Magazine article The Spectator

'Waterloo: The Aftermath', by Paul O'Keeffe - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Waterloo: The Aftermath', by Paul O'Keeffe - Review

Article excerpt

Waterloo: The Aftermath Paul O'Keeffe

Bodley Head, pp.392, £25, ISBN: 9781847921826

Anyone thinking of bringing out a book on Waterloo at the moment must be very confident, very brave or just plain daft. Over the last month there have been at least five new books on the battle, and so unless a writer is in a position to bring the equivalent of whole divisions of loyal Sharpe readers with him, he'd better have some new line to take.

Nick Foulkes showed how it might be done with his terrifically entertaining Dancing into Battle , and Paul O'Keeffe has taken it a step further by quite simply giving the battle a miss. From the opening pages one is always aware that something pretty major is happening a mile or two over the next hill. But whether we're with Thomas Creevey in Brussels, church-goers in Ramsgate, or with Marshal Grouchy near Wavre, the nearest we ever get to the battle until it's pretty much over is the distant rumble of cannon.

The heart slightly sinks as the usual Waterloo suspects are wheeled out -- Creevey, Fanny Burney, Charlotte Waldie, et al -- but this is unfair because O'Keeffe deploys his resources with an elegantly light touch. There is probably very little Waterloo buffs won't recognise from these early sections, though, and as its subtitle promises the book really kicks off as 'Sunday 18 June [Waterloo Day] passes into Monday' and Captain Mercer wakes to 'a slaughter ground made perversely beautiful' by the pale light of a gibbous moon.

By the standards of the Napoleonic wars, Waterloo had not been an unusually big battle, but as O'Keeffe says, what made it different was the intensity and concentration of the action. A battle like Leipzig saw bigger armies and more artillery involved, but whereas the 'Battle of the Nations' was fought over four days and a massive 21-mile front, something like 200,000 men and 500 cannon at Waterloo slugged it out for just ten hours on a battlefield no more than five square miles in all.

There was nothing sophisticated about Waterloo, just 'hard pounding', and the result was the appalling shambles of a battlefield that greeted Captain Mercer on the morning after. Over the next days and and months everyone from Scott and Byron to the casual tourist visited the scene of the fighting, and all the best accounts are here, drawn together to produce as vivid and graphic an account of its physical aftermath as one is likely to get.

It is a shame that the illustrations -- a handful of rather pointless and gloomy black-and-white jobs -- don't run to the Edinburgh surgeon Charles Bell's astonishing paintings of the wounded French soldiers he treated, but that is a very minor complaint. …

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