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Accounts of the battle

This video describes how both official accounts of the battle and memoirs written by the soldiers who fought there can help us interpret Waterloo.
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CHRIS WOOLGAR: In this section, we’re going to discuss how we know what happened at the battle of Waterloo. There are two principal classes of evidence. On the one hand, there is official material. And on the other, there is private correspondence and memoirs. In terms of official material, one would think that orders are the things that tell us what should happen on a battlefield. In practise, the system that was established for conveying orders in the British army means that the written record that we have of them normally gives up almost entirely for the period of a battle. There was a very clear system that brought officers to headquarters each morning to receive instructions.
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After the battle, commanders expected to prepare formal reports. These were the authoritative accounts of the battle. And these became public documents. Battle is a very confused and confusing experience. And Wellington recognised this. He commented to the editor of his dispatches, Colonel Gurwood, that he knew there was glory enough for all on the battlefield, but he couldn’t recollect the services of individual regiments.
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After the battle, Wellington himself had to compose a formal report that went to the Secretary of State, giving an account of his army– the army that was in his charge. It was his duty to avoid speculation. And Wellington knew that he had to have authority for everything that was contained in it. The Secretary of State, on the other hand, needed much more than factual accounts. So there was a parallel system of correspondence of private letters that commanders sent to the Secretary of State, giving him a much wider perspective of what was going on, including speculation– reports that were probably not substantiated.
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It gave Wellington an opportunity to express a wide range of desires, the difficulties that he’d encountered, things that would not have been acceptable for public consumption, and for reports that might be circulated among the allies.
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KAREN ROBSON: There are considerable amounts of correspondence and memoirs that survive. However, they do not necessarily provide a detailed experience of all those who served in the battle. When considering this material, we need to consider when it was produced, to what purpose, and on what it was based. We also need to think is it first-hand knowledge? Is a first-hand account of the battle? Or is the person just recounting something they’ve heard? With memoirs, paper warfare broke out with the conclusion of the battle. The significance of the events encouraged many, many soldiers to put their thoughts and their experience down in print. Official accounts of the battle did not provide the sorts of information that people wanted.
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When considering accounts, the date of publication is significant. We need to think about whether accounts have been influenced by other hands, such as editors, or by the publication of subsequent accounts. What can someone see at a battle? We talk about the fog of war. There was a great deal of smoke on the battlefield. What could anybody actually see? Other accounts were written by bystanders of the battle– for instance, officers of Commissariat who observed the action, but were not engaged in the fighting. Overall, we need to combine a whole range of accounts to understand what was happening and why.

Battles are a very confused and confusing experience, and historians need to carefully evaluate and combine both official accounts and personal memoirs to build up a complete picture of what happened, when and why.

If you want to find out in detail what happened during the battle, then there are many books available – see the Extended reading step at the end of this week for a reasonably priced and well reviewed example. The BBC has produced an excellent timeline: follow the link below.

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Wellington and the Battle of Waterloo

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