Saturday, June 18, 2016

Book Review: Waterloo; The History of Four Days, Three Armies and Three Battles by Bernard Cornwell

As both a wargamer and history buff, my favorite period is that part of the "Horse & Musket Era," between the Seven Years War/French and Indian War to the Napoleonic Wars.

Napoleon ruled over a continental empire for nearly ten years before he abdicated.  Everyone thought the wars were over, but "The Corsican Ogre" had other ideas.  Escaping his exile on Elba, Napoleon launched his Hundred Days campaign.

But the Corsican's comeback was cut short at the Battle of Waterloo.

Much of course has been written about this climatic clash.

Here in the U.S., Bernard Cornwell's first non-fiction book, Waterloo; The History of Four Days, Three Armies and Three Battles was released about a month before the battle's bicentennial (May 2015, but was released in the U.K. in September 2014).

My wife bought me this book just in time for Father's Day last year.  Since I didn't open my gift until after the 200th Anniversary, I made it a point to read it in time for the 201st Anniversary.

Most of what I've previously read about the battle comes from articles, or chapters in books about the Napoleonic Wars in general.  The only book I did read that was solely devoted to Waterloo was a compilation of eyewitness accounts.  I can't remember the title or author because it was nearly 30 years ago when I read it, and nothing I've seen in my Google-search looks familiar.

Bernard Cornwell is an historical novelist, not an historian.  And this is what makes his contribution to Waterloo lore so readable for a general audience.  True, there are tomes chock-full of facts, figures and statistical data.  These impressive works offer a wealth of information to historians, or any Napoleonic subject-matter expert.

But Bernard Cornwell's literary talents brings the 201year-old drama to life.  Sometimes, especially during the moments when crucial decisions needed to be made, the author will switch the narrative to present tense in order give the reader a sense of "you-are-here-now," and the fate of Europe still is very much in doubt.

I happen to like present tense and use it as much as possible in my own writing.  I'm also a fan of Bernard Cornwell's work.  So overall, I enjoyed Waterloo; The History of Four Days, Three Armies and Three Battles.

The book enjoys an 87% approval rating (4 & 5-star reviews) on

However, not everyone is happy with Cornwell's recent work.  Nearly two dozen 1 & 2-star reviewers cited the author's Anglo-centric bias, along with contributing nothing new to the study of the battle.  They also hated the intermittent use of present tense.

I didn't think Cornwell "waved the Union Jack" at the expense of everyone else who fought on that hot summer day.  I felt he was even-handed at directing praise, or criticism towards the leaders and participants.  Although he seemed to have a greater dislike for the Prince of Orange than even Napoleon

As much as I'd like to give the book a 5-star rating (I'm giving it 4 instead), I felt there were some shortcomings.  Just about every rater assigning less than 5-stars to the book commented on how much the author repeated himself.  Key participants are re-introduced, the term "stone [rock], paper, scissors," is used repeatedly to describe the strengths, weaknesses, and interaction of Napoleonic infantry, cavalry and artillery.  Even the captions underneath the pictures were repetitions of the main narrative.

There are also frequent mentions of the various Waterloo controversies.  Most of these are merely acknowledged and not delved into.

Overall though, Bernard Cornwell weaves an engaging tale for readers looking for an introductory-level overview, or something not weighed-down by exposition and statistical data.


Grover Groove said...

I think you will find more readable and interesting this other book about the battle: "Seventy images for hundred days"

You´re welcome!!

P. S. nice and useful blog, carry on!!

Chris said...


I think the book composed of eye-witness accounts you mentioned as having read many years ago is David Howarth's Waterloo: Day of Battle. Not my current favorite by a long shot, but I much enjoyed it at the time.

Best regards,

Chris Johnson

Ted Henkle said...

Thank you both for your comments, compliments and book recommendations!