A small pocket-size book, a university author (François Pernot is professor of modern history at the University of Cergy-Pontoise), no more than 130 pages, at first glance this book is not without making one think of the famous "Que do i know? »Known to all history students. It is in fact the collection Champion L'Histoire directed by the aforesaid author and Jean Pruvost which invites the reader to dive in a synthetic way on a date or a key character of the History in the form of survey using dictionaries, newspapers and other writings to understand all the ins and outs of the subject studied. After 1914 and Joan of Arc, it is the battle of Waterloo which is sifted through.
A laudable vocation for historical popularization
Undeniably, this work can bring knowledge to neophytes on the decisive battle which put an end to the reestablishment of the Empire by Napoleon. In a few pages, the reader is exposed to the context, then quickly to the course of the battle, before zooming in on key and decisive episodes such as the attack on the fortified farm in Hougoumont, the charges of Ney, the role de la Garde, the responsibility of Grouchy ... Undoubtedly, the author offers an abundant bibliography which should allow everyone to go deeper if they wish. Finally, the whole is very richly illustrated so that the reader does not tire and takes pleasure in moving from story to iconography.
A challenge that struggles to be taken up
However, several points leave the reader at his end. First, if the maps are numerous, they are often poorly chosen and poorly laid out, which makes them lose a lot of readability. Instead of always having the same type of graphic representation, in full page, showing the course of the battle over the course of the story, the reader must do with a motley set of Wikimedia Common cards taking up only a third of the page of this book already small in size and providing only topographical elements or generalist troop movements. The challenge being to make intelligible a battle as unintelligible as that of Waterloo, it is clear that it will be difficult to do so without better use of cartography. This failure in the layout is recurrent and also affects the iconography. The reader is offered very small black & white illustrations sometimes perfectly illegible such as "the French cuirassiers charging the English squares" which wins the palm of the top of its 1.3 x 2.2 cm! The story itself suffers from a certain heaviness induced by the sources which are indicated directly and not carried over with the help of footnotes. Something to disconcert the reader therefore, all the more so said sources may surprise: François Pernot repeatedly cites sources more literary than historical (Chateaubriand, Victor Hugo, Erckmann and Chatrian ...), historiographically dated authors (Thiers .. .), general works which are neither contemporary nor recent (theNineteenth Century Encyclopedia from 1872, the Great Universal Dictionary of the 19th century by Pierre Larousse from 1876).
However, all these sources constantly illustrate the course of the battle without providing either the authenticity of a testimony or the critical analysis of a recent historical study. And precisely, all this seems to be done to the detriment of quotes from recent and serious authors like Bernard Coppens and actors of the battle which seems to us very little exploited (especially in the first part of the work) and sometimes badly used as the account by General Guyot of the rout of June 20 to illustrate the disorderly retreat of the French army on the 18th, on the evening of the battle. It is understood that the purpose of the collection is to present things as an investigation, and the massive use of theHistory of France through the newspapers of the past - From one coup d'état to another 1799-1851 (1990) could be a good starting point. But based on period sources, it might have been necessary to confront, to see how the memory of the event is constructed, to try to decide. However, the most cited sources seem more chosen on the basis of their literary excellence than on the basis of the concrete elements that they bring to the understanding of the battle. If the amateur gets out without problem, it is quite possible that the neophyte will find himself a little lost in the middle of real testimonies, extracts from novels, and secondary sources of the second half of the 19th century.
In conclusion, if this work knows how to bring interesting elements on this battle, by synthesizing for example the thesis of Bernard Coppens on the map error, it will certainly struggle to make the battle of Waterloo perfectly intelligible to the neophyte. The setbacks at the level of iconography and cartography leave room for doubt: we come to wonder if this is not the result of too much haste to make the work appear in full for the bicentenary of the battle.
PERNOT François, 1815 ... Waterloo! “Morne Plaine”, Honoré Champion Editor, 2015.