This blog post was written in response to a very silly article in the Mail Online.
At any given moment, it is possible to find dozens, possibly hundreds of historians who will frantically argue any given point of history. Some of them become very angry about it. Some of them are rude and abusive and call each other rude names. The ones I mix with are lovely and argue like grown-ups.
I’m a historical novelist, not a historian, and certainly not a massively popular BBC TV presenter like Lucy Worsley, but this article made me cross. I don’t have access to her original article in History Revealed without paying for it, and I’m not going to do that, because whatever this article really said, I strongly suspect that Lucy Worsley has written something that’s trying to be controversial about Waterloo and Wellington that isn’t particularly scholarly or particularly accurate.
However, I’m also well aware of how badly things can be misrepresented. I honestly don’t think Lucy Worsley said everything she seems to have said in this article. I do think she was probably paid to write something that would stir people up.
In the novels that I write, the Duke of Wellington, or Lord Wellington as he is in my current place in time, is a major secondary character and I love to write him. When I first saw this article, I thought how funny it would be to write a typically scathing Wellington response to it, something I often do.
The trouble with getting to know a character, is that you can’t unknow them. I couldn’t write the piece I wanted to write, because once I began, my Wellington was angry and also hurt. He remembers sitting down writing the Waterloo Despatch, while news of the death and injury of his friends was still coming in. He remembers the letters he had to write to the family of men who were killed and maimed. He remembers that afterwards, he wishes he’d said things differently, given more praise, listed more men and more regiments of all nationalities who were extraordinary on that day. He remembers that sometimes, he wrote what he knew the politicians in London wanted to hear. He worries about why he did that. He worries that he was human.
I originally started this post just as a laugh for my friends. I’m sorry it wasn’t as funny as I meant it to be. Today, my Wellington did what my characters sometimes do and displayed his humanity when you least expect them to. It’s lucky that I’m only a novelist, and not a serious historian, so very few people are going to read it.
For those that do, know that Wellington is really, really pissed off…
With regard to your recent comments on the victory at Waterloo which were quoted in a publication apparently entitled MailOnline, there appear to be a number of errors which I feel it is my duty to correct!
Let me begin with the headline, which claims, if I have correctly interpreted the somewhat garbled wording, that Waterloo was not a British victory because I made little of the contribution of my allies on the Continent. Nobody should be surprised that I am accused of failing to give due credit in one of my despatches home, since my officers spent the years of the war in the Peninsula complaining about it, but why that should have any effect on the British part in the battle is baffling to me. Of course, it was a British victory! It was also a victory for the Prussians, the Dutch, the Hanoverians, the Brunswickers and any number of other nationalities, including a lone Spaniard, who as usual spent any quiet interval complaining that his stomach was growling and asking about dinner! Every one of the men who risked their lives on that battlefield can claim this victory as their own and I consider it damned impertinent that a tabloid journalist and a popular historian should suggest otherwise!!
You claim that I glossed over the role played by the Prussian army. To quote the article: “Worsley said that Wellington’s first cable back to London all but whitewashed their involvement.” I sincerely hope that the ‘journalist’ (a Mr Elsom, I believe) has misquoted you on this occasion. It is shocking that a man writing for a national newspaper is unaware that the first cable was not laid until 1850, but it would be frankly appalling if a person claiming to be a historian made the same schoolroom error!
As to the claim itself, I refer you to the following direct quotations from the despatch I sent to London immediately following the battle. Unfortunately, I was unable to send it by cable, as it had not yet been invented, but my ADC, the Honourable Henry Percy carried it, along with the captured French eagles. He must have been exhausted, poor fellow, I would not have wished to make that journey myself at that moment and at such speed.
“The Prussian army maintained their position with their usual gallantry and perseverance against a great disparity of numbers, as the 4th corps of their army, under General Bülow, had not joined; and I was not able to assist them as I wished, as I was attacked myself, and the troops, the cavalry in particular, which had a long distance to march, had not arrived.”
“I should not do justice to my own feelings, or to Marshal Blücher and the Prussian army, if I did not attribute the successful result of this arduous day to the cordial and timely assistance, I received from them. The operation of General Bülow upon the enemy’s flank was a most decisive one; and, even if I had not found myself in a situation to make the attack which produced the final result, it would have forced the enemy to retire if his attacks should have failed, and would have prevented him from taking advantage of them if they should unfortunately have succeeded.”
In the same letter, I believe I made reference to many of the other leaders of our Allies. I am also very sure there were many I left out. I felt that it was urgent to send the news of our victory to London, but had not yet even comprehended the manner of it myself. There were many names, many regiments and parts of the army, British and Continental, who might have had cause to complain that they had not received the praise they so richly deserved. At that time, the news of those I had lost to death and serious injury was still coming in, and if I was at all capable of writing all that had happened with any degree of accuracy, I would be very surprised!
Still, there is one point in the ‘article’ which is indisputable. The Battle of Waterloo is called the Battle of Waterloo because I wished it so. Several representations were made from our allies that it should be named “La Belle Alliance” after one of the other villages in the area, and I declined. I spoke of it then, as I speak of it now, as Waterloo, and since I was there at the head of my army – an Allied army, it is true, but still at that moment, my army – I ask no permission to call it whatever I like! I also urge those who dislike it to do the same. Why should they not? If you visit the site of my great victory at Salamanca, you will find that my Spanish allies refer to is as Los Arapiles, after a small village in the area, and I applaud their choice! If you do not like the name I give to something, do not carp and complain about it, call it something else, we are not sheep!
With regard to the appallingly inaccurate statement that Britain was “badly bruised during the Napoleonic Wars and badly needed a national victory” I have very little to say. The British Army, firstly under Sir John Moore and then myself, fought in Spain and Portugal from 1808 onwards, alongside our Spanish and Portuguese allies, pushing forwards with victory after victory until we crossed the French border. Elsewhere, Bonaparte was opposed by Austria, Russia and Prussia at different times, but it is not arrogance to point out that Britain was never invaded. We were no more bruised than anybody else and far less than some poor souls!
I can barely bring myself to comment upon Siborne’s ridiculous model of the battle in 1830. He tried to depict every stage of the battle at once, it was overcrowded, badly conceived and made no sense. There were indeed too many Prussians on the battlefield, there was too much of everything on the battlefield. Utter nonsense!
The final sentence in this article is almost too dreadful to write.
“His downfall signalled the end of the hundred years war between the English and the French.”
The Hundred Years War between England and France took place between 1337 and 1453. I am unable to comment further on this, as neither Bonaparte or myself were present.
In conclusion, Ms Worsley, without access to your original article, I hope that this appalling piece of nonsense does not actually reflect either your views or your knowledge of the Battle of Waterloo.
I personally was always willing to sacrifice popularity for my personal beliefs, however wrong-headed they may seem to later generations. While I did not always get things right, and hindsight and history are both marvellous things, I maintained my sense of personal integrity to the end of my days. I sincerely hope, when you are grey-haired and your grandchildren are reading or watching those things you put your name to, you will feel no embarrassment.
And if you have been wholly misquoted and misrepresented by this charlatan, you have my sympathy, it happened to me often, and has continued down the years. I have an immense respect for intelligent women and recommend you follow my example and tell these fools to publish and be damned!!!!!!!!!
Quietly, the door opens.
“Sir, are you all right?”
“I am perfectly well, General van Daan. Why?”
“You were shouting, sir, and you’re alone in the room.”
“My dog is here.”
“Yes. I was temporarily angry.”
“Nothing of importance. An opinion, from somebody I do not know, and who does not know me.”
“Waterloo. They look at the politics and I see the dead.”
“We all see the dead, sir. Those of us who were there. Leave it alone, they’re entitled to their opinions.”
“They complain about the letter I wrote. To London.”
“They’re complaining about the Waterloo despatch?”
“Bloody hell, sir, they can’t have read the rest of your letters. Do you remember the one you wrote to the officers after Burgos?”
“Now that was wholly necessary.”
“What about the one you wrote to the Spanish government in 1812?”
“I needed to make my position clear!”
“Sir, I’ve even got a letter from you complaining about a delay in laundering your shirts.”
“Get out of here, General. I will see you at dinner.”
No actual history was harmed during the writing of this post…