Friday, 19 June 2015

The Aftermath of Waterloo

It's the day after Waterloo and anything I write is going to be an anti-climax, but I feel that if were going to celebrate the battle, we have to remember the consequences.

Nobody really knows how many people died at Waterloo. Wellington's dispatch gives the, frankly ludicrous, figure of 1,759 British dead. In fairness it adds 5,892 wounded. Given the medical treatment available at the time, most of these will have died too. Elizabeth Longford estimates Wellington's total losses at close to 15,000. This would include Netherlanders and Hanoverians. She claims the French lost 25,000 killed and wounded and the Prussians over 7,000. Most modern commentators seem to agree that close to 50,000 people would have lain dead or wounded on the field at the close of the battle. Remembering that the area was quite small. The battlefront was about two and a half miles long, with the armies drawn up just over a mile apart. By the end of the day, this relatively small area was covered in the bodies of the dead and dying.

The French had, as usual, attacked in columns. This meant that the flanks of the columns were most exposed to enemy fire and, after the battle was over, their path of advance could be plotted by the parallel lines of dead French soldiers. At every point where they paused in their advance, a horizontal line, like the rung of a ladder, joined the parallel corpses of the flanks as those standing at the front had been mown down by Allied fire.

Generally the bodies of the infantry were in groups, marking the places where the fighting was most intense. There were particularly large numbers of corpses around the Hougomont, where at one point the French were climbing on the bodies of their dead in their attempts to scale the walls. The bodies of cavalrymen, by contrast, were scattered across the field, as were the bodies of their horses, whose bulk proved a substantial obstacle to those trying to clear the dead in the days that followed.

In my research, I came across this contemporary account of the condition of the field that night. The tale is told by a private trooper who was (like so many others) out to plunder the dead.

... the ground, whithersoever we went, was strewed with the wreck of the battle. Arms of every kind, cuirasses, muskets, cannon, tumbrils, and drums, which seemed innumerable, cumbered the very face of the earth. Intermingled with these were the carcasses of the slain, not lying about in groups of four or six, but so wedged together that we found it imposible in many instances to avoid trampling them, where they lay, under our horses' hoofs ; then, again, the knapsacks, either cast loose or still adhering to their owners, were countless. I confess that we opened many of these, hoping to find in them money or other articles of value, but not one which I at least examined contained more than the coarse shirts and shoes that had belonged to their dead owners, with here and there a little package of tobacco and a bag of salt; and, which was worst of all, when we dismounted to institute this search, our spurs forever caught in the garments of the slain, and more than once we tripped up and fell over them. It was indeed a ghastly spectacle ...
Whilst the Allies did attempt to remove the casualties and give them medical care, the sheer scale of the exercise meant that people lay in the open for days. The French had a proper system for clearing casualties with dedicated sprung carts that were used as ambulances, but the French had fled. The English approach was less organised. it took three days to clear the wounded – by which time, of course, most of them were already dead. Only after the Allied troops had been cared for did the British turn to the French. An anonymous Staff officer who was there wrote:
I have reason to believe it was not till the fourth day after the battle that the last of the French were taken up; and it is painful to think of the suffering they endured from pain, cold, and even hunger, during so many weary days and nights, – numbers of them, doubtless perished who would have survived had they been taken care of. Neither does it appear that any food was regularly supplied to them ...
The dead, of course, were the least of anybody's problems, but the sheer quantity of corpses created an obvious health risk. The same Staff officer wrote:
The bodies of the killed were all completely stripped in an incredibly short time, and many in the course of a few days became horrible objects; such as lay exposed to the sun turning nearly black, as well as being much swollen ... Entirely to clear the ground of dead men and horses occupied period of ten or twelve days ... The human bodies were for the most part thrown into large holes, fifteen or twenty feet square ...
The idea that the bodies should be treated with respect seemed alien at the time – although there were efforts to bury officers with some measure of dignity. Over the years that followed, the bodies were routinely dug up and their bones crushed for use as fertiliser.

Battlefield tourism is not a new invention and English visitors to Brussels was soon at the site of the battle, but so horrible was the scene that, even in those days, it proved too much for the visitors to take and they were quick to turn around and ride back to town.

Strangely, there seems to have been no memorial to the Allied dead. (The Lion's Mound honours the Prince of Orange). This was rectified only in the past week or so, when a small plaque was erected at Waterloo station. It bears the words of the Duke of Wellington after the battle.
My heart is broken by the terrible loss I have sustained in my old friends and companions and my poor soldiers. Believe me, nothing except a battle lost can be half as melancholy as a battle won.

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