Little Travels and Roadside Sketches, by William Makepeace Thackeray

III.

Waterloo.

It is, my dear, the happy privilege of your sex in England to quit the dinner-table after the wine-bottles have once or twice gone round it, and you are thereby saved (though, to be sure, I can’t tell what the ladies do up stairs)— you are saved two or three hours’ excessive dulness, which the men are obliged to go through.

I ask any gentleman who reads this — the letters to my Juliana being written with an eye to publication — to remember especially how many times, how many hundred times, how many thousand times, in his hearing, the battle of Waterloo has been discussed after dinner, and to call to mind how cruelly he has been bored by the discussion. “Ah, it was lucky for us that the Prussians came up!” says one little gentleman, looking particularly wise and ominous. “Hang the Prussians!” (or, perhaps, something stronger “the Prussians!”) says a stout old major on half-pay. “We beat the French without them, sir, as beaten them we always have! We were thundering down the hill of Belle Alliance, sir, at the backs of them, and the French were crying ‘Sauve qui peut’ long before the Prussians ever touched them!” And so the battle opens, and for many mortal hours, amid rounds of claret, rages over and over again.

I thought to myself considering the above things, what a fine thing it will be in after-days to say that I have been to Brussels and never seen the field of Waterloo; indeed, that I am such a philosopher as not to care a fig about the battle — nay, to regret, rather, that when Napoleon came back, the British Government had not spared their men and left him alone.

But this pitch of philosophy was unattainable. This morning, after having seen the Park, the fashionable boulevard, the pictures, the cafes — having sipped, I say, the sweets of every flower that grows in this paradise of Brussels, quite weary of the place, we mounted on a Namur diligence, and jingled off at four miles an hour for Waterloo.

The road is very neat and agreeable: the Forest of Soignies here and there interposes pleasantly, to give your vehicle a shade; the country, as usual, is vastly fertile and well cultivated. A farmer and the conducteur were my companions in the imperial, and could I have understood their conversation, my dear, you should have had certainly a report of it. The jargon which they talked was, indeed, most queer and puzzling — French, I believe, strangely hashed up and pronounced, for here and there one could catch a few words of it. Now and anon, however, they condescended to speak in the purest French they could muster; and, indeed, nothing is more curious than to hear the French of the country. You can’t understand why all the people insist upon speaking it so badly. I asked the conductor if he had been at the battle; he burst out laughing like a philosopher, as he was, and said “Pas si bete.” I asked the farmer whether his contributions were lighter now than in King William’s time, and lighter than those in the time of the Emperor? He vowed that in war-time he had not more to pay than in time of peace (and this strange fact is vouched for by every person of every nation), and being asked wherefore the King of Holland had been ousted from his throne, replied at once, “Parceque c’etoit un voleur:” for which accusation I believe there is some show of reason, his Majesty having laid hands on much Belgian property before the lamented outbreak which cost him his crown. A vast deal of laughing and roaring passed between these two worldly people and the postilion, whom they called “baron,” and I thought no doubt that this talk was one of the many jokes that my companions were in the habit of making. But not so: the postilion was an actual baron, the bearer of an ancient name, the descendant of gallant gentlemen. Good heavens! what would Mrs. Trollope say to see his lordship here? His father the old baron had dissipated the family fortune, and here was this young nobleman, at about five-and-forty, compelled to bestride a clattering Flemish stallion, and bump over dusty pavements at the rate of five miles an hour. But see the beauty of high blood: with what a calm grace the man of family accommodates himself to fortune. Far from being cast down, his lordship met his fate like a man: he swore and laughed the whole of the journey, and as we changed horses, condescended to partake of half a pint of Louvain beer, to which the farmer treated him — indeed the worthy rustic treated me to a glass too.

Much delight and instruction have I had in the course of the journey from my guide, philosopher, and friend, the author of “Murray’s Handbook.” He has gathered together, indeed, a store of information, and must, to make his single volume, have gutted many hundreds of guide-books. How the Continental ciceroni must hate him, whoever he is! Every English party I saw had this infallible red book in their hands, and gained a vast deal of historical and general information from it. Thus I heard, in confidence, many remarkable anecdotes of Charles V., the Duke of Alva, Count Egmont, all of which I had before perceived, with much satisfaction, not only in the “Handbook,” but even in other works.

The Laureate is among the English poets evidently the great favorite of our guide: the choice does honor to his head and heart. A man must have a very strong bent for poetry, indeed, who carries Southey’s works in his portmanteau, and quotes them in proper time and occasion. Of course at Waterloo a spirit like our guide’s cannot fail to be deeply moved, and to turn to his favorite poet for sympathy. Hark how the laureated bard sings about the tombstones at Waterloo:—

“That temple to our hearts was hallow’d now,
For many a wounded Briton there was laid,
With such for help as time might then allow,
From the fresh carnage of the field conveyed.
And they whom human succor could not save,
Here, in its precincts, found a hasty grave.
And here, on marble tablets, set on high,
In English lines by foreign workmen traced,
The names familiar to an English eye,
Their brethren here the fit memorial placed;
Whose unadorned inscriptions briefly tell
THEIR GALLANT COMRADES’ rank, and where they fell.
The stateliest monument of human pride,
Enriched with all magnificence of art,
To honor chieftains who in victory died,
Would wake no stronger feeling in the heart
Than these plain tablets by the soldier’s hand
Raised to his comrades in a foreign land.”

There are lines for you! wonderful for justice, rich in thought and novel ideas. The passage concerning their gallant comrades’ rank should be specially remarked. There indeed they lie, sure enough: the Honorable Colonel This of the Guards, Captain That of the Hussars, Major So-and-So of the Dragoons, brave men and good, who did their duty by their country on that day, and died in the performance of it.

Amen. But I confess fairly, that in looking at these tablets, I felt very much disappointed at not seeing the names of the MEN as well as the officers. Are they to be counted for nought? A few more inches of marble to each monument would have given space for all the names of the men; and the men of that day were the winners of the battle. We have a right to be as grateful individually to any given private as to any given officer; their duties were very much the same. Why should the country reserve its gratitude for the genteel occupiers of the army-list, and forget the gallant fellows whose humble names were written in the regimental books? In reading of the Wellington wars, and the conduct of the men engaged in them, I don’t know whether to respect them or to wonder at them most. They have death, wounds, and poverty in contemplation; in possession, poverty, hard labor, hard fare, and small thanks. If they do wrong, they are handed over to the inevitable provost-marshal; if they are heroes, heroes they may be, but they remain privates still, handling the old brown-bess, starving on the old twopence a day. They grow gray in battle and victory, and after thirty years of bloody service, a young gentleman of fifteen, fresh from a preparatory school, who can scarcely read, and came but yesterday with a pinafore in to papa’s dessert — such a young gentleman, I say, arrives in a spick-and-span red coat, and calmly takes the command over our veteran, who obeys him as if God and nature had ordained that so throughout time it should be.

That privates should obey, and that they should be smartly punished if they disobey, this one can understand very well. But to say obey for ever and ever — to say that Private John Styles is, by some physical disproportion, hopelessly inferior to Cornet Snooks — to say that Snooks shall have honors, epaulets, and a marble tablet if he dies, and that Styles shall fight his fight, and have his twopence a day, and when shot down shall be shovelled into a hole with other Styleses, and so forgotten; and to think that we had in the course of the last war some 400,000 of these Styleses, and some 10,000, say, of the Snooks sort — Styles being by nature exactly as honest, clever, and brave as Snooks — and to think that the 400,000 should bear this, is the wonder!

Suppose Snooks makes a speech. “Look at these Frenchmen, British soldiers,” says he, “and remember who they are. Two-and-twenty years since they hurled their King from his throne and murdered him” (groans). “They flung out of their country their ancient and famous nobility — they published the audacious doctrine of equality — they made a cadet of artillery, a beggarly lawyer’s son, into an Emperor, and took ignoramuses from the ranks — drummers and privates, by Jove! — of whom they made kings, generals, and marshals! Is this to be borne?” (Cries of “No! no!”) “Upon them, my boys! down with these godless revolutionists, and rally round the British lion!”

So saying, Ensign Snooks (whose flag, which he can’t carry, is held by a huge grizzly color-sergeant,) draws a little sword, and pipes out a feeble huzza. The men of his company, roaring curses at the Frenchmen, prepare to receive and repel a thundering charge of French cuirassiers. The men fight, and Snooks is knighted because the men fought so well.

But live or die, win or lose, what do THEY get? English glory is too genteel to meddle with those humble fellows. She does not condescend to ask the names of the poor devils whom she kills in her service. Why was not every private man’s name written upon the stones in Waterloo Church as well as every officer’s? Five hundred pounds to the stone-cutters would have served to carve the whole catalogue, and paid the poor compliment of recognition to men who died in doing their duty. If the officers deserved a stone, the men did. But come, let us away and drop a tear over the Marquis of Anglesea’s leg!

As for Waterloo, has it not been talked of enough after dinner? Here are some oats that were plucked before Hougoumont, where grow not only oats, but flourishing crops of grape-shot, bayonets, and legion-of-honor crosses, in amazing profusion.

Well, though I made a vow not to talk about Waterloo either here or after dinner, there is one little secret admission that one must make after seeing it. Let an Englishman go and see that field, and he NEVER FORGETS IT. The sight is an event in his life; and, though it has been seen by millions of peaceable GENTS— grocers from Bond Street, meek attorneys from Chancery Lane, and timid tailors from Piccadilly — I will wager that there is not one of them but feels a glow as he looks at the place, and remembers that he, too, is an Englishman.

It is a wrong, egotistical, savage, unchristian feeling, and that’s the truth of it. A man of peace has no right to be dazzled by that red-coated glory, and to intoxicate his vanity with those remembrances of carnage and triumph. The same sentence which tells us that on earth there ought to be peace and good-will amongst men, tells us to whom GLORY belongs.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 19:07