Many authors fall into several traps when describing complex historical battles. I will be using the audio version of Waterloo by Tim Clayton to help illustrate the problems.1

The battle of Waterloo is generally considered one of the most important battles in history, as it finally saw the defeat of Napoleon. The French army was defeat by an Anglo-allied army under the Duke of Wellington and the Prussians commanded by Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher. Clayton’s Waterloo is divided into three sections covering the build-up to the campaign, the battles preceding Waterloo, and the battle itself.1

Firstly, maps and diagrams are a simple must for showing where the soldiers were and to whom they were facing. Including such things as the terrain, numbers and types of forces involved, and their movements on the battlefield. Whereas the use of long lists should be avoided where possible. They run the risk of just being an information dump and not very comprehensible.

Just like on the battlefield, the author, just like the general should use everything at their disposal. They should consider maps and diagrams, a vital weapon in their arsenal. It is best to ignore the old fuddy duddies who dislike combined arms and any large-scale use of images in scholarly books. Epically since a picture can tell a thousand words.

Take the example of the audiobook version of Waterloo that has no maps or diagrams, unlike its paper equivalent.2 It is for some reason is less deserving of the clarity brought about by maps and diagrams. As one reviewer commented on the Audible page:3

Maps & diagrams needed to get the real effect […] For this sort of book even a small movable map would be invaluable.”3

Secondly, the inclusion of too much irrelevant background details during battle scenes can really break up the narrative. Such as an individual back-story or other minutiae, can add context, but are best covered before the battle, not during it. As jumping from action to minutiae and back again can be a bit distracting. It will just come across to the reader as the author going off on one. Although there are moments where such information should be added, but only where it is directly relevant to events in the battle.

Waterloo unfortunately suffers in parts from having too much background details. With numerous officers having their own short biographies, and terrain being painstaking described, even if it adds little to the battle. Much of this detail comes mid-way through the sequence of events in the battle, making the narrative very disjointed.1

re-enactment of British Soldiers during the Waterloo
Image 2

Third the need to distinguish clearly who is who, with a consistent and simple way of refereeing to each regiment. Although this problem is rare, and only really encountered when the narrative jumps from one part of the battle to another. Most books covering battles avoid this problem, by limiting the number of individual participants to three or four at any one time.

For example in Waterloo, there could numerous individuals and units covered at any one time.1 Clayton makes life hard for the reader, one minuet referring to a body of troops by their regimental name and the next by their commander’s name.1 This is compounded by Clayton continuously jumping to different parts of the battlefield, e.g. from the Prussians to the British and back again.1

Outside of these problems, Waterloo is a very good and a detailed account of the campaign that brought down Napoleon. If the problems listed above could have been solved, the book might have been a best seller. Waterloo contains many excellent first-hand accounts and a gripping narrative, when it stays on focus.1

By Arran Wilkins © 2021 (text only)

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(1) Clayton, Tim (Author). Franks, Phillip (Narrator). Waterloo (Audible Studios, 2014) Amazon audible, Available at: https://www.audible.co.uk/pd/Waterloo-Audiobook/B00NB5PNFI?ref=a_library_t_c5_libItem_&pf_rd_p=7bf74090-5cb9-4f5e-bc6f-6ea28d055287&pf_rd_r=K3C1SCWRZPTE55S3XCP1 [Accessed 2nd March 2021].

(2) Amazon.co.uk, Waterloo: Four Days that Changed Europe’s Destiny Paperback – 5 Feb. 2015. Available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Waterloo-Four-Changed-Europes-Destiny/dp/0349123012/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1614706232&sr=8-2 [Accessed 2nd March 2021].

(You will find the list of diagrams in the book by using the “look inside” tab)

Clayton, Tim (Author). Franks, Phillip (Narrator). Waterloo (Audible Studios, 2014) Amazon audible, Available at: https://www.audible.co.uk/pd/Waterloo-Audiobook/B00NB5PNFI?ref=a_library_t_c5_libItem_&pf_rd_p=7bf74090-5cb9-4f5e-bc6f-6ea28d055287&pf_rd_r=K3C1SCWRZPTE55S3XCP1 [Accessed 2nd March 2021].

(3) Patterson, Alexander. “Maps & diagrams needed to get the real effect” – 25 July 2015 [audible review]. Available at: https://www.audible.co.uk/pd/Waterloo-Audiobook/B00NB5PNFI?qid=1614786285&sr=1-1&ref=a_search_c3_lProduct_1_1&pf_rd_p=c6e316b8-14da-418d-8f91-b3cad83c5183&pf_rd_r=CTW8JQ9MG6MCGQH7181F [Accessed 3rd March 2021].

(Image 1) Dominique Devroye. Pixabay. Pixabay License. Available at: https://pixabay.com/photos/belgium-waterloo-folklore-napoleon-1632048/ [Accessed 3nd March 2021].

(Image 2) Greet Gladine. Pixabay. Pixabay License. Available at: https://pixabay.com/photos/war-napoleon-military-confused-618899/ [Accessed 3nd March 2021].

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