Jules Crittenden is a Boston Herald city editor and foreign policy columnist. He was raised mainly in Southeast Asia in an expatriate Australian engineer's family and has reported on crime, science, politics, military affairs and other matters in the United States, Asia, the Balkans and the Middle East - most recently in Iraq, where he was embedded with a tank company during the 2003 invasion. He writes: 'I had reported from conflict zones and had mild under-fire experiences before Iraq, but Iraq was more intense than those. I've since put some effort into conveying to people what it is like to experience combat and to live with it afterward, as I don't believe there is anyone who is not profoundly affected by it. Hence the somewhat unorthodox nature of the review that follows.' Jules discusses Alessandro Barbero's The Battle.
Jules Crittenden on The Battle by Alessandro Barbero
A couple of times a year, some old warriors I know get together, a small group of friends. They are men who have seen heavy combat, including, for two of them, a day at the Ia Drang in 1965, when a third of their battalion's men were killed and another third were wounded in the space of a few hours. But they held, giving better than they got.
Forty years later, they fight tears when they talk about absent friends. They remain intensely interested in war in all its aspects, and when we meet, we talk about war. The old wars and today's wars, how they are being fought and where they will take us. Courage and cowardice, the timeless misery of infantrymen, and the cleverness and failings of officers. The endless wealth of subjects revolving around war, from the politics and generalship, to weapons and tactics, to the personal business of taking and returning fire, the killing, down through the ages. When we talk about war, it is war like wine. A terrible, captivating wine.
There is one constant of war through time, and that is the base experience of it. Technical aspects may change, but the gut feelings remain the same, and in varying degrees of intensity are shared by everyone who has done this. They are conflicting feelings of horror, fear, commitment, despair, camaraderie, discipline, honour, fatalism, hilarity, sacrifice, bloodlust and the desire to prevail, elements of which combine to carry us through, carry us away or destroy us. For all those emotions, war remains a cold business of will, endurance and deftness. A balance of what is known, what will be found out, and luck.
Once you have experienced any of this, it never leaves you. You will recognize it in others, and you may find yourself studying it, at the risk of obsession. We honour the accomplishments and losses of those who fought when we look back at what they did, though I don't think that is most often why we do it. We are compelled to keep filling our glasses, and there are some bloody vintages that stand out among all others. One of them, one of the more exquisite fields of death on which history ever turned, endlessly worthy of mulling and picking apart, or just staring at in horrified fascination, has been brought back to the table. Waterloo.
An Italian professor of history, Alessandro Barbero, has produced a magnificent work he calls The Battle, in a class with some of the best of the new popular military histories.
You know more or less how it goes. As Napoleon tried to resurrect his shattered empire in 1815, nearly 200,000 men engaged on a few square miles of Belgian woods and farmland. The British and their allies, badly beaten two days earlier at Quatre Bras, had stopped on a ridge while falling back toward Brussels. The British squares held, and the Prussians arrived on the French flank. Exactly how many British, French, German, Dutch and Belgian soldiers died on June 18 1815 is unknown, but estimates range to about 20,000, with twice as many missing or wounded. The future of Europe hinged on it, and two magnificent generals, the greatest of their age and artists of war, faced each other.
Barbero's work, translated by John Cullen, takes us through each phase of the 10-hour battle, as experienced by the generals, the foot soldiers, the cavalry and the artillery, made immediate with graphic first-person accounts of the conditions and the action. Those start with the rain and mud through which tired Allied infantrymen retreated and in which they slept fitfully the night before the battle. We see and know what Wellington and Napoleon knew and saw as they planned their battle that morning.
Each fateful action is revealed in the battle's 'slow burn', from D'Erlon's advance on the weak British left, to Ponsonby's successful yet disastrous cavalry charge, through the bloody day-long contests for the farmhouse at La Haye Sainte and the chateau Hougoumont, and the prolonged battle of wills when the French cuirassiers charged the British and Allied infantry squares. Barbero reviews the exhaustive scholarship on what ultimately remain elusive truths about Napoleon's misjudgments about the Prussians and his failure to send infantry against the squares.
These standards of Waterloo history are clarified by detailed discussions of the massed-fire infantry and cavalry shock tactics of the time - not just of the Napoleonic Wars, but how they had evolved and were applied at the moment of the battle. Barbero also devotes significant attention to the specific weapons - muskets, rifles, sabres, artillery and lances - each unit employed, their likely rates, range and volume of fire, and the advantages and disadvantages that were the demonstrable result. Just as critical, and laid out in remarkable detail, is information on a unit-by-unit basis about the combat experience, level of training, terms of service, average age and morale of the British, French, German, Dutch and Belgian regulars and militia that took part in the battle.
It is a level of detail that renders the highly complex battle along the ridge at Mont St Jean intelligible, while leaving intact the sense of mystery in the turning of what Wellington famously referred to as a 'close run thing'. Then there is the experience of the participants, death and horror almost beyond imagination.
In one of our late night conversations about combat, about the gut memories that remain, one of the old Ia Drang vets said, 'I'll never forget the order to fix bayonets. I couldn't believe it. I thought the lieutenant was out of his fucking mind.' This was not the most intense of his experiences. He wears an eyepatch because there wasn't enough of his eyesocket left to hold a glass eye after the North Vietnamese came through finishing off the wounded when his platoon was overrun at the Ia Drang. But that was later, and he still remembers the gut feeling of the order to fix bayonets, leaving cover and moving forward into fire. 'I still don't know how I did it,' he says.
It is a common refrain among old soldiers. Barbero quotes Sgt. William Lawrence of the 40th Foot, on being ordered to bear the regimental colours.
This, although I was used to warfare as much as any, was a job I did not at all like: but I still went as boldly to work as I could. There had been before me that day 14 sergeants already killed and wounded while in charge of these Colours and officers in proportion... This job will never be blotted from my memory; although I am now an old man, I remember it as if it had been yesterday. I had not been there more than a quarter of an hour when a cannon-shot came and took the captain's head clean off. This was again close to me, for my left side was touching the captain's right, and I was spattered all over with his blood. The men in their tired state began to despair, but the officers cheered them on continually throughout the day with the cry of 'Keep your ground, my men!' It is a mystery to me how it was accomplished, for at last there were so few left that there was scarcely enough to form a square.It's nearly 200 years, but that's not so much time. It could be yesterday.
I think about the captain's radioed order to pour on speed for the assault as we came out of the desert at dawn, an armoured column charging a dug-in enemy of unknown strength at Hindiyah. The RPG ambush south of Baghdad, when we shouted and then begged the 25 mm gunner, strangely silent up in the turret, to 'just light up the fucking woods!' The memory of the life leaving a man's face, as a .50 caliber gunner mowed down Iraqi soldiers in front of the palaces in Baghdad. The strangers and the men I know who didn't make it home. A couple of weeks ago, when I had finished reading about Waterloo, my father, who is an old man now, told me his mother's great uncle had been there. This was a revelation. Name of Matthews, nothing else known. Except maybe the shared gut memory of combat, and a vague sense that all of this is somehow tied together.