Inspect Europe today, and you would struggle to believe that its greatest scuffles were once about anything other than bailouts and shared currency, or Eurovision and football. Yet 2015 marks the bicentennial of a battle that stands as a summation of that continent's centuries of bloody wars, particularly those of the 20th: Waterloo, which took place on June 18, 1815. Two new books take different approaches to remembering this conflict.
In his history, Waterloo, novelist Bernard Cornwell asks, why another book? Waterloo is among the most chronicled battles of all time. Paraphrasing the British general Wellington, Cornwell also concedes that describing a battle is like describing a dance. Yet it is describing this already well-chronicled dance in exacting detail that Waterloo attempts to achieve.
Still reeling from Napoleon's wars of conquest, Europe is appalled to learn that he has returned triumphantly from exile, retaken Paris and set his sights on Belgium. It falls to Wellington ("the unbeatable") to stop Napoleon ("the unbeaten"). Spoiler alert: He does! But the outcome is never certain in Cornwell's telling. He even points to Frenchmen like Victor Hugo, who tried to snatch a literary victory from the jaws of putative defeat.
Waterloo is wonkish as military history goes. Much attention is paid to the arithmetical and geometrical difference between columns and lines, for example. It therefore suffers from a lack of historical context, but compensates by quoting liberally from the battle's participants. Cornwell refers to a massive model of the battlefield residing today in a British museum. His book is largely the play-by-play of that model in motion.
Waterloo may be the first modern battle, both in its intensive use of artillery and its appalling rate of casualties. The dead bodies becoming mud themselves suggests the First World War. Bodies forming great fatty pyres, or being ground up for fertilizer, or their teeth extracted—or Napoleon's loose talk about exterminating barbarians and the Parisian woman's capacity for replenishing the war dead—are a reminder of the inhumanity of the Second.
Like Ken Burns, Cornwell clearly prefers to focus on the more dulce et decorum est aspects of pre-modern conflict, the gallantry and bravery, the tear-jerking letters home. He's written an elegy for war before the machines took over—poignant and inspiring but ultimately nostalgic.
PHILOSOPHY OF WAR
If the battle appears now to us as an exercise in romantic futility, imagine what it must have seemed to the hordes of rabbits near the battlefield. This thought experiment motivates Leona Francombe's The Sage of Waterloo, an unusual but effective "tale" weaving philosophical history with animal story, as if the last chapter of 1984 had been recounted by the fauna of Animal Farm.
The tale is told by William, a rabbit named after the allied commander William of Orange. It's mainly a dialogue between William and his sagacious grandmother, Old Lavender, concerning the baffling behavior of their superiors in the food chain. They conclude that rabbits would never engage in wholesale killing and that humans are only irrational for doing so.
Francombe later posits that women don't care much for war either, suggesting that she is using her rabbits as symbols for women. Indeed, Francombe leans rather heavily on the testimony of one actual English woman, Charlotte Eaton, who witnessed the battle's aftermath. Francombe praises the "female sensitivity" Eaton brings to her account, a sensitivity she finds lacking in accounts by male writers, among whom she might include Cornwell.
This may be true, but otiose. If Waterloo proves anything, it is that men, and not just armchair warriors, tend to delight in violence. Old Lavender is right when she says that "war desperately needs a female perspective," but Francombe might be discouraged to dwell much on the female capacity for aggression, from Queen Elizabeth to today's pro-military "security moms.” In Cornwell's Waterloo, one dead soldier is a woman in disguise.
As the sage herself repeats, too much comfort "dampens the brain.” Nietzsche couldn't have said it better. But despite these inconsistencies, the novel is an exquisite and amusing meditation on a battle whose meaning clearly invites debate, by humans or otherwise.