This book looks at the life and death of Major General Sir William Ponsonby, the commander of the Union Brigade at the Battle of Waterloo where he was killed. The author, John Morewood, contends that Ponsonby’s command of the Brigade has been much-maligned over the years and he attempts to correct this.
- John Morewood
The book is very much in three parts: Ponsonby’s family and his background; his military service (predominantly in the Peninsular War); and the Waterloo Campaign in 1815. The first part of the book describing Ponsonby’s family and background is a touch dry. Although brief, it is detailed and covers Irish politics at a fairly frantic pace and is, at times, quite complex. I appreciate that this is a biography and thus the background is important but this could have been better edited.
The section on the Peninsular War is mixed: there are some basic errors (a brigade major would now be regarded as a chief of staff, not an adjutant) and Morewood occasionally ascribes too much responsibility to a unit’s commanding officer (it sometimes reads as if Ponsonby’s regiment had no adjutant or quartermaster). That said, the description of the fighting in the Peninsula and the problems that Wellington and his army had to face are excellent. The author has does some excellent research and has presented his work well; he provides good description of both the successes and failures of the cavalry in Spain and the difficulties facing them.
Morewood does save the best until last; the description of Ponsonby’s handling of his troops during the Waterloo Campaign is first-rate and does an admirable job in rebutting the allegations that he lost control of his troops during the Union Brigade’s famous charge at Waterloo. By this stage of his career, Ponsonby is shown to be a capable, professional soldier who was personally brave and knew his trade and his soldiers. The author also demonstrates good analytical skills in solving the mystery of how and where on the battlefield that Ponsonby was killed (the short version is don’t believe the account presented in the film Waterloo!).
A significant issue is the mapping. This is curious, given Morewood’s pedigree as a historian and writer, but he has, in the main, selected maps from the nineteenth or early-twentieth centuries and then superimposed troop movements over them. This is a curious choice as they are difficult to interpret and do not add much to the narrative. I appreciate the desire to show the terrain as it was but simple sketch maps would have achieved this much better.
This is a good book but is, to a degree, quite niche. I recommend it to any student of the Napoleonic Wars as it is a well-researched addition to the library of the era, especially that of the Waterloo Campaign. Those with an interest in the British cavalry in general would also be advised to read this as it does add much detail to the arm’s history.