Book Review: Waterloo: Book One of the Great Battles Series by Alan Forrest

Waterloo: Book One of the Great Battles Series by Alan Forrest is not your typical military history. Therefore it is a good thing that the author admits in the preface that he is not a military historian because it shows. If you expect a book called Great Battles to be about the itself then prepare to be disappointed because this book is not so much about Waterloo as its aftermath./

First the book itself. It is 180 pages of text divided into 9 roughly thematic chapters including an introduction and postscript. There is a list of figures, list of maps, notes, bibliography and an index.

This is not a campaign history as most people would think of one. This is more of a book of memory as the way Waterloo is remembered is the focus of the book. Only about a third of the book is dedicated to describing the Waterloo campaign and the rest is devoted to memory. There is actually only one 24 page chapter that covers the battle itself and it is poor campaign history at best because it glosses over or barely covers many pivotal things that occurred just prior to and during the battle.. The rest of the book is devoted to how the battle has been perceived in the countries of the nationalities that took part.

Memory, particularly national memory and the way in which historical events are recalled and memorialized has become, dare I say it, a sexy topic in historical circles. I have a couple of theories as to why this is so but this is a book review so I won’t go into them. Most studies of memory involve military activities, battles, wars. etc. because most monuments in most cities for events more than 50 years or so old are to battle and wars. You just about cannot drive through any European town or village regardless of size and not see a memorial to that towns losses in the world wars. Indeed, most such monuments were originally to World War I dead and were expanded later to also remember the dead of World War II.

In the English speaking world but particularly in England, Waterloo is a pivotal battle in memory and it is not such a bad thing that a book has been written that examines the way that memory has been twisted and shaped by both the participants and succeeding generations. This book does a very good job of covering the British enthusiasm for extolling the memory of the battle as a critical turning point in national history.

The book also covers the way in which the French glorified the battle also. Not as a triumph as did the British, they lost after all, rather the French extolled it as a glorious defeat and an example of how the French could be great even in defeat. It entered national memory more as myth than reality.

The final descriptive chapter is a combined exploration of Waterloo in German and Dutch memory. He rightly points out that Waterloo was and still is eclipsed in German memory by the Battle of Leipzig, which the Germans consider to be the battle that liberated Germany from the French yoke. There is a massive monument in Leipzig today to commemorate the battle and many events happen yearly in October to commemorate the battle in Leipzig and in the surrounding towns and villages.

While I consider the book to be interesting and worth reading, it is not military history by any stretch of the imagination. The account of the actual battle is what I would expect to find in a high school textbook, there is almost nothing in the way of analysis of the battle. The sections on memory are the meat of the book but they only deal with the battle itself as an abstraction, something that is there and the reason for the book but not really important except for that it happened.
As a book on a Great Battle, this is a failure, as a book on society and individual memory of a great event it is a success. I cannot recommend this book as any type of campaign history but I can recommend it as a book on how people and nations deal with great battles and either do or do not hold them in collective memory. In that this does a very good job. My final thought is that the title is somewhat misleading and the dust jacket does not really make clear that this is not a book about Waterloo, it is a book about how Waterloo was and is remembered. That is a critical and crucial distinction. I got my copy for review and must admit that if I had paid the retail price for such a slim volume I would probably be unhappy when I got done reading it because it is not what you expect when you first pick it up. If you are interested in studies of memory then this is the book for you, if you are not then leave it on the shelf.  That being said, this is a well written book and worth reading in its own right.