Anyone remember June 16 1815?
I was looking for a topic to write about today, and as I sometimes do I looked to see if anything happened on this day in history. Sometimes there was a great battle or discovery or event that inspires me to blog. In today’s case it’s a bit more convoluted. Arcane. Conjectural to the point of absurdity. Try to follow…
June 16 1815. It was a Friday. There were two important battles that day. The Battle of Quatre Bras and the Battle of Ligny. They took place in Belgium a few miles apart. The Battle Of Quatre Bras pitted General Wellington and the English Army against Napoleon’s forces. In Ligny Napoleon faced a Prussian Army under General Blücher. In both cases Napoleon carried the day, in fact the Battle of Ligny is considered Napoleon’s last victory in battle. He was trying to defeat the forces of the Seventh Coalition in detail before they could combine their armies and invade France. In some senses Napoleon was the Saddam Husein of his time, at least in that a coalition of European powers was determined to invade France and remove him from power. The Congress of Vienna had declared Napoleon an outlaw, and that was that. Shades of the UN sanctioning the invasion of Iraq, eh?
In any event, at the Battle of Ligny Napoleon defeated a Prussian Army and at Quatre Bras he drove the English from a well defended position. However, and the reason why these two Napoleonic victories are all but forgotten today, is that both the Prussian and English armies were able to retreat in good order, and joined by further reinforcements, they met Napoleon in battle two days later at the village of Waterloo. That battle is a little more well known, and a catastrophic final defeat for Napoleon. He fled to Paris, tried to get to America, and was captured and imprisoned by the British on a remote island in the South Atlantic until his death in 1821.
Ah, Napoleon. Which got me to thinking. When I was a young lad back in the sixties Napoleon seemed to be a far more current figure than he is today. I mean, he’s still remembered today, but when I was a youth in some way his memory was more “contemporary.” For example, back then a common perception of crazy people was that they imagined they were Napoleon. I doubt very many crazy people today imagine they are Napoleon, what has changed?
So I’m thinking that in my youth maybe there were people alive who were more connected to the Napoleonic era. I did the math. If someone was 12 during the Napoleonic wars, and they lived to be 90 or more…they were alive in the 1890s. And many people who were 12 in the 1890s were in their 90s in the 1960s. To make a long story short, when I was a kid there were people alive who in their youth had known veterans of Waterloo. Just one life away from that rainy Friday in 1815. And now of course, all dead. The 40,000 people who died that day are dead. The veterans of that day are dead. And here at the start of the 21st century, anyone who ever knew the veterans of Waterloo is dead as well. Waterloo is history.
I think that the fact that we are all connected across space and time is important. When important events transpire, they send out ripples in both geography and across the decades. If something terrible happens to a friend, does it not effect us? Until the seventies or so there were people alive who were friends with those who experienced the events of these terrible battles in June 1815. So the emotional effects of Waterloo echoed for at least 150 years in a very real personal sense. And I think that is what I was detecting about Napoleon in my youth.
Such as Mr Louis-Victor Baillot above. He was the last French survivor of Waterloo, and very possibly the last survivor of the battle. He was born in 1793 and died in 1898, almost making it to the twentieth century. Yes, the gentleman above saw Napoleon with his own eyes as a young man on that bloody day. And a bloody day it was, his unit was caught by flanking fire by a Scottish unit hiding in a field. They broke and ran, Mr Baillot was struck a terrible sword blow and fell to the ground covered in blood, but the tin in his headdress saved his life. He was captured and imprisoned in England, and was released in 1816. His family had thought he died at Waterloo, it apparently took some convincing that he was, indeed, still alive.
Mr Baillot was a nice guy apparently, I’m sure he talked to children. In my youth some of those children were old people, though I didn’t know any of them. Now though, all we have is his photograph. His memories are gone, the memories of his memories are gone, but his image is for the ages. I think it’s something to think about, nu?
(The above image of Mr Baillot dates from at least the 1890s and is thus pubic domain under US copyright law. What information can be gleaned about him is on this mechanically Translated page. I could write a book about photograghs of people who saw the famous people and great events of history with their own eyes. God rest Mr Baillot’s soul, or as he might have preferred…”Vive l’Empereur.”)