Waterloo by Bernard Cornwell

Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles by Bernard Cornwell (Harper, 2015), 352 pages.

W Cornwell

It’s been a month since I last updated this book blog (27 May to 28 June) but I have only been home 8 nights this month. After we got back from Europe, I had to fly out to California for business, so things are only settling down. (Of course, I’ll be in New York for July 4th weekend, so this write-up will be lonely for a week or two.)

I bought this book when it came out in the USA at the start of May 2015 (it still has the British copyright date of 2014, but this is one of those quirky international publishing things). I put it on the “book pile” and said “Well, Waterloo was in June of 1815, so I have plenty of time to read it….” However, once I got back from Europe, I realized that June 18 (the anniversary) was very close. So I dragged the book to California and finished it there. And here it is!

I paid about twenty bucks for this book (no, not Amazon), and I have to say it was a bargain. The color plates alone are usually found only in books that cost twice as much, and the paper has a nice gloss that repels liquid (I found this out when the flight attendant spilled Diet Coke on page 290). Each chapter starts off with a nice color map of the action to come, although it took me a chapter or two to figure that out because the 3 or 4 pages of illustrations preceding the map are for the previous chapter, often captioned with quotes from the chapter text.

This is a solid book by a solid author. Yes, it’s a popular book about Waterloo, not a political or military history. But don’t let that put you off. The politics of Waterloo are easy to outline: Napoleon escaped from exile on Elba by painting a ship to match the brigs of the British blockade and taking advantage of his British “keeper” being away visiting his mistress (page 18). Gathering forces on his way to Paris, mostly from units betraying their oath to the restored king of France, Napoleon felt he could pick up where he left off as Emperor, as long as he could prevent the combined armies of England (okay, Britain and allies, but Cornwell says England as well), Prussia, Austria, and Russia from invading France. While the last two were far away, the British army under Wellington, who had fought Napoleon’s forces – but not Napoleon – to a standstill in Spain and invaded southern France, and the allied Dutch force under “Slender Billy,” or William, Prince of Orange, were camped south of Brussels.

The Prussians under von Blucher were hurrying to join them from the east, and this Anglo-Dutch-Prussian grouping forms the three armies of the title. The Anglo-Dutch were near a place named Waterloo, although the nearest town was called Mount St.-Jean. So why is the battle called Waterloo? Because Wellington, who won the darn thing (although the Prussians point out – rightly so – that without them, the battle is a draw at best), called it that. So there. The Prussians, who still call it the battle of “La Belle Alliance,” had to deal with it.

The military aspects of Waterloo are a bit more complex. Napoleon was the master of maneuver, and of course he would try to isolate the forces, face one at a time, and defeat them piecemeal. He did this in a series of three battles over four days, as also mentioned in the title, with one night of pouring rain and a “travel day” in between. The three battles were the battles of Ligny (a win that chased off the Prussians, but did not rout them), Quatre-Bras (this counts as a Wellington victory because he kept his forces intact and stopped Napoleon), and Waterloo (now a synonym for “whatever can go wrong…”).

Would it be a faux pas to mention that I like Cornwell’s nonfiction writing more than I like his fiction? His fiction is really historically detailed and accurate, and I read it for that, but I found a spark and spirit in his nonfiction I don’t often see in his fiction. Sorry.

Anyway, this book will not only make you very familiar with all aspects of those days in June, but how it felt to be on the battlefield, that day and at almost any battle between the American Revolution and the Civil War. (Speaking of the American Revolution, America had the good sense to rebel between the careers of Marlborough and Wellington, two undefeated generals. Washington faced such sparking generals and admirals as Clinton and Howe and Cornwallis…need I say more?)

Along the way, you will learn about different leadership styles as Wellington gallops all over the field, encouraging ragged units, while Napoleon hung out at his headquarters at La Bella Alliance and let Marshall Ney and the other Marshalls run the battle for him. You will learn how fickle the gods of war can be, as cannon fire kills or takes legs from three of four but leaves the fourth untouched. You will see how cruel the battle is to horses, who suffer ghastly wounds and yet carry on (I will spare you the details, but see pages 246 and 303). In places, you can almost hear the cannon roar and feel the safety of the square formation, especially when charged by cavalry. These passages, taken from letters and diaries or those who on the battlefield, are Cornwell at his best.

Wellington and his white horse Copenhagen, by the way, survived the day unscathed, while many of his command staff were killed or horribly wounded and had one or sometimes two horses shot out from under them.  Wellington felt his loses acutely, and wrote sadly about this aspect of war to Lady Shelley after the battle (according to Cornwell, Wellington also had an army of young, beautiful, noble, and smart women to command). He wrote, on page 307, “next to a battle lost, the greatest misery is a battle gained” because of the loss of life even in victory.

So why did Napoleon lose at Waterloo, and lose so spectacularly that he had to flee without his carriage and treasury? Most of it seems to be Napoleon’s own doing, although Cornwell wisely lets readers reach their own conclusions. For whatever reason, Napoleon did not try to shatter Blucher’s Prussians after Ligny, leaving them to regroup and show up late at Waterloo, drawing off troops Napoleon needed for final assault. Napoleon issued odd orders to his generals, leading a couple of them to shuttle back and forth at Quatre-Bras without ever engaging and then falling on the Prussian rear guard when they were desperately need twelve miles away at Waterloo. Napoleon even waited at Waterloo until late in the day (almost noon by most accounts) for the field to dry out for his cavalry, hours that let the Prussians draw closer and closer.

Worst of all, Napoleon’s biggest mistake was attacking Wellington in the first place, the general known as the best defensive general of his day. Napoleon had little choice: time was not on his side. But Napoleon relied greatly on cannon and howitzers for victory, and Wellington would wisely station the bulk of his troops over a ridge, on a reverse slope, where they were relatively safe and could move without being observed. So when Napoleon sent horse and men up and over the ridge, he ended up attacking the strongest part of Wellington’s line.

One last point of illumination to me: Wellington was known as the “Iron Duke” not for his defensive capabilities, but for the iron shutters he installed on his residence late in life as prime minister so the people could not break his windows (page 341). Apparently, the cranky old general thought every citizen should obey his orders without question, as they had at Waterloo. Then again, that philosophy only had to work once. And it did.