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Dancing into Battle: A Social History of the Battle of Waterloo - Nick Foulkes

I finished reading this book a few hours ago and had been hesitant as to whether to give it 4 or 5 stars. I finally settled on 5 stars because of the way "Dancing into Battle: A Social History of the Battle of Waterloo" recaptured the spirit of the times in Europe between Napoleon's abdication in the spring of 1814 and his re-emergence on the world stage in Paris in March 1815 following his escape from the island of Elba.

The book gives the reader a broad access to the widespread exodus of British aristocrats and other people of means to the Continent that took place in the spring of 1814. With the exception of the brief peace of 1802-1803, it had not been possible to travel to Europe for 20 years. But now that the Bourbons had been restored to the throne in Paris and a Congress had been convened in Vienna among the allies (Britain, Austria, Russia, and Prussia) who had defeated Napoleon earlier in the year to redraw the map of Europe and secure what they considered to be a just and lasting peace, many among the aristocratic and wealthy classes in Britain were eager to put the hard, lean years of war behind them and just LIVE and ENJOY to the full the pleasures of life on the Continent.

Brussels (then a part of the new nation, the United Netherlands) became one of the most sought after places to live, especially for those aristocrats heavily weighed down by debt because it was inexpensive, in a rich, agricultural area, and a city not without charm and its own unique comforts and delights. Many of the British occupation forces were also stationed in and around Brussels. With the war behind them, many of these soldiers were at a bit of a loss. With Napoleon firmly out of the way (or so it was believed at the time), the monied and high-born British expatriate community delighted in making the soldiers feel at home. It became the dream of many a young lady of the British aristocracy in Brussels --- the book is enriched with the personal accounts of many people, soldiers and expatriates alike --- to make the acquaintance of a handsome, gallant officer at one of the many balls that became the norm between the summer of 1814 and the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, with a view to marriage. Such a marriage was considered ideal if the officer already had both wealth and position back in Britain. Indeed, "... British officers of the early nineteenth century bore little resemblance to the professional soldiers of today. Many were aristocrats who purchased commissions and swapped regiments on a whim; the question of regimental loyalty was not yet as highly developed as it would become by the end of the nineteenth century, and for many, fashion was the motivating factor in selecting one regiment over another."

While all this was going on, the Duke of Wellington, Britain's greatest military hero of the age, was in Vienna, as part of the Congress there. However, once Napoleon had escaped from Elba in March 1815, making landfall at Golfe-Juan on the French mainland and proceeding north to Paris, gathering soldiers from the Bourbon Army to his side, the Bourbon King (Louis XVIII) fled from Paris, and the Duke made his way to Brussels to begin the process of reassembling the elements of an allied army (both him and von Blücher, the Prussian commander) to contest and destroy once and for all Napoleon's new army in the making.

"The mere rumour of Bonaparte's presence near the border was enough to terrify the western part of the United Netherlands and disrupt all aspects of life: ... [British families] scattered to Antwerp, Ghent and Ostend, whence, if they could secure passage on a boat, they could escape to England." Yet, for those who remained in Brussels, the balls and horse races continued. The Duke was looked upon as "the indispensable man" who would once again assert the power and authority of Britain in breaking the backbone of the "tyrant and usurper" Napoleon Bonaparte, who commanded fear and respect because of his military genius.

The book then carries the reader along from March to mid-June 1815, when the Battle of Waterloo took place several miles from Brussels. For anyone who has read the scene of the Duchess of Richmond's ball on the eve of battle in Thackeray's novel, "Vanity Fair", he/she will delight in this part of the book. The book also provides some perspective on how the Battle of Waterloo was regarded and celebrated in Britain in the years immediately following it and on to the late 19th century.

Simply put, I thoroughly enjoyed the journey to which I was treated in "Dancing into Battle."   HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.