Book Talk

How the Battle of Waterloo Changed the World

On a horrible day 200 years ago, two great commanders, Napoleon and Wellington, fought a decisive battle and the world turned upside down.

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Wellington addresses his troops at Waterloo in this 1903 lithograph.

Two hundred years ago, Napoleon Bonaparte and The Duke of Wellington met at Waterloo, in what is now Belgium. At stake was world dominance.  

Many books have been written about this epic battle but most have concentrated on military tactics and strategy. In Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles, Bernard Cornwell, author of the best-selling Sharpe series of historical novels, has made his first foray into non-fiction to tell the story of ordinary soldiers caught up in the chaos and terror of the battle.

Talking from his home on Cape Cod, he explains why Waterloo made Great Britain the dominant, global power for the next 100 years; how Wellington’s keen eye for geography was a decisive factor in the battle; and recalls his strange childhood in Britain with a fundamentalist sect known as the “Peculiar People.”

Plenty of books deal with the technical aspects of the battle, with divisions and battalions moving here and there. I wanted to say what it was actually like to be there on that horrible day.

You are best known for historical fiction. What made you try your hand at nonfiction for this book?

I always wanted to write this book. Waterloo is such a compelling and dramatic story, full of great characters. Plenty of books deal with the technical aspects of the battle, with divisions and battalions moving here and there. I wanted to say what it was actually like to be there on that horrible day.

It followed a night of tremendous rain and cloudbursts. Wellington said that even in the monsoons in India, he’d never known rain like it. To wake up cold and damp, wet and terrified, then you have this slaughter in a very small space. By evening there were over 200,000 men struggling to kill each other within four square miles.

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You have a rather quirky background. Tell us about ‘the Peculiar People’ and how you came to America?

Those two are hardly connected. The Peculiar People were a sect in Essex in England. I was a war baby. My father was a Canadian Airman and my mother was in the Women’s Royal Air Force in Britain. They should never have met. But I was the result.

I was adopted by this couple that belonged to the Peculiar People. They were essentially evangelicals, with a huge list of things of which they disapproved: cosmetics, films, theatre, even symphony concerts, books that weren’t the Bible or Christian books, Roman Catholics, wine, tobacco, and television. They absolutely detested television. It was an uncomfortable and awkward childhood.

But I ended up going into television [as a career] and while I was working for the BBC in Northern Ireland, an American blonde walked out of an elevator. I said to the reporter I was filming with, “I’m gonna marry that one.” And I did.

How is writing nonfiction different from writing fiction? Was it harder for you?

I actually didn’t find it harder. I did find it very different. The difficulty in writing fiction is finding the story. Some fiction writers plot the whole story before they even begin writing, but I can’t do that. I write the book to find out what happens and that is actually quite difficult.

Napoleon had been defeated and sent to Elba. I’m sure Wellington thought that was the end of him

Obviously, I didn’t have to do that with Waterloo because the story is provided by history. What was difficult was to find the memoirs, letters and diaries–French, Prussian and British ones–that described the day. I ended up with this vast pile of books and papers with post-it notes all over them, trying to stitch this lot together.

You say Wellington was “possessed of a keen eye for ground.” How did landscape and geography affect the battle?

It affected it hugely, as I imagine it affects all battles and always has. Wellington was a superb attacking general, and unmatched as a defensive general. He had been appointed British Ambassador to Paris in 1814, when Napoleon first abdicated and was sent to Elba. On his way to Paris he did a tour of Holland.

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Napoleon’s rival, the Duke of Wellington, was superb at defensive strategy on the battlefield. This portrait was painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence around 1817.

At that time Belgium was part of Holland and its existence was guaranteed by British troops. Wellington toured the French border to see whether the defences were adequate. I don’t think he ever thought he’d have to fight again. Napoleon had been defeated and sent to Elba. I’m sure Wellington thought that was the end of him. But he traveled up to Brussels and made a note of the ridge of Waterloo. He even had a map made of it. We still have the map with his notes on it.

What he always looked for, if he was going to fight a defensive battle, was a ridge. It didn’t have to be a very high ridge, and the one at Waterloo at Mont St. Jean is actually a very low ridge. The ridge is the line you’re going to defend. But he doesn’t post his troops on top of the ridge, and he certainly doesn’t put them in front of the ridge where they’re exposed to enemy cannon fire. He puts them behind, on the reverse slope. That’s what he looked for.

The French, who are staring at his ridge, can see his cannons, because obviously they have to be on the front side of the ridge. And they can see various horsemen and people on top of the ridge. What they can’t see is what’s behind the ridge, where his main force is.

You tell the story from the point of view of the ordinary soldier. Are there particular characters that inspired you?

The one I like most of all is Paul Weaver. We don’t know why this poor man joined the British cavalry. He really wasn’t cut out to be a soldier. But he was there and he was going to do his bit. There comes a moment in the battle where his regiment has take on a battalion of French heavy cavalry. Our chap charges away and clashes his sword against a Frenchman’s sword. The Frenchman shouts, “Vive l’Empereur!”—his war cry.

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In this illustration, Napoleon seeks refuge on the road to Paris as he flees pursuing troops after his defeat at Waterloo on June 18, 1815.

But both of them decide the game isn’t worth a candle. They didn’t want to hurt each other. So they both rode on. But Weaver is impressed by this because he doesn’t have a battle cry of his own. He’s a good Methodist and he thinks, I need to shout something.” So he shouts “The sword of the Lord and of Gideon!”

At that point, somebody clobbers him over the back of the head and knocks him off his horse. He gets bayoneted and stuck with a lance; somebody shoots his thumb off, then the French come along and steal everything he has including his trousers. For most men that was what the battle was like. Farce and horror.

Nelson and Churchill are Britain’s most popular and colorful military heroes. Wellington gave his name to a boot and a beef dish, but not much else, did he?

‘The Iron Duke,’ as Wellington was known, was not as approachable as Churchill or Nelson. At Waterloo, the men said that when he rode along the line, which he did all day, nobody cheered. On the other hand, they had great faith in him. In 1815, nobody would have denied that the two greatest soldiers of the age were Napoleon and Wellington.

The 19th century is Britain’s century. Waterloo finishes any hopes of France’s rivaling Britain as the dominant power in the world

Napoleon was an extraordinary warlord and a great strategist. Wellington was the same age as Napoleon—46. He’d been fighting just as long and is the only major figure in military history, who can boast of never losing a battle. So these are the two top seeds. But they have never actually faced each other in battle, which gives the whole story of Waterloo an added piquancy. The two greatest soldiers of the age, at long last, meet.

Later, Wellington had a pretty disastrous career as a politician. He expected his Cabinet and Parliament to simply obey him, like the army. He said, “Well, do this.” But he got through that period of unpopularity as prime minister and by the time he was in his old age, he was immensely popular. More people turned out to his funeral than did to Princess Di’s.

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Wellington took advantage of landscape features in his battles. At Waterloo, shown in this panorama, he placed his forces behind a ridge.

Did researching and writing this book change your view of Napoleon?

Yes, it made me admire him far more than I used to. He’s an incredibly intelligent man. He’s an attractively intelligent man.

You and I would enjoy having dinner with Napoleon. He’d be a very amusing and stimulating companion. In many ways, he was also an enlightened ruler. His Code Napoleon is an extremely enlightened law code. At the same time this is a man who had a very, very low threshold for boredom. I think he was addicted to war. General Robert E. Lee, at Fredericksburg said, “It is well that war is so dreadful, otherwise we would grow too fond of it.”

Napoleon would never have agreed with that. War was his drug. There’s no evidence that Wellington enjoyed war. He said after Waterloo, and I believe him, “I pray to God that I have fought my last battle.” He spent much of the battle saying to the men, “If you survive, if you just stand there and repel the French, I’ll guarantee you a generation of peace.” He thought the point of war was peace.

How did Waterloo change the world?

The 19th century is Britain’s century. Waterloo finishes any hopes of France’s rivaling Britain as the dominant power in the world. That is what they were actually fighting over. That fight goes all the way back to the Seven Years War. That is a great British victory because it gets rid of France from Canada. But the moment you remove France from Canada, the Thirteen Colonies no longer need the Red Coats.

So, the unforeseen consequence is the American Revolution. The French are the Americans strongest allies. The largest army at Yorktown was the French army. They see that as a huge victory for France. In 1976, at the Bicentennial, they issued a stamp showing a bare-breasted Marianne hacking down a British lion. At her feet is a tiny baby wearing a sash. On the sash it says, Les Etats Unis (The United States).

How did writing this book affect you, personally? Will it be your last nonfiction work?

It’s definitely my last nonfiction book. More than anything, it saddened me. There were a couple of passages in a memoir I just couldn’t reread. They’re so horrible, especially about the horses. There was a huge cavalry attack by the French on the British lines.

Somebody described the French cavalry as the most beautiful troops in the world. But the attack was ill-timed, so they die in their hundreds because they thought the British were retreating. Horses are herd animals. A horse that has lost its rider, instead of doing the sensible thing, which is trotting the hell away from the battlefield and finding a nice pasture, would come back again and again. So all these riderless horses would charge with the other horses. The horses suffered terribly.

I end the book with a letter written by an Irishman, who commanded a British battalion. He’s writing to his wife: a letter many, many soldiers have written and many wrote just before Waterloo, which they hope is not going to be delivered. It’s this beautiful love letter that is incredibly touching. It’s plain that Arthur Heyland loved his wife and children. Sure enough, he did die the next day. I defy people to read that letter and not feel tearful. That sadness, the waste—that’s what I felt.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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