Book Review: Waterloo: the Aftermath by Paul O'Keeffe

The Battle of Waterloo was the last hurrah of the Napoleonic Wars. It signalled the end of the centuries of war between Britain and France, and the end of Napoleon. The battle, and it's preceding events Ligny and Quatre Bras loom great in the memory of historians to this day. Battles are defining parts of history, focal points for anyone who studies the story of mankind. They stick out, and we remember them. But battles are not the only events of history. Often books about Waterloo will end with the rout of the Imperial Guard, maybe with a footnote or two regarding the events after. This book is different. I have never before found a text such as this, though my scope is rather limited to my local public library and my search terms on the internet.

The book starts with the civilian account of the Battle of Waterloo, the sound of guns in Brussels and the constant panic over an Allied defeat; but this is just a preface. The real events start on 19 June, with the near instantaneous looting of the day before's battlefield by Belgian civilians. The book does not relay this information in dry terms, instead using a huge variety of primary sources to tell the true story, the human one; instead of a purely strategic image. Those who read on Waterloo often will recognize some of these sources, especially in the early sections, but O'Keeffe does a  masterful job at storytelling. His portrayal of the reaction in Britain to the Waterloo dispatch is something I have never quite seen before, and the book becomes worth reading solely based upon that. It is a beautiful story of the human side of Waterloo, a story that did not end as the guns fell silent. The book does not only focus on the British story of Waterloo though, serving as a reminder that this was a very allied victory, that the contributions of continental nations were as great and sometimes greater than the contributions of the British. The Prussians were the ones that pursued the French to Paris, not the British. Enough from me though, I cannot begin to match this book, so I must recommend that you read it.

The book is one of the best I have read on this topic in a while, and I have to admit that I was genuinely surprised when I had trouble putting it down. Reading history can sometimes be boring, and a book that tells the story without that is definitely worth a read.

Yes, Waterloo is the most written about battle in history, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't read about it. Waterloo: The Aftermath is available now.

Note: I was sent an advance copy by Bodley Head/Random House