Gerard DeGroot is a professor of history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. His latest book is “Back in Blighty: The British at Home in World War One.”
By Bernard Cornwell
Harper. 352 pp. $35
By Brendan Simms
Basic. 186 pp. $24.99
By Paul O’Keeffe
Overlook. 392 pp. $37.50
Another year, another anniversary, another publishing opportunity. This June marks the bicentennial of the Battle of Waterloo, when Napoleon suffered his final defeat in a muddy Belgian valley. It’s no surprise, then, that books have blossomed this spring. That raises a troublesome question, however. Two centuries after the battle, is it actually possible to say anything original about Waterloo?
The sources are rich but finite. Books therefore recycle material that has been used dozens of times before. That’s certainly true of Bernard Cornwell’s “Waterloo,” but it’s not necessarily a problem. The story he tells is familiar, but he still manages to produce something dramatic and engaging. And he knows how to tell a story, a skill demonstrated repeatedly in his wonderful Sharpe novels about the Napoleonic Wars.
Military history can be dreadfully boring when it’s all about right flanks, left flanks and fields of fire. Cornwell recognizes that a battle is mainly composed of human beings, each with distinct flaws, each with a different story. In the midst of his Waterloo commentary, he inserts the tale of Martha Deacon, found wandering around British bivouacs on June 17. She was noticeable because she had three children in tow and because she was nine months pregnant. Apparently, it was not unusual for a soldier’s family to accompany him on campaign, though Martha’s condition made her unique.
Martha’s husband, Thomas, an ensign in the 73rd Highland Battalion, had been wounded in the arm during the battle of Quatre Bras on the 16th. He was on an ambulance wagon to Brussels at the very moment that she was looking for him around Waterloo. Teetering on the edge of panic, she found someone who knew where her husband had gone. She then walked to Brussels with her little family, a distance of 22 miles. The rain was the worst ever seen, but they say that every year in Belgium, in June. The journey took two days. Martha eventually found her husband in a makeshift hospital crowded with agony. Thomas survived and, unusually for the time, kept his arm. The day after their reunion, Martha gave birth to a baby girl, christened Waterloo Deacon. Little stories like this, told with stark simplicity, are what make this book.
That said, Cornwell is a much better writer than this book suggests. It’s hard here to resist what ABBA sang about the battle: “The history book on the shelf/ Is always repeating itself.” That repetition is bothersome, and equally irritating is the author’s tendency to shift abruptly from the present tense to the past and back again. One paragraph begins: “So the two armies are spread . . . ” The next begins: “So the allies were spread . . . ” I’m sure there was logic behind this approach — something to do with dramatic immediacy — but it’s lost on me. I found it deeply annoying.
By June 1815, the armies of Europe had been fighting one another for 16 years. Soldiers possessed great potential for second-guessing. The battle of Waterloo was shaped by their preconceptions. Each commander tried to predict how his adversary or ally would react. Each usually predicted wrongly. It is this clash of personalities that Cornwell conveys so well, especially when it comes to the relations between the British and their Prussian allies. The Prussian commander, Prince Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, admired the Duke of Wellington, but his chief of staff, August von Gneisenau, thought him a “master” of duplicity. The battle would turn on whether Gneisenau could mobilize his troops in time to prevent the French from crushing Wellington’s forces. That was a logistical problem but also a personal one.
Waterloo is so often presented as a British battle, yet only around 13 percent of the soldiers that day were from the United Kingdom. This was in truth a European conflict fought by troops from France, Holland, Britain, Prussia, Hanover, Brunswick and Nassau. Wedged within the British army was the King’s German Legion (KGL), composed of 6,000 Hanoverians. They fought under British command because King George III of England was also elector of Hanover. The Second Light Battalion of the KGL was given the task of defending the farmhouse at La Haie Sainte, smack in the middle of the British line and precisely where Napoleon focused his assault. In other words, on June 18 the fate of Britain rested on 400 Germans.
Brendan Simms tells the story of the Second Light Battalion in a superb little book that is micro-history at its best. Over the course of “The Longest Afternoon,” we get to know those Hanoverian soldiers intimately and feel the enormous pressure that weighed upon them. Because his focus is so fine, Simms is able to provide detail that broader books omit. For instance, early on the 18th, those Hanoverians killed a lamb found wandering around the farm. The delicious smell from the meat, cooked in butter, attracted a small crowd. “The captain and lieutenant . . . came to take part in our meal, which I hasten to add, tasted awful because instead of the salt we lacked, our cook had put a handful of [gun]powder into the pot.” That’s curious, especially since gunpowder was scarce at La Haie Sainte.
Simms provides nearly three pages on how to load a musket, a process packed with potential mishaps. A cartridge containing the powder and ball had to be bitten open, with the ball retained in the mouth while the powder was jammed into the musket. “Even if the procedure passed off flawlessly, the infantryman was left with blackened lips and a gritty taste in his mouth that never quite went away and left him very thirsty.” By the end of this book, I had a raging thirst.
“In a straight fight the English infantry are the very devil,” Gen. Honoré Reille warned Napoleon. Reille described them as inexpugnable — impregnable. That might have been true, but on June 18, it was the Hanoverians who were inexpugnable. They held La Haie Sainte just long enough. After nearly five hours of continuous fighting against overwhelming odds, they were forced to abandon the farmhouse, but by that time Gneisenau’s Prussians had arrived. The allied line held, and by nightfall Napoleon was defeated.
Battles usually seem to have a distinct end marked by the moment of victory or defeat. We seldom think of the mess — physical and metaphorical — that remains. This is what Paul O’Keeffe examines in “Waterloo: The Aftermath,” the most original and fascinating book in the current crop. If you buy one book to mark this anniversary, buy this one.
Early on the morning of the 19th, Capt. Alexander Mercer of the Royal Horse Artillery woke to “a slaughter ground rendered perversely beautiful by the night. He saw ‘pale wan faces [of the dead] upturned to the moon’s cold beams, which caps and breastplates, and a thousand other things reflected back in brilliant pencils of light.’ ” Waterloo was, among other things, a very literate battle.
Before long, however, scavengers arrived to disturb that sublime landscape of carnage. Things of value — watches, money, rifles — went first, often stolen from men not yet dead. Then went the caps, epaulettes and breastplates, destined for the souvenir market. Boots and uniforms went next, filched by the poor. When the first tourists arrived four days after the battle (yes, that’s right), they found a putrid landscape littered with bloated, naked bodies that exploded in the summer heat.
Waterloo was certainly climactic, but that was not obvious at the time. Pessimistic rumors reached London before accurate news of victory, with the result that the stock market was plunged into chaos. Even when confirmation of Wellington’s success did emerge, it was not immediately clear that Napoleon’s defeat was total. The French emperor certainly did not see it that way. By the end of the week, however, it was clear that Europe had had enough of Napoleon. Forced to abdicate, he briefly considered moving to America but decided that the life of a landed gentleman in England suited him best. He weighed potential pseudonyms — should he be Mr. Duroc or Mr. Muiron?
Negotiations commenced with the British government, but Albion proved perfidious once again. Napoleon thought he was going to Surrey but was instead placed on a ship bound for St. Helena, a minuscule island in the South Atlantic. While the ship waited to embark, English entrepreneurs sold cruises “to see Bonny party” at one shilling, six pence. At one point, 1,500 boats, with 10,000 passengers, jockeyed for position in Plymouth Sound. O’Keeffe reckons that perhaps a dozen of the curious were killed in boating accidents over the few days that Napoleon remained in English waters. Detail is the texture of history.
All this demonstrates that it’s still possible to tell an original story about Waterloo. One common feature of these three books is that they are all wonderfully short. Big isn’t necessarily better. Neither O’Keeffe nor Simms nor Cornwall feels the need to bombard the reader with endless disconnected detail. Each is a storyteller; each recognizes the little anecdotes that matter most. There’s still a lot to plunder from that battlefield in Belgium.