As every Nerdy History person must know by now, this week marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. Social media is awash with gallantry and glory, featuring gallant charges, commanding generals, and the indefatigable soldiers who fought in one of the most momentous battles - and victories - in history.
But the cost of Waterloo in terms of casualties is staggering, and almost beyond comprehension. The Anglo-Allied forces led by the Duke of Wellington counted more than 15,000 dead or wounded, while the Prussians under Gebhard von Blücher lost over 7,000 men. Napoleon's French army suffered the greatest losses, with estimates of those killed and wounded as high as 26,000. All told, that's approximately 48,000 men killed and wounded in the final great battle of a war that had dragged on for an entire generation.
While those at home in Britain cheered the victory, they also struggled to come to both emotional and intellectual terms with those losses. Among them was painter Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851.) In August, 1817, Turner traveled to Waterloo himself; the battlefield had by then become so popular with visitors that guidebooks were being published to assist those who came in homage, respect, or curiosity. One day was apparently inspiration enough for Turner, who then returned home to create The Field of Waterloo, above. (Click on the image to enlarge for detail.)
Instead of the heroics of a great victory, Turner chose to depict the horrors of the battlefield after the fighting was done. This is the era before ambulances, and the wounded were left on the field together with the dead, to be found by family or friends, or become the victims of looters. Turner focuses on a group of these women searching for missing loved ones through the night, their light washing over the twisted, bloody bodies of men and horses. Echoing their small light is one of the signal rockets in the distance that were lit to discourage looting, a brighter light that also serves to show the vast desolation of the field. There are no patriotic flags or standards here in the darkness. Instead it's impossible to tell enemies apart, with all now unified in death and suffering.
One of the reviews of the painting (in The Examiner, 24 May 1818) aptly described it as:
"...the fiery explosions and carnage after the battle, when the wives and brothers and daughters and sons of the slain came, with anxious eyes and agonised hearts, to look at Ambition's charnel-house after the slaughtered victims of legitimate selfishness and wickedness."
More telling is that for the painting's first exhibition in 1818, Turner chose the following passage from Lord Byron's Childe Harold to accompany it. This is Byron's own response to Waterloo, from the gaiety of the Duchess of Richmond's ball, through the battle, to the final, harrowing outcome. Linked together, these two great artists made a single, powerful statement about war.
"Last noon behold them full of lusty life; Last eve in Beauty's circle proudly gay; The midnight brought the signal – sound of strife; The morn the marshalling of arms – the day, Battle's magnificently stern array! The thunder clouds close o'er it, which when rent, The earth is covered thick with other clay Which her own clay shall cover, heaped and pent, Rider and horse – friend, foe, in one red burial blent!" Above: The Field of Waterloo, by J.M.W. Turner, 1818. Tate, Britain.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.