Thursday, June 18, 2015

Waterloo at 200: Thackeray, on a Vanished ‘Great Game of War’

"His pulse was throbbing and his cheeks flushed: the great game of war was going to be played, and he one of the players. What a fierce excitement of doubt, hope, and pleasure! What tremendous hazards of loss or gain! What were all the games of chance he had ever played compared to this one?"—Captain George Osborne, anticipating the Battle of Waterloo, in William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair (1847).

Today marks the bicentennial of the Battle of Waterloo, which over the years has acquired reams of significance: as the making of one general (the Duke of Wellington) and the unmaking of another (Napoleon), as the closing of the dreams of one Continental power (France) and the opening of another (Prussia-turned-German), and even of the battle itself as a synonym for definitive disaster (“met his Waterloo”).

My post from five years ago gives the particulars of the battle. But more can be said for the significance of that day. Indeed it was, by William Makepeace Thackeray, in Vanity Fair, his satire published early in the Victorian Era.

Thackeray looked back from the perspective of 30 years with an irony that sounds like it could have come from the 20th century, or our own.  The viewpoint in the above quote comes not from a general, but from a soldier. George Osborne is a gambler, a spendthrift, a snob and, despite marriage to Amelia, a ladies’ man. His feeling of remorse on the eve of battle, as he senses the possibility that he might leave Amelia a widow, is soon overcome by “a fierce excitement of doubt, hope, and pleasure.”

That rush feeling would be cruelly disabused by a battle where, as British man of letters A.N. Wilson noted in a retrospective for Britain’s Daily Mail, “The scale of the casualties involved is inhumanly shocking — one in four men on the battlefield was killed.” (The aftermath had its own horrors: So many teeth were removed from the corpses to supply the dentures of the living that the phenomenon became known as “Waterloo Teeth.”)

The carnage of the battle even shocked a hardened soldier like Wellington, who wrote afterward: “My heart is broken by the terrible loss I have sustained in my old friends and companions and my poor soldiers. Believe me, nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.”

But somehow, the grand illusion of war continued half a world away even after Thackeray’s anti-heroic view, for American participants in the Civil War and the Spanish-American War. If the romance of war can be said to have died, it was 100 years after Waterloo, in the muddy trenches and gas attacks of WWI.

Not that war itself has died. Oh, no. But nobody will ever be able to rush off to arms again, as George Osborne did, without knowing beforehand that it would involve a grim, nasty business indeed.

(For a fascinating blog post on the battle, see “The Battle of Waterloo in 16 Objects” from the British Library’s “Untold Lives” blog.)

(The image accompanying this post comes from the 1998 British miniseries Vanity Fair, with Tom Ward as the doomed and dumb Captain Osborne.)

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