- The Eagle’s Last Triumph: Napoleon’s Victory at Ligny, June 1815
In the world of Napoleonic history, Napoleon's badly botched Waterloo Campaign has attracted more attention than any of his earlier, more brilliant efforts. Another entry into the lists is Andrew Uffindell's The Eagle's Last Triumph: Napoleon's Victory at Ligny, June 1815. It is a revised reprint of a 1994 edition. A military history book can work by providing fresh interpretations, introducing new sources, or offering lively writing. Uffindell's major objective is, in his own words, "to provide a fresh viewpoint" of "the neglected early stages" of the 1815 Campaign. Indeed, the book is about more than just the Battle of Ligny. The first ninety pages set the stage, thirty pages describe the battle, while the subsequent one-hundred pages deal with related topics.
Uffindell's analysis is provocative, which is a good thing. One can agree or disagree but the topics raised do make one think. Uffindell persuasively emphasizes brittle French morale. For the record, I also agree that at Ligny Napoleon wore 'mental blinkers', believing "only what he wanted to" (p. 190). I assert further that this behavior can be seen much earlier, certainly by 1807, and did much to bring about his downfall. The author correctly also observes that Blücher's hussar tactics were obviated by firepower, a foretaste of things to come.
We read about the memorable meeting between Wellington and Blücher. The extent to which Wellington promised to support the Prussians is controversial. Several recent authors have addressed this controversy. Uffindell usefully lists the nine known eyewitness accounts and briefly addresses their reliability. He avoids the partisan viewpoint that has colored recent treatments and reasonably concludes that, "The discussion seems to have ended in a compromise" (p. 75). He ends this topic with the sentence, "And so Wellington took leave of his old friend Blücher." [End Page 571] Given that the two had previously met only twice, could not converse in either English or German, and that this third meeting lasted for perhaps twenty minutes, it is misleading to describe them as old friends.
When Wellington examined the field at Ligny, he memorably criticized Prussian dispositions because of Blücher's deployment of heavy Prussian columns within range of French artillery. Uffindell posits the interesting notion that, "The defects in the Prussian dispositions have been exaggerated" and that relatively few troops "were seriously exposed...to French artillery fire" (p. 74). However, in his analysis of relative losses at Ligny, he contradicts himself, writing that the heavier Prussian losses were due "to the French artillery taking a heavy toll of the Prussian forces massed in column on the exposed slopes" (p. 204).
Loose language causes other problems. Napoleon frequently utilized a strategy of the central position, superbly explicated in David Chandler's classic The Campaigns of Napoléon. He employed this strategy in 1815 in an effort to drive a wedge between Wellington and Blücher. Uffindell describes Napoleon's plan as a 'divide and rule' campaign strategy. 'Divide and rule' is customarily used to describe geo-political strategy and is misleading in this context. Likewise, we read: "The primitive set-up of the Prussian army lacked the flexibility and sensitivity of the more complex French army structure" (p. 41). This reader is left still puzzling out what is meant by this use of the word "sensitivity."
Uffindell compares Napoleon's strategy with that of Field Marshal Montgomery. This is great good fun. While many might agree that Ligny and Alamein were examples of "defeating an enemy in battles of attrition and of massed firepower", I doubt many American readers will concur that Montgomery and Napoleon "were two of the finest attacking generals the world has known" (p. 191).
Regarding new sources, Uffindell cites only two German language primary sources in his bibliography, which is disappointing given the book's emphasis upon the...