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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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When heritage becomes hate: why my home town of Charlottesville needs to address its complex past

After an invasion of white supremacists, we need to see what our history means today.

Watching a tragedy happening in slow motion, without any way to stop it - that’s how it has felt to be from Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017. A city that used to always get voted “happiest town in the USA” when I was growing up was the target this weekend of an ugly white supremacist movement whose roots spread far from the city.

It was a huge surprise when we won the lottery of Nazi flags, with our stupid old statues that have become icons of international fascism, with a park named after a distantly forgotten old man becoming a site of struggle for an attempted racist coup of the United States. Our first reaction is: they aren´t from here. Our second: make them go away. Our third: a realisation we need to examine the way that our own ways of life, which we thought so harmless, have inspired such horrible feelings in strangers.

Maybe for my African-American classmates at high school the statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee, and the park when it was still named after him rather than Emancipation Park, always meant violence. Pulling the statue down says no more about the historical Lee than tearing down Lenin in '89 says about socialism. We've been invaded by people pretending to protect us from invasion, and the symbols of our past will never matter as much as living people do.

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The invaders picked our town, probably, because Virginia was a confederate state, and was in fact where the southern gentry used to live. Lee exemplified this tradition. He was son of Lighthorse Harry Lee, a hero of the revolutionary war and governor of Virginia, and is a descendant of one of “Virginia’s first families,” the aristocratic Englishmen who emigrated to Virginia when it was a British colony. He is part of Charlottesville's heritage, and perhaps not even all that shameful a part. He opposed the secession of the confederacy, supported the reconstruction after the war, including giving rights to recently freed slaves. Not exactly woke, but for a confederate general, not as bad as some.

We were taught at Venable Elementary School that he fought only reluctantly, to defend his land, not slavery. In the version we learned, one would imagine Lee being very opposed to people from the Midwest coming to Virginia in cars with Ohio license plates to murder Virginians. Many non-racist Virginians, including quite a few friends, respect Lee deeply - the same is true in towns like New Orleans where other Lee statues are being taken down. Yet if once we could fool ourselves into thinking that the statue didn't represent hatred and racial hierarchies, we can't anymore. The discussion of local history has turned into one of national identity. The statue should be gone by Christmas. 

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The real hero of Charlottesville is the town’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, who was among the most enigmatic of the founding fathers, idealistic and hypocritical - a real American, in other words. His idea of the gentleman farmer is also part of our heritage. It was an alternative to Hamiltonian industrial capitalism, but lost out in the tustle to shape American history. Much like English contemporaries such as William Cobbett, Jefferson believed in a rural ideal, reading poetry by morning, farming by afternoon, playing the harpsichord by night. His thought is also present in our beautiful "academical village" of the University of Virginia which he also founded. It is one of UNESCO’s few world heritage sites in the United States, so I guess it is part fo the globe's heritage as well, and it is also where the white supremacists stomped around with their tiki torches.

It’s time for us to stop being romantic about Jefferson, too. The statue in our minds needs to come down. We can recognize the great parts of his work, of his thought, in Charlottesville today, but we can also recognise that he allowed himself to use violence to dominate others, that he owned slaves and raped them. And we can recognise that equivalent scenarios continue to play out today, and will continue to play out until we are willing to face the truth.

There can be no more excuses. It’s not about Jefferson, or Lee, after all. We use monuments, statues, heroes, to inspire ourselves. In the end, the “truth” about Jefferson or Lee is a matter of trivia and history. Today, for every white male in America, we need to deconstruct the parts of our identity built on the graves of others. It’s not easy.

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Jefferson's gentleman farmer was the forerunner of the people who populate the gentrified Charlottesville that exists today of expensive coffee-shops and celebrity-filled suburbs. This romantic idea, much like the lifestyles of the American and English elite today, seems to engender a lot of resentment from those who can only watch helplessly, and are often gentrified out. It’s not only immigrants or, in the United States, African-Americans, who are denied access to America's Williamsburgs and Charlottesvilles, London's Shoreditches and Oxfords. In Charlottesville, descendants of white sharecroppers and black slaves alike are unable to afford $15 glasses of local Virginia wine.

The paradox implicit in Jefferson’s beautiful idea is that in the end, it’s impossible to sustain this chilled-out and happy lifestyle without the labor being done by others, be they slaves, sharecroppers, or factory workers in China. If America is in trouble now, the conflict comes precisely from the fact that our universalist ideas of freedom, equality, and liberty correspond to an economy that is anything but universal. We actually did it, keep doing it, and unless we can use these ridiculous men dancing through our streets iin Halloween costumes as a funhouse mirror to make us see ourselves as we are, we’ll probably keep doing it.

I resent Jefferson for his hypocrisy, because in truth, I would love it if America looked more like Charlottesville than the industrialized and nasty-looking Interstate 95 highway that leads up the East Coast, the aftermath of Hamiltonian industrial-revolution factory America. The New Jersey towns, the gas stations, what we contemptuously call “McMansions,” suburban Northern Virginia... none of it is really authentic enough. Parallel to the rich and ugly suburbs, are poor and ugly towns, the sort of places with unemployment and discounts on cereal that tastes like sugary trash in the supermarket.

The residents of these towns don’t hate the residents of more gentrified towns for our organic granola, they hate the world for the structures of oppression that they can’t escape, even as an international class, an educated class, a well-meaning class, escapes without even needing to. We coexisted in the same place but not the same set of opportunities, and we glided on to new and bigger worlds of possibility, ones denied to those of different class backgrounds, regardless of their ethnicity.

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Some of my African-American classmates at Charlottesville High School were likely descendants of Jefferson’s slaves, coming from poorer neighbourhoods and housing projects and taking "standard" level classes, with honors and AP classes for students whose parents worked in the University (very liberal, of course), a genteel place where every year, some kid wears blackface or a Nazi outfit to a party - as a joke, of course. While my classmates in AP and Honors classes got help from our teachers in applying to Ivy League schools, the general level classes saw black and white students who shared poorer backgrounds acting out to get attention from harried teachers. This was public school, but Charlottesville’s many excellent private schools, of course, didn’t even have the general level students at all.

Despite some southerners such as Lee supporting the post-war “reconstruction,” white resistance to racial equality led to a Jim Crow system that wasn’t much better than slavery, and an American South which dozed in sweaty decline while the rest of the country industrialised and modernized. From 1865 to 1965, not much happened in the South. True, there were intellectual movements like the Agrarians, whose 1920s manifesto “I’ll Take My Stand” I found one high school afternoon in the local bookstore, we had our Faulkners, our occasional geniuses. But as a society, it was stagnant. 

It was only when the civil rights movement began that the south began to actually rise again. UVa went from being a minor regional school to being a world-class one. Charlottesville went from being a mediocre gentleman’s club to a place that people of all backgrounds could make lives for themselves in the public service. And we, the public, gained so much - that’s why my family chose to live there.

I remember as a child strolling the beautiful downtown mall to go to dinner al fresco with my parents, my father pointed out a man in a turban; it was Satyendra Huja, a Sikh professor at the university who had planned the downtown mall, and made a useless street into one of the nicest places to congregate in town. In 2012, Huja became the mayor. I guess the former mayor of Charlottesville who single-handedly made Charlottesville one of the most charming towns in the country often gets told to “go home,” as if that's somewhere else.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is a national holiday in the United States, but in Virginia it used to be “Lee/King/Jackson” day, with two confederate officers added in just as a reminder. That’s not really our heritage, and as students, we were grateful for the day but always laughed at how immature it was that the powers that be needed to block out Dr. King’s achievements so much.

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Charlottesville is a southern town true to and even obsessed with our heritage - a place filled with museums, historians, bookstores - which wants to dissect that heritage to remove the parts of our forefathers (and mothers) lives that we can’t accept, like a sandwich that you open up, take the pickles out of, and then keep on eating. We love our heritage in Virginia. We read about it, celebrate it, live it every day. But heritage isn’t a static thing, fixed in time, and the walls between myth and history are thin. In fact, perhaps knowing about your heritage is the ultimate form of privilege. I doubt that either the descendants of slaves I went to high school  with, or the “redneck” (so-called because they got sunburned by working in the fields - “redneck” is a class slur) descendants of the illiterate sharecroppers of rural Maryland, do. 

What happened this weekend to Charlottesville could happen to any town as long as we those who are deprived of their history and who don’t feel at home in their hometown. But the Charlottesville I remember, and the one it is now, proves that you can go from war and conflict and institutionalised racism to one where people of all races and identities can coexist, for the most part, peacefully and happily. We can, if we try, honor Jefferson for his achievements without forgetting the slaves his beautiful buildings were built by. A “Memorial to Enslaved Laborers” is being built on the campus he founded.

For the first time, every one of my old friends is thinking about racism, white privilege, the origins of violence, and what we can do about it. We can honor Jefferson and General Lee’s memory best by trying to learn from their mistakes. Maybe, if it seems like we are able to solve these problems, I’ll have a child myself. I hope she goes to Venable Elementary School, and I’ll take her to Emancipation Park afterwards.

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