’ in the Napoleonic Age concludes with the period to the end of the First Empire when the fortunes of the imperial allies turned in their favour and Napoleon and his forces, weakened by reverses, were unable to contain them. Napoleon’s brilliance in the campaigns of 1814 showed that he was still an incomparable grand commander on the field of battle, especially in engagements when the odds were against him. The war had turned to one of attrition so the Empire fell, the emperor abdicated, the Bourbon monarchy was restored and Europe breathed a collective sigh of relief. But it was not quite the end—Napoleon’s last great gamble for a return to power, ‘The Hundred Days’ and the Campaign of 1815 culminating in the great battle of Waterloo on June 18th 1815, brought the most significant commanders of both sides to a field of conflict for the first and last time. Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.

It had been the emperor’s intention to open the battle at nine, but Drouot advised delay, because, as he said, the guns could not be moved through the mud. As the emperor knew artillery work if any one, and had ten times Drouot’s experience, he must have agreed with him, for the delay was granted. He had always run certain risks, as every great soldier must do, and he was now gambling on Blücher’s not coming up. It is amazing, therefore, that he did not at early dawn send cavalry parties out towards the Lasne and Dyle to make sure the ground was clear, and a body of foot to hold the St. Lambert defile in case of need; for with any chance whatever that Blücher might come in on Wellington’s left, he could not afford to lose a moment in attacking the English, whatever the state of the ground. It was an error as difficult to understand as that of his not reconnoitring north after Ligny. To Wellington, on the other hand, every hour was a distinct gain, and he awaited the event with quiet determination, satisfied that he could hold himself on the heights of Mont St. Jean until Blücher’s arrival. But it was a bold thing to do, believing that nearly all the French forces were in his front, and feeling that, however much experience he had had in the Peninsula in using mixed troops, he could for a battle à outrance depend absolutely on only his British soldiers and the King’s German Legion.<br>
It was not long after eleven when the battle began, and to enable Erlon to deliver the important blow, Reille advanced on Hougomont, with instructions to contain the English right by a feigned attack, and then to advance on a level with Erlon; but the French troops were so full of energy that, once started, they were not easily held back, their officers being as anxious as the men to duplicate the success at Ligny, in which they had not participated. Behind the loopholed walls of the buildings and inclosure the Nassau troops, later reinforced by some British Guards, held their own manfully. The outside wall could have been blown down at places by bags of powder or broken by artillery fire, but the fighting of Reille was gallant rather than wise, and charge after charge was made without result, the assailants being shot through the loopholes with no corresponding loss inside. Reille not only made no headway, but could not carry out his instructions to advance as a support to Erlon.<br>
Shortly after noon, the big battery, in front of the French right centre and within six hundred yards of the English line, having, by drafts on all the corps and even the Guard, been increased up to eighty guns, opened a hearty fire, to fray a path for Erlon’s onset.<br>
When the useless and costly fighting had been going on for two hours at Hougomont, and the heavy battery had been firing for half the period, by which Bylandt’s badly posted brigade was considerably injured, but Picton’s other troops behind the crest of the hill suffered little, Erlon got ready to open his attack about half-past one. He was in four division columns, in echelon, the left in advance and close to the chaussée. Two of his divisions, the St. Helena record states, to be at the proper moment sustained by Lobau’s corps, were to move on La Haye Sainte, and at the same time his two other divisions on La Haye. “By this means the entire left of the enemy would be turned”—by its right. The two attacks, followed up by the right wing cavalry, and at the proper time supported by the Guard, would cut the allied right wing off from the road to Brussels, isolate and compromise the left wing; and the emperor chose this method, which was similar to the Ligny manoeuvre, because it would separate Wellington’s mass from the Prussians, because the left appeared the weaker wing, and because he believed Grouchy was coming up on his own right. This assault on the centre and left wing was scarcely an improvement on rolling up the left wing on the centre, but it was resorted to largely on account of the deep mud, which Ney had reported as interfering with a manoeuvre on the British left.<br>
It was evident that, before Erlon’s advance, or simultaneously with it, steps should be taken to insure the capture of La Haye Sainte. The allied left could not be crushed without seizing this farm, but only Quiot’s brigade of Allix’s division, sustained by a brigade of cuirassiers, moved to its attack along the chaussée. This force was insufficient.<br>
Erlon’s formation was not a good one. It was on a somewhat similar plan to that employed at Wagram under Macdonald, each one of the four columns having the battalions of the division in line behind each other with small intervals, making a depth of from twelve upwards. Why the usual formation was not adhered to is not known, but the blame lies between Erlon and Ney. The men felt awkward in the new formation, and the columns could neither advance in good order, nor readily deploy for firing, nor form square.<br>
Erlon moved forward. Quiot, led by Ney, was the first to get into action, but having no guns to breach the buildings, was unequal to the work and accomplished nothing against La Haye Sainte, though the cuirassiers drove back a German battalion that came up to aid its defenders. Meanwhile Erlon led his four unwieldy echelons forward through the heavy ground and wheat-fields, under the cover of the big battery, which fired until the troops began to climb the opposing slope. The allied skirmishers somewhat disturbed the French echelons, but so soon as they came under the fire of grape and canister, the charge was sounded and they made their way over the hedges and up the plateau, crossing the Ohain road. <br><br>* * * * * * * *<br><br>

It was now too late to put in this fraction of the Guard with any chance of victory. The battle had been lost for two good hours. Had Napoleon driven the English back, he could not have escaped the Prussians; and the road had been opened by Ziethen for Wellington, in any event, to retire towards his allies and try the chance anew of battle on the morrow. Napoleon’s delays on the 16th and 17th had lost him the campaign, because he had not acted with sufficient speed to keep the allies apart; and his delay, on a false assumption, in attacking Wellington early in the morning of the 18th had prevented him from anticipating the Prussian blow. His penetration and his judgment had been equally at fault. Now that Blücher, the most alert man on either side, was on his flank and rear, his doom was sealed. The few thousand men he could assemble should have been used to cover his immediate retreat, which his skill in handling men might yet effectuate; at 7 p.m. he had Reille and Erlon and nearly a dozen battalions of the Old Guard, with which he could have put a good face on disaster, while carefully withdrawing, as no one knew better how to do than he. And if he had ordered a retreat before the last attempt of the Guard to break the English line, he probably would have succeeded in getting away with a reasonably good army. He might reach the Sambre; and this would yield him time to reorganize the army and at least defend the frontier. He would lose no honour in retiring from double his forces. This was only a respite; still it was this—and for some weeks. But Napoleon seemed to have lost his coolness of calculation in the midst of battle. He had reached the stage of desperation; and like a true gambler, he now risked his all on putting in these veterans, in a final effort to disrupt the English centre. He could not have won the battle had he succeeded; and there was not one chance in twenty in his favour at this hour; for Wellington was abreast of his work—no man ever clinched his teeth and fought to the end in better style. Tired out as they were, every man in the British ranks knew that Blücher was coming in on the French right, and that victory was secure; and backed by this knowledge, why should the Briton not put his bull-dog pluck into the scale against French desperation? He did, and he won.<br>
Each Guard battalion had normally four companies and about five hundred men. The front was two companies or two hundred and fifty men, which in three ranks would give a front of between seventy and eighty men, after deducting file-closers. These battalions were marshalled in echelon, right in front, and horse artillery flanked the left. No cavalry was gathered to protect this advance, although the left of the column would be exposed to all the English troops in front of the Nivelles road. The emperor intended Reille to withdraw a division from the mêlée at Hougomont and join the Guard, but this did not get done. Erlon, however, did again send in Donzelot and Quiot, and these troops, about the same time, advanced so heartily across the turnpike, and attacked in such good style, that Wellington himself had to gallop up to re-establish order. Their work sufficed to show that they might have been relied on to protect a retreat.<br>
The movement of the French Guard was directed on the English right centre, the strongest point in the line, instead of against the centre, which was the weakest; and though the English guns were opened early, they did little harm. Led by Ney, the echelon-column advanced to the left of the sunken road, shouting “Vive l’Empereur!” and the twelve horse-battery guns kept up a fire as the infantry advanced. The right or leading column struck Maitland’s position, and was received by a heavy volley from the British Guards at fifty paces. The men had been lying down, and rose to deliver the volleys, which could not be suitably returned. It was a question of French momentum. Would this last? Struck by the fierce bayonet charge of the Guards, vastly outnumbered and unsupported on either hand, it did not. Before long the leading French battalions wavered, paused, stopped. The British thin red line had again defeated the deep French column; the noble body of veterans had exhausted its strength; victorious on an hundred fields, it here met its fate at the hands of its most ancient foeman, and fell back in confusion. Napoleon’s heart must have sunk. The last throw of the dice had failed. The English made an attempt to pursue, but the advance was but for a few hundred yards.<br>

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