Wednesday 4 April 2018

The Battle of Waterloo the Victor Hugo Way

I can't believe that readers past and present have complained about the (lengthy) Waterloo scenes in Les Miserables!

Actually, yes I can.

Battle scenes are not for everyone. Jumping back in time and breaking the narrative flow also annoys many readers. The sudden appearance of the writer in the story can also disconcert. But this is Victor Hugo and after 3 months in his company, I've already learnt that everything has a purpose.

I first became interested in the French Revolution when I read A Tale of Two Cities in my late teens. Since then I've read loads of fiction and non-fiction about this era - from Jeannette Winterson's The Passion to some of Max Gallo's fictionalised biographies (I can't believe I jettisoned these books during one of my moves after only reading two of them! What was I thinking?)

Because I stopped reading these books before Napoleon had reached Waterloo, my memory of what happened is pretty much left to the lyrics of ABBA's song of the same name!

It's hard to know if  Napoleon was a genius or a tyrant, a gifted leader or mad. It often depended on which side of the battle lines you were on as to how you perceived him and his actions.

However there is no denying that he changed the face of Europe and the very heart of France. He will now always be one of the big names of history; one of those larger-than-life personalities whose self-belief, courage to embrace change and sense of destiny combined to radically alter the course of history. Napoleon also became another prime example of the dangers of hubris for historians, philosophers and storytellers alike. Certainly Hugo could not resist.

Hugo visited the area in 1861 so that he could write these Waterloo chapters for Les Mis. His fictional account of the battle has long been considered inaccurate, and it certainly reads as a patriotic piece full of the usual propaganda of war and nationalism. However he,
stirred French passions with his emotive prose and there is no doubt that he considered Napoleon’s downfall as a national tragedy. He also lamented the manner in which the famous soldier was defeated and thought that he had been brought down by lesser men who owed more to chance than skill, writing scathingly: ‘It is not the victory of Europe over France, it is the complete, absolute, shattering, incontestable, final, supreme triumph of mediocrity over genius.’
La Guard Recule

In honour of his literary efforts, a subscription was raised in 1911 to build a monument near the Hotel des Colonnes in Mont St Jean where he stayed in 1861. Two world wars and lack of funds stalled the progress of the monument, until 1956. It is still not finished - a French cockerel statue is meant to adorn the top of the column.

Artists have also been drawn to recreating significant moments from this battle ever since.

V2 B1 C2 - Hougomont
Hougomont. It was a fateful place, the beginning of disaster, the first obstacle encountered at Waterloo by the great tree-feller of Europe whose name was Napoleon, the first knot to resist his axe.

Defence of the Chateau de Hougoumont by the flank Company, Coldstream Guards, 1815 - Denis Dighton

V2 B1 C3 - 18 June 1815
Had it not rained in the night of 17-18 June 1815, the future of Europe would have been different. A few drops of water, more or less, were what decided Napoleon's fate.

Image source

V2 B1 C5 - The Fog of War
After the fall of La-Haie-Sainte the battle hung in the balance. This middle phase, from midday until four o'clock, is indistinctly visible, shrouded in the fog of war. We have a glimpse of huge turmoil, a kaleidoscopic picture of outmoded military trappings, busbies, sabre-belts, crossed shoulder-straps, ammunition pouches, hussars' dolmans, wrinkled riding boots, heavy fringed shakos, the black tunics of Brunswick mingled with the scarlet of England.

Windmill at Quatre Bras during the Battle of Waterloo - Carle Vernet (c.1815-36)

Once again, I found myself fascinated by the translation choices throughout the 19 Waterloo chapters.

V2 B1 C9 - The Unexpected

I begin with Denny's translation as I found it to be the most powerful & poignant translation. What do you think?
What followed was appalling. This ravine, some fifteen feet deep between sheer banks, appeared suddenly at the feet of the leading horses, which reared and attempted to pull up but were thrust forward by those coming behind, so that the horse and rider fell and slid helplessly down, to be followed by others. The column had become a projectile, and the explosive force generated for the destruction of the enemy was now its own destroyer. That hideous gulf could only be crossed when it was filled. Horses and men poured into it, pounding each other into a solid mass of flesh, and when the level of the dead and the living had risen high enough the rest of the column passed over. In this fashion a third of Dubois's brigade was lost.

This was a moment of horror. There, directly under the horses' hoofs, twelve feet deep between the double embankment, yawned the unexpected ravine. The second line drove the first into it, and the third drove the second. The horses reared then lunged backwards, landed on their rumps, slid with all four legs in the air, unseating and flettening their riders; unable to reverse, the whole column solely a projectile, the impetus gathered to trample the English now trampling the French. The inexorable ravine could only capitulate when filled. Riders and horses rolled pell-mell into the pit, crushing each other, together forming but one flesh, and when this trench was filled with living men they were trodden underfoot and the rest were able to pass. Almost a third of Dubois's brigade fell into that abyss.

The moment was horrifying. There was the ravine, unexpected, yawning right at the horses' hooves, two fathoms deep between its twin banks. The second row pushed the first in and the third pushed the second; the horses reared, threw themselves backwards, fell on their rumps, slid with their four feet in the air, knocking off and crushing their riders, no way of turning back. The entire column was now no more than a projectile, the force gathered to crush the English crushed the French, the inexorable ravine could surrender until it was filled, riders and horses rolled into it pell-mell, grinding each other, forming one flesh in this gulf, and when the pit was full of men still alive, they marched over them and the remainder followed suit. Almost a third of Dubois's brigade toppled into this abyss.
Fall at Ohain Road - image source

The Ravine of Waterloo (1895) by Ulpiano Checa 
What a ghastly way to die!

V2 B1 C13 - Catastrophe
The shadow of a momentous justice lay over Waterloo. It was the day of destiny, when a force greater than mankind prevailed....On that day the course of mankind was altered. Waterloo was the hinge of the nineteenth century. A great man had to disappear in order that a great century might be born.

Day of Destiny - David Cartwright 

V2 B1 C14 - The Last Square
By nine o'clock that evening only one square, at the foot of the plateau of the Mont St Jean, the slope scored by the hooves of the cuirassiers, was holding out against the concentrated artillery-fire of the victorious enemy.

The Battle of Waterloo, 16–19 June 1815, the Defeat of Kellerman's Cuirassiers - Thomas Sidney Cooper

Hugo finishes the battle scenes of Waterloo late in the evening of the 18th June with V2 B1 C19 - The Battlefield at Night. He tells us that
Every army has its camp-followers and it is these that we must look, to the bat-like creatures, half-ruffian, half-servant, engendered by the twilight of war, wearers of uniform who do no fighting, malingerers, venomous cripples, sutlers riding in small carts, sometimes with their women, who steal what later they sell, beggars offering their services as guides, rogues and vagabonds of all kinds.

Corpses Interred at Hougoumont 1816 - James Rouse

As I read this section I remembered Jeannette Winterson's The Passion which featured precisely these battlefield hanger-on-er's. It came as no surprise to see which one of our previous, less savoury characters was here, after the battle, picking pockets, with self-preservation and self-serving traits already on display.

And a new name - Pontmercy.

The battlefield of Waterloo was quickly turned into an historic monument. Just as quickly, different versions, opinions and interpretations were put about. All battles are messy, ugly, brutal places full of confusion and chaos. The loss of life is horrendous. The carnage and trauma is glorified so that all that loss and misery is not for nothing. Whether its the weather, fate, god, destiny or luck, reasons are looked for, as those left behind to deal with the clean up and their grief, try to find meaning and a sense of purpose.

The Lion Mound (Butte du Lion) was created from the ruins of the battlefield near Braine-l'Alleud, Belgium. Nearby is a rotunda that contains a massive panoramic painting of the battle by Louis Dumoulin. It consists of 14 panels. Two of the episodes are shown below.


  1. An interesting post, Brona. The Napoleonic Wars is one of my favourite eras in history. I've been putting off reading Les Mis, but now I have a new incentive to actually attempt it.

    1. I can highly recommend it Yvonne - there's also a podcast being created this year by Brianna at The Les Mis Reading Companion which I suggest you check out when you do get around to reading it.

    2. Thanks,Brona.

  2. I cannot wait to read this. Somehow I completely understand your excitement about reading through Hugo's Les Miz and those chapters on Waterloo. Frankly, Abba's Waterloo song gives me chills to know they are singing about this Genius Madman, but truly, there's not much more I know either. My kids and I are going to be diving into the French Rev. in a few weeks, and it's exciting. But next fall -- my fall -- we will begin with Napoleon.

    BTW, there is an awesome miniseries called Napoleon (2002), starring Christian Clavier and Isabella Rossellini. If you can find it, do watch it. It was well done. (I kinda felt pity for Nap.)

    P.S. Enjoyed the images, esp. The Ravine of Waterloo. Thanks for sharing those.

  3. Did you know Victor Hugo was a painter? You can find his paintings online. :) People are telling me at my place that Les Mis may one day be my favorite book EVEN MORE THAN GONE WITH THE WIND. So, I need to read it.


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