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The mystery of Waterloo's last living soldier

This is Louis-Victor Baillot, the oldest surviving combatant from Waterloo. The photograph was taken a year before his death.

Live and witness: Louis-Victor Baillot, pictured in 1897, the last survivor of the thousands who saw combat on the killing fields at Waterloo​

There is an untraceable moment at which the past slips from the realm of memory into deep time. Perhaps it is around the 100-year mark, when those who witnessed any given event have long since died. Just occasionally, technology offers a way down the rabbit hole. There exists, for instance, an 1890 recording of the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson reciting “The Charge of the Light Brigade”, his response to the account in the Times of that tragic manoeuvre. There are also two recordings, from 1902 and 1904, of the castrato Alessandro Moreschi, a member of the Sistine Chapel Choir for 30 years and one of the last boys to be mutilated for choral fodder.

In this anniversary year of the Battle of Waterloo (18 June 1815), it is worth remembering how relatively new technology preserved an older and more resonant piece of history in the form of a simple photograph of an elderly man sitting on a bench. The man is a venerable but unprepossessing figure; he rests his hands on a cane, he has sabots on his feet, wears cinched gaiters over his trousers and has two medals on his greatcoat.

This is Louis-Victor Baillot, the oldest surviving combatant from Waterloo. Baillot was born in Percey in Burgundy on 7 April 1793, a little over two months after Louis XVI was taken to the guillotine. He died, aged 104, on 3 February 1898, 15 days before the sports car pioneer Enzo Ferrari was born. The photograph was taken a year before Baillot’s death.

As a young man, Baillot was conscripted into Napoleon’s Grande Armée in 1812 and joined the 3rd Battalion of the 105th Line Infantry Demi-Brigade. He travelled to the Vistula in Poland, where his brigade met the remains of the main army as it retreated from the disastrous Russian campaign. He went on to fight at the siege of Hamburg under the implacable Marshal Davout. After a pause in service following the emperor’s exile to Elba, Baillot rejoined the army in 1815 when Napoleon returned to the French mainland and marched with his old brigade to Belgium. On 14 June Baillot saw his commander-in-chief in person for the first and last time when the emperor reviewed his troops before Waterloo.

Four days later Baillot was felled by a sword thrust to the head, delivered by a charging cavalryman of the Scots Greys. He would have died, had not the mess tin he kept under his hat taken the worst of the blow. He was left for dead on the battlefield, where the following day he was picked up and transported to a prison ship off Plymouth as a PoW. In late 1816 Baillot was repatriated and discharged as a consumptive.

Little evidence exists of the remaining eight decades of his life. It is known that he returned to his family home in Auxerre and at some point married a woman named Appoline Charles, with whom he had a daughter and lived quietly at Carisey, in the Yonne. The only things that marked him out as one of Napoleon’s veterans were his fondness for watching the annual parade of the Auxerre garrison, his two medals – the Légion d’Honneur (awarded late, in 1896) and the Saint Helena Medal – and the scar on his head. By the time of his death he was a quietly venerated figure. A decent crowd attended his funeral and watched as his grave was covered with a stone bearing the simple legend “Le Dernier de Waterloo”.

So the old man in the photograph is worth a second look. Those knobbly hands once fired a musket in one of the most celebrated battles in history and those squinting eyes saw Napoleon Bonaparte in his pomp.

Michael Prodger is an assistant editor of the New Statesman

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 19 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Mini Mao

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Gael blown: how cultural appropriation went hand-in-hand with the Highland clearances

Madeleine Bunting’s account of her travels in the Hebrides reveals an often-overlooked history.

In the opening pages of this excellent book, Madeleine Bunting tries to provide a justification and rationale both for her Hebridean journey and then her wish to write about the most complex of Britain’s archipelagos. As she points out, the Hebrides comprise no fewer than 270 islands and islets, 51 of which are permanently inhabited, and the Hebridean coastline, at 2,500 kilometres, is almost three-quarters that of England’s.

It transpires that Bunting’s connection to the nation’s north-western extremities really began when her parents went for holidays to a fragment of what she rather archly refers to as the Gàidhealtachd, the cultural territory of Scotland’s Gaelic-speaking, predominantly croft-working population.

Yet the Buntings’ “Promised Land”, as she calls their summer retreat, was nowhere near the Hebrides. It was in a hamlet called Amat at the heart of the salmon-rich Strathcarron, in Sutherland, near Scotland’s north-eastern coast. These visits were intermittent and happened only in her childhood, since when the author, Yorkshire born and bred, has migrated to London and become a committed metropolitan as well as a senior journalist with the Guardian. What right, one wonders, does she have to des­cribe her travels along Scotland’s Atlantic shoreline as in any way a “search for home”?

The answer is time and commitment. It has taken Bunting eight years to write this book and she made one excursion after the other in order to assemble her thoughts of these beautiful, storm-battered islands. That depth of engagement gives authen­ticity to the writing and substance to her arguments. In truth, she never really claims the Outer Isles as her own but she does ­inquire deeply into the Hebridean people’s own passionate devotion to place. She also illuminates how these islands, but more especially Celtic culture and identity, were instrumental in shaping all of Britain’s, and especially England’s, sense of self.

A critical moment for this came in 1765 with the publication by James Macpherson of The Works of Ossian. These were translations of Gaelic poetry and folk tales that went down a storm in literary Europe and alerted many to the overlooked oral culture of northern Scotland. The Works of Ossian are not without controversy – Samuel Johnson infamously dismissed them as fake and sneered at Gaelic as the “rude speech of a barbarous people” – but the book had a huge impact on Romanticism.

Imbued with Rousseau’s notions of the noble savage and antipathetic to the effects of industrialisation, writers such as Keats and artists such as Turner were suddenly alive to the savage beauties and the more authentic life-ways of the Scottish west coast. Bunting shows that behind this Romantic engagement with Hebridean life was a kind of cultural imperialism that developed through a series of opposites. If Celts were depicted as imaginative, idealistic and wild, then, almost by definition, the Anglos were utilitarian, pragmatic and civilised. If the Gael was backward-looking and melancholic, the Saxon must be optimistic and forward-thinking. Above all, the English were utterly dominant.

The author demonstrates how such cultural appropriation was intimately connected to territorial dispossession. Bunting takes us on a brief tour of the Clearances; the retelling still has the power to enrage, and she shows how the treatment of Hebridean crofters was identical to British imperialism in Africa or Asia. As she puts it tellingly, this is a “history which will not go quietly into the past”. Yet she also demonstrates that it was not Hanoverian England alone which suppressed the Gàidhealtachd. Much of the dirtiest work was done by former clan chiefs who had simply reinvented themselves as London-based grandees.

Bunting further points out that this colonial exploitation has hardly ceased. The recent plans to build a vast windfarm on Lewis, involving 234 turbines with sails the size of jumbo jets, and the 1990s quarry scheme to dismantle whole mountains on Harris to build English roads, are further demonstrations of how the centre plunders resources from its Atlantic periphery.

If I have a small disappointment in Love of Country, it is that Bunting makes too little of the Hebridean natural environment, which involves the most harmonious transaction between human beings and wildlife now found anywhere in Britain. The shell-based coastal lawns known as machair are among Europe’s richest habitats, still smothered in orchids and resounding to the sounds of lapwing display and curlew song.

At times one feels that Bunting thinks much harder than she looks. Occasionally she betrays her metropolitan roots. She describes rivers as being “the colour of manuka honey”, and of a chorus of birds like nothing she had heard before, she writes that “the air vibrated . . . setting all my senses alert”. The prose, however, is always most elevated when she engages the formidable clarity of her intellect. It is the almost perfect marriage of physical travelogue to the inner landscape of political ideas and cultural reflections that makes this such a super read. I cannot think of a more intellectually challenging or rewarding travel book in recent years, except perhaps Jay Griffiths’s Wild.

Love of Country is in every way a richer, more mature work than Bunting’s award-winning 2009 memoir, The Plot. I expect it to bring her prizes and fame.

Mark Cocker’s books include “Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet” (Vintage)

Love of Country: a Hebridean Journey by Madeleine Bunting is published by Granta Books (368pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood