Waterloo: Day of Battle; by David Howarth; Anthenum (1968); Library of Congress catalog number 68-27663
Waterloo: Day of Battle is one of a number of books about this famous battle that I have accumulated over the years. Most of the other titles have been military analyses of the events that transpired on the 18th of June, 1815. They understandably have focused on the operational aspects of the battle: the militarily significant facts of this day-long clash in a small corner of the Belgian countryside. Many of these works have attempted to evaluate and compare the battlefield performances of the day's two central actors: Napoleon Bonaparte and Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington. Some have focused on the pivotal roles of secondary players like the French Marshals Ney and Grouchy, and of the Prussian commander Marshal Blücher. But somehow, in many, if not most, of these careful historical studies, something is lost. The essence of a battle that turned an ordinary stretch of field two miles wide and perhaps two-thirds of a mile across into a charnel house on a fine clear day in Belgium, one hundred and ninety-six years ago. A time and a place in which, in the space of a few hours, 15,000 men under Wellington, and 7,000 under Marshal Blücher were killed or wounded, and where Napoleon's Armeé du Nord lost some 25,000 killed, wounded, and captured. It is this aspect of the Battle of Waterloo, the essence of the thing as seen and understood, not only by the commanders, but also by the ordinary soldiers, that Howarth attempts to capture and recount to the reader. It is a difficult goal, but I believe that he succeeds admirably. Much in the same way that John Keegan's book, "The Face of Battle" does, "Waterloo" conveys a genuine and immediate sense of time and place. It is at once both a harrowing and an engrossing panorama of the individual actions that, woven together, created the complex tapestry of the Battle of Waterloo.
"Waterloo," however, is not just about individual anecdotes, experiences, and the overarching atmosphere of the day. Along with the deeply affecting human stories imbedded in his narrative, Howarth also manages to capture the flow and tempo of the battle. The carefully researched historical events are still recounted in scrupulous detail, but, in Howarth's work, they are not the only parts of the Waterloo story that are told. After reading "Waterloo," I was forced to reconsider some of my own strongly-held theories about the battle. Would Marshal Davout's substitution for Marshal Ney have made any real difference in the outcome of the battle? Whatever Ney's other faults, a lack of either energy or courage was certainly not among them. In the course of the battle, Ney was everywhere that his men needed inspiration and encouragement: in fact, in the course of this single bloody day, Napoleon's "bravest of the brave" had five different horses shot out from under him. Would Davout have done any better? Would he even have survived the day? Should Napoleon have begun the battle two hours earlier? Probably, but the reasons for the delay were at least as persuasive as the reasons for mounting an earlier attack. With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to criticize Wellington's choice of a battlefield, or Napoleon's plan of battle, or to find fault with Grouchy's failure to march to the sound of the guns. However, Howarth convincingly shows that the various commanders and their men were not cowards or fools, but usually did their utmost, given the imperfect and contradictory information they had about the confusing and constantly changing circumstances of the battle.
Of course, no matter how compelling the story, it probably won't be read if it is poorly told. Fortunately, in the case of David Howarth, he tells the story of Waterloo very well. His writing style, as is typical of many British writers from his era, is a little formal by today's standards. None the less, his prose is clear, graceful, and a genuine pleasure to read. Moreover, readers unfamiliar with military terminology should have no difficulty with his book, as he makes his subject matter accessible without making it simple: another appealing trait that he shares with historian and writer, John Keegan.
For those readers who are unfamiliar with the Napoleonic era, Waterloo has been illustrated extensively with a large number of both black-and-white, and color plates. There are even a few photographs of the Waterloo area as it appeared many years after the battle. Most of the book's illustrations are familiar, at least to those of us with an ongoing interest in this historical period, but a number of the prints are comparatively obscure and not commonly used in other works dealing with the Battle of Waterloo. Some, in fact, I had never seen before. In addition to the numerous illustrations that enrich his narrative, the author also includes eight maps to help the reader visualize various key battlefield events as they are being described in the text.
"Waterloo: Day of Battle," is an interesting, and deeply engaging portrait of the men who both won and lost the most famous battle of all time. However, it is not the most detailed and analytical treatment of the battle ever published. Nor is it a work of pure military scholarship. There are plenty of books that nicely satisfy both of those roles. Instead, the author has attempted to add something to the reader's understanding of the battle that is often absent from other books on this subject: the unpredictability of the human dimension. I think that he succeeds in this. For the reader who is interested in a description of the Battle of Waterloo that is satisfying on both a historical and an emotional level, this book is an excellent choice. And while I would not discard several of my other books on the battle in favor of this one, I never the less, recommend "Waterloo: Day of Battle," highly.
For decorating the game room with a Napoleonic theme:
Posted by JCB III at 8:25 PM
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