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on 20 March 2007
As a regular battlefield tour guide at the site Andrew Roberts's knowledge of the ground is apparent in this elegant little book. He introduces some interesting aspects of modern analysis, such as climatologist Dennis Wheeler's model of the weather system that deluged the battlefield with `apocalyptic' rainfall: the French guns could not operate effectively until the ground had dried appreciably, causing a serious delay that helped the Prussian army under Marshal Gebhardt von Blücher to come to the Duke of Wellington's assistance. For this battle was not won by the British alone.

However, the book has curious features such as the comment that the Dutch-Belgian component of Wellington's army was not as 'politically, ideologically or racially motivated' as the British. Race is not a factor normally associated with the Napoleonic Wars, and although Mr Roberts pays tribute to them: 'Never should the non-British and non-Prussian contribution to the victory be underestimated ... '; yet despite two-thirds of Wellington's army being non-British, these troops make little impact on the narrative. Anglo-centrism has long been a problem with Waterloo studies, and this book breaks no ground in that direction.

There are technical shortcomings as well, with unit names frequently garbled such as the '95th Rifle Brigade'. In fact the 95th Regiment of Foot (Riflemen) - or 95th Rifles as they were commonly known - ceased to be the 95th when they bacame The Rifle Brigade in 1816. Thus, despite a comment on the back by Paul Johnson that it 'should remain the authoritative account for many years', it falls a long way short of that. But it remains a good read, and should encourage further delving into this fascinating period.
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on 3 March 2005
"A slender volume" tends to be a derogatory way to refer to a book, but Andrew Roberts has proved that that need not be the case. Physically, his book is certainly small; if there is a smaller book among the many on the subject of Waterloo, I haven't encountered it. This is so well written, however, that the brevity of the book is no disadvantage. The events are recounted with admirable lucidity, but Roberts still finds space for numerous well-reasoned arguments. He does not set out with an axe to grind, as does Peter Hofschroer (with a degree of justice) and as do numerous French authors, desperately trying to prove that the French actually won the battle. He is properly dismissive of the kind of francophone pseudo-historian who is still unable to accept, one hundred and ninety years after the event, that the French were defeated, or that they deserved to be, but his tone is admirably balanced overall (Hofschroer gets a respectful reference). Roberts never explicitly tries to compare Wellington's generalship with Napoleon's, but does draw attention to the flaws in Napoleon's command on the day: late start, unsubtle tactics, assumption of British inferiority, failure to comprehend the significance of the fact that the Prussians were still very much in play, failure to shift his position, to see the battlefield from another vantage-point. There is an ingenious and actually quite plausible explanation of how the insanely conducted French cavalry charges began. I shan't spoil it here (you'll have to read the book). Admittedly, massed frontal charges were exactly how Napoleon conducted the whole battle, so he may well have ordered them, even if his defenders maintain that that is impossible. Roberts leaves space for some illuminating conclusions about the significance of the victory. Napoleon would almost certainly have been steamrollered by the Russians, even if he had won at Waterloo, but a war won by Russia would have led to a very different Europe in the nineteenth century. I don't think that you can have too many books about this fascinating and dreadful battle. Roberts himself pays tribute to Jac Weller, Ian Fletcher and Mark Adkin and is certainly not seeking to supersede their efforts. As far as modern-day analyses of the battle are concerned, however, you can't go wrong with Adkin's masterpiece and this gem from Andrew Roberts, with Hofschroer's works, perhaps, thrown in for a provocatively different perspective.
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This slim title on one history's most famous battles is part of Harper Perennial's Making History Series, written by author, historian (and occasional battlefield guide!) Andrew Roberts. Size-wise this is a polar opposite to his enormous Napoleon The Great tome. Fortunately he delivers equally well at this humbler scale.

Certainly this is a real pleasure to read, being as clear, concise, and yet as comprehensive, as one could hope for in a book this small that deals with an event of such large import. Well structured, and peppered with sufficient anecdotal material to keep it from being drily descriptive, it can be read (other constraints allowing) in a very short time.

After a brief introduction that neatly encapsulates both the enduring historical significance of Waterloo - often described, in a view Roberts himself embraces, as the end marker of 'the long eighteenth century' - and it's equally enduring fascination, Roberts then sets out the more specific context of the Waterloo campaign.

For the battle itself Roberts adopts the popular chronological 'five phase' structure, favoured by a number of authors on this potentially confusing topic. This approach really does help simplify the battle, making broad comprehension of it that much easier.

Whilst many other things frequently occur within these five phases, each has a defining central event:
- Phase one sees the French attack the Anglo-Allied forward position at Hougoumont.
- Phase two finds D'Erlon's massed infantry attacking the Anglo-Allied centre.
- By phase three much is happening across the whole battlefield, but the central event is the series of massed French cavalry charges.
- Phase four has two major facets: the French finally take La Haye Sainte, bringing artillery to bear on Wellington's tattered centre; but Napoleon's good fortune there is swiftly nullified elsewhere, as the Prussians, arriving in ever greater numbers on his right flank, take Plancenoit.
- Whilst Napoleon's return from Elban exile was a huge gamble, the fifth and final phase of Waterloo best embodies Roberts subtitle in respect of the battle itself, with Napoleon finally making his last throw of Fortune's dice, sending in the Guard. But the 'invincibles' are defeated, the French Armée du Nord crumbles and is thoroughly routed, harried south from the compact battlefield by the combined Anglo-Allied and Prussian forces.

Throughout all these phases the action is covered with an eye for both the big picture and the little details, making for a compelling read. The whole is then finished off with a pithy conclusion. Numerous controversies are addressed, some dismissed, others remaining open to debate. And the whole is thoroughly enjoyable and satisfying.

If one were to don the harsh critic shako, one might argue that this little book verges on the redundant, simply recycling material that's already out there (a criticism one might also feel tempted to make of his Napoleon The Great). Roberts does include one previously unpublished letter ('in the possession of the author') by a Major Robert Dicks of the 42nd Highland, or Black Watch, in his appendices. But it seems to me of only very marginal historical interest. Still, if I had such a letter I'd be excited and keen to share it with the world!

Another of the appendices, 'Captain Fortuné de Brack's Letter of 1835', reproduced in an edited form (as is Wellington's Waterloo Dispatch), pertains to phase three of the battle - the massed French cavalry charges - and is much more interesting. De Brack, a relatively lowly lancer officer, suggests that his own impetuosity might've triggered the cavalry attacks, with what starts as simply dressing the line growing into a swell that eventually bursts, as the eager cavalry feel that their moment has arrived.

Intriguing as this is, it's not news anymore. But personally none of this bothers me, as I don't feel that a book on this topic necessarily requires new insights or arguments to justify its existence. What this undoubtedly is is a concise and exciting account, another voice - and an erudite and eloquent one at that - in the ongoing literary conversation on this climactic epoch-ending and epoch-making battle.

I thoroughly enjoyed it, and suspect that all but the most fussy of Napoleonic buffs (and admittedly there are plenty of those!) will love it to.
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on 4 October 2010
This was an excellent, easy to follow read of the battle. It is well referenced and has up-to-date accounts of the 5 phases of the battle. Roberts dispells myths of how things happened, and will say if there is uncertainty around a certain event. This is a very factual account, brought to life by accounts from those there. Some good glossy pictures in the middle of the key characters. I am not really a war-history geek but found this very accessable.
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This is a very short book on Waterloo: it clocks in at less than 100 pages of text, with a bunch of pictures and appendices taking up the page count. Despite that, it's the perfect introduction to that battle: not the Peninsula war before it, not the Napoleonic wars generally, or anything else. What it aims to do, it does, and quite superbly.

The subtitle and thesis of the book is that of Napoleon's "last gamble". It appears that Waterloo was in some ways uncharacteristic for the Emporer, but its also clear that he brought these problems on himself with a series of risks which ultimately failed to pay off. Even with this, it is clear how much this was "a damned close run thing" and the tragedy of a battle won, from the Anglo-Allied perspective.

Roberts runs through the battlefield itself, the weather, and the oncoming Prussians to set the scene and show the action beautifully. There are extracts from letters and statements by soldiers, as well as some discussion of various myths, rumours and theories surrounding Waterloo. I assume there are more complete studies of Waterloo out there, but this is an excellent addition to them.
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on 20 February 2014
Whilst this book is not as comprehensive as many others, it does give an excellent overview of the battle. It also contains some interesting personal stories, which brings this book to life. A great overview but probably not what the "expert" or purist will be looking for.
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on 23 February 2009
Was warfare - of the type which had its last grand "Hurrah!" at Waterloo - the most Extreme Sport of its day? And did it appeal to precisely the type of psychology that enjoys the vicarious thrill of risking life and limb at the very edge of things? These are the questions that Andrew Roberts' book - Waterloo: Napoleon's Last Gamble - has left me with.

Generally speaking, I am not in the habit of reading the Appendices to books of history, but those for Waterloo do contain some particularly entertaining and illuminating letters, plus the famous "Waterloo Despatch" - the Duke's own account of the battle, written on the following day. The extraordinary thing, for me, was that I found the Duke's terse, spare and matter-of-fact relation of the military facts to be the most moving account of all. Even more so than Roberts'. And the Duke's account does indeed confirm how thoroughly he had read his ground and how wisely he had already secured the strategically advantageous points before the commencement of hostilities. This, in itself, contributed greatly to his success.

Waterloo: Napoleon's Last Gamble is an economical, fast-paced and highly informative account of the battle. It is clear that although both sides made mistakes during the course of the day, those made on the Anglo/Allied side were neither as numerous nor as serious as those made by the French. However, allowing La Haye Saint to fall into enemy hands so late in the day - for want of the right sort of ammunition, or of the means to transport it there - was, I think, a more serious error on the part of the Anglo/Allied side than perhaps Roberts is inclined to admit. This could very well have turned the battle in Napoleon's favour, and - as things stood - it placed a very nearly intolerable strain upon the Anglo/Allied front line.

Another serious error was the Union Brigade's disobeying of orders and continuing - with disastrous consequences for itself - to charge after D'Erlon's men in retreat. This particular error put me in mind of the reason for the British defeat at Hastings in 1066. They lost because - through a lack of discipline - they broke ranks and pursued the apparently retreating Norman knights down the hillside. A moment of rashness which had nation-losing consequences for themselves and which perhaps explains why the British Army has always been big on discipline, order and steadiness in the ranks.

This book has certainly made me curious to read more about Wellington's career before the Waterloo Campaign - and most particularly in the Peninsular War.
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on 25 July 2015
Not the best book on Waterloo I have read. Quite short and gives you the basic picture fairly accurately
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on 6 August 2015
Brought as a present although this book is very short for the price at only a couple of hundred pages!
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on 8 March 2008
This book is excellent for its concise approach to a comples subject.

I like his new explanation for the start of the French Cavalry charges commencing but also for his sympathetic understanding of Marshall Ney's predicament at Quatre Bras when he pinpoints battle fatigue as a lokely explanation of Ney's behaviour. It fits in well with Ney's prodigious feats on the retreat from Moscow and his subsequent campaigns in 1813.

However like all historians he does not understand Marshall Grouchy's predicament when he was specifically ordered by Napoleon to got to Wavre. You have only to look at the treatment meted out by Napoleon to those Marshalls who displeased him such as Junot to appreciate what he might have done to those who disobeyed his orders. Direct disobedience of orders is a serious military crime! You just do not do it.

Altogether well worth the money and a good introduction to Waterloo for those who have not studied it before.
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