Waterloo Sal

The Battle of Waterloo

     'You want me to tell you again about your mother, do you? It's a wonder you don't get fed up with that story, my girl. Still, I never had time to get fed up with the woman and I suppose stories are all you have to remember her by. Being Mary Evans Woodhouse, the daughter of Billy Woodhouse - people around here think you're my daughter - was never quite enough for you. I know it. I don't mind.

     Your mother was never called Waterloo Sal when she was alive. I've told you before. That name came after she'd died. Her real name was plain old Mary Evans. From Pembroke or somewhere she was. She was always vague about such things, thinking about it now. And I often do. She didn't really remember her early days, I suppose, and didn't care much about them anyway. The men from the regiment - before they called her Waterloo Sal - called her Sally No-Drawers, or Sally Twopence, or even worse things.

     That's right. She was a whore. A camp follower they used to call them. Not that she was ashamed of what she did. Nor am I. Nor should you be. It was the way her life turned out. And she enjoyed her life, short as it was. There were few enough women in the Low Countries, or in the Peninsula, or in any of the other places the regiment went before I joined. Women that were available to us soldiers without us marrying them, I mean. It was hard being a soldier in those days. 'The Iron Duke', or whatever they called him - we called the old bugger 'Nosey' in the line - didn't think much of us at all. That's right, the same they made First Lord of the Treasury a few months back. Things like that are no business of folks like us, though - but they will be, one day. Nosey called us soldiers 'the Scum of the Earth'. Scum of the Earth! I ask you! They were grateful enough for us in those days, when Old Boney was in his in his pomp, and threatening to be the Emperor of Europe. Where would Nosey have been then, eh? I often think of it, in quieter moments, when I'm puffing on the pipe. Those days are like someone else's life now, but I suppose they weren't very much above a dozen years ago. A lot's happened in those twelve or thirteen years.

     Anyway, you want to hear about your mother, not listen to an old soldier's ramblings. Sal was with the regiment before I was. In a manner of speaking, so were you. You were born on the very day I joined the regiment - Christmas Eve, 1814. I remember it well. I was the only one who had the first idea of what to do, because I'd helped my sister two years before. There was nobody else around then, either. Not that Sal needed much help - you slithered out like a wet fish. Pretty well all I had to do was hold her hand, and nice say things to her. Just as well I arrived that day. It wasn't long before then I was getting on the boat at Portsmouth and it wasn't so long before that I was in the Staffordshire Militia, in the Tipton St. Martin's Volunteers.

     Sal was grateful for what I did, all the same. The year before her little boy - your brother, or half-brother anyway, I suppose - had died and she didn't want you to go the same way. Afterwards, she used to lift her skirts up for me without charging me a penny. I was the only one in the whole regiment she did that for. Good businesswoman was your mother. They used to say she'd have charged Nosey himself, if he ever so much as came near her. Not that he ever did, mind, though there were, and still are, a few stories about that man.

     After that, we got closer. I became her protector, looked after her, made sure she got paid for her favours, that sort of thing. Big and strong I was in those days; people didn't mess us about then. I even asked Sal a couple of times if she'd like to be my wife, but she always said no. Valued her independence too much, that one. She was thinking about it again on the eve of the big battle, though. I swear to that. It's funny the way she was the night before, all quiet and thoughtful. Not like her at all. It was as if she knew - no, let me tell the story properly.

     That day. I remember every detail of it, though it seemed as if it all took place in a dream, or that it all happened to someone else. I suppose it did, you might say. It was raining in the morning, and cold for a June day. I even had the chance to kiss Sal early in the morning, like she was my wife or something. It's the nearest we got to it, I always think - nearer than all the times we made the beast with two backs. It could all have been so different if...

     But it's no use thinking about such things now.

     The Frenchies were driving us back through the day. Good soldiers they were then. By late in the afternoon I - and not just me - thought we were done for, and I don't mind telling you that my bowels were a-quivering. There was one moment that really mattered, and it's more real to me now than what happened yesterday, or even an hour ago. We were being swept by their artillery and musket fire. Unless you've been in a battle, and this was the only time I've been in one, you don't know what those words mean: 'swept by artillery and musket fire'. I'd rather go to hell and be prodded by a thousand demons than face that day and the Frenchies' shot again.

     The artillery fire was as thick as hail. I'm not exaggerating. You couldn't see or smell anything else but burning cordite. Suddenly, the man to my left - it was Davey Smith, I knew him well - staggered backwards, clutching his eye like the devil himself had flown into it. He was dead before he hit the ground. Then, scarcely a second later, the man to my right fell, moaning horribly. He'd got a musket ball through his thigh. He died of his wounds the next day. I knew him, too. It was Arthur Henderson, from Berwick, up North somewhere.

     I thought it was all up with me. We all thought the same. But somehow we kept going, and kept firing like machines, not men. I still get nightmares about that day. I bet that I'm not the only one.

     Then someone, I don't know who, shouted that 'the Old Guard is coming'. And they were. These were Boney's special soldiers. You could see why they were called that. Most of them were taller than me, and I'm no shrimp, even now. It wasn't only their size though. They seemed to have an air about them, as if being beaten was out of the question. Our men quailed at the sight of them coming, and the whole line of us dropped back a yard or two. In a minute the Frenchies would have broken through, and won the day.

     And then this little fellow stepped forward. He shouted 'come on, men of the 52nd Foot! Show ?em what you're made of!' The voice was as clear as a bell, and light - sort of musical. It stiffened everyone's resolve. The whole line stepped forward and the firing increased in tempo. Gradually, it was the Imperial Guard giving way. We poured a final volley into their flank and it was all over. They broke and that was the end of the wars that were about all we'd known since I was a lad.

     Of course, Blücher's troops had joined the battle by this time. They were after revenge, those Prussians, after what they'd been through.

     But we didn't see ?em. We didn't even know they were there. And forget all that stuff you hear about 'thin red lines' or even worse, about Nosey waving his hat. He might as well have not been there at all. None of us saw him. There was far too much smoke for that.

     That little 'fellow' of course was none other than Sal. How long she'd been on the field wearing a red jacket a few sizes too big for her no one knew when I asked afterward. All I knew was it was her. A lot of people recognised her, not only me. I felt so proud at that moment. Especially when she turned her face in my direction and grinned. It was like she was out for a walk in the park or something. I'm sure it wasn't my imagination, she was only about twenty yards away. She really did look at me. Yes, I felt so proud. Until then I'd just felt sick and scared, like everyone else.

     In the confusion we all stormed forward, chasing the Frenchies from the field. But after a while, I couldn't see the point of chasing Boney's men. If things had been a bit different, it would have been them chasing us. And a few months before, they may have been farmers and foundry workers like we were. What was the point? They should have put Boney and Nosey in a field and let them fight it out. Let honest men get on with their farming and foundry-working.

     So I turned back. All the same, it was over two hours before I had a chance to look for Sal. I found her all right. She was lying on her back with a bloody socket where her eye used to be - same as Davey Smith, only this time it was the other eye, the left one.

     They tried to hush it up of course. Wouldn't do to admit that a woman had been on the field of battle at all, never mind that she'd done what she did. After a while, the troops of the line didn't talk about 'Waterloo Sal' so much. It was as if they, even the ones who had seen her with their own eyes and heard her with their own ears, had started to believe the line that the Officers fed them. But I've remembered for all these years.

*

     It was no more than a few months later I had to leave the regiment. I went from the army altogether. My waterworks was the trouble. Things had started to get bad even before Waterloo, now it meant I couldn't be a soldier any more. They said I was to go to Chelsea and see about a pension. I would probably have been stood down, anyway. There was no need for so many soldiers after they sent Boney somewhere he couldn't give any more trouble. And they gave me a leaving present. A little bundle of rags and squawks. You.

     Christ, I hardly knew what to do. You weren't even weaned. We were supposed to meet this woman in Brussels, who was going to give you suck for a while, but we didn't see her until we were on the boat back to Portsmouth. You nearly died. You would have died if it hadn't have been for a couple of kind women we met on our journey.

     I went to see about a pension. I appeared before a Board, a collection of stiff old men, at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea. What a waste of time. Was it ever! They said I hadn't been in the Army for long, and my trouble didn't have anything to do with my soldiering anyway. The next couple of months were very hard for both of us.

     Then I went back to Tipton. Work was picking up again and I was lucky enough to get a job in the iron foundry, where I still am, though the work's very hard now, me with my trouble and all. I don't mind them calling me names behind my back. Names like Billy Piss-a-Fire they like. I don't mind it, but the work is getting very tough now. You know, I'm even grateful for the noise of the furnace. I have to shout - have to - when I make water on the fire. I don't think I'll be able to work in the foundry for much longer.

     It was in Tipton I taught myself to read and write. And I became one of The Levellers. You have to keep that sort of thing a secret, but I've always taught you our ways. These days, I haven't got it in me to go on marches and suchlike things, but I haven't forgotten.

*

     I had a dream last night. Your mother came to me. She was wearing that red jacket from Waterloo. And she was smiling, exactly like on the battlefield. I understood what she was thinking, even though she didn't move her lips at all. She was thinking how pleased she was I'd brought our daughter up so well for all these years. That's right - 'our daughter'. I've never felt so proud. I was prouder even than when your mother stepped forward with the musket. And she was thinking another thing, too. She was thinking The Levellers are right, and one day things will be as they see them being. Not in our day. Not in your children's day, or even in their children's time. But one day, things will be different.

     It made me happy. But there is still a nagging thought in my mind. Why must we wait so long?


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