Book Review: Die hard! Dramatic Actions From the Napoleonic Wars (by Philip J. Haythornthwaite) : MH
The closed ranks and close ranges of Napoleonic warfare required soldiers with a special kind of courage.
By Andrew Uffindell
Concentrated carnage littered every battlefield of the Napoleonic wars. Muskets were barely accurate at 100 yards, and yet, paradoxically, their very inaccuracy made for murderous actions. Troops had to form up in tightly packed ranks and fire together in volleys in order to compensate for the inadequacies of individual weapons. The massed effect of muskets and cannons at short range was horrendous.
The Duke of Wellington’s front line at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 was only 2 1/4 miles long. He lost 15,000 men killed, wounded or missing–22 percent of his force of 68,000. In comparison, on June 6, 1944, the Allies lost fewer than 11,000 troops–just 7 percent of the 156,000 soldiers who landed in Normandy by sea or air. No wonder Wellington broke down in tears when he learned of his casualties.
Yet this was also an era of glittering uniforms and dramatic deeds. In Die hard! Dramatic Actions From the Napoleonic Wars (Arms and Armour Press, distributed by Sterling Publishing Co. Inc., New York, 1996, $24.95), Napoleonic expert Philip J. Haythornthwaite presents 10 remarkable actions that have become legendary. They include minor fights, pitched battles, epic sieges and elements of wider actions. In every case, the soldiers defied all expectations as they stood firm against almost impossible odds.
Haythornthwaite takes his book’s title from the words uttered by the wounded Lt. Col. William Inglis of the British 57th Foot at Albuera in 1811: “Die hard, 57th, die hard!” Although the combined force of British, Spanish and Portuguese was outgeneraled and outmaneuvered at Albuera, the British infantry finally triumphed simply because they refused to give up.
Every other combat action described by Haythornthwaite is of similar stature. For example, neither the French at Eylau in 1807 nor the British at Barrosa in 1811 should have continued to stand and fight; yet they did, under appalling conditions. Likewise, all the rules of war dictated that the British 15th Light Dragoons should have been wiped out at Villers-en-Cauchies in 1794. Instead, they made an incredible charge through the French infantry and returned to safety.
Haythornthwaite brilliantly describes the drama of the Battle of Marengo in 1800, when then First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte’s career came within a whisker of a premature end. Reinforcements under General Louis Charles Antoine Desaix arrived in the nick of time and, with the help of a brilliant cavalry charge, snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.
Readers will also find the sickening slaughter of the sieges of Saragossa in 1808-09. At one point, some of the Spanish defenders abandoned their posts. Immediately, a young girl rushed forward, fired a cannon into the French attackers and thus inspired the legend of the Maid of Saragossa.
The fine chapter on the Battle of AspernEssling in 1809 vividly follows Emperor Napoleon’s overly bold attempt to cross the Danube River, only to be forced to evacuate the French bridgehead in the face of ferocious counterattacks by the Austrians.
Wellington despised sieges, and the very worst of them occurred at the fortress Badajoz, which he stormed on April 6, 1812. The Spanish fortress eventually fell, but not before the assault troops had suffered repeated bloody repulses in the face of some of the most infernal devices of destruction that mankind could then invent.
Napoleon’s retreat from Russia in the winter of 1812 was an epic of endurance, and Haythornthwaite focuses on one of its most terrible moments, the crossing of the Beresina River. The sublime heroism of General Count Jean-Baptiste Eble and his devoted pontooneers, who worked for hours on end in the icy river to build and maintain two bridges, enabled the remnants of Napoleon’s Grand Army to escape annihilation. Eble himself and all too many of his men sacrificed their lives so that some of their fellow soldiers would survive.
Waterloo was a horrific battle, but nowhere was the horror so concentrated as at the farm of Hougoumont, where British Guardsmen held out all day against heavy odds and shells that set fire to the buildings. Wellington himself remarked afterward, “You may depend upon it, that no troops but the British could have held Hougoumont, and only the best of them at that!”
While skillfully describing these gripping tales of courage under fire, the author adds that it is much more difficult to explain why such deeds were performed. Nonetheless, he makes a brave attempt and thus tells us as much about human beings in battle as he does about Napoleonic warfare. This is not only a good read but also a thoughtprovoking book. All too often, military history becomes merely the study of strategy and tactics. Books like Die hard! remind us of the terrible human cost of war. There can never be too many such reminders.