In St John’s Wood churchyard you will find the grave of Samuel Godley. He worked as a porter in the old bazaar in Baker Street, suddenly collapsed in the street and was buried on 16th January 1832. Nothing very remarkable about that you might think, but the reason Samuel Godley died was from a blow to his bald head from a French Cuirassier at the Battle of Waterloo. Nick- named The Marquis of Granby by the regiment, after the famous bald general and Household Cavalryman who commanded the British cavalry in the wars of the Austrian Succession, and after whom many London pubs are named, Godley had been a private in the Life Guards. He joined the army in 1804, and had not exactly had a stellar career, still being a private soldier eleven years later. During the long and bloody afternoon of the 18th June 1815, exactly two hundred years ago this year, as the Life Guards made repeated charges against Napoleon’s cavalry attacking the Allied infantry on the ridge at Waterloo, he single-handedly engaged a heavily armoured Cuirassier who struck him a terrible blow on his head. Knocked off his horse, and without his helmet, Godley struggled to his feet as the Cuirassier rode in for the kill. Somehow he managed to swerve away as the French cavalryman struck, re- covered his own sword and ran the man through, cheered on by cries of ‘Well done the Marquis of Granby’ from his colleagues. It was that blow which caused him suddenly to collapse seventeen years later.

In Nunhead cemetery in Southwark you will find the grave of Edward Cos- tello, who died in 1869 aged eighty-four. He had started life as a shoemaker in Dublin, got bored, signed up for the militia, the county-based force used for maintaining order, from where he transferred to the regular army, joining the 95th Rifles. He served throughout the Peninsular War and was wounded at Quatre Bras, the initial British engagement with Napoleon two days before Waterloo. Subsequently invalided out of the army with the princely pension of 6d. per day, he found it impossible to support his French wife Augustine and their child. He applied to the Patriotic Fund, an early sort of military charity, where he was rather surprised to be told by the Secretary, the portly and comfortable Mr. Woodford, ‘Damn it Sir! Did you expect to fight with puddings or Norfolk dumplings? If men go into battle what else can they expect but wounds! I am now busy, and cannot be troubled with you’. Send- ing Augustine to live with her family in France, and giving her what little money he had, he found himself, alone and destitute, deciding he would have to resort to crime. In one of those strange turns of fate, the first man he tried to rob turned out to be an old regimental colleague who took him to see their retired and greatly respected commanding officer, Andrew Barnard. Eventu- ally Costello managed to re-enlist in the British Legion, the force that fought in Spain in the 1820s, and retired as an officer.

There are hundreds of Wellington’s soldiers buried around London, many in Kensal Green, and there are memorials to many more. Of course we also have our major national monuments to this extraordinary and decisive battle, not to mention a station and a bridge, and Wellington himself must be the most painted and sculpted British military commander ever, but it is these personal memorials of ordinary soldiers which tell a more poignant story. It is their lives and experiences that I have told in my new book Of Living Valour, published in by Simon and Schuster in March.

There is a popular misconception that Waterloo was fought by two armies brought to a pitch of military perfection by Wellington and Napoleon. That is a myth that owes more to novelists than to military historians. Welling- ton’s Peninsular Army, one of the very best this country has fielded, was dismantled in the army reductions of 1814 after Napoleon’s first defeat and exile. When Napoleon escaped from Elba and landed back in France in March 1815, the British government found itself badly unprepared; its best battalions were deployed elsewhere and many of its veteran soldiers dis- charged. They had to find an army and, as Napoleon threatened the newly united Netherlands with invasion, to do so quickly. The call for volunteers was largely answered from the militia who made up the numbers in the badly under-manned battalions. Many of the young British men who were to face Napoleon’s legions on that muddy and blood-soaked ridge in southern Belgium were not professional soldiers but rather young ploughboys

and weavers, most of whom had never even seen the sea before, let alone crossed it. Their average age was twenty-two. They were not, as is popu- larly supposed, an army of criminals and vagabonds flogged into battle by an authoritarian dyke but rather patriotic young men who volunteered be- cause they had a genuine hatred of what Napoleon might do to Europe and to Great Britain. It was an army that had more in keeping with that which deployed to Belgium a hundred years later, in 1914, or again in the Second World War, than the unwieldy, starched and pig-tailed force with which Britain had started fighting the French revolutionary wars in the 1790s.

And that is what makes their achievement so remarkable. To be fair, the French Army also had a large number of new recruits and national guards- men, their equivalent of the militia. Even a man of Napoleon’s organisa- tional genius was incapable of fielding a fully professional force from the neglected Bourbon army in the 100 days between his landing in March and Waterloo. The British Army did though have its core of experienced offic- ers and NCOs, who were able to give the new recruits at least an element of training in the weeks of waiting in the Netherlands.

The story of that week in June is well known. Napoleon realized that for his re-established regime to survive he must first defeat the British army, which was in reality a mixed British, Netherlands and German force, and the Prussian army, both deployed in the Netherlands, before the massed armies of Russia and Austria could join them, unite and invade France again as they had done in 1813. He also knew he needed to defeat Blucher’s Prussians and the British and allied army individually as, if they joined together, they would outnumber him. Preparing his army in secret in northern France, he surprised Wellington and Blucher by crossing the border at Charleroi on 15th June. On 16th he en- gaged Blucher at Ligny, and, although he inflicted serious casualties, he did not defeat the Prussians as decisively as he thought he had. Blucher was able to withdraw his force in good order. On the same day Marshal Ney, commanding Napoleon’s left wing, attacked Wellington’s men at Quatre Bras, a road junc- tion about ten miles south of Waterloo, as he tried to force the road to Brussels.

On 17th June Wellington withdrew to Waterloo, where he had made a plan to rendezvous with Blucher who was marching to join him from Wavre. Thinking he had disposed of the Prussians, Napoleon sent a force under Grouchy to pursue them and concentrated the rest of his army against the British and their allies. He launched his main attack against Wellington’s positions on a shallow ridge just south of the village of Waterloo, where the Brussels road entered the Forest of Soignes, on Sunday 18th June. From midday until 8.00 pm repeated French attacks fell on the young British soldiers, first massed infantry then a succession of cavalry charges, followed by the assault of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard, and throughout the French poured artillery fire at the allied ridge. It wasn’t until late in the evening, with Wellington’s men very nearly spent, and with a quarter dead or wounded, that Blucher finally arrived on the battlefield and the combined force drove the French back. Slowly Napoleon’s men gave way, then broke, fleeing in chaos over the border into France.

Waterloo is remarkable as a battle for the savagery of the fighting and the number of resulting casualties. Over 55,000 men would be killed or wounded between Napoleon crossing the Netherlands border on 15th June and his defeat three days later. Many of these casualties were from artillery fire, an arm in which the French were particularly strong, although a sig- nificant number were from hand to hand fighting at very close quarters with sword and musket. Once the Prussians arrived, nearly 200,000 men would fire, slash and hack at each other in an area one mile by two.

But what also makes the battle so famous is the extraordinary bravery of those young British and Irishmen (a large part of Wellington’s army was Irish) who stood resolutely in their squares on that bloody ridge, or coaxed exhausted horses forward in one last charge, or served the burning and half- destroyed guns as wave after wave of Napoleon’s troops came at them in seemingly end- less attacks. It is their story that I wanted to tell. Why did they become soldiers? What did their families think? What was their experience in the battle and what happened to them afterwards? 18th June 2015 marks the bicentenary of this most famous battle; what I have tried to do in Of Living Valour is to allow you to share in what it was like with the soldiers who fought there.

Of Living Valour, Sir Barney White-Spunner, Simon and Schuster, 2015, 496pp, £25 (hardback)

Dearest reader! Our newsletter!

Sign up to our newsletter for the latest content, freebies, news and competition updates, right to your inbox. From the oldest literary periodical in the UK.

You can unsubscribe any time by clicking the link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or directly on Find our privacy policies and terms of use at the bottom of our website.