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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

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Are smart toys spying on children?

If you thought stepping on a Lego was bad, consider the new ways in which toys can hurt and harm families.

In January 1999, the president of Tiger Electronics, Roger Shiffman, was forced to issue a statement clearing the name of the company’s hottest new toy. “Furby is not a spy,” he announced to the waiting world.

Shiffman was speaking out after America’s National Security Agency (NSA) banned the toy from its premises. The ban was its response to a playground rumour that Furbies could be taught to speak, and therefore could record and repeat human speech. “The NSA did not do their homework,” said Shiffman at the time.

But if America’s security agencies are still in the habit of banning toys that can record, spy, and store private information, then the list of contraband items must be getting exceptionally long. Nearly 18 years after TE were forced to deny Furby’s secret agent credentials, EU and US consumer watchdogs are filing complaints about a number of WiFi and Bluetooth connected interactive toys, also known as smart toys, which have hit the shelves. Equipped with microphones and an internet connection, many have the power to invade both children’s and adults’ private lives.

***

“We wanted a smart toy that could learn and grow with a child,” says JP Benini, the co-founder of the CogniToys “Dino”, an interactive WiFi-enabled plastic dinosaur that can hold conversations with children and answer their questions. Benini and his team won the 2014 Watson Mobile Developer Challenge, allowing them to use the question-answering software IBM Watson to develop the Dino. As such, unlike the “interactive” toys of the Nineties and Noughties, Dino doesn’t simply reiterate a host of pre-recorded stock phrases, but has real, organic conversations. “We grew it from something that was like a Siri for kids to something that was more conversational in nature.”

In order for this to work, Dino has a speaker in one nostril and a microphone in the other, and once a child presses the button on his belly, everything they say is processed by the internet-connected toy. The audio files are turned into statistical data and transcripts, which are then anonymised and encrypted. Most of this data is, in Benini’s words, “tossed out”, but his company, Elemental Path, which owns CogniToys, do store statistical data about a child, which they call “Play Data”. “We keep pieces from the interaction, not the full interaction itself,” he tells me.

“Play Data” are things like a child’s favourite colour or sport, which are used to make a profile of the child. This data is then available for the company to view, use, and pass on to third parties, and for parents to see on a “Parental Panel”. For example, if a child tells Dino their favourite colour is “red”, their mother or father will be able to see this on their app, and Elemental Path will be able to use this information to, Benini says, “make a better toy”.

Currently, the company has no plans to use the data with any external marketers, though it is becoming more and more common for smart toys to store and sell data about how they are played with. “This isn’t meant to be just another monitoring device that's using the information that it gathers to sell it back to its user,” says Benini.

Sometimes, however, Elemental Path does save, store, and use the raw audio files of what a child has said to the toy. “If the Dino is asked a question that it doesn’t know, we take that question and separate it from the actual child that’s asking it and it goes into this giant bucket of unresolved questions and we can analyse that over time,” says Benini. It is worth noting, however, that Amazon reviews of the toy claim it is frequently unable to answer questions, meaning there is potentially an abundance of audio saved, rather than it being an occasional occurrence.

CogniToys have a relatively transparent Privacy Policy on their website, and it is clear that Benini has considered privacy at length. He admits that the company has been back and forth about how much data to store, originally offering parents the opportunity to see full transcripts of what their child had been saying, until many fed back that they found this “creepy”. Dino is not the first smart toy to be criticised in this way.

Hello Barbie is the world’s first interactive Barbie doll, and when it was released by Mattel in 2015, it was met with scorn by parents’ rights groups and privacy campaigners. Like Dino, the doll holds conversations with children and stores data about them which it passes back to the parents, and articles expressing concerns about the toy featured on CNN, the Guardian, and the New York Times. Despite Dino’s similarities, however, Benini’s toy received almost no negative attention, while Hello Barbie won the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s prize for worst toy of the year 2015.

“We were lucky with that one,” he says, “Like the whole story of the early bird gets the worm but the second worm doesn’t get eaten. Coming second on all of this allowed us to be prepared to address the privacy concerns in greater depth.”

Nonetheless, Dino is in many ways essentially the same as Hello Barbie. Both toys allow companies and parents to spy on children’s private playtimes, and while the former might seem more troubling, the latter is not without its problems. A feature on the Parental Panel of the Dino also allows parents to see the exact wording of questions children have asked about certain difficult topics, such as sex or bullying. In many ways, this is the modern equivalent of a parent reading their child's diary. 

“Giving parents the opportunity to side-step their basic responsibility of talking to, engaging with, encouraging and reassuring their child is a terrifying glimpse into a society where plastic dinosaurs rule and humans are little more than machines providing the babies for the reptile robots to nurture,” says Renate Samson, the chief executive of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch. “We are used to technology providing convenience in our lives to the detriment of our privacy, but allowing your child to be taught, consoled and even told to meditate by a WiFi connected talking dinosaur really is a step in the wrong direction.”

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Toy companies and parents are one thing, however, and to many it might seem trivial for a child’s privacy to be comprised in this way. Yet many smart toys are also vulnerable to hackers, meaning security and privacy are under threat in a much more direct way. Ken Munro, of Pen Test Partners, is an ethical hacker who exposed security flaws in the interactive smart toy “My Friend Cayla” by making her say, among other things, “Calm down or I will kick the shit out of you.”

“We just thought ‘Wow’, the opportunity to get a talking doll to swear was too good,” he says. “It was the kid in me. But there were deeper concerns.”

Munro explains that any device could connect to the doll over Bluetooth, provided it was in range, as the set-up didn’t require a pin or password. He also found issues with the encryption processes used by the company. “You can say anything to a child through the doll because there's no security,” he says. “That means you've got a device that can potentially be used to groom a child and that's really creepy.”

Pen Test Partners tells companies about the flaws they find with their products in a process they call “responsible disclosure”. Most of the time, companies are grateful for the information, and work through ways to fix the problem. Munro feels that Vivid Toy Group, the company behind Cayla, did a “poor job” at fixing the issue. “All they did was put one more step in the process of getting it to swear for us.”

It is one thing for a hacker to speak to a child through a toy and another for them to hear them. Early this year, a hack on baby monitors ignited such concerns. But any toy with speech recognition that is connected to the internet is also vulnerable to being hacked. The data that is stored about how children play with smart toys is also under threat, as Fisher Price found out this year when a security company managed to obtain the names, ages, birthdays, and genders of children who had played with its smart toys. In 2015, VTech also admitted that five million of its customers had their data breached in a hack.

“The idea that your child shares their playtime with a device which could potentially be hacked, leaving your child’s inane or maybe intimate and revealing questions exposed is profoundly worrying,” says Samson. Today, the US Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) said in a statement that smart toys “pose an imminent and immediate threat to the safety and security of children in the United States”. 

Munro says big brands are usually great at tackling these issues, but warns about smaller, cheaper brands who have less to lose than companies like Disney or Fisher Price. “I’m not saying they get it right but if someone does find a problem they’ve got a huge incentive to get it right subsequently,” he says of larger companies. Thankfully, Munro says that he found Dino to be secure. “I would be happy for my kids to play with it,” he says. “We did find a couple of bugs but we had a chat with them and they’re a good bunch. They aren’t perfect but I think they’ve done a hell of a lot of a better job than some other smart toy vendors.”

Benini appears alert to security and the credibility it gives his company. “We took the security very, very seriously,” he says. “We were still building our systems whilst these horror stories were coming about so I already set pipelines and parameters in place. With a lot of devices out there it seems that security takes a backseat to the idea, which is really unfortunate when you’re inviting these devices into your home.”

As well as being wary of smaller brands, Munro advises that parents should look out for Bluetooth toys without a secure pairing process (ie. any device can pair with the toy if near enough), and to think twice about which toys you connect to your WiFi. He also advises to use unique passwords for toys and their corresponding apps.

“You might think ‘It's just a toy, so I can use the same password I put in everything else’ – dog’s name, football club, whatever – but actually if that ever got hacked you’d end up getting all your accounts that use that same password hacked,” he says.

Despite his security advice, Munro describes himself as “on the fence” about internet-connected smart toys as a whole. “Most internet of things devices can be hacked in one way or another,” he says. “I would urge caution.”

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Is all of this legal? Companies might not be doing enough ethically to protect the privacy of children, but are they acting responsibly within the confines of the law?

Benini explains that Dino complies with the United States Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of which there is no real equivalent in the UK. COPPA says that companies must have parental permission to collect personal information over the internet about children under 13 years of age. “We’ve tried to go above and beyond the original layout of COPPA,” says Benini, when describing CogniToys transparent privacy documents. Parents give their consent for Elemental Path to collect their children’s data when they download the app that pairs with the toy.

Dino bears a striking similarity to Amazon Echo and Google Home, smart speakers that listen out for commands and questions in your home. Everything that is said to Amazon Echo is recorded and sent to the cloud, and an investigation by the Guardian earlier this year discovered that this does not comply with COPPA. We are therefore now in a strange position whereby many internet of things home devices are legally considered a threat to a child’s privacy, whereas toys with the same capabilities are not. This is an issue because many parents may not actually be aware that they are handing over their children’s data when installing a new toy.

As of today, EU consumer rights groups are also launching complaints against certain smart toys, claiming they breach the EU Unfair Contract Terms Directive and the EU Data Protection Directive, as well as potentially the Toy Safety Directive. Though smart toys may be better regulated in Europe, there are no signs that the problem is being tackled in the UK. 

At a time when the UK government are implementing unprecedented measures to survey its citizens on the internet and Jeremy Hunt wants companies to scour teens’ phones for sexts, it seems unlikely that any legislation will be enacted that protects children’s privacy from being violated by toy companies. Indeed, many internet of things companies – including Elemental Path – admit they will hand over your data to government and law enforcement officials when asked.

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As smart toys develop, the threat they pose to children only becomes greater. The inclusion of sensors and cameras means even more data can be collected about children, and their privacy can and will be compromised in worrying ways.

Companies, hackers, and even parents are denying children their individual right to privacy and private play. “Children need to feel that they can play in their own place,” says Samson. It is worrying to set a precedent where children get used to surveillance early on. All of this is to say nothing of the educational problems of owning a toy that will tell you (rather than teach you) how to spell “space” and figure out “5+8”.

In a 1999 episode of The Simpsons, “Grift of the Magi”, a toy company takes over Springfield Elementary and spies on children in order to create the perfect toy, Funzo. It is designed to destroy all other toys, just in time for Christmas. Many at the time criticised the plot for being absurd. Like the show's prediction of President Trump, however, it seems that we are living in a world where satire slowly becomes reality.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.