Thursday, 16 January 2014

A Bold and Ambitious Enterprise by Andrew Bamford

In December 1813 the British cabinet decided to create a force to operate in the Low Countries to assure that the area came under friendly rule, for which a suitable dynasty was quickly found in the House of Orange. Task of the force was to ensure the security of the new regime, then the expansion of that regime in to present day Belgium and the destruction of the French fleet in Antwerp if not the capture of the town. This book relates the story of that ‘bold and ambitious enterprise’.

I found the book interesting for three reasons:

A Bold and Ambitious Enterprise tells the story of a significant part of the army that would fight Napoleon at Quatre Bras and Waterloo a year later. It was led by the aged but capable general Graham, who had served with Wellington in the Peninsula. Its origins were not very fateful, cobbled together from units recovering and rebuilding from service elsewhere. Many of the men were only partially trained or otherwise unfit for service. It took time to gather enough strength to take aggressive action, but in reality was unable to do so without support from allied troops.

Although the troops performed as well as might be expected in two small scale attacks against the defences of Antwerp, the force failed its toughest test: the storming of Bergen op Zoom. This weak and isolated French garrison was a thorn in the flesh of the allies, occupying troops that Graham wished to employ against his main objective. The failure of the attack resulted mostly from insufficient troops employed and failure of leadership by senior commanders. Some went off on their own, thus leaving troops leaderless, other showed a lack of initiative. It all ended in half of the forces killed, wounded or captured. All this bodes ill for the performance a year later.

De Gevangenpoort or Prisoners Gate between the town centre and harbour
A British section held out here until forced away in the morning

The book also provides a counterpoint to the better known developments in France. Although this is just a sideshow, it shows the ways in which the area might have been more important had Napoleon successfully held off the Schlesische Armee and the Hauptarmee. It is interesting to see how the course of the war in France progressively allows or demands more troops to be shifted south.

Finally, it has more consideration for the position of Britain´s allies, ie the Dutch and Prussians, than most British authors. This prevents the book from the all too familiar blame game. Although Graham kept trying to get his allies to cooperate in a move against Antwerp (his main objective), it was understandable that their efforts were limited by overriding considerations elsewhere. The book also shows that quite a few people in prominent places during the Waterloo campaign had already acquainted themselves with their allies and struck up a workable relationship (eg Cooke, Bülow and Van Gorkum). That would prove useful.

The book is well written and makes good use of personal accounts. Although I didn’t care much for the details of British involvement, it was nice to read about the attack on Bergen op Zoom, having visited the town in September. Too bad not much of the fortress has remained.

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