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“A Near Run Thing”, OR, should the Duckworth-Lewis system have been applied to the Battle of Waterloo?

June 16, 2015

waterloo

If the Battle of Waterloo really was won on the playing fields of Eton, then surely some sort of sporting agreement should have taken place whereby a rain-truncated day’s play resulted in a revision of the terms of victory?  What would a proper Duckworth-Lewis version of the Battle of Waterloo have looked like though?   If the overnight rain really did churn up the ground to the point where it was nearly noon before Napoleon’s artillery could be moved into position, then it’s clear that the loss of time could only have benefited Wellington, who was waiting all day for reinforcements from Blucher’s Prussians.  Perhaps Wellington and Napoleon could have met during the morning and agreed on how many people had to be killed on this, a shorter day’s battle.  Bloody the day certainly was, but not as bloody as Borodino and nowhere near as bloody as the extraordinary Battle of Leipzig.  A continuum of victory objectives could have been discussed, ranging from Napoleon nearly making it to Brussels to the British sending Napoleon to an island slightly less inaccessible than Saint Helena.

When young, my sense of Waterloo was indelibly forged by David Howarth, a writer who managed to make “popular historian” an admirable thing to be, as I’ve always believed it has been, can be and should be.  His Waterloo book A Near Run Thing (1968) states at the outset that it is not a work of scholarship.  Howarth was neither a TV celebrity nor an academic.  He would never have given himself a phony or a ludicrous title (such as “The History Man”).  He was ex military – a former SOE officer who helped run the so-called “Shetland Bus” that helped run supplies to Norway during World War Two.  What  Howarth did best was describe what various people at various points in a battle were likely to be thinking and feeling.  His work is imaginative reconstruction – speculation if you like – but plausible speculation.  Read his Trafalgar Book (The Nelson Touch) or his account of 1066, or his History of the Royal Navy, and you’ll feel that you are transported.

How do people enter a killing zone?  What steels them to face death?  What is duty?  Howarth doesn’t answer these questions but he stages them and gives them a colour and a context.  As a child Howarth was one of my favourite authors, not because he helped me understand war in general or individual wars for that matter but because he gave me the kind of detail I needed to care about the reality of the people who die on a word of command.

Above all, Howarth reserves judgement.  His sense of the chaos and insanity of a battlefield is such that he is impatient with armchair strategists who are convinced that they could have done oh so much better than the commanders on the spot.

Who really won the battle – Wellington or Blücher?  What would have happened if Napoleon (or Ney) had coordinated the French infantry, cavalry and artillery better (and earlier) and broken Wellington’s centre to clear the path to Brussels?  Would Napoleon merely been crushed by another even more massive allied effort akin to Leipzig?  Or could Napoleon have been content to broker a peace that confirmed him as ruler of France behind France’s traditional borders?  Or was Napoleon constitutionally incapable of political moderation?

Howarth concerns himself with none of these questions, because such plottings had nothing to do with the narrative reconstruction of the day itself.  As a popular narrative historian he confines himself to exploring the tension and the terror and the horror and the sorrow of the events as they unfolded.  And the capacity for such historical narrative construction is a very great gift – a gift that seduces young people to the study of history and the Big Questions.  Duckworth Lewis or no Duckworth Lewis.

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