In case you’ve missed it, the bicentennial of the Battle of Waterloo is nigh. As is always the case with major historical anniversaries, major historical hoopla has begun. The first commemorative articles have already appeared. Reenactment groups are preparing a grand scale reenactment–5000 reeanctors, 300 horses, 100 cannons, a gazillion spectators.* And new books on the battle are flooding into history bloggers’ mailboxes.
David Crane opens his history of the Battle of Waterloo by referencing Bruegel’s painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, in which farmers plough their fields unaware of the boy falling from the sky. He offers the image as a metaphor for the way most people experience historical events–and as the basic idea behind Went The Day Well?: Witnessing Waterloo.
On June 18, 1815, Britons knew Napoleon, having escaped from Elba Island, was on the move across Europe. They had no idea that the final battle of the Napoleonic Wars– which was the defining event for a generation–was underway. This disjunction is the heart of the book.
The first section of the book is an hour-by-hour account, from midnight to midnight, of the Battle of Waterloo. Crane moves back and forth between Britain and Belgium, using diaries, newspapers and letters to look at both the battle and mundane details of that day in England as experienced by poets, radicals, foot soldiers, officers and paupers. He introduces readers to a factory boy, a soon-to-be-widowed bride and a Gothic novelist-cum-travel writer determined not to miss the most thrilling event of her time. The second, much shorter, portion of the book considers the aftermath of the battle, both for the individuals who appear in the prior section and for Britain as a whole.
Went The Day Well? is an unusual and illuminating account of Waterloo that will appeal to fans of the Napoleonic Wars and Regency history buffs alike.
* When we were in Belgium several years ago I actually thought about trying to attend this for about two insane moments.** Instead I’ll make do with the official reenactment website.
**Those of you who know me in real life and have watched me hyperventilate about the crowds at the Chicago Blues Fest–or Home Depot on a Saturday afternoon–are howling with laughter at the thought.
The heart of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.