This is a story of two walks in time, as we accompany Lady Elizabeth Butler, or just Elizabeth “Mimi” Thompson as she was then, around the field of Waterloo, guided by a man who was there on the fateful day.
The most famous painting of the battle of Waterloo is probably “Scotland Forever” by Lady Elizabeth Butler. The key to the famous lady battle painter’s success was that her work struk a chord with the British public, if her work had been a TV show her ratings would have been off the charts. Waterloo, like the Crimea, held a special place in Victorian National conciousness. Essentially it was the beginning of the heyday of the Empire, a battle that ushered in a 50 year span of prosperity for Britain, while other naitons still struggled to find an identity, everyone that called themselves a British subject knew exactly what they were there for. Well might we modern Britons envy their sense of purpose as we look back from their shadow. Many Victorians looked back on Waterloo with a reverence bordering on religious fervour, the events of the day were known to every schoolchild, and the hero’s and villains were engraved in the mind of the nation. So when Elizabeth Butler began painting subjects from its hallowed story, she could not fail to find success.
In her memoir written in 1923 she was already calling WW1 the Great War but nevertheless when she cast her “Prodigous memory” back to her tour of Belgium and the German states of about 1865, just befor she went to the South Kensington Art School, Waterloo stood out as plain as the Lion Mound does on the field today and with greater significance. Her description of her tour is a real picture of how the Victorians and even the Edwardians looked upon the legacy of Waterloo, and some of her comments strike quite close to home even today as the 200th anniversary looms. As a guide she ran across a veteran who she calls Mundy of the 7th Hussars who took her family around the field. This man was actually called Munday, he was Edward Cotton’s brother-in-law, (The first Waterloo guide). In 1849 Edward Cotton died, and Joseph Munday took over from him. Please see the comment below for more details about this man written by a descendant.
Anyway, there are not many people who would talk of Waterloo this way anymore, so enjoy.
“At Brussels my entry runs: “November 3rd.—My birthday. I feel too much buoyed up with the promise of doing something this year to feel as wretched as I might have felt at the thought of my precious ‘teens dribbling away. Never say die; never, never, never! This birthday is ever to be marked by our visit to Waterloo, which has impressed me so deeply. The day was most enjoyable, but what an inexpressibly sad feeling was mixed with my pleasure; what thoughts came crowding into my mind on that awful field, smiling in the sunshine, and how, even now, my whole mind is overshadowed with sadness as I think of those slaughtered legions, dead half a century ago, lying in heaps of mouldering bones under that undulating plain. We had not driven far out of Brussels when a fine old man with a long white beard, and having a stout stick for scarcely-needed support, and from whose waistcoat dangled a blue and red ribbon with a silver medal attached bearing the words ‘Wellington’ and ‘Waterloo,’ stopped the carriage and asked whether we were not going to the Field and offering his services as guide, which we readily accepted, and he mounted the box. This was Sergeant-Major Mundy of the 7th Hussars, who was “twenty-seven when he fought on that memorable 18th June, 1815. In time we got into the old road, that road which the British trod on their way to Quatre Bras, ten miles beyond Waterloo, on the 16th. We passed the forest of Soignies, which is fast being cleared, and at no very distant period, I suppose, merely the name will remain. What a road was this, bearing a history of thousands of sad incidents! We visited the church at Waterloo where are the many tablets on the walls to the memory of British officers and men who died in the great fight. Touching inscriptions are on them. An old woman of eighty-eight told us that she had tended the wounded after the battle. Is it possible! There she was, she who at thirty-eight had beheld those men just half a century ago! It was overpowering to my young mind. The old lady seems steadier than the serjeant-major, eleven years her junior, and wears a brown wig. Thanks to the old sergeant, we had no bothering vendors of ‘relics.’ He says they have sold enough bullets to supply a dozen battles.
We then resumed our way, now upon more historic ground than ever, the field of the battle proper. The Lion Mound soon appeared, that much abused monument. Certainly, as a monument to mark where the Prince of Orange was wounded in the left shoulder it is much to be censured, particularly with that Belgian lion on the top with its paw on Belgium, looking defiance towards France, whose soldiers, as the truthful old sergeant expressed himself, ‘could any day, before breakfast, come and make short work of the Belgians’ (sic). But I look upon this pyramid as marking the field of the fifteenth decisive battle of the world. In a hundred years the original field may have been changed or built upon, and then the mound will be more useful than ever as marking the Battlefield that was “To make it much ground has been cut away and the surface of one part of the field materially lowered. On being shown the plan for this ‘Lion Mound,’ Wellington exclaimed, ‘Well, if they make it, I shall never come here again,’ or something to that effect, and, as old Mundy said, ‘the Duke was not one to break his word, and he never did come again.’ Do you know that, Sir Edwin Landseer, who have it in the background of your picture of Wellington revisiting the field? We drove up to the little Hotel du Musée, kept by the sergeant’s daughter, a dejected sort of person with a glib tongue and herself rather grey.
We just looked over Sergeant Cotton’s museum, a collection of the most pathetic old shakos and casques and blundering muskets, with pans and flints, belonging to friend and foe; rusty bullets and cannon balls, mouldering bits of accoutrements of men and horses,” “evil-smelling bits of uniforms and even hair, under glass cases; skulls perforated with balls, leg and arm bones in a heap in a wooden box; extracts from newspapers of that sensational time, most interesting; rusty swords and breastplates; medals and crosses, etc., etc., a dismal collection of relics of the dead and gone. Those mouldy relics! Let us get out into the sunshine. Not until, however, the positive old soldier had marshalled us around him and explained to us, map in hand, the ground and the leading features of the battle he was going to show us.
We then went, first, a short way up the mound, and the old warrior in our midst began his most interesting talk, full of stirring and touching anecdotes. What a story was that he was telling us, with the scenes of that story before our eyes! I, all eagerness to learn from the lips of one who took part in the fight, the story of that great victory of my country, was always throughout that long day by the side of the old hussar, and drank in the stirring narrative with avidity. There lay before us the farm of La Haie Sainte—‘lerhigh saint’ as he called it—restored to what it was before the battle, where the gallant Germans held out so bravely, fighting only with the bayonet, for when they came to load their firearms, oh, horror! the ammunition was found to be too large for the muskets, and was, therefore, useless. There the great Life Guard charge took place, there is the grave of the mighty Shaw, and on the skyline the several hedges and knolls that mark this and that, and where Napoleon took up his first position. And there lies La Belle Alliance where Wellington and Blücher did not meet—oh, Mr. Maclise!—and a hundred other landmarks, all pointed out by the notched stick of old Mundy. The stories attached to them were all clearly related to us. After standing a long time on the mound until the man of discipline had quite done his regulation story, with its stirring and amusing touches and its minute details, we descended and set off on our way to Hougoumont. What a walk was that! On that space raged most of the battle; it was a walk through ghosts with agonised faces and distorted bodies, crying noiselessly.
Our guide stopped us very often as we reached certain spots of leading interest, one of them—the most important of all—being the place where the last fearful tussle was made and the Old Guard broke and ran. There was the field, planted with turnips, where our Guards lay down, and I could not believe that the seemingly insignificant little bank of the road, which sloped down to it, could have served to hide all those men until I went down and stooped, and then I understood, for only just the blades of the grass near me could I see against the sky. Our Guards must indeed have seemed to start out of the ground to the bewildered French, who were, by the by, just then deploying. That dreadful V formed by our soldiers, with its two sides and point pouring in volley after volley into the deploying Imperial Guard, must have indeed been a ‘staggerer,’ and so Napoleon’s best soldiers turned tail, yelling “Sauve qui peut!’ and ran down that now peaceful undulation on the other side of the road.
Many another spot with its grim story attached did I gaze at, and my thoughts became more and more overpowering. And there stood a survivor before us, relating this tale of a battle which, to me, seems to belong to the olden time. But what made the deepest impression on my mind was the sergeant’s pointing out to us the place where he lay all night after the battle, wounded, ‘just a few yards from that hedge, there.’ I repeat this to myself often, and always wonder. We then left that historic rutted road and, following a little path, soon came, after many more stoppages, to the outer orchard of Hougoumont. Victor Hugo’s thoughts upon this awful place came crowding into my mind also. Yet the place did look so sweet and happy: the sun shining on the rich, velvety grass, chequered with the shade of the bare apple trees, and “the contented cows grazing on the grass which, on the fearful day fifty years ago, was not green between the heaps of dead and dying wretches.
Ah! the wall with the loopholes. I knew all about it and hastened to look at it. Again all the wonderful stratagems and deeds of valour, etc., etc., were related, and I have learnt the importance, not only of a little hedge, but of the slightest depression on a battlefield. Riddled with shot is this old brick wall and the walls of the farm, too. Oh! this place of slaughter, of burning, of burying alive, this place of concentrated horror! It was there that I most felt the sickening terror of war, and that I looked upon it from the dark side, a thing I have seldom had so strong an impulse to do before. The farm is peaceful again and the pigs and poultry grunt and cluck amongst the straw, but there are ruins inside. There’s the door so bravely defended by that British officer and sergeant, hanging on its hinges; there’s the well which served as a grave for living as well as dead, where Sergeant Mundy was the last to fill his canteen; and there’s the little chapel which served as an oven to roast a lot of poor fellows who were pent up there by the fire raging outside. We went into the terror-fraught inner orchard, heard more interesting and saddening talk from the old soldier who says there is nothing so nice as fighting one’s battles over again, and then we went out and returned to the inn and dined. After that we streamed after our mentor to the Charleroi road, just to glance at the left part of the field which the sergeant said he always liked going over the best. ‘Oh!’ he said, looking lovingly at his pet, ‘this was the strongest position, except Hougoumont.’ It was in this region that Wellington was moved to tears at the loss of so many of his friends as he rode off the field. Papa told me his memorable words on that occasion: ‘A defeat is the only thing sadder than a victory.’ What a scene of carnage it was! We looked at poor Gordon’s monument and then got into our carriage and left that great, immortal place, with the sun shedding its last gleams upon it. I feel virtuous in having written this much, seeing what I have done since. We drove back, in the clear night, I a wiser and a sadder girl.
About this same Battle of Waterloo. Before the Great War it always loomed large to me, as it were from the very summit of military history, indeed of all history. During the terrible years of the late War I thought my Waterloo would diminish in grandeur by comparison, and that the awful glamour so peculiar to it would be obliterated in the fumes of a later terror. But no, there it remains, that lurid glamour glows around it as before, and for the writer and for the painter its colour, its great form, its deep tones, remain. We see through its blood-red veil of smoke Napoleon fall. There never will be a fall like that again: it is he who makes Waterloo colossal.”
Excerpt From: “An Autobiography.” by Elizabeth Butler downloadable free via project Gutenberg.
I hope you enjoyed her words and thanks for reading. See you again for another Adventure in Historyland.