Tuesday 7 April 2015

Book Review: Waterloo (Wordsworth Military Library) - Christopher Hibbert

Christopher Hibbert

With about 50 books to his name, mostly history or biography, Christopher Hibbert was a pretty prolific author, and highly regarded in his lifetime. But in this relatively small book on the battle of Waterloo, his own voice is a rather minor presence, because he acts more as a choreographer to the words of others than author in his own right.

Over approximately 250 pages Hibbert marshals a large selection of sources, most of which will be known to readers familiar with the era and his subject, to tell not just the story of the battle of Waterloo, but also give potted histories of Napoleon, Wellington, Blücher, the armies involved, the run up to and aftermath of the campaign, and the actions at Quatre Bras and Ligny, as well as the battle of 18th June 1815 itself. Pretty comprehensive for such a small book!

The Wordsworth edition. I got my copy for £2, from a book-seller at a wargames show (can't recall which/when). Amazon lists this as published 1998. I think mine might be 1993. Mind you, perhaps I saw 8 and read 3? Those numbers look similar-ish... at a glance!

The comprehensive sweep is impressive, taking in everything from the Congress of Vienna to the post-Waterloo evolution of the legend of Bonaparte, and ranges from material describing the intrigues of French and European politics to gory mud and blood spattered episodes on the battlefields. Although Hibbert's own writing skills aren't on display that much, he shows himself a dab hand at organising the accounts of others into a compelling and informative read.

The extracts from Houssaye's account of Waterloo are very exciting. Pictured above is a French imprint of his memoirs.

Houssaye's account is also available from numerous print-on-demand publishers at Amazon (and probably free, as an e-book, as well). Or it can be bought in either hard-back or soft-back from Leonaur (who also published the Jomini book I recently reviewed on this blog and at Amazon UK, the former here, and the latter here).

Originally published in 1967, Hibbert uses, by comparison with more contemporary methods, some really quite lengthy extracts from his sources. As with many such source-dependent books, the reader is often left desirous of reading these sources in full. Books such as this have lead me to acquire a steadily growing collection of contemporary memoirs and histories, from Napoleon's own writings on St Helena, to Capt. Siborne's two-volume history of the Waterloo campaign. Which is, I think, a good thing. However, one of the strengths of books like this is that they can cherry pick the sources, synthesising a full account from the best bits of a whole array of writers.

This is a very attractive map from Alison's History of Europe which you won't find in this book! 

There are, sadly, no maps at all, in my 1993 edition. So unless you either have maps to hand, or know the battle and terrain very well already, this is going to make the geographical detail, whether it be the larger movements of the campaign, or the the more detailed descriptions of the battle itself, tough to follow. I feel books of this sort really must have maps, so I have to dock a star for this omission. [1] Even though I know the battle quite well - plus I have numerous helpful maps I can lay my hands on if need be - nevertheless, I would've preferred to have had maps in the book. The absence of maps also makes this less than ideal as a starter book on Waterloo.

Textually, however, I found this to be a very compelling telling of the Waterloo campaign - I read the whole thing over the Easter weekend - and I liked that Hibbert contextualises it all with both background and after the event perspectives. Not an ideal intro to the subject, but good as a refresher, and (except that you may want some maps handy!) enjoyable as a standalone reading experience.


[1] An interesting article, in the Telegraph, that underlines how the importance of maps - specifically in relation to Napoleon and the outcome at Waterloo - can be found here.

My much shorter review of this book for Amazon UK website is here.

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