The battle of Waterloo

A near-run thing

Appallingly bloody, yet decisive, the battle of Waterloo in June 1815 deserves the attention it is getting 200 years later

Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies and Three Battles. By Bernard Cornwell. Harper Collins; 352 pages; $35. William Collins; £25.

Waterloo: Four Days that Changed Europe’s Destiny. By Tim Clayton. Little, Brown; 588 pages; £25.

WITH the bicentenary of the battle of Waterloo fast approaching, the publishing industry has already fired volley after volley of weighty ordnance at what is indeed one of the defining events of European history. About that, there can be no argument. Waterloo not only brought to an end the extraordinary career of Napoleon Bonaparte, whose ambitions had led directly to the deaths of up to 6m people. It also redrew the map of Europe and was the climax of what has become known as the second Hundred Years War, a bitter commercial and colonial rivalry between Britain and France that had begun during the reign of Louis XIV. Through its dogged resistance to France’s hegemonic ambitions in the preceding 20 years, Britain helped create the conditions for the security system known as the Concert of Europe, established in 1815. The peace dividend Britain enjoyed for the next 40 years allowed it to emerge as the dominant global power of the 19th century.

If the consequences of the battle were both profound and mostly benign, certainly for Britain, the scale of the slaughter and suffering that took place in fields 10 miles (16km) south of Brussels on that long June day in 1815 remains shocking. The Duke of Wellington never uttered the epigram attributed to him: “Next to a battle lost, the greatest misery is a battle gained.” What he did say in the small hours after the battle was: “Thank God, I don’t know what it is like to lose a battle; but certainly nothing can be more painful than to gain one with the loss of so many of one’s friends.” Nearly all his staff had been killed or wounded. Around 200,000 men had fought each other, compressed into an area of five square miles (13 square kilometres).

When darkness finally fell, up to 50,000 men were lying dead or seriously wounded—it is impossible to say how many exactly, because the French losses were only estimates—and 10,000 horses were dead or dying. Johnny Kincaid, an officer of the 95th Rifles who survived the onslaught by the French on Wellington’s centre near La Haie Sainte farm, coolly declared: “I had never yet heard of a battle in which everybody was killed; but this seemed likely to be an exception, as all were going by turns.”

Although frequently told, the story of the battle, or rather three battles—the engagement between Wellington’s Anglo-Dutch forces and the French at Quatre Bras on June 16th, the much bigger battle of Ligny on the same day, which saw the defeat of Prussia’s army, and finally Waterloo itself on the 18th—remains tense and gripping. Wellington himself thought such retellings futile, observing some years later: “The history of a battle is not unlike the history of a ball. Some individuals may recollect all the little events of which the great result is the battle won or lost; but no individual can recollect the order in which, or the exact moment at which, they occurred, which makes all the difference as to their value or importance.”

However, for straightforward narrative accounts of what happened, combined with convincing analysis of the decisions and actions upon which the outcome of the struggle turned, it is hard to beat Bernard Cornwell, who is better known as the author of the fictional Sharpe novels set during the Peninsular War, and Tim Clayton, an academic historian who co-wrote a widely praised book about Trafalgar.

They are helped by the massive archive of letters and diaries written by the men who were there. It was an age in which literacy was not just the preserve of the officer class. There was also a competitive newspaper industry eager for graphic descriptions of what everybody at the time realised was an event of huge historical importance. Memoirs, too, were much in demand for decades after the battle. Doubtless some of the reports and anecdotes were embroidered, and memory can lie, but they convey in extraordinary detail and colour the horror, the heroism, the terror and the sometimes dark humour of fighting men in extremis.

In all probability, Napoleon could not ultimately have won the war, because of the size and determination of the forces ranged against him across Europe. But what gives the story its enduring power is the fact that the outcome of this battle was far from certain. As Wellington said later, it was “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life”.

Returning from his nine-month exile on Elba, Napoleon had quickly mobilised an army of nearly 200,000 men to take on the coalition forces regathering to apprehend him. As Mr Clayton argues, the conception of this final campaign was brilliant. The plan was to split the forces commanded by Wellington from the Prussian army led by the redoubtable Gebhard von Blücher and then defeat each separately. However, its execution depended on a speed and decisiveness that was beyond Napoleon’s immediate subordinates, Marshals Ney and Grouchy, and perhaps, by this stage, even the great man himself.

“Is that the way to St Helena?”

Four errors, partly the result of poor staff work, helped doom Napoleon. The first, entirely self-inflicted, was to deprive himself of his two most effective generals: Marshal Davout, left behind to guard Paris, and Marshal Suchet, put in charge of defending the eastern border against possible attack by the Austrians. The second was Ney’s almost inexplicable hesitation in taking the strategic crossroads of Quatre Bras, the key to dividing the coalition armies. The third was the aimless wandering in the pouring rain of the Compte d’Erlon and his 20,000 troops between the battle at Quatre Bras against the Anglo-Dutch and the battle at Ligny that the Prussians were losing. Had he intervened in either, the impact could have been decisive. The fourth was the failure of initiative by Grouchy that allowed the regrouped Prussians to outflank him and arrive at the critical moment to save Wellington at Waterloo.

That said, nothing should be taken away from Napoleon’s conquerors. Both commanders were talented professionals—Wellington was unmatched in the art of defence—who had experienced and competent subordinates and staffs. The British infantry and the King’s German Legion (a British army unit) were hardened veterans of the highest quality. Above all, both commanders trusted each other and never wavered in their mutual support, a factor that Napoleon almost certainly underestimated in his strategic calculus.

Mr Cornwell will appeal most to those who are not Waterloo scholars, but who want a great and terrible story told with energy and clarity by a writer who has a deep understanding of men in combat and why they do what they do. Mr Clayton provides a cooler, less Anglocentric approach and a mass of narrative detail that at times can be overwhelming. But his style is lucid and his judgments scrupulously fair.

For an enthralling account of the hours, days and weeks after the battle, read Paul O’Keefe’s “Waterloo: The Aftermath”. It starts with an almost ghoulish description of the slaughter ground after night fell, a “landscape of carnage, observed through the silvered filter of moonlight”. Amid the cries of dying men and horses, the clinking of hammer against chisel beside the burial pits could be heard—the sound of teeth being removed from dead men by entrepreneurial camp followers intending to supply denture-makers in London.

Remarkably quickly, the battlefield became a destination for English tourists, who also flocked to enjoy the charms of Paris they had for so long been denied. To their disappointment, however, some of the great works of European art on display in the Louvre that had been looted by Napoleon’s armies were soon being bundled up to be returned to their original owners. Mr O’Keefe paints a vivid picture of a France that had grown weary of Napoleon and, with the exception of a few old loyalists and anti-monarchists, was quite happy to consign la gloire to the past.

Napoleon threw himself on the mercy of the British. His second and final exile was handled politely but firmly by officers of the Royal Navy. They had orders to disabuse the former emperor of his idea that he might live out his days as a country gentleman in England, and to transport him to St Helena, an island that was sufficiently remote to prevent him from causing any more trouble. Napoleon and his remaining followers thought this a great betrayal by a civilised and liberal nation. The Prussians, had they caught him, would have been still less considerate of the great man’s dignity. They wanted simply to capture and kill the former emperor, a fate that most of Europe would surely have applauded.

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