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.