The Waterloo Veteran by Edward William Thomson
Is Waterloo a dead word to you? the name
of a plain of battle, no more? Or do you
see, on a space of rising ground, the little long-coated
man with marble features, and unquenchable
eyes that pierce through rolling
smoke to where the relics of the old Guard
of France stagger and rally and reach fiercely
again up the hill of St. Jean toward the squares,
set, torn, red, re-formed, stubborn, mangled,
victorious beneath the unflinching will of him
behind there,—the Iron Duke of England?
Or is your interest in the fight literary? and
do you see in a pause of the conflict Major
O'Dowd sitting on the carcass of Pyramus
refreshing himself from that case-bottle of
sound brandy? George Osborne lying yonder,
all his fopperies ended, with a bullet through his
heart? Rawdon Crawley riding stolidly behind
General Tufto along the front of the shattered
regiment where Captain Dobbin stands heartsick
for poor Emily?
Or maybe the struggle arranges itself in your
vision around one figure not named in history
or fiction,—that of your grandfather, or his
father, or some old dead soldier of the great
wars whose blood you exult to inherit, or some
grim veteran whom you saw tottering to the roll-call
beyond when the Queen was young and you
were a little boy.
For me the shadows of the battle are so
grouped round old John Locke that the historians,
story-tellers, and painters may never quite
persuade me that he was not the centre and
real hero of the action. The French cuirassiers
in my thought-pictures charge again and again
vainly against old John; he it is who breaks the
New Guard; upon the ground that he defends
the Emperor's eyes are fixed all day long. It
is John who occasionally glances at the sky with
wonder if Blucher has failed them. Upon
Shaw the Lifeguardsman, and John, the Duke
plainly most relies, and the words that Wellington
actually speaks when the time comes for
advance are, "Up, John, and at them!"
How fate drifted the old veteran of Waterloo
into our little Canadian Lake Erie village I
never knew. Drifted him? No; he ever
marched as if under the orders of his commander.
Tall, thin, white-haired, close-shaven,
and always in knee-breeches and long stockings,
his was an antique and martial figure. "Fresh
white-fish" was his cry, which he delivered as
if calling all the village to fall in for drill.
So impressive was his demeanor that he dignified
his occupation. For years after he disappeared,
the peddling of white-fish by horse
and cart was regarded in that district as peculiarly
respectacle. It was a glorious trade when
old John Locke held the steelyards and served
out the glittering fish with an air of distributing
ammunition for a long day's combat.
I believe I noticed, on the first day I saw
him, how he tapped his left breast with a proud
gesture when he had done with a lot of customers
and was about to march again at the head
of his horse. That restored him from trade to
his soldiership—he had saluted his Waterloo
medal! There beneath his threadbare old blue
coat it lay, always felt by the heart of the hero.
"Why doesn't he wear it outside?" I once
"He used to," said my father, "till Hiram
Beaman, the druggist, asked him what he'd
'take for the bit of pewter.'"
"What did old John say, sir?"
"'Take for the bit of pewter!' said he, looking
hard at Beaman with scorn. 'I've took
better men's lives nor ever yours was for to get
it, and I'd sell my own for it as quick as ever
I offered it before.'
"'More fool you,' said Beaman.
"'You're nowt,' said old John, very calm
and cold, 'you're nowt but walking dirt.'
From that day forth he would never sell Beaman
a fish; he wouldn't touch his money."
It must have been late in 1854 or early in
1855 that I first saw the famous medal. Going
home from school on a bright winter afternoon,
I met old John walking very erect, without his
usual fish-supply. A dull round white spot was
clasped on the left breast of his coat.
"Mr. Locke," said the small boy, staring
with admiration, "is that your glorious Waterloo
"You're a good little lad!" He stooped to
let me see the noble pewter. "War's declared
against Rooshia, and now it's right to show it.
The old regiment's sailed, and my only son is
with the colors."
Then he took me by the hand and led me
into the village store, where the lawyer read
aloud the news from the paper that the veteran
gave him. In those days there was no railway
within fifty miles of us. It had chanced that
some fisherman brought old John a later paper
than any previously received in the village.
"Ay, but the Duke is gone," said he, shaking
his white head, "and it's curious to be fighting
on the same side with another Boney."
All that winter and the next, all the long
summer between, old John displayed his medal.
When the report of Alma came, his remarks on
the French failure to get into the fight were
severe. "What was they ever, at best, without
Boney?" he would inquire. But a letter from
his son after Inkermann changed all that.
"Half of us was killed, and the rest of us
clean tired with fighting," wrote Corporal
Locke. "What with a bullet through the flesh
of my right leg, and the fatigue of using the
bayonet so long, I was like to drop. The Russians
was coming on again as if there was no
end to them, when strange drums came sounding
in the mist behind us. With that we
closed up and faced half-round, thinking they
had outflanked us and the day was gone, so
there was nothing more to do but make out to
die hard, like the sons of Waterloo men. You
would have been pleased to see the looks of
what was left of the old regiment, father. Then
all of a sudden a French column came up the
rise out of the mist, screaming, 'Vive l'Empereur!'
their drums beating the charge. We
gave them room, for we were too dead tired to
go first. On they went like mad at the Russians,
so that was the end of a hard morning's
work. I was down,—fainted with loss of blood,—but
I will soon be fit for duty again. When
I came to myself there was a Frenchman pouring
brandy down my throat, and talking in his
gibberish as kind as any Christian. Never a
word will I say agin them red-legged French
"Show me the man that would!" growled old
John. "It was never in them French to act
cowardly. Didn't they beat all the world, and
even stand up many's the day agen ourselves
and the Duke? They didn't beat,—it wouldn't
be in reason,—but they tried brave enough, and
what more'd you ask of mortal men?"
With the ending of the Crimean War our
village was illuminated. Rows of tallow candles
in every window, fireworks in a vacant field, and
a torchlight procession! Old John marched
at its head in full regimentals, straight as a
ramrod, the hero of the night. His son had
been promoted for bravery on the field. After
John came a dozen gray militiamen of Queenston
Heights, Lundy's Lane, and Chippewa;
next some forty volunteers of '37. And we
boys of the U. E. Loyalist settlement cheered
and cheered, thrilled with an intense vague
knowledge that the old army of Wellington kept
ghostly step with John, while aerial trumpets
and drums pealed and beat with rejoicing at
the fresh glory of the race and the union of
English-speaking men unconsciously celebrated
and symbolized by the little rustic parade.
After that the old man again wore his medal
concealed. The Chinese War of 1857 was too
contemptible to celebrate by displaying his
badge of Waterloo.
Then came the dreadful tale of the Sepoy
mutiny—Meerut, Delhi, Cawnpore! After the
tale of Nana Sahib's massacre of women and
children was read to old John he never smiled,
I think. Week after week, month after month,
as hideous tidings poured steadily in, his face
became more haggard, gray, and dreadful. The
feeling that he was too old for use seemed to
shame him. He no longer carried his head
high, as of yore. That his son was not marching
behind Havelock with the avenging army
seemed to cut our veteran sorely. Sergeant
Locke had sailed with the old regiment to join
Outram in Persia before the Sepoys broke
loose. It was at this time that old John was
first heard to say, "I'm 'feared something's
gone wrong with my heart."
Months went by before we learned that the
troops for Persia had been stopped on their
way and thrown into India against the mutineers.
At that news old John marched into the village
with a prouder air than he had worn for many
a day. His medal was again on his breast.
It was but the next month, I think, that the
village lawyer stood reading aloud the account
of the capture of a great Sepoy fort. The veteran
entered the post-office, and all made way
for him. The reading went on:—
"The blowing open of the Northern Gate
was the grandest personal exploit of the attack.
It was performed by native sappers, covered
by the fire of two regiments, and headed by
Lieutenants Holder and Dacre, Sergeants Green,
Carmody, Macpherson, and Locke."
The lawyer paused. Every eye turned to
the face of the old Waterloo soldier. He
straightened up to keener attention, threw out
his chest, and tapped the glorious medal in
salute of the names of the brave.
"God be praised, my son was there!" he
said. "Read on."
"Sergeant Carmody, while laying the powder,
was killed, and the native havildar wounded.
The powder having been laid, the advance
party slipped down into the ditch to allow the
firing party, under Lieutenant Dacre, to do its
duty. While trying to fire the charge he was
shot through one arm and leg. He sank, but
handed the match to Sergeant Macpherson,
who was at once shot dead. Sergeant Locke,
already wounded severely in the shoulder, then
seized the match, and succeeded in firing the
train. He fell at that moment, literally riddled
"Read on," said old John, in a deeper voice.
All forbore to look twice upon his face.
"Others of the party were falling, when the
mighty gate was blown to fragments, and the
waiting regiments of infantry, under Colonel
Campbell, rushed into the breach."
There was a long silence in the post-office,
till old John spoke once more.
"The Lord God be thanked for all his dealings
with us! My son, Sergeant Locke, died
well for England, Queen, and Duty."
Nervously fingering the treasure on his breast,
the old soldier wheeled about, and marched
proudly straight down the middle of the village
street to his lonely cabin.
The villagers never saw him in life again.
Next day he did not appear. All refrained
from intruding on his mourning. But in the
evening, when the Episcopalian minister heard
of his parishioner's loss, he walked to old John's
There, stretched upon his straw bed, he lay
in his antique regimentals, stiffer than At Attention,
all his medals fastened below that of
Waterloo above his quiet heart. His right
hand lay on an open Bible, and his face wore an
expression as of looking for ever and ever upon
Sergeant Locke and the Great Commander
who takes back unto Him the heroes He
fashions to sweeten the world.