Thursday, July 16, 2015

Dancing Into Battle, Nick Foulkes

Nick Foulkes has written a rather lovely book here. It tells the story of Waterloo from a different angle. There are soldiers in here. From lowly privates to officers and gentlemen, including The Duke of Wellington himself. But there are also civilians. Particular the wealthy British occupants of Brussels.

Brussels was, before the battle, packed full of Britons. There was an army, of course. There to help stabilize the newly formed (and slightly uncertain) United Kingdom of the Netherlands. With them came a high class of flotsam & jetsam who had joined the dash across the Channel for their own reasons. In some cases this is because they weren't quite as wealthy as they would have liked to be and their money went a lot further in Brussels than it did in Britain.

So there is a lot to hear about the lifestyles of the rich and famous. There's lots of interesting stories and characters but at the centre, in a unobtrusive way, is the Duke of Wellington. The Duke is often seen as a cold, cynical aristocrat (and there's an argument to be made that this is what he became later) but this book let's us see that some of his aristocratic insouciance in the run up to Waterloo was an act designed to reassure a nervous Brussels public. It also reminds us that the Duke wasn't always the clean cut hero he is presented. He could, often, be a very naughty boy, especially with Lady Frances Wedderburn-Webster.

There are balls and races. There is sex and romance. There are aristocratic young men showing off in the parks and streets of Brussels. There are drunken soldiers (of all ranks). There is gossip and gossips: of whom Thomas Creevey MP stands out. Creevey was a Whig MP who - if memory serves* - was in Brussels avoiding the consequences of a trial for libel. He provides an insight in the Duke of Wellington's state of mind post-battle when he basically pushes his way into the Duke's home in Brussels.

Foulkes gradually builds up these stories to the Duchess of Richmond's ball, which has cemented a place in history. There is apparently a whole book devoted to the ball - David Miller's The Duchess Of Richmond's Ball, 15 June 1815, which I would now dearly like to read - such is its fame. Foulkes tells it story in a single excellent chapter.

Then the book moves on to the battle itself. Foulkes writes a sketchy but rather excellent account of the how the battle panned out. Obviously being a social history it concentrates more on people. Both soldiers and civilians, including those waiting nervously in Brussels listening to the distant rumble of the cannon. He does a fine job of bringing the uncertainty of that day to life. Rumours of French victory swept through Brussels at one point causing a panicked flight from the City. It's a reminder of how different a world without instantaneous communication is. A world where no one can agree on the time. It also reminds you that the entire battle might have been won when the gates of Hougoument were shut after a small group of French soldiers broke in. On the smallest things the fate of Empire's hang.

This book actually makes a good companion to Paul O'Keeffe's, Waterloo - The Aftermath as both books talk of similar topics but from different angles. So both books talk about the treatment of the wounded. Amputation was a pretty standard practice for the time. Foulkes gives accounts of how Lord Uxbridge and Fitzroy Somerset dealt with their amputations with a stoicism that is almost unbelievable. O'Keeffe gives a detailed account of how a leg was amputated in a chapter that I would not read if you are squeamish. Both books remind us that some of the wounded lay untreated on the battlefield for days. Both books emphasise the shear horror of the post-battle field. The tightness of the space. The density of the bodies. Both books show us how the site became a tourist attraction pretty much immediately.

Foulkes also makes a fine job of showing how miraculous it was that Wellington wasn't killed. His officers died or were badly wounded all around him. As Foulkes himself says, "Often in accounts of the battle given by those who fought at Waterloo, there comes a time when the writer admits he finds it hard to believe how anyone survived..." The Duke himself realised it was a miracle of sorts. He said - almost - as much to Creevey.

I think the section on Wellington after the battle, when his 'act' slipped in the face of realising what the cost of the day had been, is genuinely moving. The quote from the letter Wellington wrote to Lord Aberdeen on June 19th to commiserate with Aberdeen on the loss of his brother illustrates his feelings admirably.

The book ends with an epilogue.

That's all I am going to say on that.

This is a fabulous book, which is written with a clarity that other writers of history would do well to emulate. I can't recommend it enough.

*I really should make notes when reading but I'm generally reading them on buses, tubes and trains so...blah blah blah. (Consider this an apology for the slipshod nature of this blog.)

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