Book review: The Fields of Death by Simon Scarrow

It’s the final showdown - in more ways than one!

Thursday, 30th December 2010, 6:00 am

Simon Scarrow’s blood-and-guts quartet of novels about Wellington and Napoleon, the two greatest commanders in European history, has reached the last and most dramatic chapter.

Each man faces the ultimate test in this brilliantly imagined and epic retelling of the events which culminated in Waterloo, the Belgian battle that ended one man’s reign as emperor and turned the other into a national hero.

And it’s a scintillating story to mark the last act of what has been a hugely successful and entertaining series by the master of ‘faction’.

What isn’t in the history books, Scarrow presents with such breathtaking authenticity and authority that it’s hard to believe that it didn’t actually happen.

The action opens in 1809 when Viscount Arthur Wellington and Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte are widely recognised as two outstanding military commanders.

The 40-year-old Napoleon is entering into some risky strategy in Austria. Reeling from exhaustion, he knows that age is creeping up on him but his burning ambition is undiminished by a series of unconvincing military events.

Wellington, meanwhile, is a man of very different tactics; while Napoleon has allowed his soldiers to freely live off the fat of foreign lands, his English counterpart has insisted his troops pay their way.

Thus Napoleon is hampered by peasants waging a pitiless war of resistance, ambushing French patrols, harassing the columns and butchering any stragglers.

Wellington does have his problems – senior officers are transferring to the Portuguese army where they are assured of swift promotion and better pay – but his biggest headache is lack of funds.

If he is going to win the war in the peninsula, he will need more money.

As Wellington achieves further success against the French in Spain, Napoleon feels the bitter repercussions of a failed march on Vienna, a disastrous Russian campaign and a humiliating defeat at Leipzig.

By 1815, the French troops are weary, their leader’s power is waning and the newly titled Duke of Wellington is perfectly placed to crush the tyrant.

On the night of June 17, we see Napoleon perched on a low stool, surrounded by his mud-splattered marshals, planning his attack on Wellington’s ‘very worst of positions’ the following morning.

‘If his army breaks, they will not be able to retreat and we shall annihilate them,’ he declares.

The bloody battle at Waterloo will be a date with destiny for two great commanders.

The Fields of Death fills in the gaps in the fascinating personal lives of Napoleon and Wellington and at the same time provides a brilliant adventure story.

A superb climax to a top-notch series.

(Headline Review, paperback, £7.99)