#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.

Reporting PTSD and Reporting Conflict



If you didn’t see the BBC’s Panorama programme on Monday, you can still see it here. If you’re outside the UK, there’s also a news story here.

The subject was PTSD – ‘post traumatic stress disorder’ – and the alarmingly high rates of it among British troops who had served in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The programme’s own promotional material claimed it had, ‘found more than 50 cases of soldiers taking their own lives – more than were killed by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2012.’

The ex-soldiers who gave interviews were thoughtful and frank. Men trained to think fast in life or death situations showed their reflective side. They explained their situation with disarming clarity, as did the parents, partners, and siblings of those no longer alive to tell their own stories.

It was distressing. It was also shameful. Some of those interviewed had fallen on hard times, with little or no prospect of employment and, in some cases, no pensions. You imagine maimed soldiers begging on the streets during the Napoleonic Wars, and hope it could not happen today. Yet service personnel seem to be over represented among the ranks of the homeless. A quick internet search reveals that the housing charity Shelter even has a page to advise people preparing to leave the armed forces. Those in the programme that did have somewhere to live were often short of money.

Journalists covering conflict can usually leave the warzone if they want to, an option not available to a soldier. Yet professional pride, in oneself, or pressure, from colleagues, can sometimes lead people to stay when they should not. Working for the BBC in Gaza, I remember being told sometimes to take a break. It is not always long term exposure which can cause PTSD. A single terrifying incident can also cause great distress. One of the soldiers featured in the programme had seen a little girl in Iraq get her legs blown off by explosives hidden in the road.

Shell damaged to a building in Grozny, Chechnya 1995 ©James Rodgers

Shell damage to a building in Grozny, Chechnya, 1995 ©James Rodgers

In Chechnya in 1995, a team of BBC colleagues and I were lucky to survive a Russian air force strike on a square in Grozny. The attack killed two of the fighters we had been talking to as the planes came in. We emerged from our hastily-taken shelter, still half-deafened by the explosion, to see their bodies lying on the street. I was very shaken, but relieved. Six months later, on holiday with my then girlfriend, I had terrible nightmares three nights in a row as I relived what had happened. The incident has never troubled again me in the 18 years since. I see it now as the negative experience leaving my system, but only once I felt relaxed and safe.

Patrick Howse, a friend and former BBC colleague, was diagnosed with PTSD after working in Iraq. He has chosen to make public his experience. One way he has addressed it is by writing poetry. You can find some of his work on his website or on Poetry Zoo.

Soldiers have long recounted their war experience in poetry, most famously in the First World War, where generally they did a better job of telling the story than the journalists who were their contemporaries.

It was the First World War that brought ‘shell shock’ into common speech. It was not until much later that studies on the effects on journalists of covering combat started to be analysed. Dr Anthony Feinstein’s study (in which I took part) in the early years of this century led the way.

More work has been done since, including by the Dart Center, offering practical help and advice.

During that sometimes terrifying trip to the Caucasus in 1995, a more experienced colleague offered the view that, if you wanted to be totally safe, you had to stay at home. It was a reminder then, in a time when safety training for reporters covering conflict was first coming in, that there were limits to the protection it could offer.

The risks are to mind as well as body.


Talking to ‘terrorists’ – trying to tell the full story

‘You only report death or glory and nothing in between. And it’s just not like that.’  

These words, spoken by Richard Streatfeild, then a major in the British Army, came back to me this morning when I heard him on the BBC’s morning current affairs programme, Today, here in the UK.

No longer in the Army, he has nevertheless returned to Helmand province for a final visit. His contribution to the programme this morning discussed the changing role for British troops as they prepare to hand over to the Afghan Army – and at a time when talks with the Taliban are planned.

Major Streatfeild’s line about death or glory was said not in the heat of Helmand, but in a cafe on a January morning in London – a morning so wet and grey the cafe lights struggled against the gloom. He was recounting a conversation with a journalist friend about the way war was reported.

My interview with him was for Reporting Conflict. I had asked to meet him because the reports he had previously done, as a serving officer, seemed to me a new departure in covering military campaigns – for the BBC, at least. Here they were handing airtime over to a member of the armed forces.

In part, technology had created the opportunity. Where once cumbersome equipment would have been needed to get broadcast quality material to London on air, Major Streatfeild was now working with a small recorder, a USB cable, and a laptop.

The change was editorial, too. In the interview, Major Streatfeild described the negotiations which had led to his despatches getting from idea to air. He wanted, he told me, ‘to give a flavour of the absolute reality of how soldiers behave on operations.’

Current editorial thinking – influenced by the multiplicity of voices on social media – is more open to reporters who are not themselves journalists than once it might have been.

At a time when much of the news about Afghanistan is dominated by what the BBC recently called the ‘Troubled path to talks with the Taliban’, there are important lessons here for reporting armed conflict.

The planned talks rightly received widespread coverage, but the idea was not new. In 2011, the then U.S. Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates, told CNN that ‘preliminary’ talks were underway, noting then, ‘a political outcome is the way most of these wars end’.

Mr Gates was right, of course. It is hard to think of examples to the contrary. The British intervention in Sierra Leone in 2000 might be considered one where military force rapidly achieved its objective – so too might Kosovo in 1999. But in both cases there had to be talks too. In the case of Kosovo, the European Union is still leading negotiations.

So when political and military leaders insist, as they so frequently do, that there can be no talks with ‘terrorists’, journalists should remind them of recent history, and of Mr Gates’ words.

One reporter who was not afraid to point out that the military solution only approach could be counterproductive was Anna Politkovsakya. She concluded, of Russia’s campaign against Chechen separatists, ‘The only thing the methods of this war accomplish is to recruit new terrorists and resistance fighters, and to rouse hatred, calling for bloody revenge.’

Russia troops on campaign against 'terrorists' in Grozny, Spring 2000 ©James Rodgers

Russia troops on campaign against ‘terrorists’ in Grozny, Spring 2000 ©James Rodgers

In the end, of course, Russia too concluded that it was better to talk to those it had once labelled ‘terrorists’. Chechnya’s current leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, like his father Ahmad before him, both once rebelled against Moscow.  Mr Kadyrov senior was blown up after he agreed to head the pro-Kremlin administration — presumably by people who had once thought of him as an ally.

The situation in Chechnya — as in Afghanistan, or Iraq — is not as simple as death or glory. Good journalism will reflect that.