The Waterloo Project: Background

Despite being a non-theist Quaker, I have an obsession with war — specifically the Napoleonic Wars. I find the whole history fascinating, from the weaponry to the women who followed the drum, to the strategies to the equipment and the diseases and the supply lines and the shifting alliances (and the clothes.) I am also fascinated with the aftermath — thousands of veterans returned to their homes with something that looks like PTSD, and for the most part, the contemporaries managed to treat it about as well as we do — and this before anxiolytics, theory of mind or behavioral therapy. In fact, we’re now re-inventing some of their treatments.

I’m currently working on the second draft of a novel set in the immediate aftermath of Waterloo, when those who survived that field returned home and tried to resume their lives. Waterloo as a battle was probably the worst single-day mass casualty event to date, and it remained the worst until World War I — around a quarter of those who were on the field that day were killed or wounded. The day of Waterloo effectively started around noon and concluded at sunset, and it was a small battlefield — about six square miles if my math is correct. And in that small space, in those few hours, upwards of 50,000 people were killed or seriously wounded. In some places, the bodies were stacked several deep.

I knew I needed to go to England to do some on the ground research for the book — I’m setting it in Suffolk, which is not Berkshire, Manchester or London, and had entirely different social and economic structures in 1815 than the rest of the country. (As in, in Norfolk, the next county north, machine breakers got a good hold in the first part of the nineteenth century. They did not manage the same solidarity in Suffolk. I’d like to know why.) It also does not appear to have a high concentration of stately houses and nobility — most of the structures I’ve found were Victorian, not Georgian. It had a higher than average concentration of non-conformists, including Quakers, Methodists and Puritans. Suffolk is where most religious reforms have started.

I also knew that I would not be able to drive in England. However, I live at high altitude and I bike in a hilly area, so I feel confident that I’ll do fine with a combination of bikes and trains. That is a goal for this project — in the next two years, I need to be comfortable biking for four hours a day, several days a week, and doing so with a trailer at least part of the time.

Initially, I was planning to take my trip in 2014, but the longer I have to fund and prepare for this, the better. Also… delaying one year will let me be on scene for Waterloo, and for the 200th anniversary re-enactment of the battle. There will be people with black-powder rifles, and cannon, and cavalry. It will be cool.

But if I’m going to Waterloo, I want to do so with style, panache — and in period. I see no point in traveling 7000 miles to tramp around a battleground in shorts and sneakers. If I’m going to witness the re-enactment, I want to participate. I want to know what it was like to be on that battlefield.

To do so, I must be prepared to camp for several days, without ultralight backpacking gear or batteries.

And with luck, we’re seeing where this gets complicated: I want to spend three weeks in Suffolk, then cross the Channel for ten days in Belgium, then recross the Channel, spend some time in London (probably a week). I’m willing to camp the entire time (and Britain is blessed with numerous camping spaces) though I may not. I have to be able to carry all of my gear (with the assistance of my handy bike trailer and a bicycle.)

There’s a second complication — I don’t fly. I love planes, I love flight, but I hate what we’ve done to our airlines, and traveling with this kit is not going to be functional, given current restrictions. I also want to know what being on a ship is like. It turns out that taking a steerage cabin on a trans-Atlantic ship is not significantly more expensive than flying, except in terms of time. (I expect to get some reading and writing done during the two weeks of crossing.) The advantage of a ship is I can carry more luggage — and carry a few things that I can’t take on a plane. Also, no jetlag.

I do have a trial run available — the Battle of New Orleans re-enactment in January 2014. I’ll drive to that one, packing all of my gear into my Kia Soul (which has an incredible amount of cargo space) to see what I actually need and what I don’t.

That gives me my parameters: I need to build an encampment that:

–> I can carry or wheel around (no single box can weigh more than 40 pounds, the whole collection can’t weigh more than 150 pounds)
–> fits in spaces no larger than 24 inches by 36 inches by 15 inches (standard suitcase)
–> can be assembled by one technically and mechanically savvy woman of 5’3″ tall in one afternoon
–> passes period inspection to the level of standard tents (most of those I see in photos of re-enactments have machine-stitched hems and seams)
–> doesn’t force me to sleep on the ground (I’ll be 39, and I haven’t comfortably slept on the ground in years now)
–> provides sufficient shelter and space for one woman, her stuff, and will keep out the weather in both a Belgian summer and a Louisiana winter.
–> uses off-the-shelf components with minimal modification as much as possible.

I also need to build a period wardrobe that has its own set of parameters, including:

–> sufficiently warm for a Louisiana winter and a Belgian summer (according to NOAA and The Weather Channel, their averages are remarkably identical.)
–> exact for 1814/15
–> comfortable for daily wear
–> passes as formal wear for shipboard
–> possibly acceptable as regular daily wear. (Empire and militaria being fashionable at the moment)

The Waterloo Project: Shelter Sketches and Sketch-ups

The most critical piece of equipment for my Waterloo adventure will be the tent. I have to be able to erect and dismantle it in under two hours, and I have to be able to carry it, which means it has to weigh as little as possible. It needs to be water-resistant (water-proofing is aspirational) because it’s likely to rain in Belgium. (It did, on June 18, 1815 — that’s why the battle started around noon.)

It also has to be period — so no domes, no Sibleys, no tipis or wigwams. (Bender domes are period for the Roma, but by 1815, they were transitioning from their traditional domes to vardos.) It also has to be made of cotton or linen, not nylon. Earlier tents (medieval) were generally round with center pole and spokes, and few if any external guy lines, but by 1815, the structures were mostly either wedges or marquees.

However, all tents of the time were essentially custom, save for the simplest wedges (which were mostly the equivalent of shelter-halves — two or three men each carried a tarp; one for the pup-tent walls, one for a rain fly or floor.) There really weren’t tents at Waterloo — the actual battle happened too fast.

I’ve got two initial designs that I’m willing to try. The first is a basic marquee (i.e. rectangular, with a peaked roof) made from 3/4″ square dowels, joined with threaded inserts and threaded rods and angle brace hardware. It will have interior tie downs and staking, and the exterior will be entirely attached together, so it basically slips over the frame like a pillowcase. (order of assembly — roof trusses, then the fabric over-wrap and rain-fly, then the first set of legs, then the second set, then tie everything down.)

The frame will look like this:


The body will look something like this: (photo credit to Charlie Scott; construction credit to Sally Scott, link here )


If that doesn’t meet my parameters for packability and ease of construction, then there’s the covered wagon system. I’ve got images of extant covered wagons from the supply trains of the armies, but Napoleonic Wars wagons were smaller and lighter than American prairie schooners or Conestogas. They were simple boxes, usually about 4.5 feet wide and 7-8 long, about 6 tall from bed to peak, and they used willow withes as wagon bows instead of steam-bent planks. Willow withes are hard to get, but small diameter bamboo plant stakes make a decent substitution.

This is a preliminary sketch, using IKEA Ivar shelf standards and IKEA Gorm shelves. The point of using IKEA components is they’re off the shelf, there’s an IKEA near Waterloo, they require very little modification, and being soft wood, they’ll take screws and drilling easily. The downside of the IKEA solution is they generate waste I’ll have to get rid of and depending on the world financial situation, they may be significantly more expensive in two and a half years than they are now.


Fabric will be water-resistant cotton twill, selected specifically for lightness and water-resistance. Finely woven twill (think raincoat fabric) is incredibly sturdy, reasonably warm, and much lighter than canvas or duck. It’s not quite as light as nylon, but it’s also not as flammable. I’ll be adding a beeswax finish to seams to help with water-resistance. The twill I’ve selected weighs 6 ounces to the square yard, and I expect this to take between 15 and 18 yards of 60″ wide fabric, giving me a weight in fabric of about 15 pounds.

Groundcloth and floor will probably be canvas paint tarps — they’re sturdier than twill, so better able to handle being walked upon.