As the armies gathered in June 1815, few doubted that a world-shaking event was in the works. Britons poured into Belgium to witness the excitement; those remaining behind agonized, debated, and quarreled; others went about their daily lives.
Most important, they wrote letters, kept journals, and tangled with the law. British historian Crane (Empires of the Dead: How One Man’s Vision Led to the Creation of WWI’s War Graves, 2013) mines this bonanza of material for a delightful chronicle of how Britons, famous and obscure, in and out of the Duke of Wellington’s army, experienced the iconic battle. Crane astutely reminds us that not everyone yearned for a British victory. Britons were free, but they were governed by an aristocratic oligarchy mired in corruption and supported by a minuscule electorate. Reformers, energized by the French Revolution but devastated by 20 years of war and vicious attacks on their patriotism, made their voices heard. Crane creates a vivid portrait of perhaps the most notorious Napoleon advocate, the driven, misanthropic writer William Hazlitt, but he was only one of a coterie of famous names (Lamb, Byron, Hunt, Godwin) who spoke for a voluble and not insignificant number of their countrymen. Readers will marvel at the richly expressed feelings of servants, soldiers, prisoners, wives, and lovers, rich and poor, not excepting many who, preoccupied with their own problems, ignored the great battle. “Beyond London,” writes the author, “spreading out in concentric rings across the blackness of the country and the farms and villages and towns of Britain, thirteen million souls lived out their own separate lives in this strange phoney pause in the nation’s life….The day of Waterloo had begun.”
A historical tour de force—a fascinating panorama of Great Britain during the summer of Waterloo.