A deceptively slender, richly nuanced overview of the battle that, suggests British historian Roberts (Napoleon and Wellington, 2002, etc.), marks the beginning of the modern era.
Though it took place well into the 19th century, Waterloo “was nonetheless an eighteenth-century phenomenon,” Roberts writes—and not only in its deployment of brilliantly outfitted men in straight, easy-to-mow-down lines across wide fields of fire. It was resolutely modern, though, in its scale: Waterloo involved perhaps half a million soldiers distributed among the armies of France, England, Prussia, and lesser principalities and territories, and Napoleon Bonaparte seems to have nursed a born revolutionist’s hope that victory against his enemies would inspire the Belgians to rise against the Dutch, the French to resume control of Europe, and the Tory government of England to collapse. A reasonable desire, perhaps, but in attempting to realize it Napoleon made some curious and even “strategically inept” errors that betrayed some of his carefully pronounced principles, dividing his forces and allowing the enemy to gain control of the high ground; “the topography across which Wellington had chosen to receive Napoleon’s attacks could hardly have been better suited for infantry” against advancing artillery, cavalry, and ground forces, Roberts notes. Wellington made a few miscalculations himself. But, like Napoleon, and far from placing himself at a safe distance as some historians have maintained, Wellington was everywhere at once, keeping careful control over his side of the battle. The battle, Roberts insists, was never a foregone conclusion, and it could have turned decisively for Napoleon at many points; even in failure, had he withdrawn just a bit earlier, Napoleon might have saved some of his army and with it resisted an invasion of France itself. But he didn’t, and the carnage was fearful: taken together with satellite battles and skirmishes, Waterloo cost the lives of 120,300 men, a staggering figure that only raised the bar for subsequent slaughters.
A vivid, thoughtful, and blessedly concise account of one of history’s signal events.