Waterloo ’15 Tour: June 13

A Reflection on What the Battle of Culloden Has in Common with Waterloo:

It’s not what you think. I was in the Rijksmuseum today where they have an entire room devoted to Waterloo, from a massive painting by Jon Willem Pieneman of the decisive moment of the battle, to portraits of the players, to the horse ridden by the Prince of Orange, or Slender Billy as he was known, into battle(yes, that would be the actual horse. After he died many years later, they had him stuffed for posterity and put into a museum). (I have a picture, but I can’t get it off my camera. Maybe later).

Anyway, it was while considering the horse and the painting that I found myself thinking of the Campbells. And not just any Campbells, but the ones that became Dukes of Argyll and lived in Inverary Castle in Scotland, which my husband and I visited some years ago. And when we were taking the tour, it amazed me how benign the Campbells were if the person telling the story did it wearing a Campbell plaid. A lot of philanthropic stories without a mention of a McDonald. And when the tour guide proudly pointed to a huge painting in the main salon and said, “And this is the duke with the Duke of Cumberland after Culloden…” and you say, “Do you mean BUTCHER Cumberland?” the tour quickly moves into another room.

There are shades of that in the Rijksmuseum display on Waterloo. Not that the Prince of Orange was a beast, as many considered Cumberland. It’s just that he wasn’t quite the “Hero of Waterloo” he is portrayed to be in the museum. Not that I can blame them. I mean, he turned out to be their second king, and from all accounts a good one. But the devotion over his service at Waterloo might be a weensy bit misplaced. Yes, he was injured(that’s him being carried heroically off the battlefield to the left of Rieneman’s painting, looking amazingly like Paul Bettany, who actually played him in Sharpe’s Waterloo). His horse was injured. He led troops with enthusiasm and panache. And from the military historians I’ve read, led his troops to slaughter. As Bernard Cornwall put it, “Probably the greatest contribution he made to the battle was getting shot and taken off the field.”

Of course a father would want to honor his son’s service, leading King Willem I to construct huge anthill over the spot where Billy was shot(although mutilating the battlefield beyond recognition so that it is now impossible to discern why certain land was fought over and other overlooked seems a bit counterproductive). Of course a nation would wish to pay tribute to a popular king. But all I could think of was, it was amazing how much more heroic Billy was if the person telling the story was wearing Orange.


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