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Dawson’s Waterloo Truth at Last book

Posted: Sun Dec 29, 2019 6:05 pm
by ShadowDragon
Not specifically GdA but Dawson makes some claims which if true requires changes in at least troop ratings and perhaps rules. I have some comments but would like to read what others think before posting my comments.

This was prompted by a discussion on TMP but I’d rather discuss here.

Re: Dawson’s Waterloo Truth at Last book

Posted: Mon Dec 30, 2019 7:14 pm
by DCRBrown

I'm not sure as to which TMP "discussion" you refer - but don't hold back - go for it! ;)


Re: Dawson’s Waterloo Truth at Last book

Posted: Mon Dec 30, 2019 7:46 pm
by ShadowDragon
Now, Dave, you know very well which discussion. ;)

But to refresh your memory...

As for holding back or not, I prefer to come out of a discussion not as a winner or loser but merely wiser.

Re: Dawson’s Waterloo Truth at Last book

Posted: Tue Dec 31, 2019 11:11 am
by DCRBrown
Very wise!


Re: Dawson’s Waterloo Truth at Last book

Posted: Tue Jan 14, 2020 10:16 pm
by ShadowDragon
I’m a pretty easy going reviewer. As long as I think the author has put in a decent effort I’ll give them credit. However, if the author makes claims that are out of the ordinary then a closer and more critical examination is warranted. Such is the case with Paul Dawson’s book, Waterloo: The Truth at Last.

I think it’s fair that you know a little bit about me so that you can judge my review with some context. I am not a(n) historian (the ‘n’ in case you don’t pronounce the ‘h’ – lol) and will not evaluate the book from that of a(n) historian. I will take it as a given that Paul Dawson is a credible historian. I am a wargamer with, therefore, an amateur interest in history. In part my perspective is that of a wargaming consumer of history and how that history informs wargame rules and scenarios.

I am also a quantitative analyst – specifically I am a military operational research analyst and will retire from this profession in the coming year with just shy of 35 years of experience conducting tactical, operational, theatre strategic, national strategic and alliance strategic analysis including, relevant for this review, experience at exercise reconstruction and analysis. This wouldn’t be important except that much of what Dawson has to contribute has to do with data and data analysis, so that is my other perspective.

One of the problems with Dawson’s book is that it’s not clear for whom he is writing. He contends that his book, relying on ‘hard data’, contradicts many of the ‘myths’ about Waterloo. Some of these myths are of the Victor Hugo or the Waterloo film type (e.g., the last scene in the film where the Old Guard is wiped out to the last man – a good scene but it’s not history). Anyone with reasonable knowledge of the battle would be well aware that these are indeed myths and only people with a cursory (e.g. Hollywood) understanding of the battle would believe them. However, these people would become lost in the detail of where each battalion of the 1st Legere was deployed and its muster roll numbers as Dawson dives right into the detail. He’s definitely not a Charles Oman for telling a story that draws the reader in.

On the other hand by presenting the detail Dawson appears to target those more familiar with the battle. If that’s the case his presentation and analysis are lacking. His conclusions of why the French lost the battle are hardly earthshattering – poor generalship, poorly executed final attack of the Guard, sentiments among some soldiers of betrayal, panic on the I Corps right wing, overwhelming Allied numbers at the close of the battle and fear of encirclement. The actual claims that are worth looking at closer are:

a) that the numbers of ‘combat’ or ‘attritional’ (note: I’m using these terms to distinguish losses while engaged in contested combat versus losses, such as prisoners and from desertion after one side has given up) were much lower – much lower than is commonly accepted;

b) that the French troops were markedly inferior to the Allied troops even Prussian Landwehr and Dutch-Belgians; and

c) that the battle was lost because the French ran away or were made prisoners rather than because of ‘attritional’ losses

The last item is silly because it’s a false dichotomy. Of course the French army routed but I think attritional losses, failure to push the Anglo-Allied army off their position, overwhelming numbers and nearly being encircled had something to do with it too.

The comparison of troop types is based on comparison of data on age and years of experience. Fair enough, but when it comes to examining the first item on the numbers of attritional casualties then Dawson’s analysis actually contradicts this assertion. For example, he estimates the numbers of French killed and wounded for those troops facing the Anglo-Allied army as about equal to the British killed and wounded, where he quotes a number of British casualties that’s lower than I’ve seen anywhere and with no reference as to where he got that number. Then he seems to dismiss the German and Dutch-Belgian casualties in the Anglo-Allied army in an off-hand manner that implies they were insignificant. The suggestion is that his numbers of French casualties are right because they’re about equal to the British ones. However, if one adds in the non-British casualties then one has to conclude that the French are more effective at hitting (killing or wounding) than their enemies. How can that be if one is also concluding the troops are inferior – not just inferior but substantially inferior.

I’ve already mentioned that there might be issues with Dawson’s analysis of the ‘hard data’. They are several:

1) There’s not enough consideration in the impact of errors in the data collection. The muster rolls were generated by the regiments a good deal after the battle and based on what those still in the ranks could remember.

2) There’s little consideration of the impact of the challenge of separating casualties on the day from campaign casualties.

3) There’s a failure to compare ‘apples-to-apples’. Dawson compares French overall casualties (killed, wounded, prisoners and desertions) to Allied killed and wounded and then concludes the numbers are about right. Really? Even if, as noted above, it means the French were able to ‘hit’ (killed or wounded) more than two enemy soldiers for each they ‘hit’ suffered. One wonders with that attritional advantage why they lost at all.

4) The use of terminology is inconsistent. Sometimes it’s stated that the French ‘missing’ must include killed and wounded but elsewhere (even on the same page) states that all the French ‘missing’ ran away.

Some of the issues are due to the lack of a good editor and others are that it would have been useful if Dawson had a review by a good quantitative analyst to check his data analysis.

Still the hypothesis that the French army may have suffered fewer killed and wounded at Waterloo than the Allied armies is intriguing. Definitely not at the difference suggested by Dawson but perhaps on a Quatre Bras level where many accounts have the Anglo-Allied suffering greater ‘attritional’ losses than the French. The data that Dawson has presented are consistent with such an hypothesis but it’s being consistent is not enough. Other sources of information and even detailed analysis of Allied casualties would be required.

So my recommendation is that if you’re interested in the data in the French muster rolls, buy the book. If not, keep your cash.

Re: Dawson’s Waterloo Truth at Last book

Posted: Wed Jan 15, 2020 10:27 am
by NTM
Are there really any myths left to bust about the campaign? With Hamilton Williams new perspective comprehensively debunked and the Hofschroer debate etc it's pretty much covered.

Re: Dawson’s Waterloo Truth at Last book

Posted: Thu Jan 16, 2020 3:40 am
by zabarr
Fantastic review ShadowDragon, you clearly know your stuff. Waterloo, the French Perspective is a fantastic book for those interested in the matter. Great analysis into the decision making process itself.

Re: Dawson’s Waterloo Truth at Last book

Posted: Fri Jan 17, 2020 8:14 pm
by ShadowDragon
Thanks, zabarr. Yes, "Waterloo, the French Perspective" is a fantastic book as are Andrew Field's other books on the campaign - especially "Waterloo: Rout and Retreat" as this is usually covered in a paragraph or two in other books.

Now, if there are any historians out there that are interested in collaborating with a retired, first-class military operational research analyst, they can drop me a line. LoL