Show themes

Waterloo 1815, the battle and its books

A damned serious business

It has been a damned serious business… the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life.
(The Duke of Wellington, 19 June 1815, quoted by Thomas Creevey)

The Battle of Waterloo was fought on Sunday 18 June 1815, ten miles south of Brussels in what was then the Kingdom of the Netherlands. It was the climactic engagement of a campaign that pitted an invading French army under Napoleon Bonaparte against a combined force of Allied troops—chiefly British, Netherlandish and Hanoverian—commanded by the Duke of Wellington and a Prussian army led by Gebhard von Blücher. The French were routed, and the warfare that had plagued Europe for more than two decades was definitively ended. There were to be no further hostilities on such a scale on the continent until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

The importance of Waterloo was fully recognised by the generations which came after it. Both Byron and Tennyson described the battle as an ‘earthquake’. Victor Hugo called it ‘the hinge of the nineteenth century’: ‘On that day, the perspective of the human race was changed’. Through its impact on the politics and power-relationships of a Europe approaching the height of its worldwide influence, the battle’s outcome remains significant to this day.

The medium of print—both letterpress and engraving—was instrumental in preparing soldiers, statesmen and the wider society for the gathering conflict; in spreading the news of the battle in its immediate aftermath; and in perpetuating the memory of Waterloo in visual and literary culture. ‘A damned serious business: Waterloo 1815, the battle and its books’ draws on the rich and varied collections of Cambridge University Library to highlight written records, maps and book arts relating to the battle and the era in which it played so decisive a part. Political broadsheets, military drill-books, manuscript letters, hand-coloured engravings, printed mementos, early historical accounts and tourist reminiscences, comic and elegiac poems, and a volume from Napoleon’s library in exile on St Helena are brought together to commemorate the most famous battle in modern European history.

This virtual exhibition complements the display running in the Library’s Milstein Exhibition Centre between 1 May and 16 September 2015, and includes many items in addition to those on show there. Explore the exhibition themes by clicking on the thumbnails below. Learn more about individual items by clicking on the large thumbnails at the foot of each theme page. Where you see ‘Extended Captions’, click on the link for further information about the item. There is a video introduction to the exhibition by curators Mark Nicholls and John Wells, and further images can be found in the Waterloo Collection in the Cambridge University Digital Library. Curator tours are available and can be booked from this page.