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“Four Days in June,” by Iain Gale

19 Sep

“Four Days in June,” by Iain Gale (358p)

Four Days in June is the debut novel by Scottish author Iain Gale. It depicts the three battles (Quatre-Bras, Ligny and the main one at Waterloo) from June 15 to June 18 that brought an end to Napoleon for once and for all.

Primarily, Four Days in June tells the story from the viewpoint of five men that fought it: Col. Sir William Howe de Lancey, Wellington’s personal aid; Gen. James MacDonnell; the man defending Hougoumont; Gen. Hans Ernst von Ziethen, commander of a corps of Prussians at Ligny; Marshal Michel Ney, second-in-command of the French Army; and Napoleon. Gale weaves in and out across the four days from the five points of view, constructing a very compelling story in the process with this style of storytelling.

It begins on the 15th with von Ziethen and de Lancey as the allied commanders hear word of Napoleon’s deceptive tactics at the Duchess of Richmond’s ball, where with de Lancey we read Wellington’s famous line – “humbugged, by God!” From there, it sweeps across the next day as the twin battles of Quatre-Bras and Ligny are fought where de Lancey and Ney narrate Quatre-Bras while von Ziethen mainly narrates Ligny, intermitted with a chapter told by Napoleon and the action at Hougoumont told from MacDonnell’s perspective. Gale fully encapsulates Napoleon’s ailing health and his errors at Waterloo, describing Napoleon’s thought process quite unlike any other author I have encountered.

The second half of the novel takes place on the 18th as the action moves to the main battle, at Waterloo. All five narrators take it in turns to describe Waterloo, de Lancey provides most of it as his position alongside Wellington gave him the best vantage point of all. Wellington attacks and de Lancey describes it, Ney and Napoleon counter it and commentate on their moves, while von Ziethen leads a hurried Prussian army from Ligny to Waterloo to assist Wellington after being checked by the French two days prior. One of the best chapters in the entire novel is Ney’s narration of his foolish cavalry charge into a mass of squared British troops that more or less undid the French at Waterloo as well as the chapter describing de Lancey’s death from a cannonball, where he tells of his love for his wife.

This is a gutsy novel to write. It is historically accurate, but for a new author in his first attempt to delve into the mind of Napoleon (which, by 1815, was probably a load of mush too) takes some courage, yet Gale really does deliver. The self-appraisal, the self-gratification and the self-adulation that flow through Napoleon’s narration are more or less what I imagine Napoleon had been thinking on those four days. It is the same with the other four – Gale has mainly used contemporary diaries as well as his own writing skill to construct the story.

I also found this to be a challenging read. Challenging in a good way, however. Admittedly Gale used an interesting style to write it and because of it the reader has to concentrate. The way the story is told means you have to use your own brain to work what is really happening and what is just fluff. So, if you are just looking at the page and not reading the words you won’t fully understand Gale’s somewhat complicated description of Waterloo, and miss out on a lot of interesting little details. I found that I sometimes had to go back and re-read the narrative, as I had misinterpreted something. In many ways this is more of a political thriller that uses Waterloo as its backdrop than the type of pulp-adventure usually found in this genre.

It is an interesting new take on one of the most famous military clashes in history. Read with caution, however, as it is not a light read and is more serious fiction. But if you are after a cerebral version and an original take on the Battle of Waterloo then I highly recommend Four Days in June.