The Kaiser’s war deprived Britain of her centenary celebrations of the victory at Waterloo. It also set the propagandists something of a challenge, for the Kaiser himself had sent an aide-de-camp to the British embassy the day after the declaration of war deploring ‘the action of Great Britain in joining with other nations against her old allies at Waterloo’. A hundred years and all that had passed therein evidently counted for nothing to the imperial mind, though the emperor appeared to have forgotten that Belgian troops had also stood with the allies at Waterloo.
The Times’s leader writer on 18 June 1915 made a good fist of it, however:
A year back we little thought that the centenary of Waterloo would find us again in arms for the cause they [‘our fathers’] so signally vindicated. England fought then for the liberty of Europe and for the safety of these islands, of which that liberty has ever been the necessary bulwark. It is for these things she is fighting now, constrained by the same motives and animated by the same spirit. That is why our enemies of that famous day are now our brothers in arms, and that is why our allies of a hundred years ago are now embattled against us. It was Waterloo which led to the developments of French history that have ended in the close friendship of England and of France…
No such embattlements look like marring the bicentenary of Waterloo, and whatever publishing ventures were rudely curtailed in 1914, 100 years on there is evidently no check. And as in war, beating the rival to the ground is a good move — that and surprise, or in the case of a battle that has been so written about that it might be thought there is nothing more to reveal, novelty and drama. Each of these new books, while also getting ahead of the field still to come, lays some claim to these qualities.
With Bernard Cornwell it is drama, as might be expected of the creator of Sharpe. And he makes no bones about his approach:
No matter how often I read accounts of that day, the ending is still full of suspense. The undefeated Imperial Guard climbs the ridge to where Wellington’s battered forces are almost at breaking point. Off to the west the Prussians are clawing at Napoleon’s right. We might know how it ends, but like all good stories it bears repetition.
Especially with the memorable phrase of a practised pen. Of the Imperial Guard meeting the British Guards, whose sudden appearance from behind the ridge throws them into confusion, and then the enfilading fire of the magnificent 52nd Light Infantry, he writes: ‘The Unbeaten were being killed by the Unbeatable.’
This is Cornwell’s first book of non-fiction, but he brings a shrewd military historian’s mind to his subject (no successful historical novelist can be other than thoroughly grounded in the period of which he writes): ‘There is a natural tendency to make order out of disorder, to describe a battle in the simplest terms so as to make chaos comprehensible.’ This is a tall and perhaps vain order, he suggests (as any soldier who has written an after-action report of the simplest encounter will testify). And in this, of course, Cornwell is echoing what the Duke of Wellington himself said:
Write the history of a battle? As well write 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.
This does not, however, make the ‘little events’ any less thrilling to read about; even if some of them never actually happened, or did so in a way quite different from their hallowing by repetition. After all, if the Duke could not remember his own words to the Guards at what was probably the culminating moment, who else could? But surely it was more likely ‘Stand up, Guards!’ than the popularly supposed ‘Up Guards, and at ’em!’?
What Cornwell is, to my mind, incontestably right about is the central importance of the ground. To see the battlefield today, even in its ‘spoiled’ state, as Wellington described it after the removal of a vast amount of soil from the ridge to build the ‘Lion Mound’, is to realise how well chosen it was, and then how expertly garrisoned. Cornwell recounts the Duke’s imagined eyeing of the ground’s potential as he might in a Sharpe novel, and the author’s preference occasionally for the historic present (though ‘heroic present’ would be the better term in this case) will no doubt grate with some readers; but Cornwell’s is from start to finish a gripping account, red in tooth and claw. Serve with a robust burgundy.
Tim Clayton, co-curator of next year’s British Museum exhibition Bonaparte and the British, signals a rather different approach in his opening sentence: ‘The violet was Napoleon’s favourite flower.’ (Tyrants must be allowed their feminine sides, I suppose: the mimosa was apparently Stalin’s favourite; and was not ‘Adolf Hitler’s Lieblingsblume… das schlichte Edelweiss’?) Nevertheless, Clayton’s account of the four days of prelude and climax to the Waterloo campaign (Cornwell’s, too, covers the preliminary battles) is nuanced, broad, searching and elegant. His intent is to re-examine the long-existing accounts, and compare them with the abundant new material from both British and European archives mined by recent researchers, in order to convey ‘the true pattern of events’. He no doubt rightly says that in the early days ‘the battle became difficult to investigate because it mattered so unusually much’ — mattered, that is, to the various national narratives.
Clayton’s Waterloo is thereby unusually un-Anglocentric, with less than half the book concerned with the actual events of the day itself. He does not correct previous ‘erroneous’ accounts so much as weave the new material seamlessly into his narrative, so that it is not always clear what received understanding is being upended. This self-control is commendable, though, for it might all tend otherwise to the dryly academic. Waterloo experts will find much to take issue with — for example the claim that the greater part of Wellington’s British infantry were in fact Peninsular veterans — but the overall integrity of his scholarship is undeniable. The book may well become the most authoritative account of the four-day campaign, if not the most generously provided with maps.
So where does this leave Robert Kershaw’s 24 Hours atWaterloo? Very simply, in a class of its own, for Kershaw, a former regular infantry officer, does not shirk from the task of making, for the general reader, ‘order out of disorder’. Indeed, the whole typography and layout (large print, with a continuous marginal timeline) is designed to get the course of the battle clear, and then to bring the events to life with judiciously chosen first-hand accounts (‘the roving correspondent’s eye’, as Kershaw puts it).
The narrative fairly rattles along, and there could be no better companion to the battlefield than Kershaw’s (nine-tenths of which is the great day itself). Indeed, the superb sketches of the battlefield at its various stages — as if from a balloon just behind the ridge of Mont St Jean — even though they cannot truly convey the contours, are a fair substitute for a visit.
But what of the reader with no time to spare for the whole four days, or even for the great battle itself, but who might like to taste a little something nevertheless? Brendan Simms, professor of the history of European international relations at Cambridge, may be the answer: ‘On 18 June 1815, at a farmhouse in Belgium, the fate of Europe was decided.’ Ah, the battle neatly reduced to a decisive point! But which farmhouse? The Château Hougoumont, where Bonaparte let himself be diverted for most of the day trying to evict a scratch battalion of the Guards? Le Caillou, where he spent the night before, and on the morrow gave his design for battle to his subordinates?
No, it is the farm of La Haye (or Haie) Sainte, the ‘holy hedge’, that is crucial: the little quadrangle of buildings beside the road to Brussels, which, if held, would divide, if not actually block, an attack through the centre of Wellington’s position. Into the farm the duke put two companies — 400 men — of the King’s German Legion, Hanoverians, to hold it, and in just 80 pages, drawing on unpublished material from the Hanoverian archives, Simms tells their story. And very engaging it is too, though in so short a space the author could hardly hope to establish his claim that these 400 ‘decided the battle of Waterloo’.
In the duke’s own judgment, he himself was the decisive factor: ‘By God I don’t think it would have done had I not been there!’
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies and Three Battles £20; Waterloo: Four Days That Changed Europe’s Destiny £22.50; 24 Hours at Waterloo £20; The Longest Afternoon £12.99 Tel: 08430 600033