I have just finished reading my third book recently published on the Battle of Waterloo. This one was by Robert Kershaw, titled; “24 Hours at WaterlooI have just finished reading my third book recently published on the Battle of Waterloo. This one was by Robert Kershaw, titled; “24 Hours at Waterloo”. The previous books were by Gordon Corrigan and Bernard Cornwell and each have been different in their approach in telling the story of this famous battle.
Robert Kershaw’s approach has been to tell the story by the use of first-hand accounts, his aim was to give a human and personal dimension to the battle and in this he succeeds admirably. This is a well told account of Waterloo, mainly narrated through the experiences of the officers and soldiers involved in the fighting. We hear from French, British, Prussian and the other allied nationals who made up 2/3rds of Wellington’s forces on the ridge.
The author’s use of these personal accounts are well placed within the narrative and never detracted from the story, in fact, they added to the telling and really drew me into the depiction of this horrendous battle, like this account of a wounded French prisoner in Brussels after the fighting around Quatre Bras: "I noticed one, a fine fellow, who had had one arm shot off; and though the bloody and mangled tendons were still undressed, and had actually dried and blackened in the sun, he marched along with apparent indifference, carrying a loaf of bread under his remaining arm and shouting 'Vive l'Empereur!'
'Prepare the soup' he recommended, because his friends would be arriving that evening in Brussels and would join them in the Grand Place. 'Don't believe him, sir,' a badly wounded Scotsman whispered, in agony. 'It's all right - I - assure you '- he haltingly gasped."
This from a soldier in the KGL: "Albrecht Heifer, in the King's German Legion, was bowled over by an enormous punch to his chest, which snatched his breath away and left him breathing with pain and difficulty. The flesh of his right breast had been torn away by a glancing blow from round shot, eviscerating fat, skin and muscle from the chest wall. Iron powder stained the skin area around the bright red gouge mark visible through his torn uniform breast coat. It was rare for soldiers to survive a direct hit on the torso, but Albrecht, remarkably would do so."
A French soldier about to advance with the massed infantry formations against the British held ridge: "When the 44-year-old Pierre Guillot had uncased the eagle of the 45th, he knew what to expect. He had suffered considerably in Spain, shot in the right foot in 1809, lanced in the left flank in 1811, and two years later he was wounded in the right thigh and captured by the British. His time had come again. As he hoisted the eagle, he may have briefly reflected that it was precisely one year since he had been released by the British. Ahead of the columns trotted voltigeur skirmishes, preceding a phalanx of bayonets, all moving in time with the menacing drumbeat that tapped out the pace. These were the veterans of battles from Austerlitz in Bohemia to Borodino in Russia, from Wagram in Germany to the final battles for France the year before. It was their first opportunity to prove themselves in this campaign, and now the sun emerged, bathing the ranks in glorious colour. 'All combined to make more majestic the terrible scene which was unfolding,' recalled Jacques Martin."
The author does not neglect the stories of those who had no voice in the battle: "Sitting erect on his horse 'Bijou' in the ranks was an old sergeant in the cavalry. He had originally captured Bijou from the Mamelukes at the Battle of the Pyramids in 1798 and since then the pair had been inseparable. The horse had saved the sergeant's live on 20 occasions and brought him out of Russia. 'Bijou only lacked speech,' the sergeant explained, and 'had all the intelligence and loyalty of a poodle dog'. They stood alongside other veteran campaigners, such as Private Melet with the Dragoons of the Imperial Guard and his horse 'Cadet'. Such combinations encapsulated Ney's hopes. Melet and Cadet had fought together since 1806, from Prussia to Poland, to Spain and Austria, back again to Spain then across the frozen wastes of Russia to Saxony until the dreadful days of the final campaign in France the year before..... Melet and Cadet had seen 12 major battles and 30 lesser ones. Small wonder Ney was hopeful. They formed part of a tightly knit group dedicated to the service of the Emperor, and the Emperor needed them once again."
Again, Captain Alexander Mercer highlighting the nature of warfare during this period: " ... 'A sickening sensation came over me,' he admitted, 'mixed with a deep feeling of pity.' The poor horse was pressing his panting body against the leaders of the ammunition wagon horse team just behind, 'as though eager to identify himself as their society.' The driver, 'a kind hearted lad', was trying to drive the horse away, horror written 'on every feature', but could not bring himself to strike the animal. Mercer saw why: 'a cannon ball had completely carried away the lower part of the animal's head, immediately below the eyes,' and his clear eye seemed to be imploring them not to chase him away. Price, the farrier, was ordered to put the beast out of its misery and he ran a sabre through its heart. 'even he', Mercer recalled, 'evinced feeling on this occasion'. "
The author does not fail to follow up on Bijoux and Cadet and their riders. In this case maybe I didn’t really want to know as this is what happened to them after the massed French cavalry charges against the British infantry squares: "Bijoux the horse carried his old cavalry sergeant back to the French lines. His master's left thigh was torn apart by a shell fragment. The sergeant's 'best friend' carried him with difficulty back to the Imperial Guard, Sergeant de Mauduit watched them approach. The horse had been riddled with case shot, 'parts of his entrails hanging out announced the gravity of his wound'. Bijoux had saved his master for the last time. The long partnership of Private Melet and his horse Cadet, with the Imperial Guard Dragoons, was also at an end. They had campaigned together since 1806 and now formed an anonymous part of the grisly debris covering the slopes of Mont St Jean. Melet, severely wounded, was barely clinging on to life."
The book is full of these harrowing and at times sad stories from the men on both sides who had to do the fighting and dying on this day. I enjoyed the author’s depictions of the fighting and could not notice any national bias in his account. In fact this book had numerous accounts and stories from Dutch, Hanoverian, German and Belgian sources that I had not read before.
If you really want to get a feel for this battle then this would be the book to read and I have no hesitation in recommending it for anyone who enjoys a good book on military history, this is the ‘blood and guts’ story of this famous battle. Of note, there are no photographs in this book and at the start of each chapter is a 3D representational map of the battle area with persons of interest highlighted. Overall a very good account and well worth the time to read. ...more