The Saturday Read – Leona Francombe ‘The Sage of Waterloo’

This year marks the bicentennial of the Battle of Waterloo. A number of books have been published to coincide with the anniversary, but it’s the unique storytelling of author Leona Francombe that gives us a very different view of the conflict. The ‘Saturday Read’ this week is ‘The Sage of Waterloo’.

The story begins when a French drummer boy releases a white rabbit into the Hougoumont gardens during the battle on June 18, 1815. Our narrator, William, is guided on his journey by his grandmother, Old Lavender and a wise researcher, Arthur. He invites us to join him along the route the rabbits call the ‘Hollow Way’:

“There are many soft hillocks and hollows along this part of the Way on which one can rest and look back, and I suggest that you do this, too, because the view behind is as clear as the view ahead, and offers some valuable lessons besides.”

Yes, we are talking bunnies. Or, the bunny is talking to us. And along his path we join the Battle of Waterloo.

“Waterloo is small as battlefields go…the Hougoumont part of it even smaller. How extraordinary, then, that my farm – my tiny corner of Belgium, which even today people have difficulty locating on a map – should have made history in just a few hours.”

For those readers unfamiliar with history, the Economist provides a thumbnail description:

“Waterloo not only brought to an end the extraordinary career of Napoleon Bonaparte, whose ambitions had led directly to the deaths of up to 6m people. It also redrew the map of Europe and was the climax of what has become known as the second Hundred Years War, a bitter commercial and colonial rivalry between Britain and France that had begun during the reign of Louis XIV. Through its dogged resistance to France’s hegemonic ambitions in the preceding 20 years, Britain helped create the conditions for the security system known as the Concert of Europe, established in 1815. The peace dividend Britain enjoyed for the next 40 years allowed it to emerge as the dominant global power of the 19th century.”

Which brings us back to our story and Arthur, the researcher, and did I mention black bird?, questioning humans’ short term memory.

“…they think they know what happened there. But their evolutionary process seems to be in reverse. They gradually forget the magnitude of what they’ve done – or at least, they’ve managed to disguise their violence as glory – so eventually, in the course of time, they can no longer feel what still hangs in the air. Not the way we do. So they don’t have any qualms about building cafes on burial grounds. They’ve never really stamped out their zeal for warmongering – quite the opposite, actually. They can’t seem to get enough of it.”

Near the end of the book William calculates an alternative if the soldiers had refused to fight: “approximately fifty thousand men would have lived. And ten thousand horses. And who knows how many rabbits?”

“Where did you learn all this?” I asked Arthur, after I’d finished my mulling. “Oh, you wouldn’t believe the things that remain in the woods around Hougoumont,” he said. “The resonance is quite astounding. Small creatures for miles around are still aware of the story.”

This small novel is a unique oral history of the Battle of Waterloo. Blending historical fact with fiction, author Francombe creates an unlikely ‘sage’ to carry the “collective memory…and resonance.” And reminds us to “feel what still hangs in the air” when we visit historic sites.

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