Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Book Review: Waterloo

I've always been interested in history. It probably traces back to a leaflet produced by Banbridge District Council many years ago called 'Historic Dromore.' The sheer number of historical features in the wee town I lived in blew my mind - the cathedral, the high cross, the Norman motte and bailey (the best preserved example in Ulster), the stocks, the town hall, the gallows street, the castle; all these gave me an interest in the past. Yet for all my interest, there are some periods where I don't really know very much. I knew of Waterloo, but I couldn't have told you much about it, even having been driven on a bus near the battleground on the way from Charleroi airport into Brussels. I probably knew more about the Abba song than the battle.

I was vaguely aware of the Fermanagh connection to Waterloo, the Inniskilling Dragoons having fought there. So when the 200th anniversary of the battle came on 18th June 2015 and I spotted Bernard Cornwell's new book on Waterloo, I knew I had to read it and start to understand it. I'm so glad that I did.

Cornwell is probably best known for his fictional Sharpe books, which were adapted for television. His previous grounding in fiction helps him to tell a gripping factual tale, with lots of drama, excitement, and personal interest. An epic story of an epic battle, or rather three battles, as the subtitle summarises: 'The history of four days, three armies and three battles.'

Drawing on many firsthand accounts of private soldiers, official records, and observations, Cornwell weaves the material together to keep track of the Prussians, the French and the British through the phases of the battles, in a way that the very amateur historian can follow. Technical language is explained and the objectives of each section and force are described clearly. The full complement of maps (at the start of each chapter) helps to place the action and build up the entire battlefield.

For some, the story of Waterloo is the story of the mighty generals, the clash of Napolean Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington. While Cornwell keeps us up to date with their movements, he also provides enough detail of the experiences and difficulties of the ordinary solider in the armies.

I really enjoyed the book, as it helped to fill in a gap in my historical knowledge. The book managed to do it in a way that was accessible, exciting, and engaging, and for this reason I'd definitely recommend it. If you'd like to know what all the hype about Waterloo was, then this is the book to read.

Waterloo is available from Amazon and for the Kindle.

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