Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles
© 2015 Bernard Cornwell
Bernard Cornwell’s most famous work is his Sharpe’s series, well over a dozen novels following a rifleman all around the Napoleonic world — over the hills and far away, through Flanders, Portugal, and Spain, with India and France as bookends. In Waterloo: the Story of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles, he attempts to parlay his considerable research into the Napoleonic wars to a work of nonfiction. He introduces his latest with a question: why write another book on one of the most studied and famous battles in Western history? Indeed, while Waterloo succeeds as popular history, considering the lavish visual detail it’s practically more of a tribute than a study.
For me, Waterloo is a welcome arrival. Not only do I enjoy Cornwell enormously, but my knowledge of the Napoleonic period is fairly dismal; what little I possess is what I’ve gleaned from novels like Cornwell’s and C.S. Forester’s, not to mention the odd computer game. By way of background: following the Battle of Leipzig, Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France, Europe’s tyrannical spectre for well over a decade, was sentenced to rule the little island of Elba. Frustrated by his island kingdom’s lack of funds, Napoleon returned to Paris and the Allies’ war against him renewed. Hoping to deal with his enemies (England, Holland, Prussia, and Russia) piecemeal, Napoleon marched north to confront the Anglo-Dutch in Holland. Rout them, and the other Allies might just call the whole thing off. Thus did Bonaparte finally meet the Duke of Wellington, the man who had helped drive France’s armies from Spain.
Like Gettysburg, Waterloo was less one battle than a campaign. Cornwell’s tale unfolds across several days. Napoleon has to strike before the Anglo-Dutch and Prussian armies can meet, and fights two simultaneous battles at Quatre Bras and nearby Ligny in the hopes of pushing the Allies away from one another. While this isn’t a roaring success for France, it does strain communications and gives Napoleon a day to push at the Anglo-Dutch. Waterloo is that day of battle, the longest day of the year in which the bullets were still flying at nearly nine o’clock. In addition to reporting on the campaign’s development as the French pushed steadily toward the English lines, Cornwell explains the nuances of Napoleonic warfare to the reader. Key to understanding this kind of war is the relationship between infantry, cavalry, and artillery; Cornwell describes it as a paper, rock, and scissors game. Infantry moving in a line were effective offensively, but woefully exposed to cavalry charges; if they formed into a square, they were deadly obstacles to cavalry but inviting targets to the artillery. The armies involved are constantly attempting to out-manipulate the others and press an advantage.
Cornwell’s extensive experience as a novelist is clearly present here: he frequently shifts between past and present tense, and employs the same kind of sentence combinations he uses for dramatic effect in the novels. (It’s a one-two literary punch; a series of sentences leading the reader in one direction is suddenly reversed by a following and much shorter second sentence.) The narrative thus brings to mind a novel, but there’s no denying Cornwell’s ability to communicate the sheer drama of these armies maneuvers as well as the horrendous cost the chaos of the battle was inflicting on the participants. I mentioned the lavish detail earlier, but it bears more comment. I have never seen a work of history this extravagantly illustrated. There are two-page spreads of paintings depicting moments in the action, and not just one but interspersed throughout the text. Even the maps are indulgent, abounding and presented in full-color. It’s this kind of loving attention that makes Waterloo seem like something rendered more to honor and remember than merely to inform. While it sometimes seemed he wanted to write a novel, Waterloo is a fantastic first offering of nonfiction from Cornwell’s pen.
Sharpe’s Series, Bernard Cornwell.