Arms and the man: the personal kit that would have been carried by a British soldier in 1815
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The unfinished battles of Waterloo

How did a hamlet in Belgium become immortalised in the names of streets, districts, parks and buildings all over Britain? These five books, published in anticipation of the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo, explain why.

Waterloo: the History of Four Days, Three Armies and Three Battles 
Bernard Cornwell
William Collins, 352pp, £25

24 Hours at Waterloo: 18 June 1815 
Robert Kershaw
W H Allen, 448pp, £25

Waterloo: the Aftermath 
Paul O’Keeffe
Bodley Head, 392pp, £25

Waterloo: Four Days that Changed Europe’s Destiny 
Tim Clayton
Little, Brown, 608pp, £25

The Longest Afternoon: the 400 Men Who Decided the Battle of Waterloo 
Brendan Simms
Allen Lane, 160pp, £14.99

Waterloo was not merely a battle, nor merely a critical moment in British and European history, but something that has left a profound imprint on our culture. Byron, 27 at the time, famously recorded the Duchess of Richmond’s ball in Brussels three days before the battle in “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”: “On with the dance! let joy be unconfined . . .” In towns all over Britain, Waterloo is immortalised in the names of streets, districts, parks and buildings; it is a railway station; it is a figure of speech – none of us wishes to meet our Waterloo. So did a hamlet in Belgium pass into the language: and these five books, published in anticipation of the bicentenary, explain why.

It is impossible to estimate how many histories have been written so far, the first of them appearing in the months after the battle on 18 June 1815. In the years that followed numerous officers published their memoirs of the events, even though the Duke of Wellington was constantly sceptical about the value of such an exercise. As Bernard Cornwell recalls at the start of his lively account of Waterloo, Wellington – “Old Hooky” to many of his soldiers, on account of his fine Roman nose – felt that one might as well write the history of a ball as the history of a battle, because everyone who attends a ball has a different experience of it from everyone else, just as everyone present at a battle will have a different perspective on it. A similar problem is apparent in the glut of books published to mark the centenary of the Great War.

But it hasn’t all been said already, and there are, inevitably, new ways of saying old things. Each of these books has something to offer. Bernard Cornwell is celebrated as the author of the Sharpe novels, and this is his first work of non-fiction. His style is occasionally novelistic, and one sometimes gets the sense one is reading a screenplay: but that is also the sensation one would have in reading Carlyle’s The French Revolution, a book that is none the worse for that. Cornwell’s is not a scholarly work, in that it is unburdened by footnotes, and he is honest about his reliance on earlier historians and researchers, but it is a clear account of how Napoleon, having escaped from his exile on Elba, headed to Paris, booted out Louis XVIII and the Bourbon monarchy, and decided to go on the march to what is now called Belgium but what was then called the Netherlands. There he met the armies of the United Kingdom and Prussia, and very nearly beat them: and that he did not changed the course of European history, not least in propelling Britain to the status of world power and Prussia towards domination of continental Europe.

Some will be tempted to dismiss Cornwell because he is a storyteller, but for those who want an entry-level, reliable guide to what happened at Waterloo, he has great appeal. His book is also superbly illustrated.

More traditional in its approach, but heavily reliant on secondary sources, is Robert Kershaw’s account. Another of its limitations is expressed in its title, for the story is spread over far more than 24 hours: Napoleon’s expectation that he could beat the allies despite being heavily outnumbered by them was not least fed by his initial victory at Quatre Bras, a few miles away, on 16 June. Kershaw is a former soldier and he brings passion and enthusiasm to his writing, as well as an understanding of military culture and movements that makes him a reliable interpreter of the events.

In many ways, the most fascinating of these books is Paul O’Keeffe’s. He deals with the battle in the opening pages and then, as his title suggests, looks in great detail at what happens next. The field of Waterloo was not very large but the engagement of the three armies was spread over more than 20 square miles, and the ruination of the land and the carnage were of awesome proportions, not seen again until the area became a battlefield again a century later. O’Keeffe describes the men’s wounds, the most famous of which was the shattering of the Earl of Uxbridge’s leg and its subsequent amputation, which Uxbridge endured with barely a grimace. Corpses were strewn across the countryside, heaped up and rotting in the June sun, displaying hideous disfigurements. There were so many dead – nobody seemed able to come up with an accurate figure at the time, but subsequent research has suggested it could have been as many as 12,000 – that attempts to bury them in pits soon failed and heaps of corpses had to be burned.

But before that, as O’Keeffe details, local peasants and some of the soldiers roamed the battlefield looting corpses, and not just for money, jewellery and watches. A group that was identified as Russian Jews chiselled the teeth out of corpses to make dentures for the discerning rich: for some years after the battle, the fashionable edentate of Europe were sold “Waterloo teeth”. But O’Keeffe’s book is not all blood and gore. He records how word of the victory was brought to London to the prime minister, Lord Liverpool, and to the prince regent. Prinny was at a ball at Mrs Edmund Boehm’s house in St James’s, at which no expense had been spared (she was the wife of a prosperous merchant). However, the cheering of the mob outside announced the arrival of Major Henry Percy, an aide-de-camp to Wellington, with the Iron Duke’s handwritten despatch announcing the victory. The guests rushed to the window and, when the news was broadcast, rushed out to celebrate in the streets: to Mrs Boehm’s annoyance, the lavish spread remained untouched.

O’Keeffe describes Napoleon’s rejection by the Assembly and peers in Paris and his attempt to get out of France, then under the allies’ control. His application for a passport alerted the authorities to his plan and he was intercepted by the navy. For a time he was confined to a ship off the Devon coast, and would wave to locals who gathered on the littoral to see him. For all the devil-like reputation that “Boney” had acquired among the British, they cheered him when he appeared on deck. He was soon sent off to St Helena, possibly after trying to commit suicide, whence he never returned.

As O’Keeffe points out, the tourism potential of Boney’s visit to the British coast was one of the early enterprises to make money out of the battle. Not only was there a rash of books about Waterloo, but the cash register was soon ringing, with parties of tourists on the battlefield, searching for any souvenirs the looters had chosen to leave them. The only minor quibble about O’Keeffe’s fascinating book is the way he mangles aristocratic titles.

Of this selection, Tim Clayton’s book is the best overview of the meeting of the three armies. In more than 70 short, episodic chapters, Clayton sets out what happened on both sides from the moment Napoleon left Paris and rode north. Drawing extensively on published and unpublished sources, he brings back to life many personalities whose names have become synonymous with the battle other than Wellington and Napoleon – Blücher, Uxbridge (who, Clayton thinks, did indeed have the legendary exchange with Wellington in which he said, “By God, sir, I have lost my leg!” and the Iron Duke replied, “By God, sir, so you have!”), Ney, Grouchy and a host of middle-ranking officers whose almost insane heroism made the battle so ferocious. Clayton well conveys the difficulties of communication on a battlefield in the days when it depended on a message being carried by a man on a horse, and how miscommunications between Napoleon and Ney and Grouchy led to a failure to drive home the advantage over the allies which proved fatal.

That brings us to Brendan Simms’s short but superb book on why Waterloo was actually won: it was down to the defence by the King’s German Legion of the farm at La Haye Sainte, which held the French back long enough for the Prussians to come to Wellington’s aid. The king of England – George III – was also king of Hanover, and Simms describes how the legion raised in his name adopted English military customs and practices. That it was the Germans who ultimately won it may fly in the face of British mythology, but Simms, a Germanophone who uses a range of primary sources from the Hanoverian archives, proves the point effectively. The scholarship is impeccable, as one would expect of a Cambridge professor, but it also proves that even at this remove, when one might have thought all that could be said about the battle had been said, one could have got it wrong.

In an engagement that involved nearly 150,000 troops on both sides, Simms pins down the 400 of them who, despite being turned out of La Haye Sainte in the end, held on long enough to see the allies home. It complements any other book you may care to read on the subject but also serves to remind us that the dividing line between victory and defeat is precariously fine: and on those 400 men would hinge the development of a whole continent, whose ripples are, like those of the Great War, still felt, even at a distance of 200 years. 

Simon Heffer is a historian and a writer for the Daily Mail

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The deep roots of Isis

Martin O’Neill for New Statesman
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1966 and all that

A year of World Cup glory, meeting Paul McCartney and eating placenta.

Fifty years ago this Saturday, on 30 July 1966, I was at Wembley. I have my ticket and my programme to prove it. I also have my 1966 ­diary, which I am looking at now. I was 30, weighed ten stone and eight pounds, and my waist was 32 inches – about as hard to believe now as England winning another World Cup final.

I am still in the same house, all these decades later, but my telephone number then was GUL 4685. GUL was short for Gulliver, I can’t remember why. In my list of contacts at the end of my diary is Melvyn Bragg, who was another recent arrival in London from Cumbria, like myself and my wife, on PRO 0790. PRO stood for Prospect, I think, which was the exchange name for somewhere over the river, possibly Kew.

My office number was TER 1234. I always thought that was a great and memorable number. It’s only now, thinking about it, that I realise that TER – meaning Terminus –
probably related to King’s Cross, which the Sunday Times was near in those days.

At the top of the charts in July 1966 were the Kinks with “Sunny Afternoon”, which I can well remember, as it was so ironically chirpy, and Georgie Fame with “Getaway”. I liked Georgie Fame – low-key, cool – but I can’t remember that tune. Both were replaced in August by the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine”/“Eleanor Rigby”.

My day job in July 1966, on the Sunday Times staff, was writing the Atticus column. It still exists, but in a smaller, more skittery format. Previous incumbents included Ian Fleming, John Buchan and Sacheverell Sitwell, who was reputed to have got free Mateus rosé for life after giving the wine its first mention in an English newspaper.

I had been on the paper since 1960, after spending two years as a so-called graduate trainee journalist, mainly in Manchester, which was a laugh. There was no training and there were no lessons in law. You had a mentor for a few weeks and then you got on with it.

In my first few years as the boy on Atticus, I never had my name in the paper. I had to write dreary paragraphs about who might be our next man in Washington, or the bishop of London, or the master of Balliol, as if I cared. I wanted to write about footballers, gritty northern novelists, pop stars.

When I started at the Sunday Times, I felt for a while that people were prejudiced against me, because I was northern and working class and had gone to grammar school and a provincial university (Durham). Everyone else seemed to have been at Oxbridge and gone to public school.

But this prejudice was all in my head, imagined, just as it had been when I used to go from Durham to visit my girlfriend, Margaret – whom I married in 1960 – at Oxford. I was convinced that some of her posh friends were being condescending ­towards me. Total nonsense, but I had a chip on my shoulder for some years. Gone, all gone, just like my 32-inch waist. (I am now 12 stone and the new shorts I bought last week have a 38-inch waist. Oh, the horror.) If anything, these past 50 years, any prejudice has been in my favour.

Harold Wilson was the prime minister in 1966. His northern accent was even stronger than mine. I still have a letter from him, dated 21 March 1963, after I interviewed him for Atticus. In the letter, he ­describes the 1938 FA Cup final in which Preston beat Huddersfield Town 1-0, scoring in the last minute of extra time. At the bottom of the page, in handwriting, he’d added: “after hitting the crossbar”.

What I remember most about the interview was George Brown, who was deputy to
Wilson as Labour leader at the time, hanging around outside his office, drunk. Marcia Williams, Wilson’s secretary, was going around tut-tutting, making faces, complaining about George. I thought she shouldn’t have done, not in front of me, as I was a total stranger and a hack. (I don’t think we called ourselves hacks in those days, which is the normal, half-ironic self-description today.)

Harold was a football man and also a real know-all, forever boasting about his memory for facts and figures. The contents of this letter illustrate both aspects of his character. It led me later to collect a letter or autograph from every prime minister, going back to Robert Walpole. Only took me ten years.

There is a myth that England’s 1966 win helped Labour stay in power – which does not quite stand up. The general election was in March – four months before the final. But Wilson did milk England’s victory, identifying himself and the nation with our English champions.

It is possible that the reverse effect happened in 1970, when Wilson was chucked out and Edward Heath came in. England’s defeat at the 1970 World Cup by West Germany was just four days before the June general election.

***

I got my ticket for the 1966 World Cup final – for one of the best seats, priced at £5 – from my friend James Bredin, now dead, who was the boss of Border Television. Based in Carlisle, Border covered the Scottish Borders and the Isle of Man. It was a thriving, thrusting regional ITV station, now also deceased.

James’s chauffeur came to pick me up and waited for us after the match, a sign of the importance and affluence of even minor ITV stations. Border contributed quite a bit to the network, such as Mr and Mrs, starring Derek Batey, who presented 450 editions of this very popular national show. Batey was a local lad who started his show business life as an amateur ventriloquist in the little market town of Brampton, Cumbria, before becoming Carlisle’s Mr Show Business. He was so polished – lush hair, shiny suits, so starry, so glittery – that I always wondered why he was not in London, in the West End.

Border TV also produced some excellent documentaries that were networked across the ITV region, two of which I presented. One was about walking along Hadrian’s Wall and the other was about George Stephenson. For a while in the 1970s, I began to think I was going to become a TV presenter, despite being not much good. I was lousy at acting, which you need for television, and disliked asking questions to which I already knew the answers. And it took so much time. For each programme, we spent eight weeks on location with a crew of eight, just to make a one-hour documentary. Now they
do docs in a week with just two people.

For half an hour, I also imagined that I was going to become a playwright. In 1967, I had a play in the BBC’s Wednesday Play slot, awfully prestigious at the time, called The Playground. It was one of those shows that were filmed live and then wiped, so I have never seen it since, nor has anybody else. I blamed that for blighting my playwriting career, though till I was looking in my 1966 diary and saw that I was working on that play, I’d forgotten about its existence. As we go through life, we forget all the paths not trodden.

I’ve boasted endlessly about being at the 1966 Wembley final, and it was so exciting, but I can’t remember many of the details. I must have been aware of Geoff Hurst’s second goal being a bit dodgy, as there were loud complaints from the German fans, but as Sir Geoff, as he then wasn’t, went on to score a third goal, it didn’t really matter. At the time, I considered that the England-Portugal semi-final had been a better game, with our Bobby Charlton scoring two goals against one from Eusebio, but of course winning a final is winning a final and the excitement and the patriotic pride continued for weeks and months. We felt as if it had been our right to win – after all, did we not give the game to the world, lay down the first rules, show all those foreigners how to play our game?

The result was that we usually ignored all the new ideas and developments that were emerging from Europe and South America, carrying on with our old ways, stuffing our faces with steak before a game and knocking back six pints afterwards, a bit like Alf Tupper in the Rover comic. He lived on fish and chips, but on the race track he could beat anyone.

Those funny Continental players started playing in funny lightweight boots, more like slippers or ballet shoes, which seemed barmy to us. How we scoffed. How can you play properly, far less kick someone properly, unless your ankles are encased in hard leather as tough as steel? Who cared if they weighed a ton, especially in wet weather? We Brits were tough.

The top First Division stars of 1966 earned about £200 a week, including bonuses, and lived in £20,000 houses, semi-detached, on new estates with Tudor overtones. The top players drove Jaguars. But most were lucky to afford a Ford Cortina. I had one myself for a while. Awfully smart, or so I thought at the time.

Their basic wages were little more than double that of the best-paid working men, such as a foreman bricklayer or a successful plumber. Their neighbours on their estates were bank mangers or salesmen, a higher scale socially than their own background, but still fairly modest. Not like today. Footballers don’t even have neighbours any more. They are cocooned in their own gated mansions, with personal staff, gardeners, nannies, accountants, lawyers, agents.

Yet despite their modest lifestyles in those days, there were celebrity players, such as Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton and, before them, Billy Wright, all household names, loved and admired, recognised everywhere.

None of them had an agent in 1966. The nearest thing to it was the system that operated if a team got to the FA Cup final. They would then agree to divvy up the peripheral proceeds, such as money from giving newspaper interviews, posing for staged corny photographs, opening shops, or selling their spare tickets to touts (which they were not supposed to do). They’d appoint some dodgy friend of one of the senior players to arrange the deals and collect the monies for them. Times, they always change. Otherwise, what’s the point, eh?

***

In 1966, two big events occurred in my personal life. In May that year, my son, Jake, was born – at home, in what is now our kitchen. He arrived so quickly that the midwife hadn’t turned up yet and he emerged with the cord twisted around his neck. I managed to untie it, which I have maintained since kept him alive (a trick I had learned at fathers’ classes).

Fathers’ classes – wow, what a novelty that was in the 1960s. Who says we were all chauvinist pigs back then? (Today’s young, female star writers at the New Statesman, probably.) I attended my first ones, at the Royal Free Hospital in 1964, when our firstborn, Caitlin, was about to arrive. I remember immediately thinking when the invite came that I would get 1,000 words out of this – which I did, for the Sunday Times women’s pages.

Also at those first-ever fathers’ classes at the Royal Free was a young BBC producer whose wife was also about to give birth: Wilfred De’Ath. He, too, was desperate to get a piece out of it. (He now writes occasionally for the Oldie, and he appears to be down and out and living in France.)

After Jake’s birth, I got the midwife to give me the placenta and I ate it, fried with onions. Tasted like liver. Another 1,000 words.

The other event of note in my ever-so-exciting life in 1966 was meeting Paul McCartney. When “Eleanor Rigby” came out, I thought the words – not just the tune – were so wonderful. Possibly the best poetry of the year, I said, as if I knew anything about poetry. I went to see him for Atticus in his new house in St John’s Wood, which he still has, being a very conservative feller. I talked to him about the background to the lyrics, as opposed to his hair, which interviewers were still asking him about.

A few months later, at the end of 1966, I went to see him again, wearing a different cap, as a screenwriter. I’d had a novel published the previous year, Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, which was being made into a film, with Clive Donner directing. We went to see Paul at his house and discussed with him if he would do the theme tune. He turned us down in the end but it was while I was with him that I suggested that there should be a proper biography of the Beatles. He said Brian (Epstein, the band’s manager) would have to agree – and there and then sat me down and helped me write a suitable arse-licking letter to him.

I eventually saw Brian, after several cancellations, at his home in Belgravia and he played me the acetate of “Strawberry Fields Forever”. I was astounded. It seemed to break every rule of what was then considered pop music. I wondered if all Beatles fans
would take to it. But I could see that it was amazing and perhaps the Beatles weren’t finished, which was what some people were saying in 1966. At my publisher, Heinemann, which paid me £3,000 for the book, there was one director who maintained the Beatles bubble was about to burst.

Brian agreed to my project and offered a clause in the contract that we had not requested or even thought of. He said he would not give any other writer access to the Beatles for two years after my book came out. This was 1966. The book came out in 1968. Two years later, in 1970, the Beatles were no more. Without realising it at the time, I became the only authorised ­biographer of the Beatles.

***

So, 1966, a big year for me, so glad I kept that diary, and also a big year for the nation. I thought at the time that the Beatles were bound to fade, eventually, while England surely would dominate world football from now on. After their humbling by Iceland at this year’s World Cup, I now realise that England will never win the World Cup again in my life, what’s left of it. And probably not even another game.

The only way to rationalise it is to tell ourselves that we are ahead of the game. We are rubbish, but in turn it will happen to all the other so-called advanced nations.

You could say Brexit is a bit like that. We are ahead of the other leading European nations in going it alone, even though it is depressing and awful and shameful. We are advanced in wilfully turning ourselves into a rubbish nation. We are leading the way, as ever. Inger-land, Inger-land.

Hunter Davies’s memoir of the postwar years, “The Co-op’s Got Bananas!” (Simon & Schuster), was published in April, followed by “Lakeland: a Personal Journal” (Head of Zeus). His final book on the Fab Four, “The Beatles Book” (Ebury), will be published on 1 September

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue