It’s late evening on 18 June 1815. The end of four days of fighting between three armies – British and Prussian on the one side, the French on the other – in three battles that has seen terrible carnage on all sides as battalion after battalion was decimated by musket fire, by round shot and canister, and howitzer shells thrown high over advancing troops. The wounds received and the deaths endured beggar belief.
The battle that we in Britain know as Waterloo defeated Napoleon, and forever left a legacy of controversies, not least of which what the battle should be named.
The French know it as the ‘Battle of Mont St Jean’. That was the ridge where the Duke of Wellington had deployed his forces. He had reconnoitred the area some days earlier and decided that was where he should make a stand against Napoleon moving north towards Brussels. The Prussians named the battle ‘La Belle Alliance’ and apparently it’s still known by that name in Germany. But Waterloo was the battle where, in the final stages the Unbeaten [the Napoleon’s Imperial Guard] were being killed by the Unbeatable [Wellington’s troops].
I’ve just finished an excellent account of Waterloo by Bernard Cornwell, author of the Sharpe novels about the Napoleonic Wars. Waterloo – The History of Four Days, Three Armies and Three Battles is Cornwell’s first work of non-fiction, published in 2014 by William Collins (ISBN 978-0-00-753938-3).
I’m not going to write a detailed review of the book, but I can thoroughly recommend it as a good read. Cornwell brings to his account – and the Battle of Waterloo was a complex affair indeed – the skill of an author who knows how to tell a story. He provides the detail, based on contemporary accounts and letters, but it’s all woven together in a way that you almost begin to feel part of the action. You get a clear sense of the deployment of troops on all sides, what it was like to confront a line of musketeers at 20 paces or so, or be charged down by lancers or sword wielding armored cavalry known as cuirassiers. He explains lucidly how and why the various armies marched from one engagement to the next, how the soldiers coped with the night long downpour before the main battle, and how the subsequent muddy ground conditions hampered movement of Napoleon’s troops towards the British. It was a close run thing, as Wellington admitted after the battle was over. He had come close to defeat, but the arrival of Blücher’s Prussians on the battlefield late in the day (because they had earlier retreated north following defeat in engagements with the French before Waterloo) did turn the tide of the battle, and Napoleon was defeated.
In September 2013, I posted a story about crop diversity, and it began with an account of the crops growing around Brussels at the time of Waterloo, in a book called Dancing into Battle. Much was made by British officers of the height of the rye and wheat crops. Cornwell also comments that the rye crop, taller than a man, through which Napoleon’s troops had to march, was a major obstacle not only for troops but also cavalry. At the end of the battle he describes the scene of carnage, with the wounded, the dying and the dead covering a mat of trampled rye.
Throughout Cornwell’s account of Waterloo, there are frequent references to the exploits of his beloved 95th – the green-jacketed Rifles, the heroes of his Sharpe novels. I’ve not read any of these, but since my retirement I have enjoyed catching up on the programs made for TV in the mid-1990s that I didn’t see then as I was working overseas.
The series had some great actors: Sean Bean as Sharpe, Pete Postlethwaite as Obadiah Hakeswill, and Brian Cox as Major Hogan, to name just three. Here’s John Tams singing the 17th century folk song O’er the Hills and Far Away that became the theme of the series. Tams played one of the ‘Chosen Men’, rifleman Daniel Hagman.