The Charging Officer and The Sword-Marked Skull: Remembering Waterloo

This post is by guest blogger, Sarah Sharp, a third year PhD candidate in the English Literature Department at the University of Edinburgh. She is a current member of SWINC (Scottish Writing in the Nineteenth Century) and is a research assistant on the new Edinburgh edition of the collected works of Robert Louis Stevenson. Her work is supervised by Professor Penny Fielding and funded by a Wolfson Foundation Postgraduate Scholarship. Sarah’s thesis looks at the representation of burial in early nineteenth century Scottish writing, focusing particularly on instances where burials depicted don’t follow the standard conventions of a ‘good death’. 

For more on Sarah’s work please visit her research profile at:

June 18 2015 will mark the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo. Two hundred years ago an allied force under the command of Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, alongside a Prussian army commanded by Gebhard Von Blucher defeated Napoleon’s forces near Waterloo in Belgium.


The British myth of Waterloo tends to be one of triumphant heroism. Statues of Wellington mounted upon his steed were erected in many urban centre across Great Britain to mark the victory.  Paintings of the battle painted in the decades after the conflict, such as ‘Scotland Forever!’ (1881) by Elizabeth Southerden Thompson, are themselves monuments to British militarism. In ‘Scotland Forever!’ the Scots greys are depicted charging towards enemy lines and the viewer; an imposing and unbroken line of red coats and grey horses. In literature, when we think of soldiers of the period, we perhaps think of the Jane Austen’s red-coated romantic rascals and heroes, bringing excitement to rural balls with their military uniforms and worldly knowledge. Modern depictions of soldiers of the era, like Poldark and Sharpe, feature dashing officers whose romantic appeal is often emphasised over the horrors that they have witnessed.

There is, of course, another side to the conflict which is clearly displayed in both the writings of many prominent Romantic writers and in the Napoleonic era collections of the Surgeon’s Hall Museum. The numbers of soldiers killed and wounded on the fields of Waterloo were huge even by today’s standards: biographer and historian Paul O’Keefe estimates that the allied and Prussian dead and wounded numbered around 22,000, whilst estimates of French casualties put numbers at between 22,000 and 31,000 [i]. The scene following the battle was made particularly horrific by the concentration of the dead and maimed in a relatively small area. Contemporary accounts by British soldiers describe a scene of absolute carnage and destruction. Visiting the site on June 22 1815, Major W.E. Frye recorded his horror at the sight of the battlefield;

This morning I went to visit the field of battle, which is a little beyond the village of Waterloo, on the plateau of Mont St Jean; but on arrival there the sight was too horrible to behold. I felt sick in the stomach and was obliged to return. The multitude of carcases, the heaps of wounded men with mangled limbs unable to move, and perishing from not having their wounds dressed or from hunger, as the Allies were, of course, obliged to take their surgeons and waggons with them, formed a spectacle I shall never forget. The wounded, both of the Allies and the French, remain in an equally deplorable state.

At Hougoumont, where there is an orchard, every tree is pierced with bullets. The barns are all burned down, and in the court-yard it is said they have been obliged to burn upwards of a thousand carcases, an awful holocaust to the War-Demon[ii].

Sir Walter Scott was one of the first British civilians to view the site of the battle in August 1815. He published his impressions of the scene in a series of semi-fictionalised letters, titled Paul’s Letters to his Kinfolk, and in the form of an epic poem, ‘The Field of Waterloo’. His description of the site, which was rapidly becoming a magnet for curious tourists, in Paul’s Letters, emphasises the surreal change from battlefield to tourist attraction, describing ‘the sale of…trinkets and arms’ collected from the battlefield to visitors[iii]. Scott himself came back to Scotland with many artefacts from the battle. These souvenirs are not the only reminders of the dead which Scott describes. Despite the fact that the dead had been buried or cremated by August, Scott’s letter notes a lingering ‘stench in several places of the field’ emanating from their hastily dug graves, and notes that ‘when it is considered, therefore, that so many human corpses, besides those of many thousand horses, were piled upon a field scarcely two miles long, and not above half a mile in breadth, it is wonderful that pestilential disease has not broken out, to sum up the horrors of the campaign’.[iv]


The scale of destruction described in eye-witness accounts and implied in Scott’s letters is supported by the specimens from Waterloo which are held at Surgeon’s Hall Museum. Artefacts like the upper skull of a French cuirassier, criss-crossed with deep sabre cuts, and the femur of a soldier, with a bullet still embedded deep in the bone, give a sense of the brutality of early-nineteenth century warfare. Some of the descriptions which accompany these specimens give details of deaths or amputations, suggesting they were taken by field surgeons after the battle. The provenance of others is less clear, leaving us to ponder who these men were. The very anonymity of these objects gives them a really human quality, reminding us that each disembodied piece of bone belonged to a person whose life ended or was radically altered by the events of 18th June 1815.  Whilst our cultural impressions of Napoleonic Wars may increasingly be characterised by swashbuckling adventures and dashing officers, the marks left by these conflicts in the collections of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh are sabre-marked skulls and lead bullets embedded in human bone.

Portion of right femur from a solider wounded by a musket ball during the Battle of Waterloo, 18th June 1815.

In section IV of William Wordsworth’s poem ‘The Prelude’ (1805) the narrator comes upon a frail soldier walking home after being discharged from the army. The soldier is a veteran of slave uprisings in the West Indies rather than the war in Europe[v], however the poem’s focus on the suffering of a discharged soldier is a poignant reminder of the physical and mental scars which surviving veterans brought home from the battlefields of Britain’s romantic-era wars. The man is described by Wordsworth’s narrator as an ‘uncouth shape’, his body is wasted and ‘meagre’ and ‘From his lips, ere long,/Issued low muttered sounds, as if of pain/Or some uneasy thought’[vi]. The narrator is able to procure the exhausted and ailing soldier shelter for the night in a nearby cottage, however the soldier’s future beyond this point remains uncertain at the close of the poem. Without access to medical care, discharged service men were often destined to spend the rest of their lives struggling with the wounds they had received during their time at war.

At the time of the bicentenary of the battle, it is important to reflect on not just the victory at Waterloo but the suffering and loss of life which accompanied it. Depictions of Waterloo maintained a power to inspire patriotism long after June 1815, with ‘Scotland Forever’ used as recruitment image during the First World War[vii]. If such images attest to the heroism possible on the battlefield, then accounts like those of Frye and Wordsworth, and objects like those housed at Surgeon’s Hall, bear witness to the suffering brought about by these wars, and are necessary to our understanding of conflict. When we think of Waterloo it is important that both these perspectives remain in our field of vision, that we see both the charging officer and the sword-marked skull.



[i] Paul O’Keefe. Scott on Waterloo. London: Vintage. 2015. 325.

[ii] Major W.E Frye. After Waterloo: Reminiscences of European Travel 1815-1819. Ed. Salomon Reinach. 1908.

[iii] Walter Scott. ‘Paul’s Letters to his Kinfolk’. Scott on Waterloo. Ed. Paul O’Keefe. London: Vintage. 2015. 145.

[iv] Walter Scott. ‘Paul’s Letters to his Kinfolk’. Scott on Waterloo. Ed. Paul O’Keefe. London: Vintage. 2015. 144.

[v] ‘Wordsworth’s Characters’. Matthew C. Brennan. The Oxford Handbook of William Wordsworth. Ed. Richard Gravil and Daniel Robinson. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2015.  263.

[vi] William Wordsworth. Wordsworth’s Poetical Works, Volume 3: The Prelude. Ed. William Knight. 1896.



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