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The Battle: A New History of Waterloo [Paperback]

Alessandro Barbero , John Cullen

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Book Description

June 13 2006
At Waterloo, some 70,000 men under Napoleon and an equal number under Wellington faced one another in a titanic and bloody struggle. In the end, as John Keegan notes, contemporaries felt that Napoleon's defeat had "reversed the tide of European history." Even 190 years later, the name Waterloo resounds.

Italian historian Alessandro Barbero's majestic new account stands apart from previous British and French histories by giving voice to all the nationalities that took part. Invoking the memories of British, French, and Prussian soldiers, Barbero meticulously re-creates the conflict as it unfolded, from General Reille's early afternoon assault on the chateau of Hougoumont, to the desperate last charge of Napoleon's Imperial Guard as evening settled in. From privates to generals, Barbero recounts individual miracles and tragedies, moments of courage and foolhardiness, skillfully blending them into the larger narrative of the battle's extraordinary ebb and flow. One is left with indelible images: cavalry charges against soldiers formed in squares; the hand-to-hand combat around farmhouses; endless cannon balls and smoke. And, finally, a powerful appreciation of the inevitability and futility of war.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 340 pages
  • Publisher: Walker & Company; Reprint edition (June 13 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802715001
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802715005
  • Product Dimensions: 23 x 17 x 3 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 408 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #65,771 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

From Publishers Weekly

This new and valuable history of the 1815 French defeat begins with a minimum of background for the non-Napoleonic student, but does superlatively well once Wellington and Napoleon have arrayed their armies for battle (and does not forget the Prussians waiting in the wings). The narrative is unusually accessible, and as experienced readers march on, they will find some novel insights and analyses. For Barbero, cavalry was not on the whole effective, but it could usefully suppress artillery, a welcome change from the usual denigration of everybody's equine forces (even the British are given credit for superior horses). The role of the Prussians, and also of German allied troops in Wellington's ranks, is studied in much more detail than in more Anglocentric accounts, and that many of the Prussians were half-trained militia is emphasized. Finally, Napoleon's army did not go off completely thrashed and in disarray, but substantially maintained order and discipline for several days. The author also does a better job than many popular historians in dealing with factors such as rate of fire, accurate range and the sights, sounds and smells of a Napoleonic battlefield. And while rejecting certain "patriotic myths," he supports the concept of Waterloo as a battle of unusual intensity. (July)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Italian historian Barbero offers a very readable narrative of one of the most significant battles in European history. From soggy June 17 (the day before) to the bloody night of June 18-19, he describes Waterloo as if telling a story, including details--such as both Wellington's and Napoleon's use of telescopes to keep an eye on one another, and the fact that experienced soldiers smeared their blankets with mud to waterproof them--to fill in the picture for those unacquainted with the fine points of Napoleonic-era warfare. Barbero also provides enough information on tactics to depict how and why as well as what the commanders were trying to do, which makes the book an excellent resource for those with limited knowledge of the battle. It also puts such vexing questions as whether Napoleon should have attacked earlier in the day, and to what extent Ney and Grouchy left undone what they ought to have done, in the context of what the various commanders knew and had reason to expect. Frieda Murray
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.6 out of 5 stars  43 reviews
36 of 38 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Solid Blow by Blow Account Feb. 13 2006
By Calvin Durham - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I bought this book after reading a reviewer's account of the book that coined it as "reads like a novel". Well, it does not read as a novel to me. However, that slight criticism does not prevent it from being an excellent book.

I am by not means a historic scholar on Napoleon or the Napoleonic Wars. I am rather an interested "lay person" on the subject who has read several books on the subject. That said, I found the book very interesting in terms of understanding the battle as well as the manner of tatics and fighting of the era. Barbero gives a good bit of CONCISE background on tatics and a few other items to help familiarize the novice with such subject matter to help understand the actual actions taken by the armies. This for me alone was worth the price of the book.

As I mentioned, it is not a novel type read, but it is a great overview of the battle as well as informative on the individual actions of the battle and reads as such. Think of it more as setting the board and then giving the play-by-play of the actions taken.

The chapters are short and allow for easy breaks in reading when you don't have a bulk of time for setting aside of reading. One can pick it up at lunch or in a break and read easily and arrive at convenient and natural break area. Some chapters are as few as three pages long while others at a bit longer. But again, Barbero sets each action (and background) as move by move chess match along with personal accounts from some of those involved.

My only real criticism is the maps. I had a bit of trouble following the armies involved and their movements. The maps in the front are helpful at the start but lose their helpfulness once the battle begins. Thankfully I had a book on my shelf that had maps that helped me follow the action more closely with better references. For example, the sunken road is mentioned often, but never even shows up on the maps. A more detailed series of maps would have been helpful to compliment Barbero's play-by-play action.

Overall this critcism is minor at best. If you are looking for a book to give you the detailed actions of the battle as well as some good concise background on Napoleonic Warfare, then you have found a book to your liking.
32 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Masterpiece Aug. 18 2006
By W. B. Smith - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This is an superb book that totally engages the reader and that not only provides a feel for what it was like to be on the field of battle, but also provides well researched counterpoints to previously accepted history. For example:

The attack(s)on Hougomount were not a wasted effort for although there were no more than two thousand men in the chateau , the total number of Allied foreces committed to this action was much higher.

Mouton did not in fact receive orders from Napoleon to cover the French right wing from the Prussians (as Napoleon maintains in his memoirs). Mouton's troops 'mission was to support the attack of d'Erlon's I Corps, and they were taken completely by surprise when the Prussians appeared on their flank.'

The great French cavalry charges could not have occurred without Napoleons explicit orders as the preparation was taking place only a few hundred yards from him.

The French cavalry was not a spent force after the great charges but remained an effective threat and gave effective support for the remainder of the battle.

The final attack by elements of the Guard was not carried out in sufficient numbers, but what in fact Napoleon was relying on was the psychological effect of the advance over his adversaries.

The French retreat was perhaps conducted more orderly than has been previously portrayed as no French Eagle was captured during the retreat despite the pursuing Prussians.

The book is almost written in the style of a novel and eloquently interweaves first hand accounts throughout but the author is still able to provide the grand strategy and new insights into the battle to keep the scholars happy. The author brilliantly covers the brutality, savagery and uncertainity of battle, that one feels as though they were present. The author also gives coverage to the aftermath of the battle, to the dying and wounded on the field and the unrelentless and revenge driven pursuit of the Prussians.

This has to be one of the best books on the Battle of Waterloo and gives all the partcipants impartial coverage. In fact, this is one of the strong aspects of this book. I became totally engrossed in this book and found it both enthralling and illuninating. Highly recommended reading!
24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Waterloo from an objective point of view Feb. 28 2006
By F. W. Porras - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Finally, a study of the famous battle which takes to accout EACH AND EVERY side to the battle: British, French, Prussian, Belgian, Dutch, and the minor German states.

For Barbero, Waterloo wasn't won just because of the British units. While the Dutch and Belgians, being mostly either militia units or former members of the French army, while some of their units did give ground, some stood up and fought the advancing French to the utmost (especially the professional units which were formerly a part of the French army). The Prussians did everything they could to fulfill their General's promise of coming to the aid of their allies. Barbero even did not forget the desperate struggle of the minor German state units like the Hanoverians and the Brandenburgers in the left wing of the allied army, a place of the battle mostly being left out in other accounts of Waterloo. He shows how close... very close... the French came to breaking the allied line. "A near run thing" indeed. And takes a look at the poignant aftermath as soldiers absorb the horror of the days after. The number of dead in that single piece of land wasn't surpassed until the American Civil War. Europeans never involved themselves in a war of that scale for 100 years until 1914 when an even greater horror was unleashed.

He argues against the reasons French apologists give as to why Napoleon made so many bad decisions. He give a great detailed account on the fight in famous places like Hougoumont and La Haye Saint and emphasizes the importance of each site. He especially gives tribute to the bravery of the defenders of these places particularly the Coldstream Guards and the King's German Legion.

Clear, entertaining, detailed down to each particular unit's actions, he approaches the event not in the traditional method of dividing the battle into 4 phases, but presents the sequence of events by the hour as they simultaneously happen so the reader has a clear perception of what is happening in the whole field at a certain time. From the assault at Hougoumont to the attack by d'Erlon's Corps in the Allied center and the left, to the gradual arrival of the Prussian Corps and their attack on Placenoit, to the charge of the French cavalry (which wasn't an all-out charge as is usually mistaken, but a methodical advance of horse battalions through the allied line which was broken up in squares, to the final assault of the Middle Guard (not the Old Guard as is always mistaken) and the subsequent retreat and rear guard action of the Old Guard.

To me this is the best account of the battle. It doesn't hurt either that it is written in an entertaining and clear style. It shows glory, excitement, courage, steadfastness, in battle as well as fear, terror and horror. A must for military buffs.
26 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A New Look at a Famous Battle Aug. 2 2005
By John Matlock - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The publishing of a new book on a battle fought almost two hundred years ago has to bring up a question of why bother. The story of Waterloo has been told so many times, by so many people, that you have to wonder just what a re-telling can add. ==The answer is: 'quite a lot.'

First, this new book is written by an Italian historian and novelist. He has an outsiders viewpoint that bring a perspective different than that of a French or English historian. He treats the Prussian Army, advancing from the north with more attention than normally shown. He gives the German forces actually serving under Wellington more attention than they are usually shown. His novelist experience give him a writing style far more interesting than the normal dry writing of the typical historian.

Second, he is writing at a time when a definitive book on Waterloo hasn't been done in several years. As a reult, new material that is constantly being found can be incorporated into the new book.

This book just covers the battle. There is an absolute minimum of background information taking up space. But there is more insight to the overall events and their aftermath in terms of the overall impact on history.

This new book is a welcome addition to the literare on this most famous battle.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Insightful, Well Written Aug. 31 2005
By John Hamill - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Written by an Italian historian of the medieval era who is also a novelist, "The Battle" is engagingly written and well translated, using many first-hand accounts from all major participating nations. Because the author is Italian, his book isn't Anglo-centric, Franco-centric, or Germano-centric; all participants are objectively covered without losing the drama of the battle and without the booster-ism and cheerleading of other books. Like many military history books, however, there are few useful maps, but the terrain and deployments are well described and easy to understand - at least if you have some knowledge of the battle. Despite this flaw, the author gives a genuinely new and different account of the battle with many insights; the examples are many. For instance, the Allied infantry deployed in four ranks instead of two in order to facilitate forming square, a clear break from usual practice. D'Erlon's early afternoon attack was not made in massive columns, as has been thought, but largely in successive lines - probably in reaction to experience in the Peninsula War. Lobau's corps was initially sent to support D'Erlon after his failed attack, and not to oppose the Prussians as stated in earlier accounts. In fact, the author shows that Napoleon had not even done the simple reasoning to deduce that the troops approaching him couldn't possibly have been French and could only have been Prussian. The British cavalry counterattack which reached the Grand Battery had little effect on French artillery, despite claims to the contrary, and in effect destroyed the Allied cavalry. So when the massive French cavalry attacks occurred, there was little the Allied cavalry could do. Allied infantry casualties piled up, and had the attacks lasted much longer, the squares would have broken. So French cavalry dominance and skirmisher superiority, neither of which had been the case in Spain, along with artillery superiority, nearly won the battle for Napoleon despite French errors. Finally, partly in the hope that their mere appearance would put the Allies to flight, the Imperial Guard was brought forward. Not of their former quality, the Guard advanced in squares, not columns as has been thought. It was touch and go for some time, but the Allies held firm, and the French fled in panic. Throughout the book, the psychological state of the men in the ranks is key to understanding the battle. In short, this book presents the latest findings on the battle, is well researched, well reasoned, well written, and well worth reading.

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