Wednesday, June 17, 2015


My love of history is a life-long passion. Ever since I was a little boy, I wanted to learn about past events. I'm not sure why I was this way, but it is a firm part of my personality.

In high school, I had the great good fortune to fall in with a group of friends who shared my love of history. This group were avid war gamers, and played various strategy and tactics games, sometimes in an imaginary role-playing scenario ( before Dungeons and Dragons ) and sometimes on a massive and realistic board, using lead figurines and elaborate calculations to determine moves, gunfire and casualties.

Part of this gaming involved careful and meticulous research, and it introduced me to the eminent British historian David G. Chandler, whose massive work "The Campaigns of Napoleon" was required reading for gamers. I devoured this book, loaned to me by one of my friends and fellow gamers. At the age of eighteen, I became versed in the art of strategy, tactics and logistics, all practiced at the highest level by the master general of his time, Napoleon Bonaparte. Needless to say, the vast majority of our game scenarios involved Napoleonic themes.

At around the same time, I was able to view Sergei Bondarchuk's epic film
"Waterloo", featuring Rod Steiger as Napoleon and Christopher Plummer as Wellington. Although the film is rather selective in its adherence to actual historic events, it was a glorious and spectacular version of the penultimate battle of the Napoleonic Wars at Waterloo.

Viewing the film made everything I had read in Chandler's book and everything I had played on the big boards of the war games come to life: at least I thought that everything came to life. The film served up a visual feast of bright and gorgeous uniforms, pyrotechnics that deafened the audience, and portrayals of the real life participants as heroic stereotypes: the flamboyant and erratic Napoleon, the calm and phlegmatic Wellington, the hot headed Ney ( played to perfection by the Irish actor Dan O'Herlihy ) the cursing and unpopular Picton ( equally well played by Jack Hawkins). Even the terrain used by Bondarchuk to stage the battle scenes bore quite a resemblance to the actual battlefield, which I was able to visit in 1985.

But the singular thing missing in Bondarchuk's film, and not entirely dealt with in Chandler's book, was the human cost. The battle was a horrendous bloodbath, with close to a quarter million men locked in mortal combat in an area of only a few square kilometers. The loss of life was terrible to contemplate and only became real for me in the last year with the release of Bernard Cornwell's marvellous non fiction work "Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies and Three Battles". Cornwell published the book to coincide with the bicentennial of the battle this year.

Cornwell is best known as a novelist, famous for the "Sharpe" series, and several other series mostly set in the distant Middle Ages, or during the Hundred Years' War. "Waterloo" is Cornwell's first offering of non fiction, and he combines his extraordinary skill in story-telling with his meticulous research and understanding of military history. Unlike Chandler, Cornwell is not a professional historian, so his work reads almost like a novel, whereas Chandler's work is a manual on Napoleonic strategy and tactics.

Only in Cornwell's book do we finally see the tragic human cost. Many letters written by troops before they died in battle to loved ones back home are highlighted. The famous Duchess of Richmond's Ball, held only 3 nights before the battle, contrasted the glittering scene of an army at peace only to jolted into readiness and action by the news of the impending march of Napoleon: many of the British and Allied officers were still in evening attire and dancing slippers when they were shredded to pieces on the field at Waterloo. And Cornwell spares no detail in describing the apocalyptic aftermath of the battle field, with corpses and wounded men left lying in agony for days after the battle: the exhausted armies had no energy or ability to care for the wounded or the disposal of the bodies. Only after several days did a private contractor begin to gather up the corpses, most of which had been stripped of clothing or valuables by "grave robbers", and to suffer the most ignominious of endings: to be ground up for fertilizer for the farms in the area. Their blood had watered the fields, now their bodies and bones would provide new life out of the wretched charnel house of the battle field.

Cornwell succeeds in making the Battle of Waterloo human and profoundly sad. And as we mark the bicentennial of this most decisive of battles, this most discussed and written about historic event, we must never forget that, two hundred years ago this week, on June 18, 1815, untold thousands of young men, officers and privates, and thousands of horses used in combat and transport, spent their last hours in abject terror and unbelievable misery before dying violent and painful deaths, all in the name of national pride and individual glory.

History is a stern and unforgiving teacher. Are we, as her students, worthy of learning her lessons ?

No comments:

Post a Comment