22 November 2007

Nick Foulkes - Dancing into Battle

This is subtitled 'A social history of the battle of Waterloo', and as such deals very little with the battle itself, and almost entirely with the social environment of Brussels in 1815. Using first hand sources such as diaries and letters, Foulkes recreates the relationships and explains why so many of England's aristocratic families were living just 25 miles from one of the biggest and most important battles in history.

I had heard about the Duchess of Richmond's ball tangentially - it was a legendary event, held on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, from which many soldiers went into action still in evening dress. It features in Vanity Fair, which I've read, long ago, and Childe Harold, which I haven't. David Miller produced a book on the ball in 2005, well researched down to analysing which crops had been most favoured by invitations.

Foulkes doesn't get so close in his descriptions, he provides more of an overview of the dramatis personae, and of their personalities. Wellington's consideration of his public reputation is shown - while he may have been apprehensive at the coming clash with Napoleon, he displayed an unflappable confidence. Foulkes suggests that Wellington had become aware of his significance to the British - even greater than his tactical or leadership qualities, his very presence gave the British extra belief. After the battle, he credited the win in part to his appearance on the battlefield at critical moments, and he may have been right.

Wellington's political beliefs, as reactionary as they come, underpin this history. He believed that only the aristocracy could be effective soldiers, and disdained professional (ie trained) soldiers, such as the artillery. Riding to hounds was adequate training for battle, and many of the battle descriptions written by the participants are in terms of hunts. Much of the pre-battle assembling in Brussels was in the form of London social occasions - balls and banquets, a whole class transplanted across the Channel.

But why were they there? Largely to take advantage of cheaper rents, and to escape creditors - many of the aristocracy had become involved in gambling around that time - but also to take advantage of peace in Europe for the first time in a decade to have a look abroad. Napoleon's escape from Elba took everyone by surprise - not least Wellington, busy in Vienna negotiating the treaty to divide Europe - and the speed of his advance on Paris more so.

Foulkes is very good on the attitudes of the English to their hosts, and to the displaced French court, using his sources wittily. Particularly memorable is the Duc de Berri not even causing the English soldiers to stop cleaning their kit, never mind be on parade for his review, once they realised he wasn't THE Duke. It is occasionally hard to remember which aristo is which - there are several Carolines - but the observation of their little parochialisms is entertaining.

As the imminence of conflict becomes apparent, Brussels becomes frantic with new forces arriving from Britain, some of the residents leaving, and Prussian and British forces requisitioning properties, in different styles. Foulkes doesn't question the reports of Prussian behaviour being more akin to an occupying army, and attributes the different attitudes of the national armies to the characters and examples of their commanders - Wellington and Blucher.

Foulkes doesn't deal much with the battle itself, instead referring the reader to more focused histories such as a recent one by Andrew Roberts, but does follow the fates of the notable persons the book highlights. The Earl of Uxbridge, possibly the most dashing British soldier of his age, leader of the cavalry, famously lost his leg while in conversation with Wellington, and Foulkes puts his reputation in context - he'd scandalously seduced Wellington's sister-in-law a decade before, and was a very famous figure even before the battle. The place where his leg was amputated became part of the Waterloo tourist trail, his leg even buried in the garden and marked.

The slaughter of the battle itself was horrendous - supposedly it was one of the most intense battles ever, in terms of the numbers of men in such a small area - and many casualties were still lying, alive, on the battlefield a week after being hurt. Most poignant was Wellington's quartermaster, chosen despite his protests because the man to be appointed was in Canada, who arrived from his honeymoon, with his new wife, and was killed in the battle. Of course there were many thousands more deaths, each with a similar story, and Foulkes's focus on the aristocracy feels a bit limited, but that's the significance of the battle - the last in which the upper class of Britain played such an overwhelming part.


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