Tim Clayton (pictured above with Head of History, TSJ, and NWM), award-winning and bestselling author, gave a fascinating talk on the Battle of Waterloo - a defining event in modern European history - to the History Society on Thursday, 23rd April.
In Britain, we are inclined to think of the outcome of this critical Battle as a foregone conclusion - largely on account of the histories that were written soon after and tend to suit our national 'narrative'. In this, the 200th anniversary of the battle, it seems timely for a re-assessment of the events, without detracting in any way from the individual heroism and hardship. There is for example, as Tim Clayton stressed, a pressing need to look more closely at (largely-forgotten) French documents and accounts of the conflict.
He began by setting out the context to the Battle: the return of Napoleon to France after exile. He showed his audience of Radleians and dons some interesting contemporary illustrations of, for example, La Haye Sainte and Quatre Bras, drawn soon after the Battle by T. Stoney on 21st June. He even offered some local insight, by stressing the role of Lieutenant Edmund Wheatley, in love with Eliza, of Wallingford.
Tim stressed that this was “a very small battlefield – only about a mile” in area. His overall argument was that “the key to the Waterloo campaign was that Britain and Prussia were determined to fight together.” The trouble was, heavy rain had led to lanes being waterlogged; thus the Prussian advance from the East was slowed significantly, leaving the outcome in the balance to the very end.
There were a large number of questions afterwards: for example about the sources he had used for his recently-published book on 'Waterloo' - the large number of previously unpublished letters and diaries, plus Prussian accounts newly-available online.
The 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo will be commemorated on 18th June. Tim's book on the Battle has been described as 'the best book on the battle' by the ‘Evening Standard’ and by Sir Max Hastings as 'a fabulous story, superbly told'. It has been shortlisted for the British Army Military Book of the Year 2015.