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The unfinished battles of Waterloo

How did a hamlet in Belgium become immortalised in the names of streets, districts, parks and buildings all over Britain? These five books, published in anticipation of the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo, explain why.

Waterloo: the History of Four Days, Three Armies and Three Battles 
Bernard Cornwell
William Collins, 352pp, £25

24 Hours at Waterloo: 18 June 1815 
Robert Kershaw
W H Allen, 448pp, £25

Waterloo: the Aftermath 
Paul O’Keeffe
Bodley Head, 392pp, £25

Waterloo: Four Days that Changed Europe’s Destiny 
Tim Clayton
Little, Brown, 608pp, £25

The Longest Afternoon: the 400 Men Who Decided the Battle of Waterloo 
Brendan Simms
Allen Lane, 160pp, £14.99

Waterloo was not merely a battle, nor merely a critical moment in British and European history, but something that has left a profound imprint on our culture. Byron, 27 at the time, famously recorded the Duchess of Richmond’s ball in Brussels three days before the battle in “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”: “On with the dance! let joy be unconfined . . .” In towns all over Britain, Waterloo is immortalised in the names of streets, districts, parks and buildings; it is a railway station; it is a figure of speech – none of us wishes to meet our Waterloo. So did a hamlet in Belgium pass into the language: and these five books, published in anticipation of the bicentenary, explain why.

It is impossible to estimate how many histories have been written so far, the first of them appearing in the months after the battle on 18 June 1815. In the years that followed numerous officers published their memoirs of the events, even though the Duke of Wellington was constantly sceptical about the value of such an exercise. As Bernard Cornwell recalls at the start of his lively account of Waterloo, Wellington – “Old Hooky” to many of his soldiers, on account of his fine Roman nose – felt that one might as well write the history of a ball as the history of a battle, because everyone who attends a ball has a different experience of it from everyone else, just as everyone present at a battle will have a different perspective on it. A similar problem is apparent in the glut of books published to mark the centenary of the Great War.

But it hasn’t all been said already, and there are, inevitably, new ways of saying old things. Each of these books has something to offer. Bernard Cornwell is celebrated as the author of the Sharpe novels, and this is his first work of non-fiction. His style is occasionally novelistic, and one sometimes gets the sense one is reading a screenplay: but that is also the sensation one would have in reading Carlyle’s The French Revolution, a book that is none the worse for that. Cornwell’s is not a scholarly work, in that it is unburdened by footnotes, and he is honest about his reliance on earlier historians and researchers, but it is a clear account of how Napoleon, having escaped from his exile on Elba, headed to Paris, booted out Louis XVIII and the Bourbon monarchy, and decided to go on the march to what is now called Belgium but what was then called the Netherlands. There he met the armies of the United Kingdom and Prussia, and very nearly beat them: and that he did not changed the course of European history, not least in propelling Britain to the status of world power and Prussia towards domination of continental Europe.

Some will be tempted to dismiss Cornwell because he is a storyteller, but for those who want an entry-level, reliable guide to what happened at Waterloo, he has great appeal. His book is also superbly illustrated.

More traditional in its approach, but heavily reliant on secondary sources, is Robert Kershaw’s account. Another of its limitations is expressed in its title, for the story is spread over far more than 24 hours: Napoleon’s expectation that he could beat the allies despite being heavily outnumbered by them was not least fed by his initial victory at Quatre Bras, a few miles away, on 16 June. Kershaw is a former soldier and he brings passion and enthusiasm to his writing, as well as an understanding of military culture and movements that makes him a reliable interpreter of the events.

In many ways, the most fascinating of these books is Paul O’Keeffe’s. He deals with the battle in the opening pages and then, as his title suggests, looks in great detail at what happens next. The field of Waterloo was not very large but the engagement of the three armies was spread over more than 20 square miles, and the ruination of the land and the carnage were of awesome proportions, not seen again until the area became a battlefield again a century later. O’Keeffe describes the men’s wounds, the most famous of which was the shattering of the Earl of Uxbridge’s leg and its subsequent amputation, which Uxbridge endured with barely a grimace. Corpses were strewn across the countryside, heaped up and rotting in the June sun, displaying hideous disfigurements. There were so many dead – nobody seemed able to come up with an accurate figure at the time, but subsequent research has suggested it could have been as many as 12,000 – that attempts to bury them in pits soon failed and heaps of corpses had to be burned.

But before that, as O’Keeffe details, local peasants and some of the soldiers roamed the battlefield looting corpses, and not just for money, jewellery and watches. A group that was identified as Russian Jews chiselled the teeth out of corpses to make dentures for the discerning rich: for some years after the battle, the fashionable edentate of Europe were sold “Waterloo teeth”. But O’Keeffe’s book is not all blood and gore. He records how word of the victory was brought to London to the prime minister, Lord Liverpool, and to the prince regent. Prinny was at a ball at Mrs Edmund Boehm’s house in St James’s, at which no expense had been spared (she was the wife of a prosperous merchant). However, the cheering of the mob outside announced the arrival of Major Henry Percy, an aide-de-camp to Wellington, with the Iron Duke’s handwritten despatch announcing the victory. The guests rushed to the window and, when the news was broadcast, rushed out to celebrate in the streets: to Mrs Boehm’s annoyance, the lavish spread remained untouched.

O’Keeffe describes Napoleon’s rejection by the Assembly and peers in Paris and his attempt to get out of France, then under the allies’ control. His application for a passport alerted the authorities to his plan and he was intercepted by the navy. For a time he was confined to a ship off the Devon coast, and would wave to locals who gathered on the littoral to see him. For all the devil-like reputation that “Boney” had acquired among the British, they cheered him when he appeared on deck. He was soon sent off to St Helena, possibly after trying to commit suicide, whence he never returned.

As O’Keeffe points out, the tourism potential of Boney’s visit to the British coast was one of the early enterprises to make money out of the battle. Not only was there a rash of books about Waterloo, but the cash register was soon ringing, with parties of tourists on the battlefield, searching for any souvenirs the looters had chosen to leave them. The only minor quibble about O’Keeffe’s fascinating book is the way he mangles aristocratic titles.

Of this selection, Tim Clayton’s book is the best overview of the meeting of the three armies. In more than 70 short, episodic chapters, Clayton sets out what happened on both sides from the moment Napoleon left Paris and rode north. Drawing extensively on published and unpublished sources, he brings back to life many personalities whose names have become synonymous with the battle other than Wellington and Napoleon – Blücher, Uxbridge (who, Clayton thinks, did indeed have the legendary exchange with Wellington in which he said, “By God, sir, I have lost my leg!” and the Iron Duke replied, “By God, sir, so you have!”), Ney, Grouchy and a host of middle-ranking officers whose almost insane heroism made the battle so ferocious. Clayton well conveys the difficulties of communication on a battlefield in the days when it depended on a message being carried by a man on a horse, and how miscommunications between Napoleon and Ney and Grouchy led to a failure to drive home the advantage over the allies which proved fatal.

That brings us to Brendan Simms’s short but superb book on why Waterloo was actually won: it was down to the defence by the King’s German Legion of the farm at La Haye Sainte, which held the French back long enough for the Prussians to come to Wellington’s aid. The king of England – George III – was also king of Hanover, and Simms describes how the legion raised in his name adopted English military customs and practices. That it was the Germans who ultimately won it may fly in the face of British mythology, but Simms, a Germanophone who uses a range of primary sources from the Hanoverian archives, proves the point effectively. The scholarship is impeccable, as one would expect of a Cambridge professor, but it also proves that even at this remove, when one might have thought all that could be said about the battle had been said, one could have got it wrong.

In an engagement that involved nearly 150,000 troops on both sides, Simms pins down the 400 of them who, despite being turned out of La Haye Sainte in the end, held on long enough to see the allies home. It complements any other book you may care to read on the subject but also serves to remind us that the dividing line between victory and defeat is precariously fine: and on those 400 men would hinge the development of a whole continent, whose ripples are, like those of the Great War, still felt, even at a distance of 200 years. 

Simon Heffer is a historian and a writer for the Daily Mail

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article appears in the 20 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The deep roots of Isis