Books: How was the Battle of Waterloo won?

British and French soldiers fighting during the Battle of Waterloo, 18th June 1815. Picture: Hulton/Getty
British and French soldiers fighting during the Battle of Waterloo, 18th June 1815. Picture: Hulton/Getty
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IT was the battle that changed Europe. But did it have a single turning point? Iain Gale examines the evidence


by Robert Kershaw

WH Allen, 448pp, £25


by Brendan Simms

Penguin, 160pp, £14.99


by Paul O’Keefe

Bodley Head, 400pp, £25

As we approach the bicentenary of the battle that forged modern Europe, new books on the subject are appearing by the month. How can you write anything new on a battle which has been so feverishly examined and dissected? The answer is that Waterloo is so extraordinary an engagement that there will always be something new to say about it. Three of the most recent publications each take very different viewpoints.

Acclaimed military author and ex-Paratroop officer Robert Kershaw’s account only deals with the day and night of 18 June. Using eyewitness accounts, he shows us the battle at its grittiest and bloodiest, but through it all manages to maintain a grip on the bigger picture. This is the experience of living through a day and a night in hell. There are many accounts here which readers may recognize (Morris, Costello, and Wheeler, for example). But there are others whose names might not be so familiar. From Nassauer Heinrich von Gagern and Franz Lieber of the Prussian Landwehr to Frenchmen Fortuné de Brack and Louis Canler, this is a very complete account.

Brendan Simms’ somewhat slimmer volume is in something of the same vein. Tantalising us with his subtitle “The 400 men who decided the battle of Waterloo”, Simms asks the question why there should another book on the battle and concludes that if one is needed it is his own, which examines in detail the attacks throughout the day on the farm of La Haye Sainte.

The 400 men are those of the King’s German Legion and Simms’ book is an appraisal of the part they played in winning the battle in their defence of the key strongpoint at the centre of Wellington’s position.

This is certainly the most controversial of these three books in making the case for one brave and redoubtable action being the key episode in winning the battle. But it is to an extent a pointless exercise. Historians have argued long and hard over what single episode was the most decisive on that bloody day. For Wellington himself it was the defence of Hougoumont and specifically the closing of its north gate by the light companies of the Scots and Coldstream Guards. For others it is the charge of the Union Brigade, including the Scots Greys, or the “nick of time” arrival of the Prussians.

It is true, of course, that had Wellington’s centre collapsed at any time then the battle might well have been lost. But the same holds true for either flank and it would be good to see a book devoted to the defence of the twin farms on the left flank by the under-sung Nassauers (famously mistaken by the advancing Prussians for French. A true case of “blue on blue” fire).

So is this just a restating of Philip Hofschroer’s thesis that Waterloo was a “German victory”? Well, yes and no. Simms suggests that with 45 per cent of Wellington’s army German speakers, it was. But he also asserts that more than this it was a European army that prevailed and cites Lord Bramall’s description of it as “the first NATO operation”.

The book also has original angles. Most interestingly, Simms examines the after-effect of the battle on the men of the German Legion and seems to affirm that a number suffered from PTSD, several Legion officers committing suicide and one ensign shooting himself “in a fit of insanity” shortly before the 12th anniversary of the battle.

Following on from this revelation, perhaps the most fascinating of all three volumes is a new book that looks further at the aftermath of the battle. Of course this has been done before, but never in such depth. The battle itself is over by page 35, leaving over 300 pages for Paul O’Keeffe’s dissection of its postscript.

We learn not only about the ghastly spectacle of the “field of glory” but among other things, of the tourist trade, souvenir hunters and the medical consequences.

The early chapters are devoted to an account of the immediate hours after the battle and the author creates a chilling image of the devastation, summoning up an Armageddon, strewn with the detritus of ruined lives: letters, account books, novels, Bibles, band music and playing cards. He investigates in some detail the trade in loot and its uses. Curiously, the peasants seem to have been able to recycle everything apart from the woollen hose worn by Wellington’s Highlanders.

O’Keeffe goes on to examine the surgeon’s trade, which others have done before in greater depth. But his exposition on the tourist trade is surely unprecedented in its detail.

Polite society, both male and female visited the field from early in July and on 1 August Sir Walter Scott took the ferry at Harwich to make his own pilgrimage. Turner did not get there till 1817 and made numerous studies for the large painting now in the Tate; the Wordsworths got there three years later.

O’Keeffe also follows the fortunes of the remnants of the French army from Wavre to Paris and goes on to look at the immediate fate of Napoleon.

Almost in passing, he gives us the most revealing vignette of all three books in a chapter which chronicles how the news of the victory reached Britain, and with it the two captured French Eagles of the 105th and 45th regiments, the latter of which had been taken by the Scots Greys and now resides in their museum in Edinburgh. Both birds (the men called them “sparrows”) were carried from the coast to the capital in a coach, but were so long that one protruded from either window as it rattled through the streets.

At length the coach came to a halt and their custodian, Major Henry Percy, jumped out and bearing an Eagle-topped flagpole in each hand, ran into 16 St James’s Square, where the Prince Regent had been dining and there, laying them before him on the floor, spoke the simple but conclusive words, “Victory, Sir. Victory.”