After a year and more of Trafalgar it is perhaps time to turn once again to Waterloo. By comparison with the feast, or glut, of Nelsoniana, there is something of a paucity of safe accounts of 18 June 1815. Besides Andrew Roberts’s ultra-compact Waterloo: Napoleon’s Last Gamble, an impressive overview of both the battle and campaign, there has not been a straightforward narrative in many years. The German historian Peter Hofschröer’s two-volume history (both reviewed in these pages) was an attempt to discredit the Duke of Wellington and claim the battle honours for the German-speaking people, and as such stands as substantial but indigestible, as well as wrong. In truth, for a really humane and thoughtful account of the battle there has been little to beat David Howarth’s A Near Run Thing published some 40 years ago.
Alessandro Barbero is Italian. There were Italians on both sides at Waterloo, as there were Irish and a good many others. And, of course, Buonaparte himself could claim Italian blood. Italy, as the rest of Europe, had a keen interest in the outcome of the battle, if perhaps a somewhat ambivalent one. Professor Barbero holds a chair in mediaeval history at the University of Piemonte Orientale, but his Napoleonic scholarship is well established, and he is a winner of the prestigious Strega prize for a work of historical fiction set in the period. The Battle, a bestseller in Italy, has, as fashion requires, a subtitle: ‘A New History of the Battle of Waterloo’. However, while it is new in the sense of being mint-new, it really says nothing new. This is hardly surprising since there surely can be nothing new to say about that day, as opposed to saying it with a different emphasis. Nevertheless, Profes- sor Barbero’s new history is very much to be welcomed, for it is probably the most lucid, comprehensive and balanced narrative of the battle in years, an extremely thorough commentary.
Its success is in large part due to the author’s confident and unusual breaking down of the background and action into self-contained ‘bites’ of about half a dozen pages. There are, indeed, an astonishing 70 mini-chapters — though mercifully not encumbered by copious footnotes. While some would argue that this is an unrealistic way to render a battle, which is ever fluid and continuous, it accords very well with the actual accounts of the participants, who attest to the episodic nature of the combat that day. Another reason why the account is so engaging is that Barbero brings the outsider’s eye to bear, and with a certain wryness. Thus he reworks the Duke of Wellington’s loving criticism of his men (‘the scum of the earth enlisted for drink’ aka ‘that finest of all instruments, the British Infantry’) as follows:
However proletarian and semiliterate he may have been, the English soldier, well nourished with meat and beer, stimulated with gin, and convinced of his own racial superiority to the foreign rabble he had to face, was a magnificent combatant, as anyone who has ever seen hooligans in action at a soccer match can readily imagine.
Somehow it seems more of a compliment coming from a foreigner. And Barbero is equally decided in his assessment of the French and the Prussians. It is, indeed, a lively text, admirably translated by John Cullen. There is now therefore an excellent Waterloo triptych, as it were: Roberts for primer, Barbero for battlefield companion, and Howarth for reflection.
But in all this academic contemplation it is easy to forget the ‘butcher’s bill’ (which in fact Barbero addresses well, with dreadful statistics). A fascinating if macabre little book reminds us forcefully of it: the collection of paintings and sketches of Sir Charles Bell, who in 1815 was consulting surgeon to the Middlesex Hospital, and a medical illustrator. When news of Waterloo reached London he set off at once for Brussels, whither many of the casualties had been taken, reaching the city ten days after the battle and at once beginning operating 12 hours a day until ‘my clothes [were] stiff with blood and my arms powerless with the exertion of using my knife’. He meticulously recorded the wounds and their treatment with pen, brush and colour paint. His illustrations and notes are reproduced with a commentary by Michael Crumplin, a retired surgeon and expert on surgical practice in the Napoleonic era (Paul Bettany’s amputations and trepanning in the film Master and Commander were under his direction) and Peter Starling, curator of the Army Medical Services museum at Aldershot.
For all that anaesthesia has eased the plight of battle casualties today, the effect of shot and shell is the same now as then; Her Majesty’s ministers could do worse than glance at A Surgical Artist at War when considering committing troops to combat.