The Story of Corporal Wistremy at Waterloo

...if something should happen to me, I beg you to destroy this letter, for the sake of my honour as a soldier.

Of all the countries that I had seen, perhaps my favourite was France. Late that summer I took up an invitation of my cousin's to stay at his cottage in the small French town of Souillac, while he was away for two weeks. It seemed that the anger of the world had passed the town by, as if it was surrounded by a spell of contentment and peace, and each day I strolled the quiet streets in the sunshine, or wandered through the wildflowers in the meadows with my butterfly net, contemplating the great, silent sky. I did not think of things, I just wandered, and it made me happy.

One afternoon while on my walk I found a small curiosity shop. The place was packed with all sorts of junk, and I had to be careful to avoid taking half of it down with my elbow. I spied a small, unshaven man, whom I took to be the owner, peering at me through dirty glass cabinets as I examined the oddments. A lot of it was ridiculously priced, but some of the more unrecognizable things had no price tag - most of it was clearly worthless, and I wondered if the owner wasn't actually interested in selling anything at all. In one corner I saw what seemed to be the frame of a mannequin, riddled with rust. Its arms and legs had complicated hinges, but its hands and feet were missing. Shreds of fabric clung to it, probably from its use as a scarecrow or tailor's dummy. There seemed to be inward pointing crosspieces inside the torso, which I couldn't imagine a use for. The face had apertures for its eyes and mouth cut in angular shapes, and on closer inspection I noticed long strands of hair attached to the top of the head. The effect it gave was that of a man screaming, and I couldn't help thinking of those torture devices described in the macabre chapters of history books that one decides not to read, but usually ends up reading anyway. Whatever bizarre purpose the thing was made for was impossible to guess - I was thinking of asking the shopkeeper, when he suddenly appeared at my elbow.

"Don't touch that."

"I wasn't going-"

"My grandfather found it in a field near Reims."

"Oh yes? How quaint! It must be very old, I suppose. Do you have any idea what-"

But the little man had scuttled away behind a pile of scrap.

Nearby on a dresser I found a relatively cheap little brass vase which captured my interest, as I had been looking for something of the sort to place on a bookshelf. I bought it, then took it to a café to further inspect it. There seemed to be something inside the vase - I tipped it up to find a few dusty pieces of paper fall out. I could find no clue as to where it may have come from, other than what was in the letter.

Milton Hume Whyte, Lord Whyte,

Wilde House,

London

sender: Corporal Alfred Wistremy,

52nd Light Infantry

29th June, 1815

Dear Uncle,

By now you will no doubt have heard of our victory over Bonaparte on the 18th of June. What a battle it was! At last he is defeated, but at such terrible cost. About half my regiment were killed, and many of those left were horribly injured in some way. We were certain that Bonaparte had the day until the Prussians arrived. That evening Wellington rode past our regiment, and our lads cheered him until we were hoarse! He stopped briefly to speak some kind words, then rode on to other things.

You may remember my best friend Jackie, who you met at Lady Fortescue's ball in March of last year. He was engaged to be married in December, but alas, will not see his wedding now. During the course of the battle, our regiment took twelve cavalry charges. Each time, we would watch as they thundered towards us, those famous French horsemen, wearing their cuirasses and plumed helmets, like the Gods of Greece or Rome out of the school-books that Sophie and I used to read when we were small. How they must have polished those cuirasses! Even through the hulking walls of smoke they glittered like mirrors. They screamed like berserkers, swinging their sabres long before they came in range, each one trying to prove he was the bravest. Our Sergeant kept yelling to us to hold our fire, reminding us not to fire too early or too late, and when the time came he would bawl out, "FIRE!!" Our muskets would blast, and always a number of the cavalrymen would fall. Then when they reached the square, as long as we stood fast the horses would bridle at the bayonets and the charge would fail. But what nerve it takes to hold the square! After the fourth charge I saw Jackie weeping with fear. But he did not think of turning away, and I knew he would stand his ground. Each volley was fired, and with the others Jackie would then step back to reload while the other rank in the square stepped forward. He took his time loading, like he was trained, he did his duty. I have since decided that those who are most terrified, but do what they have to do, are the ones who are the bravest, and that those who truly have no fear are not doing anything special at all. Poor Jackie was hit in the eye with a musket-ball sometime late in the afternoon. I only wish I could have comforted him, or said goodbye. But at least he felt no pain. He had some half-finished letters to his fiance in his sleeve that I shall send to her. I threw off my shako and took his, as I didn't have time to find a better keepsake. There were so many lying dead in our square before the battle was over, some torn apart by artillery shot, and many who had taken shot to the stomach and died screaming their lungs out. I wonder if I shall ever be able to forget what I have seen and heard.

Yet I have weathered the storm, yes... I think I have. But since the battle my fellow soldiers seem to shun me, although I know I have acted as bravely as any of them. They will not look me in the eye, almost as if they fear me. They have taken to calling me a pretend soldier, but will not say why. If only Jackie were still here he might ask them why they maintain their distance. They cannot say I didn't play my part - I was hit by shrapnel during the battle, which entered just below my heart, and came out through the small of my back. But don't worry, Uncle, it does not seem to have affected me, as there is no pain, and I am still able to march - the wound has not healed, but there has been no sign of the sepsis that the surgeon was sure I would suffer. Perhaps my comrades are jealous that I was unaffected by my wound. But I feel there is nothing I can say to them.

Uncle, I want to tell you that as terrible as things have been, I can't stop thinking of my poor Sophie. I know it has been two years since the tragedy, but I still think of it every day. I know you have suggested that I use my anger to fight the Grande Armee, but I find I can only do my duty, as would any soldier wearing the King's uniform, and when I think of my little sister I feel no anger over what happened, only loss. I hope it doesn't make you feel uncomfortable for me to tell you about her, but it is hard to think that she will never get married, or have a family, or follow her dreams. It always seemed to be a consolation to me to know that she was safe in England, and that I was fighting to protect her. But now, as we march through the towns, whenever I hear the laughter of children at play, I think of Sophie as a tiny child, running after me, wanting to be my friend, and I realise she will never laugh again. I wish I had something to remember her by, a lock of hair or a ribbon, I wish it more than anything. But all I have is memories.

And I am troubled, Uncle, I fear the sorrows and violence I have lived through are causing my mind to play tricks on me. I have seen my comrades lose their souls in battle, but what plagues me is not the same thing, I am sure of it. I fear that I am followed by someone, or something. I felt this before the great battle, as we were marching towards our various fates, and yet it has become intense in the days since. I struggle to put it in words. I don't know what it wants, or why it follows me - does it want to harm me, or question me, does it want both or neither? I don't know how I can see it, as if I dream it, or maybe I don't know it at all, as if it is a thing from deep within myself. Sometimes it is a dark, standing stone by the road, that moves when I look away, sometimes a ghost wind, that chills my bones, and says things to me I can't remember, at other times it is the laughing face of a grotesque, made by the leaves of the trees. It watches me in every tavern, it is there in every village. I have tried to accost it, but it vanishes every time, like winter mist. Am I seeing something real, or do I see something that is not there? Maybe it is a phantom, that waits for a chance to drag me to hell as punishment for the horrors I have inflicted on other men in the King's name. Even though I held the square at Waterloo, when the night falls I am afraid.

Please write to me, Uncle, I fear that now Sophie and Jackie are both gone, you are the only family I have left in the world. But tell no-one of my troubles, Uncle, and if something should happen to me, I beg you to destroy this letter, for the sake of my honour as a soldier. Tomorrow we march for Paris, and perhaps things may resolve themselves. I will write again as soon as I can.

Your nephew,   Alfred.

I wondered if the letter was the ramblings of a soldier who had suffered from what had become known in the war as 'shell shock'. In the evenings of my stay in Souillac I continued to ponder the strange document, but try as I might, it defied my attempts to understand it. Yet I had become so fascinated by the letter that I felt a need to find out more. I decided to write to my old school friend, Lambert Woff. Lambert was a highly respected professor of neuroscience at Stuttgart University - I thought he might have some interesting insights into Corporal Wistremy's state of mind. I wrote out a copy of the letter and sent it to Lambert with assurances that I wouldn't mind if he was too busy to indulge me. His reply came three weeks later, forwarded to my hotel in Marseilles;

Dear Blutter,

It's marvellous to hear from you, old friend! I hope you are enjoying your travels. The letter you sent me certainly offered a fascinating study for a neuroscientist. Mental aberrations are well and truly within the purview of my field, and I took pleasure in turning my mind to it. However, I admit that some of the mysteries in the letter are beyond my area of expertise!

Your supposition that Corporal Wistremy suffered from shell shock is quite possible, however the study of extreme psychosis as a response to intense trauma is very much in its formative stages, and we can't look there for unequivocal answers. Wistremy obviously had some mental disorder, but I doubt he had the same affliction that was suffered by the servicemen in the last war. Soldiers in the Napoleonic wars spent most of their time marching and looting, unlike the intense and constant violence that occurred in the trenches. Waterloo only lasted a day, But the horror of Passchendaele lasted for five months. I don't think that Wistremy was suffering from delusions, as he was coherent, able to monitor and evaluate his own thoughts, and at no stage was he convinced of the reality of his experience. But he was certainly having hallucinations of some kind. There seems to have been a grievance between him and his comrades, so they may have been giving him narcotic substances without his knowledge, out of malice. It is also possible that Wistremy's wound was more serious than he realised, and the entire letter was written during a bout of fever. And of course, sometimes we see psychosis manifest itself for no reason at all.

Beyond that, there is little we can deduce from the letter itself. However, a little research was possible. Facsimiles from the archives of the British Museum are occasionally sent to the university on request, and the following information was obtained without too much difficulty. It seems the 52nd Light Infantry (Oxfordshire) was a large regiment, which served the Empire with distinction for quite some time, although they are no longer extant. Unfortunately their records are not exhaustive, and all that is recorded is that a Corporal Alfred Wistremy enlisted in 1810. What is rather singular is that generally there is a record of how each soldier left the regiment, whether by discharge, death in action or missing in action. For Corporal Wistremy there is only a blank space.

The Lord Whyte reference, however, provides something more. The relevant excerpt of Debrett’s Peerage reads;

"Milton Hume Whyte was the chief assistant to the Secretary at War who fell into disgrace after rumours spread that he was working to construct what he called 'artificial men', to serve in His Majesty's Armed Forces in place of flesh and blood soldiers. His creations were said to be made of clockwork and other apparatus of an unknown nature, and supplied with memories that would give them the motivation to fight. Whyte took his own life when he came to believe that these memories made them just as capable of suffering as any normal man."

It is hard to know what to think! The archivists failed to find any other reference to our troubled inventor, so perhaps we shouldn't take this entry too seriously. I can only surmise that somebody was playing a cruel and elaborate joke. After such a long time, perhaps we can only say that sometimes the answer is that there is no answer.

But a fascinating piece of history you have there, old chap. I think I'll present it to some of my vacuous undergraduates, and see what they make of it!

Best wishes,

Woffle

Perhaps I should have told him about the mannequin in the junk shop...

April, 2010. Revised September, 2015 - May, 2016 - January, 2018

 the next chapter » 
 « contents