The story of the physical aftermath of the Battle of Waterloo, where 200,000 men fought intensely for 10 hours on a bloody battlefield of 5 square miles, leaving more than 40,000 bodies piled in heaps and forcing Napoleon’s abdication as emperor of France.
O’Keeffe (A Genius for Failure: The Life of Benjamin Robert Haydon, 2009, etc.) draws nicely on letters, memoirs, and other documents to create this vivid account of the immediate days after the historic clash between French, Anglo-allied, and Prussian forces, from the “landscape of carnage” to the occupation of Paris and Napoleon’s exile to Saint Helena. Published to coincide with the 200th anniversary of Waterloo (June 18, 1815), the book’s grim recounting begins with the congested battlefield, which has been thoroughly documented before: littered with paper (letters, playing cards, prayer books, and much more), the drums of French drummers, and the naked bodies of soldiers stripped completely of their clothing by local peasants and soldiers. Survivors begged to be shot dead. Wheels crushed bodies into “a mass of blood, flesh and clothes.” Predators extracted the teeth of dead soldiers (preferably young), to be sold to London dentists, who offered immaculate “Waterloo teeth” to the fashionable and toothless rich. Tourists (including Walter Scott and Lord Byron) gathered swords, belt buckles, and a host of other mementos. The author describes the eagerly awaited news of Napoleon’s defeat as it arrived by mail coach in England, the many ensuing celebrations there, and the stripping of the Louvre. Thousands sailed out to see Napoleon on the ship where he was kept before his final exile. Some paid his laundress for the chance to wear his shirts.
O’Keeffe offers no revelations for Waterloo buffs, but his book is a highly readable, richly anecdotal retelling of the battle’s devastating results.