Waterloo has been featuring a lot in my tweets of late, and with the bicentenary fast approaching I feel I ought to explain a thing or two as to why.
My name is Peter Smith, and I’m a Napoleonic Nut.
There, I’ve said it.
This love affair began almost twenty years ago, in 1996. I was five, and had come downstairs and caught the end of a programme my parents were watching. I can remember it distinctly now: there was a moustachioed and bloodied soldier, sat in a river, garbed in a scarlet jacket waving his sword around, singing “We’re fighting for our flag. Hurrah, my boys, hurrah.” Recognise it? Lieutenant-Colonel Girdwood, played by Mark Lambert, in the adaptation of Sharpe’s Regiment. I’ve never forgotten it.
Wind forward a couple of years. A jumble sale at my primary school. In one of the rooms was a table stacked high with boxes of 1:72 scale Italeri figures. I knew my Dad had some old WWI figures, and of course, I wanted my own, to emulate him. The box I happened to pick up was of the 2nd (Royal North British) Dragoons at Waterloo… the famed Scots Greys. At the time I thought little of it, but something about the painting reminded me of Sharpe’s Regiment, and that was that. It wasn’t long after that I watched Sergei Bondarchuk’s mind-blowingly beautiful film Waterloo with my Dad… I was hooked. I think I still have that box of soldiers somewhere, too. And a Scots Greys mug from that time I went to their regimental museum.
Always a voracious reader, by the time I went into secondary school I was reading the Sharpe novels by Bernard Cornwell. How I devoured them! And then the TV films. Over and over again. It was an obsession. Through the historical notes I started to collect memoirs of Riflemen in the 95th, Osprey books… I wanted to know more about it. Looking back, I think there was just something that captured me like no other era: the end of the swashbuckling age, the pomp and colour, the background… for me, there’s been nothing else like it.
This filtered into my studies. At university, in the Contemporary Strategy module in my second year Napoleon cropped up. A lot. In the exam there was a question on him, and I wrote the longest answer I have ever done in an exam. Didn’t do too shabbily in it, but it was at the detriment of the other two questions I had to answer. Then, in my final year, my dissertation. Ten thousand words on a topic of my choice within my subject: “What factors contributed to the effectiveness of the Spanish guerrillas during the Peninsular War of 1808-14?” Almost a year reading the accounts left behind by British and French soldiers, as well as those of the guerrilleros themselves and Spanish general officers – there are still stories that haven’t been told. My obsession with Sharpe, Boney, Nosey, the whole lot paid off – I aced that dissertation, and my final 2:1 was in no small part due to this prolonged… ah… obsession.
I’m using the word “obsession” a lot, aren’t I?
If I see a new book on the Napoleonic era, I usually end up acquiring a copy. An article, I’ll save a copy. Fiction, no contest – give me a military/adventure/spy novel set between 1789 and 1815 and I’m yours. I have entire shelves dedicated to the era, and some of my scribblings – my very slowly progressing scribblings – are inspired by my obsession.
And all cemented by a box of toy soldiers at Waterloo and the eponymous film. So if I seem to be overly excitable at the prospect of the bicentenary celebrations this coming Thursday, at least you know why. It’s been a lifelong obsession (that f***ing word again!), but I won’t apologise for it. Nor will it change.
Although in all seriousness, it is one of the most important dates in history: it’s consequences were felt for many a year. Just saying.
Postscript: who else saw the first part of Andrew Roberts’ Napoleon on the Beeb this week…?