Lord Byron had it (almost) right. In his poem ‘The Eve of Waterloo’ (part of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage), the poet fixes on a ball given in Brussels on 15 June 1815 by the Duchess of Richmond at which many of the Allied commanders in the coming battle – including the Duke of Wellington – danced in blissful abandon before their revels were interrupted by the distant roar of cannon.
The ball certainly happened – and the Iron Duke was indeed one of the guests – but it was disrupted merely by the news that Napoleon and his army had crossed the frontier from France rather earlier than expected. The cannonade, which was heard as far away as the Kentish coast, began only the next day with the battles preceding Waterloo at Quatre Bras and Ligny. Napoleon employed tactics familiar from a score of his victories and tried, with only partial success, to defeat the numerically superior armies of his Anglo-Dutch and Prussian adversaries separately and piecemeal by dividing his own forces.
Byron can be forgiven for using poetic licence; it was certainly not born of ignorance. Indeed the poet took an almost obsessive interest in Waterloo, where, as Tim Clayton tells us in his magnificent and magisterial account of the campaign, Waterloo: Four Days that Changed Europe’s Destiny, Byron lost a cousin. Major Frederick Howard of the 10th Hussars was killed leading one of the last of the battle’s charges against the emperor’s Imperial Guard. Byron, travelling in a replica of his hero Napoleon’s coach, visited the spot where his relative died a year after the battle. He mightily deplored the outcome (‘Oh, bloody and most bootless Waterloo’), a fruitless victory for tyranny whose ‘red rain’ had only succeeded in fertilising the fields with human manure. Even a decade later, his reaction on hearing of Napoleon’s death was to say, ‘I’m damned sorry for it.’
Byron, like other English radicals, understandably disapproved of the dull and short-sighted rule of the Bourbons, restored by the bayonets of Wellington and Blücher to their shaky throne, and was dazzled by the romantic saga of Napoleon’s triumphant return from his first exile on Elba and the spectacle of his old soldiers flocking to his banner. They forgot that by then Napoleon was himself a coarsened tyrant, steeped in the blood of too many battles, who confessed that he ‘cared little for the lives of a million men’.
Another literary admirer of Bonaparte, Stendhal, left a matchless account of the battle in his novel The Charterhouse of Parma. It is all the more remarkable since – although a veteran of Napoleon’s Russian campaign – the novelist was not present on the battlefield. However, its hero, Fabrizio, catches the essence of a soldier’s experience of war: he doesn’t see the enemy and has no idea what is happening beyond his corner of the battlefield.
As all the accounts of Waterloo under review here agree, the battle was very much a modern struggle. Although fought in a space only five kilometres wide and four deep, which made the butchery all the more terrible, it was a confusing affair, perhaps because of the vast numbers, and accounts of what went on are vague. For example, we do not know the exact time at which hostilities commenced on 18 June. Nor is it clear exactly why Marshal Grouchy failed in his mission to find and hold off the Prussians – he ended up missing the battle entirely. Nor whether Wellington or Blücher deserves primary credit as the man who finally vanquished Napoleon. No wonder that Wellington – perhaps thinking of the Duchess of Richmond’s soiree – compared a battle to a ball: a formless, shifting, episodic affair in which it was virtually impossible to say who was doing what to whom and when and where.
Such uncertainty is anathema to Gordon Corrigan, whose Waterloo: A New History of the Battle and its Armies is, among other things, a compilation of corrections to what Corrigan claims are the mistakes of earlier authors whose error-strewn accounts have passed into legend. As in his earlier books on the First and Second World Wars, Corrigan, a former officer of the Gurkhas, offers a brisk, no-nonsense, soldierly account, which is packed with facts. Some of these are fascinating: for example, the notion that all military equestrian art from this period – including depictions of Waterloo – is inaccurate. It took the invention of photography to show that it is anatomically impossible for a horse to gallop with its forelegs simultaneous-ly extended.
Robert Kershaw’s 24 Hours at Waterloo: 18 June 1815 is also an ex-soldier’s book, and more formulaic than Corrigan’s, perhaps because it is part of a series. Nonetheless, Kershaw writes well and makes sense of the battle. His focus, perhaps unsurprisingly, is very much on the fighting itself and the men who took part, rather than on the grand strategy and tactical manoeuvring that preceded it and the unravelling of Napoleon’s power that followed.
Bernard Cornwell has found deserved popularity with his Sharpe series of historically accurate novels set in the Napoleonic Wars. For the first time, he turns his gung-ho novelist’s skill to an actual account of the supreme battle of that conflict. Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies and Three Battles works admirably well and Sharpe fans will not be disappointed.
Finally, Paul O’Keeffe’s Waterloo: The Aftermath concerns itself with the aftershocks of the French defeat. The battle itself is summarily dealt with, before a lengthy section based on eyewitness accounts, aptly titled ‘Shambles’, vividly describes the almost unprecedented carnage – mangled limbs, severed heads, screaming horses, and blood and bones.
Inured though I am to gruesome battlefield descriptions, I found O’Keeffe’s liberal use of contemporary accounts chilling in their gut-wrenching horror. While we might be used to modern atrocities and savagery, his descriptions of Belgian peasants stripping the clothes from corpses – and sometimes from those only wounded – are repulsive enough. They are topped, however, by stories of ghouls who toured the battlefield chiselling the teeth from the living and the dead alike in order to convert them into dentures that became known as ‘Waterloo teeth’, making a healthy profit in the process.
When five books on the same subject appear simultaneously, a reviewer feels duty-bound to recommend one. In this case, all are superb. They describe the same events from differing perspectives. If you want a complete and detailed overview set firmly in the politics of the period, go for Clayton’s book. If you are after revisionism, Corrigan is a better choice. You should opt for Kershaw for a clear and straightforward military view and Cornwell if you prefer your military history written with all the excitement of a popular novel. For sheer writing quality and grim realism, I would not miss O’Keeffe.