Wednesday, 9 February 2011

A Sense of Time and Place

I see from the Independent today that the cross from the Hougoumont Chapel has been stolen. You know, the one that survived the fire when the Chateau was being defended during the Battle of Waterloo. Here's the URL for the article:

Read the report to get the full story but briefly in order to steal it the thieves had to remove stonework, take out the door bolt and then replace it so no one would notice. Which no one has done for probably a couple of weeks. And the thing weighs 200kg.

So, not nicked by a couple of Boozed-up Belgian Boys for a bit of a laugh. Clearly stolen to order for a “collector” with a Waterloo obsession. Or so the paper thinks, although it probably isn’t rocket science to work that out. Interpol are on the case.

Part of me thinks that we shouldn’t invest too much in physical objects when thinking about battles. Battles are about the men who are there, although as wargamers we obsess over hardware and uniforms. After the men it's about the ground and the buildings, so if someone burned down what’s left of Hougoumont that has more impact on our understanding than the theft of the cross.

However these things are invested with a resonance that goes with time and place. It is clearly better to leave the cross on the battlefield than move it to the National Museum of Belgium but the consequence of that is that the security will be lower. The act of theft isn’t just an act of illegality its an act of supreme selfishness. By placing it in a private collection it denies the rest of us from feeling the link to the past. When you stand and look at an object like this I find it hard not to think that many of those who defended this building stood and looked and maybe prayed for deliverance. It is a tangible link to past events and people.

So, whoever you are I hope you get a conscience and return it. Either that or Mr InterPlod turns up on your doorstep and retrieves it with extreme prejudice. Or if we get really lucky it’ll fall off the wall and bash your brains in. Or something equally karmic.


  1. But the physical objects do provide those links "lest we forget" Not that I'm a militaria collector- A couple of letters- one from the Indian Mutiny and the autographs of 6 Ghurka VCs are about my lot -except for some Guards memorabilia and yes its about "the lads that he smiled at" to quote Sassoon and entirley agree with your point about theft - not that there will be any extreme prejudice here perhaps a bit of voting from a prison cell though.

  2. I'm not saying the physical memorabilia isn't important. I just think sometimes we over focus on it. However the point with this cross is that as a piece of memorabilia it was exactly where it should have been. It was in a place where people could visit the site and also get that link via a physical object back to the people who were there.

    The thing is that you can look at that and think spiritual thoughts in the same way and virtually in the same place as a Coldstream Guardsman back on that day in 1815.

    Letters and writings are a different type of item. I can still remember sitting in the main Sheffield City Library and opening the box of Bright Papers (John Bright was an ECW Parliamentarian colonel) and seeing then reading the words of a man from 350 years before. I can imagine him sitting at a desk with a pen and writing these letters. Much as I might like to own them to deny that feeling to another person who has just as much right to experience the same feeling is wrong. But then you become aware that if people don't collect these items then they will disappear for good and we all lose them (again something not true of the cross).

    I'd love to see a scan of your IM letter. And 6 Gurkha VC autographs. Did you meet them? It would be wonderful to have done so but just to think that the same hand that held the pen also held the Kukri whilst screaming "Ay-O Goorkali" is fabulous.