Review: Waterloo, Tim Clayton

Rating: 4 out of 5

Waterloo was a defining point of the 19th century. By 1815, the United Kingdom — and the Royal Army and Navy — had been at war for near-enough twenty continuous years. For the people who came from India and the EIC Army, this period would have been even longer. Yet, Napoleon’s return and subsequent defeat finished all that. Mr Clayton took it upon himself to reflect on the battle which truly stopped large-scale campaigning in Europe until the revolutions of 1848. I would say that, on the whole, he succeeded.

After this praiseful opening, I would start by saying that though I really enjoyed the book, Mr Clayton was not as skilled in highlighting what combat meant as the author of another battle history I recently read: Peter Englund and his ‘Poltava’. I think that to a degree this comes from the author’s reluctance to let go of his historian’s chronological view: we get a very long epilogue where dozens of people are mentioned even when they might have last featured tens of chapters ago. Also, the introduction into what war meant in Wellington’s day is relatively poor and perhaps not consistent enough to create a vivid enough image for the reader.

I appreciated the additional emphasis on the Prussians — in my experience, Waterloo is often covered as Wellington’s victory. Yet, this did not seem to build on as much fact as it could have. In many a case when the author introduced a German regiment (say the King’s German Legion and its parts), it offered up intriguing hints as to the formation doing a lot better than expected by Wellington. These intriguing hints were rarely improved upon!

Yet, the book had sufficient detail as well as commentary from the participants to keep it interesting and relevant throughout. I would have wanted more but the book was by no means a slouch. Mr Clayton’s prose does not make heroes out of the Old Guard though he does his best to reflect their suffering.

Overall, I still think the author’s prose suffered through a lack of imagination though it still provides a good account of the struggle of the Allied army.

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