Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles

. 9780062312051. Crane, David. Went the Day Well? Witnessing Waterloo. Knopf. Apr. 2015. 384p. illus. maps. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780307594921. $30; ebk. ISBN 9781101874639. HIST
OrangeReviewStarAs the bicentennial of the Battle of Waterloo (June 18) draws near, the books appear. These two, by freelance historian Crane (Empires of the Dead; Scott of the Antarctic), and historical fiction writer Cornwell (The Empty Throne; The Pagan Lord) are near -perfect bookends to the event.Drawing on letters and memoirs, Crane paints a varied portrait of Englishmen's preoccupations in that extraordinary age. Not all wished for victory over the usurper; there was still a radical tradition in English politics though it had been largely stifled by repressive war legislation. In assessing England's 20 years of war, Crane explains how the national debt soared to £861 million and poverty abounded. Although England emerged as an undisputed ruler of the world's trade, the chance of desperately needed political reform had been squashed and would not emerge for another two decades. How was it, Crane asks, that a war that had mobilized the citizenry for 20 years left them, at the end, in worse shape than they'd been before? Crane does not slight the battle, but the addition of other narratives results in a richer portrait of what was being thought about at a pivotal moment in history.Cornwell is a respected writer of historical fiction, specializing in narratives of battle. (See his "Sharpe" series about an ordinary infantryman during the Napoleonic Wars.) No one, not even the great military historian John Keegan, describes or explains battle better than Cornwell, and that is one of the signal virtues of this account. There are no new findings, yet Cornwell illustrates so clearly and with such an assured sense of pacing that this messy and confusing set of battles is easier to follow, understand, and thus appreciate. Copious illustrations assist the narrative.
VERDICT History buffs will relish both of these works. Readers should also consider Brendan Simms's The Longest Afternoon. [See Prepub Alert, 11/17/14.]
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