The Battle of Waterloo (II)

In 2012 the more or less intact skeleton of an unknown British soldier was found on the battlefield of Waterloo. The musket ball that killed him was still lodged between his ribs.

Archaeologists also uncovered a regimental spoon, a fragment of decorated leather from his uniform, coins, and a piece of wood, possibly a rifle butt, inscribed with the initials “C B”. Unfortunately, the soldier’s skull was crushed by a mechanical digger before the remains became visible. But the skeleton is one of the best preserved from the battle, although missing a foot and some small hand bones. A first analysis suggested that the remains were of a 20-year-old man, 5ft 1in tall and with teeth worn by biting open gunpowder tubes.

The soldier’s remains (poetically located in “some corner of a foreign field”) were unearthed during the excavation of land for a car park close to the Lion’s Mound monument, the artificial hill raised at Waterloo to commemorate the place where William II of the Netherlands (a commander of the Allied Corps) was knocked from his horse by a musket ball to the shoulder. In his novel Les Misérables, Victor Hugo recounts that on visiting the site two years after the mound was completed, the Duke of Wellington complained, “They have altered my field of battle!”

Waterloo-BridgeHistorical accounts agree that most of the rank and file killed at the Battle of Waterloo were buried in mass graves. Memorials were later set up in appropriate places to acknowledge their sacrifice. In London, plans were made to erect two national memorials to the Battle. There was to have been a 280-foot ornamental tower standing in Portland Place and facing Regent’s Park, but for some reason it was never built. Instead, the already projected Strand Bridge was renamed Waterloo Bridge.

To celebrate the second anniversary of the Battle, the Prince Regent, together with the Duke of Wellington and the Duke of York (he who during the Flanders Campaign of 1793-94 “had ten thousand men and marched them up to the top of the hill and marched them down again”) opened Waterloo Bridge on 18 June 1817. Four toll houses were an integral part of the bridge’s construction and a penny was charged for anyone wishing to cross over. One wonders if Waterloo veterans were allowed to use it for free.

Wellington(1844)When Wellington died in 1852 he was given a magnificent state funeral attended by 10,000 distinguished guests in St Paul’s Cathedral where he was laid to rest and watched by some 1.5 million people in the streets. Wellington’s bier was drawn by a dozen magnificently caparisoned black horses. Charles Dickens attended the funeral and wrote of it in his weekly magazine Household Words. Praising the Iron Duke himself, he criticised the spectacle, noting that, “the more truly great the man, the more truly little the ceremony”, and condemning it as “a pernicious instance and encouragement of the demoralizing practice of trading in Death.”

Dickens was appalled by the sale of Wellingtoniana: “precious remembrances” parted with for ready money; autograph letters traded in public and stripped of the privacy under which they were written; “the Duke, raised mind and body upon a gaudy platform from which the living man would undoubtedly have shrunk.” Dickens closed by hoping that Wellington’s last “enduring service to the country” might be to disabuse England of the notion that such a spectacle does any good.

The Duke of Wellington led an extraordinary life, yet he is mostly remembered for the infamous Battle of Waterloo. He deserved the obsequies paid to him by a grateful nation, yet the contrast with the poor soldier buried in Flanders mud in 1815 is stark and prescient of the conflict that followed one hundred years later.

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Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

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