The human stories of a near run thing

Written By: Edward Pearce
Published: March 6, 2015 Last modified: October 25, 2016

The Battle of Waterloo was the sort of conclusion which wars of 20-odd years merited, horrible and heroic. Went the Day Well seeks to catch that contin­uum – what the public thought and what ardent believers in causes asser­ted, the political ambiguity and, in decent detail, the course of the fight.

It takes a certain nerve to start a book about a murderous and heroic battle in the sitting room of Charles Lamb, humorous light-touch of letters and deft avoider of conflict, personal or political. But his friends at that party, as liberals, enemies of the knuckle-down authoritarianism of Pitt and an oppressive judiciary, with some reason looked to revolutionary/Nap­oleonic France as something better, certainly more hopeful.

David Crane taking their point, although dismissive of the war-making Emperor, runs though a complex of individual personal stories: men converging on an upcountry Belgian village and a day’s shooting, along with a single piece of British judicial cruelty spelt out in detail: the trial and hanging, against all evidence, of Eliza Fenning by a mute, twisted process, featuring a malignant Recorder, Sir John Silvester, hustling her along the path to hanging. It is a strong quiet point. The infatuation of Hazlitt, present at Lamb’s party, with the French Revolution as a “good thing” had its point.

Matter of factly, Waterloo was a contest between 55,000 French infantry and 14,000 cavalry plus 250 guns and 13,000 British infantry with 11,000 cavalry and 150 guns – due to be, desperately hoping to be, reinforced by 43,000 others, mainly Prussians. It was Wellington versus Napoleon, with Blucher a long way off, but on his way.

It is a fascinating, exciting story and thoroughly horrific – great theatre and triumphal tragedy. Edmund Wheatley, English officer seconded to the German forces, noted that “a ball whizzed in the air and a stunning noise and a shocking havoc commenced’. It was just 11 o’clock on Sunday morning and it occurred to him that his fiancée, Eliza Brookes, would be on her way to church.

The suffering of the battle, like Eliza Fenning’s, is personal. The ball which eventually killed William De Lancey, a just married and much in love Anglo-American, ripped eight ribs from his spine, piercing the lung with shattered fragments of bone, but drawing no blood. Death very soon after was expected by everyone, in­cluding De Lancey. Yet, over the next six days he showed signs of re­covery, talking to his wife about “settling down quietly for “’ until, by degrees, he began to die: “intolerable pain”, breathing “with a gurgling, choking  sound in his throat”.

The account of the battle and events around it is a tessellation of individual stories presented before a back-drop of London politics and characters: the villainies of the Duke of Cumberland (would-be absolutist, credible murderer); the self-tormented and deluded grand scale painter Benjamin Haydon hiring a guardsman for his grandiose, not very good picture of Christ Entering Jerusalem and the worldly ambitions of a clergyman on the incredible make.

George Stonestreet would solicit preferment before the slaughter: “I am appointed Chaplain to  the Guards… My brethren are not a little sulky that I have obtained what is considered the very best appointment in our department after Head Quarters”. This priest looked forward to “a little pillaging in Paris”. Stonestreet also contemplated the consequences of victory over France. “All our lads here call for at least three days pillage, but the general idea here is that Paris must burn.” Blucher, essential ferocious component in winning the battle, had offered his troops a free pass to collective rape and would settle down to wholesale looting of the City.

As to the national response, Crane reaches forward to the workman who would say to Gladstone: “Damn all foreigners. What has Old England to do with foreign countries?” Though they celebrated ardently at the glory of it all.

He makes an astute and convincing point of the vague but overwhelming pride such a victory generated, describing the process by which David Wilkie’s canvas of 1822, The Chelsea Pensioners reading the Waterloo Despatch, was created (and reproduces it). The suggestion/com­mission of Wellington himself, calling on Wilkie, was for “a parcel of soldiers assembled together on the seats at the door of a public house, chewing tob­acco and talking over their old stories”.

An attractive way of celebrating the pride, relief and enjoyment of some­thing terrible and tremendous, that parcel of old soldiers in day-to-day clothes is shown surrounded by huss­ars and infantrymen in all the glory of military dress-up – themselves re­mem­bered, or the ghosts of brave men, dead beyond everything except celebration?

About Edward Pearce

Edward Pearce is a political journalist and author