A vivid account of the Battle of Waterloo, when Napoleon went out in a blaze of glory.
Why would a battle fought 190 years ago continue to hold our attention—and fuel a minor publishing industry? Italian novelist-historian Barbero (Charlemagne, 2004, etc.) points to one at least partial answer: the men who fought it imagined that the future of a free Europe hinged on the outcome, and both sides fought like wildcats for their respective causes. In fact, Barbero believes, had Napoleon won the battle, things wouldn’t have been so different: Wellington would have had less political success, the revolution of 1830 may not have taken place, “and in France, sooner or later, no matter what, Napoleon III would have mounted the throne.” Barbero is not given to counterfactuals, however, and his history of the battle is a resounding piece of reportage drawing heavily on the memories of those who fought it—and who remembered the grimmest of details, heads lopped off by sabers and cannonballs, men shattered and blown apart. Interestingly, Barbero also notes many of the big-picture elements of the battle: Great Britain’s lead in the alliance that numbered Prussia, the Netherlands and various German duchies and principalities helped assure its lead in the postwar world, while France nearly went broke funding Napoleon’s desperate bid to restore his empire; most of the armies in that alliance were made up of volunteers, while the French forces were filled with draftees who may have been a touch less disciplined (but, it must be said, fought bravely all the same); and much of the battle was fought in splendid confusion by officers and men who had only a very partial understanding of where they were and what they were doing. Barbero even reckons with the thorny question of why Napoleon did not commit his Old Guard until the last moments of the battle, which may have cost him victory; his answer is quite satisfying.
So, too, is this lively and highly readable work: it does for Napoleonic-era warfare what Roberto Calasso did for Greek mythology.