The Battle of Waterloo has to be a candidate for most written-about battle ever. Its importance, in closing the Napoleonic Wars, its defined geographic location and length, and the numerous first-hand accounts from the protagonists all contribute to the continual fascination with it. The international nature of the armies and the interesting complexity of who did what, where and how important was it have fed the continued study of the campaign.
With the anniversary of the battle approaching in 2015 there will be a huge amount of new books for the Napoleonic enthusiast to get their teeth into. I suspect that most will be straight retellings of the battle, placing greater or lesser emphasis on the events around Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte and on the inexorable advance of the Prussians. I’ll read the Bernard Cornwell version because I suspect the descriptions of the massed cavalry charges against plucky allied squares and the final advance of the French Guard will be second to none.
However, if you are considering your next Waterloo purchase I’d like to recommend something a little different to the standard fare, which will grace your bookshelf with authoritative analysis and illustrative enlightenment.
The recommendation is the book, Waterloo: The Decisive Victory published with the assistance of Waterloo 200 Ltd, an umbrella organisation approved and supported by Government to oversee the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the battle. For more information on their activities please visit their website http://www.waterloo200.org/. With a foreword by his Grace the Duke of Wellington and contributions from leading Napoleonic academics and authors, this is a series of essays covering a wide range of different aspects of the battle, some well known others less so.
After an authoritative introduction by Peter Snow CBE, the broadcaster and writer, and a comprehensive chronology starting with Napoleon’s escape from Elba, contributions begin with a strategic overview from Jeremy Black MBE, Professor of History at the University of Exeter, detailing the wider geopolitical context in which the battle took place. Julian Spilsbury, ex-regular soldier, author, TV writer and experienced tour guide, then covers Napoleons’s lost opportunities at Ligny and Quatre Bras, battles which are more than appetisers to the main event. Philip Haythornthwaite, author and historical consultant, follows with a chapter on the commanders on the field, Napoleon, Wellington and Blücher. Mark Adkin, author of the well-known Waterloo Companion is next with a detailed analysis of the armies, their weapons and tactics.
Chapter five is by Natalia Griffon de Pleineville, Editor-in-Chief of the history magazines Tradition Magazine, Gloire & Empire and Prétorien (https://www.lelivrechezvous.fr/), and looks at eyewitness accounts and the differences between those of each side. Unsurprisingly, British memoirs tend to downplay the arrival of the Prussians whilst the French blame Grouchy. Nick Lipscombe, author of Wellington’s Guns and the Peninsular War Atlas, then discusses the relative importance of Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte to Wellington’s successful defence at Mont-Saint-Jean. In Chapter Seven Ian Fletcher, author of numerous books on the British Army, covers the cavalry charges by the Union and Household Brigades and the French cavalry under Marshal Ney, arguing that the former should be seen as more of a success than a failure.
Charles Esdaile, Professor at the University of Liverpool, prolific author and co-founder of Peninsular War 200 (alongside Nick Lipscombe), looks at the Prussian Army at Waterloo giving a ‘detailed account of the battle as it was experienced and fought by Blücher’s forces.’ Then Andrew Field MBE, author and expert on the French experience in the Napoleonic Wars, closes the battle with an account of Napoleon’s last gamble, his final attack, led by the Middle and Old Guard against the exhausted allies. Finally, in the tenth chapter, Huw Davies, Senior Lecturer in Defence Studies at King's College, examines the legacy of Waterloo and its impact, the Concert of Europe and the Crimean War.
Beautifully illustrated and slipcased this volume combines an authoritative overview of the battle with new research on several contentious or overlooked aspects and is therefore an excellent investment for the Napoleonic enthusiast. I’d recommend adding it to your Christmas lists, if you don’t go out and buy it immediately.