SIR FREDERICK CAVENDISH PONSONBY

This post was originally published on June 18, 2010.

When one thinks of the great British soldiers at the Battle of Waterloo, one naturally conjures up visions of the Duke of Wellington, Alexander Gordon and, of course, the Marquess of Anglesey, but one rarely thinks of Sir Frederick Cavendish Ponsonby, whose Waterloo experience is, in my opinion, one of the most remarkable.

Here is the exceedingly dry manner in which Sir Frederick is summed up in The Waterloo Roll Call By Charles Dalton:

Aftds. Maj.-Gen. Sir Frederick Cavendish Ponsonby, K.C.B. and K.M.T., Gov. of Malta. 2nd son of Frederick, 3rd Earl of Bessborough, by Lady Henrietta, 2nd dau. of 1st Earl Spencer. Bn. 6th July, 1783. Cornet 10th Lt. Dgns. 1800. Maj. 23rd Lt. Dgns. 1807. At head of this regt. distinguished himself at Talavera, in 1809. Lt.-col. of the regt. 1810. At Barossa, with a squadron of German dragoons, he charged the French cavalry covering the retreat, overthrew them, and took two guns. Lt.-Col. 12th Lt. Dgns. 1811. Again signally distinguished himself at the battles of Salamanca and Vittoria.

From this, one would have nary a clue of the truly death-defying experience of this officer, a favorite of the Duke of Wellington’s. Ponsonby was the the second son of the 3rd Earl of Bessborough and Henrietta (Harriet) Spencer, whose sister was Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Sir Frederick’s own sister was the notorious Lady Caroline Lamb. Talk about your Regency soap opera – Lady Bessborough had had a brief affair with Richard Brinsley Sheridan and another with Lord Granville Leveson Gower, with whom she had two children before marrying him off to her niece, Lady Harriet Cavendish.

But I digress . . . . . .

In 1815, Frederick was 33 years of age when he was called to accompany Lord Castlereagh (above) to the Congress of Vienna, which sat after Napoleon’s first abdication to restore the balance of power in Europe and to divide the spoils. The Congress was showing signs of violent disagreement, when to the horror and amazement of Europe, Napoleon escaped from Elba and landed at Cannes. The French Army rallied to him regiment by regiment as he marched through France toward the capital. He entered Paris on March 20, while the King and his family fled. Those English familites who had gone to Brussels to economize after the war knew that they were in a terrible position when Napoleon, who by then commanded an army of 535,000 men, marched to join it on the Belgian frontier on June 12.

At Waterloo, Sir Frederick was attached to the 12th Light Dragoons, who were ordered, along with the 16th Light Dragoons, to charge down a slope to support the withdrawal of the Union Brigade of heavy cavalry, which was being led by his second cousin, William Ponsonby, who lost his life that day. It would have been all too easy for Sir Frederick to have met his own death, as well. In fact, he would presently, and within a very short span of time, be presented with several ways in which he could have lost his life.

The best account of what occurred is the one given by Sir Frederick himself, as written in a letter to his mother by Lady Shelley:

Dear Lady Bessborough,

You have often wished for some written account of the adventures and sufferings of your son, Colonel Ponsonby, on the field of Waterloo; the modesty of his nature is however no small obstacle in the way. Will the following imperfect sketch supply its place until it comes? The battle of the 18th of June was one morning alluded to in the library at Althorpe, and his answers to many of the questions which were put to him are here thrown together, as nearly as I can remember in his own words.

“The weather cleared up at noon, and the sun shone out a little just as the battle began. The armies were within 800 yards of each other; the videttes, before they were withdrawn, being so near as to be able to converse. At one moment I imagined I saw Bonaparte; a considerable staff was moving rapidly along the front of our line. I was stationed with my regiment, about 300 strong, at the extreme of the left wing, and directed to act discretionally; each of the armies was drawn up on a gentle declivity, a small valley lying between them.

‘”At one o’clock, observing, as I thought,unsteadiness in a column of French infantry of 1,000 men or thereabouts, which was advancing with an irregular fire, I resolved to charge them. As we were descending at a gallop we received from our own troops on the right a fire much more destructive than theirs, they having begun long before it could take effect, and slackening as we drew nearer. When we were within 50 paces of them, they turned, and much execution was done amongst them, as we were followed by some Belgians who had remarked our success. But we had no sooner passed through them, than we were attacked in our turn before we could form, by about 300 Polish Lancers, who had come down to their relief—the French artillery pouring in amongst us a heavy fire of grape-shot, which, however, for one of our men killed three of their own. In the melee I was disabled almost instantly in both my arms, and followed by a few of my men who were presently cut down—for no quarter was asked or given—I was carried on by my horse, till receiving a blow on my head from a sabre, I was thrown senseless on my face to the ground. Recovering, I raised myself a little to look round, being I believe at that time in a condition to get up and run away, when a Lancer, passing by, exclaimed : ” Tu n’es pas mort, coquin,” (You’re not dead, naughty) and struck his lance through my back. My head dropped, the blood gushed into my mouth; a difficulty of breathing came on, and I thought all was over. Not long afterwards (it was then impossible to measure time, but I must have fallen in less than ten minutes after the charge) a tirailleur came up to plunder me, threatening to take away my life. I told him that he might search me, directing him to a small side pocket, in which he found three dollars, being all I had. He unloosed my stock, and tore open my waistcoat, then leaving me in a very uneasy posture. He was no sooner gone, than another came up for the same purpose, but assuring him I had been plundered already, he left me. When an officer, bringing on some troops (to which probably the tirailleurs belonged) and halting where I lay, stooped down and addressed me, saying he feared I was badly wounded, I replied that I was, and expressed a wish to be removed into the rear. He said it was against the orders to remove even their own men, but that if they gained the day, as they probably would, for he understood the Duke of Wellington was killed and that six battalions of the English army had surrendered, every attention in his power should be shown me. I complained of thirst, and he held his brandy bottle to my lips, directing one of his men to lay me down on my side, and placed a knapsack under my head. He then passed on into the action, and I shall never know to whose generosity I was indebted, as I conceive, for my life. Of what rank he was I cannot say; he wore a blue great-coat. * By-and-bye another tirailleur came, and knelt down and fired over me, loading and firing many times, and conversing with great gaiety all the while. At last he ran off, saying: ‘Vous serez bien aise d’entendre que nous allons nous retirer. Bon jour, mon ami.’ (You will be glad to hear that we are going to withdraw. Good day, my friend)

“Whilst the battle continued in that part, several of the wounded men and dead bodies near me were hit with the balls, which came very thick in that place. Towards evening, when the Prussians came up, the continued roar of cannon along their and the British line, growing louder and louder as they drew near, was the finest thing I ever heard. It was dusk when the two squadrons of Prussian cavalry, both of them two deep, passed over me in a full trot, lifting me from the ground, and tumbling me about cruelly—the clatter of their approach and the apprehensions it excited may be easily conceived. Had a gun come that way, it would have done for me. The battle was then nearly over, or removed to a distance. The cries and groans of the wounded all around me became every instant more and more audible, succeeding to the shouts, imprecations, and cries of ” Vive l’Empereur,” the discharges of musketry and cannon, now and then intervals of perfect quiet which were worse than the noise. I thought the night would never end. Much about this time one of the Royals lay across my legs—he had probably crawled thither in his agony—his weight, convulsive motions, his noises, and the air issuing through a wound in his side, distressed me greatly—the latter circumstance most of all, as the case was my own.

“It was not a dark night, and the Prussians were wandering about to plunder, and the scene in “Ferdinand Count Fathom” came into my mind, though no women, I believe, were there. Several Prussians came, looked at me, and passed on. At length one stopped to examine me. I told him as well as I could, for I could speak but little German, that I was a British officer, and had been plundered already. He did not desist, however, and pulled me about roughly before he left me. About an hour before midnight I saw a soldier in an English uniform coming towards me. He was, I suspect, on the same errand, but he came and looked in my face. I spoke instantly, telling him who I was, and assuring him of a reward if he would remain by me. He said that he belonged to the 40th Regiment, but that he had missed it. He released me from the dying man, and being unarmed, he took up a sword from the ground, and stood over me, pacing backwards and forwards.

“‘At 8 o’clock in the morning some English were seen at a distance. He ran to them, and a messenger was sent off to Colonel Harvey. A cart came for me—I was placed on it, and carried to a farmhouse, about a mile and a half distant, and laid in the bed from which poor Gordon, as I understood afterwards, had been just carried out. The jolting of the carriage and the difficulty of breathing were very painful. I had received seven wounds; a surgeon slept in my room, and I was saved by continual bleeding—120 ounces in two days, besides a great loss of blood on the field.

“The lances from their length and weight would have struck down my sword long before I lost it, if it had not been bound to my hand. What became of my horse I know not. It was the best I ever had.”

As it happened, Lord and Lady Bessborough had been on a Continental tour in the months prior to Waterloo and were coming slowly home when the news reached them on July 8 that their son had been desperately wounded at the Battle of Waterloo. Lady Bessborough (at right) made a forced journey to Brussels to nurse him, and Lady Caroline Lamb joined her there. To her credit, Lady Bessborough nursed her son as he recuperated, but Lady Shelley’s letter quoted above indicates that mother and son had not the opportunity, or the inclination, to then discuss Posonby’s harrowing experience.

A few days later, that old gossip Creevey wrote:  “On Tuesday the 20th . . . Barnes and Hamilton would make me ride over to see the field of battle, which I would willingly have declined, understanding all the French dead were still on the field—unburied, and having no one to instruct me in detail as to what had passed—I mean as to the relative positions of the armies, etc. However, I was mounted, and as I was riding along with Hamilton’s groom behind me about a mile and a half on the Brussells side of the village of Waterloo, who should overtake me but the Duke of Wellington in his curricle, in his plain cloaths and Harvey by his side in his regimentals. So we went on together, and he said as he was to stop at Waterloo to see Frederick Ponsonby and de Lancey, Harvey should go with me and shew me the field of battle, and all about it. When we got to Waterloo village, we found others of his staff there, and it ended in Lord Arthur Hill being my guide over every part of the ground.”

If Creevey’s tour of the ground so soon after the battle seems goulish, here’s a letter written by the recuperating Sir Frederick’s own sister, Lady Caroline Lamb (above), to the Viscountess Melbourne from Brussels, 1815. It is a pouty letter which brilliantly displays Caroline’s petulance and immaturity in the face of so much heartbreak.

“Dearest Lady Melbourne  . . . The great amusement at Bruxelles, indeed the only one except visiting the sick, is to make large parties etc; go to the field of Battle and pick up a skull or a grape shot or an old shoe or a letter, etc.; bring it home. W[illia]m has been, I shall not go —unless when Fred [Ponsonby] gets better,etc; goes with me. There is a great affectation here of making lint etc.; bandages—but where is there not some? etc; at least it is an innocent amusement. It is rather a love making moment, the half wounded Officers reclining with pretty ladies visiting them—is dangerous. I also observe a great coxcombality in the dress of the sick— which prognosticates a speedy recovery. It is rather heart-breaking to be here, however, etc; one goes blubbering about—seeing such fine people without their legs etc.; arms, some in agony, etc; some getting better. The Prince of Orange enquired much after all his acquaintance; he suffers a great deal, but bears it well. The next door to us has a Col. Millar, very patient, but dreadfully wounded. Lady Conyngham is here—Lady C. Greville—Lady D. Hamilton, Mrs. A. B. Smith, Lady F. Somerset, Lady F. Webster most affected; Lady Mountmorress, who stuck her parasol yesterday into a skull at Waterloo. . . .”

Sir Frederick recovered and went on to enjoy a close relationship with the Duke long after the battle, as shown in the following letter the Duke wrote to Lady Shelley:

London, September 21, 1821


My Dear Lady Shelley, I write to tell you that there is some prospect that the King will go out of town on Saturday, and in that case we might be able to go to you on Saturday evening, and stay till Tuesday or Wednesday. I will let you know positively to-morrow. Shall I bring down Frederick Ponsonby, who was going with me to S. Saye? Ever yours affectionately,  W.

Sir Frederick married Lady Emily Charlotte Bathurst, daughter of Henry Bathurst, 3rd Earl Bathurst of Bathurst and Lady Georgina Lennox, on 16 March 1825. On 27 May 1825, he was promoted major-general, commanding the troops in the Ionian Islands and on 22 December 1826, he was appointed Governor of Malta, holding that post for eight and a half years. Sir Frederick died on 11 January 1837 at the age of fifty-three.

* This French officer was Major de Laussat of the Imperial Guard Dragoons, as Sir Frederick would learn in 1827 when the two met socially and soon after, through a conversation regarding the experiences of each during the Battle, discovered the coincidence of their first meeting upon the field.

COUNTESS BROWNLOW’S WATERLOO RECOLLECTIONS

From Slight Reminiscences of a Septuagenarian From 1802 to 1815 By Emma Sophia Edgcumbe Cust Brownlow (Countess of)

Countess Brownlow by Richard James Lane, printed by M & N Hanhart, after James Rannie Swinton, lithograph, 1846 – National Portrait Gallery
June.—My father went to Mount Edgcumbe, and I remained, as I frequently did, with Lord and Lady Castlereagh. As days passed on, news came of Bonaparte, at the head of a formidable army, being on his march to the Low Countries, where the Duke of Wellington, with the English, Brunswick, Belgian, and Hanoverian forces, and the Prussian army under Marshal Blucher were ready to receive him.

Reports of battles succeeded each other, all equally unfounded, but on the 19th or 20th, at an evening party at Lansdowne House, much sensation was caused by the report that great battle had certainly been fought, and that the intelligence had been brought, it was said, by pigeon to the Rothschilds.

This suspense ended on the 21st . Never shall I forget that evening! Lord and Lady Castlereagh were dining two or three doors from their own house with Mrs. Boehm, to meet the Prince Regent, and I was sitting quietly alone, when suddenly there came the sound of shouting and the rush of a crowd, and running to the window to discover the cause of all this noise, I saw postchaise and four, with three of the French eagles projecting out of its windows, dashing across the square and to Lord Castlereagh’s door. In moment the horses’ heads were turned, and away went the chaise to Mrs. Boehm’s; leaving me in state of excited wonderment,  but feeling conviction that this haste, and the three eagles, and the cheering of the people, announced victory. Shortly after I received a from Lady Castlereagh, telling me to dress and to join her at Mrs. Boehm’s—this I did quickly.

The ladies had left the dining-room, and I learnt that Major Henry Percy had arrived, the bearer of despatches from the Duke of Wellington, with the intelligence of a glorious and decisive victory of the Allies over the French army, commanded by Bonaparte in person. The despatches were being then read in the next room, to the Prince Regent, and we ladies remained silent, too anxious to talk, and longing to hear more. Lord Alvanley was the first gentleman who appeared, and he horrified us with the list of names of killed and wounded; and such names! great and distinguished in the campaigns of the Peninsula, and become almost household words. There were several for whom I felt true regard. The Guards, he said, had suffered severely—my brother Ernest was in them, but the fate of a subaltern could not be known! I had wished to hear more, and what I heard stupified me; I could scarcely think or speak.

Presently the Prince came in, looking very sad, and he said, with much feeling, words to this effect: ‘It is glorious victory, and we must rejoice at it, but the loss of life has been fearful, and I have lost many friends;’ and while he spoke the tears ran down his cheeks. His Royal Highness remained but short time, and soon after the party broke up; and I must, in justice to Lady Castlereagh, state that the account I read in some book that she went from Mrs. Boehm’s to a ball at Sir George Talbot’s, and spread the news (so heartrending to many) there, was totally false, for immediately on hearing the details from Lord Alvanley, she made me write a note of excuse to Sir George Talbot both for herself and me, as she properly felt that going to a ball under such circumstances was quite out of the question. Lord Alvanley had slipped out of the room, and went to the ball, and he certainly had the credit of having sent half the ladies into fainting fits and hysterics.

I was very anxious to learn something of my brother, and my friends were most kind in going to the Horse Guards and making enquiries respecting him; and they soon assured me that from all they could hear, I might be at ease as to his safety. few evenings after the 21 st (I forget the exact date) I was sent for by Lord Castlereagh and found him writing despatches to the Duke, and Major Percy in full uniform standing on the opposite side of the table ready to start with them. Lord Castlereagh instantly gave me long despatch to copy, which I did as fast as I could, standing by his side, feeling very nervous all the while, with Major Percy staring and looking somewhat surprised at seeing me in the character of secretary. So absorbed was I in the mere mechanical act of writing rapidly, that I had no idea of the subject of the despatch; the only words I remembered being ‘Bavarian Contingent.’

 

Note: Lord Castlereagh was Emma’s uncle:

Lady Emma Sophia Edgcumbe, Countess Brownlow (1791-1872), eldest daughter of Richard Edgcumbe, 2nd Earl of Mount Edgcumbe (1764-1839) and Lady Sophia Hobart (1768-1806), third daughter of John Hobart, 2nd Earl of Buckinghamshire (1723-1793); married in 1828, as his third wife, John Cust, 1st Earl Brownlow (1779-1853), but bore him no children. She had spent her youth trailing around Europe with her uncle, Lord Castlereagh, on his official visits as Foreign Secretary. She held the office of Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Adelaide between 1830 and 1849 and formed a close relationship with her. The widowed Adelaide came to stay at Belton and a bedchamber was redecorated for the occasion and duly renamed the Queen’s Bedroom. Lady Emma wrote Reminiscences of a Septuagenarian which was published in 1868.

THE WELLINGTON CONNECTION: CREEVEY AND WATERLOO

The following is diarist Thomas Creevey’s account of his meeting with the Duke of Wellington after the Battle of Waterloo originally published in The Creevey Papers (1909):

“About eleven o’clock, upon going out again, I heard a report that the Duke (of Wellington) was in Bruxelles; and I went from curiosity to see whether there was any appearance of him or any of his staff at his residence in the Park. As I approached, I saw people collected in the street about the house; and when I got amongst them, the first thing I saw was the Duke upstairs alone at his window. Upon his recognising me, he immediately beckoned to me with his finger to come up.*

Arthur Blundell Sandys Trumbull Hill, 3rd Marquess of Downshire

“I met Lord Arthur Hill in the ante-room below, who, after shaking hands and congratulation, told me I could not go up to the Duke, as he was then occupied in writing his dispatch; but as I had been invited, I of course proceeded. The first thing I did, of course, was to put out my hand and congratulate him [the Duke] upon his victory. He made a variety of observations in his short, natural, blunt way, but with the greatest gravity all the time, and without the least approach to anything like triumph or joy. —’ It has been a damned serious business,’ he said. ‘Blucher and I have lost 30,000 men. It has been a damned nice thing—the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life. Blucher lost 14,000 on Friday night, and got so damnably licked I could not find him on Saturday morning; so I was obliged to fall back to keep up [regain ?] my communications with him.’

“Then, as he walked about, he praised greatly those Guards who kept the farm (meaning Hugomont) against the repeated attacks of the French; and then he praised all our troops, uttering repeated expressions of astonishment at our men’s courage. He repeated so often its being so nice a thing—so nearly run a thing, that I asked him if the French had fought better than he had ever seen them do before.—’ No,’ he said, ‘they have always fought the same since I first saw them at Vimeira.’ Then he said:—’By God! I don’t think it would have done if I had not been there.’

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington c.1815 by Sir Thomas Lawrence

“When I left the Duke, I went instantly home and wrote to England by the same courier who carried his dispatch. I sent the very conversation I have just related to Bennet.  I think, however, I omitted the Duke’s observation that he did not think the battle would have been won had he not been there, and I remember my reason for omitting this sentence. It did not seem fair to the Duke to state it without full explanation. There was nothing like vanity in the observation in the way he made it. I considered it only as meaning that the battle was so hardly and equally fought that nothing but confidence of our army in himself as their general could have brought them thro’. Now that seven years have elapsed since that battle, and tho’ the Duke has become—very foolishly, in my opinion—a politician, and has done many wrong and foolish things since that time, yet I think of his conversation and whole conduct on the l9th—the day after the battle—exactly the same as I did then: namely—that nothing could do a conqueror more honor than his gravity and seriousness at the loss of lives he had sustained, his admission of his great danger, and the justice he did his enemy.

“I may add that, before I left him, I asked whether he thought the French would be able to take the field again; and he said he thought certainly not, giving as his reason that every corps of France, but one, had been in the battle, and that the whole army had gone off in such perfect rout and confusion he thought it quite impossible for them to give battle again before the Allies reached Paris.”
* It may seem improbable that the Duke should have made himself so accessible to a mere civilian on such a momentous morning; but there is ample confirmation of Mr. Creevey’s narrative from the Duke’s own lips. In 1836 he described the circumstance to Lady Salisbury, who noted it in her journal  as follows:
“‘ I was called,’ said the Duke, ‘about 3 in the morning by Hume to go and see poor Gordon’ (in the same inn at Waterloo),’ but he was dead before I got there. Then I came back, had a cup of tea and some toast, wrote my dispatch, and then rode into Brussels. At the door of my own hotel I met Creevey: they had no certain accounts at Brussels, and he called out to me :—” What news?” I said :— “Why I think we’ve done for ’em this time.”
The dispatch was begun at Waterloo and finished at Brussels, evidence of which remains in the draft of the original now at Apsley House, which is headed first “Waterloo,” that is struck out and “Bruxelles ” substituted.

THE HON. KATHERINE ARDEN’S ACCOUNT OF WATERLOO

This post was originally published here on June 11, 2011
 This April, Number One London Tours will be hosting the 1815: London to Waterloo Tour, offering an unprecedented opportunity to experience life during these times, from Fashionable London to the Battlefield at Waterloo, we will be visiting sites related to both worlds and to both countries, meeting many of the people involved in the Battle and it’s aftermath on both sides of the Channel. One of these people will be the Honourable Katherine Arden, who has left this first hand and heartfelt record of life in Brussels before and after the Battle. She attended the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball and was on the ground, as it were, in the days following the Battle.

The following letter was written by the Hon. Katherine Arden, daughter of the first Lord Alvanley (Richard, 1744-1804) and sister of William Arden, 2nd Lord Alvanley (1789-1849) , the famous dandy who squandered his fortune and died unmarried; the title went to their younger brother. With her mother and sister, she was resident in Brussels at the time of the great battle, and took an active part in nursing the wounded. The letter is addressed to her aunt, Miss Bootle Wilbraham, afterwards, Mrs. Barnes. It is franked from Windsor to Ormskirk in Lancashire by Miss Arden’s uncle, Mr. E. Bootle Wilbraham (afterwards Lord Skelmersdale), July 17, 1815. The letter was later published in the Cornhill Magazine in 1891.

Brussels, Sunday 9th (July)

My Dearest Aunt, I can assure you most truly that I did not require reminding, to fulfill the promise I made you of writing, and every day since our return from Antwerp I have settled for the purpose, but what with visiting the sick, and making bandages and lint, I can assure you my time has been pretty well occupied. As my patients are, thank goodness, most of them now convalescent, I think the best way I can reward my dear Aunt’s patience, is by giving her a long account of our hopes, fears, and feelings from the time the troops were ordered to march down to the present moment. (If you are tired with my long account, remember you expressed a wish in Mama’s letter to hear all our proceedings.)

On Thursday the 15th of June, we went to the great ball that the Duchess of Richmond gave, and which we expected to see from Generals down to Ensigns, all the military men, who with their regiments had been for some time quartered from 18 to 30 miles from this town, and consequently so much nearer the frontiers; nor were we disappointed, with the exception of 3 generals, every officer high in the army was to be there seen.

Though for nearly ten weeks we had been daily expecting the arrival of the French troops on the Frontiers, and had rather been wondering at their delay, yet when on our arrival at the ball, we were told that the troops had ordered to march at 3 in the morning, and that every officer must join his regiment by that time, as the French were advancing, you cannot possibly picture to yourself the dismay and consternation that appeared in every face.

Charles Lennox, 4th Duke of Richmond by Hoppner

Those who had brothers and sons to be engaged, openly gave way to their grief, as the last parting of many took place at this most terrible ball; others (and thank Heaven ranked amongst that number, for in the midst of my greatest fears, I still felt thankfulness, was my prominent feeling that my beloved Dick (her brother) was not here), who had no near relation, yet felt that amongst the many many friends we all had there, it was impossible that all should escape, and that the next time we might hear of them, they might be numbered with the dead; in fact, my dear Aunt, I cannot describe to you my mingled feelings, you will, however, I am sure, understand them, and I feel quite inadequate to express them.

We staid at the ball as short a time as we could but long enough to see express after express arrive to the Duke of Wellington, to hear of Aides de Camp arriving breathless with news, and to see, what was much more extraordiniary than all, the Duke’s equanimity a little discomposed. We took a mournful farewell of some of our best friends, and returned home to anything but repose.

The morning (Friday June 16) dawned most lovelily, and before seven o’clock we had seen 12,000 Brunswickers, Scotch, and English pass before our windows, of whom one third before night were mingled with the dust. Mama took a farewell of the Duke as he passed by, but Fanny and myself, at last wearied out, had before he went, retired to bed. The first person that we saw in the morning brought us the news, that the advanced guard of the French had in the night come on as far as Genappe, 18 miles off, and had had several skirmishes with the Prussians.

This intelligence, as you may suppose, did not tend to compose us, but still everything went on in quiet calmness, when (Gracious heavens, never never shall I forget it), at three o’clock a loud cannonading commenced, which upon the ramparts was heard nearly as plain as we do the Tower guns in London; it went on without intermission till 8 o’clock, when it was thought to appear more distant, and therefore hopes were entertained that the French had retreated; nothing certain was known, but it was reported that the Prussians had been principally attacked, and were rather giving way when the Highlanders and the regiments who had marched from here in the morning joined them, and compleately repulsed the French.

So far the news was good, but still the English had fought, and what our loss was, nobody knew; however, we bore up pretty well till above twelve o’clock, a gentleman (Mr. Leigh, of Lyme in Cheshire) came from off the field of battle, where he had been looking on, with the intelligence that there had been a dreadful battle, the Duke of Brunswick was killed, and that the Brigade of 1st Guards and the Highlanders were literally cut to pieces. I will not attempt to say what we felt, for it would be quite vain.

The Duke of Brunswick, killed at Quatre Bras

I must only tell you that that Regiment of Guards contained all our greatest friends, independent of our having to regret them as Englishmen. The next morning by six o’clock, Saturday 17th numbers of Belgians and others of our brave Allies came flying into the town, with the report that the French were at their heels, but this intelligence occasioned but a temporary fright, as a bulletin was published officially saying that we had gained a great victory, and the French were retreating (neither of which was true). About ten o’clock the real horrors of war began to appear, and though we were spared hearing cannonading, yet the sights that we saw were infinitely more frightful than anything we had heard the day before. I mean the sight of wounded.

Sir James Gambier, 1st Baron Gambier

I must tell you before I proceed, that Sir James Gambier (the Consul General to the Paysbas, who is the best man that ever was) came to us about eight o’clock, and told us that there really had been a severe engagement, but that we had the advantage, that though the Guards had suffered most dreadfully, yet that their loss was not quite so great as had been reported, but that the Highlanders were literally nearly annihilated, after having performed prodigies of valor; and very good proof had we how dreadfully they had suffered, by the numbers who were brought in here, literally cut to pieces. Our house being unfortunately near the gate where they were brought in, most of them passed our door; their wounds were none of them drest, and barely bound up, the wagons were piled up to a degree almost incredible, and numbers for whom there was no room, were obliged, faint and bleeding, to follow on foot; their heads being what had most suffered, having been engaged with cavalry, were often so much bound up, that they were unable to see, and therefore held by the wagons in order to know their road. Everybody, as you may suppose, pressed forward, anxious to be of some service to the poor wounded Hero’s but the people had orders that those who could go on should proceed to Antwerp, to make room for those who were to follow (dreadful idea), and therefore we could be of no further use to them than giving them refreshments as they passed.

In the middle of the day, we heard further particulars of the last night’s battle, and if all danger had been removed far from us, which Heaven knows was very far from being so, we still should have felt nervous at the danger that had nearly befallen us. Conceive it having been run so near, that the French were within ten minutes of getting possession of the road to Brussels, which had they once gained, in all probability they would have reached the town in three hours.

Providence, however, ordered it otherwise, and the Guards, who had marched from Enghien 27 miles off, arrived at the lucky moment, and got possession of the road. They were shortly afterwards joined by the Highlanders, who some of them fought with their knapsacks on, having marched 20 miles and accordingly were enabled to keep their ground against the French.

The conduct of the English soldiers on that day was perfect, and would have been sufficient to have immortalized them, without the addition of the Sunday’s battle, after which the Duke of Wellington said he should never feel sufficiently grateful to the Guards for their conduct on both days, which from the Duke means more than it would from anybody else.

Napoleon Bonaparte

Our Hero, Wellington, who had been deceived with the intelligence given him (for it is said that Bony had bribed most of his outposts), and had no idea that the French were so near, nor advancing in such force, was so distressed when he discovered the truth, that as usual totally regardless of his personal safety, he was exposing himself in the most dreadful way (I am speaking of the Friday’s business at Quatre Bras, so named from four roads meeting), and already a party of French horse, having marked him out, were rushing on him with the greatest violence, when the Highlanders, who saw his danger, and it is said he never was in so great before, rushed between him and the French, and with the lives of hundreds, saved his still more precious one. On coming off the field, the Duke told some whom he met with, that their conduct had been noble and he should make a good report of them; of the 92nd regiment, out of seven hundred men, but one hundred and fifty remain to share the glory.

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington c.1815 by Sir Thomas Lawrence

But to resume my narrative. We remained the whole of Saturday, in great suspense, to know that the armies were about, and whether the French were really retreating as had been reported; about four o’clock in the day, we were dreadfully undeceived, by being told from very good authority that instead of the enemy it was Lord Wellington who had retreated, and who with his whole army were within ten miles of the town; the reason given for his doing so, was that the Prussians had been attacked on the Friday evening whilst they were quietly cooking, and that having lost a tremendous number of men, Blucher had judged it prudent to retire, which being the case, he had left Lord Wellington’s left flank so exposed, that it was impossible for him to remain where he was, and that he had therefore retreated to a strong position near Waterloo, whilst our cavalry were engaged in playing before them, to hide, as much as possible, their retreat from the French.

It was likewise added, that it was to be hoped that the Prussians would rejoin the English, as at that present time, the armies were near nine miles asunder, and that orders had been issued by the Duke for all baggage to be sent from the army through this town, and for the wounded, if possible, to be moved from it. All this looked so like retreating on the town, that we were told we must have horses ready, and everything prepared to go at an instant’s notice, which accordingly we commenced doing, and from that hour 4 o’clock till eight in the morning (Sunday June 18) when we were fairly in Antwerp, were, I hope, the most harassing 16 hours I ever passed, or ever shall.

From that time the baggage wagons passed in such quick succession, that they formed cavalcades through the town, as not only those who were ordered to go, but those who desired to stay with the army, passed through, a general panic having seized all the officers’ servants, by which means many have lost all they had, and everybody is minus something.

Field Marshall Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher

About every half-hour a man was heard scampering down the street calling out that the French were coming; some, indeed said they were at the gates, and though we knew that that could not be true, yet it was impossible to know how much foundation there was for saying so. About seven o’clock (Saturday June 17) our friend Sir James Gambier arrived to say that he hoped our things were nearly packed up, as though it was not necessary to go immediately, yet that he begged our things might be put to the carriage as we might be obliged to start at an instant’s notice, for it was known that the Prussians were not joined, and if Buonaparte were to attack that night, there was no knowing what the event might be. (We have since heard, that if he had done so, the tide of affairs would in all probability have turned completely for him instead of being as it is now).

Lady Charlotte Greville

After Sir James went, we went out to see what our friends intended doing; we found that some were gone, others going, and all were prepared for the worst. We accordingly agreed, that at the time Lady Charlotte Greville went, we would accompany her, as everybody told us if we waited for the worst we could never get away; and as we knew for certain that Buonaparte had promised his soldiers after he had drawn 20,000,000 francs from the town, that they should have three days pillage of it, which, as the enraged French soldiery are not the most kind hearted possible, and as the English could expect no mercy for them, we though it madness to put ourselves in such danger, and accordingly everything was got ready. To increase the horror and noise, about ten o’clock, a most horrible storm of wind and rain came on, which lasted without intermission till three o’clock, when the wind abated, but the rain continued at intervals, the whole of Sunday, to which the whole of our poor soldiers were exposed with the additional hardship of having very little to eat, as they had been so continually changing their place for the last two days, that the officers have since told us, that for nearly eight and forty hours, they had barely two pounds of bread to eat; luckily, the Sunday morning, after the dreadful night they passed, the common men had a double supply of spirits, which enabled them to fight as they did.

The baggage wagons and fuyards [fugitives] continued passing, without intermission, and what with being deafened with the noise, and worn out with anxiety, we were in a terrible state of fatigue, when at half past two (Sunday the 18th) Lady Charlotte sent to say the Mayor of the town had sent to advise all the English to quit the town, and that she was waiting for us. We accordingly joined her, and though we were very much impeded by the road being blocked up with wagons in which were numbers of the wounded, lying exposed to all the inclemency of the weather, and were several times in danger of being overturned, yet providentially we arrived safe at Antwerp about eight o’clock (Note: The distance from Brussels to Antwerp by road is about twenty-seven miles). We found the greatest difficulty in getting a hole to put our heads in, but at last succeeded: Lady Charlotte proceeded on the Hague immediately, but we remained to wait the event. We were told by many people that the rain would prevent them fighting, which gave us ease for the time, and though we spent the day in great suspense, yet we were saved the dreadful indescribable anxiety of those who remained here; never can I be sufficiently thankful that we left this place. For the first time for three nights, Fanny and myself were enabled to sleep, and the next morning, Monday (the 19th) we were awoke, with the delightful news, that a decisive victory had been obtained, and that the French were retreating in disorder. The account of killed and wounded which we then heard made us shudder; how much more dreadful was it, when the whole list was made out! There are 724 English officers killed and wounded, and nearly 11,000 common men, without Hanoverians.

The conduct of the English infantry in the battle of Sunday was something so extraordinary, that Cambaceres, Buonaparte’s A.D.C. who was taken, said Buonaparte himself had said that it was useless to fight against such troops, nothing could make them give way. They were formed into hollow squares, upon which the French cavalry, particularly the Cuirassiers, who wear complete armour, poured down, but without any avail, not one of their squares were ever broken, though perhaps from being six or eight lines deep, they came at last to only one.

 

Hougoumont, pre-renovation

There is a little wood and a farm-house in the midst of the field of battle, which is called Hougemont, and which it was necessary for the English to maintain possession of: 500 of the Guards under Lord Saltoun and Co. Macdonnell were put into it, to defend it, and though they were attacked by above 10,000 French, and the Farm-house was set fire to, and burnt to the ground, yet our Invincible countrymen still maintained possession of it, and finally repulsed the enemy. Do not you feel, while you hear these accounts, that your national pride increases every instant, and that you feel more thankful than ever that you are English born and bred? I have that sort of enthusiasm about me, that I almost feel inclined to shake hands with every soldier I meet walking in the streets. The light cavalry, I am sorry to say, for the first time in their lives, did not behave like Englishmen; the 7th Hussars and 23rd dragoons refused to advance when they were ordered, and poor Lord Uxbridge, who is as brave as a lion, and doats upon his regiment (the 7th) went up to Lord Wellington in the midst of the engagement, and said in the bitterness of his heart, My cavalry have deserted me! The heavy dragoons behaved admirably, and the horse Guards and Blue’s who though they have been in Spain, were never before personally engaged, performed prodigies.—The Duke of Wellington has since said, that he never exerted himself in his life as he did on that day, but that notwithstanding, the battle was lost three times; he exposed himself in every part of the line, often threw himself into the squares when they were about to be attacked, and did what it is said he never had done before, talked to the soldiers, and told them to stand firm; in fact, I believe without his having behaved as he did, the English would never have stood their ground so long, till the arrival of 30,000 fresh Prussians under Bulow finished the day, for as soon as the French saw them, they ran.

Hougoumont today

The conduct of the French cavalry is represented as having been most beautiful, and nothing could have withstood them but our soldiers. The day after the battle, when the Duke had leisure to consider the loss he had sustained in both officers and men, he was most deeply affected, and Mrs. Pole, who breakfasted with him said the tears were running down upon his plate the whole time. How much more noble the Hero appears when possessed of so much feeling!

You ask how we like the Duke, and whether he is haughty? To men, I believe he is, very often, but all his personal staff are extremely attached to him, and towards women his manners excessively agreeable and very gallant; we like him vastly. We went a few days since to see the field of battle, and everything offensive was removed, a most interesting visit; we went with an A.D.C. of Gen. Cooke, (who poor man, the General, has lost his arm), and who explained to us all about the battle.—I am quite ashamed, my dear Aunt, to think how much I have written; pray forgive me.  END

If you’d like to experience Waterloo first hand, to travel through history with us as we return to the year 1815, please click the link below to be taken to the Tour website.

The 1815 London to Waterloo Tour, April 2018 – find complete details here.

A VISIT TO THE FIELD OF WATERLOO

Kristine and Ian Fletcher, Waterloo, May 2017

Back in May, I revisited the Battlefield at Waterloo with author and battlefield guide Ian Fletcher, accompanied by one of my favourite travel mates, Denise Costello. Ian and I were on a mission to put together a different kind of Waterloo Tour. He is experienced in battlefield tours and can bring every moment of the Battle to life in a way that is both engaging, educational and exacting – which regiments were where, who was leading the charge, why were certain geographic points chosen by the French and Allied armies, what went wrong . . . . and what went right?

Denise Costello and Ian Fletcher overlooking the Battlefield at Waterloo.

On the other hand, my tours are focused more upon social history – which English families were living at Brussels during the Battle, who attended the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball, how did the civilians fare before, during and after the Battle and what wide ranging impact did the Battle, and the victory, have upon life in London and England at large?

In an effort to blend these two views of Waterloo, Ian and I hit upon the idea of doing a tour that focuses on the year 1815 as a whole, instead of focusing on the Battle alone. And so the 1815 London to Waterloo Tour was born.  Before the Tour heads for Belgium, our group will explore the London of 1815, including Apsley House and the many clubs, houses, streets and sites that have a connection with the campaign, including the house in St. James’s Square where Henry Percy delivered the captured French Eagles to George IV after the Allied victory. Author Louise Allen will speak to our group on the subject of her book, To The Field of Waterloo: The First Battlefield Tourists 1815 – 1816. Once in Waterloo, we will walk the key sites on the Battlefield and also visit a host of museums and related sites including the superb new Waterloo Memorial with its high-tech exhibits and 3D cinema, the famous Lion Mound and panorama, the wonderful presentation at refurbished Hougoumont and the headquarters of both Wellington and Napoleon.

Speaking of Waterloo tourists, below is an account of Dr. Samuel Butler’s visit to the Battlefield a year after the Allied victory. His vivid impressions take in all of the sites we’ll be seeing on the Tour, complete details of which can be found here.

The Forest of Soignes

From: The Life and Letters of Dr. Samuel Butler: Headmaster of Shrewsbury School

July 9th. 1816 —From Brussels through Waterloo to the field of battle, about fourteen miles, through the Forest of Soignies, almost all the way a most detestable pavi full of holes. Waterloo is a miserable village of about twenty houses; its small red brick church, designed in segments of ellipses, is about twenty-five or possibly thirty feet in diameter. Here are monumental inscriptions to the memory of many of our brave country men. In about half a mile from Waterloo we quit the Forest of Soignes, and the ground becomes an elevated plain with some moderate undulations. In about two miles more we come to a place where a bye-road crosses the principal road. Here is an elm of moderate size on the right-hand side of the road, some of whose branches have been torn off by cannon balls; this is the famous Wellington tree, where the Duke was posted during the greater part of the battle, and is somewhat nearer the left wing than the centre of the battle. Close to the cross-road opposite this runs La Haye Sainte, a broken stumpy hedge. Directly opposite this tree, on the road-side, lay the skeleton of an unburied horse, and near the tree itself I picked up a human rib. The whole field of battle is now covered with crops of wheat and rye, which grow with a rank and peculiar green over the graves of the slain and mark them readily. About one hundred and fifty yards below the Wellington tree, which itself stands on the top of Mount St. Jean, in the hollow, is the little farm of La Haye Sainte, where the dreadful slaughter of the German Legion took place; they defended the place till they had spent all their ammunition, and were then massacred to a man, but not till they had taken a bloody revenge. The house and walls, the barn doors and gates, are full of marks from cannon and musket balls. In the barn are innumerable shot holes, and the plaster is still covered with blood, and the holes which the bayonets made through their bodies into it are still to be seen.

La Haye Sainte

“In a hollow near this scene of carnage lie the bodies of two thousand French Cuirassiers in one grave, and about twenty yards farther is the spot to which Bonaparte advanced to cheer the Imperial Guard for their last charge; it is scarcely possible but that he must have exposed himself greatly in so doing. The little valley between the undulation of Mount St. Jean, where the British were posted, and that of La Belle Alliance, which was occupied by the French, is not more than about a quarter of a mile across; the Duke of Wellington and Bonaparte, whose general station was on this hill, cannot have been more than that distance, or a very little more, from each other. On going to the station of Bonaparte we had a fine view of the whole field, and, though quite ignorant of military affairs, could not but see the superiority of the British position. The undulation on their side being a little more abrupt than that of the French, they were themselves protected in some measure, and their force considerably concealed, while that of the French was perfectly distinguishable. The right wing of the British was at Hougoumont [rather Goumont], a chateau of great importance and of very considerable strength. Their left wing was at the end of La Haye, about a short half-mile or less from the farm of St. Jean, which was almost of the same importance for its protection as Hougoumont for that of the right. The whole line could not extend more than a mile and a quarter. The French were posted on the opposite eminence, and here in this small space three hundred cannon, independent of all other weapons, were doing the work of death all day. Our guide, a very intelligent peasant, told us that the whole ground was literally covered with carcasses, and that about five days after the stench began to be so horrid that it was hardly possible to bury them on the left of the British, and of course on the right of the French position. At less than a mile and a half is the wood from which the Prussians made their appearance. La Belle Alliance is about half a mile or a little less from Mount St. Jean; here we turned off to see the chateau of Hougoumont, which was most important to secure the British right and French left wing, and was therefore eagerly contested; four thousand British were posted here, and withstood with only the bayonet and musketry all the attacks of an immense body of French with cannon. The French were posted in a wood, now a good deal cut down, close to the wall of the garden at Hougoumont. The British had made holes in the wall to fire through, and the French aimed at these holes. The whole wall is so battered by bullets that it looks as if thousands of pickaxes had been employed to pick the bricks. The trees are torn by cannon balls, and some not above eight inches in diameter, being half shot away on one side, still flourish.

 

Hougoumont

“Passing round the garden wall to the gates, the scene of devastation is yet more striking. The front gates communicate with the chateau, a plain gentleman’s house, the back ones (which are directly opposite) with the farmer’s residence. This was occupied three times by the French, who were thrice repulsed; but the English were never driven from the chateau. The tower, or rather dovecote, of the chateau was burnt down, but a chapel near it, about twenty feet long, was preserved in the midst of the fire; the flames had caught the crucifix and had burnt one foot of the image, and then went out. This was of course considered a great miracle. From the chapel we went into the garden. Its repose and gaiety of flowers, together with the neatness of its cultivation, formed a striking contrast with the ruined mansion, the blackened, torn, and in some parts blood-stained walls, and the charred timbers about it. In a corner of this garden is the spot where Captain Crawford and eight men were killed by one cannon ball, which entered opposite them by a hole still there and went through the house and lodged in another wall; I have seen the ball in the Waterloo Museum.

The Waterloo Musuem, Wellington’s former headquarters

Going along the green alleys of the garden, quite overarched with hornbeam, we see the different holes broken by the English to fire on their enemies, and a gap on the northeast angle of the garden is the gap made by the French, who attempted to enter there, but were repulsed. Had they gained entrance the slaughter would have been dreadful, as we had four thousand men in the garden, which from its thick hedges has many strongholds, and they were greatly more numerous. The English also lined a strong hedge opposite the wood in which the French were, which they could not force, but the trees are terribly torn by cannon. The loss of Hougoumont would probably have been fatal to us. From the gap above mentioned, looking up to the line of the British on Mount St. Jean, is one small bush; here Major Howard was killed.

La Belle Alliance

“Leaving Hougoumont, we returned to La Belle Alliance, where we once more reviewed the field of battle, and found some bullets and fragments of accoutrements among the ploughed soil. The crop is not so thriving on the French side, but it was still more richly watered with blood; in fact the soil, which on the British position is rather a light sand, is here a stiffish clay. From La Belle Alliance we proceeded to Genappe, another post, passing by a burnt house called la maison du roi; here Napoleon slept on the eventful eve of the battle. Following the course of the French in their retreat, we proceeded to another post, to Quatre Bras. Here was the famous [stand ?] made by the Highlanders against the whole French Army on the 16th. It is a field a little to the left at the turning to Namur. Hence we proceeded, having Fleurus on our right, to Sombreffe, where was the severe battle of the Prussians on the 16th, and thence to Namur, where the French continued their retreat.

 

The tourqoise circle upper right marks Genappe

“At Genappe, which is a straggling village, with narrow streets, dreadful slaughter was made by the Prussians on the night of the 16th; here Bonaparte’s carriage was taken, and he narrowly escaped himself. From hence to Namur the road was strewed with dead, the Prussians having killed, it is thought, not less than twenty thousand in the pursuit. Nothing can be more detestable than the paved roads, more miserable than the villages, or more uninteresting in the natural appearance of the country than the whole course from Brussels to Namur, about forty-seven miles, the scene of all these great historical events in the present and past ages.”