Tuesday, April 19, 2016


Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles
© 2015 Bernard Cornwell
352 pages

Bang upon the big drum, crash upon the cymbals
We'll sing as we go marching along boys, along
And although on this campaign
There's no whiskey or champagne
Still we'll keep our spirits going with a song, boys!
("Songs and Music of the Redcoats")

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.


  1. This looks so good. There was a time when I read a lot of military histories of this sort.

    This book looks so appealing that I am tempted to give it a try.

    I like your quick summery of the infantry, cavalry, and artillery dynamic.

  2. I am about to meet my Waterloo! Thanks for sending me into the battle with you first-rate review. Now, onward!

  3. It was inevitable that you'd read this first.... [grin] I imagine I'll pick it up later in the year along with books on Hastings and Bosworth.

    The other Waterloo book which came out around the same time was 'Waterloo: Four Days that Changed Europe's Destiny' by Tim Clayton which has been getting very good reviews.

  4. @Brian and @R.T.:

    This is definitely a fun one to slide in to!


    When you mentioned three British battles, I knew Hastings would be one, but didn't think about Bosworth at all, even though I read a history of the War of the Roses last year. Were there any other contenders on the 'short list'?

    1. Well, the obvious one that jumped out at me was The Battle of Britain but I'm spending too much of my historical time in the 20th century plus the B of B deserves it's own triple read I think!

      Most of the rest where 20th century too - heavily naval with the River Platte, Narvik, Matapan, Torranto and the Denmark Straight featuring heavily, then there's Jutland and, of course, Trafalgar (putting to one side Dunkirk, Dieppe, D-Day and the Saint-Nazaire and Zeebruger raids).

      Land wish the obvious choice was El Alamain and probably Arnhem. Pre-20th there's Azincourt, Crecy and Towton plus a hand full of Civil War battles like Marston Moor....

      So LOTS to pick from [grin]

    2. ...wow, some of those don't even ring a bell. I need to find a naval history of Britain and fill in some blanks. By the way, of interest to you I think....someone has just released an animation of the Titanic that allows you to watch it sinking in real time. It's 2 hrs and 40 minutes, with annotation and a little sound.


      (No Celine Dion, though.)

  5. We're a rather belligerent bunch so there's quite a few battles to choose from. I've oddly developed a real interest in all things Naval (or rather Royal Naval as I'm trying to restrict myself to one part of the planet!) which explains the number of naval 'encounters' mentioned. They'll show up in various books in the coming months.

    If you want to bone up on your Royal navy knowledge there's already 2 reviews in my History section plus I have 'Empire of the Deep: The Rise and Fall of the British Navy' by Ben Wilson in my TBR pile. It's picked up quite a few good reviews and goes from 793 AD to the Present in a *mere* 649 pages.

    Oh, and the Titanic thing... Have you ever wondered if some people have too much time on their hands.... and NO Celine????

    1. I'll look for those, then, thanks! I had intended to read "The Age of Fighting Sail" this month, but my uni library was closed the day I went...and it's a 90 minute drive. Cornwell was perfectly fine.

      On the Titanic, I wondered as I watched the opening few minutes who on Earth has the time to spend animating this sort of thing. It's not static, either -- the 'camera' pans around the ship! Everybody has to have their devotion, I suppose.


Thank you for visiting! Because of some very clever spambots, I've had to start moderating comments more strictly, but they're approved throughout the day.