“Ah, but you do not know MacDonell.”
There are many fictional and non-fictional accounts of the Battle of Waterloo; two of my favourites being Cornwell’s ‘Waterloo: The history of four days, three armies and three battles’ and Iain Gale’s ‘Four Days in June’. However, these texts rarely follow just one soldier around the battle – something that Waterloo: The Bravest Man by Andrew Swanston does, and in so doing provides a fascinating mix of fact and fiction to one of the most iconic heroes of the battle, Colonel James MacDonell of the Coldstream Guards – the man who closed the gates of Hougoumont and therefore, according to Wellington, won the battle.
The book follows the Guards and their allies in the battles leading up to Waterloo and then in detail through their blood-drench defence of the Chateau at Hougoumount, facing wave after wave of French voltigeurs, infantry, dragoons and incessant cannon fire. The book almost comes in two halves; the clearing of the woods and the subsequent withdrawal, and then the defence of the Chateau, but within that, it packs in a lot. It’s also worthwhile noting that this is a relatively slim book for a Napoleonic fiction piece and a very easy read.
Colonel MacDonell himself is framed as a firm yet fair officer with a flair for leadership and inspiring the men. He’s a big Scot and leads the charges with his sword in his hand. In some ways, he’s written to be almost too good to be true, but it’s easy to get drawn along by a character who is obviously so well respected by his men. Even when he has to deal with two perennial neer-do-wells, and even suspects one of trying to shoot him in the back, he doesn’t just hang them or flog them.
He’s also surrounded by a cast of the usual one-note heroic soldiers; Sergeant Dawson, who hates going to the surgeon even when his wound is festering, Corporals James and Joseph Graham – gargantuan Irish fighting machines, the every chirpy and resourceful Capt. Harry Wyndham, and many others. It’s good inspiration for regimental characters in your game to see these types of archetypes played out across an entire battle. In a similar manner, seeing the Colonel doing his thing is a textbook tool for people looking to play a fighting officer in a game of Duty & Honour.
Another thing I appreciated was the gory realism of the combat and it’s one shot nature for taking down the French – slash to the throat followed by a hilt to the face and then a point to the groin. Three men dealt with. It’s great exposition fodder for describing combats in a game.
There are also a number of points that could add good flavour to a game. The sheer volume of gin that seemed to be consumed was made obvious. Troops in the Peninsular had a half-pint gin ration per day – it was many times healthier than the local water – and MacDonell’s men were no different. Similarly, their willingness to butcher and eat a fallen horse might not be obvious to modern minds, but it is done here without the blink of an eye.
The most striking takeaway I have from the book in gaming terms is MacDonell as a character who mixes with both the officers and the rank and file equally and on the same terms. He is a great example of how to play an officer and not be a pompous ass hat!
If you enjoy Napoleonic fiction, you have probably seen the action depicted in this book on more than one occasion. It is the battle in the TV version of Sharpe’s Waterloo where Hagman and Harris both die *sob* after all. However, this is an in-depth, single perspective work and is the better for it.
I’d recommend Waterloo: The Bravest Man – it’s a quick and meaty read, has good action, visceral description and a lot to help anyone enhance their Duty & Honour games. If you would like to know more about the defence of Hougoumont and the project to restore it, check out the Project Hougoumont webpage.