Waterloo and Writing About War
Malcolm nodded and turned his horse. Men and horses littered the ground, wounded, dying, dead. Bullets sang through the air, shells exploded, cannon rumbled. Beneath his coat, his shirt was plastered to his skin. The smell of blood and powder, the screams of men and horses, the sight of gaping wounds and blown off limbs had become monotonous reality. He steered his horse round two dead dragoons sprawled over the body of a horse with the lower part of its face shot off.
That’s a quote from Imperial Scandal, which I’m currently in the midst of revising. Imperial Scandal begins in a world much like that of my recent book Vienna Waltz at a ball given by the British ambassador in Brussels with champagne and waltzes. But that glittering world teeters in the brink of war as the Allied army waits in Brussels for Napoleon to march from Paris. The glamorous world of the British ex-patriates in Brussels is shattered at the Duchess of Richmond’s ball with the confirmation that the French have crossed the frontier. Soldiers march off to fight in ball dress. The last part of Imperial Scandal moves back and forth between the battlefield, where the hero Malcolm is pressed into delivering messages for Wellington, and Brussels, where the heroine Suzanne is nursing the wounded and dealing with her own complicated loyalties.
In June 1815 he British, the Dutch-Belgians, and the Prussians were spread out along the border between Belgium (part of the Netherlands after Napoleon's downfall) and France, the British and their Dutch-Belgian allies to the west of the old Roman road from Bavay to Maastricht, the Prussians to the east. Eventually, when their Austrian allies were ready, they would advance into France to take on Napoleon, returned to power after his escape from Elba. But if Napoleon, as seemed likely, crossed the border first they would close in and trap him. Only of course it was a long border and there were any number of ways the master strategist Napoleon Bonaparte could move. Together, the Allies and the Prussians outnumbered the French. But if he could separate them, Napoleon would have the advantage.
Today, 15 June, is the 196th anniversary of the Duchess of Richmond's ball, at which rumors were already rife that the French had crossed the border. Earlier in the day, the Duke of Wellington, commander of the Allied British and Dutch-Belgian army, knew there had been attacks on Prussians outposts and the French had been seen to the south around Charleroi. But he suspected the attacks were a feint and the real attack would come from the west, to separate the Allies from the sea and their supply routes. He'd ordered the army ready to march, but he was waiting for confirmation of where the French attack was coming from. Wellington let the ball (given by his good friends the Duke and Duchess of Richmond) go forward because to have canceled it would have led to panic in the city and encouraged the many Bonapartists among the Dutch-Belgian citizens. Also, many of his officers would be there, and it was a good chance to speak with them.
At the ball, Wellington received confirmation that Napoleon had crossed into Belgium through Charleroi to the south to separate the British and Dutch-Belgians from their Prussian allies. He famously exclaimed "Napoleon has humbugged me by God!" He went into the Duke of Richmond's study to look at a map of Belgium and said he had ordered the army to concentrate at the crossroads of Quatre-Bras, but they wouldn't stop him there. "In which case," Wellington is reported to have said, "I must fight him here," pressing his thumb down on the village of Waterloo.
The Allies fought the French, under Marshall Ney, at Quatre-Bras on 16 June. The results were inconclusive, but on 17 June the the Allies had to fall back north toward Brussels to keep close to the Prussians, who had been driven back by Marshall Grouchy. The retreat took place in torrential rain, thunder, and lightning. Wellington and the other senior commanders and their staffs spent the night of the 17th in quartered in the village of Waterloo. The battle took place the next day, 18 June, on a nearby stretch of ground between two ridges on which each army assembled.
In my first draft of Imperial Scandal I was preoccupied with getting down the logistics of the battle, weaving in the plot developments that needed to happen and getting my characters in the right place at the right time for the historical chronology. Not to mention making sure I had details of uniforms and weapons right. I was reasonably happy with how the battle sequence turned out in the preliminary version. But now I’m layering in more texture and emotion. And sheer horror. Waterloo was a particularly bloody battle with some 47,000 soldiers killed or wounded. At the end of the day, the field, a relatively confined stretch of ground, was strewn with dead or dying men and horses. The 5th division was reduced from four thousand to little more than four hundred. General Cavalié Mercer of the Royal Horse Artillery reported that "of the 200 fine horses with which we had entered the battle, upwards of 140 lay dead, dying, or severely wounded."
A couple of weeks ago I heard a clip on NPR of Kurt Vonnegut talking about how he wanted to write about war in a way that didn’t glamorize it. That really resonated for me with the scenes I’m currently working on. It’s a challenge to capture the bravery and acts of courage and yet not lose sight of the horror and insanity. Which also means not pulling back in describing the violence and brutality.
The battle of Waterloo has been dramatized brilliantly by a number of writers. Two of my favorite depictions, both brutal and heart-rending, are Georgette Heyer in An Infamous Army and Bernard Cornwell in Waterloo. I’m only hoping I manage to not disgrace myself in comparison.
Which battle scenes in fiction do you find particularly effective? Writers, if you’ve written battle scenes, what are the particular challenges you faced?