To the Field of Waterloo: The First Battlefield Tourists 1815-1816

There were tourists on the battlefield from the first morning…

From the very first day after the battle there have been tourists to the battlefield of Waterloo. This is the story of the experience of the early visitors as recounted by six of the first Waterloo tourists – the Poet Laureate Robert Southey, journalist John Scott, author and advocate James Simson, schoolmaster John Evans, an adventurous young gentleman called Newman Smith and novelist and travel writer Charlotte A. Eaton. Their descriptions are moving, shocking – even funny – and give a vivid account of the aftermath of the battle that changed 19th century Europe for ever.

Excerpt

The very first sightseers were gentlemen who rode out from Brussels while the fighting was in progress and who watched from behind the Allied lines. Then came some people who were staying in Brussels and who reached the field the next morning.

One of the most vivid first-hand accounts of the aftermath is in the Journal of the Waterloo Campaign, Kept through the Campaign of 1815, by Cavalié Mercer,  commander of G Troop Royal Horse Artillery during the battle. In his memoirs, published in 1870 when he was a general, Mercer records some of the very first tourists.

The position of the artillery unit under his command can still be easily located on the extreme right of the Allied front line between the Lion Mount and Hougoumont. On the morning of the 19th he records surveying the field, helping get water to the wounded and seeing his men were fed. They made a stew of a “quarter of veal, which they had found in a muddy ditch” and ate for the first time in three days, surrounded by mangled corpses and the wounded.

“We had not yet finished our meal, when a carriage drove on the ground from Brussels, the inmates of which, alighting, proceeded to examine the field. As they passed near us, it was amusing to see the horror with which they eyed our frightful figures; they all, however, pulled off their hats and made us low bows. One, a smartly-dressed middle-aged man, in a high cocked-hat, came to our circle, and entered into conversation with me on the events of yesterday. He approached holding a delicately white perfumed handkerchief to his nose; stepping carefully to avoid the bodies (at which he cast fearful glances en passant), to avoid polluting the glossy silken hose that clothed his nether limbs…With a world of bows my man took leave, and proceeded, picking his steps with the same care as he followed the route of his companions in the direction of Hougoumont.”

Mercer appears to take wry amusement from his mincing visitors, rather than being resentful of their intrusion. He could not resist some sightseeing himself and walked the short distance to Hougoumont where he found some peace in a corner of the garden. After the horrors he had been through he was unshaken by the dead Guardsmen, “concealed amongst the exuberant vegetation of turnips and cabbages…”