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© 2019 by Zack White and the NapoleonicWars.net team.

Vanity Fair's Waterloo

September 24, 2018

Spoiler Alert. Warning: This post contains detailed descriptions of parts of ITV’s Vanity Fair Episode 5 focusing on the Battle of Waterloo.


There was considerable excitement on social media as ITV’s hit show Vanity Fair tackled the Battle of Waterloo. A lot was made of the efforts that had gone into ensuring that the depiction was realistic. The extras had apparently gone through rigorous bootcamps to move and march like Napoleonic soldiers, and great attention had been paid to the accuracy of the uniforms. The effect was visually impressive – the drill was crisp, and it would have taken an eagle-eyed attention to detail to identify problems with these elements


The issues instead lay in the fundamentals – places where the drama had been allowed to push historical reality to one side, although, in fairness to the producers, this may be more a reflection on Thackeray’s retelling of the battle, rather than the script writing.


The first point is that, after all the hype, you could easily have missed Waterloo, if you weren’t paying attention. Interspersed with advert breaks, and the social manoeuvrings of the lead character as she sought to triumph over her rivals in Brussels, footage on Waterloo itself lasted around 10 minutes. Within that time there were three distinct elements: a cavalry ambush on a British column, the famous, suicidal French cavalry charge from Waterloo itself, and the assault of the French Imperial Guard which closed the battle. The last two of these both took place on the allied right flank, across an area of ground that you could walk over in five minutes. There is therefore a troubling lack of scale and context. A battle lasting nine hours, which involved the armies of four nations and left 40,000 men dead is reduced to what could easily have been a skirmish from any point in the Napoleonic era. The Prussians who played such a pivotal role in the allied victory? Absent. The Dutch forces who made up a large contingent of Wellington’s army? Invisible. Waterloo was, perhaps inevitably, merely a plot devise, a convenient location within which certain characters can die, and others can find fame and fortune. Waterloo itself was rendered largely irrelevant.


This lack of context ultimately removed the poignancy from the battle scenes, so that when, later in the episode, a lead character reflected on the slaughter, the effect was almost puzzling. In the grand scheme of what happened at Waterloo, the ‘slaughter’ on screen had been negligible.


Furthermore, the ambush by French cavalry was equally puzzling as the lack of information makes it almost impossible to place. Is this supposed to be one of the events from the rearguard action which took place on 17th June as Wellington’s army withdrew from Quatre Bras to Waterloo? If so, it is inconsistent with the sense of the battalion being lost, and hurrying to join the army before the campaign is decided, and if this unit were with the army, they would have been less likely to have been surprised, as they would have been at least vaguely aware of the strategic situation. The implication, then, is that hordes of French cavalry were roaming across the Belgium landscape, casually cutting up British units at will. The reality is that if this unit was hurrying to Waterloo, they would probably have been behind their own lines, and therefore safe from an ambush. In short, the scene depicted is an impossibility.


There are, inevitably, other, more minor inaccuracies. An atmospheric scene of two British officers watching the enemy’s campfires on the night before the battle was unrealistic, as the night was so wet, and kindling so scarce, that lighting fires would have been exceptionally difficult. During the massed French cavalry attack, the Allied squares (the formation used by infantry men during this period to defend against cavalry) are far to close together, and would have created a ‘friendly fire’ nightmare as shots fired from the face of any one square would have torn holes in its neighbours, creating holes for the French cavalry to pour through and gut the formation from the inside out.


On the whole then, there was an overwhelming sense of disappointment. Yes, there was fleeting excitement in the battle scenes, and the uniforms were beautifully detailed, so that the characters looked resplendent in scarlet and gold braid. The efforts in Napoleonic drill exercise were rewarded – these extras could have put on a decent display in Horse Guard’s Parade, as they moved and handled their weapons convincingly. Yet these are transient features. In the case of the uniforms, they were quite literally skin deep. Here was an opportunity to drop the just the faintest piece of history into the fiction. In focusing on the minutiae, in getting the little things right, important though they are, the producers of Vanity Fair seemed to miss the bigger picture. There is no need to insert drama into the story of Waterloo – it is drama at its highest, and much more potent for the fact that that drama, that story, is a real one.


Will the public be inspired to learn more about Waterloo based on this episode? I’m sceptical. For ultimately, you would hardly have known you were watching a retelling of Waterloo at all. In essence, when describing this episode, I come back to a quote from one of the characters in the episode: ‘It was fun at first, but I’ve had quite enough of the Battle of Waterloo – we did win after all!’ This could well summarise Vanity Fair’s Waterloo. A bit of fun, but over in an instant. As for how and why we won? You’ll have to rely on historical fact, rather than this piece of historical fiction.


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