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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Just Finished Reading: Waterloo – The History of Four Days, Three Armies and Three Battles by Bernard Cornwell (FP: 2014)

The end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 heralded in a century of European peace only shattered in 1914 by the start of the First World War. But first a monumental battle needs to be fought. On one side a resurgent Napoleon Bonaparte arguably one of the greatest military minds of all-time leading some of the best troops that the Continent had at the time. Opposing him was a hastily thrown together coalition of Anglo-Dutch and Prussian forces led by the Duke of Wellington, undefeated legend of British arms and a genius of the defensive battle, and the indomitable 71 year old Prince von Blucher. Despite both being heavily involved in the years long conflict Napoleon and Wellington had never actually met on the battlefield before. No matter what happened on that day in the summer of 1815 it was going to be an historic occasion. If Napoleon won then Europe would be plunged into a new round of wars until the mad-dog of Europe was finally brought to heel. If the Allied armies won then it would be a final end to war on the Continent and the start of the long desired peace. On paper at least Napoleon had the greatest chance of prevailing. He had the larger force and could engage the Allies almost anywhere. The Allies meanwhile had to guard a large area and await the French armies move and react swiftly to it. Two early engagements at Ligny (which I was unaware of) and Quatre-Bras (which I knew about) heralded the French advance and the fighting there, plus the oddly lacklustre pursuit, allowed the Anglo-Dutch army to retreat in good order and set up defences near the small hamlet of Waterloo. The Prussians meanwhile had retreated temporarily away from Wellington and moved to join him as he awaited the French assault. If Napoleon could defeat the British first and then turn their attention to the Prussians France might yet be saved. But it was a big if and a considerably gamble for the French. But what is war except a gamble with everything to play for.

I had been looking forward to reading this book for some time now. I had hoped to read it around the 200th anniversary in June 2015 but life kind of got in the way. So here we are almost 2 years later. So it goes. Anyway, knowing the author as I do from reading 14 of his Sharpe series and much else besides I expected something special and I was not to be disappointed. Despite being reasonably familiar with the battle, both from school (Waterloo is, after all, right up there with Agincourt as an vitally important victory over an historic enemy) and from a number of books on the subject, I found myself both entranced by the telling of the tale and by the numerous little details that the author brought to life during his sparkling narrative. His inclusion of letters written home not long after the battle as well as diary entries from all sides (plus non-combatant observers) makes the battle feel both up close and personal. I particularly liked how he did not concentrate on those ‘merely’ directing the battle but also drew on the experiences of the officers and fighting men doing the killing on that stifling June day a little over 200 years ago. Interestingly the author repeatedly mentions that the exact details of the battle, one of the most written about and analysed battles of the modern age, are and are likely to remain open to question. No one person or group of people could see all of the battlefield at any one time and most were too busy fighting (and attempting to stay alive) to make detailed notes of events as they happened. Pocket watches were few and far between so even the times of various assaults cannot be determined with any accuracy. The other thing that really stood out to me was the sheer contingency of it all. It is easy to think, with the advantage of 20:20 hindsight, that things happened in the only way they could. Yet the author clearly shows, time and again, that orders were misunderstood or simply ignored, that tired and sometimes angry men made both good and bad decisions that later proved to be decisive on a Continental scale. He showed that random death, muskets being barely accurate beyond around 200 yards, or injury changed chains of command forcing new commanders to make different decisions and pivotal moments that won (or lost) engagements. The events of the day were anything but orderly, planned or worked out as intended. The battle was, in its essence, a mess once the killing had begun. The winner was the commanding officer who made the least mistakes, responded quickly enough to situations as they developed and was, as Napoleon rightly recognised, lucky on the day. Fortunately for the Allies Napoleon’s luck ran out on that 18th June and his forces were defeated and peace reigned in Europe for another 100 years. But it had been close, damned close.

This is certainly a must read for anyone interested in the Napoleonic Wars and of Waterloo in particular. Cornwell writes very well indeed (as you might expect with all that practice!) and knows his subject very well indeed. Even if you are already familiar with the tale I bet, like me, that you will learn more from this lavishly illustrated volume. One thing I must do after reading this is to read more about the Duke himself. He does seem to have been a fascinating character who deserves to be delved into much, much more that I have so far. Watch this space. Highly recommended.  

Next up in History (after a one book general romp across Europe) is a look at Britain's less that 'Special' relationship with America.


Brian Joseph said...

Great review of this book. It sounds so good.

When I was younger I read a lot of books like this. Though I do not do so as often I think that I would get a lot out of this one.

I think that I would want to read a good biography pf Napoleon before I read this. I have not done so yet.

Mudpuddle said...

i've been interested in this... why the French home guard cavalry retreated at the wrong time and how the British "squares" were not broken by French onslaughts have been points of curiousity for me... i read most of C's books on the european campaign with enjoyment until they got a bit gross for me... this sounds terrific; i'll have to read it...
i've started "Stand Firm" and will finish it, although it's not quite what i expected... Brinkmann deals with human behavior from a sociological pov it seems to me, whereas i tend to observe it from a scientific aspect, touching on the physical human attributes that constitute what we regard as "reality"... That guy Tam MacTurk sure is a good translator...

CyberKitten said...

@ Brian: I think you'd like this. It's full of human stories and nice little odd bits of history.

@ Mudpuddle: Actually very few squares of any nation had been broken - certainly not by unaided cavalry (there was one exception - Austrian I think - where a dying horse and rider fell into the square allowing his compatriots to jump the gap and attack from the inside). As a defensive position they were almost unassailable. The 'trick' to destroying them was to lock them up with cavalry and then blast them with cannon.

I really enjoyed 'Stand Firm' and liked the authors philosophical standpoint. He definitely scored a lot of points with me. Agreed than the translation is excellent.

Stephen said...

This really was a beautiful book, wasn't it? I'm sure Cornwell's reputation as a high-selling author helped the publishers risk money on so many color prints.

CyberKitten said...

It is indeed a very nice book to look at. Great illustrations and some wonderful art in there. Cornwell has a massive following around the world so this book especially was pretty much a slam-dunk in the publishing world.