Stoicism: The Lost Art

by Andrew Barisser

Not a video game. This really happened. Earnestly step inside their shoes.

On June 18th, 1815, the Battle of Waterloo raged. Napoleon, Emperor of France, conqueror of so many nations, an unquestioned military genius, bore down on the British and Prussian armies. More than 30,000 men died in a single day within a mere three square miles. It was Napoleon’s last battle. He was defeated in a bloodbath fought on Belgian soil. It was so grand and terrible that it concluded an entire age named after him: the Napoleonic Era.

The Duke of Wellington, the British commander now famous for defeating Napoleon, rode with his second in command at the end of the battle. Death was all about them. The men were fatigued from vicious fighting all day long. The wreckage of broken men, of horses, of stained uniforms and smashed machinery lay strewn about in heavy heaps on the battlefield. Wellington was utterly calm, even in the diciest moments of battle.

As the day waned and the French fled the field in defeat, the pace of shooting died down. One of the last cannonballs fired that day whizzed towards Wellington. It missed him by inches. But it struck his second-in-command Lord Uxbridge, and completely tore apart his leg.

Can you imagine the horror? It must have been a ghastly wound. A roundshot cannonball can smash bone and flesh without hesitation. It must have torn the thing nearly off. I’ve never suffered a wound like this. I’ve never seen a wound like this. I cannot even begin to imagine the agony. You and I would be screaming profanities, crying hysterically, clutching frantically, screaming to God or our mothers or whomever else. Don’t even begin to protest otherwise; you would be a blubbering wreck just like me.

How did Lord Uxbridge react? No one knows for sure; it’s not like there’s a video. But the following story, while considered apocryphal, may well be considered close to the truth:

“According to anecdote, which is probably apocryphal, he was close to the Duke of Wellington when his leg was hit, and exclaimed, “By God, sir, I’ve lost my leg!”, to which Wellington replied “By God, sir, so you have!”

By God sir so you have! Can you imagine responding this way? These men had seen so much death already. But I still can’t imagine it. Is this account just a Victorian cover-up of a truly emotional reaction? Perhaps the British of this era used language like this in writing as code for an extreme response, under duress. It’s entirely possible. But somehow I suspect that a glimmer of the truth has emerged.

Another account of Lord Uxbridge at the medical station:

Just after the Surgeon had taken off the Marquis of Anglesey’s leg, Sir Hussey Vivian came into the cottage where the operation was performed. “Ah, Vivian!” said the wounded noble, “I want you to do me a favour. Some of my friends here seem to think I might have kept that leg on. Just go and cast your eye upon it, and tell me what you think.” “I went, accordingly”, said Sir Hussey, “and, taking up the lacerated limb, carefully examined it, and so far as I could tell, it was completely spoiled for work. A rusty grape-shot had gone through and shattered the bones all to pieces. I therefore returned to the Marquis and told him he could set his mind quite at rest, as his leg, in my opinion, was better off than on.”[1]

Better off than on! Go and check it out! That was his own leg he was talking about. It had just been amputated! He had a lifetime as a cripple to look forward to.

There are other accounts of extreme indifference from this battle. As described in a book I just read on the battle, a British square of infantry holds position under intense cannon fire. They maintain a square to protect against massive French cavalry charges. Discipline and maintaining one’s position are essential to protecting the entire regiment. If even a single soldier flinches, the position can disintegrate and become vulnerable to enemy cavalry. And yet these British soldiers are under the most brutal cannon fire to which they cannot respond. They are not in trenches. They are too far to fire back with their muskets. They can’t run; that would undermine the whole army. They must merely hold position. And die.

They can see the cannonballs as they approach. One man sees one coming straight at him. “Don’t leave formation. Don’t do it.” he tells himself. But he is sure it will strike him. The black cannonball is heading straight at him. I can only imagine that split second of feeling you’ve made a horrible mistake. He holds. It misses him, mowing down 4 comrades just inches to his right like bowling pins. Most are killed. One is brutally injured, his limb knocked off completely (like Lord Uxbridge), a leg or an arm just torn off. Blood must have been everywhere. The horror is inexplicable. The man is screaming and crying, quite understandably! The men hold formation in their square as the cannonfire continues and the swarms of cavalry with glistening armor surround them. Men are dropping like flies. The sky is thundering with the continuous boom of enemy artillery. It is an apocalyptic scene. But the men hold. A sergeant walks to the broken, screaming soldier and yells at him to be silent. And the most amazing thing happens. He does.

I can’t imagine the fortitude it would take to do that. That is a level of personal intensity that is truly hard to fathom. What kind of people were they? I don’t mean the British or French. Who were these people, from another time, that could do this?

These were people different from you and me. Our lives are very easy. We are very soft. We’ve never had to do anything remotely as horrible as this. If we got within twenty miles of this battle, we would need to cuddle in a safe space for weeks. If you are one of the very few people who has endured anything at this level, like a veteran who saw exceptionally heavy fighting, our entire society is here to comfort you, and to dwell on you, to heal your trauma, and to gingerly appreciate what you went through. Not these people. They had to do truly terrible things… all the time. The Battle of Waterloo is only an extreme example of… not a historical era, but a historical norm in which being alive meant doing, and enduring, the most terrible things without sympathy.

Our ancestors were stoic. They had to be. The historical norm was one in which human lives did not matter. And yet their lives were just as important to them as ours are to us. Their lives could be just as rich and sweet and wondrous. They admired the same clear summer days as us, the same pleasures as us. They had the same sophistication in human affairs. Some were intensely learned. All had the countless patterned idiosyncrasies that make up any person in any age. Their deaths and their tragedies were just as tragic as ours are today.

But they had such reason to fear! They were not isolated from the brutal realities of the world. Even in safe times there was plenty to fear. And death was always there. They knew death. They practiced death, if even only on their own farm animals. Death was not hidden from them. They were certainly not in denial about it, as we are today in utter denial. Death and maiming were things they knew very well, because they confronted them all the time.

Public executions were once the norm; indeed they were joyous public festivals. Death was so commonplace it could be made into a celebration, with laughing children and games and executions. It was possible to be blasé about death. Think of the trauma, by our standards, it would take to make a person like that. And yet everyone was like that! It boggles the mind.

In recounting the stories at Waterloo, I have scarcely scratched the surface of the inhumane tragedies our poor ancestors had to suffer. They were shaped by them. They must have been hard people: people who understand that “shit happens”. People who know how to endure.

I have met people like this. When I lived in Africa, the locals knew how to endure. They knew that “shit happened”, even if they did not know the colloquial expression. They knew death. They practiced death. It wasn’t just death either. They are hard people too who know how to manage hard times. They do not loudly complain. In their own way the villagers of Cameroon, with whom I shared two years, could be intensely stoic. They were because they had to be. There was no alternative. I wonder whether this is a pale reflection of what our recent ancestors were like.

I’m not accusing you of being soft. I’m urging you to acknowledge it.

Realize that you are incredibly lucky. And if you perceive yourself as a victim, you probably have too narrow a historical lens. Think to the horrors that others have endured with quiet stoicism. In other times and places people are called upon to handle much, much more than we are. Be grateful for that. And when adversity does find you, think of the fallen infantryman in the British square. Think of Lord Uxbridge. Think of the hard folk who knew how to handle things, no matter how terrible. Let them inspire you.