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Bernard Cornwell asks in the first few lines, "Why another book about Waterloo?" It's a good question and it has a very easy answer: If Cornwell wrote it, that's reason enough for me. In his hands, the story comes alive again in a way historians only rarely achieve.
Clearly, Cornwell has been researching the Napoleonic era all of his life. From the lowest private to the commanding generals, the story is told from the viewpoint and in the words of the participants. The battle descriptions are classic Cornwell, but it is the descriptions of the strategies of the battle captains, Wellington and Napoleon, that was most interesting to me.
I have only one criticism: Cornwell should have narrated the entire book himself. Not that the narrator did not do a great job, he did. But Cornwell's own voice is clearly that of a passionate author and actor. Usually I prefer that authors not read their own work, but in this case I have to say we would have been better served if he had.
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At the start of his Preface to Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles (2014), Bernard Cornwell asks, "Why another book about Waterloo?" It is, as he says, a good question. His answer is that, in addition to being "a cliffhanger of a battle," it was "the deciding event" or "turning point" of the 19th century that led to French decline and British domination. Furthermore, the battle was so complex, and there were so many firsthand accounts of it, and there have been so many different (often contradictory) histories written about it, that Cornwell would like “To give an impression of what it was like to be on that field on that confusing day," and, though he doesn't say so, I think to synthesize the best available evidence so as to clarify some of the confusion.
Cornwell begins by recounting Napoleon's escape from exile on Elba to stunningly resume his interrupted rule of France as "Emperor" in March, 1815, causing the French king to flee France. Rather than wait for Great Britain, Prussia, Russia, and Austria to attack him on French soil, Napoleon decided to preemptively strike north in Belgium against the two closest allied armies, those of Great Britain and Prussia, planning to divide and conquer them one by one. The action begins with the simultaneous battles on June 16 at Quatre Bras (the French fighting the British-Dutch to prevent them from joining the Prussians) and at Ligny (the French fighting the Prussians to destroy them).
Cornwell then turns his attention to June 18 and Waterloo. He establishes the layout of the three-square-mile battlefield (fields of man-high rye, commanding ridge, and strategically situated ad hoc "fortresses" made of two farms and a small village) and the objectives of both sides: the British-Dutch had to defend their positions in the fortresses and atop the ridge (or on its reverse slope) long enough for the Prussians to join them, while the French had to punch through the British-Dutch line before the Prussians could arrive. There follows a day of appalling carnage as the French repeatedly attack, always wastefully avoiding basic 19th-century combined arms tactics by which infantry, cavalry, and artillery were to support each other.
Throughout the book Cornwell provides interesting details on early 19th-century armies and warfare. In addition to explaining the paper-scissors-rock strengths and weaknesses of lines, columns, squares, cavalry, artillery, and skirmishers, he compares French and British cavalry, surgeons, muskets, artillery, and so on. He incorporates vivid eyewitness accounts. "One officer described the air as 'undulating' from the passage of the shells and roundshot," and soldiers said the great guns heated the air like an oven. One man wrote of a French cannon ball speeding right at him, hitting men beside him, and then flying off overhead. Cornwell highlights some mini-stories, like a British cavalry officer who survived despite being saber-gashed on the head, lanced in the arms and chest, trampled by horses, used as a gun rest, and pillaged and left for dead, and an anonymous, beautiful woman found in a French cavalry officer's uniform lying dead beneath a pile of British corpses. He convinces us that "Waterloo was such a vast battle, so overwhelming in its intensity and drama."
Cornwell introduces dramatic figures like Marshal von Blucher, the 74-year old Prussian commander ever trusting in Wellington, "Slender Billy," the Prince of Orange, ever "a thorn in Wellington's side," and Marshal Ney, "the bravest of the brave," a man capable of stunning errors in judgment while leading Napoleon's army. And he contrasts the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon, both 46, both brilliant and charismatic war leaders, but while Wellington disliked war and tried to fight defensively in order to spare his limited numbers of British soldiers, Napoleon loved the glory of war and didn't care how many of his soldiers he lost as long as they achieved his objectives. Cornwell's account feels unbiased, but he may quote more British eyewitnesses, and he portrays Wellington as the superior general, riding about the battlefield to raise the morale of men at crisis points and writing clear battle orders, while Napoleon remained out of the action writing contradictory and confusing orders for the marshals who led his army.
It was a "dreadful day" of "slaughter" leaving 12,000 dead: blood spouting, bowels spilling, brains spattering, bodies being cut in half, heads and limbs being blown off, lances penetrating through eyes into jaws, swords whacking, bayonets impaling, musket butts bashing, artillery deafening, smoke obscuring, canister shot spraying, shrapnel flying, howitzers immolating, horses trampling. . . Many of the 30-40,000 wounded lay suffering on the battlefield for days. Local peasants stripped corpses naked and yanked out their teeth to sell for dentures. It took ten days to burn all the French corpses in pyres fueled by human fat. The allied dead were buried in shallow mass graves, enabling tourists to pick through them for souvenirs. Wellington said afterwards, "Next to a battle lost, the greatest misery is a battle gained." And "I always feel wretched after. . . there is no glory." Although Cornwell details the horrific nature of war, however, he does it as a novelist story-teller, making us admire heroism and scorn incompetence more than see the whole thing as human folly.
The reader Dugald Bruce Lockhart is fine. But Cornwell is also an excellent reader, and it's his book, so I almost wish he'd read the whole thing, instead of only the Foreword, Preface, Aftermath, and Afterword.
Readers interested in the Napoleonic Wars or gripping accounts of turning point battles full of heroism, cowardice, brilliance, and folly in any period should like this book, though in my ignorance (not having read other accounts) I suspect that readers familiar with Waterloo may not find too much new here.
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