1815: The Waterloo Campaign: The German Victory, By Peter Hofschröer, Greenhill Books, $49.95.
Two years ago I reviewed a copy of Peter Hofschröer’s promising 1815: The Waterloo Campaign: Wellington, His German Allies and the Battles of Ligny and Quatre Bras (see Autumn 1998 MHQ). I said at the time that I hoped the author would be more cautious and, above all, write very carefully about the great Duke of Wellington. Alas, he has not taken my advice. In his latest book Hofschröer has done irreparable damage to his reputation among British readers by totally accepting the critical comments of General Augustus Wilhelm, Graf Neithard von Gneisenau (1760-1831), chief of staff to Marshal Gebhard von Blücher during the campaign and battle of Waterloo.
Yes, Hofschröer has certainly made us think very carefully indeed over both of his interesting volumes, but his uncritical acceptance of Gneisenau’s open hatred of Wellington can do little but harm his reputation as an academic writer. In describing the battle, Gneisenau recalled in a letter to a friend that
The worst behavior has come from Wellington, who without us would have been smashed to pieces. He did not keep his promises to be prepared to come to our assistance on the 16th [of June], but, not considering the defeat he caused, we chivalrously came to his assistance on the 18th. We cleared his way to Paris, for without us, he would not have got there so quickly. We saved him a second battle thanks to our rapid pursuit, for it was we who scattered the enemy, so no Britons needed to fight a battle after the 18th. The man has rewarded our many services with the most contemptuous ingratitude.
This book’s subtitle–The German Victory–is acceptable insofar as it raises a point of view that makes for interesting discussion. Yes, the reviewer agrees that there were more Germans and Prussians who took part in the campaign than British. Yes, I can agree that those Germans suffered more serious casualties than the English. Yes, I accept that Wellington’s army comprised an assortment of Hanoverians, Brunswickers, Nassauers, Dutch, and Belgians. In fact, the duke’s army consisted of only some thirty-six thousand British soldiers. In describing the polyglot nature of Wellington’s force, however, I cannot, as Hofschröer does, accept that this is a justification for attempting to destroy the duke’s reputation and thus to lay claim to Waterloo being a German, rather than English, victory.
Contrary to Hofschröer, and other revisionist historians who would seek to “deconstruct” Wellington, the record remains pretty clear that he and Blücher worked well together and were, by and large, in agreement as to the course of the campaign, and also where the laurels were due. Despite Gneisenau’s assertions to the contrary, the two allied generals trusted each other. Except for their squabble over whether to name the battle the Battle of la Belle Alliance, as the Prussians wished, or the Battle of Waterloo, as the British desired, the two men were generally in agreement.
What then is the source of Gneisenau’s bitter feelings toward Wellington? I can only guess, but I suggest that this famous and gifted Prussian staff officer was suffering from a terrible case of professional jealousy of the duke. While Wellington’s famous campaigns in Spain and Portugal had earned him elevation to the rank of field marshal in four countries, Gneisenau, although a brilliant staff officer, had simply soldiered on in obscurity.
Making his argument even more flawed is Hofschröer’s fawning over the performance of the Prussian soldiers, both on and off the battlefield, during the campaign. God knows, very few soldiers of that period were either saints or angels, but the Prussians were particularly rough with the French civilians they encountered. Recently published accounts by several of the participants detail the heavy hand that the Prussians visited on those civilians whom they encountered. Edward Heeley, a fourteen-year-old junior servant of Lt. Col. Sir George Shovell, who was in charge of Wellington’s mail and secret papers, recalled that the French “frequently explain ‘bon English, Prussians nix bon.'” The Prussians were clearly far worse than the British. Even allowing for revenge after their great defeat at Jena-Auerstadt in 1806 and the total defeat of their country, neither Blücher nor Gneisenau gave sufficiently strict orders to their troops to safeguard the lives and property of civilian populations.
Hofschröer would have us believe that not only were the Germans saints off the field of battle, but nothing short of heroic on the field. Yet what about Charles Mercer’s account of two Brunswick battalions? He feared they would run en masse if he retreated from his guns as the French cavalry approached.
Clearly, in attempting to recover some of the glory of the triumph at Waterloo for Blücher and Gneisenau’s Prussians, Hofschröer has lost some of his objectivity. In his bibliography he lists one British periodical, one French, and eighteen German. This imbalance is surely revealing. According to Hofschröer: “To regard the Duke of Wellington, as most British historians have done, as the sole or even the prime victor of Waterloo is to fail to consider the factual evidence fully. Waterloo was, in fact, primarily a German victory in which both the British Army and the Duke of Wellington played a secondary, supporting role.” But Hofschröer should be reminded that Wellington was the allied commander in chief, and all of the other nationalities, including the Prussians, were serving under his command.
All of these criticisms aside, Hofschröer has provided us with a great deal of new information, as well as some food for thought. His assertions, although sometimes biased, should not be ignored.
David G. Chandler