Waterloo in Print

Hello! Since Cara was Diane yesterday, I suppose I am being Cara today (though sadly without a Trusty Todd). I’m going to share some of the sources I’ve used while researching my current hero’s backstory. Please bear in mind that though I may call myself a History Geek (and certainly know more than the average person in the street), my knowledge of the battle is still evolving.

I began my research with WATERLOO: NEW PERSPECTIVES by David Hamilton-Williams. This book is immensely detailed and to the best of my knowledge, correct and scholarly; it is also very Napoleon-friendly. For instance, there are frequent references to Napoleon being “betrayed” by both his enemies and his officers and little or no mention of the physical ailments mentioned in other sources that might have impaired his abilities on the fateful day. Though I found it excellent and detailed, I found it off-putting that it treated the events more as a tragedy for Napoleon than for the tens of thousands who were killed or wounded and their families.

The next book I read had a different focus. WATERLOO: DAY OF BATTLE by David Howarth, provides an overview of the events, but places the emphasis on the experience of individual officers and soldiers, whose stories (for Waterloo is not one story but many) are traced through the battle and its aftermath. It draws heavily on firsthand accounts of the battle written by participants on both sides, is eminently readable, and may have you crying at points. (I did.) If you want to read just one book about Waterloo, this should be the one.

Some of my favorite references on Waterloo are firsthand accounts: letters, journals, memoirs. Beyond all the amazing details one cannot find in regular histories, I love the insights these accounts of Waterloo provide into the minds and hearts of those who fought there. Here are some quotes from ones I’ve read so far (there are many more on my TBR list).

From THE WHEATLEY DIARY by Edmund Wheatley:

“I concluded that you, my Dearest Eliza, you, whom I always regretted, I was certain was asleep innocent and placid. The pillow that supported you was unconscious of its lovely burthen. But the breast, then cold and chilled with the prospect of approaching dissolution, felt that morning one or two warm sensations. It is an awful situation to be in, to stand with a sharp edged instrument at one’s side, waiting for the signal to drag it out of its peaceful innocent house to snap the thread of existence of those we never saw, never spoke to, never offended.”

Wheatley fought in the King’s German Legion and participated in an ill-fated advance ordered by the Prince of Orange in a fit of idiotic stubbornness. The KGL, formed in line rather than square, were hacked apart by French cavalry; Wheatley’s commander, Colonel Ompteda, was killed; Wheatley himself was injured, taken prisoner and treated brutally by French before he managed to escape.


“[Sir James Kempt] called to me by name, where I happened to be standing on the right of our battalion, and desired ‘that I should never quit that spot.’ I told him that he might depend upon it: and in another instant I found myself in a fair way of keeping my promise more religiously than I intended; for, glancing my eye to the right, I saw the next field covered with the cuirassiers, some of whom were making directly for the gap in the hedge where I was standing. I had not hitherto drawn my sword, as it was generally to be had at a moment’s warning: but, from its having been exposed to the last night’s rain, it had now got rusted in the scabbard, and refused to come forth! I was in a precious scrape!”

“I had never yet heard of a battle in which everybody was killed; but this seemed likely to be an exception, as all were going by turns.”

“The usual salutation on meeting an acquaintance of another regiment after an action was to ask who had been hit? but on this occasion it was, ‘Who’s alive?'”

Kincaid survived the battle without injury but wrote that it was “the last, the greatest, and the most uncomfortable heap of glory that I ever had a hand in”.

From A BRITISH RIFLE MAN, by George Simmons:

“I had an impression I should not be touched, and was laughing and joking with a young officer about half-past four in the afternoon. At this time I was a little in front of our line, and hearing the word charge, I looked back at our line, and received a ball, which broke two of my ribs near the backbone, went through my liver, and lodged in my breast. I fell senseless in the mud, and some minutes after found our fellows and the enemy hotly engaged near me.”

Simmons had to ride twelve miles to get back to Brussels and the house where he’d been billeted earlier. His life hung in the balance for a time and he worried mightily about his large family, to whom he’d been sending a good portion of his modest earnings. But he was nursed carefully and ultimately made a recovery.

Later Kincaid gives this account of his fellow officers post-Waterloo.

“Beckwith with a cork leg; Pemberton and Manners each with a shot in the knee, making them as stiff as the other’s tree on; Loftus Gray with a gash in the lip and minus a portion of one heel, which made him march to the tune of dot and go one; Johnston, in addition to other shot-holes, with a stiff elbow, which deprived him of the power of disturbing his friends as a scratcher of Scotch reels on his violin; Percival with a shot through his lungs; Hope with a grape-shot lacerated leg, and George Simmons with his riddled body held together by a pair of stays, for his was no holy day waist which naturally required such an appendage lest the burst of a sigh should snap it asunder, but one that appertained to a figure framed in nature’s fittest mould to ‘brave the battle and the breeze!'”

I hope you found this interesting. Do you have any favorite Waterloo references to share?

Tomorrow I will blog again (as Elena this time!) on films dealing with Waterloo.


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Diane Gaston
14 years ago

I loved Waterloo: Day of Battle.

Louisa Cornell
14 years ago

I found this fascinating and very enlightening as well. I only have the first book you mentioned so now I am off to Amazon to check out all of the others.

The good news is I learn so much from this blog. The bad news is it is KILLING my budget!!

Susan Wilbanks
14 years ago

I love Alessandro Barbero’s THE BATTLE. I thought it was more balanced toward all the major players than most Waterloo books. (Though given my pro-Wellington bias, I may not be the best judge!) And it’s tremendously gripping. I couldn’t put it down and had to keep reminding myself that I knew how it ended, and it wasn’t like this time the squares were going to break or the Prussians weren’t going to show up!

I also love the Wellington chapter in John Keegan’s The Mask of Command, which focuses largely on the Waterloo campaign. I read it back-to-back with Sharpe’s Waterloo over Thanksgiving last year, and both the truth and the fiction completely took command of my imagination as I read.

Elena Greene
14 years ago

Louisa, we live to destroy research budgets. 🙂 Thought I’ll admit I also make lots of trips to the local university library.

Thanks for the other recommendations, Susan! I knew you’d have some good ones.

Kalen Hughes
14 years ago

Oooooo, the Howarth book sounds wonderful. I have to admit I haven’t done any really research on Waterloo as it’s well past my period of interest. I did start a manuscript years ago that was going to eventually end at Waterloo, but then I sold the Georgian books and that project was abandoned, at least for the nonce (so I have a lot of unread books, LOL!).

Who knows, maybe it will get pulled out and dusted off someday . . .

Diane Gaston
14 years ago

Okay, who beat me to Alessandro Barbero’s THE BATTLE from PlumCircle? Kalen? Louisa/Pam/doglady/O Doggie One? Or some secret lurker…..

Somebody did. I ordered it and boom! they say it is unavailable. It was a good deal too.

Back to abebooks for the next best one…..

14 years ago

Susan mentioned John Keegan’s The Mask of Command for its section on Wellington at Waterloo. I’d also recommend Keegan’s The Face of Battle about the experience of common soldiers through history; one of the battles he treats is Waterloo. Elizabeth Longford’s biography Wellington: the Years of the Sword culminates with his victory at Waterloo, including a pretty detailed account of the battle.

A period source I picked up a while ago is Cavalié Mercer’s Journal of the Waterloo Campaign. He was a captain of the horse artillery, so this gives a rather different perspective on the battle than one usually gets. (Wellington didn’t see eye-to-eye with his artillerymen, so that perspective is also different.)

I’ve also read the Wheatley Diary. There are so many first hand accounts of Waterloo, I’ve only read a tiny fraction.


Cara King
14 years ago

Thanks for doing double-duty this week, Elena!

I think of your sources there, the only one I’ve read was The Wheatley Diary, which I found very interesting.

And Susan, you are totally justified in your worship of Wellington. I’ve seen the Sharpe movies, so I know. 🙂


Julia Justiss
Julia Justiss
14 years ago

Louisa, I’m with you on this week killing the research budget. My wish list grows longer and longer…

I have the Cavalie Mercer book but haven’t read it yet. Also Voices from Waterloo. Several Peninsular war ones. Can never have too many.

Off to see if alibris, abebooks or maybe even half.com have some bargains lurking!

Keira Soleore
14 years ago

I’m intrigued and horrified, by turns, of the nature of the injury and the morbid relish that the author takes in recounting the tales.

14 years ago

Keira wrote:

I’m intrigued and horrified, by turns, of the nature of the injury and the morbid relish that the author takes in recounting the tales.

You know, I had much the same reaction when I read The Sun Also Rises. 😉


Elena Greene
14 years ago

Keira, I happen to find Kincaid’s gallows humor rather poignant. He writes so humorously but from everything I’ve read, he and his fellow officers were like brothers.

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