Alessandro Barbero's The Battle: A New History of Waterloo

In an effort to learn more about some of the pivotal battles in history, I am starting to read books about those battles. The first book I read toward achieving greater knowledge was Alessandro Barbero’s The Battle: A New History of Waterloo.

Before reading this book, pretty much the only thing I knew about Waterloo was that Napoleon lost and Wellington won. Thanks to Barbero, I know a whole lot more.

Barbero sets Waterloo in the context of Napoleon’s return to power from exile on Elba by providing a brief description of the two battles immediately preceding Waterloo (Quatre Bras – between French Marshal Ney and Wellington; and Ligny – between Napoleon and Prussian Field Marshal Blucher) and then thoroughly exploring Waterloo from all sides.

I like how Barbero shows the battle from the perspective of the Allies and the French. For instance, he describes the attacks on Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte from the perspective of the defender and the attacker. He explains what it was like to defend against the constant pressure of the French light companies and what it was like to attack buildings that bristled with enemy infantry.

Another strength of the book is the brief chapters that Barbero sprinkles in about the tactics used during the battle and the various units involved (i.e. differences between the cavalry units and the differences in infantry units). These explanations help explain why the battle proceeded the way it did.

Finally, I like how Barbero brings his own analysis of what occurred that day. He refutes some popular beliefs and also criticizes where criticism is due. For example, he criticizes Wellington for leaving his left flank too weak with few reinforcements – this is just not historical hindsight, but he quotes the uneasiness of some of the British generals present at the battle on this issue. Barbero equally criticizes Napoleon for his tactics and Napoleon’s efforts to cover up his mistakes in his memoirs. Napoleon tried to shift blame to his subordinates, but Barbero points out several times why Napoleon was the one who was to blame.

The one item that bothered me about the book is the lack of good maps. As I have said in previous reviews, I am a visual learner and need good maps to follow along with a battle. Barbero includes some maps in the front, but they are not detailed enough and should have been spaced throughout the text.

Overall, Barbero does an excellent job in explaining and analyzing the events that occurred on that fateful day.

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