Thursday, 12 March 2015

Countdown to Waterloo - 98 days

In an age before the telegraph, let alone the mobile phone, news took a while to travel. On 11 March, 1815, 'Cobbett's Weekly Register' published a piece celebrating Napoleon's captivity with a hastily added addendum to give notice that he was now once again in France.

Some astute businessmen were quick to capitalise on the news. The 'Examiner' for Sunday 12 March, for example, noted that 'The first notice of this most memorable event was announced by Mr Rosschild, the Exchange Broker, who sold stock to the amount of 600,000l on the receipt of the news by express from France.'

Napoleon's exploits still have an extraordinary hold on our imaginations two hundred years later. On average, there is one book about Napoleon published every day - and the anniversary of Waterloo means we can confidently expect that 2015 will see that average comfortably exceeded.

Everyone interested in the period will have their own favourite books about it. Here are five, a mix of fiction and non-fiction, that I would recommend to anyone wanting to make a start on reading, not about Napoleon directly, but about the Napoleonic Wars.

Sharpe’s Company by Bernard Cornwell. There are an awful lot of Sharpe books and it's difficult to choose between them. This is one of Cornwell’s own favourites and is a fast paced story set around the fall of Badajoz in the Peninsular War. There is a lot of military action, but also plenty of description of the relationships between the various regiments and the life of the men. Cornwell's novels bring the Napoleonic Wars alive. If your school history lessons concentrated (as mine did) on the long list of battles and the makeup of the continually shifting alliances, then these books give a useful reminder that there were real people in those red (or, in Sharpe's case, green) uniforms. Sharpe isn't an especially rounded or credible character, but he's rounded and credible enough. And the details of military life are fascinating.

The Fields of Death by Simon Scarrow. It's easy to sneer at Scarrow's books. They aren't 'proper' novels. The characterisation is thin and the dialogue unconvincing. But Scarrow approaches the Napoleonic Wars from the opposite direction to Cornwall. His main interest is the way that Napoleon and Wellington planned their campaigns at the grand strategic level and how these grand plans worked out in blood and terror on the battlefield. Fields of Death may not be great literature, but by the end of it I understood more about how and why Napoleon was finally defeated than I had ever learned before.

The Recollections of Rifleman Harris by Christopher Hibbert. For a real infantryman's view of the war, you can do no better than read Rifleman Harris's account. Harris told his story in his own words after the war had ended. There is no sense of grand strategy, no neat little parcels of story. Harris advances across Europe and retreats back to the North Sea coast without ever bothering about objectives and political goals. He's more interested in staying alive, bedding the local women and keeping on the right side of his officers. A worm's eye account of Napoleonic warfare and a valuable antidote to modern romanticisation of history.

Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian. British control of the seas was crucial to success in the Napoleonic Wars and any list of books about them has to include at least one set at sea. When I was young, the obvious choice would have been one of C S Forester's Hornblower novels, but nowadays I think Patrick O'Brian is more in fashion. His attention to nautical detail is impressive and in Aubrey and Maturin he has produced two well-rounded characters, whose adventures are easy to get caught up in. As with Sharpe, it's difficult to pick out any individual book in the series. Master and Commander is the first of twenty completed novels (a twenty-first being unfinished at the time of O’Brian’s death).

The Officer’s Prey by Armand Cabasson. UK readers will find an easy diet of Napoleonic War stories featuring British heroes and perfidious Frogs. The Officer’s Prey provides an interesting look at things from the other side. The book is essentially a murder mystery, but it is set against the background of Napoleon’s Russian campaign. Although the story is a detective thriller, there is an enormous amount of military detail. Armand Cabasson is a Napoleonic Wars expert, and it shows. If you are interested in Napoleon's march on Moscow (and the retreat), the interminable descriptions of uniforms and details of the different regiments will be gripping, though for many readers they may become tedious. The descriptions of the horror of war and the scale of the disaster that was the retreat are well handled, though. 

You'll notice that, heroically, I haven't included my own "His Majesty's Confidential Agent" series about the adventures of James Burke, but I know visitors to my blog are people of wisdom and discretion and they'll click the book covers on the right to be taken to the Amazon pages to buy them. And, though it has nothing to do with Napoleon, please don't forget my latest release, Cawnpore, set in India some forty-odd years after Waterloo.

1 comment:

  1. I am thrilled for you! Great book series and Cawnpore is looking might fancy, my friend.