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When I was given a copy of Waterloo by Bernard Cornwell, I was surprised to learn that this book, written to coincide with the bicentenary of said battle, is his first work of non-fiction.

Bernard Cornwell has been one of my favourite authors for many years; I started reading the Sharpe series as a teenager (around the same time as the TV series) and I went on to enjoy his novels set in the American Civil War, post-Roman Britain (this, the Warlord trilogy, is in my opinion his best work), the Hundred Years War and the struggle between the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings (soon to be a TV series), among others.

He has, to date, written over 40 novels - a prodigious output by any standard (apparently he started writing when he moved to the United States and couldn't get a green card; his big idea was a series about the Peninsular War which he hoped would become a land war equivalent to C.S. Forester's Hornblower novels, of which he was a fan).

He's even done Waterloo before - Richard Sharpe, his most famous creation (forever associated with Sean Bean, who played him in the TV series) was inserted into various parts of the battle for the 1990 novel Sharpe's Waterloo which, like most of his books, had a highly informative 'historical notes' section at the back in which he outlined the true story behind his fiction. He wasn't the first historical novelist to do that (George MacDonald Fraser was already doing it with the Flashman novels), but a lot more novelists do it nowadays than they used to.

So what was Cornwell's first non-fictional work like? Well, my expectations were high as Cornwell is known (partly due to those historical notes) as a writer who strives for accuracy, he's always been at his best when describing battles and, as has been previously noted, he's covered this particular battle before. I knew before I started that we'd get plenty by way of eye-witness accounts, and that his emphasis would be on how the Anglo-Dutch and Prussian armies were working together; one thing I remembered from the novel was the point, constantly hammered home, that Wellington wouldn't have stood and fought on the ridge of Mont-Saint-Jean if he hadn't known that Blucher would march to his aid, and that Blucher wouldn't have marched unless he'd known that Wellington was going to stand and fight.

Waterloo was one of those era-defining battles; it brought to an end over two decades of war and ushered in an age of (relative) peace. 1815 is a cut-off date for period histories as a result. It was the only time that the two most famous generals of the age, the Emperor Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington, faced each other in battle. Yet for much of that long June day two centuries ago, the result hung in the balance until the bitter end. It was also one of the bloodiest of pre-twentieth century battles; between them, the three armies that converged in that valley lost over 60,000 men, and it was in that almost-inconceivable aftermath that Wellington made his remark about the one thing being worse than a battle lost was a battle won. 

Alongside the nigh-on unbelievable acts of heroism (Lieutenant-Colonel Macdonell's defence of Hougoument, Sergeant Ewart's capture of a French Eagle), occasional tales of military stupidity (Jerome Bonaparte, Prince William of Orange) and desperate hand-to-hand fighting while an outwardly unflappable Duke of Wellington cast furtive glances at his pocket-watch, there also lurks a major difficulty in writing about Waterloo: something that military historians call the fog of war.

Battles can be confusing; even the best-laid plans rarely survive the first contact with the enemy, and once the dust has settled accounts of those who survive tend to differ, often on minor details but sometimes on big things too. Wellington himself famously pointed out that it was impossible to tell the story of a battle because there were too many (differing) stories woven together, while Cornwell notes that "for some men it was a blur, a day of terror in which they saw little but smoke". For a long period of time on 18th June 1815, the British infantry endured a series of charges by French cavalry interspersed with artillery attacks which required a change of formation; afterwards, none of the survivors on either side could agree on just how many times the French cavalry had charged. At the battle's climax, the 1st Foot Guards believed they had fought off the Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard and so were later renamed the Grenadier Guards; in fact, they'd beaten back the Chasseurs of the Guard.
What Cornwell has done is to unpick the various and varying strands of the campaign (Waterloo was preceded by other battles, at Ligny and Quatre-Bras, both of which took place on the same day and which are often overlooked because of what happened next - the book's full title is Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies and Three Battles) and use his expert knowledge to deliver a highly readable and detailed account that makes good use of eyewitness accounts by those who took part to give a sense of both pathos and authenticity. Cornwell, a master storyteller, really has delivered the goods in his first foray into telling a true story. The divergent accounts of this most decisive of battles are brought together to form a coherent and well-told narrative.

It so happened that I was working my way through this book when the actual anniversary of the battle came up. This just happened to be when Allison and I went to Paris - yes, I really did take a book called Waterloo with me to France. And it was worth it.

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