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In these pages, acclaimed historian David Crane gives us an astonishing, intimate snapshot of the people and places surrounding the battle that changed the course of world history. Switching perspectives between Britain and Belgium, prison and palace, poet and pauper, husband and wife, Went the Day Well? offers a highly original view of Waterloo, showing how the battle was not only a military landmark, but also a cultural watershed that drew the line between the rural, reactionary age of the past and the urban, innovative era to come. Lyrically rendered in Crane’s signature prose style, this essential account freeze-frames the ordinary men and women of 1815 who went about their business, attended lectures, worked in fields and factories—all on the cusp of a new, unforeseeable age.
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David Crane read history and English at Oxford University before becoming a lecturer at universities in Holland, Japan and Africa. His books include Went the Day Well?, Scott of the Antarctic, Empires of the Dead, and The Kindness of Sisters. He lives in northwest Scotland.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The Tiger Is Out
‘The pilot who is carrying us into Liverpool, told us of Bonaparte’s return to Paris ... Even in this age of tremendous revolutions, we have had none so appalling as this ... When Napoleon was rejected from France, every man in Christendom, of honest principle and feelings, felt as if a weight of danger had been lifted from his prospects – as if he had a surer hope of going down to his grave in peace and leaving an inheritance to his children. But now the whole complexion of the world is changed again ... God only can foresee the consequences.’
– George Ticknor, 11 May 1815
In the early hours of 7 March 1815, the representatives of the five Great Powers meeting at Vienna to deliberate the future of post-Napoleonic Europe wearily adjourned the latest round of discussions. They had not solved the tricky problem of what to do with the king or the Kingdom of Saxony, but as they went to bed that night, they could, by and large, feel fairly satisfied with what they had done.
There were still outstanding issues and open sores – in Germany, in Italy, in Switzerland, with the Catholic Church, with disgruntled minor sovereigns and bitterly disappointed liberals and patriots – but if nobody had everything they wanted, nobody either had gone to war. Over the past six months there had been any number of potential flashpoints that might easily have led to bloodshed, but with an inimitable mixture of diplomacy, frivolity and old-fashioned horse-trading that marked the Congress of Vienna, Bourbon France had again been integrated into the brotherhood of civilised nations, Prussian and Russian territorial ambitions accommodated, British concerns over the Low Countries met and the principle of legitimacy – tempered with a brutal streak of realpolitik – firmly reasserted without recourse to arms. ‘May security, confidence and hope revive everywhere,’ read a draft declaration drawn up by the British, ‘and with them peaceful labour, progress in industry, and prosperity, both public and private! May sombre anxiety for the future not awaken or bring back the evils whose return the sovereigns would wish to prevent and whose last trace they would like to efface! May religious feeling, respect for established authority, obedience to the law and horror of everything that might disturb public order once again become the indissoluble ties of civil and political society! May fraternal relations, mutually useful and beneficent, be re-established between all lands! ... And may homage at last be rendered to that eternal principle that there can be for nations as for individuals no real happiness but in the prosperity of all!’
It was an idealistic, if improbable dream – disinterest had been remarkable by its absence from the Congress – and even as the tired plenipotentiaries made their way to their beds or their mistresses on the morning of the 7th, couriers were on their way to Vienna to tell them the dream was over. At six that same morning the Austrian Foreign Secretary Count Metternich was woken by his valet with a despatch from Genoa marked ‘Urgent’, and within hours the whole of Vienna knew the worst: Napoleon Bonaparte, exiled by the allied powers to the island of Elba just eleven months earlier, had ‘disappeared’.
Neither the Austrian consul in Genoa nor the British representative in Florence had any idea where he was gone, but the money at Vienna was on Italy. In the rearrangement of Europe, Napoleon’s old marshal Joachim Murat had somehow clung on to the throne of Naples, but as British frigates desperately scoured the Mediterranean for some sign of the Great Disturber, Bonaparte himself, along with the small force of his old Imperial Guardsmen and Polish lancers that had been permitted him in his island exile, was landing on the French coast to reclaim his crown.
The ‘Tiger’, as the great portrait painter Sir Thomas Lawrence, with a Blake-like mix of awe and fear had called him, was again loose and when two days after Vienna the news reached Britain the country was swept up in a storm of excitement, speculation and fear. ‘What times we are living in,’ the ageing, half-cracked Mrs Piozzi – Dr Johnson’s Hester Thrale – wrote from Bath, a city, like some Regency Gomorrah, desperately searching Revelations to learn of its impending fate. ‘The events come forward as Scripture says they will do, like Pangs of Parturition; every Pain sharper than the last ... I was a sad Blockhead to leave Faber’s Books upon the Prophecies behind me ... they are so sought after now ... While Buonaparte remained on Elba nobody thought of them: it must be very gratifying to the Author – That He should be immediately looked up to when all the Folks are wondering, and thinking What will come next? What will come next?’
It was a question that was being asked across the country, and for all the reliable intelligence that anyone had one that was as likely to be answered in Revelations as it was anywhere else. The first reports of Napoleon’s escape had not reached London until 9 March, and by then the news was more than ten days out of date and the desperate ‘adventurer’ who had landed near Antibes with barely a thousand men was already halfway to Paris and, ‘God knows how, and in the twinkling of an eye’, as The Champion’s editor, John Scott, reported from France, ‘up again and in all his meteor-like intensity shaking from his “horrid hair” portentous flashings over the astounded world’.
Antibes, Grasse, Castellane, Grenoble, Lyons – a man would need ‘the wings of a demon’ to keep pace with his progress, the Edinburgh Courier told its alarmed readers. No sooner had one shock been absorbed than there was another to face. On 7 March, Lord Fitzroy Somerset had written from Paris that there was nothing to fear for himself or his pregnant wife, but by the time the letter reached his brother in England the ‘monster’ that Marshal Ney had vowed to bring back in a cage was again emperor in his old capital and Louis XVIII once more on his way into exile.
‘What a dreadful prospect is thus suddenly opened to mankind! What dismay must not these tidings strike into the hearts of hundreds of thousands of human beings in every station of life,’ the great reforming lawyer, Sir Samuel Romilly, had written in his diary, and yet even as London held its breath and hoped, Europe was already mobilising for war. ‘Napoleon Bonaparte, by again appearing in France with projects of confusion and disorder,’ the Congress of Vienna famously declared, ‘has deprived himself of the protection of the law, and in consequence has placed himself without the pale of civil and social relations; and, as an enemy and disturber of the tranquillity of the world, has rendered himself liable to public vengeance.’
After less than a year of quiet, Europe was again in arms, and as the sovereigns at Vienna returned Napoleon’s protestations of peace unanswered, and the Duke of Wellington left the Austrian capital for Brussels to take command of the allied army in the Low Countries, a bewildered Britain took stock of the new reality. For more than twenty wearying years it had been at war with either Revolutionary or Napoleonic France, and for half the population those few delusory months sandwiched between Napoleon’s abdication and escape were virtually the only peace they had ever known.
For as long as many could remember the aspirations and hopes of a whole nation had effectively been put on hold. In terms of battlefield deaths the British Army would lose more lives on a single day in 1916 than it had in these twenty years combined, but by any other measure than a butcher’s bill it had been a ‘total war’, consuming the energies and talents of the whole country, changing the land and shrinking distances, stifling reform and reaching into every facet of life in a military and economic struggle that had left Britain with the undisputed command of the world’s trade, a national debt of £861 million, one in five of the population on the poor rates, and a whole thwarted generation longing for political change. ‘In 1814 a war which had lasted so long that war seemed our natural state was felt to be over,’ wrote the Edinburgh lawyer, Henry Cockburn, recalling the sense of a new beginning that Napoleon’s exile just eleven short months earlier had seemed to promise; ‘from this moment the appearance of everything was changed. Fear of invasion, contempt of economy, the glory of our arms, the propriety of suppressing every murmur at any home abuse, the utter absorption of every feeling in the duty of warlike union – these, and other principles, which for twenty years had sunk the whole morality of patriotism in the single object of acknowledging no defect or grievance in our own system, in order that we might be more powerful abroad, became all inapplicable to existing things.’
Nobody who had not lived through that first heady summer of 1814, insisted the painter Benjamin Haydon, could have any inkling of what it was like to feel a whole country’s exhilarating sense of liberation. For the first time since the phoney peace of 1802, ordinary men and women had been able to travel abroad again, and as naval and Peninsular officers married, and their wives got pregnant and the country’s women caught up with fashions, and British artists saw Old Masters they had known only from prints, Britain looked forward to a world un- shadowed by war. ‘All the town was out to see them,’1 the great Victorian engineer, James Nasmyth – just a lad at the time – recalled of the magical night when the whole city of Edinburgh, generous in victory to a beaten foe, had turned out to watch the passage of French prisoners from the castle down to their transports at Leith; ‘they passed in military procession through the principal streets, singing as they marched along their revolutionary airs, “Ça Ira” and “The Marseillaise.” The wild enthusiasm of these haggard-looking men, lit up by torchlight and accompanied by the cheers of the dense crowd who lined the streets and filled the windows, made an impression on my mind that I can never forget.’
In the year since then peace had delivered on few of the hopes of Cockburn and his fellow liberals – the brilliant Summer of Sovereigns of 1814, when London had been en fête for the Emperor of Russia and crowds pulled Blücher’s carriage through its streets, was already a fading memory – but to a great swathe of the country peace at any price was better than more death, taxation and hardship. ‘We are at the moment smarting under an almost intolerable load of taxation, incurred in fighting other peoples’ battles and in dictating to other nations whether they shall have for their ruler King Stork or King Log,’ the Liverpool Mercury had protested bitterly when the first news of Bonaparte’s escape reached England. ‘Such idle squabbles have deeply injured our moral character, almost exhausted our national resources; and reduced a great portion of our population to a state of ignominy or dependency ... To enter into a new war, under such circumstances, must entail upon our country a complication of evils, which cannot be thought of by the philanthropist or the patriot, without the most melancholy forebodings.’
It was perhaps predictable enough that Liverpool merchants, who had scarcely finished toasting the end of hostilities with America, were against another war, but what astonished George Ticknor, an engaging and well-connected young New Englander in Britain for the first time, was the breadth and depth of opposition. He had been taken up in Liverpool by the littérateur and philanthropist William Roscoe, and armed with introductions had made his leisurely way down to London via the Hatton parsonage where the man known as the ‘Whig Johnson’ – the redoubtable classical scholar and pedagogue Dr Samuel Parr – left him in no doubt that it was not just mercantile Liverpool that was against the war. ‘I am for Napoleon versus the pilferers of his pensions and the kidnappers of his person,’ Parr declared, ‘for the army and people of France versus any and every foreign power, which should presume to oppose their sacred right to choose their own sovereign – for brave men versus assassins – for wise men versus blundering monsters – for insurgents in one country versus the confederate enemies of freedom and independence in all countries – for the countless many versus the worthless few – and finally, for a reasonable peace versus unnecessary, unjust and inhuman war.’
For all the rhetorical flourishes, here was the genuine voice of old Whiggery, and ranged alongside Parr was a rainbow coalition that reached from the usual radical suspects at one end to all those children of the Romantic age clinging on to a hero-worship that no crime, betrayal or excess of Bonaparte’s could ever quite eradicate. From London’s clubs to the Royal Academy, from the pages of The Examiner and the columns of The Times to private letters, the debate raged on – it was a war against Liberty, it was a war against Tyranny, it was a Tory war, it was a Necessary war, it was a war for Autocracy against Humanity, it was a war for Christianity against Barbarism – and neither side had any monopoly on the violence of its opinions. For every William Godwin preaching the ‘extirpation’ of the allied soldiers, there was a Wordsworth damning ‘That soul of Evil ... from Hell let loose’; for every vinegary old radical like William Blake’s wife demanding the head of poor, mad King George or Byron looking forward to seeing Castlereagh’s adorning a French pike, there were loyal theatre audiences ready to cheer anything remotely royalist to the rafters.
In spite of all the white noise of angry protest in Parliament and in the liberal and radical press, however, there was a groundswell of patriotic support for the war for which a deeply unpopular government and a despised Prince Regent had only the French to thank. Through the spring of 1815 there had been violent and widespread rioting over the imposition of Corn Laws, but there was no race quite like the French – ‘vain, insolent, shallow ... tender without heart, pale, fierce, and elegant in their looks, depraved, lecherous, and blasphemous in their natures!’– and no enemy like Boney to make John Bull forget the price of bread or the weight of his taxes and roll up his sleeves for another fight.
There had never been any doubt, either, in the minds of Lord Liverpool’s Tory government that they would have to fight, and as Britain moved smoothly on to a war footing, and soldiers lobbied for employment and made their wills, and cheering crowds waved goodbye to transports carrying troops to Belgium, and the borders of France were closed and intelligence dried up, the country steeled itself against the coming storm. Since the first battles of the 1790s, parents and wives had lived in permanent dread of the news the Gazettes might bring them, and now again they found themselves trapped in that old, familiar limbo of apprehension and suspense, fighting over the last newspaper or pushing their way through the agitated scrums around booksellers to read the latest placard pasted in the windows.
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