Review of “Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles” by Bernard Cornwell


Bernard Cornwell is the author of several historical novels featuring Richard Sharpe, an English soldier during the Napoleonic Wars. Waterloo is his first attempt at nonfiction, published just in time for the 200th anniversary in June 2015 of that climactic conflict. Cornwell has done his homework, and although he has little or nothing to add to the voluminous corpus of Waterloo information, he is an adept story teller who provides a riveting recap of the series of battles that has come down to us as “Waterloo.”

The decisive battle pitted against one another the two most outstanding military leaders of their era: The (Iron) Duke of Wellington for the British and Napoleon Bonaparte for the French. Napoleon had recently escaped from his banishment on the Isle of Elba, and had resumed the power of Emperor of France. The British, Prussians, Austrians, and Russians feared he would once again dominate Europe, and so they organized a coalition to remove him from his throne. The British and Prussian armies arrived on the scene first, and invaded France from the north and east, respectively. Napoleon raised a formidable army in record time, and sought to prevent the allies from combining their armies by defeating them in sequence. In the event, the allies were able to combine their powers only on the fourth and last day of the battles, but that was enough to effect a catastrophic defeat for the French. While no one knows how many actually died at Waterloo because the French Army never had a chance to make a count, the best estimates suggest that of the 200,000 or so who fought there, some 50,000 lay dead or wounded at the battle’s end, along with 10,000 horses dead or dying.

The Duke of Wellington, a veteran general of the Peninsular War, commanded an army of British, Dutch, and German forces.

The Duke of Wellington, a veteran general of the Peninsular War, commanded an army of British, Dutch, and German forces.

The results were even more momentous than a consideration of the casualty numbers. Waterloo brought the career of Napoleon Bonaparte to an end; no small matter. It led to a redrawing of the map of Europe, and to the Concert of Europe, a balance of power that restored peace and enabled Britain to grow to be the dominant global power of the 19th Century.

The national boundaries within Europe as set by the Congress of Vienna, 1815

The national boundaries within Europe as set by the Congress of Vienna, 1815

Warfare tactics in Napoleonic times were much like the game of Rock, Paper, and Scissors: infantry (in cohesive formation) defeats cavalry; cavalry defeats artillery; artillery defeats infantry. Weaponry was crude by today’s lethal standards: the muskets carried by most infantry men were not rifled, and were very inaccurate. Accordingly, the alignment maintained by infantry formations was crucial to their efficacy.

Cornwell explains clearly the advantages and disadvantages of arraying “in line” versus “in column.” A brigade “in line” was disposed in a wide formation only two (British) or three (French) deep. The front line fired their muskets while the back line(s) reloaded. This maximized the fire power of the formation in the direction it faced, but made it vulnerable to cavalry attacks on its flanks. Thus, it was a strong defensive position, but was suicidal to move so formed across open country when cavalry was nearby.

A brigade “in column” was arrayed in a more oblong shape, sometimes like a square. Such a formation could protect itself from cavalry from any direction, but could not match the shear fire power of an equal number of men arrayed “in line.” Thus to attack an enemy who was positioned some distance away, infantry had to approach it “in column” across country, and then reform “in line” when it came near to the defenders.

The Battle of Waterloo

The Battle of Waterloo

Being a writer of fiction, Cornwell seeks to make the battle come to life. In doing so, he frequently switches from the past tense to the present tense in his narration. That technique seemed a little odd at times.

Cornwell clearly sympathizes with the British—he is, after all, English. His version of the battle has a different flavor than that written by Andrew Roberts in his recent Napoleon, A Life, a very sympathetic biography of the French hero. I recommend reading the two books in fairly close sequence.

Rating: 3 /5 stars

Note: The hardback edition is quite nice, and includes a number of color prints and maps.

Published in the U.S. by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2015


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