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October Books 24) Waterloo

24) Waterloo, by Andrew Roberts

I got this after reading Vanity Fair, and reflecting that it's a while since I last went down to the battle site, which is only half an hour's drive from us. It is a very short but very detailed account of the June 1815 campaign which sealed Napoleon's fate. The carnage was brutal and vicious; the battle of Waterloo took place over a very small area, four kilometres by two, with the focus of the fighting being two building complexes which Wellington needed to hold long enough for the Prussians under Blücher to arrive from the east; he held one and had to abandon the other when the garrison ran out of ammunition, but it had held for long enough for the Prussians to arrive.

Roberts is excellent on the details (and there are two very good maps) but very annoying in his description of the context. The British element of the allied forces get noticeably more praise for gallantry, bravery and intelligence (when basically the crucial move in the battle had happened a couple of days earlier, when Blücher's deputy decided to retreat north rather than east from their defeat at Ligny, and so were available to save Wellington at Waterloo). One senses that Roberts is trying to be neutral and objective, but that his heart is not in it. I did, however, appreciate his debunking of Victor Hugo's description of the battle in Les Miserables.

The other problem with the book is that it isn't made terribly clear why all this slaughter mattered. What if Wellington and Blücher had lost? Napoleon would eventually have been defeated by the Austrians and Russians, no doubt with the help of a revived British army of veterans from the war with America; or else (perhaps less likely) he might have settled for a restored Empire including Belgium but otherwise at peace with his neighbours. Europe in 1840 would surely not have looked very different if Waterloo had gone the other way (except, as noted, for Belgium). Waterloo put an end to Napoleon's career, but he had peaked in 1812 and it was always going to be downhill from there. In the end, I was actually left wondering if it was all necessary.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 1st, 2008 05:22 pm (UTC)
A good modern account of the campaigns of The Hundred Days, including of course, Waterloo and Ligny, is contained in volume III od David Chandler's The Campaigns of Napoleon.

FWIW, I would date the beginning of Napoleon's decline to, at the latest, 1809 and possibly as early as 1807. I don't think peace would have been on offer in 1815 even if Napoleon had won at Waterloo. He missed repeated opportunities for a lasting peace in the period 1806-1812 and maybe as late as 1813 but by 1815 the Powers had had enough.

Edited at 2008-11-01 06:09 pm (UTC)
Nov. 1st, 2008 07:01 pm (UTC)
I think Waterloo mattered partly because by being in at the kill (in a way they weren't in the 1814 land campaign), the British got to have more influence at the Congress of Vienna. That said, I'm not quite sure what they did with their enhanced influence. But yeah, Napoleon would have been flattened by the Austrians and Russians later in 1815, so any nonsense about him becoming master of Europe by winning Waterloo is nonsense.

I think in Britain that the main reason why Waterloo receives so much attention is that it was basically the only time they fought Napoleon himself on land, and they beat him.
Nov. 2nd, 2008 07:53 am (UTC)
Wellington's Smallest Victory
If you have not already read it, Wellington's Smallest Victory by a Peter Hofschroer is an excellent account of how the Siborne was bullied into removing the Prussians from the famous Waterloo model. Hofschroer has done a lot to restore the Prussians to their proper place in the history of the campaign. Waterloo is important in English historiography because it marks the end of the Anglo-French "civil war", and of course, most of what we read is influenced by that.

In military historiography, it is significant because it is the end of the "age of battles", the last time the fate of empires was decided in a single battle on a single field in an afternoon under the eyes of both "Great Commanders" (although, obviously, you can argue about Gettysburg and Midway)
Nov. 2nd, 2008 06:19 pm (UTC)
Didn't Napoleon restart the Napoleonic Wars because he was bored in his Elban exile? I can't see such a man being content with a greater France after controlling Europe, or that the allies would let him be in a position to restart the wars.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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