The Battle of Waterloo Revisited

 “You don’t take a portrait, you make it.” So said the great American photographer Ansel Adams, meaning you truly need to work at capturing the spirit which lies beneath the face to create a portrait. In 2015, photographer Sam Faulkner took Adams’ words as the footing for his exhibition ‘Unseen Waterloo’, at Somerset House. A project that took him nearly seven years to complete, visiting the annual reenactment of the Battle of Waterloo (18 June 1815) in Belgium and, with a portable studio, taking a series of portraits of the many ‘soldiers’ who took part.

“I’m interested in reclaiming Waterloo for the forgotten soldiers that fought and died.” Faulkner said in his exhibition’s accompanying book. The 80 portraits composed of British, French, Prussian and Austrian troops, such as world-weary drummer boys, old before their time, cautiously sanguine sappers and griseous hard-nosed fusiliers, who have seen battle many times before. One of the portraits even featured a Mamluk, a little-known fact is that a small battalion of them had been assigned, by Napoleon, to the Chasseurs à Cheval de la Garde Impériale, after his great conquest of Egypt and Syria. 

The Battle of Waterloo was the last intense conflict on European soil before battlefield photography introduced the world to war as it really is. The Crimean War (5 Oct 1853 – 30 Mar 1856) fought between the Russian Empire and France, Britain, the Ottoman Empire, and Sardinia, was extensively documented in its actuality by a small army of photographers, rendering on camera the faces of the many men sacrificed in the line of duty. Unlike Waterloo, the Crimean War dispelled the fantasy, the general public were able to finally see how bravery was earned, to see this alien world of blood, sweat and mud their sons, fathers, brothers et al had been stationed by the powers that be.

Crimean War: Captain Thomas Aide-de-camp to General Bosquet 1855 (Photographer Unknown)

A handful of British survivors of Waterloo were photographed in 1880, at the Chelsea Hospital, London, the men were all in their 80’s and 90’s at the time. Venerable old gentleman, some with contented smiles of a life well lived, others solemn and dignified, likely, the thoughts of their time in the killing fields, seeing the loss of comrades whom they had fought along side coming to the surface. The oldest French survivor of the battle was taken in 1897, the then 103-year-old Louis-Victor Baillot was born in 1793, just over two months after King Louis XVI was executed at the guillotine. In 1812, Baillot had been one of many boys who became part of Napoleon’s grand experiment of creating the largest imperial army the world had ever seen, conscripted and then joining the 3rd Battalion of the 105th Line Infantry Demi-Brigade.

Faulkner’s own monumental attempt at documenting the faces of the battle sends an important message to us, that no matter how far back into the reaches of history a conflict may be, hundreds and sometimes thousands of souls were lost, men who each had their own lives, loves, hopes, fears etc, and we must always remember that. In an interview with The Daily Telegraph Faulkner said: “History has reduced Waterloo to a sparring match between Wellington and Napoléon, whereas in reality, at the end of the day, more than 50,000 lay dead on the field.” His efforts in bringing the face of reality to the battle shows a worthy understanding of humanity along with artistic integrity.

Waterloo is a conflict which we think of only in fantasy terms, we envision a circus of lion-like men in elaborate, perfectly untarnished uniforms, roaring in unison as they are engulfed in plumes of cannon and rifle smoke. This is how the battle is portrayed in those majestical portraits of Napoleon, aloft his horse and resplendent in all his regalia, posing in the manner Julius Caesar, or the dramatic landscapes that paint an idealistic representation, such as ‘The Battle of Waterloo’ (1824) by Dutch artist Jan Willem Pieneman. In Faulkner’s portraits, he makes no such effort to create something flawless, in many of the photos the men are peppered in dirt and smoke stains, their faces are flushed and glistening with sweat, engendering a sense of realistic melancholy.

The ‘soldiers’ of Faulkner’s project should be praised for their ability to give the reenactment a sense of emotional truth, so potent are their expressions, it makes the photos ever more believable. It’s not that Faulkner, nor the men he photographed, pretend it to be real, it is fantasy, which is why these portraits are painterly in their execution. It’s an artistic homage that doesn’t pull any punches, Faulkner’s career as a war photographer, working in Bosnia, Afghanistan etc, gave him the right approach to this most incredible of photographic endeavours.