Battle for Paris 1815, Paul L. Dawson

Battle for Paris 1815, Paul L. Dawson

The Untold Story of the Fighting after Waterloo

Most accounts of the Waterloo campaign rather skip over the period between the battle itself and the final French surrender, but there were actually two weeks between the two events. During this period the two wings of the French army had very different experiences, with Napoleon’s wing almost collapsing and never really recovering its morale while Grouchy’s wing retreated largely intact and remained the most potent part of the French army.

Early in the book we run into the sort of problem that one often gets when an author is trying to prove a pet point – in this case a defence of Grouchy’s performance. An entire chapter is wasted rehashing an argument about what Grouchy knew on the day of Waterloo, when particular conversations took place, who was present, exactly which guns could have been heard etc, with much of the argument based around an anonymous letter written on 20 June from ‘Vaterlo’. Far too much importance is given to this letter, which purports to include a brief account of the discussion between Grouchy and his subordinates on 18 June. First of all, as the letter is anonymous we have absolutely no way to know how reliable it is, or on what basis the author claimed to know what happened at this meeting. Second, Dawson tells us absolutely nothing about the context of the letter – what language it was written in, which part of the archive it was found in and how it ended up there. Third, the letter was written two days after the events it claims to describe, from a location that was firmly in British and Prussian hands on 20 June. The author does say that he has retained the original spelling, which implies that it was written in English – if so, then there is every chance that our anonymous author is simply reporting the sort of unreliable rumours that were flying around after the battle. With no reliable background for the source we simply can’t treat it as a major source, so judging just about every other source for the events of 18 June as if they have to match this single letter is an entirely invaid approach. To make things worse, the book is meant to be about the fighting AFTER Waterloo, so this massive debate is entirely irrelevant to the main topic. One can’t help think that it’s only here because the author discovered it after writing his early biography of Grouchy, and couldn’t resist going over old ground. In the end five whole chapters are wasted on material that simply doesn’t belong in this book – the entire first six chapters should have been condensed down into a single introduction, and the main text would then begin with this book’s chapter seven, the first to actually cover the post-Waterloo period!

A second problem is that the author seems to be fighting a battle that has already been won. While many older books on Waterloo exaggerate Grouchy’s role in the French defeat, the vast majority of the many recent books I’ve read place any blame for the French defeat firmly on Napoleon, whose performance at Waterloo is generally considered to have been poor, while Grouchy is generally seen as having performed fairly well. Andrew Field’s two works on the same period (Grouchy’s Waterloo and Waterloo- Rout & Retreat) are a good example of the current view (and are from the same publisher). At one point the author also used one of my least favourite phrases when defending his point of view, calling those who disagree with him ‘so called Historians’, thus denigrating anyone who doesn’t come to the same conclusions.

Once we get past the first few chapters the book develops into a day-by-day account of the last two weeks of the Napoleonic Wars, looking at the military developments as the remnants of the Army of the North pulled back towards Paris and the political developments that led to the final French surrender. This section is the best part of the book, providing detailed accounts of the various skirmishs and more significant clashes that took place in this period. This section has two main problems – the first is that quite a bit of space is wasted on debates about which (if any) of the French leaders could be described as traitors in this period (of course this rather depends which side of the conflict you are looking from) – this might have been a debate of great interest in France in the years after Waterloo, but doesn’t need to be given quite as much space here. The second problem is that the action is seen almost entirely from the French point of view. The movements of the Prussian and Anglo-Dutch armies tend to be seen purely from that angle, with brief mentions of their wider plan but more detailed information only when the two sides clashed.

Despite its flaws, this book does provide some new material on the fortnight after Waterloo. The author has spent a great deal of time studying the French sources, so his work on that side of the campaign is based on solid archival research. He gives the French political leaders more credit than is often the case, acknowledging that they had a valid reason to avoid much further conflict. Overall I don’t think this book is as good at Field’s works, but it does provide a different perspective on this period.

Chapters
1 – Politics and Paris
2 – The Campaign Begins
3 – The Guns of Waterloo
4 – Order and Confusion
5 – Confusion and More Confusion
6 – Waterloo
7 – 19 June 1815
8 – Grouchy’s Action at Namur
9 – 20 June 1815: Soult rallies the Armee du Nord
10 – 21 June 1815
11 – 22 June 1815
12 – Abdication!
13 – 23 June 1815
14 – 24 June 1815
15 – 25 June 1815
16 – 26 June 1815
17 – 27 June 1815
18 – Action at Compiegne 26 to 28 June 1815
19 – 28 June 1815
20 – The mission of Charles de Le Senecal
21 – Davout takes command
22 – 30 June 1815
23 – 1 July 1815
24 – 2 July 1815
25 – 3 July 1815
26 – Royalist or Realist?


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