Thursday, June 18, 2015

Waterloo bicentenary

Thanks to my youthful love of Georgette Heyer there was a time in my early teens when I could probably have given a fairly accurate description of Wellington's progress across Europe and an almost blow by blow account of the Battle of Waterloo itself. That was back when Wellington's image still decorated £5 notes (and when a £5 represented considerable wealth - or was at least equivalent to 2.5 new Georgette Heyer's) as well as innumerable pub signs. A familiar, mostly heroic figure, his victories traceable in street names, church monuments, public statues, and local museums across the country, he still pops up regularly in costume dramas and is responsible for some cracking good quotes.

Wellington's art collection, specifically the bulk of the Spanish royal collection that fell into his hands, featured in my undergraduate dissertation so I visited both Apsley House (impressive) and Stratfield Saye (comfortably shabby) to stare at the pictures, and perhaps pick up some more romanticised ideas about the man and his career in the process, especially his most famous victory.

There are good reasons to commemorate this date, to think about what it's meant to us and our idea of  who we are as a nation but, and this is thanks again to Georgette Heyer, it's the personal element that really fascinates me. She might have given accounts of troop movements detailed enough to make them required reading at Sandhurst, but she made it human enough to keep a reader (this reader) tense with concern for her hero's and their friends. Maybe the best account is in 'A Civil Contract' when the hero in question is no longer a soldier but has instead staked his whole financial future on the outcome of the battle. We wait with him for news to reach London - will it be success or failure? The clubs are full of armchair generals foretelling doom, the mood is grim, friends are over there fighting for their lives, and all we can do is wait. I still get goosebumps every time I reach the passage where the news finally comes through.

This is absolutely why I was so moved to find a cutting from The Times making those first tentative reports of victory amongst a collection of family odds and ends. I'm hoping dad still has the tin box it resided in, along with dull accounts from local papers of hatches, matches, and dispatches from a hundred years later. If he does maybe he'll let me have another look for it. What I wonder about, and will never know the answer to, is who cut it out? Where they Whig or Tory, was a family member or loved one there? I think they must have been for it to have been kept so long. Or was it a souvenir for a patriotic schoolboy? And why in a box of cuttings all saved because of some mention of family, and collected between around 1900 and 1920 (if memory serves, I found this stuff 20 years ago and more) had someone still kept it. Was it just a curiosity by then, or some sort of lucky charm whilst more battles were being fought in Belgium?

meanwhile back in 2015 I have some vague intention of marking the occasion by reading something. Possibly a selection of Wellington's dispatches (though they might be a little dry), maybe Scott's description of Waterloo which I see Vintage have just produced a nice copy of. I will try and visit Apsley house again, if only to marvel at the giant nude marble Naploeon under the stairs (truly a present for the conquering hero who already had everything else), and I don't mind admitting to a passing desire for a commemorative mug and some Fortnums Waterloo tea to drink out of it (features a lot of gunpowder tea, and sounds like a blend I'll enjoy). The last two are silly things really, but I like commemorative bits and bobs, they give me hope that we might yet learn from history.


  1. I wonder if the 100th anniversary was the catalyst for your clipping - presumably it was an anniversary made even more poignant by 1915's events. But how even more fascinating if there is a family connection there for you to discover. (In Australia it was very trendy during the Bicentennial year to find yourself a convict ancestor...)

  2. I think that would be quite exciting - as long as they hadn't been transported for anything to nasty. I like the scrapbooks and ephemera people keep, sometimes far more than more obviously valuable heirlooms. That bit of paper was such a tangible link with the past, it really was goosebump stuff