It has been said that had the Battle of Waterloo not immediately followed, then the Battle of Quatre Bras would be more famous than it is, and the story of the exploits, valor, and gallantry displayed there would be much more well known. Mike Robinson attempts to address this huge lack in historical memory in his book, The Battle of Quatre Bras, published by the History Press. This is the first English language account that focuses entirely on the Battle of Quatre Bras.
The Battle of Quatre Bras was fought on June 16th, 1815, two days before the famous Battle of Waterloo. It pitted Napoleon Bonaparte’s left wing of the French Armee du Nord, under the command of Marshall Michel Ney, against the Anglo-Dutch army (along with Brunswickers and others) under the command of the Duke of Wellington. The crossroads at Quatre Bras was of strategic importance because the controlling side could move troop along the Nivelles-Namur road towards the French and Prussian armies at the Battle of Ligny, which was taking place on the same date. If Wellington had been able to combine with the Prussians, the Allied army would have been larger than the French. By the end of the day, the battle was a tactical draw. Wellington held the crossroads, but had not been able to join the Prussians, who were forced to withdraw, and Ney had not captured the crossroads. With the Prussian withdrawal to Wavre, Wellington was obliged to withdraw towards Brussels, and would face Napoleon’s recombined forces at Waterloo.
Robinson has approached his research and his book from the Allied point of view. At first, this may be off-putting to some, but with the wealth of information here, it was a logical decision. In fact, the omission of information from the French point of view adds to the literary value of the book. It gives the impression of a thriller, and I found myself turning page after page following along as the raw and the veteran troops marched towards the sound of the guns, and the unknown. I could relate to the personal letters full of fear of the unknown more because the French were left as an unknown, and seemed similarly ominous and mysterious to me as the reader. This drew me further into the story, and changed what could have easily been a dry piece of reference into a compelling account of the lives of the Allied soldiers on the day of battle. Though some may criticize this point of view, I’m not going to criticize the book for what its not, because I enjoyed it so much for what it is- an amazing and well written story of heroism,cowardice, brilliance, and folly on a subject that I was only vaguely and generally familiar with before.
This book also challenged my preconceived notions of the performance of the Dutch and Brunswick troops, and more especially their leaders, during the battle. Through Robinson’s research and writing, one can see the insight and quick thinking of the Dutch commanders who first engaged at the crossroads, and the bravery of the soldiers who served under them.
The story is driven through first-time published personal accounts from soldiers and civilians, which gave yet another unknown perspective for me, and I found myself surprised at how well I could relate to these people. It makes the entire battle much more personal and compelling, and allowed me to be caught up in the mystery of “what will happen next”, regardless of the fact that I knew the outcome of the battle. In the end, this is where Robinson succeeds the most- by turning the known into something surprising, and changing a simple historical record into a page-turning thriller.
The book is also filled with maps and topographical views of the battlefield and both contemporary and modern views of the area, which, along with the details of tactics, troops, and a good overview of who was where and when, should please the experts, while allowing the intense and personal human story of the battle to draw in the generalist and novice.
I finished my first read of this book about a week ago, and have started a second reading. There is so much information here, that I need another reading to take it all in, and because the writing is so well done, it’s just a pleasure to do so.
The Battle of Quatre Bras is available for U.S. customers at Amazon.com, along with other sellers, and currently is priced starting at $33.17 there.