Military History: The Waterloo They Remembered


By Bernard Cornwell

Two hundred years ago, in a shallow valley south of Brussels, three armies fought the Battle of Waterloo. Napoleon had returned from exile on Elba to face a coalition of European enemies, who were now determined to oust him a second time. The closest opponents were the Prussian and British-Dutch armies to his north, so he launched a campaign to destroy them both. At Waterloo, on June 18, 1815, he failed.

Two hundred thousand men fought in that shallow valley. By nightfall, a quarter of them were casualties. In Belgium, thousands of re-enactors, dignitaries and soldiers are commemorating the event, while in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London there is a service of remembrance.

But what are we remembering? Few today can say why the battle was fought or what it achieved. The old arguments that drove Europe to a century of war are forgotten, yet there will still be prayers spoken and anthems sung and military bands playing.

No one, at least in the official events, will be so tactless as to suggest that Waterloo was a great victory for the allies and a shocking defeat for Napoleon. Instead the tone will echo the mood of the men and women who survived the day’s carnage, and that tone was somber. Maj. Harry Smith, a vastly experienced British officer who had fought at New Orleans and through some of the hardest battles of the Peninsular War, wrote, “I had never seen anything to compare. At Waterloo the whole field from right to left was a mass of bodies… The sight was sickening.”

The men and women who endured the battle knew they had been present at a turning point in history and, because of that, wrote down their recollections. We have witness accounts of many battles, but nothing matches the sheer volume of writing about Waterloo, and that huge archive gives us privileged glimpses of the day.

John Lewis, a British rifleman, was standing next to a man who was struck by a French musket ball: “He just said, ‘Lewis, I’m done!’ and died.” A half mile away, a French cavalryman, seeing a prostrate British officer stir, exclaimed in surprise, “Tu n’est pas mort, coquin!” and stabbed him with a lance.

Read the Remainder at NY Times