“Napoleon’s generalship was long held up as the pinnacle of military achievement—ironic, as his career ended in total failure.” So writes British historian Jeremy Black in “The Battle of Waterloo,” a new book that not only re-examines the June 1815 battle, but also places the campaign within the context of the warfare of the era. Notably, Black devotes considerable attention to the early successes and late-stage failures of Napoleon’s military career, illustrating how they impacted what transpired at Waterloo.
Though the author devotes only two chapters to recounting the battle itself, those sixty pages are the most compelling part of the book. Waterloo is generally remembered as a protracted struggle, but Black regards the British infantry’s ability to hold back the French early on—after four of the five battalions in Bijlandts [Dutch-Belgian] brigade were forced to retreat—as a key moment in the battle and campaign. From then on, the defense-minded British maintained the upper hand, despite the fact that Napoleon had the larger cavalry (15,600 to 13,350) and more cannon (246 to 157). Black also notes the deleterious effect that rain and mud had on French forces, as they hampered Napoleon’s ability to move artillery and men forward at the desired pace. Meanwhile, the British commander (Arthur, Duke of Wellington), positioned many of his troops on the reverse side of the Mont St. Jean ridge, shielding them from view and most artillery fire.
To be sure, Napoleon’s inability to appreciate the strengths of the British and Prussian forces played a crucial role in the French defeat. “But even had Napoleon won the battle, he would still have been in a dire situation,” notes Black, reminding the reader that Waterloo was the last stage in a story that had begun with Napoleon’s failure in Russia in 1812. “Anyway, the rapid defeat and overthrow of Napoleon were a general good as far as Europe was concerned,” he continues. “Napoleonic success at Waterloo would simply have committed Europe to a lengthier war and France to eventual defeat and probably harsher peace terms.”
Today, of course, the name Waterloo remains synonymous with crushing defeat. But in this book, Black is intent on reminding us that Waterloo represents much more than dramatic personal failure. “Napoleon’s France was the first of the modern rogue states,” he begins. “Waterloo is thus symbolic: of a key moment in history and of the struggle against the unreason of tyranny.”