Friday 28 October 2016

Mary Kenny: why Waterloo still fascinates

Favourite facts from the famous battle

Published 14/06/2015 | 02:30

A re-enactment of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815
A re-enactment of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815

Waterloo, fought on the June 18, 1815, is still considered to be the most famous battle in European history: but it nearly wasn't called "Waterloo". The Prussian commander, Gebhard von Blucher, wanted to call it "The Battle of La Belle Alliance". Geographically it should have been "The Battle of Mont Saint Jean", but Wellington cannily named it "Waterloo" after a town two kilometres away from the site.

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● Although the Anglo-German-Dutch Alliance defeated Napoleon at Waterloo (in "a close-run thing" in the Iron Duke's famous phrase), there are far more souvenirs of Bonaparte sold on the heritage site at Waterloo.

● Wellington was an Irishman by birth, born Arthur Wesley at Dangan, near Trim. When he attended military school at Angers in France, he was described in the school's registrar as "an Irish lad of great promise", according to the military historian Richard Holmes.

● Irishmen were numerous in Wellington's army. The Connaught Rangers was an Irish brigade, but 42pc of the Royal Artillery were Irish, as were 34pc of the West Middlesex and even among the Gordon Highlanders, it was 6pc.

● Previously, an Irishman had to forswear the Roman Catholic faith to serve in the British Army, but Wellington had that obstacle removed, according to Stephen Bates's terrific book 1815. Yet he objected to the presence of Methodists, who he believed would "spread sedition" - they had a reputation for being political radicals.

● Napoleon summoned the French army on his return from exile, and Frenchmen of all persuasions rallied to serve him. Later, Alfred de Musset wrote, that an entire generation of Frenchmen wept because they could no longer fight for the Emperor.

● But Bonaparte was not in the best of health at Waterloo. He suffered from haemorrhoids, and had to retire periodically to a local farmhouse. He was also said to have had a bladder infection, and a tumour in the pituitary gland and had had little sleep for six days before the battle. His biographer Andrew Roberts suggests that had Bonaparte started the battle at 4am, instead of 11am, he might have won.

● High society at the time was obsessed with the newfangled dance from Vienna, the waltz, deliciously shocking because partners were held in each other's arms; and wildly danced at the Duchess of Richmond's ball, held in Brussels on the eve of Waterloo - and wonderfully described in Vanity Fair.

● Napoleon's surgeon, Dominique Jean Larrey, proved to be an extraordinary pioneer of field surgery during Waterloo, inventing triage (deciding on the order of treatment according to the severity of injuries) and amputating infected limbs with remarkable rapidity. He was captured by the Prussians and condemned to death, but reprieved because he had saved the life of Blucher's son. The Musée de la Grande Armée in Paris displays Larrey's instruments to the fascination of modern surgeons.

● Wellington said of his mount, Copenhagen: "There may have been many faster horses, no doubt many handsomer, but for bottom and endurance I never saw his fellow." Copenhagen died peacefully and is buried at the Hampshire home of the Wellington family. Napoleon was said to ride his horses hard - he had 52 - but his favourite was a small Arab steed, Marengo, who had survived the retreat from Moscow and Waterloo, was wounded eight times, and died eventually of old age.

● In romantic affairs, Wellington, frankly, was a bounder and seduced any pretty woman who took his eye, behaving in a rejecting manner to his Irish wife, Kitty Pakenham. Napoleon was a true romantic: his letters to Josephine are full of the most uxorious concern.

● German historians have often claimed that the true victor at Waterloo was General Blucher, who indeed played a decisive role in the battle. Remarkably, Blucher was 72 at the time and eager for a fight with the French who had previously defeated him. Wellington first denied, and then conceded that the Prussian general deserved much of the glory.

● After Waterloo, Napoleon was sent into permanent exile in St Helena (he had a plan to emigrate to America, but the British foiled it), and both Wellington and Blucher said they never wanted to fight another battle. Wellington wrote poignantly: "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."

● Peace between the nations of Europe reigned for a long time after that, but I am told by history teachers that the Battle of Waterloo can still be a touchy subject at international schools.


Irish Independent

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