The Cavalry That Broke Napoleon

Author Rating:
4.5/5,
  • Author:
    Richard Goldsbrough
    I had the pleasure to meet the author at the book launch at the Cavalry and Guards Club in Piccadilly, where also present was the Colonel of the Queen's Dragoon Guards, heirs to the line that was the KDG at Waterloo. It so happens that the Colonel, General Sir Simon Mayall, was a nig looie, commissioned into 15th/19th The King's Royal Hussars while I was serving. It also happens that the author grew up a couple of miles from where I grew up. Small world. Don't, however, think that these coincidences in any way coloured my opinion of the book.

    So anyway, the book. It boils down to a description of the charge of the Household Brigade of cavalry in the early afternoon of the battle in 1815. The author deliberately gave the book a title that many will see as contentious. He attended the 2015 bicentenary of the battle where, in his words, one would have thought there was only one regiment of cavalry at Waterloo, who won the battle and saved the infantry with no help from anyone. Goldsbrough refused to name names, but I think it's quite obvious he was referring to a Scottish regiment on grey horses. No names, no packdrill, you understand?

    The author then proceeds to justify his claim. He describes how the attrition of French forces affected their performance, their ability to turn the battle. He looks at the relevant sizes of the units. Because KDG had played no part in the recent Peninsular War, they were a significant order of magnitude bigger than the cavalry regiments around them, and their losses were commensurately higher.

    The book does also look briefly at the history of KDG both before the battle and after the battle until the present day, but apart from the charge, it also looks at the men of the regiment, where they came from and what happened to survivors of the battle.

    The description of the charge itself demonstrates the truism that no plan survives contact with the enemy. Indeed, as Wellington told his deputy, it was Napoleon's battle and he didn't know Napoleon's plans, so how could he plan for the battle?

    Records of what happened on the day are limited to a number of narratives by participants of both sides, which all contradict each other. The author has put a lot of effort into piecing these narratives together, but what happened still isn't clear. The brigade was to have passed southward to the east of La Haye Sainte, but everything became confused as units crossed the main, sunken east-west road and squadrons from the various Household regiments became intermingled, and the rightmost squadron of KDG actually passed west of La Haye Sainte.

    Putting all the various accounts together, we end up with a list of all the various French regiments and brigades that they seem to have encountered. On the face of it, it would appear that any regiment on Wellington's side might have met any or every regiment on the French side. My only criticism of the book is that the ifs and maybes of this section, delivered in a narrative, came across as much of a jumble to read as it was in fact, and not easily read.

    However, all in all I did enjoy the book and Mr Goldsbrough puts forward a good case for claiming that the KDG's charge made the difference at Waterloo. Obviously every other regiment's successors might disagree, and could make the case for their own antecedents. If you want to read yet another book that tells Waterloo without asking questions, don't read this. If you are prepared to open your mind and consider the evidence, you need to read this and make up your own mind.

    Oh and did I tell you, proceeds from the sale of this book are to be used toward a memorial to the KDG on the battlefield. I might go into Geldof mode and demand you hand over your money.

    I got the author's signature on my copy. I wanted General Mayall's, but ultimately I couldn't get near him. Still, I hope to be able to auction off the signed copy, proceeds to the KDG fund.

CanteenCowboy and Ex Observer like this.

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  1. Cynical
    First a declaration of interest. I have known the author for thirty years and we had next door troops when we joined the QDG togther. We remain close friends.

    Second, some numbers (from this book). At around 2pm on Sunday 18th of June, 1815, the King’s Dragoon Guards mustered some 596 mounted men, (all ranks), as part of the Household Brigade in a valley just to the north west of La Haye Sainte. By seven in the evening the regiment mustered just 13.

    Yes, you read that right. The KDG suffered more killed and wounded at Waterloo than the entire Light Brigade suffered when they charged in Crimea. This book is the story of how that happened, written with the focus on the actions and experiences of one of the heavy cavalry regiments, the KDG.

    Waterloo must be one of the most written about and debated battles in history; understandably so as at a strategic level it settled the history of Europe and at a tactical level the premier general of the era was comprehensively defeated. Those who have war gamed the battle often find it hard to get outcomes other than French triumph. This book goes some way to shedding light on how and why the Allies won and without doubt the British Heavy Cavalry played a significant part in that. Their part should be better understood and more widely known, and this book indubitably achieves that.
      Auld-Yin likes this.