Tag Archives: Napoleonic Wars

Book Review: The Longest Afternoon by Brendan Simms

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the author and/or publisher. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

There have been hundreds of books written about the battle of Waterloo in the last two centuries.  Most acknowledge that the defense of the two farms at La Haye Saint and Hougemont were decisive in the allied victory.  Curiously, to my knowledge there has not been a microhistory written of the actions in and around the farmhouse of La Haye Saint.  Brendan Simms has rectified that era in his new work The Longest Afternoon: The 400 Men Who Decided the Battle of Waterloo.

This slim volume packs an amazing amount of detail between the covers.  The book itself is less than 200 pages in overall length.  The narrative is separated into eight short chapters and appendix, ten page bibliography, and 27 pages of notes.

The story of the defense of La Haye Saint is often remarked upon but seldom recounted.  Simms corrects this with his detailed history of the defense of the farm and even more interestingly the men of the King’s German Legion (KGL) that defended it.  The KGL is one of those strange units that only appears in wartime and does not long survive the war that called it into existence.  It was made up mostly of Hanoverians who fled French occupied Hanover to fight for the English and their German king to liberate their homeland.  They both were and were not considered elite troops but it was mostly an accident of history that the 2nd Light Battalion (rifles) of the KGL was detailed to defend La Haye Saint on the day of battle.

The thing that makes this book so good is the depth of scholarship that went into it.  Simms is able to reconstruct an hour by hour, and in places almost minute by minute account of the battle in and around the farm.  He can do this because he managed to discover several unpublished memoirs by members of the KGL, including one written by an enlisted man.  This allows him to not only name names but to describe somewhat the personalities of the characters involved in the fight.

The defense of La Haye Saint invokes other famous British defensive stands such as Rorke’s Drift and Le Cateau.  That the soldiers were mostly not British is irrelevant as the Hanoverians were just as determined in service of George III as any native English soldiers.  The KGL was eventually driven from the farmhouse late in the day after they depleted their ammunition and could not be resupplied.  There defeat was not really a defeat though as they had managed to tie up the French in the center of the battlefield long enough for Blücher and his Prussian army to arrive on napoleons flank and bought the time necessary to stave off defeat.  It was only shortly after the farm was surrendered that Wellington ordered a general advance as it became clear that the French had shot their bolt and were defeated.

The Longest Afternoon: The 400 Men Who Decided the Battle of Waterloo is narrative and microhistory at its best. For anyone seeking to understand the reasons for napoleons defeat at Waterloo this book is indispensable. I highly recommend this book. 

The Battle of the Nations – 16-19 October, 1813

The October, 1813 Battle of the Nations in Leipzig was arguably as important as the 1814 Battle of Waterloo.  In English language historiography of the Napoleonic Wars it is often downplayed or only briefly mentioned however.  This is mainly because no English speaking armies fought in the battle.  The lions share of the fighting at Leipzig was done by Austrian and Russian armies and thus the English speaking world tries to ignore this decisive battle in which almost 50,000 men died.

The Battlefield at Leipzig
The Battlefield at Leipzig

After Napoleons’ defeat in the Russian Campaign of 1812 and the concurrent French defeat in the Peninsular Campaign the Allied nations of Europe joined together once again in the Sixth Coalition.
Napoleon was not quite defeated though. Between May and August he defeated coalition forces in three separate major battles at Lützen, Bautzen, and in front of Dresden.

Following their spring and summer defeats the Allies then held to their originally agreed upon strategy of avoiding battle with Napoleon himself but accepting battle with his marshals if the situation seemed favorable. The Allies inflicted defeats on the French at Großbeeren, Kulm, Katzbach, and Dennewitz. These defeats led Napoleon to consolidate his army in and around Leipzig in early October, 1813. The Allied armies followed him and converged there and forced a battle in mid-October.

As the allied armies grew closer to Leipzig Napoleon knew he was being encircled but planned to use his interior position to avert defeat and achieve local superiority. This plan eventually failed in the face of the massively superior numbers the Allies could bring to bear.
The allied armies approached from the north, west, and south with the only possible avenue of escape for Napoleon being to the east and away from France.

Army Positions on the first day
Army Positions on the first day

On the first day, 16 October, 1813, there were several areas of contact between the French and Allies .  Most notably in the areas of Mockern, Wiedentzsch, Lindenau, Connewitz, & Wachau.  The fighting was difficult but the French managed to essentially stay in position and the day ended in a bloody stalemate.

Day 2 saw only two minor actions. One between the Polish and Russians and between the Prussian and French Cavalry.  14,000 French troops arrived to bolster Napoleon.  However, two entire new armies, a Russian and the Swedes consisting of 145,000 troops arrived in the Allied Camp.

The third day of the battle
The third day of the battle

The third day was the culminating day of the battle as Napoleon was essentially encircled.  The fiercest fight of the entire battle was at Probstheida between the Russians and Prussians and French. The French successfully held off the attackers but at the cost of crippling casualties.  There was additional fighting at Paunsdorf and Schonefeld where the Swedes and Prussians attacked and defeated French forces defending these villages. The Saxons and Württembergers defected to the Allies during this action.  At the end of the day the French had held in the south but been pushed back in the north east.  Napoleon knew he was beaten.

During the night of 18-19 October Napoleon began withdrawing his army to the west across the Elster. The Allies were unaware until 0700 on the 19th and Marshal Oudinot put up a fierce rear-guard action in the streets of Leipzig.  The retreat went well until a corporal who inevitably did not get the word blew the only bridge over the Elster up while it was still crowded with French troops and the rear guard was still fighting in Leipzig itself. Blowing the bridge caused a panic a rout of the troops trapped east of the river.  Poniatowski, the only Foreign born Marshal drowned trying to cross the river.

The Battle of Leipizig was the bloodiest battle of the Napoleonic Wars both in terms of total losses and in losses as a percentage of troops engaged.

French Casualties
Not Counting the defection of the Saxon and Württemberg armies the French suffered roughly 80,000 casualties.  44,000 were killed and wounded and a further 36,000 were captured.  19.5% of Napoleons force was killed or wounded while total casualties approached 36% of the army he started the battle with.

Allied Casualties
Total Allied casualties were approximately 54,000 dead, wounded, or missing; 14% of their total force.

In the wake of his defeat Napoleon abandoned Germany altogether and retreated to France to prepare his defenses for the defense of la Patrie that he knew was coming in 1814.  The Allies did not pursue Napoleon after Leipzig as their armies were exhausted after 4 days of brutal fighting and the end of the campaign season was fast approaching.  After Leipzig the Confederation of the Rhine fell apart and French Armies would not occupy German soil again for any appreciable length of time until 1918 when occupation troops entered the Rhineland in the wake of World War I.

200th Anniversary of the Battle of the Nations re-enactment – 20 October, 2013

The Battle of the Nations in and around Leipzig, Germany from 16-20 October, 1813, was the culminating battle of 1813 and the last major battle fought prior to the fighting in France in 1814 before Napoleon’s defeat, abdication, and exile to Elba.  It was the largest battle fought in Europe to that time with over 500,000 soldiers on both sides.  The city of Leipzig spent millions renovating the huge memorial to the battle and planned a week of commemorations coinciding with the 200th Anniversary of the battle.

This past weekend I went to the 200th Anniversary of the Battle of the Nations re-enactment.  This was billed as the highlight of the week-long commemoration of the battle with over 5,000 re-enactors from almost 30 countries taking part in reenacting a portion of the battle on a part of the actual battlefield.  It might have been awesome, I don’t know because while I was there I did not manage to see more than clouds of smoke until it was almost over because of the masses of people standing in front of me.

I have been to several Civil  War reenactments in the States to include Fredericksburg and Antietam as well and many smaller battles like Pea Ridge in Arkansas.  I have never seen one that was so poorly organized or so expensive for people wanting to see living history.

My view of the Battlefield at the start of the show.  We could occasionally see the tops of helmets as troops marched past us and clouds of smoke from musketry and artillery.
My view of the Battlefield at the start of the show. We could occasionally see the tops of helmets as troops marched past us and clouds of smoke from musketry and artillery.

There was supposedly only planning done for 20,000 – 25,000 in the audience, but according to the radio 35,000 were in attendance and judging by the lack of space inside the venue and lack of vendors I would guess more people showed up than that. Here is a list of things that made a potentially great event a horrible experience.

1. My wife & I paid €15 ($20) per person to stand around and see nothing, and I mean nothing for almost the entire show.
2. The event was supposed o start letting people in at 1000 with the re-enactment beginning at 1230.  It eventually started almost 2 hours late at 1410 and the reason for this according to the announcer is that they were still selling tickets and wanted everybody to be able to get inside.
3. There were not enough food vendors, my wife waited in line for almost an hour to get some food.
4. The standing area was so crowded it was literally impossible to move and when we decided to leave there was no way to go past the VIP area because the walkway narrowed so much that it was blocked.

These people had the slick idea to climb a tree so they could actually see something.  I cracked a joke about trees growing people instead of apples when I saw this.
These people had the slick idea to climb a tree so they could actually see something. I cracked a joke about trees growing people instead of apples when I saw this.

5. The announcer kept trying to reassure us that everything was awesome and I am sure it was from where he was sitting.
6. Lastly, My wife paid €1 ($1.50) for the toilets -porta potties, only to find out that the hand-washing station did not work and she would have to stand in line on the men’s side again in order to wash her hands.
7. Parking was essentially non-existent.  We ended up parking a little over 2km away and walking

We got up at 0600 and drove for three hours one-way to be not only disappointed, but angered.  They had at least a year to set this up and then turned what could have been an awesome event of living history into a great advertisement to avoid Leipzig.

Some good pictures of what I might have seen if the organization and planning had been better can be found on the MDR website (in German).  I have posted a few pictures of what I actually saw as well.

I have never been to an event with such high expectations to have them be dashed so violently upon arrival.  Words can convey but not adequately express how disappointed I was at the unprofessional manner in which this event was put together and executed. At least the weather was nice, in the upper 60’s with no rain.  Suffice it say that if the Germans had fought at Leipzig the way they put this together they would have been soundly defeated and deservedly so.

This is one of the btter views I got after we had finally managed to move to the eastern end of the venue.  It gives an idea of the crush but this end was not as crowded as the western side, probably because there were no food or drink vendors on this side.
This is one of the btter views I got after we had finally managed to move to the eastern end of the venue. It gives an idea of the crush but this end was not as crowded as the western side, probably because there were no food or drink vendors on this side.
One of two good pictures I managed to take by stretching my arm as high as I could and guessing where the lens was pointed.
One of two good pictures I managed to take by stretching my arm as high as I could and guessing where the lens was pointed.
The other good picture I managed to take.
The other good picture I managed to take.

If any of my readers were also there, please share your experience in the comment sections.

The Transformation of War Wrought by the Armies of the French Revolution and Napoleon

In the years before the French Revolution, warfare in Europe was moribund at best.  The wars of the period were dynastic wars fought to maintain the traditional balance of power and were generally limited in scale and scope.  The armies of this era were professional armies with an aristocratic officer class and private soldiers drawn from the lowest segments of society and subject to brutal discipline.  Desertion and looting were rife in the pre-revolutionary or old regime army’s, which partly explains the discipline, the other part of the discipline equation was the need for soldiers to execute their battlefield actions in concert to maximize the effect of their weapons. [1]  Lastly, pre-revolutionary eighteenth century warfare was characterized by small field armies, reliance on depots for supplies, mechanistic battlefield evolutions, and wars for limited gains.

After French defeats in the Seven Years War against the Prussians, the French army began to look inward to discover the cause of their defeat.  This led some officers, notably Jean-Baptiste de Gribeuval and Count Jacques de Guibert to propose reforms in the way the French army was organized, equipped, and the way it fought.  Some of these reforms such as the artillery reforms of Gribeuval were begun before the revolution.  Other reforms such as the tactical and organizational changes proposed by Guibert were not successfully introduced until after the French revolution.

The way wars were fought was overthrown by the French Revolution.  The wars of the First and second Coalition were not fought to maintain the balance of war, rather they were fought by the French to first defend their revolution and later to export it the revolutionary ideals to the other peoples of Europe.  This does not explain French success in the wars fought during the early years of the revolution.  The French success benefited from the far thinking reforms began by the aristocratic officers in the last years of the Ancién Regime, reforms that were only fully implemented after the revolution and were suited to the type of soldier in the new French army.

One of the major changes of the French revolutionary armies is their tactical style of fighting.  The French did not fully abandon the line as their tactical formation of choice but they did incorporate new formations into their assault doctrine that gave them greater flexibility on the battlefield.  The assault column is the formation most widely cited as being peculiar to the French armies early in the revolutionary period.  The column formation itself however is like many of the tactical developments of the revolution, a product of pre-war French military thinking.  The column-in-line formation was codified in French doctrine in 1791 but it had been theorized as early as 1772 by Count Jacques de Guibert of the French Royal Army.[2]

The French use of the column for assault was a revolutionary change in tactical battlefield maneuver.  Doctrine throughout Europe held that the line-of-battle was the only effective method of attacking because it maximized the fire of assaulting infantry.  The French initially experimented with column formation in 1792 but its initial use was a failure and it was not revived until 1794.[3]  However, once the French armies were trained and particularly after the creation of amalgamated demi-brigades under Carnot, the column of attack was used successfully throughout the revolutionary and Napoleonic era.  The column in the attack was almost a French signature during this era.  When the French attacked in column they were able to attack as they marched this meant that almost no pause was necessary to move from the march to the attack.  Attack in column allowed the attacking army to deploy faster than defenders could get into line-of-battle; it also allowed the attacker to maneuver rapidly both on the battlefield and around the flanks of an enemy army.

Attack in column was not the only tactical innovation of the French; initially the French also made greater use of skirmishers than the other continental armies.  Skirmishers were individual soldiers who preceded the line-of-battle and engaged targets of opportunity in the enemy line in an effort to both cause casualties and spread confusion.  Skirmishers were used by the other armies of Europe but never in great numbers because of the makeup of the common soldiers and their propensity to desert.  Revolutionary soldiers by contrast were not as prone to desertion as the armies of the Ancién Regime had been.[4]

The idea of using a mass of skirmishers was first proposed by Lafayette based on his experiences of the effectiveness of them in the American Revolutionary War.  He did get a rifle company introduced into each battalion but because of the difficulty of producing the weapons, rifle armed skirmishers did not become widespread until around 1830.[5]  This did not stop the French from using masses of musket armed skirmishers in front of their battle line and using them to harass their opponents prior to launching their main attack.

They also organized their army into divisions that could maneuver independently.  A division was composed of infantry, cavalry, and artillery and numbered between 10,000 and 16,000 men.  The division was big enough that it could fight on its own until the other divisions of the army joined up.

The royal army had pioneered new methods of cannon manufacture and mounting that were also only implemented after the revolution.  The French advances in artillery were the result of the work of Jean-Baptiste de Gribeuval, who implemented radical changes in the way French cannon were manufactured as well as mounted to their carriages in the years prior to the revolution.[6]  These changes made cannon both lighter and more mobile.  For the first time it was possible for cannon to be maneuvered effectively on the battlefield.

The capabilities of the new cannon were not fully exploited until the revolutionary era.  This was simply because the French aside from their assistance to the English colonists in the American Revolution did not fight in any major wars between the Seven Years War with Prussia and the War of the First Coalition.  The current trend in historical thought that the military reforms of the Revolution had their genesis in the pre-revolutionary French Royal Army is almost certainly correct.[7]  Addington specifically attributes these reforms to the Ancién Regime and Parker, Brodie, and Blanning expand on it too.  This theory does not take away from the accomplishments of the French armies of 1792-1794.  The armies of the early revolution were hurried creations that did not have the benefit of the training, drill, or the leavening of veterans that would happen under Carnot starting in 1794.  Given the rawness of the early levies, it is astonishing that the revolution was not crushed by the First Coalition.

The French revolutionary armies were the beneficiaries of the reformist thought and activities of the later years of the Ancién Regime.  In addition, the citizen armies of France were uniquely suited to exploiting the type of mobile warfare advocated by the reformists.  It was the élan and motivation of the citizen armies that allowed the French to adopt some of the novel reforms proposed during the Ancién Regime.  The widespread use of skirmishers in particular, was only possible because the French did not have to worry as much about their soldiers deserting without close supervision.

It is also important to remember that the French army did not disintegrate after the revolution, many royalist officers left the army, but some also stayed and these officers, combined with the vast majority of common soldiers that also remained provided critical continuity with the old Royal Army.[8]  However, the French Navy by contrast, did suffer greatly from the loss of experienced royalist officers who left the service.  It has been pointed out that revolutionary zeal in the navy was not enough to replace the experience lost after the revolution in the navy.[9]  It took more than desire to be a good seaman, especially in the Age of Sail.  The British demonstrated this time and time again as they regularly trounced French and Spanish fleets whenever they engaged them during the revolutionary period.

Current historical thought holds that the French Revolutionary army was the beneficiary of the reform that started in the French Royal Army after their defeat in the Seven Years War.  This is arguably the correct interpretation.  It is also just as correct to point out that it was the only the greater cohesion, morale, motivation, and devotion of the revolutionary soldiers that made implementation of these reforms a realistic possibility.  In short, it was the fusion of the zeal of revolutionary soldiers and the forward thinking of pre-war theorists that made the French Revolutionary Army such a successful military instrument.


Adams, George. The Growth of the French Nation. New York, NY: The Macmillan Company, 1912.
Addington, Larry. The Patterns of War Since the Eighteenth Century. 2nd. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1994.
Blanning, T.C.W. The French Revolutionary Wars: 1787-1802. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996.
Brodie, Bernard, and Fawn Brodie. From Crossbow to H-Bomb: The Evolution of the Tactics and Weapons of Warfare. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Unveristy Press, 1973.
De Tocqueville, Alexis. The Old Regime and the French Revolution. Translated by Stuart Gilbert. New York: Anchor Books, 1955.
Jones, Archer. The Art of War in the Western World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Parker, Geoffrey, ed. The Cambridge History of Warfare. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Preston, Richard A., Alex Roland, and Sydney F. Wise. Men in Arms: A History of Warfare and Its Interrelationships with Western Society. 5th Edition. Mason, OH: Thomson-Wadsworth Publishing, 2005.
Von Clausewitz, Carl. On War. Edited by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. Translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976.

[1] Parker, Geoffrey, ed. The Cambridge History of Warfare: Cambridge University Press, 2005. p. 180
[2] Ibid. p. 194
[3] Preston, Richard A.; Roland, Alex; Wise, Sydney F. Men in Arms: A History of Warfare and Its Interrelationships with Western Society. 5th Edition. Mason, OH: Thomson-Wadsworth Publishing, 2005. p.161
[4] Blanning, T.C.W. The French Revolutionary Wars: 1787-1802. New york: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. p. 87
[5] Brodie, Bernard; Brodie, Fawn. From Crossbow to H-Bomb: The Evolution of the Tactics and Weapons of Warfare. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1973. pp. 105-106
[6] Ibid. p. 17
[7] Addington, Larry H. The Patterns of War since the Eighteenth Century. 2nd.  Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1994. pp. 19-22.
[8] Parker. pp. 195-196
[9] Ibid. p. 210

Battle of the Nations Monument – Leipzig, Germany

I had the opportunity to visit Leipzig this past weekend and while there stopped briefly by the monument to the 1813 Battle of the Nations from the Napoleonic Wars.  At the Battle of the Nations the Sixth Coalition consisting of Prussia, Britain, Russia, and Austria fought the French Army of Napoleon and over the course of three days defeated him and forced him to retreat back to France.

I only had about 20 minutes at the monument and Leipzig is on my list of places to see again as one day was not enough to see all that I wanted to see.  The monument is currently undergoing renovation in preparation for events surrounding the 200th anniversary of the Battle next year. It is maintained by a private charity the Förderverein Völkerschlachtdenkmal e.V. (in German).  It is huge and you can walk inside it to the top of the monument, but I didn’t have time to do so.  The Wikipedia entry about the monument is fairly decent.  The monument is supposed to be located at the site of one of the bloodiest parts of the battle and near or at where Napoleon ordered the retreat of the French Army. So says Wikipedia and also the guide I had taking me around the city.

Below are the photos I managed to take of the monument looking across the reflecting pool to the monument.  I plan on returning to Leipzig in the spring and doing a much more extensive study of the monument and the battlefield.

View of the monument across the reflecting poll in front of it. The water in the reflecting poll is pretty muddy, which kind of ruins the effect. The crane from renovation blocks portions of the view as well.
This is the best shot I could get of the Statue of the Archangel Michael at the base of the monument.
The statues around the top of the monument. If you look closely, you can see people walking around “oohing and aahing” on the top.
The best zoom I could get of some of the statues from the top of the monument.
A view of the monument from across the street. The cars give a sense of the size of the monument which is another 300 yards beyond the parking lot.