Saturday, June 28, 2008

Wellington at Waterloo (Book #62)

Wellington at Waterloo (Jac Weller, 1967) is the third in Weller's trilogy on the Duke of Wellington's military career, and it's really not the place to start, IMHO, if you haven't read much about Waterloo or Wellington. (For my ideas on good places to start, see the end of this post.) But if you come in knowing the basics about the battle and the general who won it, it will add detail and nuance to your perspective, and I for one love detail and nuance.

What makes this book different from other Waterloo histories is Weller's tight focus on Wellington. Instead of flitting between Napoleon, Wellington, and Blucher, we look at what Wellington would've seen and heard, seeing how he responded to each French move as he carried out a masterful and dynamic defensive action (and ultimately went on offense after the Imperial Guard broke and began to flee). Even the maps are from a Wellington's-eye view, oriented southward, which drove me crazy at first. I'm not a naturally visual thinker. I can read maps perfectly well--I'm not one of those people who constantly gets lost--but I'm a verbal and kinesthetic learner who learns more from words or from hands-on experience than from looking at pictures or watching a demonstration. So those upside-down maps were driving me crazy. I kept flipping the book over so it would look like the Waterloo I know.

But then something clicked in my brain, and I stopped seeing them as maps, which must follow the map rules I learned in school lo these many years ago, and instead understood them as simple representations of what Wellington was looking at on 18 June 1815. And then I understood the battle better than I ever had before. I didn't just accept the Anglo-Dutch army's position and the course of the battle as historical facts, I understood why Wellington chose to fight there, why he positioned his troops as he did, and, finally, why each French attack turned out as it did. I was so excited after this epiphany that when I met my husband for lunch, I babbled on and on about it and mapped out Wellington's deployment using my plate, a bowl of salsa, my diet coke can, a fork, etc.

All of that may sound amazingly stupid to anyone who's a visual learner. For all I know, I'm the only one who needed to see the Waterloo map turned upside down to grasp why the Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte positions were so important, for example. Sometimes I think I have a strange brain. But I'm glad I read this book and had this epiphany, because in my alternative history I'm inventing my own battles. To do that plausibly and not make any of my generals look stupid unintentionally, I need to understand not just the "what" of real battles but the "why," and I'm relieved that's finally coming together for me.

After describing the battle in detail, Weller includes a brief discussion of the supposed mistakes on each side. He's obviously not fond of the "what-if" or blame games, and he's right that most of the classic criticisms would require the generals or their armies to have capabilities they lacked or to have perfect knowledge of the other side's intentions (which is a lot to ask even of commanders so high in the pantheon of all-time greats).

Just as an aside, after reading all three volumes of Weller's trilogy, I've come to suspect him of having a bit of a man-crush on Wellington. :-) For example, early in the book when he describes Wellington as having "the hard physical condition of a steeplechase jockey," I didn't just think, "Yes, Wellington's superior health and vigor relative to Napoleon in 1815 were important to the outcome of the battle," but also, "Yeah, I agree. He had a good body, all wiry and lean like that. For an occasionally obnoxious elitist Tory I would've regularly wanted to strangle in real life, he was pretty hot."

Anyway, as promised, my recommended reading list for anyone who wants to know more about Wellington and Waterloo.

For Waterloo:
The Battle, by Alessandro Barbero. Includes a basic overview of tactics and materials for those unfamiliar with flintlock-era battles, then tells the story of Waterloo in gripping, novelistic fashion.

Sharpe's Waterloo, by Bernard Cornwell. Not just novelistic but a novel, and probably a bit confusing if you haven't read some of the earlier Sharpe books or at least watched the movies. But it's one of Cornwell's best and brings Waterloo to life.

The Wellington chapter of John Keegan's The Mask of Command. A quick, vividly written battle story and character study.

On Wellington:
Wellington: A Personal History, by Christopher Hibbert. Good and fairly thorough single-volume biography.

Wellington: the Years of the Sword, by Elizabeth Longford. First of a two-volume biography, though I confess I've never read the second volume, Pillar of State, since Wellington was a better general than politician, and I've always been more interested in British history up to 1815 than afterward.


Donnell said...

Susan, fascinating report. I'm glad you suggested reading the trilogies in order. I'm also curious it sounds like the author goes into great depths about Wellington. It's my understanding that the Waterloo might have turned out quite differently but Napoleon wasn't even on the battleground at the time, he was inform? Does the author address this, or have I been misled, hence my need to read these books and get a firmer understanding. I love historical factual reading. Thanks for the referral! This is something my DH and friends would love to discuss over dinner Well done!

Susan Wilbanks said...

Donnell, Napoleon did indeed take an unusually hands-off approach to Waterloo, quite possibly because of ill health. That's why I had the aside about Wellington's better health and vigor being important to the outcome of the battle, because he was very much on the spot, making adjustments throughout the day. (The two men were the same age, born less than four months apart, but Wellington looks younger whenever you compare portraits from the same year, and he ended up living a LOT longer.) Napoleon spent most of the battle a little behind the battlefield, with battlefield command delegated to Marshal Ney.

Personally, I think it's impossible to really answer which was the better general between Wellington and Napoleon (though I hold the minority view and prefer Wellington) because Waterloo was their only meeting, and Napoleon was past his prime while Wellington commanded an army very inferior to the one he had when he was making his reputation in Spain.