The world is full of thunder, though there isn’t a rain cloud in sight. You see the cannons before you hear them: a silent plume of fire and smoke, followed by the booming shock wave that sweeps across the battlefield, travels up my legs and rattles the shako on my head.
Behind us, our own guns return fire.
One of the Korporals has delighted in telling me, over and over, “Y’don’t see a battle. Y’hear it.” A sentiment which I understand to have originated from an officer of the 95th. And now I understand what it means. The white smoke drifts across the field like a thick fog. It passes in font of our battalion and for solid minutes we cannot see more than six feet ahead, let alone the French soldiers lined up on their ridge.
“Here comes Nosey!” shouts our Feldwebel. We turn smartly and stand to attention as Wellington rides by. Rumour has it that Bony was sighted holding afternoon tea on the other side of the field. Will we catch a glimpse of him before the day is out? He’s out there somewhere, hiding in those lines of French. Over two thousand of them, all lined up on their ridge, and us on ours, and all the while our guns are firing.
When the smoke thins there is no longer a line, but a column of French, at least ten ranks deep and advancing towards us in marching step.
Our boys ready their muskets and the order to fire is given. The sound is a crack through the air, and it cascades down the line in a rolling surge of smoke and flame. Another volley is called. Crack. Another, and another, and still the cannons boom behind us, and still the French advance.
The smoke thickens again – I am surprised to find it smells heavily of eggs. It clings to my throat, makes the very air feel heavy and grey. High above, fantastic smoke rings curl lazily against the sky, while on the ground the clouds crawl sluggishly around us.
And out of the clouds come the French.
“Fix bayonets!” comes the desperate call.
The lines clash in a riot of colour and noise and metal. French blue against the black of the Brunswickers to the right, and against the reds and greens of the Highlanders holding firm on the left.
We hang back with the supply wagon, distanced from the fray but hardly out of it. I risk a glance to my right. The same scenes are being played out as the battlefield stretches on, blocks of red fending off blocks of blue, cavalry diving in and out of the melee. The farms of La Haye Sainte and Hougoumont are surrounded; my prayers go to the boys inside.
A shout and sudden chaos: a French horseman has broken through the line and advances towards us, alone. Is he insane?
I dive behind the cart – I am unarmed, but what French would care? Our bodyguard hastily draw their swords and surround us. The horseman isn’t mad after all; perhaps he’s just now realised he’s left his company behind. He turns tail and breaks back through to his own men.
The lines have separated now, the French retreat. Our volleys go into their backs. It’s time to advance.
I’m in position by one of the limbs of the cart, braced and ready. “Auf!” is the command I’m waiting for. We hoist up the cart and drag it forwards, ploughing through the waist-deep grass. It is like wading through prickly mud. Ahead, the army leaves a trampled void of flattened stalks where it passes. It will be easier through there.
At least, it is easier until we reach the bottom of our hill; now we start the climb up the next ridge.
“Halt!” shouts the Feldwebel. He is panting, and so are we. The black uniforms are hot and heavy, and the cloying smoke is still in my lungs. It’s nauseating. As I take a swig from my canteen, I spy the surgeon running towards us. His apron is bloody, and he holds an armful of empty canteens.
We can barely hear him over the roar of the guns, but his mouth frames the word: “Water.” We work as fast as we can, hauling the great jugs off the cart and refilling canteens as fast as possible. Any moment now we’ll be called to advance again, and we can’t afford to be left behind.
There is an almighty crack right beside us, and for just a second the world goes eerily silent save for the ringing tone in my left ear. As sound filters back I spy the culprit, a rifleman dealing with a misfire behind the lines. My muscles relax where they had tensed for flight.
As the surgeon withdraws, he is replaced by a lanky Brunswick Jäger. He doesn’t bother to salute, just opens his cartridge pouch and says with a grin, “Ammo please!” This is a job for the Quartermaster General – even with all that gold braid weighing him down, he’s a practical man to have on the field – the strongbox is unlocked, the black powder cartridges rapidly unloaded, and the Jäger sent on his way.
No sooner has he disappeared into the smoke another officer approaches. We have orders to resupply the Gordon Highlanders to our front and the 42nd to our left. Our relatively quiet corner of the battlefield is suddenly a squall of activity: we can’t pour water fast enough nor assign cartridges with enough speed. We hear that some of the men are completely out of ammunition. We can’t keep up!
And suddenly we are advancing again. With aching muscles we haul ourselves and our cargo up the slope, manoeuvring around bodies of French dead. It is chilling to think that I am walking across a graveyard. The sky overhead has turned an ugly grey.
Peering ahead, I can see a column of French backing away, huddled in on itself, harassed by cavalry and gradually being swallowed by the Highlanders. The Brunswickers advance on, over the ridge and to victory. The French are fleeing.
Our Brunswick motto rings in my ears: Nunquam Retrorsum. Sieg oder Tod.
Never Retreat. Victory or Death.
I look back, and see that we have walked a quarter of a mile from where we began. La Haye Saint lies in ruins; Hougoumont a burning wreck.
I cast my eye over the assembled dead. One of the bodies sits up, and takes a photograph.
The smoke is clearing, the booms and cracks have died away, save for the occasional puff of smoke as someone rids their gun of its last charge. We are approached by a group of weary French soldiers – Imperial Guard, I think – they wear ecstatic grins where terrified faces should be. We offer them some water: it is a long march back to camp, after all.
Bonaparte himself walks by us.
“They’ve left me behind!” he says, comically.
The night is drawing in by the time we leave the battlefield. I won’t reach my tent until midnight, and when I do I shall hit my pillow and sleep like the dead until dawn.
And then tomorrow night, we shall do this all over again.
And that, folks, is how I spent my holiday in Belgium – the reason I postponed the next Hansard episode. If you missed the news, it was the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, portrayed with around 5000 re-enactors – I’m telling you, it was huge. I didn’t even have to exaggerate most of what is written above. The only real embellishments are the burning of Hougoumont (which happened in real life, but not during this re-enactment) and the order that some of the stuff happens in. It was loud, it was at times terrifying, and it was also awesome in the truest sense of the word.
The sheer sense of chaos is what I will treasure most. There were moments when my commanding officers were practically screaming at us to run into the middle of a square of Allied soldiers because French cavalry appeared to be flanking – because if there’s anything that a small, undefended unit dragging a cart don’t want to face, it’s any kind of cavalry. It was genuinely hard work, but it’s an experience I want to keep logged in my brain in as much detail as possible for future reference. As I was breathing in that strangely egg-flavoured black powder smoke, there was a big portion of my mind thinking, ‘I’ve got to remember how this feels so that if I ever want to write about a big battle with guns I know how to write it . . . ‘
But although that’s the closest I will ever come to experiencing what a real battle might feel like, I am very aware of how vanilla our experiences were – we were spared the gore and the shrieks of pain and the wreckage of a landscape. Most people were wearing a great big grin, like they couldn’t believe they were really there. I couldn’t believe I was really there.
And I couldn’t believe how many people died here, two hundred years ago. I looked out at the massed ranks of both Allied and French soldiers spread out before me, and knocked sections of them down in my head. Boom. You’re dead. Boom. You’re dead.
And at one point I realised: there are only about 5000 of us here. The historic battle suffered over 40,000 dead. I looked at this field filled with people and saw them all littering the ground; every one of us would be dead men. I’m not a praying kind of gal, but I gave my own private homage to the fallen. And of course there was the laying of wreaths and singing of hymns and other little rituals done by each regiment. I’m sure every individual had some little ritual of their own.
I don’t know what those soldiers would have thought of us here in the future, play-acting at what was probably the worst event in their lives. Grim thoughts like that can spoil this hobby, if you let them. The important thing is to temper our fun with respect, and to temper the spectacle with compassion.