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Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles Hardcover – May 5, 2015
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June 1815 The Duke of Wellington the Prince of Orange and Napoleon will meet on the battlefield and decide the fate of EuropeWith the emperor Napoleon at its head and enormous French army is marching toward Brussels The British and their allies are also converging on Brussels - in preparation for a grand society ball And it is up to Richard Sharpe to convince the Prince of Orange the inexperienced commander of Wellingtons Dutch troops to act before it is too late But Sharpes warning cannot stop the tide of battle and the British suffer heavy losses on the road to Waterloo Wellington has few reserves of men and ammunition the Prussian army has not arrived and the French advance wields tremendous firepower and determinaiton Victory seems impossible
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Waterloo, as can be imagined in a battle its size, was confusing. Many accounts contradict each other or, at least, can't agree on the timing and sequence of events. Cornwell addresses many of the key disconnects and lays out what he believed happened all while telling a story. When it's done you can begin to feel how the battle flowed, not in neat phases but as a series of often overlapping events played out over the battlefield. In this the storyteller comes to the fore because he's able to weave together a variety of multiple events, perspectives, and people in such a way that you see the whole and not the part. It's not just a story of the British or Prussian or French armies, or the common soldier, or the three great leaders. In the end it's a story about how that all came together. In this Cornwell was able to rely on the original work of historians - Cornwell's strength in this book is not original research, there's nothing new historically, but what makes his book worth reading is the way he painlessly tells the tale in a very understandable manner.
If I had one complaint, and it's a relatively small one, it's that he switches between the past and present tenses in his writing, sometimes within the same paragraph. I think he periodically switched to the present tense to try to increase the immediacy of what he was describing, but, for me, it tended to interrupt the moment; rather than staying caught up in the story, it reminded me I was reading a book.
If you're familiar with some of the post-war finger-pointing among the allies you'll understand, after reading the book, Cornwell's conclusion that, "The battle of Waterloo was an allied victory. That was how it was planned and that was how it turned out. Wellington would never have made his stand if he thought for one moment that the Prussians would not let him down. Blucher would never have marched if he thought Wellington would cut and run."
This is one of those books that I still recommend even if you're familiar with Waterloo. Cornwell's ability to tell a story really pulls together the historical elements in a way that allows understanding.
This book was enjoyable to read. It flowed well from beginning to end. Descriptions of the battle were detailed, colorful, and gory (it is war, what do you expect?). Cornwell captures the readers imagination. He also includes many quotations and first person accounts--giving a true sense of what it was like to be there. Brilliant paintings and maps fill the pages giving the reader much to visualize the battle as it is laid out before him (this was a hard copy). I find it difficult to visualize battle movements when solely based on textual descriptions, so the detailed and vibrant maps vastly contributed to my reading experience.
What I appreciate most of Cornwell may not even be his story telling prose--but how accessible his information is. The most clueless Waterloo amateur (like myself) will not be left in the dark long. Cornwell's writing will bring anyone up to speed on the basics of Napoleonic warfare: What is a column? What is a square? What is a line? And what are the advantages of each formation? Why would people march in massive columns in the open and willingly shoot each other? He describes what affect the musket, the cannon, and the horse had on 1800s tactics. He spends much paper discussing the leaders: Wellington, Napoleon, Blucher, Ney. Anyone can read this and very quickly understand the times, the tactics, and the battle itself.
I learned much of Napoleon and his arrogance which I believe came back to bite him. He believed that he was near invincible, attacking two armies that together almost doubled his own strength. He delegated much power to his Marshalls (why?!) who time and time again broke clear rules of engagement. Wellington in contrast was very much involved in the battle--his calm and steady countenance exuded confidence. His troops took heart in brilliant displays of courage and (spoiler alert) withstood to win the day. The Prussian General Blucher's persistence after getting whipped earlier also contributed to the eventual defeat of The Emperor. There is much strength in unity.
If I was picky I would wish that Cornwell would have summarized key events a little more. Instead of simply describing the facts and giving quick real time analysis, I would have appreciated Cornwell to have stepped back from the battle to elaborate on the significance of each moment more frequently. Part of me is left wondering--actually how important was the holding of Hougemont or how important was the charge of the Royal Scott Greys in the overall picture of the battle? Cornwell does well to say that understanding Waterloo is near impossible as war (and this battle in particular) is chaos. There are many contradictory accounts over what happened and where it happened and when it happened. Even so, I feel that he could have summarized the key events more.
But that is a small thing in the big picture as all in all I found this book masterful. Before I read this I had no understanding of the people and events of Waterloo, and now I know more than most. That is why I read books! I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys learning history and events that have shaped our world. Enjoy.
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