Waterloo Anniversary by Martyn Beardsley
Exactly two hundred years ago today, at the time I'm writing this - early on the morning of the 18th June - two armies just a few hundred yards apart were making the final preparations for a battle for the future of Europe. Weapons were cleaned, ammunition was checked, and horses were saddled and fed. British soldiers, stiff and sore from the overnight rain, their wet uniforms steaming in the morning sun, gazed anxiously at the glinting armour of the distant French cuirassiers as they galloped to their positions.
The research for my book on Waterloo was a fascinating experience. To be able to 'see' the battle through the eyes of those who took part made it a much more personal thing than merely reading about military tactics and manoeuvres. In some cases, especially of the ordinary foot soldier like Gunner Edwards (I have the onner of waren a blue and red ribbon as a marke of that day…) I was drawn into the lives of those involved, and it felt like discovering long-lost letters from distant relatives.
Certain things stood out, and one was the courage of the rank-and-file men like Gunner Edwards. It goes without saying that you need to be brave to fight in a battle, but the way of fighting in 1815 was completely unlike anything in modern warfare. In modern times, the fancy parades might look impressive but can also seem somehow pointless. But the way in which all that marching up and down and manoeuvring has its roots in the kind of fighting that took place at Waterloo became clearer to me as I read the stories.
Soldiers had to be able to obey an instant command to form a line or a square, to face a particular direction, to keep formation with colleagues without leaving gaps, and to respond instantly to any change in formation or direction deemed necessary in response to the movements of the enemy.
If the enemy infantry advanced, you would be ordered to form a line in order to bring maximum firepower to bear. The attack might seem overwhelming and there would be a temptation to retreat – but if you did you were lost. This is what happened many times when armies faced Napoleon and his feared armies, and it was the bravery and discipline of Wellington's men that saved them from being routed on many occasions as their comrades fell around them and their ranks were thinned out.
Then if the cavalry attacked, upon a command you would be ordered to abandon your lines and form a square. It was said that a determined infantry square could withstand any cavalry charge as long as it stood firm, and so it proved at Waterloo. These squares had a 'hollow' centre where among others artillerymen who had to abandon their guns could take refuge till the storm had subsided. Again, perfect formation and discipline was paramount. Any wavering and the square would be overwhelmed, with men being cut down by the cuirassiers and their slashing swords.
There is always a big debate whenever Waterloo is mentioned about whether Wellington would have lost if Blucher hadn't arrived. Only the other day I overheard someone declare, 'Of course, without Blucher we would have lost'. I think there is a peculiarly British attitude, whether it's to do with war, sport or whatever, along the lines of 'Well, we're really not very good and all of our victories were either lucky or tainted…'
I stand to be corrected by people who know more about military history than I do, but to me, much of the 'Prussia saved us at Waterloo' debate is spurious. For one thing, Wellington without the Prussians was outnumbered yet still held his ground for the whole day despite attack after ferocious and increasingly desperate attacks by an army that was used to demoralising its opponents. My impression, based on the accounts of those who took part is that a stalemate was the worst that would have happened as darkness came on.
But people seem to forget that the Prussians were part of the plan - they were supposed to be there! It wasn't as if they wandered along unexpectedly or had to be sent for as a desperate afterthought. It was always the arrangement that they would join up with Wellington, and in fact it would have happened earlier had not Napoleon worked so hard to keep the two allies apart. It's almost certainly true that their arrival allowed Wellington to finally, after having fought a brilliant defensive battle all day, launch a decisive counter-attack, but it's wrong to think of it as some sort of outsider coming along to dig the British out of a hole.
Be that as it may, my thoughts today will be with the ordinary British soldier who stood and faced up to the onslaught, and with the many who fell. For me there couldn't be a better tribute than the British Waterloo Monument in Evere. It features Britannia and three lions surrounding a tomb of fallen British officers, but far from being a triumphal monument, when you study it closer it is actually very poignant – because this was a battle won at enormous cost. Britannia looks distraught, and her helmet and trident are lowered. There is a disorderly pile of weapons, looking almost as if they were abandoned in death. And the lions aren't the proud, roaring beasts we are so used to seeing. They lie like spent, shattered soldiers – in fact one seems to be licking its wounds. But still in their pain and exhaustion they remain there, watching over the fallen. The monument is not so much about victory, but about the price to be paid for victory.
Waterloo Voices 1815 by Martyn Beardsley is available for purchase now.