(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

The French writer Victor Hugo once grandiosely declared: “the battle of Waterloo was a change of front for the universe.” While it is doubtful that such an assertion should be made for the entire universe, the remark does reflect the profound impact that Waterloo had on Europe in the nineteenth century. Few battles have changed the course of world history as did the one fought near a small Belgian town in June, 1815, and “Waterloo” is still used as a synonym for irrevocable defeat.

While the story of the battle and the events leading up to it has been told many times before, those accounts have often been colored and distorted by nationalist bias or individual self-defense. In this book, David Chandler, a British military historian, seeks to explore and explain the Napoleonic catastrophe in a balanced way, giving credit and blame equal voice. The result is a dispassionate, analytical study, typical of the best sort of military history.

The book opens with the escape of Napoleon from forced exile on the island of Elba in February, 1815. Landing on the French Riviera on March 1, the Emperor, with about one thousand companions, advanced toward Paris and recovery of his throne. So commenced the famous Hundred Days of Napoleonic revival.

Napoleon’s successor on the French throne, the Bourbon King Louis XVIII, dispatched a regiment of troops to confront Bonaparte. At Grenoble, Napoleon walked out to meet the royal troops, saying “if there is one among you who wishes to kill his Emperor, here I am.” With that, instead of arresting him, the King’s men cheered, fell to their knees, or embraced the man who had brought so much glory to France. As he continued northward, more and more Frenchmen hastened to join Napoleon; so many shifted their allegiance that Napoleon is said to have written to King Louis: “there is no need to send any more troops; I already have enough.” Within only twenty-three days after his escape from Elba, Napoleon was back in command at the Tuileries Palace in Paris, and King Louis had fled to find sanctuary in England.

Meanwhile, news of the restoration of the “ogre” Napoleon reached Vienna, where a Congress was being held to arrange peace settlements following the earlier defeat and exile of Bonaparte. Among those present at Vienna was Czar Alexander I of Russia, who, when he heard the news, turned to another delegate, the British general, Lord Wellington, saying: “it is time for you to save the world again.” The Vienna Congress then declared Napoleon an outlaw, and vowed that Europe would never make peace with him. The delegates hurried away from Vienna to bring their armies together in the Seventh Coalition against Napoleon and France. Austria, Prussia, and Russia promised to supply a total of 700,000 men for the Coalition armies. The British said they would furnish a subsidy of five million pounds, and, although the best British forces happened to be fighting in America at the time, Britain promised to send as many men as could be spared. As matters turned out, the armies of the Coalition did not exceed 500,000 men, and a considerable number of those never saw any battle action. The Duke of Wellington went immediately to Belgium to command the British, Belgian, and Dutch forces being collected there. It was decided that he and the Prussian Commander, Field Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, would assemble a force of about 150,000 in Belgium with more to be brought in later, if necessary.

On his side, Napoleon sent out peace feelers to the Coalition leaders, which were ignored or unanswered: they were determined to extinguish the trouble-maker once and for all. Realizing that he would have to fight to survive, Napoleon then ordered the renewal of conscription in France. The earlier wars had so decimated French manpower, however, that adding the conscripts to his surviving veterans and the troops from the Bourbon army, Napoleon could raise only about 300,000 men. This necessitated a strategic decision; should he take a defensive position around Paris, try to raise more troops, and wait for the Coalition armies to arrive; or should he take the offensive and strike into Belgium before Wellington’s and Blücher’s forces had coalesced? He decided on the latter course, and created the Armee de Nord as the strike force. By mid-May, Napoleon had gathered some 232,000 frontline troops; about half of those he assigned to the Armee du Nord, the remainder he divided into smaller groupings and placed them at points along the French frontiers to confront the Austrian and Russian armies of the Coalition, should they arrive. At this point, it should be noted that Waterloo: The Hundred Days contains numerous excellent maps showing the dispositions of the different armies by Napoleon and his opponents during the whole campaign.

Another strong point of Chandler’s book is his chapter on the rival commanders. As to Napoleon, Chandler says that the Emperor’s accomplishments rested on two groups of personal attributes. First was his complete understanding and mastery of the military profession. Not an innovator himself, Napoleon borrowed the ideas of others and used them to great effect; “he contributed little to the armies of France—except victory.” Second there was Bonaparte’s dominating personality, to which was added a tremendous capacity for hard work, an almost photographic memory, and an ability to “speak to the souls of his men.” Napoleon’s weaknesses, on the other hand, were his predictability and a tendency to underrate his opponents. Napoleon’s enemies by 1815 knew pretty well in advance how he would act in a given situation. As Wellington remarked after the Waterloo battle: “The French came in the same old way, and were repulsed in the same old way.” Napoleon’s lack of respect for his opponents is illustrated by remarks to Marshal Soult on the eve of the battle: “Because you have been beaten by Wellington [in Spain] you consider him a good general. But I tell you that Wellington is a bad general and the English are bad troops. This whole affair will be no more serious than swallowing one’s breakfast.”

Chandler characterizes the Duke of Wellington as a stern, patrician taskmaster, very hard on his officers and men; constantly criticizing their efforts, and pointing out their failings and shortcomings. At the same time, Wellington proved to be excellent in strategy and logistics, and fearless in a crisis.


(The entire section is 2641 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Best Sellers. XLI, September, 1981, p. 224.

Library Journal. CVI, June 1, 1981, p. 1218.