Another view of Waterloo

This guest post, written by Dr Jaap Harskamp (formerly Curator of Dutch & Flemish collections at the British Library, who is now working on the University Library’s early Dutch books) marks the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, in advance of the opening (on Friday 1 May) of the University Library’s exhibition on the subject.

 From 1814 until April 1818 Charles Lennox, 4th Duke of Richmond, and his family lived in an eighteenth century mansion in Brussels where he was in command of a reserve force protecting the city from an invasion by Napoleon Bonaparte. It was here that three nights before the Battle of Waterloo the Duchess of Richmond gave a ball to which many officers of the allied English, Prussian and Dutch armies (including the Prince of Orange) were invited. The occasion inspired various artists. Robert Hillingford captured the splendour of the occasion in his painting ‘The Duchess of Richmond’s Ball’. Thackeray made dramatic use of the event in Vanity Fair. Byron dedicated a section of Childe Harold to ‘The Eve of Waterloo’. There, with the ball in full swing, a messenger brings word to Wellington that Napoleon is advancing towards Brussels. The news comes as a shock on a festive occasion that, until that fateful moment, had been all smiles and sparkling white teeth.

The night of 18 June 1815 was a momentous one. After twenty-three years of war in Europe, Napoleon faced the combined might of the allied forces at Waterloo. When the battle was over, the French were defeated and 50,000 men lay dead or wounded on the field of slaughter. Waterloo lifted the spirit of the British. It soon became an indispensable topic in the poetry of Walter Scott, Robert Southey or William Wordsworth. This was uplifting verse that gave the notion of being British a new dimension. Waterloo became the attraction par excellence for the emerging tourist industry, a must for everyone to see. Wellington was hailed as an English hero in spite of the fact that he was born and raised in Ireland and educated in Paris. Little interest was shown in Flemish culture itself. Even Rubens was judged to be vulgar and coarse (read Rossetti, Thackeray, Henry James, Ruskin and others).

In 1816, Byron stayed briefly in Brussels. He visited the battlefield at Waterloo and told the story in the third canto of Childe Harold. The poet had been preceded by a stream of other visitors. Landscape painter Robert Hills, a founder member of the Society of Painters in Water Colours, made his way to the battlefield in the summer of 1815 and emerges as a curiously dispassionate observer of the aftermath of the bloody battle.

He produced a series of sketches there which formed the basis for fifty-three aquatints which were published the following year in Sketches in Flanders and Holland: with some account of a tour through parts of those countries, shortly after the battle of Waterloo; in a series of letters to a friend (E.31.9) as ‘a faithful picture of the Low Countries, immediately subsequent to a most eventful period of their history’.  The outlines of the plates were etched by Hills and aquatinted by a variety of engravers; J. Hill was responsible for tinting this plate, the compartments of which show (from top to bottom) ‘Entrance to the village of [Mont] St Jean’, ‘First glimpse of the field of battle, from St Jean’ and ‘Back of La Haye Sainte, from the Brussels road’.

Young Newman Smith had undertaken the journey to Flanders for health reasons, hoping that the sea trip would improve his weak constitution. When in Brussels, he heard of Bonaparte’s surprise advance and even ran into the Duke of Wellington. Smith promptly resolved to travel to the scene of battle. He arrived there at its immediate aftermath. Walking among the dead and dying, he picked up a ‘tolerably good cuirass’ from the field, only to be forced by a Brussels gendarme to return it. It is an early account of our obsession with violence and the instruments of torture. Smith published an account of this visit in his Flying Sketches from the Battle of Waterloo, Brussels, Holland &c, in June 1815 (although the book was not published until 1852).1

By strange coincidence, All Smiles is a family dentistry in Waterloo, New York. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries people dreaded losing their teeth. The toothless had sunken cheeks and looked old before their time. Replacement teeth were traditionally made from ivory (hippopotamus, walrus, or elephant) which deteriorated more quickly than real teeth. More costly dentures were made with an ivory base and then set with real human teeth. The biggest purveyors of teeth were the resurrectionists who stole corpses to sell to medical schools. A set of teeth was one of the perks of the job. Even if they dug up a body too far gone for the anatomy lesson, they could still sell the teeth. Unfortunately for some unlucky recipients, syphilis and tuberculosis were unknowingly transmitted into their mouths from infected donors. When the fighting at Waterloo ended, night was closing in. Battlefield scavengers flitted from corpse to corpse, looking for valuables. The final act of desecration followed. They pulled and pocketed any intact front teeth. As a result, the sudden flood of teeth onto the market was enormous. Dentures made from second-hand teeth acquired a new name – Waterloo teeth. Far from putting clients off, this was a selling point. Better to have teeth from a soldier killed in battle than those plucked from the jaws of a decaying corpse or a hanged person. Apparently, Waterloo teeth still appeared in dental supply catalogues of the 1860s. This macabre practise inspired John Whale’s poem ‘Waterloo Teeth’, published in August 2010 in the collection of that title (2010.8.4535).

Guest author: Dr Jaap Harskamp

Notes  1.Newman Smith Flying Sketches of the Battle of Waterloo, Brussels, Holland, etc., in June, 1815 / by a young traveller, written on the spot (London: Printed for private circulation, by W. Bennett, 1852)  Not in Cambridge; held by the British Library.

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