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Victor Hugo’s Account of The Battle of Waterloo

by Andrew Uffindell ed. for Web

These are stories that seem to belong to another age, legends of centaurs, titans, with human heads and the bodies of horses galloping to the assault of Olympus, horrible, sublime, invulnerable beings, both gods and beasts ….
What followed was appalling. ‘Ibis ravine, some twelve feet deep between its two sheer banks, appeared suddenly at the feet of the leading horses, which reared and attempted to pull. But those coming behind thrust them forward, so that horse and rider fell and slid helplessly down, to be followed by others…. That hideous ravine could only be crossed when it was filled. Men and horses rolled into it, crushing each other into a solid mass of flesh and bone, …. it was the beginning of the defeat.

Enthusiasts of the Battle of Waterloo are familiar with these epic lines from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, describing the French cavalry charge obliterated in the so-called sunken lane. The true enthusiast, aware of the lack of corroborating evidence to support the sunken lane story, will gently but firmly place Hugo’s account aside, unread. Was Victor Hugo, however, but another French historian conjuring up reasons for the national defeat, or does he deserve more notice and respect? As the literary scholar Arthur Wilson-Green has written,

“in French history, there is one name universally known, one outstanding personality about whom no one is altogether ignorant, the name and personality of Napoleon. Similarly, in French literature, there is one predominant figure, one writer unequalled in the richness and diversity of his achievement, Victor Hugo.”

Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo 1884 from WikiCommons

After Napoleon III, Victor Hugo was the greatest Frenchman of the late nineteenth century. He was not merely a writer of genius. He vigorously campaigned on behalf of the oppressed. Expressing a heart-felt horror of capital punishment, Victor Hugo strove, in vain, to save John Brown, the American guerrilla abolitionist. Although a politician, Victor Hugo stuck staunchly to his principles and his Republican beliefs. This resulted in exile in both Belgium and the Channel Islands following Napoleon III’s imperial coup of 1851. Until the defeat of Napoleon III in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, Hugo poured a barrage of literary scorn on him, comparing him unfavourably to his famous uncle as Napoleon the little.

The advent of the Third Republic in 1870 enabled Hugo to return to France, which welcomed him as one of her great sons. He died in 1885. “We are not celebrating a funeral”, commented a eulogiser, “but a coronation”. Indeed Hugo’s well-merited apotheosis was at hand. Bands played La Marseillaise and the Chant du Depart. Guns fired salutes. As Hugo began his last, long procession down the Champs Elysée from the Arc de Triomphe to the Pantheon, crowds lined the road, filled windows, roof tops, and balconies.
Amidst all this grandeur, amidst twelve wagon loads of flowers, Hugo lay in a pauper’s hearse, as a final identification with the workers. For Hugo had always delighted in ironic contrasts. His last wishes he had set down on paper: “I give 50,000 francs to the poor. I wish to be carried to the cemetery in their hearse. I refuse the prayers of all churches; I ask for a prayer from all souls. I believe in God”.

In the eighty-three years of his life, Hugo had written a prodigious amount of both prose and poetry. Some works were good, others not so good. A few have become immortal. Les Miserables is today a hit musical while The Hunchback of Noire Dame remains one of the world’s best-loved classics. Hugo’s poetry is dated but remains noteworthy, particularly the stanzas on Waterloo in Les Chatiments.

Victor Hugo was a moody, tempestuous genius and this comes across in his writings. The critic Nichol describes this characteristic:

The total impression with which one rises from reading him may be rendered in figurative language It is as if one had stood in some wind-driven, mountainous region of the South, with voices and colour and perfume floating down, through palaces and along dark ravines, amid the laden richness of a Castilian night. But from time to time forked lightning flashes, and there sounds a peal of thunder.

Hugo delights in providing a grand, vivid and energetic narrative. The words thunder on the page. Stendhal, provides a psychological examination of a single character with the battle as a faint background. ‘ Hugo is more vigourous. He excels in descriptions of souls buffeted by the storms of great events of destiny. The battle is no mere background in Hugo’s account. It swirls around and clashes against the mortals of Hugo’s narrative.

And the primary mortal in his Waterloo account is Napoleon. On the morning of Waterloo, Napoleon is the “titanic coachman of Destiny”, jesting and laughing. But Napoleon is also the victim of Destiny and Hugo stresses the tragic irony and hubris of the great conqueror who by . nightfall is reduced to “the giant somnambulist of a shattered dream.” For Victor Hugo, the rise and fall of Napoleon was merely indicative of life in general, though on a grander scale.

Les Miserables

Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, published in 1862, is an uncompromising indictment of the nineteenth century French social order. “Dante tried to make a hell with poetry”. wrote Hugo. “I have tried to make one with reality”. The heroes and heroines include such underworld figures as an escaped prisoner, a street urchin and an orphan–the underdogs, the proud rebels against society.

But one of Hugo’s main defects (and at the same time a major strength) was extravagance. If some event or story could be linked, even remotely, with his themes of poverty or destiny, then he included it in Les Miserables. Thus, in a book about French poverty, we find nineteen chapters concerning the Battle of Waterloo, of which only one includes a couple of the main characters of the novel who serve to link Waterloo with the rest of the story. This linking passage is almost an afterthought.

To find a Waterloo episode in Les Miserables is surprising since Hugo refused to visit the battlefield when in Belgium in 1837. ”Waterloo is more odious to me than is Crecy”, he declared. “It is not only the victory of Europe over France, it is the complete, absolute, shattering, incontestable, final, supreme triumph of mediocrity over genius”.

Yet Victor Hugo’s father had been a Napoleonic general; Hugo in his youth had been entranced by the Emperor’s proclamations and bulletins. Victor Hugo shared France’s nostalgia for the glorious days of Napoleonic martial grandeur. ”What!” he bemoaned, “always a lyre and never a sword!” By writing on Waterloo, Hugo was echoing Dr Johnson’s sage remark that every man thinks meanly of himself for not being a soldier or a sailor at sea.

Following a visit to Waterloo in 1852 while in exile in Belgium, Hugo returned in 1861 for an intensive exploration of the battlefield. “I have spent two months at Waterloo”, he wrote. “There, I made the autopsy of the catastrophe. For two months, I have been on this corpse”. To Charras, a fellow exile in Belgium and the best French historian of 1815 after Houssaye, Hugo wrote that the “sombre battle” of Waterloo, far from being more odious than Crecy, was “one of my permanent emotions”.

Throughout those two months of 1861–7th to 8th May and 15th May to 13th July-Victor Hugo stayed at the Hotel des Colonnes at Mont Saint-Jean, within sight of the “mournful plain”. It was at the hotel that Hugo triumphantly noted “I have finished Les Miserables on the battlefield of Waterloo, today the 30th June 1861, at 8.30 a.m., day of the kermesse (Flemish word for the annual village harvest festival) of Mont Saint-Jean”.

The General Scheme of the Waterloo Account

Briefly summarised, Hugo’s account of Waterloo follows this scheme: the author describes a traveller (himself) arriving on the battlefield of Waterloo some forty-six years after the combat. Wandering down to Hougoumont farm, this traveller describes the ruins, connecting these with the past events of the battle he has obviously read about. The story makes a striking contrast between the reposeful nature of the present and the destructive death of the past whose ghosts lie amidst the crumbling masonry and a charred crucifix. Hugo contrasts, too, this gentle, leisurely introduction to the Waterloo episode with the ferocity of the battle.

Having thus introduced Waterloo (no mean feat in view of the scale of the digression), Hugo continues with a layman’s account (he denied he was an historian) of the 18th June 1815. He weighs the forces on both sides, and considers factors such as Napoleon’s health and, notably, destiny. He describes the positions of the rival armies, revives the appearance of Napoleon and then gives a brief, muddled narration of the first part of the battle.

It is now that Hugo launches into his well-known and even more well-criticised legend of the sunken lane. He explains the failure of the French cavalry charges in particular, and the defeat of Napoleon in general, by this death trap designed and hidden, until the last moment, by destiny. For Victor Hugo, after this disaster there can only be one end that he duly describes: the arrival of the Prussians, the crumbling of the French army and, with another legend, the last stand of Cambronne and the Imperial Guard. Hugo concludes with one of his lengthy and tedious philosophical discussions about Destiny, chance, French politics and a comparison of Napoleon and Wellington. The final chapter returns us at night to the corpse-filled sunken lane where two of the novel’s main characters meet-a crucial episode in the plot of the novel as a whole.

Victor Hugo’s Account

That is an outline of the account. Now we shall turn to a discussion of some of its specifics, an assessment of their verity and, more important, an analysis of whether Hugo believed the story. There is a huge difference between a liar and fraud on one hand, and a sincere but self-deluded writer on the other. The first important point to remember is that Victor Hugo was writing not history but an historical novel. Hugo himself declares;

We need hardly say here that we do not pretend to write a history of Waterloo…. For our part, we leave the historians to contend; we are only a distant witness, a passer-by across the plain and perhaps taking appearance for reality. We possess neither the military nor the strategic competence to assess the mass of facts professionally

Despite this honest admission to being an amateur, it is not accurate to say that Hugo had no historical evidence upon which to base his account. He had read the written accounts, both primary and secondary, he had used artefact evidence, he had listened to the stories of the battle told by local peasants. And then he incorporated it all into his own unique account, fashioned and aligned with his own beliefs, political views and thoughts of Destiny.

There is substantial evidence that Hugo read the literary historical sources then available to him. First are the references to the accepted facts contained in history books: the fire at Wavre delaying Blucher’s march and the Prussian prisoner brought to Napoleon early in the afternoon of the 18th. Second, Hugo mentions eminent authors. For example, when he describes the desolate scene at the centre of Wellington’s line towards six-thirty in the evening, he writes that, “these facts are reported by Siborne and Pringle, somewhat exaggerating, claims that the Anglo- Dutch strength was reduced to 34,000 men.”

At another point, he mentions the German primary account of Muffling and the French historians Jomini and Charras. Hugo corresponded with Charras and the commentator Descotes asserts that Hugo also consulted Napoleon’s memoirs, Lamartine, Waiter Scott, Quinet and Thiers.
Denny writes that Hugo “had studied maps and army-lists and such professional records as were available to him”. Although many condemn Hugo for a lack of historical basis for his account, he did in fact read widely about the battle. “I have studied Waterloo profoundly”, he wrote. “I am the only historian who has passed two months on the field of battle”.

Hugo also considered artefact evidence. He meditated at Papelotte and at Hougoumont. He carefully studied the landscape where he found other pieces of artefact evidence:

Almost at the spot where [Napoleon’s] horse stood, cannonballs, old sabre blades, and shapeless, rust-eaten projectiles have been picked up. A few years ago, a live shell was dug up, the fuse of which had broken off …. The writer of these lines himself found, while digging in the dusty earth of that hillock, the remains of a shell rotted by the oxyde of forty-six years, and pieces of iron which broke like sticks of barley-sugar between his fingers.

The Victor Hugo Column (being restored Feb.2015) on the Waterloo site, Belgium by Olnnu

Today, a memorial column reminds us of Hugo’s meditations. It is between La Belle Alliance and the wounded eagle monument and its inscription contains several lines from his poem Les Chatiments: Waterloo, Waterloo Waterloo, rnorne plaine [mournful plain]!

Hugo also took into account the tales of the locals. At the end of his description of Hougoumont farm as it was in 1861, he writes: “all this so that a yokel today may say to the traveller [Hugo himself], for three francs, Monsieur, I shall tell you the story of Waterloo”.

When on a visit to Waterloo in 1852, Hugo spoke with Solon Gilia, a caulker from Antwerp whose father had fought in the battle of 1815. Gilia related to Hugo incidents his father had spoken of, such as the Emperor visiting the troops on the eve of the battle and sampling the potatoes.

Many question whether Hugo really believed these “yokels'” stories that he recounted. Surely he would have recognised that locals would exaggerate–especially knowing that an exciting tale would call forth a listener’s attention and, more readily, francs. Yet Victor Hugo believed them. They suited his theme of Destiny. They were suitable; they pleased him; they eventually deluded him; and he overlooked considerations of historical accuracy and the need to corroborate with supporting evidence.

There is no doubt that Victor Hugo’s stubborn force of character overawed and silenced the local peasants and guides. His own grandson-in-law, Daudet, affirms as much in a humorous passage. He relates that on his 1852 visit to Waterloo, Hugo and his mistress Juliette discovered an old guide named Pere Hector.

“It’s clouding over; let’s go to Hougoumont now”, advised Hugo. ‘You must help us to reconstruct the battle, Pere Hector. The positions of the troops are so hard to remember”. A little later a storm broke out. Thunder crashed from the sky. “It’s Wellington”, exclaimed Hugo, electrified by the storm and lost in his reverie. “I recognise the sound of his artillery. But why is there no response from our side?” A deafening concussion immediately answered Hugo’s question. Juliette, eager to enter into the spirit of the occasion and to humour Hugo, added, “Is that the Guard?”

“Pere Hector shrugged his shoulders”, Daudet writes. “The Guard was not on that side, but it seemed that this gentleman and his lady who had come from Paris were determined to have things their own way”. Thus Hugo was led into inaccuracies by both local peasants and his own impestuous, overbearing disposition.

The Sunken Lane

The most obvious example of Victor Hugo being beguiled by the tales of locals is the sunken lane legend. From what Hugo himself writes, it is clear that local peasants were the foundation of the myth:

According to local tradition, which clearly exaggerates, two thousand horses and fifteen hundred men perished in the sunken lane of Ohain. The figure probably includes bodies which were thrown into it later, on the day after the battle.

The whole legend may well have arisen from the lane being used as a corpse-clearing station after the battle. Perhaps also a shallow sunken lane elsewhere on the battlefield was exaggerated out of proportion by local peasants. The eyewitness recollections of a Prussian gunner, Captain Reuter, have been edited by Captain E. May who writes that Captain Reuter,

was advancing, he goes on to tell us, when he suddenly found his path blocked by a hollow way filled with dead men and horses, such a one apparently as the exuberant imagination of Victor Hugo depicted in his account on the battle. His charger whisked round in a moment, and
snorting with terror, stuck its toes into the ground and refused to move. Plunging his spurs into its flanks, however, he drove him across it, and maddened with excitement the battery galloped close behind.

‘ed. E. May, A Prussian Gunner’s Adventures in 1815, The United Service Magazine, October 1891

Such small origins appear, then, to have been the only foundations of the myth of the sunken lane. Remember, however, that Victor Hugo was not the only one to blow it out of scale. Perhaps the greater responsibility lies with the local peasants. Nor was the legend an utter fabrication by Hugo, designed to save the honour and glory of the French army. In this respect, Hugo contrasts favourably with the self-styled French historian, Thiers, whose account of the French cavalry charges is a sequence of fabrications. Far from being defeated, according to Thiers, the French cavalry actually made a series of attacks, each of which broke several of Wellington’s squares. Unfortunately for Thiers, if the reader adds up the figures, the French cavalry broke more squares than the British had.

French Charge a Nassau Square

In this perspective, it is unfair to call Hugo a liar. He was merely a self-deluded philosopher. For Hugo, Napoleon lost Waterloo, not because of Wellington, but because of Destiny. Hugo makes this clear:

To the question, was it possible for Napoleon to win this battle, our answer is, No. Because of Wellington? Because of Blucher?


Because of God … .It was time for that great man to fall ….
Napoleon had been impeached in heaven and his fall decreed; he was troublesome to God.

Hugo seized on the idea of the sunken lane for two reasons: First, it appealed to his sense of the awful grandeur of war, thousands of breastplated cuirassiers on shrieking wild-eyed mounts plunging to their doom into the very mouth of Hell. Second, the sunken lane could be conveniently woven into Hugo’s theme of Destiny. This deus ex machina creating a trap to destroy Napoleon’s cavalry and begin his defeat.

The Other Legends

We can thus see how the myth of the sunken lane arose and why it featured so prominently in Hugo’s scheme. Similarly, I suggest that all the other legends in Hugo’s account have a similar basis in testimony-albeit dubious testimony. The example of the dead bodies being flung down Hougoumont well is another splendid one. Hugo writes:

Three hundred dead were flung into it, perhaps too hurriedly. Were they all dead? Legend says not, and that on the night following the burial, voices were heard calling for help.

However, the Waterloo Committee and the Friends have dispelled this myth through excavations that included digging out the well down to its neolithic roots. The digging found no human remains and the only skeleton was that of a plough horse, possibly from the post-Waterloo period. Yet the idea of ghosts at Hougoumont lying beneath a veneer of gentle nature was too haunting for Hugo to ignore.

Hugo relied upon questionable evidence to support several other of his main themes. In one intriguing passage, he says:

If the shepherd boy who served as guide to Bulow …. had advised him to come by the route above Frischermont instead of by that below Plancenoit, the course of the nineteenth century would have been different. Napoleon would have won Waterloo. Any other road, except the one below Plancenoit, would have brought the Prussian army to a ravine impassible by artillery and Bulow would not have arrived in time…. Such are the immeasurable hazards of a Fatality
beyond our grasp.

This passage also fitted Hugo’s theme of Waterloo being a “near run thing” in which the difference between victory and defeat was settled by Destiny and by a “chain of chance occurrences”. Yet the story of the guide simply does not agree with the facts. While Biilow’s corps did come by the Plancenoit road, Zietheri’s I Corps passed along the route above Frischermont. The passage was indeed difficult, but by no means did artillery fail to get through.

I have come across the same story only once before, in a letter written July 16th, 1815 by a German officer. He toured the devastated countryside of the battlefield and met an intelligent farmer at Plancenoit village:

He told me that the peasant who guided Bulow’s army, resolved not to come out of the wood at Fritschermont [SIC] but to descend into the valley lower down, and to penetrate by Planchenoit [SIC], nearly in the rear of the French reserves…. We shudder when we reflect, that at this important moment, all depended on the local knowledge of a single peasant. Had he guided wrong, had he led them into the hollow way through which the cannon could not pass, had Bulow’s army come up an hour later, the scale [would have) … probably descended on the other side.

I suggest then, that the source of Hugo’s story of the guide to the Prussian army came either from this letter or from the oral version handed down from peasant to peasant and related to Hugo when he visited the battlefield. Again, it is unfair to accuse Hugo of fabrication. Once again, he merely took local stories and second-hand accounts on trust when it suited his themes.

The Mistakes in Historical Details

Victor Hugo has been much criticised because of these myths-mostly, as I have argued above, unfairly. Yet he did make other mistakes as well, including errors also made by other historians. For example, he places the fall of La Haie Sainte at four o’clock, before the French cavalry charges. In another part of his narrative, he asserts that the French cavalry took six regimental standards, and three cuirassiers and three Guard cavalrymen presented three of them to Napoleon. Again, though, Hugo is not alone. A magnificent painting of the scene shows Napoleon in the centre, illuminated by a shaft of light, and six horsemen on the perimeter, in half darkness, saluting him. British historians, however, dispute this. The French never took six British or KGL standards at Waterloo. Perhaps the 69th’s colour from Quatre-Bras and some allied standards account for the French claim to six standards.

Another mistake is Hugo’s assertion that six soldiers of the French 1st Light Infantry regiment managed to penetrate into Hougoumont’s garden, taking fifteen minutes to die, sheltering behind gooseberry bushes under the fire of two hundred Hanoverian light troops. In fact, the Hanoverians were stationed in the wood and never entered the garden, and no French soldier could have survived British volleys and scaling the high, loopholed wall and managed to penetrate into the farm. Even less possible would be surviving fifteen minutes in the garden swarming with British.

These mistakes are mistakes that could have been copied from other authors. Less excusable, however, are the mistakes that Hugo made in his eyewitness description of Hougoumont farm as he saw it in 1861. First, Hugo calls the farm’s garden an orchard and while talking about an orchard, he writes: “the wall, with its thirty-eight loopholes. pierced at uneven heights by the English, looks ready to renew the battle. Yet, it is the garden that is surrounded by a wall.

The problem is that what was the garden in 1815 is today an orchard and what was the orchard in 1815 is today farmland. In 1815, Hougoumont farm had a huge formal garden roughly 100 by 200 metres and enclosed on the south and east sides by the seven-foot high walls, on the north side by a hedge, and the west side by the buildings of the farm itself and the remainder of the farm. The orchard stood, unenclosed to the east of the farm and no longer exists. In the years since 1815, the once- beautiful formal garden, which once had beautiful walks and rose bushes, has returned to nature and is primarily a grazing area for the cattle of Monsieur Temmerman, the tenant fanner. French historians, including Lachouque, commonly make the same mistake in confusing the orchard with the garden. Even Madame Temmermann, the wife of the tenant farmer, referred to the garden as the orchard, le verger, when I spoke with her recently. Thus, when Hugo refers to the orchard, he is speaking of the garden and when he talks of a garden, he is referring to the small kitchen garden in front of the gardener’s house. This is also a good illustration of the danger of ignoring the other side’s historical sources. British accounts, primary and secondary, would soon show French historians the 1815 layout of the farm.

Hougoumont then and now, by Andrew Uffindell

He was also wrong about the construction of the well at Hougoumont. He stated: “the well stands by itself in the middle of the yard, enclosed on three sides by walls of stone and brick resembling a square turret; .. .leaning over, one peers into a deep brick cylinder lost in darkness [emphasis added]”. Hugo also mistakenly states that the south and east sides of the garden wall were of brick and stone respectively. Yet: as any visitor to Hougoumont can see today, both are exactly the same: a stone foundation with brick layers above.

These are minor mistakes and we should perhaps excuse Hugo for them. Indeed, one of the most famous painters of Waterloo, Denis Dighton, made even worse errors in his famous watercolour of the fighting on the south side of Hougoumont. Dighton’s strength was his accurate depiction of uniforms and weapons and he did this to perfection. However, for Hougoumont he relied on the buildings as merely a background to the excitement and colour of the battle for the farm. He was much less careful in painting the surroundings. The point, though, is that if Hugo indeed made mistakes in his depiction of Hougoumont, others have made far worse.

The Value of Hugo’s Account to the Historian


I believe that Hugo’s description of Hougoumont farm is one of two parts of his account that are of vital importance to the historian studying Waterloo. A few years ago, I started building a model of Hougoumont’s south gate under attack which caused me to attempt to draw Hougoumont as it would have appeared in 1815. In building both the model and the drawing, I found Hugo’s description invaluable. Hougoumont today is a working farm and has changed drastically since 1861 when Hugo wrote his detailed description. His depiction of the farm is invaluable.

Cambronne and “Merde!”

A second section of Hugo’s narrative is also essential reading: Cambronne’s reputed reply when the British asked the Imperial Guard to surrender. Hugo relates:

A kind of sacred awe assaulted the victors and the English guns held their fire. There was a short respite. Those last combatants saw as though it were a multitude of spectres the dark profiles of their enemy closing in on them … and over all the huge death’s-head that heroes always glimpse in the smoke of battle. They could hear the sound of the guns being reloaded and see the lighted slow matches gleaming like the eyes of tigers in the dusk. An English general called out to them, “Brave Frenchmen, will you not surrender?” Cambronne answered, “Merde”.

For an excellent article on the Cambronne question, the reader may wish to see J. Dominguez, “The Apostrophe of Cambronne” (Le Moniteur 3, pp. 45-47). Se also H. Houssaye 1815 Waterloo, pp. 405-6. My own view on the matter is that perhaps both the word and the phrase were used, but not necessarily both by Cambronne. Keep in mind also the noise and confusion of battle.
General Cambronne by Dennis-Jarvis.

There are three schools of thought about Cambronne’s reply. The first is that he uttered the fine, resounding phrase “La Garde meurt et ne se rend pas” (The Guard dies but does not surrender). The second is that Cambronne, although he later denied using it, did indeed use the scatological indelicacy since it suited his character. The third school of thought is put succinctly by Jac Weller: the Guard neither died nor surrendered, but took to its heels.

It would be foolish to accept all of Victor Hugo’s version of a last stand. Weller is right in that many Guard units did not stand to the last, but rather dissolved after some resistance to their enemy. Other units, notably the 2/3rd Grenadiers, stood longer and suffered severely, however. Turning to the controversy over le mot de Cambronne, Hugo’s is essential reading because he is a major proponent of the Merde school of thought In this respect, most historians agree with Hugo.

The Style of Victor Hugo’s Account

It is also important, to appreciate Hugo fully, to study not merely what he said but why and how he said it. Style is an essential component on any piece of historical writing. Critics have said that the Roman writer Livy was not a scientific historian but an artist. His intent was not to analyse data objectively, but to make history understandable and enjoyable to the ordinary reader. Victor Hugo is similar. He wrote a layman’s account in the grand style of the artist. Wilson-Green insists, “You will marvel at the power and grace of all this prose … , at the courage … of the writer, at his mastery over the language, and at the wide sweep of his imagination.” Hugo saw, he felt and he thought and as Denny considers, Hugo “was above all things and at all times, a poet”.

One of the most notable features of Victor Hugo’s style is his formidable vision of contrasts. Anticipating one of the dominant themes of the literature of the Great War, everywhere in Hugo’s account are contrasts and paradoxes. Hugo is particularly skillful is using contrasts of Light. Towards the end of the evening of the battle, he says, “the sky had been overcast all day, but at eight o’clock it cleared to allow the sinister red light of the setting sun to flood through the elms on the Nivelles road-the same sun that had risen at Austerlitz”. Austerlitz, the great Napoleonic victory, had seen French troops marching forward as a glowing red orb rose one misty December morning. The same sun now set on the end of the French First Empire, on a battlefield red with blood. Later, when the fighting had died away, the looters were at work arid Hugo provides another striking contrast: “the moon shed a sinister light over the plain”.

For Hugo, light and dark were supreme opposites with no shades in between. Struggle between the two was never-ending, a struggle between good and evil, life and death. This struggle met in Napoleon, “a creature of light and dark. .. the darkness of the despot counteracts the majesty of the leader”.

The contrasts in Hugo’s account are not just contrasts of light. In deed, the supreme contrast at Waterloo is between Napoleon and Wellington. At Hougoumont farm, Hugo compares the fierce fighting of the past with the calm nature of the present. It is a haunting contrast, one that struck Captain Mercer when he visited Hougoumont garden the day after the battle:

“the garden was an ordinary one, but pretty-long straight walks of turf overshadowed by fruit-trees, and between these beds of vegetables, the whole enclosed by a tolerably high brick wall…. The leaves were green, roses and other flowers bloomed forth in all their sweetness, and the very turf when crushed by my feet smelt sweet and fresh”.

c. Mercer, journal of the Waterloo Campaign, pp. L90-1.

Equally memorable as the contrasts are the vignettes that Hugo provides and these are remarkably accurate and realistic:

Ney, splendid and wild in his acceptance of death, exposed himself to every hazard. He had a fifth horse killed under him. Foaming at the mouth, eyes burning and dripping with sweat, his tunic unbuttoned, one epaulette half shorn away by a sabre stroke and his eagle-badge dented by a bullet, bleeding and magnificent with a broken sword in his hand, he shouted, “come and see how a Marshal of France dies on the field of battle!”.

This is the magnificent picture every historian has of Marshal Ney, the redhead, the “bravest of the brave”. It is a picture recognizable anywhere, in the pages of Mercer, for example:

it was indeed a grand and imposing spectacle! The column was led on this time by an officer in rich uniform, his breast covered with decorations, whose earnest gesticulations were strangely
contrasted with the solemn demeanour of those to whom they were addressed.

Then there is the other splendid vignette of the glittering French cuirassiers in polished breastplates charging up the ridge slope towards Wellington’s infantry squares. How effective is the progressive appearance of the cavalrymen over the brow of the hill, as if the reader were in a British soldier’s shoes:

They could not see their attackers … they merely heard the rising tide of men, the swelling thunder of hooves, the clang of the breastplates, the growl of a savage breath. There was a long and dreadful silence, and suddenly there appeared on the crest of the ridge a long line of uplifted arms brandishing sabres, helmets, bugles, grey-moustachioed faces. Shouting “Vive l’Empereur!” the cavalry, like the commencement of an earthquake, swept on to the plateau.

This is indeed thundering prose, building up to a dramatised climax. Dramatisation is a hallmark of Victor Hugo’s work, emphasising irony and key phrases. Elsewhere, Hugo uses similes and metaphors to convey his meaning, likening the French army dissolving into rout to “the thawing of a glacier”. The metaphysical alliance between water and defeat is a prominent one in Hugo’s account. “A few drops of water, more or less, were what decided Napoleon’s fate”, Hugo writes. The “immobile waves” of the battlefield landscape reflect the waves of the French attacks surging forward to break like surf on Wellington’s rock-hard line. The battle ebbs and flows. At the end, the torrent of fugitives swirls and eddies around the solid rocks of the last squares of the Imperial Guard. It was watery Waterloo that bogged Napoleon down and ended his reign.
Aphorisms are the keystone of Victor Hugo’s account. He talks of the task of the historian, arguing that “the historian has a right to summarize. He can do no more than grasp the broad outline. No narrator … can fix the exact shape of that ugly cloud that is called a battle”. Armchair historians would do well to take heed of Hugo’s advice:

and there comes a stage in every battle when it degenerates into hand-to-hand combat, dissolves into fragments, innumerable separate episodes … the light shifts, the dark patches advance and retreat, a graveyard wind blows, driving and scattering the tragic multitude of men. All is
movement and oscillation.

Finally, the atmosphere of the account is given an inner tension by Victor Hugo’s belief in the inevitable course of Destiny on the one hand and on the other his national pride in France and hope of a dawn of a golden age. There is a tension too, between his hatred of Napoleon as a tyrant (Hugo was a staunch republican) and his admiration of the emperor as a great general. These tensions raise questions in the reader’s mind about Waterloo and its consequences. “To us”, he writes, ”Waterloo is the date of the confounding of liberty”. How much did the defeat of Napoleon delay the creation of European democracy. and European unity? How much was Waterloo hence a lost chance to avoid two world wars? “The Napoleonic empire dissolved in a darkness resembling the last days of Rome, and chaos loomed as in the days of the barbarians”. These are questions no victor can afford to ignore.


Thus, Victor Hugo’s account has been misunderstood. Even if some parts of his account are myths, it is still unjustifiable to call him a liar and a fraud. His views are controversial, but this is no bad thing. Professor Philander Geyl reminds us that history is an “argument without end”. What a discussion this one sentence of Les Miserables could stir up: ”Waterloo was a battle of the first importance won by a commander of the second rank”. Hugo’s primary importance, however, is in calling back the past. I have read few passages on Waterloo as evocative as this:

The field of Waterloo resembles any other plain; it has the calmness of which is the impassive nourisher of man. But at night a sort of visionary mist rises from it, and the traveller who chooses to look and listen enters the hallucination of catastrophe. That monumental hillock with its nondescript lion vanishes, and the fearful event comes back to life. The battlefield resumes its its identity, the lines of infantry undulate across the plain, furiously galloping horses cross the horizon. The startled dreamer catches the gleam of sabres, the sparkle of bayonets, the flame
and thunder of cannon-fire. Like a groan emerging from the depths of a tomb the listener may hear the clamour of a ghostly conflict and see the shadowy forms of grenadiers and cuirassiers and the images of men departed–here Napoleon, there Wellington. All this is non-existent yet
still locked in combat, while the ditches run with blood, the trees rustle, the sound of fury rises to the sky and over those stern heights, the spectral hosts whirl in mutual extermination.