June 18, 1815: The Noblest Cavalry in Europe–And the Worst Led

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The charge of the Scots Greys scene from the movie Waterloo (1970), one of the greatest of war flicks.  Rod Steiger as Napoleon and Christopher Plummer as Wellington gave bravura performances.   My favorite section of the film:


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  1. Waterloo always brings to my mind one of Chesterton’s best poems:

    A war that we understood not came over the world and woke
    Americans, Frenchmen, Irish; but we knew not the things they spoke.
    They talked about rights and nature and peace and the people’s reign:
    And the squires, our masters, bade us fight; and scorned us never again.
    Weak if we be for ever, could none condemn us then;
    Men called us serfs and drudges; men knew that we were men.
    In foam and flame at Trafalgar, on Albuera plains,
    We did and died like lions, to keep ourselves in chains,
    We lay in living ruins; firing and fearing not
    The strange fierce face of the Frenchmen who knew for what they fought,
    And the man who seemed to be more than a man we strained against and broke;
    And we broke our own rights with him. And still we never spoke.

  2. Chesterton had almost as an illusory view of the French Revolution and Napoleon as did Belloc, and that is saying something.

    Chesterton’s idea that the British lost rights by fighting Napoleon was absurd. Rather they ensured their own continuing process of expanding rights, and avoided being governed by a dressed up military dictatorship. They were wise. It was under the Duke of Wellington’s government in 1829 that the great Catholic Emancipation Act passed Parliament. Chesterton, as usual, confused his opinions with history, to the detriment of history.

  3. Donald R McClarey wrote, “Chesterton had almost as an illusory view of the French Revolution and Napoleon as did Belloc…”
    Belloc described Waterloo as the defeat of the Grande Armée “that had given a code of laws to a continent and restored the concept of citizenship to civilization.”
    Still, here is a family anecdote about the Scots Greys (2nd Dragoons) 99 years later.
    My great-uncle Angus was a Lieutenant in the Scots Greys. On 17 August 1914, the regiment was sent to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force.
    Not long thereafter, his troop was billeted in Saint-Maur-des-Fossés on the Marne, the original home of the Seymour family. Of course, soldiers on active service were not allowed to mention their location in letters home, but he gave his father a broad hint by signing a letter “Seymour of that ilk.”
    He told me the story of how he was out on patrol outside the town, when they encountered a scouting party of Von Klück’s army. Now, Saint-Maur-des-Fossés is some 7 miles or two hours march from kilometre zero in front of Notre-Dame-de-Paris. “It was a close-run thing,” he would say, shaking his head.

  4. Donald R McClarey wrote, “Europe had codes of laws since the Roman Empire…”

    Belloc did not mean Europe was lawless before the Code of 1804. However, even if one looks at France, only two-fifths of the country, south of the Loire valley, roughly from Geneva to the mouth of the Charante had always followed the Roman Law and was referred to as le pays de droit écrit – the country of the written law.

    The rest of the country followed le droit coutumier – customary law. Some, the coutumes générales (the coutume de Paris, de Normandie, d’Orléans), numbering about sixty, covered a province or large district. Others the coutumes locales, upwards of 300, were in force in specific towns and villages. Voltaire was not exaggerating when he said that in France the traveller changed laws as often as he changed horses. Besides this, there were the ordonnances du royaume (royal ordinances) dealing with particular topics that, in general, were in force throughout the kingdom.

    On 24 thermidor, an VIII, Napoléon appointed a commission to draw up a new Code. Their work was enacted into law on 30 ventôse, an XII. Hailed as “the Code of Nature, sanctioned by Reason and guaranteed by Liberty,” the Code was adopted in most of the countries liberated by French forces during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Even today, there is a strong family resemblance between the Civil Codes of most European countries and all have been strongly influenced by, if not directly modelled on the Code of 1804.

    Napoleon, on St. Helena, observed, “My glory is not to have won forty battles, for Waterloo’s defeat will blot out the memory of as many victories. But nothing can blot out my Civil Code. That will live eternally.”

  5. “Belloc did not mean Europe was lawless before the Code of 1804.”

    He might have. You never knew with Belloc who tended to play fast and loose with historical fact and fantasy. In any case my critique stands. I do not consider it to be an advance for civilization that the Code Napoleon was imposed on so many nations in Europe. Better for an organic growth of law that takes into account local conditions. Also, referring to “liberated” countries as a result of French conquests during the French Revolution and Napoleon’s Empire is absurd.

  6. I guess you wouldn’t call them “noble.” The Confederate cavalry in the Civil War, and the Union cavalry from Gettysburg and after, were some fine cavalry.

    To an American, the ability to trace one’s ancestors to 1066 is awe-inspiring. Mr. Paterson-Seymour, a book suggestion. A recently published book named Agincourt by Sir Ranulph Fiennes may be of interest. He names and relates the exploits of ancestors who fought with William the Conqueror and onward. This Yank finds that astounding.

  7. T Shaw wrote, “Mr. Paterson-Seymour, a book suggestion. A recently published book named Agincourt by Sir Ranulph Fiennes may be of interest…”

    Thank you for the recommendation.

    Bear in mind that people did not move around a lot before the Industrial Revolution. In Scotland, if one can trace one’s ancestors back to around 1800, there is a good chance of being able to go back another 500 years or so, depending on the state of the records.

    Out of 11 neighbouring farms. 7 have been in the same families, since the Register of Sasines was established in 1617.

    The length of folk-memory in country districts is quite astonishing. I own a piece of ground, about 18 acres of winter pasture, which is known locally as “the ten shilling land of Boyd.” [The shilling is an old British coin, 20 to the pound, abolished in 1971]

    As a child, I was intrigued by the name and so I asked the old shepherd about it. He looked after the sheep on the common grazings and he knew everything. He told me that there was once a wicked king, who charged the poor people money, just for living on their own lands.

    Years later, I had occasion to check the progress of title in the Register of Sasines and, sure enough, the piece of ground was described as being “ten shilling land of Old Extent.” Now, the Old Extent was a survey of rental values, carried out by King Alexander III in 1280, in connection with a proposed land tax. People around here don’t forget things like that in a hurry.

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