Today I’m talking about the ordinary soldiers, the kids who signed up for the king’s shilling out of patriotism, were fooled by unscrupulous recruiters, or because they had so few options. And they were kids–for the most part under twenty. Here’s a typical story of how a Waterloo veteran came to join the army a few years after his father was deported to Australia for sheep-stealing, when he found himself the head of the family at age fifteen.
One in four soldiers died that June day in 1815. Waterloo was an unusual battle because it was the bloodiest so far in British history; it was also unusual in that all survivors, of whatever rank, were awarded a medal.
There were no war memorials with the names of the fallen, however humble, erected in villages or town squares, although this memorial, composed of the battlefield dirt itself, was raised at the site in Belgium. Locals claim it’s haunted and full of bones, and they may be right. Ordinary soldiers didn’t count; as far as war reports went, they were anonymous, only numbers. Their corpses were raided by war profiteers for teeth–for years after, false teeth were known as “Wellington teeth.”
It’s heartbreaking to think of the families waiting and as time passed, realizing that their son, brother, or father had been killed. They might not even be lucky enough to receive a letter, such as this one from Private Charles Stanley to a friend in Nottinghamshire, describing the everyday life of a soldier. Almost certainly, they’d never know the circumstances of their loved one’s death.
We have one gud thing Cheap that is Tobaco and Everrything a-Cordnley Tobaco is 4d Per 1b Gin is 1s 8d Per Galland that is 2 1/2 Per Quart and Everrything In Perposion hour alounse Per Day is One Pound of Beef a Pound and half of Bred half a Pint o Gin But the worst of all we dont get it Regeler and If we dont get it the Day it is due we Luse it wish It is ofton the Case…I hope you never will think Of Being a Soldier I Asure you it is a Verry Ruf Consarn…
You can read more of his letter at militaryheritage.com. Private Stanley was one of the many who didn’t come home.
Here’s an excerpt from the brilliant movie History Boys, where a poem about a young soldier who dies far from home, Drummer Hodge by Thomas Hardy, is discussed.
And here’s the poem:
They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest
Uncoffined–just as found:
His landmark is a kopje-crest
That breaks the veldt around;
And foreign constellations west
Each night above his mound.
Young Hodge the Drummer never knew–
Fresh from his Wessex home–
The meaning of the broad Karoo,
The Bush, the dusty loam,
And why uprose to nightly view
Strange stars amid the gloam.
Yet portion of that unknown plain
Will Hodge forever be;
His homely Northern breast and brain
Grow to some Southern tree,
And strange-eyed constellation reign
His stars eternally.