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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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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser