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Title: 'Shocking Sights of Woe': Charles Bells and the Battle of Waterloo
Authors: Shaw, Philip John
First Published: 7-Jul-2005
Publisher: Ashgate Publishing Group
Citation: Shaw, P, 'Shocking Sights of Woe': Charles Bells and the Battle of Waterloo, ed. Bonehill, J;Quilley, G, 'Conflicting Visions; War and Visual Culture in Britain and France c. 1700-1830', 2005, pp. 189-206
Abstract: In the summer of 1815, a party of English tourists set out by voiture from Brussels to the field of Waterloo, scene of the recent defeat of the Imperial French army under the command of Napoleon Bonaparte. The ten-mile journey afforded numerous opportunities for picturesque reflections on the Flemish landscape; passing through Soignes, for example, the ancient forest whose trees provided a canopy from the glare of the August sun, the travellers may have recalled the literary associations with Boiardo’s Orlando and Shakespeare’s As You Like It. As many of the recently published guides to Waterloo took pains to point out, the felt contrast between the pastoral charms of the countryside and the grotesquerie of battle was an especially significant part of the Waterloo pilgrimage. Lulled into a state of repose under the shadows of the beech trees, the pilgrims could be forgiven for failing to detect the first bracing evidence of the effects of combat: fragments of paper from service books, torn letters, scraps of clothing, wheel ruts and the sickly, sweet odour of unburied flesh. In due course, however, the tourists would prepare their scented handkerchiefs, taking note, as the guidebook advised, of the affecting contrast between the verdure of Soignes and the coming scenes of despoliation. But standing as a buffer between the bucolic and the tragic is the mart, specifically the benches, tables and groundsheets on which the enterprising villagers of Waterloo displayed their wares. Alighting from the carriage, the tourists would be enticed to purchase a little piece of the battle: buttons, breastplates, sabres, caps, buckles, and other, less alluring objects: a calcified finger bone, a wooden denture, the tattered remains of a book of French chanson. To the would-be consumer of war, the field of battle speaks in broken accents, appealing for narrative completion, invoking a sense of lost totality. As the objects in the mart confirm, pathos is the currency of the battlefield experience, enabling the purchaser to exchange one set of values, the sympathetic detachment of the non-combatant, for another, the empathic identification of the virtual warrior. With that little piece of the real to hand, and with the guidebook and peasant guide to show the way (John DaCosta, Wellington’s guide on the day was the preferred choice), the visitor was now prepared to enter the field of battle. [Opening paragraph]
ISBN: 0754605752
Version: Post-print
Status: Peer-reviewed
Type: Chapter
Rights: Reprinted from ‘"Shocking Sights of Woe": Charles Bells and the Battle of Waterloo’, in Conflicting Visions War and Visual Culture in Britain and France c. 1700-1830 ed. Bonehill J; Quilley G (Farnham: Ashgate/Gower, 2005), pp. 189-206. Copyright © 2005. Deposited with reference to the publisher’s open access archiving policy, available at
Appears in Collections:Books & Book Chapters, Dept. of English

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