Title: Waterloo - The Hundred Days
Author: David Chandler
First Published: 1980
It's very hard to not start with the Battle of Waterloo when learning about the Napoleonic Wars purely because it was such a pivotal moment in human history. I will be the first to admit that the Napoleonic Period represents an enormous hole in my knowledge of history, so I headed out to my favourite second-hand bookshop Canty's and raided the shelves of their excellent military history section. I needed a book that would give me a good overview of Waterloo without assuming I already knew all the relevant background material, and that is exactly what Chandler's book delivered.
The book covers the period from Napoleon's escape from Elba through to the four battles over the course of the Belgian campaign from 15-18 June. It starts with Napoleon's escape and the political implications for the Allies and goes on to cover the biography and nature of the three commanders (Napoleon, Wellington and Blücher), the composition and state of their armies, the preparations undertaken by both sides, the four battles of Quatre-Bras, Livre, Wavre and of course Waterloo, and concludes with two chapters dealing with the immediate and longer-term legacy of the campaign.
I found the level of detail to be perfect. All of the significant facts impacting on the decisions made and the campaign outcomes were covered in good detail without becoming bogged down in minutiae. The stories of the battles themselves were well-organised, tightly written and deeply engrossing. There is a good mix of individual experiences and large-scale actions. The chronology of events across multiple locations are managed well with appropriate forward references to explain the impact of critical decisions or mistakes. The maps were well drawn (including contour lines) and the period paintings included were very evocative. And the length of the book was spot on - 200 pages with plenty of maps and illustrations. Perhaps best of all (for me anyway) the grammar is absolutely perfect.
The author is clearly British and this seeps through occasionally in the odd remark celebrating the failures of the French or the successes of the British, but the overwhelming view of the book is well-balanced and fair. I would have liked an Appendix covering the Orders of Battle in greater detail rather than just a chart showing the forces down to the Divisional level but this is a minor thing as such Orbats are widely available elsewhere.
On the whole this exceeded my expectations and left me much wiser about the battle and hungry to read more. I don't really believe in rating books (too subjective) but I will definitely recommend it to anyone who is starting out in the period. I greatly enjoyed it.