With the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo approaching, many historians have been inspired to look again at the events of 18 June 1815 – a battle which is perhaps the most written about, but also perhaps the least studied.
The Army commanded by Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, on that wet Sunday morning in June was far from homogenous, consisting of British red coats, Hanoverians, Brunswickers, and soldiers from the Netherlands, who, until very recently, had been fighting for, not against, Napoleon.
Often ignored in English-language histories of Waterloo, or considered to be poor troops, the Netherlands field army of 1815 was one of the largest Allied contingents commanded by the Duke of Wellington, and they played a crucial role in the defeat of Napoleon. Yet, until 2012 their history had gone un-written.
Erwin Muilwijk, a former officer in the Dutch Merchant Navy, has spent years sifting through Dutch and Belgian archives to reveal the story of Waterloo from the perspective of Wellington’s non-redcoat troops. Initially interested in the battle of Les Quatre Bras (16 June 1815) Erwins’ work as expanded to encapsulate the Netherlands field army throughout that bloody summer.
Whilst Erwin admits his work may not change the history of Waterloo, it will change how the Netherlands troops are viewed – often dismissed or ignored in English language histories: ‘I am not skirking [sic] away when elements of the army played a negative role or in some way met reversals. My work is not intended to give the army a bigger part or even boost nationalistic feelings, but instead merely wants to give the Netherlands troops their place amongst what was of course a shared victory of all Allied troops.’
The negative impression of the Netherlands troops, and lack of any serious research, suggests Erwin is down to a perceived language barrier: ‘not everybody reads or speaks Dutch, but that cannot be an excuse to ignore literally hundreds and hundreds of available archival material or the many memoirs. So with that in mind, it is obvious we can fill a gap in the history on the campaign.’
Erwin hopes that through his publication of archival material that in future it will be ‘impossible for future historians and authors writing and studying the campaign to ignore this work. As now it is all in the open and can be used by them.’
His first book, ‘From Mobilisation to War’ was published by Sovereign House in 2012 and has received positive reviews in the Netherlands, the United States and Britain – and as yet has not proved controversial.
Erwin’s second book, ‘Quatre Bras, Perponcher’s gamble’(due for publication in May 2013) will be the first serious study of the fighting at the village of Quatre Bras, especially the vicious contest for the Bois de Bossu, which was the major stronghold during the battle and supported the manoeuvres of the Allied troops fighting to the east of it in the open terrain. A third book, on the battle of Waterloo and the events on 18th June is being prepared. Erwin’s hope is that ‘In general my history presents both the strategic as well as the low level tactic scenes of the campaign, which I think creates a balanced history and puts things into better perspective.’
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