Waterloo Voices 1815: The Battle at First Hand by Martyn Beardsley

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Waterloo Voices 1815: The Battle at First Hand by Martyn Beardsley

Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: One of the pivotal events of the nineteenth century, the battle of Waterloo, brought an end to two decades of war in Europe. This history of the epic battle from the people who were there at the time, as opposed to from the standard historical and political view, tells the story differently and very effectively.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: September 2017
Publisher: Amberley
ISBN: 9781445660165

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The battle of Waterloo, fought on a midsummer day on a muddy field in Belgium, brought an end to two decades of war in Europe. As one of the pivotal events of the nineteenth century, it has inevitably been the focus of many accounts over the last two hundred years.

This book, in effect written by the people who were there at the time, tells the story differently. It was Beardsley's intention to do so through the words of people who were there at the time. In doing so, he has trawled through memoirs, letters, diaries, published accounts, and eyewitness testimonies of officers and ordinary soldiers, friend and foe, written by officers, and members of the rank and file, to produce extracts from different stages of the battle, as well as the before and after of the campaign. To balance it with a different perspective, he includes writings from others such as Lady Magdalene de Lancey, who followed her husband to the battlefield (where he was among those who perished) and wrote to her brother to keep him informed of events, and the travel writer Charlotte Eaton.

It takes as a starting point Napoleon Bonaparte's escape from Elba, his return to France, and England's being 'startled from its repose' by the news, as soldiers throughout the land were ordered to get their knapsacks in order and brace themselves for battle once again. Further sections trace the period during which the forces gathered, 'the calm before the storm', the battle itself, and the terrible aftermath. Nobody who was there at the time ever tried to pretend that it had been a glorious occasion. The Duke of Wellington himself said that he never wished to see another battle, as it had been so shocking, particularly the sight of brave men on both sides equally matched, cutting each other to pieces in the name of war.

The result is a telling account of how Waterloo affected everybody, not just the soldiers and their commanders, but their families as well. There are several very telling, particularly poignant descriptions, of the scenes of desolation that were left to remind the survivors that it had not just been a bad dream. An anonymous British correspondent in Antwerp wrote of the ground being completely ploughed up in many places with the charge of the cavalry, the field strewn with fragments of broken arms, belts and scabbards, French love letters (and only one English letter, from a soldier's wife to her husband) among other things. Charlotte Eaton observed a human hand, almost reduced to a skeleton, 'outstretched above the ground, as if it had raised itself from the grave', as well as the appalling sight of plunder being carried on during the battle by 'human vultures', remorselessly rifling the pockets of officers who had just fallen of their watches and money.

Even some of the defeated would not be bowed. There is a description of one French soldier severely wounded, as he was offered a flask of weak gin and water by an Englishman who remarked how many thousand had suffered for the ambition of one man. On returning the flask, the wounded man looked around at the dead bodies surrounding them both as he cried, 'Vive Napoleon! La gloire de la France!'

As a history of the epic battle from the other side of the tracks or the shop floor, so to speak, this serves its purpose well. We may know the political background well enough, but Beardsley presents us with the whole ghastly business from a different view.

For an equally readable account of what happened in Europe after the battle, as well as in part another retelling of the clash of arms itself, we can recommend Waterloo: The Aftermath by Paul O'Keeffe. The social background of England at the time is well examined in 1815: Regency Britain in the Year of Waterloo by Stephen Bates. For an entertaining and imaginative slice of counter-factual historical fiction exploring what if things had happened otherwise, False Lights by K J Whittaker is also worth your attention.

Buy Waterloo Voices 1815: The Battle at First Hand by Martyn Beardsley at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Waterloo Voices 1815: The Battle at First Hand by Martyn Beardsley at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Waterloo Voices 1815: The Battle at First Hand by Martyn Beardsley at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Waterloo Voices 1815: The Battle at First Hand by Martyn Beardsley at Amazon.com.


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