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At the heart of English folk
Plains of Waterloo

Revisiting Waterloo

by Laura Smyth, singer and director of the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.

Laura SmythToday, the 18th June, is the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo – a battle which signified the end of the French wars and the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte. The wars had been raging since the late 18th century. Some of those soldiers on the fields of Waterloo would not have been born when the wars began.

The French wars grew out of the turmoil of the French revolution and the overthrowing of the French monarchy, which caused unease in neighbouring countries. Napoleon Bonaparte had been a strong supporter of this liberated French Republic, and started his military career by helping to suppress anti-Republic uprisings. His successes in battles over territory in Italy led to a rise in his military status. He had a number of successes in Egypt also, but one victorious battle for Britain became the setting for a traditional ballad, The Banks of the Nile.

When Napoleon finally returned to Paris in 1799, he soon set up a dictatorship in which he was appointed first consul, eventually leading to his naming himself First Emperor of the French. Britain was threatened by France’s growing control over Europe and so, after a short period of peace, declared war again in 1803.

In his article The Grand Conversation : Napoleon and British Popular Balladry, Vic Gammon states that a high number of broadsides ballads printed at this time were used as propaganda to encourage patriotic and anti-French sentiments. This ballad, which was written in response to the feared threat of invasion, demonstrates this well.

As does this crude dialect ballad from Lancashire.

In the case of British victories, the two most important battles are undeniably those of the Battle of Trafalgar and the Battle of Waterloo.

The Battle of Trafalgar, fought and won under command of Admiral Nelson, was a spectacular victory in which the British fleet was able to defeat a larger combined fleet of the French and Spanish. The battle made a deep impression on the British because despite the victory, Lord Nelson was fatally wounded. Nelson continued to give orders whilst wounded and was able to learn of British success before he died. The story is remembered in song.

The battle of Waterloo, the battle which finally ended Napoleon’s rule, was won by the combined Anglo-Allied armies under the command of the Duke of Wellington and Gebhard von Blücher. The battle, which lasted from the 15th to 18th June, was described by Wellington as “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life".

A number of ballads have been written about the event, but possibly the most detailed is the rendition by Gordon Hall which can be found on the CD, Good Times Enough, and lasts over 12 minutes!

The words can be found on this broadside in the Kidson collection.

There are a wealth of songs and ballads from this period to be explored. But interestingly a large number of songs which have survived in the oral tradition are not as unquestioningly patriotic as those ballads published and sold on the streets at the time - songs such as the Bonny Bunch of Roses and The Grand Conversation on Napoleon use sympathetic language to describe Napoleon.

Songs and ballads published from this period and which continued into the oral tradition can be found through the VWML’s Full English collection.

Songs regarding sea battles under Nelson can be found in Roy Palmer’s The Valiant Sailor : sea songs, ballads and prose passages illustrating life on the lower deck in Nelson’s Navy.

An article on Waterloo ballads written by Peter Wood can also be found in the latest edition of EDS, Summer 2015.

Further broadside ballads can be found through the collections held on the Bodleian Ballad website.

We're also revisiting the battle in song! Have a listen to a selection performances of ballads and tunes about Waterloo.

National Youth Folk Ensemble

National Youth Folk Ensemble


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