The Ball & The Battlefield: Women & Waterloo

An example of the romanticized ideals surrounding the Battle of Waterloo

An example of the romanticized ideals surrounding the Battle of Waterloo

For better or for worse, romantic myths surround the Battle of Waterloo. There is something irresistible in the legends of the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball – a blossoming romance and then coming battle separating lovers. But how accurate are these ideals?

In the last few weeks as I’ve been brushing up on my Waterloo knowledge, I found myself searching for civilians…again. What was their experience of Waterloo? Today, I present you with a few of my notes regarding women in the Waterloo Campaign and on the battlefield. I think you will be surprised by some of the realities…but will find that the romantic ideals can still exist within the framework of history.

Ladies & Waterloo

An artist's idea of the Duchess of Richmond's Ball

An artist’s idea of the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball

The Ball & “Society” Ladies Famous (or infamous), the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball on June 15, 1815, became the most well-known social event of the season in Brussels, Belgium, simply because the Duke of Wellington received the final and decisive information about French movements while at the ball. A number of noble British families – finding their money bags running low due to excessive gambling – raced for Continental Europe in 1814 and established their little clique in Brussels, seeking a “less-expensive” lifestyle. (Great idea…didn’t work!) So that’s how so many of the English nobility civilians happen to be “in the area.” Back to The Ball…it ended fairly quickly after Wellington called the officers and sent out orders to march and the ladies went into a panic, fearing the French would arrive the next day. (They sure had a lot of confidence in their army, didn’t they?)

Soldiers’ Wives & Families When a British regiment departed from England, lots were cast to decide which soldiers got to bring along their wives and families. These “lucky” civilians who got to come along endured the same hardships as everyone else in the regiment. The women often got to do all the laundry too…fun (or not!). There were certainly families present at the Battle of Waterloo, but they mostly remained with the supply wagons behind the fighting lines, hiding or helping to care for the wounded. However, there is one account of a young wife and her baby hiding behind a hedge too close to the battlefield; they were killed by cannon shot – a tragic reminder of the some of the dangers threatening these families.

“Peasant” Women Waterloo Battlefield was originally a farming community, and three major farms are key positions in the fighting area. These civilians were displaced by the war and fled for their lives, taking with them any possession they could carry. In the villages of Waterloo and Mt. Saint Jean, civilian homes were quickly converted to field hospitals. The women and their families who originally lived in this area would never have “normal” lives again – their property was completely destroyed.

Women in the Battle After the battle, a burial detail came across a young French cavalry officer, whose uniform markings indicated multiple years of military service. At some point in the burial process, they discovered the officer was actually a woman. Nothing else is known about her, but there are many questions: why did she enlist? How long did she serve? Did anyone know their officer was a woman? And…were there any other women fighting in the ranks at Waterloo?

Lady De Lancey

Lady De Lancey

Lady De Lancey: Epic Tale of Romance & Tragedy

The story of a bride who pinned her husband’s medals to his uniform, kissed him good-bye, and sent him to war…not knowing the next time she saw him he would be fighting for life. The story of a young woman who dares to travel to one of the most horrific battlefields in history to find her wounded husband. The story of a wife who fell asleep in her wounded husband’s arms.

Far surpassing the scandalous affairs or fictional accounts of Waterloo romance, the true story of Sir William and Lady Magdalene De Lancey is all that anyone could ask for when searching for a romanticized ideal of Waterloo.

Sir William H. DeLancey

Sir William H. DeLancey

Lady Magdalene De Lancey was the twenty-two year old bride of Sir William De Lancey who was the quartermaster and trusted comrade of the Duke of Wellington. Married for only a few weeks when the Waterloo Campaign began and interrupted her honeymoon, Magdalene accompanied her husband to Brussels. When the army departed for the battlefield, she traveled to a safer city and waited for news of the fighting. Anxious days past, and conflicting news reports nearly drove Magdalene crazy. Finally, a definitive account arrived: Sir William was wounded.

Terrified her beloved husband would die before she arrived, Magdalene set out for Waterloo battlefield. The journey was not easy, but at her destination, Sir William was still alive. She spent six days caring for him, and some of the surgeons praised her calmness and nursing skills. Her husband did not get better, and there came a point where Magdalene gave up all hope of his recovery. Though she tried to prepare herself, Sir William’s death was almost the end of Magdalene’s world. She made certain he was buried with proper military honor and eventually returned to England, where she wrote her account of Waterloo.

(Find the FREE primary source here at Project Gutenberg)

Conclusion

While the romantic ideas swirling around the Battle of Waterloo are not necessarily without historical backing, there were many more women directly connected to the campaign, battlefield, and soldiers than we may have previously realized. While the nobility dominates the scene through the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball, soldiers wives, local civilian women, and women soldiers played a much larger (though often forgotten) role.

My favorite “Lady from Waterloo” is definitely Magdalene De Lancey…but I wish her story had a happier ending. She personifies a brave soldier’s wife and also represents the thousands of women who lost loved ones at Waterloo.

I hope this new perspective on the battle has been as interesting to you as it has been to me… This is our last blog post on Waterloo for a while since our new historical theme begins in July!

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Had you ever considered the women caught in the battlefield drama of Waterloo? I’d like to hear your thoughts or questions in the comments. 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

Reputations, Redcoats, & Squares: British Soldiers At Waterloo

British Infantry during the Napoleonic Era (not a Waterloo painting)

British Infantry during the Napoleonic Era (not a Waterloo painting)

There is an infamous quote by the Duke of Wellington regarding his British troops: “our [army] is composed of the scum of the earth — the mere scum of the earth. It is only wonderful that we should be able to make so much out of them afterwards.” (1813) That’s real encouraging, right? How much of his opinion was truth?

Today, we’ll take a less-prejudiced approach and discuss Waterloo‘s British Army. Wellington may have been partially right, but he was also partially wrong.

Not Conscripted

The first thing you need to know about the British Army of the Napoleonic Era is that it was made of volunteers. At this time, Britain did not use conscription or draft. Each regiment had to keep enlistments up and this was typically accomplished by sending out a recruiting detail who would make gloriously patriotic appeals (or monetary incentive) to get men to join the ranks. (This is vastly different from the British navy’s impressment policies, but that is another topic for another day).

So who actually enlisted? Men looking for work or escape often joined the ranks. This is what prompted Wellington’s disgusted statement. But not every soldier was fleeing a sordid past. Some needed an honest job or had patriotic motives.

Then there were the officers. Rank and commissions could be purchased. (See From Lazy Teenager to Waterloo Hero and Jane Austen’s Military for additional details.) Men from middle class families or nobility could purchase an officer’s commission and get a command position will little military experience.

The Officers’ Club

The higher ranking officers formed their own little cliques and if a man was promoted up from the ranks as a reward he was often shunned by his new peers because of his “lower social status.”

However, we must acknowledge with great joy and thanksgiving that there were very good officers in the British Army, and in 1809 actually less than 200 officers where from the nobility class. Though commissions could be purchased, many of “forgotten officers” came from the middle class and did not have the social prejudices of the nobility. Many accepted their role and were good leaders, gaining the respect of their men by fighting alongside them. Strong commanders were admired and loved by their troops, and there are multiple incidents from Waterloo battlefield of soldiers’ being angered and vowing total revenge on their enemies because of a beloved officer’s death.

British Infantry Soldiers (line formation: see "Tactics")

British Infantry Soldiers (line formation: see “Tactics”)

Soldiers of the Line

Good leadership is essential to the making of good soldiers. Thus, a regiment with responsible officers was well-drilled, prepared, and “well-behaved.”

On the whole, British troops were among the better disciplined soldiers of this era, both on the battlefield and march and in civilian towns. In battle, they gained a reputation for fierce fighting, and Napoleon’s generals predicted (correctly) that the British could not be moved from their position at Waterloo.

An example of British Infantry uniforms

An example of British Infantry uniforms

Weapons and Uniforms

We’ll talk about infantry because cavalry of this era is an entirely different story. A British infantryman carried a musket (history has nicknamed the model “Brown Bess”) and skirmishers sometimes carried the new rifles. Under perfect conditions a soldier was supposed to fire 5 shots in a minute, but 2-3 was likely more average. (Remember there’s a precise loading and firing sequence for these guns; they are not “repeaters” or “automatics.”)

Clothing was not “uniform” in this era of warfare. Each regiment usually adopted something unique. However, a “standard” British uniform was a red coat, white or black or grey pants, and some form of elaborate headwear. Scottish units might chose kilts and red jackets.

Waterloo Tactics

Stand. Kneel. Lie Down. Stand. Don’t Retreat.

Infantry tactics from the Napoleonic Era are fascinating and somewhat complex, so for the sake of time we’ll just talk about what the British infantry did on the main battle line at Waterloo.

They started off in a line, a typical British formation in a infantry vs. infantry fight. The line is exactly what it sounds like – soldiers lined up in ranks two or four deep – and this formation produced very effective fire power against attacking French columns.

When the cavalry attacks began, the infantry formed squares (squares, triangles, or circles) which placed the soldier facing outward in ranks four deep. The first two ranks knelt with bayonets facing out, the second two ranks shot at the attacking horsemen. None of the British squares at Waterloo broke! A square was very vulnerable to artillery shots, so during some of the heavier artillery fire the officers ordered the men to lie down.

And finally, the charge. Toward the end of Waterloo, British regiments bayonet charged the faltering French.

British Troops in a "Square" formation - Waterloo Campaign

British Troops in a “Square” formation – Waterloo Campaign

The Army That Stood

A number of British regiments at Waterloo were not “battle tested” and had never been under fire before. (The majority of the experienced units were still returning from the War of 1812 – ended in 1815 –  in America).

Thus, the infantry at Waterloo had much to prove and much to win. They proved their capability and courage as soldiers. They proved their ability to lead. They proved their tenacity to stand and never retreat. They won the battle, the won a new Europe, and they won a lasting reputation.

At Waterloo, the British army – despite its flaws and the nobility clique surrounding Wellington – won an impressive victory. Immortalized in history, literature, and art, these soldiers may have come from humble or disputed beginnings but ended their story becoming heroes whose actions and courage are still studied today.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Do battlefield actions “redeem” a reputation? Do you agree with Wellington’s quote or was he being a little too harsh and perhaps parading his own ability?

From Lazy Teenager To Waterloo Hero

(c) English Heritage, The Wellington Collection, Apsley House; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Once upon a time a mother did not know what to do with her teenage son. He was lazy. He didn’t want to study. He didn’t want to get a job. But, years later, he would be the hero of Europe and the man who defeated Napoleon. Meet Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington.

The Fourth Son

Arthur Wellesley had three older brothers. He was unlucky. Not that there’s any reason to suppose his brothers were mean, but in England, only the firstborn son inherited dad’s money and property. So the farther down the list of sons, the worse for you. Thus, when Arthur was born on May 1, 1769, he already faced a struggle.

However, as part of the English nobility, Arthur had the advantage of a good education as he grew older. He attended several schools and then enrolled at Eton. He hated school though, probably because he was lonely.

His father’s death and  lack of money forced Arthur and his mother to leave England to travel to Brussels, while the older brothers tried to manage the family property. Now in his early twenties, Arthur showed no inclination of finding a profession, much to his mother’s distress. Mrs. Wellesley remarked, “I don’t know what I shall do with my awkward son Arthur.”

A year at a French equestrian school improved the young man’s ambitions and, when he returned to England, his mother was pleased with his horsemanship skills and ability to speak French.

Burn The Violins

Arthur Wellesley as a young officer

Arthur Wellesley as a young officer

The Wellesley family was still short on money, but the older brothers did care about Arthur. They managed to purchase him a commission in the British army. (Yes, you could buy rank in the army and it was common practice to buy commissions for sons or brothers who needed something to do. See Jane Austen’s Military for more details.)

So Arthur joined the army in 1787…and ran up gambling debts. Several years of “regiment hopping”, more commission buying, and a brief session as a representative in Parliament, kept him “busy.” Arthur didn’t seem to excel at anything. He thought about becoming a musician, purchased several violins, and started practicing.

Then, something happened. Arthur fell in love. The girl was Miss Catherine Packenham. But there was a problem. In 1793 when Arthur asked the Packenham Family for permission to marry Miss Catherine, they said no. Miss Catherine could not marry a young man with no real profession, no money, and a bunch of debts. That was the turning point.

Furious, Arthur marched home…and threw his violins and music into the fire. He purchased a higher rank in the army – lieutenant colonel – and set off to learn a profession. He was studying the art of war. He had an ambition and purpose. His future enemies should beware!

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, Indian War Era

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, Indian War Era

Learning To Fight

Arthur’s practical military education began in 1793 during the Flanders Campaign of the Revolutionary Wars in Europe. There he observed the importance of leadership and campaign planning, learning from the failure of his superiors.

In 1797, Arthur arrived in India, where he would spend the next seven years defending the British colonies. He fought in the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War and the Second Anglo-Maratha War, winning several important victories and honing his skill as a battlefield commander.

He was promoted (no purchased commission here!) to major general for his military successes, and when he returned to England in 1804, he was made a Knight of the Bath. In the following years, Arthur served in Parliament and participated in some military operations in Continental Europe.

In 1805, Arthur – now a military hero – received some good news. The Packenham Family agreed that Miss Catherine could marry him! I wish I could say they lived happily ever after, but unfortunately that is not true.

Bleeding The Empire

1808 was a decisive year in World History. It’s the beginning of the often forgotten Peninsular War. Fought in Portugal and Spain (the Iberian Peninsula), this six year conflict severely weakened Napoleon’s empire…literally bleeding it to death.

1808 was also the decisive year for Arthur Wellesley. He became the commander of British troops on the Peninsula. It was not an easy task. The war was on-going, the Spanish and Portuguese “allies” left much to be desired. Success was very slow, but it was steady. By 1814 Arthur and his army were crossing into the southern part of France, and Napoleon – defeated in Spain and other parts of the Empire – surrendered. But there was another battle yet to come. (Also in 1814, Arthur became the first Duke of Wellington!)

"Wellington at Waterloo"

“Wellington at Waterloo”

Defeating Napoleon

In the spring of 1815, Napoleon escaped exile, raised a new army, and tried to revive his lost empire. Arthur rushed from the Congress of Vienna, back to England, and then to Belgium to command the British army.

One June 18, 1815, Arthur and about 92,000 British troops battled Napoleon. It was the first time the British commander had faced Napoleon across a battlefield. Arthur rode along his battle position, encouraging his troops and making the decisions which ensured a final victory. With the help of their Prussian allies, the British won Waterloo, and Arthur Wellesley defeated Napoleon.

The Iron Duke

Photograph of the Duke of Wellington in 1851

Photograph of the Duke of Wellington in 1851

Following the celebrations of victory, Arthur settled into politics. He was determined to never fight another battle, but he still wanted to serve his country. From 1818 to 1846, he served in many high offices of the British government, including prime minister. He supported reform and equality under law, which were not always popular ideas.

In fact, Arthur angered some of the people with his political stance and they threw rocks at his home, breaking the windows. His solution? He ordered iron shutters fasted over his new windows. Thus came the nickname “the Iron Duke.”

By 1846, Arthur was ready to retire. He spent time with family and friends, “commanded” regiments at home, and followed the political situation of the country. Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington died on September 14, 1851, at age 83. He was honored with a state funeral in London.

What We Can Learn

Most of us will not command armies and win world changing victories. So what positive lessons can we learn from Arthur Wellesley’s life? Here’s my thoughts:

#1. Burn the Violins – which means get rid of the distractions in life and focus on what really matters

#2. Learn Your Job – Wellington didn’t arrive at Waterloo with inexperience. His victory over Napoleon is directly related to all that he learned during his lengthy military career. Experienced in about 60 battles, he was ready and capable to win the one that really counted.

#3. Serve Others – I like how Wellington didn’t stop serving his country after his great victory. He spent the next 30 years reforming English law and politics and watching over the military. Once he found a purpose in life, there was no stopping this hero.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. What part of Wellington’s life was most interesting to you? Does knowing about his early life struggles and his quest to learn make him seem more real and relevant?

 

10 Things To Know About The Battle of Waterloo

I’ve noticed something. If I mention the Napoleonic Era, most people start to run the opposite direction. “What’s wrong?” I wonder. Then I realize…it’s too complicated.

And – deep inside – I do understand. There are times I wish history was simpler. I know some of you don’t believe that, but it’s true…every once and a while. So as I’m here at my desk, gazing at the Waterloo books and resources littering my floor (that was the “refresher course” earlier in the week), I’ve decided to make it simple.

Scotland_Forever!The 200th anniversary of the battle is approaching faster than the Grey cavalry, and there are some key things you need to know about the Battle of Waterloo. So prepare for the fast-action version of the story and by the end, you’ll have some new facts to impress your friends!

1. June 18, 1815: Waterloo

Let’s start with the date – it’s pretty easy – June 18, 1815. The location: Waterloo (that’s easy too!) Waterloo is located south of Brussels, in Belgium.

2. Napoleon Escapes! (And Starts It All)

About a year before, in 1814, Napoleon – the 10 year emperor of France – was forced to abdicate and was exiled to the island of Elba in the Mediterranean. Louis XVIII became the new French monarch and the other leaders of Europe met to redraw the borders of their countries after the Napoleon upheaval of the last decade.

Napoleon hated exile, so in March 1815, he escaped, returned to France, and raised a new army. But his time was limited. Napoleon only had One Hundred Days in power because…

3. “Stop The Tyrant” Becomes A Rallying Cry

Terrified European leaders of Russia, Austria, Prussia, and Britain declared war against Napoleon. (Interestingly, they did not declare war on France, rather they declared against a single man.) They did not want another decade of blood-shed because a “power hungry maniac” wanted their countries. The Allies – that’s what historians call the four nations listed above, during this era – made a plan and raised armies of their own.

The Prussians, commanded by General Blucher, and the British, commanded by Arthur Wellesley: The Duke of Wellington, assembled in Belgium. They faced Napoleon who had moved his army toward them.

4. The Weather Is Not Neutral

There was at least one thing the Allied troops and Napoleon’s men had in common. The 125,000 Frenchmen, 120,000 Prussians, and 92,000 British were miserable in the days leading up to Waterloo. It rained and it poured, and the roads became bogs, and the battlefield turned to mud.

Napoleon relied heavily on his artillery units, but at Waterloo the muddy ground drastically reduced the artillery effect. In those days, round shot was commonly used, and it was supposed to bounce through enemy lines…well, at Waterloo the round shot was just ploughing nice long, muddy trenches. Uh, oh! General Weather sides with the Allies.

800px-Battle_of_Waterloo_map - Copy

Waterloo Battle Map, with “traffic light” analogy

5. The Battle Isn’t Overly Complicated

Some of you don’t believe my statement, but we’re going to make this easy. Picture a stoplight (okay, they’re also called “traffic lights”) lying on it’s side. See my map if you’re confused.

There are 3 important points in the middle of the battlefield, all of them are farm buildings: Hougomont (green light), La Haye Sainte (yellow light), and La Haire (red light). Behind the “traffic light” (where all the red is on the map) is the British position. The French are on the other side and are shown in blue.

The #1 thing to remember: the French attack, the British defend, the Prussians advance.

Now, a little more explanation…The French hammered the British defensive squares with cavalry and infantry attacks. The British held onto their position and their cavalry did retaliate with some semi-glorious charges. By mid-afternoon, Prussian soldiers arrived on the battlefield to aid the British. Napoleon sent in his most trusted soldiers – The Guard – and they were defeated. The French army fled, and the Prussians pursued. Got it? Good! That’s Waterloo in a nutshell.

6. The Aftermath Was Horrible

The aftermath of all battles is dreadful. However, Waterloo was especially awful. It was a small battlefield to begin with, and, by the end of the fighting, there were about 65,000 casualties…and that may be a low estimate.

Surveying his “field of victory”, the Duke of Wellington remarked, “Next to a battle lost, the greatest misery is a battle won.”

7. The End of Napoleon

No, Napoleon didn’t die at Waterloo. He fled. And surrendered to the British a few weeks later. The Allies eventually sent the former emperor and military genius into exile again. But this time he was forced to stay on St. Helena, an island in the Atlantic, between Africa and South America. Napoleon died in 1821.

8. The Beginning of Modern Europe

Waterloo is a decisive battle in world history. While the effects of Napoleon’s Era would linger for decades (and even centuries), the man himself was gone. Napoleon’s final exile ushers in a new era for Europe.

At the Congress of Vienna, Allied Leaders talked, plotted, planned, and carved up the map. Best of all, democracy was coming to Europe. Fearful of kings and emperors, the state ministers began to allow more freedom throughout their countries. This would be beneficial and revolutionary in the coming years. Modern Europe was emerging.

One of my all-time favorite historical paintings - "Wellington at Waterloo"

One of my all-time favorite historical paintings – “Wellington at Waterloo”

9. Waterloo Impacted…Everything

I may have exaggerated a little. But Waterloo influenced art, literature, education, politics, culture, and the military. (This could be a whole blog post on its own!) This turning point battle loomed large in people’s minds. It was the end of the “tyrant.” It was the beginning of a new era. And people realized it.

10. Our Perspective On Waterloo

Unfortunately, we’ve lost the idea that Waterloo changed Europe and was a crucial turning point in World History, as it marked the end of Napoleon and the maturing of democratic ideas. Many have this idea, that it happened so long ago…it doesn’t matter much anymore. Oh, so wrong!

Waterloo turns World History into a new course, but it also leaves us with examples of real people who would not give up. Want to know about the successful general whose mother declared she had no idea what do with him when he was a teenager? Interested in learning more about the men in the British battle lines, where they were from, what they wanted? Did you know that officers’ families waited anxiously near Waterloo to hear of their loved ones’ fate?

Today we talked about the simple overview of the Waterloo campaign, battle, and out-come. Now, I invite you to come along in the next few weeks to find the real people at The Crossroads of History.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Learn something new? Have something you’d like to add to my brief summary? I look forward to comments…