Two hundred years ago, in a shallow valley south of Brussels, three armies fought the Battle of Waterloo. Napoleon had returned from exile on Elba to face a coalition of European enemies, who were now determined to oust him a second time. The closest opponents were the Prussian and British-Dutch armies to his north, so he launched a campaign to destroy them both. At Waterloo, on June 18, 1815, he failed.
Two hundred thousand men fought in that shallow valley. By nightfall, a quarter of them were casualties. In Belgium, thousands of re-enactors, dignitaries and soldiers are commemorating the event, while in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London there is a service of remembrance.
But what are we remembering? Few today can say why the battle was fought or what it achieved. The old arguments that drove Europe to a century of war are forgotten, yet there will still be prayers spoken and anthems sung and military bands playing.
No one, at least in the official events, will be so tactless as to suggest that Waterloo was a great victory for the allies and a shocking defeat for Napoleon. Instead the tone will echo the mood of the men and women who survived the day’s carnage, and that tone was somber. Maj. Harry Smith, a vastly experienced British officer who had fought at New Orleans and through some of the hardest battles of the Peninsular War, wrote, “I had never seen anything to compare. At Waterloo the whole field from right to left was a mass of bodies… The sight was sickening.”
The men and women who endured the battle knew they had been present at a turning point in history and, because of that, wrote down their recollections. We have witness accounts of many battles, but nothing matches the sheer volume of writing about Waterloo, and that huge archive gives us privileged glimpses of the day.
John Lewis, a British rifleman, was standing next to a man who was struck by a French musket ball: “He just said, ‘Lewis, I’m done!’ and died.” A half mile away, a French cavalryman, seeing a prostrate British officer stir, exclaimed in surprise, “Tu n’est pas mort, coquin!” and stabbed him with a lance.
Edward Macready, a 17-year-old British officer, was clutched by a friend who had just been wounded. “Is it deep, Mac?” he screamed, “Is it deep?” A Prussian conscript, not much older than Macready, wrote to his parents after the battle, “Tell my sister I didn’t soil my pants!” A French officer had his nose severed by a sword cut and cried out pathetically, “Look what they do to us!”
These are voices from a battle long ago and they bring life to callous casualty figures. Those figures were horrific. Johnny Kincaid, a British rifle officer, said that he had “never heard of a battle in which everybody was killed, but this seemed likely to be an exception.”
And it was not only men who died. After the battle, a British officer, Lt. Charles Smith, had the grim task of retrieving his unit’s dead, and while disentangling a heap of corpses found a French officer “of a delicate mould and appearance.” It was a young woman. We will never know who she was, only that Lieutenant Smith thought her beautiful. I surmise she could not bear to be parted from her lover and charged with him to her death. Franz Lieber, a young volunteer in the Prussian Army who would go on to teach in South Carolina and at Columbia, was astonished to discover that his sergeant major was a woman. She survived Waterloo and was awarded medals for bravery.
The dominant tone in the letters written by the survivors immediately after the battle is not triumphant. It is shocked sadness at the extent of the carnage. No one knows how many died at Waterloo because the broken French Army never had a chance to make a count, but the best estimate available to us suggests that some 50,000 men (and a few women) lay dead or wounded at the battle’s end. The 27th Foot, an Irish battalion, started the day with 19 officers. Only three were left by nightfall, while of the 731 men who composed the other ranks, just 268 were standing when the fighting ended.
Gen. Baron von Müffling, the Prussian liaison officer to the Duke of Wellington, watched the British line advance at the day’s end. The whole army was supposed to join that attack, but von Müffling remembered only small groups going forward, because “the position in which the infantry had fought was marked, as far as the eye could see, by a red line caused by the red uniforms of the numerous killed and wounded who lay there.” It is a terrible image, a tideline of the dead and dying.
Wellington set the tone for today’s commemorations when he wrote to a friend a month after the battle, saying, “It is quite impossible to think of glory. Both mind and feelings are exhausted. I am wretched even at the moment of victory, and I always say that next to a battle lost, the greatest misery is a battle gained. I am now just beginning to retain my natural spirits, but I never wish for any more fighting.”
Today, surely, is not a day to remember victory or defeat, but to remember the pity of war and, vain as the hope might be, to wish with the duke for no more fighting.
Bernard Cornwell, a historical novelist, is the author, most recently, of Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies and Three Battles