Bernard Cornwell on Waterloo

Bernard Cornwell writes historical fiction.  Really vivid, well-researched historical fiction with a military bent and complicated main characters. Now Cornwell makes his first foray into historical nonfiction with Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles.

Published in time for the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, Cornwell’s account features the powerful storytelling and carefully chosen details that characterize his fiction. Although he emphasizes the fact that battle is inherently confusing, he presents the confusion experienced on the battlefield at Waterloo to his readers with utter clarity. He rests his story on the viewpoints of individuals present at each stage of the battle, using letters, journals and memoirs of ordinary soldiers and officers from all three armies engaged on the field as well as those of Napoleon and Wellington. Each chapter opens with a useful map of the action discussed–a luxury military history buffs will appreciate.

Cornwell opens the book with the question “Why another book on Waterloo?” Others may ask, “why another book by Cornwell on Waterloo?” (He explored the subject previously in the novel, Sharpe’s Waterloo.) The answer lies in the writing. It is true that Cornwell’s Waterloo is not a work of innovative scholarship. It does not present new insights or use new materials. Instead, it is a splendid example of historical narrative; as Cornwell himself describes the book at the end of his foreword: “So here it is again, the story of a battle.” And a gripping story it is.


The guts of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.



  1. Jonathan on May 27, 2015 at 2:03 am

    Thank you for your review! I decided against reading this book because of the number of negative reviews it was receiving at the Napoleonic Wars Forum. Nobody can obsess like a dedicated enthusiast, so errors that might not bother the casual reader (indeed, they probably won’t notice) are quite irksome to the Napoleonic History buff. Since I have not read the book, I cannot say whether or not these errors add up to serious problems with the overall thrust of the book. Cornwell’s “Sharpe” books were instrumental in attracting me to history as a field of study, so I was sad to hear negative reviews from a number of friends. Maybe I will still give it a try.

    Here is one such review:

    • pamela on May 27, 2015 at 12:26 pm

      Jonathon: Thanks for bringing the controversies about this book to the table. Though I agree that there are inaccuracies at the detail level, I think Simner exaggerates when he claims the book gives an “inaccurate view of history”. I’d say Cornwell’s book is a good introduction to the battle for someone who’s interested in the hoopla right now. This is not the right book for a deeply rooted Napoleonic history buff.

      Anyone else want to weigh in?

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