When Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo on June 18 1815, it came as a great relief to all those in Britain who had feared a French invasion. Among them was the celebrated 19th-century writer Walter Scott, who articulated his fears in The Antiquary, his third novel, which was published the following year (though there has been speculation that he might have quietly supported the French revolution in his younger years).
The revolution, the Napoleonic wars and Waterloo were undoubtedly the great historical events of Scott’s lifetime. As a writer who had immersed himself in moments of conflict and their effect on history, the 43-year-old Scott was excited by the concluding battle and was one of a number of writers who went to visit the battlefield. As his biographer JG Lockhart notes, “he grasped at the ideas of seeing probably the last shadows of real warfare that his own age would afford”. As Scott put it himself, this was such an event “as only occurs once in five hundred years”.
Scott sets forth
Though he was anxious to set out as early as possible, other commitments meant that he could not begin his journey until 27 July 1815. During his visit he collected objects from the battlefield, several of which can still be seen at his home at Abbotsford in the Scottish borders. These included buttons, bullets and cuirasses (leather body armour), as well as a book of popular songs owned by a French soldier and carrying the signs of battle.
He also sent daily letters to his wife Charlotte in the persona of “Paul”, ostensibly addressed to an imaginary group of correspondents, most likely as a device to be able to express himself more clearly. The letters outlined the situation that he found in France, the political events and social circumstances that had led up to Waterloo, and what the future might hold for both France and Europe. These formed the basis of the book Paul’s Letters to His Kinsfolk, published the following year. This was one of the earliest and most interesting accounts of France just after the battle, not to mention an important early example of war journalism.
Perhaps foremost among the emotions Scott describes is a sense of France in limbo. He notes that the war might be “ended to all useful and essential purposes, [but] could not in some places be said to be actually finished”. He expresses repeatedly a sense of sympathy for the plight of the ordinary French people. His landlady, for example, seemed “ready to burst into tears at every question we put to her”.
He also recognises the dangers posed by so many soldiers released from the duties of war, worrying that they will “beg, borrow, starve and steal” until new conflicts arise.
what will become of these men, and what of the thousands who, in similar circumstances, are now restored to civil life, with all the wild habits and ungoverned passions which war and license have so long fostered.
Scott also wrote letters from France as himself, which are at times poignant. In a letter to the Duke of Buccleuch, for example, he describes the whole of France as “melancholy” and reiterates the sorrow of the women generally. Elsewhere he “beheld the ocean of humanity in a most glorious state of confusion – fields of battle where the slain were hardly buried – immense armies crossing each other in every direction …”
Scott and Byron
In London on his way home, Scott met the romantic poet Lord Byron, for whom Napoleon was a hero. “Waterloo did not delight him”, Lockhart reports. In his artistic response to Napoleon’s defeat, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage Canto III, Byron wrote that all the suffering caused by years of war was pointless if Napoleon was to be defeated.
Like Byron, Scott recognised Napoleon’s greatness, commenting on his “inexpressible feelings of awe” at standing on the spot where he “who appeared to hold Fortune chained to his footstool” had been defeated. Yet where Byron’s main response to the events was despair, Scott’s was compassion. For him the suffering that had ravaged Europe was the inevitable and terrible consequence of revolution, rebellion and radicalism. On a very human level, it horrified him.
Scott’s poetic response to the battle, The Field of Waterloo, published on 23 October 1815, brings many of these sentiments together. As one might expect, it is clearly in praise of the victorious British general Wellington and the bravery of the British troops, but it is in general elegiac. It opens with a description of a calm country scene, only to look back at the bloodshed this landscape has witnessed only weeks before.
Look forth, once more, with soften’d heart, Ere from the field of fame we part; Triumph and Sorrow border near, And joy oft melts into a tear …
Or see‘st how manlier grief, suppress’d, Is labouring in a father’s breast, With no enquiry vain pursue The cause, but think on Waterloo!
The first edition sold 6,000 copies at a shilling each, the profits from which went to the fund raised for the relief of the widows and children of the soldiers slain in battle. In a letter to a friend, Scott says he was induced to write it “to give something to the fund more handsome than usual for the poor fellows and their relatives who suffered”.
Scott only felt able to express his admiration and compassion for Napoleon years later in his monumental Life of Napoleon Buonaparte, published in 1827. At the time of Waterloo, his thoughts were only for the victims, living and dead, that passed before his eyes.
Alison has received grants from the AHRC, Carnegie Trust for Scotland and from a private donation.
Authors: The Conversation