A book on Waterloo as short as this (the text proper is 100 pages, small format) tempts a rush to judgment; it has certainly been widely acclaimed already. Paul Johnson’s dust-jacket puff says that the battle ‘is both one of the most decisive in history and the most difficult to describe’. Decisiveness is important: Waterloo is the first in a series called ‘Making History’. The editors, Amanda Foreman and Lisa Jardine, claim that ‘there are moments when a single event topples the most apparently certain of outcomes, when one intervention changes the course of history. They are the landmarks along the horizon of the past.’ Mercifully, Andrew Roberts’s prose is altogether less florid, and he tackles his subject with a very prudent degree of circumspection.
Paul Johnson is wrong about Waterloo’s being the most difficult battle to describe. It is rather that historians have wilfully and otherwise overcomplicated it, sometimes for reasons of nationalism, sometimes from sheer lack of understanding of the importance of ground and the reality of battle. In the case of Waterloo, the ground is everything, and Roberts, perhaps rather surprisingly given his previous subjects, shows himself an absolute master of it.
Bonaparte’s aims in marching on Brussels, together with the Anglo-Prussian defensive strategy, the preliminary moves and the battles of Ligny and Quatre Bras, Roberts disposes of in a mere 27 pages. There is a saying in the army when describing someone who shirks detail — ‘big hand on small map’; but ‘down among the weeds’, or as the German army has it ‘daisy to daisy’, is equally pejorative. Roberts positions himself perfectly, although a map of the theatre of operations as a whole would have helped enormously. He concentrates on the salient and undisputed facts, nodding to the areas of controversy, which rarely in any case touch on the actual course of events. Wellington therefore perhaps gets off rather lightly. For instance, the duke left 17,000 men out of events at Hal, north-west of Waterloo. Roberts explains why this was a sound decision: they covered the Mons-Brussels road, a possible French axis of advance, and they could secure the withdrawal route to the coast in case the Prussian and British armies were forced to retreat down their divergent lines of communication. But the passivity of this corps once the dice were cast was hardly the stuff of a master of campaigning. Wellington also failed to resolve the problem of disunity of command, so that when, as Roberts points out, Marshal Bl
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 19, 2005