Waterloo: The history of four days, three armies and three battles by Bernard Cornwell.
My rating: ★★★★☆
The Basics: An enjoyable and gripping account of one of the most famous battles of the Napoleonic era, which reads so much like a thriller it is at times easy to forget this was Cornwell’s first non-fiction book.
In-depth: The Royal Gallery in the Houses of Parliament is adorned with two giant paintings which depict two major moments in British history and the Napoleonic Wars: the death of Horatio Nelson at Trafalgar and the meeting of the Duke of Wellington and Field Marshall Blücher at the battle of Waterloo. Although I’m late to the bi-centenary anniversary of the battle, it was on June 18 last year, it was after a long look at the latter painting one lunchtime last autumn that I decided I needed to catch up and read an account of this most famous battle. I’ve finally got round to doing so.
Considering many readers will be aware of the battle’s result and its historical consequences, Cornwell still manages to instil an overwhelming sense of drama into this account. The author explains this: “No matter how often I read accounts of that day, the ending is still full of suspense … We might know how it ends, but like all good stories it bears repetition.” Perhaps unsurprisingly from the author of the adventures of Sharpe, Cornwell dramatically charts the proceeding days build up to Waterloo, and the entire battle itself, including the many times where victory seemed so close for l’Empereur.
Cornwell brilliantly brings the historical characters to life. Be that the generals of the armies or the soldiers fighting on the battlefield through their private correspondences. The battle is presented by Cornwell as the first meeting of Europe’s two finest soldiers, the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon. These figures are wonderfully brought to life through tales such as, “He (the Duke) could be sharply witty; long after the wars were over some French officers pointedly turned their backs on him in Paris, for which rudeness a woman apologised. “Don’t worry, Madame,” the Duke said, “I’ve seen their backs before.” Also the leader of the Prussian army, whose eventual arrival on Napoleon’s right flank was central to the outcome of the battle, is introduced as the 72 year old Prince Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher who was famously prone to “bouts of mental illness during which he believed himself pregnant with an elephant fathered by a French infantryman.” Fortunately this delusions did not inflict him on the day.
With Cornwell’s deep military knowledge there is naturally plenty here for military buffs. He makes much of the importance of the geography of the battlefield to its outcome, particularly how it was scouted months before by the Duke of Wellington. The northern, deceptively steep, ridge which the British led forces held throughout the day enabled the Duke to station most of his infantry just behind the top of the hill, thereby shielding them from the murderous artillery of Napoleon’s ‘Grand Battery.’ These were known as Napoleon’s “beautiful daughters” and the sound of their barrages going overhead were wonderfully described by one solider as “being like the noise of a heavy barrel of ale being rolled across a wooden floor above his head.”
The nature of the square formations of Anglo-Dutch infantry is also brought to life in a chapter covering the disastrous mid-afternoon cavalry charges by the French. By forming a square, with sides four men deep, the infantry was able to have a square of bayonets filled with reloading and firing troops which “spat musketry” at the terrified horses. This decimated the French cavalry, which struggled massively in the deep mud caused from the previous evenings heavy rain, for almost no gain and is largely told through the violent memoirs of the soldiers.
In conclusion Cornwell charts the race against time that the battle ultimately became. Napoleon’s forces came remarkably close to overwhelming the British line, victory and winning the road to Brussels but needed to do so by the time the reinforcing Prussian armies fully arrived. The desperate last throw of the dice by Napoleon was to order the advance of his famous Imperial Guard, who were rumoured to never have been defeated and were thus known as ‘the Immortals’, against the supposedly ‘Unbreakables’ which was Wellington’s infantry, whose reputation Napoleon had arrogantly dismissed early in the day. Although these extremes are extenuated by Cornwell this final section, like most of this book, is a real page turner.
Best Quote: “… long after the wars were over some French officers pointedly turned their backs on him (The Duke of Wellington) in Paris, for which rudeness a woman apologised. ‘Don’t worry, Madame,’ the Duke said, ‘I’ve seen their backs before.'”
Have you ever read an account of the Napoleonic Wars? If you have you may also like my review of Andrew Robert’s Napoleon the Great.
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