2023 Pass in Review: Waterloo and the Western Front

While contemplating life as a writer, I once read that the best way to promote one’s backlist (books that have already been published) is to depart this mortal coil! Instead, being unready to choose that path, Roberta (Packing and Shipping) and I have cautiously decided to restock our dwindling inventory with quality paperback editions. So far, we have combined Crisis on the Danube and Napoleon Conquers Austria into one, rather hefty, paperback and are preparing to release a paperback version of October Triumph: Napoleon’s Invasion of Germany, 1806; Jena and Auerstädt.

This effort has required some review of the original text. Like many authors, I do not like to spend time re-reading my own publications. Rather, I relish the free time explore new topics. Still, as I sorted through my voluminous research files and promotional material, I experienced something of a “blast from the past.” Here was a photo showing me meeting the great David Chandler. David peered at my name tag, and said, with a frown, “Ah, you are that James Arnold.” Like many writers, he had not taken kindly to criticism that appeared in my article (I was a nobody at that time) in the British Army’s Society for Army Historical Research that explored the column versus line thesis put forth by Fortescue, Jac Weller, and yes, David Chandler. The article launched my Napoleonic career and David became a great friend with whom I exchanged many memorable visits.

Continuing through my soon to be discarded files, I encountered a letter complaining that my Napoleon Conquers Austria had conflated a battle against the Turks on the Marchfeld (the historic drill ground of the Austrian Army, outside of Vienna) with another battle some 80 miles away at a different date.  Ouch! The writer was correct and that correction is embodied in the new paperback edition.

Overall, I am very grateful for the support of all of you who have purchased my books. We continue to sell through our website but, not surprisingly, most sales now come through Amazon. Although Amazon takes a stiff tariff, we are delighted that Napoleon and his campaigns continue to attract new readers.

This past Autumn I returned to Waterloo for my third visit. There have been many changes. Armed with David Buttery’s Waterloo Battlefield Guide and Mark Adkin’s outstanding The Waterloo Companion, accompanied by my good friend and sometimes co-author, Ralph Reinertsen, we had an informative tour. A building in Waterloo village features Wellington’s headquarters. Here one sees where he composed his post-battle dispatch to London and the adjacent room where his ADC and rare friend, Alexander Gordon, lay mortally wounded.

Beneath the Lion’s Mound is an excellent modern museum. The entrance features a very large terrain table populated by thousands of meticulously painted toy soldiers all in their historic locations. Next is a hall with life sized mannequins depicting soldiers in realistic poses. The climax is a 3D film entitled Au Coeur de la Bataille (At the Heart of the Battle). It appealed to everyone in our group, including non-Napoleonic buffs, as the 3D glasses indeed put us at the heart of the battle.

From Waterloo we drove to see sites associated with World War One. If you should travel that way, I strongly recommend a guide book written by Rose Coombs. From 1946 until 1982, Coombs worked at the Imperial War Museum. As a Special Collections Officer she became the museum’s expert on the Great War. She made hundreds of visits to the Western Front, often acting as a guide to ex-servicemen’s groups. In 1976, Coombs combined her research and travel to produce Before Endeavours Fade (henceforth BEF). She chose the title to match the BEF, the acronym for the British Expeditionary Force that landed in France in 1914. The most recent edition directs one to battlefields, cemeteries, and museums.

During the 1917 Battle of Cambrai, German field guns knocked out a number of British Mark IV tanks including D51 Deborah near the village of Flesquières. Eighty years later, Philippe Goreczynski excavated, cleaned, and displayed Deborah in a barn. This was one of our objectives. It was of particular interest to our British traveling companion whose grandfather had served in a MIV (contrary to published official claims that members of the tank corps were all volunteers, this gentleman told the family that his sergeant summoned him and his mates and told them that they had ‘volunteered’ for this newfangled thing called a tank!). Goreczynski himself gave us a fabulous tour of the battle-damaged monster in which four crewmen were killed.

Time and again BEF directed us to memorable sites such as the Newfoundland Memorial Park. On July 1, 1916, 780 men of the 1st Bn Royal Newfoundland Regiment went over the top to try to advance across 900 meters of open ground. A total of 684 became casualties, one third of them fatal, the second highest loss of any battalion during the first day of the Somme. Today, young Canadian students, chosen after a taxing set of examinations, guide visitors through the well-preserved communication trench to the assault trench onto the ground where the advance collapsed. One continues to the German trenches for a reciprocal view.

At the sobering Tyne Cot Cemetery where over 11,500 soldiers are buried, young people belonging to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission were busy dressing up the numerous graves of the men who had fallen on the specific day we visited. On the back of their uniforms were the words “We are here to answer questions.” So I asked. They oriented me to the rebuilt church spire in Passchendaele, showed me on-site, shell-pocked German reinforced concrete bunkers which were part of the Flanders I Line, and pointed out nearby concealed bunkers whose machine guns enfiladed the advancing Commonwealth troops.

At the Chemin de Dames one can go to the so-called California position and stand where Napoleon stood to observe the terrain of the battlefield of Craonne, March 7, 1814, Napoleon’s last battle before the Waterloo Campaign. One hundred and four years later, Kaiser Wilhelm stood here to observe a German offensive. The shelled and blasted ground includes the site of the destroyed Hurtebise Farm, against which Ney launched an impetuous assault (presaging his conduct at Waterloo.)

Again, thank you for your support.  Roberta and I wish you all safe passages wherever your travels take you.

James R. Arnold

January 2024