On the two-hundredth anniversary of the battle of Waterloo there isn’t really any other subject to write about, is there? I can direct you to the amazing battlefield images, sketched in watercolour a day or so after the battle by an Irish tourist, and now on display at the British Museum . Or retweet the link to a contemporary map of the battle, with British forces in red facing overwhelming numbers of French troops. But what really got me curious was wondering how the battle was commemorated 100 years ago, in 1915?
There are obvious parallels between 1815 and 1915. In both years British troops, aided by a European ally, were fighting against the imperial ambitions of a powerful and well-armed Continental ruler in ‘the cockpit of Europe’. In 1815, German and British troops were ranged against the French – a hundred years later, it was Germany against Britain and France. I suspected that, in consequence, any activity was likely to be low-key; but I didn’t expect to find it quite as hard to identify acts of commemoration. Perhaps it was thought to be bad form to mark a victory over a country which was now an ally of Britain.
Individual regiments commemorated their own fallen. The Royal Artillery arranged for wreaths to be placed on the graves of Officers and Men of the RA who fought in the battle, but as these were graves within the UK they’re unlikely to have included those who actually died at Waterloo. The wreaths were not the poppy ones you see today (which were themselves a product of the First World War) but were formed from laurel leaves with the addition of cornflowers or irises, and red roses. Red and blue are the colours of the Royal Artillery.
The 1815 Waterloo medal was the first to be issued to all soldiers who had fought in a battle. In 1915, a commemorative medal was issued, not by the government but by the British and Foreign Sailors’ Society. It marked the 100th anniversary since Waterloo, and 110 years since Trafalgar, and was made from copper from one of Nelson’s ships. It was sold as a fundraising item, not awarded to serving soldiers. Some of these medals were carried to the front and thrown into German trenches, as a reminder of previous British victories.
For a flavour of Waterloo commemorations in 1915, and to show how far they extended, here is an extract from The Brisbane Courier, 19 June 1915.
A meeting under the auspices of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia (Queensland) and the Royal Society of St George was held last evening in the Public Library in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Waterloo. Mr Alex Muir was voted to the chair, and addresses were delivered by the Hon. F T Brentall M.L.C. and Mr A Exley (president of the Royal Society of St George).
Hon F T Brentall, in the course of his address, said that it had been deemed advisable in the Old Land to abandon all celebrations of Waterloo. He took it, however, that they drop everything that pertained to the bitter reminiscences of Waterloo – 100 years ago. There was probably not a single individual present who was not prepared to celebrate with gratitude the fact that France and England were fighting gallantly side by side for the cause of humanity.
The same evening, Under the auspices of the Royal Queensland Yacht Club and enjoyable smoke concert was held…to commemorate the centenary of the Battle of Waterloo…The rooms were appropriately dressed for the occasion with bunting and numbers of interesting guns and pistols used at Waterloo, and a pair of spurs picked up on the battlefield. All of which must have been brought to their new home 12,000 miles from Waterloo, by people to whom these relics had signified something important in their life or in an ancestor’s.
Today’s commemorations do seem to have been better attended and, two hundred years after the battle, a monument to all the men who fought has been unveiled by Prince Charles. Designed by Vivien Mallock, it depicts two soldiers closing the gates at Hougoumont farmhouse, an act which led to ultimate allied victory.