Gareth Glover, The Great Waterloo Controversy (Pen & Sword, 2020)
What a sight it must have been: Napoleon’s Imperial Guard in all its glory, advancing magnificently into the teeth of Allied fire at a place called Waterloo on 18 June 1815. Minutes later, the bloodied remnants of that force fled from the punishment meted out by British muskets. The battle was lost, as was Napoleon’s cause. But did the 52nd (Oxfordshire) Regiment administer this final beating? It is a topic of enduring controversy, so Gareth Glover follows them through the Waterloo campaign and battle to find out.
The 52nd had built a reputation as a redoubtable regiment from their founding in the 1750s and had fought extensively through the Napoleonic Wars. The 2nd Battalion, albeit depleted, was in Belgium on garrison duty when news came of Napoleon’s escape from Elba and the renewal of war. When the 1st Battalion arrived from Ireland, they integrated the 2nd Battalion to muster approximately 1,000 men. Glover narrates their preparations, then leads us into the campaign, bringing out every detail we could need to follow them. On 18 June, the 52nd was in position behind the Allied lines when the French cannons opened at around noon. They would not join the fight for over four hours. Glover describes the 52nd in grim detail as they endured cannon fire then Napoleon’s massed cavalry charges.
Then came the attack of the Imperial Guard. Glover discusses the confusion in the sources before his attempt to untangle truth from faulty memories and memoirs. To do so, he analyses the assault from both sides and promotes a new, comprehensive version of the event. It is clear from that how important a role the 52nd played in stopping then turning the Imperial Guard advance, but they did not act alone, according to Glover. The 52nd then took part in the Allied pursuit, including an unfortunate encounter with their own cavalry. With nightfall and a well-earned rest, the 52nd counted the cost, over 200 killed and wounded. Glover tails off his narrative with an account of the march on Paris and the occupation. He notes that the 52nd was the last regiment to return from France after the campaign. Glover changes tack, examining the claims and counter-claims over who defeated the Imperial Guard. He concludes that the 52nd has not received its proper credit but there has been no conspiracy against them.
The Great Waterloo Controversy is both a well written narrative and an analysis of the defeat of the Imperial Guard. Glover deploys numerous primary sources to make his case, though his tendency to lead with the evidence takes a bit of getting used to, and he perhaps gives some of his sources too much room when more authorial editing and commentary might have kept everything on track. Nevertheless, Glover is thorough and leaves no stone unturned in his pursuit of what actually happened. He obviously knows his material, and it would take a brave critic to take him on over what is clearly his home ground. Students of Waterloo will enjoy this book, though the uninitiated should probably read a Waterloo primer before diving into this.