There's been an interesting suggestion on social media that the French have been written out of the Waterloo narrative. Personally, and this is just my opinion, I find it difficult to see the rationale for this claim, though I think the idea is that Anglo-centricism has downplayed the French narrative. (Even so such an argument completely ignores a wide array of books on the French perspective, most notably those of Andrew Field). Nonetheless, there are no doubt key elements of the French experience that ARE all too often forgotten, so: what are they, and how do they rewrite our understanding of the Waterloo campaign?
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At the risk of blowing my own trumpet, might I suggest that people have a look at my 2016 book, Napoleon, France and Waterloo: the Eagle Rejected? So far as I am aware, this is the only work in English that looks at the crucial issue of the French home front in 1815, this last being a subject that, so far as I can see, has also gone pretty much undiscussed in France. That it can be bettered, I am quite sure, but until someone sits down and produces something else, it is all there is. Yet it is precisely the reaction of the French people and army to the return of Napoleon that is the element of the French perspective on Waterloo that is most in need of discussion: whether it is in the pages of Mauduit, Houssaye or Lachouque, it is all too easy to read up on their perspective on the battle.
Whoever thought the French written out the Waterloo narrative has clearly never visited the battlefield!
The primary reason for the Anglo-centric emphasis on Waterloo at the expense of the French is perhaps because Waterloo ended the Napoleonic Wars, courtesy of the British, who rarely bother to mention the Prussians until fairly recently. As some others have noted here, French historians have certainly dissected Waterloo, if for no other reason than as a post-mortem to see what went wrong. I find this same Anglo-centric view flogged endlessly regarding the Peninsula, where every lieutenant and drummer boy who ever showed up has had his memoirs published.
I do wonder, however, why folks think everyone is eager to endure the barrage of 205th celebration of Waterloo material when some have barely recovered from the bicentennial deluge. And just my slightly snarky opinion: if you want to study the Napoleonic Wars as a pretty all-inclusive and quite significant historical era, why don't you learn French at least? Unless, of course, you plan to rely solely on works helpfully translated?
Indeed so better say the Belgians and the Dutch are the real forgotten nations - and what fine books they wrote.
Let's say not entirely true, Bernard Coppen's book is in French, also the Carnets verts series in French (and citations in English) as well.
Lachouque glorifying Belle Alliance to the utmost and of course Boney propaganda books itself, causing such havoc by his lies that still the unfolding of the battle is seen in his eyes.
Otherwise see Andrew Fields post above explaining it nicely and in depth.
I apologise in advance for this being a rather lengthy post, but I hope it will be of interest and provoke discussion.
Unlike the British, the French did not write prolifically about Waterloo. This should not be surprising. Immediately after the battle, the French army was in complete disarray, spread across the countryside of southern Belgium and northern France, exhausted and demoralised. Many did not return to the army and realising Napoleon’s dream was over, returned to their homes and families. In the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe there was not the time, the means or the inclination to reflect on the biggest humiliation of French arms during Napoleon’s reign. Nor when time was available, after the dust had settled or in their retirement, after the disbandment of the army and the restoration of the monarchy, was there the political or social appetite to rake over the coals. In later years, no French equivalent of Siborne appeared to encourage people to finally take up their pen.
Unfettered by the political or social climate of France and keen to protect his own reputation at the expense of others, Napoleon, in his exile on Saint Helena, was one of the first to give his own account of the campaign and battle: few followed him. It was only after the collapse of the monarchy that the accounts of both officers and men began to follow.
Whilst French accounts generally break the battle down into similar phases to allied accounts; the attack on Hougoumont, d’Erlon’s attack, the great cavalry charges, the appearance of the Prussians, the attack of the Imperial Guard, the rout; it is perhaps inevitable that they put a somewhat different interpretation on the importance and outcome of each of those phases.
Napoleon’s accounts were some of the first to be published and therefore the first to be read; thus shaping French perceptions of the battle, even after convincing evidence was presented that challenged his interpretation; such was the grip that he had on the imaginations of many of his fellow countrymen, let alone his diehard supporters. Indeed, even many modern historians have found it difficult to shake off his influence and particularly his claims that at one stage the battle was won, which inevitably, and understandably, feeds the vanity of many who believe(d) in his invincibility and French military dominance.
Napoleon is credited with three accounts of the battle. The first was his official report that was dictated to his secretary, Fleury de Chaboulon, at Laon, two days after the battle. The second was 'la Campagne de 1815, ou relation des opérations militaries qui ont eu lieu en France et en Belgique, pendant les Cents Jours, écrite à Ste Hélène, par général Gourgaud' which may have been written by Gourgaud, as suggested in the title, but was based on long and exhaustive discussions of the battle that Gourgaud recorded he had with Napoleon during the emperor’s exile on Saint Helena; indeed, some claim that the account was dictated to Gourgaud by the emperor to be published on the former’s return to France. Finally there is 'Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire de France en 1815', anonymously published in 1820, but generally accepted as being dictated by Napoleon to General Bertrand during his exile (there is an English edition of the latter).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many French histories of the battle were based on Napoleon’s accounts, and consequently, foreign commentators have attached little credibility to them. Primarily, this is because Napoleon was famous for twisting the facts in his reports: his re-writing of the official account of the battle of Marengo is perhaps the most famous example, and it was from this tendency that the catch phrase, ‘to lie like a bulletin’ originated. Secondly, they were seen as pieces of propaganda rather than a serious attempt to describe the battle accurately and it is fair to say that all three appear to have been used by Napoleon as a vehicle to lay the blame for the disaster on a number of marshals and generals, rather than on himself. Furthermore, much of his analysis is clearly based on all the advantages of hindsight. However, it is in the interpretation and analysis of the fighting, rather than the sequence or even results of the fighting, that the two sides differ fundamentally; and it is here that I contend that through a failure to examine any, yet alone all, of the French evidence beyond Napoleon’s own accounts, or histories based on them, that most British historians have failed to be truly objective.
These three accounts were written without reference to any documents or correspondence and we must assume they were dictated or discussed from memory. It is therefore not surprising that they contain a number of verifiable errors. Napoleon’s detractors, both contemporary and modern, have also been quick to accuse him of selective memory and out-and-out lies, recorded to protect his own reputation and deflect criticism onto others; primarily marshals Ney and Grouchy. In particular, it is true to say that in relation to the actions of Grouchy, Napoleon’s accounts cannot be depended on as a true and balanced record of events.
The major failing of French general historical accounts is their lack of objectivity; they are either unapologetically pro- or anti-Napoleon, and this lack of objectivity seriously detracts from their value as a true historical analysis. M. A. Thiers, perhaps France’s most famous military historian of that era, wrote a massive twenty volume history of Napoleon’s campaigns of which the last one covers the campaign of 1815. However, Thiers was an unashamed and unrepentant admirer of Napoleon and can be little trusted as a wholly objective recorder of history, despite his eloquence and apparent attention to detail. His account was challenged by a number of eye-witnesses who wrote specifically to contradict his interpretation and some of his ‘facts.’ Even more modern French historians, such as Lachouque, set out to enhance the Napoleonic legend rather than our understanding of what really happened, and like many British accounts repeats already much re-cycled myth. French historians also seem least likely to identify their sources, throwing fresh doubt on the dependability of their accounts. In the absence of a victory, many French historians have judged the outcome of the battle on 'la gloire', in which they feel free to give Napoleon’s army a considerable lead!
The situation is not helped by the fact that few of the most senior commanders on the French side left detailed accounts of their own actions or the campaign as a whole, and most of the accounts and correspondence that do exist were generated in response to the criticisms of others, primarily Napoleon himself. Indeed, there is plenty of evidence that even the most important documents were altered and/or falsified to present certain senior officers in a better light. Much new evidence on this is now becoming available, not least thanks to excellent work and persistence of Stephen Beckett (see elsewhere on this forum).
I would like to see more French histories of the wars in general translated because to be honest unless you go out and look for it specifically we (well I) have little awareness of the French perspective.
I saw the comments and I was a bit puzzled, because surely there must be a lot of French historians offering a French perspective on the campaign? It's probably a challenge for the general reader in Britain to access those, unless they've been translated, but I'm not sure that means they've been written out. From my own point of view, I'd love to get some recommendations for books in English covering the French perspective, since my aim with the Waterloo novel when I get to it, is to write from the perspective of several characters, one of them French. And sadly, trying to read some French accounts of Castro Urdiales recently has made me realise how rusty my French has got...