by Andrew Roberts
The career of Napoleon and the advancement of the greatest personal epic since Julius Cæsar were brought to a shuddering halt on the evening of Sunday, 18 June 1815. In his spirited account of one of the most significant 48-hour periods of all time, Andrew Roberts combines revealing recent research with extraordinary pace as he expands the five key phases of the battle.
A new chief of staff; a missed opportunity to advance; an untimely and accidental cavalry attack; an apocalyptic downpour that fatally softened the earth underfoot and thwarted the Emperor’s colossal cannon; a myriad of partially-informed snap decisions – were elements that allowed Wellington’s armies to grasp victory from the command of France. Amongst the all-too-human explanations for the blunder that cost Napoleon his throne, Roberts sets the political, strategic and historical scene, and finally shows why Waterloo was such an important historical punctuation mark.
The generation after Waterloo saw the birth of the modern era: henceforth wars were fought with infinitely more appalling methods by constantly changing blocs of powers. By the time of the Great War, chivalry was dead. The honour of bright uniform and the tangible spirit of élan, esprit, and éclat and – at least initially – the aesthetic beauty of battle took their final dance at Waterloo.
‘ After the publication of so many accounts of the battle of 18 June, it may be fairly asked on what grounds I expect to awaken fresh interest in a subject so long before the public.’ Those words were written by Sergeant-Major Edward Cotton of the 7th Hussars as long ago as 1849, in his preface to a guidebook to the battlefield entitled A Voice from Waterloo. True enough then, how much more true are they when applied to yet another book on the battle published a century-and-a-half and over one hundred books later. The answer that Cotton gave then is the one I would also give today: that while there are still doubts, mysteries, debates and confusions about the battle – let alone tremendous national bias evident in its retelling – there is always scope for another account.
‘Never was a battle so confusedly described as that of Waterloo,’ wrote the Swiss historian (and Marshal Ney’s chief of staff) General Henri Jomini, and that is partly because it was such a momentous engagement. The Duke of Wellington himself likened the description of a battle to that of a ball – perhaps he had in mind the Duchess of Richmond’s famous one three days before Waterloo - where there is so much simultaneous movement of so many people across so large an area with so many different outcomes that to record it all from a single standpoint becomes nigh-impossible.
Yet what we can say for certain about the battle of Waterloo – that it ended forever the greatest personal world-historical epic since that of Julius Cæsar – is easily enough to drive us on to want to discover more. The political career of Napoleon Bonaparte, that master of continental Europe whose life was nonetheless punctuated by the three islands on which he was born, was exiled and died, came to a shuddering and total halt on the evening of Sunday, 18th June 1815. The Grande Armée which he had led across the sands of Egypt, the meadows of Prussia, the plains of Iberia, the hamlets of Austria and the snows of Russia, was finally and completely routed on the slopes of Mont St. Jean twelve miles south of Brussels.
Of course Waterloo did not spell the end of the entire Bonapartist epic – that did not take place until Napoleon’s great-nephew the Prince Imperial was speared to death by Zulu assegais in 1879 – but it did condemn the Emperor Napoleon I to ignominious exile and a subsequent early death on the Atlantic rock of St Helena. It also finally brought to an end no fewer than twenty-three almost unbroken years of French Revolutionary and subsequently Napoleonic Wars, and ushered in a period of peace in Europe that was to last – with a few short if sharp exceptions – for a century, until those self-same Low Countries fields were churned up once more with the mud and blood consequent upon similar hegemonic European ambitions.
What Lord Byron disapprovingly called ‘the crowning carnage, Waterloo’, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, with more reverence in his panegyric poem to Wellington, described as ‘that world-earthquake, Waterloo!’, brought the eighteenth-century to a full-stop, or rather to a final exclamation mark. Despite taking place one-seventh of the way into the calendar 19th century, Waterloo was nonetheless essentially an 18th century phenomenon. Historians sometimes write of ‘the long’ 18th century, a period starting with the English revolution of 1688 and ending in 1815, and it is right to see Waterloo as the end of both a geopolitical and a military era.
Ghastly as the carnage undoubtedly was at Waterloo, henceforth the wars of the future were to be fought with the infinitely more ghastly methods of trenches (the Crimea), barbed wire, railways and machine-guns (the American Civil War), directed starvation (the Franco-Prussian War), concentration camps (the Boer War), and mustard gas and aerial bombardment (the First World War). By the time of the Great War, chivalry was utterly dead as an element of war-making.
By contrast with today, when an enemy head of state constitutes a legitimate military target, Wellington refused an artillery officer under his command permission to fire his battery at Napoleon. The gorgeously-coloured uniforms worn in the Napoleonic Wars were replaced, by the time of the Boer War, with khaki and subsequently camouflaged uniforms, as troops sought to blend in with the surrounding country rather than bedazzle their enemies. For all that Waterloo was, as in all battles, essentially about bringing death and maiming to the enemy, there was also a tangible spirit of élan, esprit, éclat and – at least initially - aesthetic beauty to the scene.
There was also plenty of chivalry shown on both sides at Waterloo; witness the reaction of the British infantry during the great French cavalry attack, when, according to Ensign Howell Rees Gronow of the 1st Foot Guards: Among the fallen we perceived the gallant colonel of the hussars lying under his horse, which had been killed. All of a sudden two riflemen of the Brunswickers left their battalion, and after taking from their helpless victim his purse, watch, and other articles of value, they deliberately put the colonel’s pistols to the poor fellow’s head, and blew out his brains. ‘Shame!’ ‘Shame!’ was heard from our ranks, and a feeling of indignation ran through the whole line. Captain (later Lieutenant-Colonel) William Tomkinson of the 16th Light Dragoons similarly recorded the occasion when, ‘An officer of cuirassiers rode close to one of our squares with a detachment of men. He saw he had no chance of success, and by himself alone rode full gallop against the square, was shot and killed. Our men and officers regretted his fate.’
The generation after Waterloo saw, in the title of the great work of the distinguished historian Paul Johnson’s, The Birth of the Modern, and in one sense the battle was the midwife to this great act of world-historical obstetrics. With Napoleonic ambitions no longer subjecting Europe to campaign after campaign, Mankind could finally look ahead to a period of peace and progress.
Yet Napoleon himself had also been, at least in the early days of his rule, a great force for social and political modernisation. His absolute power had of course corrupted his regime absolutely, but before that happened he had swept away much of the obscurantism and backwardness of many of Europe’s anciens régimes. Tyro and tyrant that he undeniably became, responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands though he undoubtedly was, a standing obstacle to peace that he certainly turned into, nonetheless Napoleon was not all bad, and certainly nothing like the ideological totalitarian monsters who followed him.
The battle which brought the Napoleonic juggernaut to its final halt and shattering collapse is worthy of all the exhaustive study and minute analysis that has been devoted to it. As one of its earliest and most perceptive chroniclers, General Sir James Shaw Kennedy (who had fought in the campaign) wrote in the peroration of his classic Notes on the Battle of Waterloo, There can be no doubt that, so long as history is read, the battle of Waterloo will be much and eagerly discussed; and that, so long as the art of war is studied, its great features, and most important details, will form subjects of anxious inquiry and consideration by military men. And not just by military men. The enduring fascination of Waterloo is not just its sheer size, or its historical results, or the fact that Napoleon and Wellington had never faced each other across a battlefield before and never would again, or the strategy and tactics employed, or the tales of valour, or the famous and colourful individuals and regiments involved, or even the fact it was ‘a close run thing’; it is the unique combination of all of those factors, and of so many more besides.
'The battle of Waterloo is both one of the most decisive in history and the most difficult to describe. Andrew Roberts, by prodigous research and by virtue of a clean, well-argued analysis, has produced the most convincing description of that fearsome day I have ever read. It should remain the most authoritative account for many years.'
Andrew Roberts's Waterloo is a small masterpiece. The proportions of his painting (unlike many other histories, this is a painting rather than a sculpture) are near-perfect, telling and just. Roberts's main talents have been demonstrated in his political histories, Waterloo is a military history of a high order.'
‘By painting broad brush-strokes, and avoiding unnecessary detail, Roberts gives us a typically concise, pacy and well-argued account that puts many of its predecessors to shame. Clearly and honestly presented, with due regard for other historians’ work, it represents a masterly synthesis of the latest scholarship.’
Saul David, Sunday Telegraph
‘In the case of Waterloo, the ground is everything, and Roberts shows himself an absolute master of it. Roberts’s prose is as lively as the action he describes; he is comprehensive in his survey of Waterloo historiography, and generous in his attributions. This is altogether a masterly synthesis, a veritable deforestation of what too often obscures the wood of Waterloo.’
Allan Mallinson, The Spectator
‘One of the bonuses of Andrew Roberts’s frustratingly short but well-written account of the engagement is the way in which he dispatches myths thrown up by claim and counter-claim. Canards are shot with aplomb. Roberts writes with great clarity about the shape, progress and tactics of the battle.’
Andrew Holgate, Sunday Times
‘ Andrew Roberts has amply demonstrated why Napoleon lost in this short but wonderfully lucid account. He tells us all we need to know about the strategy and tactics and maintains a felicitous balance between narrative and analysis. Above all, he imposes order on what all present remembered as nine terrifying hours of chaos, during which few had any idea of what was happening outside their immediate vision. Each phase of the fighting is detailed and Roberts dissects the judgments of commanders at all levels without the irritating intrusion of hindsight.’
Lawrence James, London Evening Standard
‘This elegantly produced book, with good maps and photographs, would be a perfect introduction to those who are starting on the endless interest in Waterloo but it also has new aspects for those who already have a lifetime’s involvement. Andrew Roberts has followed his excellent ‘Napoleon and Wellington’ with this equally excellent account of the battle, relatively short but lively and thoughtful.’
Elizabeth Deverell, The Waterloo Journal
‘In this admirably concise and spirited book, Roberts shows how Napoleon broke all his own rules of warfare and was ill served by his commanders. Roberts mixes just the right amount of specific anecdote and human detail into his analysis of how this extraordinary battle unfolded.’
Christopher Silvester, Daily Express
‘Roberts always has something original to say, and here he presents a concise account. Its brevity has an advantage. It is of ideal length to read on a Eurostar train to Brussels on the way to visit the haunted battlefield.’
Tom Pocock, Literary Review
‘ Andrew Roberts covers the five distinct phases of the battle with panache, and he touches on all of the major areas of controversy that make Waterloo so fascinating. It is the first in a new series of short books dealing with dramatic ‘turning points’ in history. If subsequent volumes turn out to be as readable and illuminating as this, then the exercise will have been worthwhile.’
Simon Shaw, Mail on Sunday
‘ Andrew Roberts's new book takes the reader back to a war zone that resembles the big paintings. Although Mr Roberts does write about the difficulties of battlefield communications (the Duke of Wellington kept losing the aides de camp whose job it was to convey his orders and ended up relying on passers-by), Napoleon and Wellington are definitely directing the picture, rather than sitting in the back row munching popcorn. It is also unashamedly grand. So much so that the soldiers sometimes seem to have been displaced from a 1950s Hollywood epic. Mr Roberts has one British general "shot through the right temple with the words 'Charge! Charge! Hurrah' upon his lips." ‘
‘ Roberts' original contribution to historical contingency - for such an exhaustively studied battle, his research, amazingly enough, turned up new evidence - is that a cavalry charge by Marshal Ney, possibly the gravest error the French made during the battle, was a spontaneous assault rather than an intended one. Smoothly integrating the what-ifs into the chronology, Roberts joins the essential facts about Waterloo, such as its area and relief, the soldiers and arms available, and the weather, to the morale of individual units involved. Emphasizing the courage and fear that rippled over the battlefield during its daylong course, Roberts instills an appreciation for Waterloo as a horrific experience saturated with alternative possible outcomes. A must for the military shelf.’
Copyright© 2008 Andrew Roberts
Back to Press