Waterloo Book Reviews

For novice, or for expert, how do you select a Waterloo book? There are thousands to choose from, and the confusion mounts with a constant wave of fresh titles.

I have huge respect for anyone who has actually completed a book. I try to read all new Waterloo titles in a quest for fresh angles and insights. Yet sadly very few make the top grade. Many are riddled with factual errors and misunderstandings, or appear to have been rushed through the editing process.

Whilst most make good reading, some introduce or repeat inaccuracies which better historians have spent the last century trying to overcome. Often the more famous the author, the weaker the work. Yet there are some brilliant enthusiasts and historians who have committed decades to unmasking the truth, casting a fresh yet wonderfully readable interpretation on the most famous of battles.

For what it is worth, my list of top recent publications, with something for everyone, comprises:

Professor Jeremy Black: Waterloo: The Battle that Brought Napoleon Down

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Best for strategy. Really refreshing, and if you want to understand Waterloo’s true significance it puts the 100 days into superb and concise historical context. Don’t buy it for an account of the battle itself, but for a deeper appreciation that you just don’t get elsewhere.

Tim Clayton: Waterloo: Four Days that Changed Europe’s Destiny

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2015’s go-to book. For me it stands head and shoulders above the rest for a full history of the campaign, being superbly researched and balanced. It may be a little lengthy for some, but it is by far the best and up-to-date ‘complete history’. It is also extremely well referenced, so if you read something and want to know more you can easily identify which book to read next. Widely available in hardback and paperback.

Andrew Field: Waterloo The French Perspective

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Most histories focus on the British and their allies on the ridge. Andrew refreshingly puts that right, introducing to the English language many new facts and interpretations from French sources. Many were previously unknown to the English reader, and this has greatly enhanced our appreciation of what really happened on the day. Great for novice and expert alike, and the finest rendition of the Imperial Guard’s final failed attack. Andrew’s Prelude to Waterloo Quatre Bras is also an excellent companion book, and new for 2017 is his excellent Grouchy’s Waterloo, for which you can read my review on Amazon.co.uk. A fourth book completing the campaign with the French retreat / rout back to Paris is eagerly awaited.

Gareth Glover, Waterloo, Myth & Reality:

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Gareth has been at the forefront of discovering and publishing British and allied first-hand accounts, extending our knowledge of the battle and the people who fought there for many years. Without his Letters from Waterloo, Waterloo Archives and the succession of short first-hand accounts, published through Ken Trotman, our knowledge would be much the poorer. Finding one book that encapsulates all this is hard, but I’ll go for Myth and Reality as it summarises much of the new interpretation that Gareth has shone on the battle.

Waterloo, The Campaign of 1815, John Hussey:

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Volume 1 is published, Volume 2 is awaited, this is a very weighty book, both in content and physically! Volume 1 offers surely the widest and deepest recent account of the run-up to the campaign, giving as much emphasis to diplomacy, supplies, intelligence and war planning as to the fighting itself. It picks up little understood nuggets such as Saxony; Blücher’s stern opinion on the future of the Kingdom, the fraught debates in Vienna, differences between Prussian Generals and their weak King, all setting the scene for the implications of the riot of the Saxon military contingent which could have cost the Allies the campaign had it occurred a few weeks later. Despite the breadth and depth of coverage, occasionally the author hints at intriguing matters which rather leave one hanging, wishing they had been covered in more depth. If you want an easy guide to the battles this book is probably not for you, but if you are a scholar of the age, and wish to gain an appreciation of the wider aspects of the campaign, then this should be considered a magnificent and necessary addition to your library.

Wellington’s Guns, Nick Lipscombe:

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More than a Waterloo book, as it covers the evolution of our Artillerymen during the Peninsula War. So many of those who served at Waterloo developed their experience under Wellington in Spain, and this tells their story. Also away from Waterloo, if you wish to delve, Nick’s mammoth The Peninsular War Atlas took years of work and is most enjoyable.

Paul O’Keefe: Waterloo The Aftermath

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What happened after Waterloo? To the wounded? To Napoleon? In London? In Paris? Its all in here. A most original and entertaining angle.

Journal of the Waterloo Campaign, Cavalié Mercer:

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It had to be in this list, as it is rightly the most famous first-hand account of Waterloo, the Waterloo Campaign, and indeed may be the best written on any military campaign, ever. For an understanding of soldiers’ lives and the uncertainty in the run-up to the battle, the intensity of being there, and the aftermath, this book is without peer. But be careful which edition you purchase! Originally published in two volumes, Volume I is the most exciting part, which includes Waterloo through to the French border. Volume II mostly covers the subsequent occupation of Paris. Most (but not all) recent publications of the Journal combine Volumes I and II, but if you buy one of the many digitised print-on-demand editions they aren’t always clear that you are only getting one of the volumes, and they can be needlessly expensive. Also beware of some recent abridged editions that lack the full Mercer sparkle. The editions that I recommend are:
1) The 1995 edition by Da Capo Press, with an introduction by Philip Haythornwaite. This is a complete Vol I & II, combined into a small paperback. This is the one that I carry around with me. Widely available and superb value. Or,
2) The 2012 edition by Pen & Sword, with a far more detailed introduction and analysis by Andrew Uffindell.

For a full appreciation of Mercer:

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You have to see Mercer’s book of Canadian paintings. It even includes the newly discovered full length portrait of the great man! In the UK this book is only available through this website (we hold the exclusive UK distribution rights), and in purchasing it you will be supporting the Mercer Grave Restoration Fund. See more here.

Waterloo General, John Morewood:

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One of the most engaging books of recent years, focuses on a microcosm of the battle and the very fine Major General William Ponsonby who sadly didn’t survive Waterloo. Examining the many tales of his life and death to seek the truth, this is a much needed analysis to overturn the way in which his memory was badly maligned after his death. Beautifully written.

Erwin Muilwijk’s Waterloo series

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Early British histories, and too many recent ones, downplay the decisive contribution of the Dutch Belgians to the outcome of the campaign. Erwin puts us right with extensive research on the build-up to war, the holding of Quatre Bras before the British arrived, and their real achievements at Waterloo. To British eyes this is knowledge-expanding, eye-opening, myth-busting original research at its best. Only available from Lulu.com, in B&W and Colour versions to meet different price points. A fourth and final book in the series is anxiously awaited.

Best Waterloo website:

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He’s not a published author, so too few have heard of him. But Pierre de Wit is one of the greatest thinking Waterloo historians of our time (and as a bonus is a Mercer fan!). His extensive research, deep knowledge and analysis is a joy. Not a website full of pretty pictures, but one to give you a full interpretation if it is knowledge that you seek. Pierre’s wonderful website is www.waterloo-campaign.nl.

For map lovers:

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Ever wondered what Ferraris did before they built cars? They made maps! This huge, heavy tomb is not published in English, is out of print and impossible to come by at a sensible price. But you don’t need to understand a language to take pleasure in maps, and it is a true delight. What became Belgium was mapped by the Austrian Count De Ferraris in incredible detail. The 275 maps give us the ability to follow Mercer’s route from Ostend, and give a fresh appreciation of the landscapes and road networks that confronted the military planners of the time. The sheet showing what was to become the battlefield with the gorgeous representation of Hougomont’s gardens is a work of art.

For a real bicentenary treat:

Firstly, Unseen Waterloo. A labour of love by Sam Faulkner, the incredible up-close images of soldiers in this book were shot over many years using a pop-up studio at Waterloo re-enactments. The images are also on display at Somerset House on London’s Strand until 31st August 2015. Available in a number of editions, more on www.unseenwaterloo.co.uk

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Secondly, Extraordinary Edition’s Waterloo 1815 anthology. Based on Mudford’s “An Historical Account of the Campaign in the Netherlands…”, interspersed with extracts from original letters, reports and frontline accounts, the quality of paper on which this is printed needs to be seen to be believed. I do believe, having enjoyed leafing through the boxed edition’s gold and leather at the Landmark Trust’s Hougoumont property. It also comes in a silk red edition, plus some recreated Siborne Maps in a separate binder. A book to take out and enjoy every Christmas and 18th June. More on www.extraordinaryeditions.co.uk

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Or just after something short?

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Concise and crammed, and added by popular demand. John Franklin’s series of well illustrated books will prove educational to both new and experienced Waterlooers interested in the campaign. Never intended to replace an extensive general history like Tim Clayton’s, but most enjoyable.

And finally …:

If you want more, a few 2015 books that didn’t make the top list, but which I thoroughly enjoyed:

The most compellingly written: Robert Kershaw: 24 Hours at Waterloo
It has a timed narrative that drives the reader onwards hour by hour. An interesting approach to maps shows the location of eye-witnesses whose accounts he uses. A highlight is the information on the extreme meteorological events that impacted the campaign.

The most opinionated: Gordon Corrigan: Waterloo: A New History of the Battle and its Armies
He is ex-military, and it shows. Good fun.

The most controversial: Nigel Sale: The Lie at the Heart of Waterloo The Battle’s Hidden Last Half Hour
If you believe in conspiracy theories, this is the book for you. It provides a reinterpretation of the end of the battle with the 52nd regiment’s outstanding success against the Imperial Guard, and why they were never given the credit they deserved.

There are thousands to choose from, and if you feel strongly about others that should be on the list please do let me know, and I’ll consider them for inclusion. I hope my own experience in forming this distilled collection is of value to you.

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