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The Battle of Waterloo, by Peter and Dan Snow, André Deutsch in cooperation with the National Army Museum, London, 2017, $29.95

The epic struggle at Waterloo, in present-day Belgium, was the climactic Hundred Days showdown between military giants—French Emperor Napoléon and British Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington. In their first and only battlefield encounter they met on that namesake field south of Brussels on Sunday, June 18, 1815. The resulting epic battle ended two decades of Europe’s bloodiest warring thus far.

In the previous War of the Sixth Coalition, after logging a string of consecutive victories, Napoléon barely escaped from Russia, lost at Leipzig, retreated to France and, with Paris in the hands of the allies, compelled into exile on the Mediterranean isle of Elba in May 1814. Ten months later, after an audacious escape, the emperor was back in France and with characteristic vigor quickly assembled an army.

Wellington—his dukedom secured after victories in Portugal and Spain—was in command of the Anglo-allied army near Brussels. On the evening of June 14, oblivious to Napoléon’s approach, the British field marshal and most of his officers were attending a grand ball given by the Duchess of Richmond. “Napoléon has humbugged me, by God; he has gained 24 hours march on me!” was Wellington’s reaction to news his adversary was on the move.

The emperor’s plan—to destroy each of the Anglo-allied armies in turn—was bold. His opening move, on June 16, went largely as planned, when Napoléon defeated the Prussians at Ligny, before being halted at the crossroads at Quatre Bras by a division commanded by that “cantankerous Welshman” Lt. Gen. Sir Thomas Picton.

After a heavy overnight rain that drenched both armies, June 18 dawned bright. It was a day that saw nine hours of fighting, at the end of which at least 45,000 men lay dead or dying. It was also a day that easily could have ended with a French victory, for the battle, in Wellington’s words, was “the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life. By God! I don’t think it would have been done if I had not been there.”

Father-and-son team Peter and Dan Snow brilliantly recount that epic day and history-changing battle, supported by paintings, rare sketch maps, letters, orders, official papers and proclamations. If you read but a single book about Waterloo, make it this one, as it is quite simply a gem.

—David Saunders