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Dancing into Battle: A Social History of the Battle of Waterloo
By Nick Foulkes
Weidenfeld & Nicolson
267 pages; GBP18.99
The Battle of Waterloo put paid to Napoleon Bonaparte for good. His last battle really began when the deposed emperor slipped out of the island of Elba, but few believed he could again rally the French. His unheroic replacement did not wait to find out and fled to Belgium. In the south, however, French troops blocked Napoleon's advance. Little Boney advanced alone and unarmed and invited the French soldiers to fire on their emperor. They cheered and joined him.
Arthur Wellesley (born Wesley), the charismatic Duke of Wellington, the commander of the British forces in Belgium, the hero of Spain and the pinnacle of English expatriate society in Brussels, was almost taken by surprise, for Napoleon's advance on the walled city was swift. According to this amusing book, the handsome Wellington spent most of his day dallying with well-born young ladies and the young wives of titled Englishmen, pleasuring them in a carriage screened by the trees of Brussels's still-lovely park. Almost every evening he gave an expensive ball. He made a point of attending the ball given by the Duchess of Richmond on the eve of the battle, but it was a mixed bag of an evening, as officers kept disappearing to join their regiments.
In the days before Waterloo, Wellington forestalled a general tendency to panic by always appearing incredibly nonchalant, not to say cool. His insouciance, a word thoroughly overworked by author Foulkes, was evidently worth at least another 50,000 men.
All troops and most civilians admire generals who appear to know what they are doing even when they do not know just what the particular officer is supposed to be about. The replacement of France's young prince regent by Wellington did wonders for the morale of the British troops, just as Moshe Dayan did for us when he succeeded Levi Eshkol as defense minister in late May 1967 (the Dayan of 1973 was another story).
Much of this book is about the English living in Brussels at the time, some of them the families of officers, others well-born but impecunious fathers of families attracted by the low prices and high standard of living. In Brussels they could afford to live well instead of scraping in England.
Even the other ranks in Wellington's gentleman-officered army were delighted by their billets with agreeable Belgians. Best of all was the incredibly low price of strong spirits, known as hollands; and many a British soldier had enlisted just for the rum ration. The troops were, however, on their best behavior; discipline was enforced with brutal - and sometimes fatal - floggings. The Belgians, who feared the French, hated the Spanish and despised the rapacious German soldiery, decided that they loved the English. They also admired the Highlanders, not the least for their kilts.
With the exception of the artillery, all the officers in Wellington's army had purchased their expensive commissions. Their promotion and higher pay depended in great part on casualties among the more senior ranks. They designed their own colorful uniforms.
They were gentlemen first and last. A rare instance of a sergeant being commissioned in the field ended when the new lieutenant asked to return to his stripes. Snubbed in the officers' mess, he could not afford the mess fees anyway.
As a general, Wellington was brave and led from the front, but he was also extremely conservative. He abhorred the messiness of cavalry attacks and thoroughly disliked the artillery because its officers were professionals. At Waterloo, named for the eponymous village to his rear, he lined up his army in squares overlooking a valley and invited Napoleon to attack. He did have the good sense to fortify two strong points down in the valley which helped divide the charges of the French cuirassiers.
Napoleon, who had begun his career as an artillery officer, had twice as many guns and used them effectively against the English squares. A single cannonball of hard shot could bring down a dozen men as it bounced through the ranks, and grapeshot played havoc with troops standing shoulder to shoulder.
As Wellington was to famously note again and again, it was a close run thing, with Blucher's Saxons and Prussians turning up when the French had already exhausted their reserves. The duke, unarmed and out of uniform, rode everywhere the English needed stiffening, his blue frock coat well in view as he was seen galloping here and there between the opposing forces. Miraculously, he remained unscathed.
The carnage was frightful. Hemmed in by the geography of the valley, the dead and wounded of both sides and thousands of their horses lay dead and dying one atop the other. It was days before all the English wounded were evacuated; the unfortunate French survivors, sometimes given a drink of water, were still awaiting help more than a week later. Most died. All the casualties had been plundered by the scavengers that accompanied every battle. English gentlemen in Brussels were not above purchasing souvenirs.
The victorious Wellington was a changed man. Though used to battle, the carnage at Waterloo appalled him. The mask of insouciance was dropped. With it too went the worship of glory, at least for a long moment. The gentleman officer corps of purchased commissions, so dear to the heart of Wellington, had finally had its day. In future, the British army would be run by professionals. However Wellington, who at 15 had been a sometime Etonian and a dreamy boy violinist, remained a national icon and eventually became prime minister.
This gossipy but flawlessly written book is, of course, not one about the battle itself, which has been recorded in detail by several generations of military historians. It is largely concerned with the members of an upper-class expatriate English society that contributed little to the victory of Waterloo beyond the lives of some friends and acquaintances. What this account lacks is a brief chapter on how the playboy duke actually got his act and his army together while busily chasing the ladies.