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5.0 out of 5 stars Leave the battle of Waterloo as it is - Wellington, 27 July 2013
This review is from: The Battle: A New History of the Battle of Waterloo (Paperback)
But of course we cannot leave Waterloo as it was. One of the most important battles in history. It's written record has also become one of the most contentious. Who won the British, we were only a portion of Wellington's army; the Germans, Germany as a state did not even exist when the battle was fought; the French well it's difficult to understand how they could think they did anything but lose, but don't tell them it will upset them.

It is therefore fortuitous that we have an Italian to guide us through, and what a fantastic job along with the translator John Cullen he makes of it. This whole volume is written with verve and panache. In a series of short punchy chapters we are given an utterly involving, compelling and riveting account of a clash of arms that was as spectacular as it was awful. Taking place on a battlefield barely two miles across, far more condensed than any other of the period, the sheer brutality, heroism, trauma, fear, spectacle and horror of this confrontation are conveyed from both a tactical and individual perspective.

This account is written with great clarity from d'Erlon and Reilles initial advance, the monumental fight for the chateau of Hougomont, the Nassauer's defence of La Haye Sainte, they eventually ran out of ammunition and had foolishly burned the doors to the farm the night before to keep warm; the charge of the British cavalry that obliterated d'Erlon's corps but burned itself out, including the Scots Greys; the Prussian advance and the battle for Plancenoit. Nothing is missed in this account. The Allied deployment into square as the mass of the French cavalry charge towards them. It is of course wonderful to watch Sergei Bondarchuk's 1970 epic with Christopher Plummer and Rod Steiger, but in the film you just don't get the sort of nuance that this description brings. The French cavalry whose horses would not charge the bayonet infested square did not simply retreat, many stood merely yards away, taunting the square to fire in order to take advantage when they had to reload. The tension of the standoff must have been ferocious, but discipline in this instance mostly prevailed, and the cavalry were eventually worn down. The loss of La Haye Sainte enabled the Fench artillery to engage the squares at close quarters causing absolute carnage, but still they held. In the midst of one of the squares the wife of a British soldier is dressing the wounded until she herself is wounded.

The final assault by the Imperial Guard is repelled by an equally ferocious defence by the British and allied infantry, and the pursuit of the broken French army begins. There are numerous instances of friendly fire between the allied and Prussian forces that sometimes descend into a deadly farce. There is the looting of bodies by every side looking for money and valuables, and the way the injured are left on the battlefield is appalling.

You may not get all of the political background to the battle or the tensions inside the camp of each army. The British distrusted many of the Dutch because only a year before hand many had been part of Napoleon's Army in Spain. The German deputy to Blucher, Gneisenau disliked and distrusted Wellington and felt the Prussians had been let down during the Battle of Ligny when they were routed. Whether Wellington witheld men is difficult to believe. But not mentioned in this account is that Castlereagh who was Wellington's mentor and supporter as Foreign Secretary was well aware during the Congress of Vienna that to see the French annihilated might well replace a French military dictatorship with a Prussian one. Wellington's own battle at Quatre Bras at the same time was as severe as Ligny but held with less men than the Prussians already had available to them, so the charge is difficult to countenance. However, Blucher ensured that Gneisenau honoured his commitment.

Both Wellington and Blucher knew that neither could win on their own. Gneisenau only allowed von Bulows corps far enough forward to ensure that Wellington had committed himself to fight. Wellington equally as well knew that unless he stood the Prussians would not support him. the Prussians had their own problems, the Saxon regiments of the army mutinied against their forced absorption into the Prussian realm and had to be split up. Blucher had to escape out of a rear window of a house to get away from them. Not bad for a 72 year old.

Every element of the allied force is given its recognition in this account.the King's German Legion are particularly highlighted as are Maitland's Guards regiment. There are also some interesting asides about the unruliness of the British army, but their ferocious and honour bound commitment to fight. Wellington complained that nobody in the British army ever read a regulation or an order except as one might read an amusing novel. He could not get the allied artillery to stop counter-battery firing when the French fired, giving away their positions and making the situation worse.

After the battle there are descriptions of numerous accounts of personal survival and letters home to loved ones that are deeply touching. Many simply could not believe they had survived such an encounter.

As Wellington apparently really said about his troops "Our friends - I may say it in this room - are the very scum of the earth. People talk of their enlisting from their fine military feelings - all stuff - no such thing. Some of our men enlist from having got bastard children - some for minor offences - many more for drink; but you can hardly conceive such a set brought together, and it is really wonderful that we should have made them the fine fellows they are."

Completely absorbing. I did not want it to end and it will stay long in the memory.
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