On the 200th anniversary of Waterloo, it makes sense to think about myths, about legends and about national identity. To be honest, you’ll struggle to avoid these things.
There are 2 key myths surrounding Waterloo station that relate to the battle, both of which it seems are pretty much false. The first relates to Churchill’s funeral, the second to the Channel Tunnel. Both conjure up images of long running feuds, both ultimately show us little more than practicality and logistics. What is important, perhaps, is the reality that we look for these national myths in the storm of events we see every day. Meta-narratives help us to package the world, just as they help us to simplify and essentialize national identities and national cultures.
The first myth concerns a figure that many consider the ultimate Briton, Winston Churchill. His wartime feuding with Charles De Gaulle, head of the Free French in London and France’s self-appointed saviour is the stuff of legend (and, indeed many academic studies). Churchill’s resignation from office in 1955 saw him finally retire, ending his long-running service. From that point on, as Churchill neared the end of his life, plans began to ensure that this hero of the nation would receive a state funeral that did him justice. Yet, according to some, there was more at play…
“However, Churchill decided to add one more request to the Earl Marshal’s arrangements, by insisting that his funeral train departed from Waterloo. This caused many complications, as Bladon was on the former Great Western Railway line and the natural departure point for such a journey would be Paddington, so why Waterloo?
Churchill revelled in the idea that the French President, Charles de Gaulle would have to walk bare headed under the archway that celebrates one of the Britain’s greatest victories over France. De Gaulle would also no doubt see the greater meaning in this arch as a symbol of how Churchill saw Britain’s history from the Spanish Armada to the Battle of Britain, as the nation that would never lie down before a tyrant.”
This is contested, however, and the notion that this was a consideration has been refuted by blogger Dr Beachcombing (@DrBeachcombing) over at StrangeHistory.net.
Firstly, it appears that Churchill was not on the planning committee for his own funeral. Waterloo station was close to the river, and this allowed an easier transfer from the boat that had carried his coffin down the Thames. Likewise, it seems, that considerations were based on the use of the train ‘Winston Churchill’ (Battle of Britain Class Locomotive No. 34051). Based on the Reading line that connected into Waterloo, and operated by Southern Rail, who served Waterloo, it seemed that the choice was rather obvious. Likewise, this allowed connection up to Bladon, Oxfordshire, where Churchill was laid to rest in his family plot.
De Gaulle’s attendance at the funeral was not at the behest of some post-humous jape. It would seem, as ably demonstrated at StrangeHistory.net, that logistics trumped the flexing of national mythologies.
The Channel Tunnel
The siting of the Rail link to France at Waterloo station is another obvious bone of contention. Connecting Paris and London was the start of a wonderful cross-pollination, but it was not achieved without controversy. Some have said that welcoming the French to London through the Waterloo Arch, as Churchill was purported to have done with De Gaulle, was the joke that kept on giving. We can look a bit harder at this, however, by sampling some of the newspapers from the time, to get a sense of how people thought about the station. Contentious, or simply a coincidence?
In traditional British style, most of the discussion in the press focussed on criticisms of the project management and the expense. An article in The Independent related concerns about costs, speed and the potential for the spread of rabies. They also reported on some contrasting views between Britons and their continental neighbours:
“Tim Hayes, insurance agent, stops in the sunshine. He and his wife, Eileen, have been shopping.”I just don’t like them. We’ve been fighting the sons of bitches since 1066. Everything the French do they do for themselves. It will be a disaster.” Mr and Mrs Hayes move on, after confiding that their son works for the European Commission in Brussels. […] But here is Dr Antonio D’Eugenio, from Italy and the University of Kent, who says that Britain can no longer stay an island, and Jean Pierre Iglesier, a teacher on a day trip, who says simply ”C’est progres.””
Likewise, The Vancouver Sun reported on the traditional British attitudes of isolationism. Quoting one couple who felt non-plussed by an exhibit displaying the project in Kent:
“”We’re a bit resentful about being made to join Europe,” said Diane Palmer of Broadstairs as she viewed models of the $ 15.5-billion Cdn system of tunnels and terminals that is called the largest privately financed engineering project in history.
“Deep down we’re an island people still and I think we always will be,” said her husband, John.”
Certainly there was some discussion of the symbolism around the link between the two nations, and mentions of 1066 and island nations only served to extend that. This was not simply discussed in Britain and France. Indeed, in the Anglosphere, the notion evoked a little humour. In The New York Times an editorial mooted the potential meaning of names:
“What has been suggested is a direct T.G.V. link between Paris and London when the Channel Tunnel is finally opened. This, of course, will need to be given a suitably French and heroic title, and the preferred name is the Napoleon Line. However, someone in the railway bureaucracy, showing a rare sense of humor, has made a further suggestion about where the high-speed Napoleon should finish its journey. Where else but London’s Waterloo station?”
This was the message at the heart of the quandary. What of the symbolism that made us suspect Churchill’s dying wish? Was Waterloo a choice designed to irk the French?
In reality, the logistics of the plan were much more pressing than concerns about wounded dignity or historic battles. That said, this was a challenging test for the logic of the market, which clashed with a number of different interest groups. An article in The Times outline the main points in, what it called “a soap opera whose sub-plots now draw in almost every business, interest group, and political faction in Britain”:
- British Rail faced a volley of criticism as it planned its routes up from the Tunnel Crossing (put in place by the 1987 Channel Tunnel Act), “through the back-gardens of half the Conservative constituency chairmen in Kent.”
- Scrambling in the face of a political storm, BR found itself forced to rely on private companies and come cap in hand to the public purse to ensure the project was viable.
- It then had to try and find the route into London that caused the least tunneling damage, and disrupted the fewest commuter lines.
- One of the few places with space for construction of an extra platform alongside a terminal station was Waterloo, the other was Stratford (with the attraction that it would bolster Canary Wharf).
- As ever, where there are bankers, there are Essex Birds. In this case rare species around Rainham were threatened by the Stratford link, adding extra complications.
As it happens, the biggest reason the French were a factor in the decision was that they continued to race ahead in the construction of high speed trains and the laying of lines. Competition, it seemed, is better in retrospect, and more palatable when we’re commemorating victories than logistics. When it came time to open the line, on 6 May 1994, The Observer reported that:
“No blows were exchanged, no abuse uttered. And there was no nasty jokes Waterloo, the Second World War, British cuisine or the sexual predilections of British male politicians.”
Admittedly, the jibes may now be about the sexual proclivity of French politicians, and The Observer did go on to make a joke about Waterloo in the self-same article…
Considering both of these myths, we can see something of a British obsession with French sensitivities. It seems we console ourselves with the notion that others are especially sensitive to our history. Certainly, we can see the echoes of histrocial battles, the importance of national myths and the jostling that has been a traditional sport between the French and the British. Yet, what cuts across all of these historical sensibilities, and all of these essentialising simplifications is shown in a fantastic quote from someone who attended the opening of the line:
“Richard Edmondson, 45, a self-confessed train nutter from Sevenoaks, Kent, who owns the three oldest private railway coaches in Britain, said: ‘Boundaries do not make a civilization: it’s about shared values and shared history.”
That’s one train nutter I can wholeheartedly agree with.
 R. Hollowood, ‘Planning Winston’s Funeral Operation’, National Railway Museum blog, 7 January 2015. URL: http://blog.nrm.org.uk/2015/01/07/planning-winstons-funeral-operation/. Accessed 16 June 2015.
 C. Nevin, ‘The making of a great British mess’, The Independent, 13 May 1990.
 M. Farrow, ‘Tunnel vision fails to excite isolationist Britons’. Vancouver Sun, 22 August 1991.
 P. Mayle, ‘France’s Favourite Country’, The New York Times, 6 January, 1991.
 N. Thomas, ‘Whose line is it anyway?’, The Times, 5 October 1991.
 D. Harrison, ‘La Manche, la reine – et le lunch’, The Observer, 8 May, 1994.
 D. Harrison, ‘La Manche, la reine – et le lunch’, The Observer, 8 May, 1994.