By Elizabeth C. Goldsmith (Regular Contributor)
I have been spending the last few weeks working at the wonderful Chawton House Library in Hampshire, England, exploring their collection of women’s travel narratives from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. One of these that most amazed me is by Charlotte Waldie Eaton, originally published anonymously, in 1815. In June of that year the young Charlotte, age 26, and her sister Jane, age 21, were visiting Belgium with their brother. Charlotte was an aspiring writer. Jane was a painter. Both were enjoying a trip that they hoped would inspire them to produce interesting accounts and sketches of their travels.
The little party arrived in Brussels on June 15. The city was exciting, filled with international travellers and soldiers on leave. Charlotte wrote that “There could not be a more animated and holiday scene; everything looked gay and festive, and everything spoke of hope, confidence, and busy expectation.” After settling into a hotel on the Place Royale, they spent the rest of the day visiting the sights. The city was the temporary headquarters for the Duke of Wellington and his army, who were anticipating a confrontation with Napoleon somewhere in France in the coming weeks.
But Napoleon had moved northward from Elba much more quickly than the English had anticipated. In the middle of the night Charlotte and Jane were awakened by bugles sounding in the streets. “Is that a call to arms?” Charlotte exclaimed, and both sisters laughed excitedly. Then came the drums and the Highland bagpipes. The Place Royale was suddenly filled with “officers looking in vain for their servants, servants running in pursuit of their masters, baggage wagons loading, trains of artillery harnessing.” Word came that the French army was advancing on Brussels. Within hours, explosions could be heard that told them a battle was taking place just a few miles from the city. “We listened in a state of terrible uncertainly and suspense, and thought with horror, in the roar of every cannon, that our brave countrymen were every moment falling in agony and death.” Going into the streets, the young women were greeted by riders coming back from the direction of the battle, each one with a report of events that contradicted the last. “Nobody could tell us where our army was engaged, nor under what circumstances, nor against what force …”. The confusion was absolute, while the sound of cannon fire continued unabated. By the time the sisters and their brother decided that they should flee the city, it was impossible to find horses and a carriage.Wagon loads of wounded began to arrive. Charlotte felt sick as she watched. Their little group finally managed to find a carriage that could take them away from the city. They left, still not knowing if the English had lost the battle and if the French army was moving in behind them. “All Brussels seemed to be running away.” Bloodied soldiers were everywhere on the road, moving in both directions. They took two of the most severely wounded into their carriage, and headed for Antwerp.
There they joined a city full of fugitives and waited desperately for reliable news of the battle. When at last the news came directly from the front that the French had been defeated, Charlotte was ecstatic. But at the same time the horror of the fighting was only becoming worse for her and others who had watched from a distance. The siblings stayed in the city as the cartloads of dead and wounded poured in. Charlotte reports on horrifying interviews with survivors, including an 18-year-old boy returned from the battlefield, who had just had the “soul-harrowing experience” of searching among the dead bodies for a lost friend. She learns the truth of the crushing defeat of the French, hears the speculation about numbers of dead on both sides, comments on the inability of military reports to capture the awful reality of forty-two thousand lives lost and many more destroyed. “Of 130, 000 Frenchmen who had marched yesterday morning to battle, flushed with all the hopes and confidence of victory, no trace, no vestige now remained; they were all swept away; they were scattered by the whirlwind of war over the face of the earth.”
On July 15, one month later, Charlotte and Jane returned with their brother to Brussels and visited the field of Waterloo. The stench of corpses and putrifying limbs was still in the air. “The road between Waterloo and Brussels was one long interrupted charnel-house: the smell, the whole way through the forest, was extremely offensive, and in some places scarcely bearable. Deep stagnant pools of red water, mingled with mortal remains, betrayed the spot where the bodies of men and horses had mingled in death. “ Arriving at the field itself, they stared in shock at endless rows of freshly dug graves. The women left their carriage and walked on the grass, trying to reconstruct the battle manoeuvers as they had heard of them, and trying to bear the horrible spectacle of hastily dug pits with pieces of bone and flesh still exposed to the air. “The whole field was literally covered with soldiers’ caps, gloves, belts, shoes, and scabbards. Broken feathers battered into the mud, remnants of tattered scarlet or blue cloth, bits of fur and leather, black stocks and havresacs, buckles, packs of cards, books, and innumerable papers of every description …”
From one of the graves Charlotte writes, “I gathered the little wild blue flower known by the sentimental name of “Forget me not!” which to a Romantic imagination might have furnished a fruitful subject for poetic reverie or pensive reflection.” Jane, meanwhile, sat down to sketch. What she produced to accompany her sister’s narrative is a stunning panorama of the landscape. But it is cleansed of all visible sign of violence. It is reproduced in the book as a wide fold-out.
This is not the battlefield as the two sisters actually saw it, covered with refuse and human remains. It is how the poet Byron would see it, when he visited Waterloo in May of 1816. Perhaps he had read Charlotte’s description and seen Jane’s illustration of the place, so ‘fruitful for a Romantic imagination’. He does not describe the field as a grand scene of battle, as many other artists by then had depicted it. His description, in canto 3 of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, is of a place of beauty, sadness, and monstrous waste:
As the ground was before, thus let it be; –
How that red rain hath made the harvest grow!
And is this all the world has gained by thee,
Thou first and last of fields! king-making Victory?
For further reading:
Charlotte Anne (Waldie) Eaton, The Battle of Waterloo … By A Near Observer. Edinburgh: John Booth, 1816 (9th Edition).