So yesterday, two hundred years ago, the battle was lost and won. I’ve only known one person who’s visited Saint Helena and described to me the remoteness and bleakness of the place. Better, however, than the end prescribed by Prussian Blucher: put him against the wall and shoot him without trial…..
There’s a poignant portrait of the dejected emperor getting ready to leave for the island and thinking about a continent he kept in suspense, war, anticipation and, ultimately, in relief, in, of all places, Welshpool town hall, which we know well, having been residents of the area for many years.
What a terrible difference from that heroic stance just a few years previously as he crossed the Alps to create a new Italy?
Still remaining in Wales there’s a room above the chemists at Llanfyllin with thirteen picturesque landscapes frescoes painted by Napoleonic POWs billeted in the town from 1812 to 1814.
One of these officers, Lt Pierre Augeraud, fell in love with Mary Williams, the rector’s daughter. Her father disapproved of the engagement and had him sent back to France. In 1813 the rector died and, after Waterloo, Augeraud returned to Llanfyllin to marry his Welsh love. Love and war, war and peace!
Which reminds me of the opening passage of the great Tolstoy novel on the subject of Russia’s relationship with “Boney” and a lot more:
“Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Buonapartes”.
What would have been the effect on Lucca of what Wellington termed a “”close run thing”, if the iron duke had lost the battle of Waterloo?
First of all, there would have been the completion of the porticoed via Elisa, whose gate has been so beautifully restored recently, straight into Lucca’ largest piazza still known as piazza Napoleonic or also piazza Grande.
Second, there would have been further processional avenues “regularizing”” Lucca’s old town and turning it into a more easily accessible place with a distinct neo-classical feel about it.
Already two churches and several houses had been demolished by order of Elisa, Napoleon’s sister, to create the piazza Napoleone, where pop icons will again perform this year during Lucca’s summer festival. Have you booked your ticket for Elton John, Bob Dylan or even Robbie Williams yet?
Certainly we wouldn’t see the face of bourbon family successor to Elisa, Marialuisa on the statue in Lucca’s biggest square which was originally destined for Napoleon’s sister, Elisa Baciocchi!
For Lucca was the jewel in the crown of Napoleon’s gifts of princedoms and grand-duchies to the members of his extended family and he wanted to give his favourite sister the best of them all, Lucca.
What did Wellington’ victory on the field of Waterloo mean anyway? The end of twenty years warring in Europe? The final defeat of France as the supreme European power? A future of forty years relative peace to Europe?
But it also means the restoration of repressive regimes, Castlereagh’s blindness to much needed electoral reform, Shelley’s flight to escape impossible political conditions in his home country to Italy and, first of all, to our Bagni Di Lucca, the delay of emergent nationalistic tendencies in countries like Italy and the collapse of a coordinated Europe. Indeed, just one year less than a century later the German forces, essential for Wellington’s victory, Blucher’s, were fighting against Britain, now allied with the same French nation they had defeated in 1815! (Although Wellington did say “my fight’s not with the French but with Napoleon”.)
Constitution, or Wellington arch, near the duke’ residence, Apsley House, in London had an intriguing exhibition on the battle which changed the face of Europe for the next hundred years when we visited it last week. It’s well worth seeing.
Climbing to the top of the arch balconies give magnificent views over London’s parkland and beyond. Crowning the arch is the world’s greatest bronze sculpture by Adrian Jones, Nike the winged goddess of victory descending upon the chariot of war. It’s a truly wondrous piece of casting, pure and in itself is a victory over France whose own Arc de Triomph has nothing to crown its empty top.
Ironically, however, Jones’ statue was only placed at the top of the arch in 1912, just two years before the start of a mass slaughter which made Waterloo seem just a trickle of blood.
For us Constitution arch is also our most romantic spot in London. After our registrar wedding in Caxton hall my newly appointed father-in-law took our first wedding photos against the backcloth of London’s most wondrous triumphal arch.
Will the French ever let us forget Waterloo? Happily, daguerreotypes from the later part of the nineteenth century show old soldiers from opposing sides fraternizing with each other. There is hope.
And we too have continued to join our love together like that arch. And our cat Napoleone surely agrees with us purrfectly!