Book Review: Waterloo by Alan Forrest.

Many books will come out this year and try to explain the tactics and strategy of the Battle 613nhzxJNMLof Waterloo. Others will try to tell the soldiers story, some might even concentrate on the political ramifications. However there will not be many that try to understand the significance of the battle from a historiographical perspective.

Alan Forrest sets out to put the Battle in perspective, to set it in the context of the immediate aftermath of Napoleon’s fall, and the collective memory of the nations involved. So many historians over the last 20 years have tried to lay claim to the battle, this book goes a long way to explaining why the debate is so complex.

It begins with a slightly bumpy but conventional description of the battle. In which we see a brief, mostly critical appreciation of all the commanders. Elementary passages of the well known fight, familiar to many enthusiasts account for much of the rest of the first part. Nevertheless there is a deal of interest to be found here, not last that Forrest appears to agree with Huw Davies’s theory that the battle as a needless occurrence, and a diplomatically driven gesture by Wellington, who sacrificed the lives of his troops for later political gain and that Napoleon was doomed from the beginning.
However as the author apologieticaly notes at the start, he is not an a military historian and the book is not strictly military history. I found there to be a few glitches which the author assures me will be ironed out in paperback and e-book editions. I will simply say here for the uninitiated that the Duke of Wellington and Blucher did not meet on the evening of the 17th of June at La Belle Alliance.

Nevertheless do not dismiss this book. Once the guns fall silent the road smooths out and the pace picks up. The main point of the book is to show the impact of the battle at the time, attempting to explain why we think about Waterloo the way we do today. In this sense it is the legacy of the Battle that is the driving force of this book. A subject, the waters of which, are darkly muddied by many national agendas, and which is excellently illuminated here
One of the biggest questions is why Britain remained the central figure in the play? As Forrest astutely notes, it is not so much that Britain hijacked the battle, but that the other countries let it fall from their memory so that by WW1, it was almost utterly obliterated from their national consciousness’ leaving only the British story intact. He shows how the battle was soon made the property of politicians, authors and others who had not fought there, and who can be principally blamed for the proliferation of the “British” myth. How in France defeat was built up into a giant monument to former glory, how Napoleon was not defeated by Wellington or Blucher but by God. This monument which promptly fell on them in 1871 and likewise ignored Much of the real record. How the Prussian and German States, ignored it in preference to Leipzig, the Dutch polarised its memory around the Prince of Orange and the Belgians were so busy staving off Dutch overlordship that first the Napoleonic regime seemed more attractive to remember.
In essence it is a book whose subject appeals to me as a small but valuable addition to a Waterloo library, a vital post script for those emerging from the avalanche of heavier tomes concentrating on the main battle and its political ramifications.


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