Napoleon has humbugged me, by God. He has gained 24 hours’ march on me!’ The Duke of Wellington’s exclamation was at least honest; he made only a show of calmness when told at the Duchess of Richmond’s ball on 15 June 1815 that the French were across the border. His reputation stood in the balance, along with the peace of Europe; yet by midnight on the 18th he had a famous victory to his name — ‘a battle of the first rank won by a captain of the second’, Victor Hugo would call it, trying to find some consolation in the complete French defeat at Waterloo. But before that battle of the first rank Wellington’s army — a part of it at least — would have to fight a battle of the second rank, at Les Quatre Bras astride the tactically important crossroads from which it derived its name. It was, however, a battle which if lost would almost certainly have spelled defeat on the ridge at Mont St Jean — if, indeed, Wellington had been able to stand there at all.
Quatre Bras was very much the overture, along with that of the Prussians on Wellington’s left, Ligny, during which the theatre — the battlefield of Waterloo — filled up before the real entertainment began. The battle lasted all afternoon of the 16th and early evening, with the left wing of Bonaparte’s army under Marshal Ney — le brave des braves — attacking in strength yet with uncharacteristic lack of resolution.
But then Ney, unlike his master, had felt the effect of Wellington’s concealing tactics in the Peninsula, where clever use of ground allowed the Duke, as it were, to produce cards from under the table. In this game of Napoleon’s last gamble, perhaps he thought discretion the better part of valour. His hesitation allowed Wellington to bring up critical reinforcements throughout the afternoon, however, and by the end of the battle — a unique one for Wellington, a meeting engagement fought as a conventional defensive one — although Ney had pushed 20,000 men and 40-odd guns into the fight, Wellington had managed to get some 35,000 troops forward, though for most of the afternoon he was desperately holding on with many fewer.
Casualties were reckoned about even — 4,000-5,000 dead or wounded on either side, including the splendid Duke of Brunswick — but by nightfall Wellington still had possession of the ground. This allowed the rest of his army to concentrate in a more or less orderly fashion nine miles to the north, on the ridge at Mont St Jean, and was enough — just — to persuade the Prussians, who had been badly mauled at Ligny and were frustrated by Wellington’s apparent lack of timely support, to stay in the fight and maintain contact with the Anglo-Dutch-Hanoverian army in their retrograde movement towards Waterloo.
The battle of Quatre Bras is reprised in every book about Waterloo — setting the scene, as it were — but has never before, so far as seems known, been the subject of a book in itself, in any language. For this reason alone Mike Robinson’s account would be noteworthy. But it is also a work of impressive scholarship. Robinson, say his publishers — and the evidence suggests it is so — has been studying the Waterloo campaign for 30 years, and writing this book for eight. Much of his research is original, or else he examines sources more exhaustively than hitherto. He delves especially into the Dutch-Belgian archive, for the Prince of Orange’s troops played a prominent — and on the whole admirable — part in the battle. Their allegiance beforehand had been suspect and their quality questionable.
Robinson is not content with merely repeating the contemporary concerns; he gives us chapter and verse at ground level. In the 5th (South Netherlands) Light Dragoons, for example, 12 officers held the Légion d’Honneur and a quarter of their troopers had served in the French army. As for proficiency, he quotes among others Lieutenant Chrétien Scheltens of the 7th (South Netherlands) Line Battalion: ‘The battalion was well-composed; nearly all the officers had served on campaign. The cadre of non-commissioned officers and corporals was passable, but needed, like the soldiers, practical instruction. All were volunteers.’
One of Wellington’s regrets in the weeks before the campaign was that he did not have his old Peninsula army, ‘with which I could have gone anywhere and done anything’. In the aftermath of the War of 1812 many of the veteran battalions were still in America, and many soldiers had been discharged from those in England. The splendid King’s German Legion, former exiles from the electorate, had all but been disbanded; and indeed their contracts had expired, so that when Bonaparte escaped from Elba it was by and large a redoubled patriotism that saw them rejoin the colours without, in many cases, the proper paperwork. But at Quatre Bras, of the 12 British battalions that the duke was able to get forward, nine — whether by design or good fortune — had seen much service. Not so the battalions of Guards; but then they were Guards, and they did him fine service that afternoon too. Quatre Bras was the saving of the duke’s reputation, and he owed it in the main to these few veteran Line regiments and men hauled off public duties in London.
The book is meticulously but not excessively referenced, though sparsely indexed; it is well-mapped and beautifully illustrated — with many drawings and paintings from the author’s collection. The description of hand-to-hand fighting is vivid, in many a soldier’s own words, and the account of a very fluid battle is exceptionally lucid. The book deserves a place on the shelves with the great historians of the battle of the first rank which followed it.