In his first nonfiction book, acclaimed historical novelist Cornwell (The Empty Throne, 2015, etc.) employs his storytelling skills to bring military history out of the textbook.
The author writes of the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s loss (as opposed to the Duke of Wellington’s victory) in a readable account that only occasionally gets bogged down in tactics and the movements of brigades. Early on, he points out that we must understand the difference between infantry arrayed in either lines or columns since it made a considerable difference in the outcome of the battles fought on those June days in 1815. The Dutch and Germans combined with the British under Wellington; this was not a particularly pleasant circumstance, as Wellington had little faith in their ability or loyalty. He placed them carefully with his most effective fighters and did his best to keep Prince William of the Netherlands, or Slender Billy, from creating the disastrous confusion for which he was known. Two preliminary battles, at Ligny and Quatre-Bras, could have given France success, but miscommunication and outright dithering on the part of Napoleon’s commander Michel Ney enabled the opposing forces to fight on. Throughout the battle, there were many instances of generals making their own decisions that affected the outcome—perhaps none more than the Prussian Prince Blücher, who retreated to the north rather than west to maintain his ability to relieve Wellington, thus confounding Napoleon’s attempt to split the armies. The French were weakened in an attempt to take Wellington’s right flank at Hougoumont, where just over 2,000 Dutch, German, and English soldiers held off 9,000 French infantry.
Despite a little confusion regarding the movements of divisions and brigades, this is a fascinating, detailed, and generously illustrated description of the battle that changed the fate of 19th-century Europe.