Dr. Ruscombe Foster –
As most school children would know, Napoleon Bonaparte, who had been the scourge of Europe for more than a decade, was finally defeated at Waterloo on 18 June 1815 by that incomparable general, the Duke of Wellington (1769-1853). It was the battle of the Titans and it was regarded as a day of destiny and the prelude to a safer world.
This was effectively where Dr. Ruscombe Foster began his talk, the first for the Society’s 2015-16 season, which was entitled, ‘Commemorating Waterloo.’ It was a most relevant topic particularly as there are currently a plethora of commemorations in many walks of life. There was great jubilation at the time of the victory. Waterloo triggered an avalanche of writing: in 1815 alone there were at least seventy titles penned relating to it. Maps, guides, mementos were produced; visits to the site were made by multitudes of people, many of whom considered themselves to be pilgrims. In 1816-17 a Waterloo medal was struck in this country and issued to all British soldiers, officers and men, who were engaged in the battle.
However, the euphoria was short lived. A national monument on a scale similar to Greenwich, which commemorated the victory at Trafalgar, was planned and competitive tenders sought, but it was never built. We were suddenly in the realm of ‘shortage of money’ (the long war had been very expensive) and politically based-questions of “was commemorating Waterloo really a good idea?” However, it was agreed that the Strand Bridge, then under construction should be renamed Waterloo Bridge to commemorate the great victory. The attention of the audience was drawn to the fact that the bridge, opened on 18 June 1817, had to be demolished in the 1930s due to subsidence of its piers. The replacement bridge, opened in 1947, bears no direct reference to Wellington. Wellington himself guarded his reputation as a soldier jealously, but he jeopardised this by his decision to enter politics in what proved to be an especially partisan age. He was Tory prime minister only from 1828-30. It was also important to record that this country was benefiting from the effects of the Industrial Revolution which initiated a feeling of well-being and success. Therefore commemorations could be easily ignored and as late as 1890 the London Times said ‘…we think the celebration would be triumphalised …’ The speaker referred to many instances of commemorative opportunities being overlooked. Perhaps the major contributor to the commemoration question occurred in 1853, only a year after the death of Wellington, with the start of the Crimean War when Britain allied to France, its former foe, was fighting Russia.
The site of the battle itself even as late as the 1960s yielded little evidence of the stunning victory of the British army in 1815. Indeed the battlefield suffered the humiliation of commercialisation, even to the extent of constructing a go-karting circuit around the site of the Lion’s Mound, and in 1973 there was the threat to build a motorway through the battlefield.
Perhaps there is currently a more enlightened view on this subject. There is now a memorial to the British dead close to the actual battlefield. Also the Government has allocated million pounds towards the battlefield repairs.
This extremely well researched and fascinating talk which offered another point of view to the euphoric vision of Waterloo was much appreciated by the audience. The next meeting will take place on Friday 30 October when the speaker will be Phoebe Merrick whose subject will be ‘Horses for the War – Romsey Remount Depot’ This talk will be preceded by a short AGM. New members and visitors very welcome.