A curious memento from the Battle of Waterloo – on sale July 22nd (Est. £800-1200)

Posted in: News on June 30, 2017.

The Battle of Waterloo, a climactic defeat to Napoleon’s triumphantly bloody victory sweep across Europe. A span of twenty three years where truth and propagandist fantasy became intertwined,  a rule seeped in the blood of both sides. Though hundreds of thousands of lives were prematurely snatched in this twenty three year period, in their place we are left with a scattering of morbid mementos and curious relics. Many of these wartime artefacts, both Napoleonic and from the other side are now locked away in private collections, but, on occasion, one or two will emerge, rediscovered in the depths of a box of junk shop bric-a-brac, say, or from inside a forgotten corner cabinet during a house clearance. Every antique tells a story. Often there will be parts of this story missing, sometimes large chunks will be lost, confined to the memories of those no longer living. But what is history but a story of its own kind?


So what can we piece together about this taxidermy horse hoof and silver mounted inkwell? This horse we can know only as ‘18’, the British requisition number branded on its hoof, what story does it tell? Although it is certainly a curious item, in the 19th century (known as the golden age of taxidermy) objects like this were not uncommon. It was a simple way to commemorate a race winner (often these inkwells were inscribed with the name, age and victories of the horse) or a means to remember a beloved companion. And it  is surely easy to imagine the intense relationship between soldiers and their horses in this period. Horses took an incredibly important role in warfare until late 1918. They were ridden right into the midst of battle. To return to Waterloo, we hear from Private James Smithies of the First Dragoons. He writes of the cavalry;

There were some riders who had caught hold of each other’s bodies- wrestling fashion- and [were] fighting for life…

A horrifying take on the centaur.

For this reason these horses had to be completely unshaken when faced with smoke, gunfire, noise and bright light. In fact Marengo, the horse that Napoleon rode at Waterloo (whose skeleton, or so it is believed, is on display in London’s National Army Museum) was put on public view in December 1923 at the Waterloo Rooms, 94 Pall Mall, after having been captured at the battle. The horse was so quiet, it was reported “that either Ladies or Children may caress him.” Bless those delicate temperaments! In training, French riding masters would fire guns next to their horses’ heads, suddenly wave banners or swords, and drive dogs to run through their legs. What a magnificent horse this must have been. To the underside of the lid of the inkwell, the following words are engraved; ‘The last Waterloo horse belonging to the 2nd Life Guards/ buried in Hyde Park/ June 1836’. Of those who galloped into Battle on Wellington’s side, a number rode as the Life Guards. The regiment formed the celebrated front charging line of Lord Somerset’s Household Brigade against the French Cuirassiers which saved the British centre from being overrun. A memento direct from this extraordinary and brutal victory that saw the end of French hegemony in Europe.

Wellington’s army was a conglomeration of British, Dutch, German and Belgian troops, many of whom had never been in battle previous. It is unimaginable, the raw terror, stench and chaos of the battlefield. June 18th 1815, a day thick with rain and mud, saw 180,000 men and 60,000 horses charge into battle. After nine hours of frantic fighting, 44,000 men lay dead, dying and wounded. A bittersweet victory where grief and glory lay close. As Wellington later said, “Nothing save a battle lost is as terrible as a battle won.” In our current political climate, a quote that well resonates today.

Any war is steeped in material propaganda. The Napoleonic rampage was no exception. Napoleon’s self-conceived branded originality saw him reinventing tradition during his Coronation in an effort to establish the legitimacy of his Imperial reign, stating;

To be a king is to inherit old ideas and genealogy. I don’t want to descend from anyone.

The ceremony was held in Notre-Dame de Reims in the presence of the Pope Pius VII and incorporated aspects of many different French rites and customs, including aspects of the Carolingian tradition, the old French regime and the French Revolution. His obsession with his image and its promotion was such that he had the Royal crown and the letter ‘N’ stamped onto the hindquarters of the horses he rode. This propaganda, these loaded mementos last long after a war is over. This inkwell in particular is a perfect example of the glorious being brought into the everyday. An inkwell, a 19th century necessity, reminding one every time the power of Britain and her people.

We at Dawson’s are incredibly proud to have this piece of history pass through our hands. It will be on view on the 20th and 21st of July, with the sale on Saturday 22nd.

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