The Battle A New History of Waterloo

Alesandro Barbero; Translated by John Cullen

Walker Books




340 Pages


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The famed battle fought at Waterloo on June 18, 1815, was one of the most momentous in history. Some seventy thousand men under Napoleon and an equal number commanded by the Duke of Wellington faces each other that day; their struggle was titanic and bloody; and in the end, as John Keegan notes, contemporaries felt that Napoleon's defeat had "reversed the tide of European history." Even 190 years later, the name "Waterloo" resounds loudly.

Italian historian Alessandro Barbero's account of the historic battle gives voice to all the nationalities that took part. Invoking the memories of British, French, and Prussian soldiers, Barbero recreates the conflict as it unfolded, from General Reille's early afternoon assault on the chateau of Hougoumont, to the desperate last charge of Napoleon's Imperial Guard as evening settled in. Drawing on accounts from privates to generals, he recounts individual miracles and tragedies, moments of courage and foolhardiness, and offers observations on weapons and strategy, blending them all into the larger narrative of the battle's extraordinary ebb and flow. One is left with images of cavalry charges against soldiers formed in squares; skirmishers hiding in tall grass; the hand-to-hand combat around the farmhouse; endless cannonballs and smoke.


Praise for The Battle

"A thoroughly readable, exciting account of a great clash of arms. The Battle gives gripping insights into what it was like to fight on the Napoleonic battlefield. Brilliant."—Mark Adkin, author of The Waterloo Companion

"A vivid account of the Battle of Waterloo, when Napoleon went out in a blaze of glory. Why would a battle fought 190 years ago continue to hold our attention—and fuel a minor publishing industry? Italian novelist-historian Barbero points to one at least partial answer: the men who fought it imagined that the future of a free Europe hinged on the outcome, and both sides fought like wildcats for their respective causes. In fact, Barbero believes, had Napoleon won the battle, things wouldn't have been so different: Wellington would have had less political success, the revolution of 1830 may not have taken place, "and in France, sooner or later, no matter what, Napoleon III would have mounted the throne." Barbero is not given to counterfactuals, however, and his history of the battle is a resounding piece of reportage drawing heavily on the memories of those who fought it—and who remembered the grimmest of details, heads lopped off by sabers and cannonballs, men shattered and blown apart. Interestingly, Barbero also notes many of the big-picture elements of the battle: Great Britain's lead in the alliance that numbered Prussia, the Netherlands and various German duchies and principalities helped assure its lead in the postwar world, while France nearly went broke funding Napoleon's desperate bid to restore his empire; most of the armies in that alliance were made up of volunteers, while the French forces were filled with draftees who may have been a touch less disciplined (but, it must be said, fought bravely all the same); and much of the battle was fought in splendid confusion by officers and men who had only a very partial understanding of where they were and what they were doing. Barbero even reckons with the thorny question of why Napoleon did not commit his Old Guard until the last moments of the battle, which may have cost him victory; his answer is quite satisfying. So, too, is this lively and highly readable work: it does for Napoleonic-era warfare what Roberto Calasso did for Greek mythology."—Kirkus Reviews

"Italian historian Barbero offers a very readable narrative of one of the most significant battles in European history. From soggy June 17 (the day before) to the bloody night of June 18-19, he describes Waterloo as if telling a story, including details—such as both Wellington's and Napoleon's use of telescopes to keep an eye on one another, and the fact that experienced soldiers smeared their blankets with mud to waterproof them—to fill in the picture for those unacquainted with the fine points of Napoleonic-era warfare. Barbero also provides enough information on tactics to depict how and why as well as what the commanders were trying to do, which makes the book an excellent resource for those with limited knowledge of the battle. It also puts such vexing questions as whether Napoleon should have attacked earlier in the day, and to what extent Ney and Grouchy left undone what they ought to have done, in the context of what the various commanders knew and had reason to expect."—Booklist

"Barbero, who is also an award-winning novelist, has penned a very readable book. As the title suggests, it is indeed a new history of the battle of Waterloo, described in a refreshingly different voice. In short, fast-paced, and gripping chapters, starting with the night before the battle, Barbero portrays all of the participants, making clear the many nations and varying degrees of military seasoning that contributed to the day. All the while, he folds in background information and includes incisive and accessible description and analysis of arms, equipment, and tactics. He also furnishes a good many anecdotes, related by the participants themselves, thus lending an immediacy to the story. Barbero's frank discussions of the assets and liabilities of the French and Allied armies, combined with ample reference to the so-called minor armies from the Netherlands, Nassau, Brunswick, and Hanover that made up nearly two-thirds of Wellington's troops, make this a fresh and appealing volume that moreover remains objective. Recommended."—David Lee Poremba, Library Journal

"This new and valuable history of the 1815 French defeat . . . is unusually accessible, and as experienced readers march on, they will find some novel insights and analyses. For Barbero, cavalry was not on the whole effective, but it could usefully suppress artillery, a welcome change from the usual denigration of everybody's equine forces (even the British are given credit for superior horses). The role of the Prussians, and also of German allied troops in Wellington's ranks, is studied in much more detail than in more Anglocentric accounts, and that many of the Prussians were half-trained militia is emphasized. Finally, Napoleon's army did not go off completely thrashed and in disarray, but substantially maintained order and discipline for several days. The author also does a better job than many popular historians in dealing with factors such as rate of fire, accurate range and the sights, sounds and smells of a Napoleonic battlefield. And while rejecting certain 'patriotic myths,' he supports the concept of Waterloo as a battle of unusual intensity."—Publishers Weekly

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  • Alesandro Barbero; Translated by John Cullen

  • Alessandro Barbero is professor of medieval history at the University of Piemonte Orientale in Vercelli, Italy. He is the author of Charlemagne: Father of a Continent and of several historical novels, one of which, also set in the Napoleonic age, won the Strega Prize, Italy's most distinguished literary award.