#Waterloo200: lessons from remembering ‘a most bloody battle’

This piece was published this week on the website of The Conversation. You can see that version here.

Our views of war are sanitised today. In an age of professional armies trained for increasingly technical tasks, few of us have witnessed combat, much less taken part in it. In that vein, commemorations of the 200th anniversary of Waterloo will focus on the battle’s strategic significance. There are, though, individual accounts that give us a glimpse into what sword fights and cavalry charges must have been like – and the deadly consequences of defeat.

One such story was sent home by James Russell, a Serjeant (his own archaic spelling) in the North British Dragoons, a regiment known today as the Scots Greys. Russell was my ancestor, and my family still has his letter. “Since I wrote to you last we have had a most Bloody Battle with the French as ever was fought,” he writes to his wife, Mags, on June 24, six days after Waterloo.

Russell lists the dead and wounded – as a cavalryman, he also mentions the horses that suffered – before concluding that it was, “the sorest stroke any Cavalry Regiment has suffered at one day’s fighting since the memory of man”. And they were victorious.

The Greys won great renown for one of their number, Ensign Charles Ewart, captured a standard – a Napoleonic eagle – in hand-to-hand fighting. With his feat of arms, celebrity came to Ewart, and “he travelled the country making speeches at dinners with Sir Walter Scott, his friend and unofficial agent”.

After recounting the fate of his regiment, Russell turns to how he fared. “I have lost all my things,” he explains:

This day I am getting a dead Frenchman’s shirt washed to put on. My horse was wounded and sent into Brussels during the action and has lost my whole kit so I am now as I stand.

If such were the spoils of victory, imagine the loss of defeat.

Napoleon's tomb at Les Invalides in Paris.

Napoleon’s tomb at Les Invalides in Paris.

In Paris recently, I visited the Invalides – both Napoleon’s massive marble tomb, and the adjoining museum. I saw no mention there of the upcoming 200th anniversary of the battle, although it seems the French leader was even-handed enough to concede, alongside recognition of his qualities as a general, and a politician, that he was a “warlord” and a “despot”.

We are now in the midst of four years of commemorations of the World War I. A century after Waterloo, Britain and France were allies, and it is in this spirit of comradeship that these events are taking place. Other alliances have shifted, though. Without Russia’s heroic struggle against Hitler, World War II would not have been won as it was, if at all.

Today, Russia may not be a direct enemy of the West, but it is hard to think of it as an ally. Waterloo; World War I; World War II (or the “Great Patriotic War”, as it is known in Russian) – all of these victories have played a vital part in creating the identity that binds the nation state together.

Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, seems to understand very well the power of celebrating past victories. As a correspondent in Moscow in 2008, I watched the first VE Day military parade of the post-Soviet era roll across Red Square. The event seems only to have grown since.

Russia is telling itself that, whatever else it may or may not have accomplished in the 20th century, victory over the Nazis was a shining achievement which can never be tarnished. Memories of those Ukrainians who sided with Hitler’s troops in the hope of ending Soviet power are evoked now to justify Russian policy towards its neighbour – the sorest point in generally sour relations with the West.

While triumphs are celebrated, failures seem soon forgotten. Watching television pictures earlier this year of the service at St Paul’s to commemorate combat operations in Afghanistan, I wondered whether that campaign would be remembered in 200 years, as Waterloo will be this summer. For who now commemorates the British Mandate for Palestine, or other less glorious episodes of imperial history?

Such selection means that important lessons are ignored. While World War I commemorations have focused on Europe, surely the real consequences of that conflict for us today are in the Middle East: think of Islamic State’s keenness to demonstrate that the Sykes-Picot agreement is finished.

My recent research has included looking at newspaper archives of the reporting of the end of the British Mandate for Palestine. The failure of this episode in late imperial history to deliver, or even prepare the ground for, a just and lasting peace in the land between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean may be given little thought in Britain today, but it is still very much on the minds of those who live with the consequences.

My ancestor would no doubt have been dismayed to see Europe again in 1915, or 2015. In the introduction to The Sleepwalkers, his account of the causes of World War I, historian Christopher Clark writes of the “raw modernity” of the events of the summer of 1914, when failed diplomacy led to war. As someone who began their career in international news during the last summer of the Soviet Union, I take the phrase to be a warning of the possible consequences of the direction our own unstable age, which arguably began then, might take. For what is the conflict in Ukraine, if not the unfinished business of the summer of 1991?

“We are in hopes that another firm battle will settle this business,” James Russell writes towards the end of his letter. Perhaps to spare his family, he offers little detail of what he had seen at Waterloo. But he did not forget.

His son, David, would later recount a childhood memory of “big tears coursing down the cheeks” of his father and his fellow veterans on the anniversary of the battle. As we remember triumph at Waterloo this week, let us not ignore the lessons for foreign policy which can also come from failure.

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