News of Waterloo led to the writing of a whole regiment of songs, of varying quality: this, with words by J Thompson, and to the tune of the ‘Roast Beef of Old England’, is one of the best.
Its first line presupposes knowledge of the event – ‘You’ve heard of a battle that’s lately been won’ – and immediately turns to managing the news. The troops are brave and British, led by Wellington, rather than, say, a multi-national force of mostly German, Dutch-Belgian and Irish troops, some of whom ran away, led by Wellington and Blücher.
The tone is heroic. Though ‘the slaughter was dreadful’ and the singers must ‘tell it with pain’ in verse six, the focus shifts straight away; even the fallen ‘fought like lions’. Greater prominence is given to the spoils – cannon, baggage, eagles – and the prospect of peace. But excessive jingoism is avoided; there is gloating, but no demonisation of the defeated.
Such a blustering lyric would fall flat without a well-matched tune. ‘The Roast Beef of Old England’ is perfect: a rousing, traditional drinking song, with a chorus for listeners to join in with. Unusually for a Pitts broadside, the words fit the rhythm exactly: it is likely that this song was a success in London’s public houses at spreading the impression of a great British victory.