Grouchy's Waterloo - The Battles of Ligny and Wavre, Andrew W. Field

Grouchy's Waterloo - The Battles of Ligny and Wavre, Andrew W. Field

Marshal Grouchy was one of the most controversial figures of the Waterloo campaign. For many of Napoleon’s supporters, his failure to ‘advance towards the guns’ on the day of Waterloo played a major part in Napoleon’s defeat, while for others the Emperor has to take the blame for giving Grouchy unrealistic orders.

There are two different parts to this book. In the first Grouchy was operating directly under Napoleon’s command, first in the advance into Belgium and then at Napoleon’s last victory, the battle of Ligny. The second comes when Grouchy was given a semi-independent command against the Prussians, leading to the battle of Wavre. This second part of the campaign has always been controversial, with Napoleon and his many supporters attempting to pass most of the blame for the French defeat onto Grouchy. In this version of events he was either to blame for not pressing the Prussians firmly enough, thus allowing them to march to Waterloo, or for not marching towards the sound of the guns from Waterloo, thus denying Napoleon the use of his troops at the crucial moment.

Field generally splits his own work into two sections. The first, and by far the longest, is the detailed narrative of the fighting, supported by a wide range of eyewitness accounts from both sides. The second is the analysis of the campaign and the various controversies, which is concentrated within the final chapter. Key issues relating to the controversies are examined in their correct place in the narrative - in particular the issue of what orders Grouchy received from Napoleon and when - but the main discussion of their impact on the campaign comes at the end. I find this approach very effective, allowing the reader to focus on the narrative without too many long digressions into post-war controversies.

There is a detailed narrative of the key day between the battles, when the decisions that led to Napoleon’s defeat were mainly taken. This day is often skipped over quite quickly, so it’s nice to have a proper look at it here.

Field is refreshingly unwilling to assign blame. Instead he analyses the various post war controversies, and generally comes to the conclusion that most officers served loyally, and did their best with the information and resources at their disposal. Soult does come in for some criticism for the poor level of detail in his dispatches after Quatre-Bras, while most of the senior commanders, including Napoleon, are criticised for their failure to carry out proper reconnaissance between the battles.

This is an interesting approach to this part of the Waterloo campaign. The focus on Grouchy’s actions in both of his battles gives us a clearer idea of how he behaved that if the focus had purely been on Wavre, and we end up with a picture of a capable officer who was perhaps slightly out of his depth in semi-independent command.

1 - Preliminaries
2 - 14 June
3 - Morning, 15 June
4 - Afternoon, 15 June
5 - The Night of 15/16 June
6 - Morning, 16 June
7 - Prelude to Ligny
8 - The Battle of Ligny
9 - The Night of 16/17 June
10 - Morning, 17 June
11 - Afternoon, 17 June
12 - The Night of 17/18 June
13 - Morning, 18 June
14 - Afternoon, 18 June: The  Battle of Wavre
15 - The Night of 18/19 June
16 - Morning, 19 June
17 - Analysis and Conclusion

Author: Andrew W. Field
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 320
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military
Year: 2017

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