Thursday, June 18, 2015

Waterloo: “Tell my sister I didn’t soil my pants!”

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.”
Thus writes Bernard Cornwell in the New York Times. The historical novelist is the author of Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies and Three Battles.
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.

 … 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.”
Update: Courage and commerce -- which did more to enrich humanity (cheers to the jaymaster):
We admire achievements in war, a negative-sum game in which people get hurt on both sides, more than we do those in commerce, where both sides win.

 … We know almost nothing of the merchants who made ancient Greece rich enough to spawn an unprecedented culture, but we know lots about the deeds of those who squandered that wealth in war.

 … in the very same year, 1815, George Stephenson, a humble, self-taught engine-wright with an impenetrable Geordie accent (to which he probably gave the name), put together all the key inventions that — at last — made steam locomotion practicable. … The year of Waterloo was an annus mirabilis of the industrial revolution, putting Britain on course to dominate and transform the world, whether we beat Boney or not.