Waterloo: Five More Items of Note

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June 22, 2015 by Andrew W M Smith

When looking into the commemoration of the Battle of Waterloo (or Belle Alliance, for any French readers) last week, I jotted down a few points. This was all part of doing a little preparation before going to speak to the Independent about the commemoration (you can see the resulting video HERE). These anecdotes and observations struck me as interesting reflections or curios about the Battle that were worth noting. Those five points were:

  1. Waterloo – Ties that Bind
  2. Napoleon – Betrayed?
  3. A Battle That Sorted the (Wo)men From the Boys
  4. Headlines & Libels at Waterloo
  5. “A Real Brolly Buster”: Waterloo and the Rain

This post is probably a little more hastily cobbled together than usual, so apologies if the seams show a little. For a more considered reflection, see my post on Waterloo station ‘Myths, Battle & Rail’. Nonetheless, hopefully it will be of interest!

 

William Sadler II [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

William Sadler II [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

  1. Waterloo – Ties that Bind

Often held up as a piece of nationalist triumphalism, Waterloo was in fact a symbol of two different types of unity.

‘Four Nations’

One of my best friends, himself a claimaint of Anglo-Irish identity, delights in telling me that Wellington was born across the water. The battle-hardened conservative would actually go on to be our second Dublin-born Prime Minister. This is traditionally met with the misattributed quote, seeming to play down the importance of his birthplace: “being born in a stable does not make one a horse”. As it turns out, however, this was coined by the Irish PM Daniel O’Connell in 1843, rather than Wellington himself. The Irish Times argues that Wellington was, in reality, quite proud of his identity. He supported the enfranchisement of wealthy Irish Catholics, through the Emancipation of 1829, though was no democrat and opposed popular enfranchisement.[1] His army at Waterloo contained some 8,500 Irish,[2] and a huge contingent of Scots and Welsh. The Scots Greys (known then as the North British Dragoon) were famously depicted in the painting ‘Scotland Forever!’, commemorating the charge. The majority of these soldiers were impoverished conscripts, fighting out of compulsion rather than patriotism or some love of the United Kingdom, however. It is important not to project an image of democracy, and of a voluntary, professional military backwards through time. This doesn’t diminish the victory, though it does nuance the meaning of the battle and the way it was portrayed. News of the victory was held up as being something to be proud of in every corner of the United Kingdom, which itself was bordering on disunity. Therefore, its depiction as an inherently national victory was crucial. To quote Alan Forrest: “Pride in Waterloo was used to cement the bonds that held Britain and the Empire together.”[3]

A Victory For European Cooperation

In many ways, the battle at Waterloo is famous here because of Britain’s involvement. It was neither the start nor the end of the series of battles that led to Napoleon’s defeat. The start was surely at the Battle of Nations at Leipzig in October 1813. It ranged the Russians, Prussians, Austrians and Swedes against the French Empire, giving Napoleon his first decisive defeat. It involved some 600,000 French troops, and saw about 100,000 killed.[4] This was one of the bloodiest single battles before the First World War. It was also the battle that led directly to his exile on Elba. His return, when it was finally met at Waterloo, saw a decisive victory for the Coalition that built on the experience of battle. Likewise, even after that defeat, General Vandamme continued to defy the inevitable – making a last gasp attack on Prussian redoubts with 60 odd thousand troops near Paris at Issy. The victory of the Coalition paved way for the reactionary Concert of Vienna to hold sway over Europe for some time. This gang of European Oligarchs and Aristocrats defeated a French tyrant and attempted to hold out against the buffeting echoes of revolution that would sweep across Europe in the 1820s, 1830s and 1840s.

In both senses, the unity described is fragile and nuanced. In neither case does Britain come out as the sole jingoistic victor in an existential struggle. Neither the victors nor the vanquished can be held up as exemplary figures of republican virtue or democratic restraint. Once more, these facts don’t diminish the memory of the battle, though they do challenge us to see through the way in which that memory has been framed as a political expedient.

***

  1. Napoleon – Betrayed?

Another common contention vacillates between universal support for Napoleon, and universal revulsion in his homeland. Certainly, he did have his detractors, just as he had his die-hards. Yet, in part, he felt betrayed by two women, who had a part in his downfall.

Betrayed by a Wife?

In the Conversation, Katherine Astbury relates the role of Napoleon’s second wife, Marie-Louise, the Duchess of Parma and an Austrian archduchess.[5] Despite accompanying him to exile on Elba, she didn’t return to his side during the 100 days. Instead, she stayed in Vienna with their son, part of a seeming plot to replace the Emperor with his own son and take the sting out of France’s warlike posture.  This plot, apparently, reduced Napoleon to tears, and Marie-Louise was replaced in her official duties by Hortense de Beauharnais, Napoleon’s step-daughter (and sister-in-law), whose son Napoleon III would eventually claim Bonaparte’s legacy. This, in turn, was commemorated in rebellious songs as far afield as Ireland:

“In The Bonny Bunch of Roses, Napoleon’s son, who wants to restore his might, is told by his mother how difficult that will be – as if to answer Napoleon’s own intriguing question.”[6]

Such plots helped demonstrate the extent to which the war had sapped the loyalty of Napoleon’s followers and supporters. As charismatic as the Emperor may have been, he could not stand against an entire continent again.

Betrayed by a Sister?

Likewise, this was not the only woman to campaign against the Emperor’s relentless campaigning. His younger sister Caroline Bonaparte Murat, had married the General Joachim Murat, part of Napoleon’s staff in the Army of Italy.[7] Murat was Governor of Paris in 1804, but when Napoleon had crowned himself Emperor, Caroline had felt a slight in not being recognised with a crown like some of her siblings. After a long time campaigning, they were rewarded with the Throne of Naples in 1808, where Caroline governed the city whilst her husband fought in Napoleon’s wars. Yet, in 1814 (after a minor bout of desertion by Joachim, which seemed to be forgiven), Joachim and Caroline agreed to support the Coalition if they could hold onto their territory in Naples. Yet, when Napoleon returned from this defeat, Joachim tried to rally, reaching out to the Emperor, with the promise of Neapolitan support. Despite orders to remain defensive (to hold off an Austrian advance), Murat struck out impetuously and was defeated at Tolentino in May 1815. This opened up another means for the Coalition to attack Napoleon, who said: “Twice Murat betrayed and ruined me”.[8]

In both these cases, there was no decisive loss to be attributed to betrayal. Yet, in both these cases, we see the complicated politics that dominated Europe, the toll that constant warfare had on families, friendships and marriages, and the extent to which self-interest could conquer loyalty.

Jacques-Louis David [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Jacques-Louis David [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

  1. A Battle That Sorted the (Wo)men From the Boys

Waterloo was not a space where only men were present, there were many women near the forntlines and, in some cases, in the thick of the action. The Napoleonic Wars did not separate the realms of men and women, and in many cases experiences were shared, whether at the front, in the line, or in anticipation of an eventual end to war. Katherine Astbury, in The Conversation, also points out some of the rarer female combatants on the day, such as the Prussian sergeant Friederike Krüger who won the Iron Cross, and fought at Ligny on 16 June.[9] This is definitely a rare example, but teaches us the value of assumptions, and shows the agency that existed for women (albeit nobles). Far more common was the experience of everyday working women, who experienced the war principally in anticipation and as fellow-travellers.

On the British side, Scottish born Jenny Griffiths, related her experience to a journalist for the Welsh Cambrian News in 1876. She had followed her Welsh husband Lewis to the front, defying attempts to shrug off camp followers. With nothing awaiting her at home, bar begging or poverty, she followed the front and was present at Waterloo. She was one of the thousands of women who had travelled alongside the army, often serving as maids and cheap labour. She described her experience of the day to the journalist:

“”She recalled: “I remained with him until he went down on his knees to load his gun and fire. The colonel said I’d better return to camp. I had not gone far when a volley of musket shots fell around, but did not strike me.”

Then it was a matter of going to the rear among the wounded and waiting it out, often under cannon fire.

And then, when it was all over, looking for your husband – was he dead or alive?

“I searched for him all Sunday night. Then, all day on Monday, I went through about 300 rooms where the wounded soldiers lay, but I could not find him.

“Then the little baby said ‘da-da’, and I saw it was my husband.””[10]

Obviously there were many more wives who did not follow to the front, and instead found themselves separated from friends, husbands, brothers, and fathers fighting on the continent. Throughout the Hundred Days, the armies of Europe relived the long Napoleonic Wars, and casualties affected Europe greatly. Aside from the emotional and social toll, the demographic impact was colossal. More than a million Frenchmen were killed and, in comparison to somewhere like Britain which it previously outnumbered, France’s population never recovered and remained roughly equivalent to the UK. Whether in the social and political aftermath, or in the tense, anticpatory experience of the 100 days, the Napoleonic Wars scarred Europe’s women just as it scarred her men.

***

  1. Headlines & Libels at Waterloo

One of the enduring myths about Waterloo was actually an anti-Semitic libel against Europe’s most famous banking family. It posited that the Rothschilds had advanced knowledge of the outcome, and made a fortune speculating on a market they cynically manipulated (Nathan Rothschild feigning his desire to sell in London, before buying at rock bottom prices following the panic they created, moments before the news became generally known). The BBC related the story in 1998:

“The communication network established by the brothers was so effective that Rothschild knew about the British victory at Waterloo 24 hours before the British Government did.”[11]

The efficiency of the Rothschild’s networks of communication in the early 1800s is unchallenged, though the precise effect of this often is. Whilst the myth is that they made a fortune, Niall Ferguson argues that the family firm had forecast a long campaign, which meant the profits made barely covered the overall losses.[12] The mythology behind this libel, it seems, comes from an anonymously written pamphlet, disributed in the political tinderbox of Paris in 1848, which slandered the jews under the soubriquet ‘Satan’.[13] Ferguson argues instead that their canny support for Wellington is what made them their money. This is outlined by the BBC as well:

“Working closely with his four brothers who were living in cities in France and Germany, Rothschild’s agents bought up gold and silver,and smuggled them to Wellington’s army. His records show that they collected £2 million, at 1815 prices.”[14]

Yet there is some dispute that the Rothschilds knew before anyone else. Professor Brian Cathcart has written about the rush to get the news out in his recent book The News from Waterloo (Faber, 2015).  There was a distinctive lack of easy ways to let the world know:

“not one of the editors of those 50-odd London newspapers sent a journalist to Belgium with a brief to send home timely reports of what happened. So when Napoleon suffered his crushing defeat on 18 June, not a single British newspaper representative was on the battlefield, or even at the allied headquarters in Brussels.”[15]

As such, it fell to the main actors to relate the stories to the public. Cathcart explains that journalists were really news aggregators, bringing together stories from official sources and not actively bearing witness. So to Waterloo… Cathcart describes how Wellington wrote a telegram at 1pm on the day after battle as he rode to Brussels, and entrusted it to a messenger, Major Henry Percy:

“who set off with all due haste for London. It took Percy nearly 24 hours to cover the 78 miles to Ostend, where he boarded HMS Peruvian for Deal. Becalmed after 24 hours, he travelled the last 15 miles or so by rowing boat, making landfall at Broadstairs around 3pm on Wednesday. From there he took a post-chaise and four – the Regency equivalent of a taxi – with the eagles and tricolors poking from its windows – in which he crossed Westminster Bridge at around 11.15pm.”[16]

He then passed on the message to Lord Bathurst, the Secretary of War, who was dining with the Prime Minister and most of the Cabinet on the evening of 21 June. Interestingly, Major Percy then went to the Prince Regent to present the captured Eagles. These Eagles are currently on display together for the first time at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. To quote the exhibit guide:

“The eagle of the French 45th Infantry, taken by Sergeant Ewart of the Scot Greys, on loan from the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards Museum in Edinburgh Castle, will be on show throughout the exhibition run, while the eagle of the French 105th Infantry – which is on loan from The National Army Museum London – will be displayed until 31 May.”[17]

Instead of an anti-Semitic slur, the race to get the news out was more like the race to land Beaujolais Nouveau. The story itself would emerge as the news was released by official sources, making its way through the popular press to every corner of the Kingdom. From there, the news itself would go on to frame a national victory for the United Kingdom. Indeed, the persistence of this myth can be seen by the current location of the eagles which accompanied that message. During turbulent times when separatism and secession are being touted, the significance and the heritage of those eagles shows the power of myth. In the words of Alan Forrest, “Pride in Waterloo was used to cement the bonds that held Britain and the Empire together.”[18] We can only hope the unity of that moment holds.

By Creator:J A AtkinsonEdward Orme [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

By Creator:J A AtkinsonEdward Orme [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

  1. “A Real Brolly Buster”: Waterloo and the Rain

One of the enduring characters at the centre of many accounts of Waterloo is the rain. Indeed, the recent BBC dramatisation of Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell depicted the rain as magical, showing the army’s magician keeping fires at bay. Magical it may not have been, though it was heavy. It was, as they say in the recent Paddington movie, “a real brolly buster”. Stephen Clarke retells a litany of French excusemaking seemingly begun by Victor Hugo: “If it hadn’t rained on the night of 17-18 June, the future of Europe would have been different. A few raindrops more or less failed Napoleon.”[19]

Still from Ep5 of 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell' (copyright BBC)

Still from Ep5 of ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’ (copyright BBC)

Indeed, it seems that the rain had actually delayed certain phases of battle. Apparently General Vandamme was delayed from arriving at Ligny, as the rider with the orders fell from his horse in poor conditions and broke his leg. Arguably this prevented the “outright victory against Wellington and Blücher” sought by Napoleon. [20] Likewise, Marshall Ney’s delay in rejoining battle on the 17th at Quatre Bras cost him an opportunity to meet the British in the field. Although they did skirmish, it was eventually curtailed as heavy rain set in.[21] Likewise, Clarke tells us how the “roads became rivers”, preventing Napoleon tracking directly Wellington from Ligny. An awful night of weather kept soldiers awake, broke up supply lines, and turned roads into impassable swamps.

Indeed, this conforms to one of the most well-known stories about Wellington’s preparedness, as he occupied a ridge with a reverse slope, Mont Saint-Jean, allowing the British to maintain the upper hand even amidst the extreme weather. This also had the handy knack of sheltering the British from one of Napoleon’s favourite weapons, the artillery.

More amusing, perhaps, is the presence of umbrellas on the battlefield. The site British Battles lists a number of letters from soldiers that mention umbrellas. One Captain in the Horse Artillery mentioned the utility of the contraptions:

“My companion (the troop’s second captain) had an umbrella, which by the way afforded some merriment to our people on the march, this we planted against the sloping bank of the hedge, and seating ourselves under it, he on the one side of the stick, me on the other side, we lighted cigars and became-comfortable.”[22]

Yet, despite them being useful (and keeping weary soldiers out the rain) they weren’t popular with the top brass. Wellington had apparently upbraided officers at the Siege of Bayonne in 1814, and maintained his dislike throughout the Napoleonic wars. A captain of the First Foot Guards said of Wellington:

 “His Grace, on looking round, saw, to his surprise, a great many umbrellas, with which the officers protected themselves from the rain that was then falling. Arthur Hill came galloping up to us saying, Lord Wellington does not approve of the use of umbrellas during the enemy’s firing, and will not allow the “gentlemen’s sons” to make themselves ridiculous in the eyes of the army.”[23]

Thus, consensus held that umbrellas were to be avoided. Again, though, diaries and letters relate something different. “]T]he surgeon of Captain Mercer’s troop of Horse Artillery was seen to be sheltering under the forbidden item during the early part of the Battle of Waterloo.”[24]

At first, it seems a little churlish to forbid umbrellas, although they would certainly have encouraged troops to remain static and also not entirely prepared. Further, however, there are clues in the ways they were perceived by the French. Major General Jean-de-Dieu Soult, Napoleon’s Chief of Staff apparently referred to officers sporting brollies as

“‘les efféminés avec leurs parapluies’ (effeminates with their umbrellas)”[25]

What seemed to make this even odder is the name association with Wellington himself, surely no stranger to water-poof gear. In fact, the boots which bore his name were created after Waterloo, sometime after 1817, when he ordered his boots altered to create the shape we came to associate with the ‘Wellington boot’. Indeed, a pair of these boots, owned by Wellington, is currently on display in the National Army Museum.[26] The boots, rather than the umbrella, were a measure of practicality. Crucially for Wellington, however, the fighting at Waterloo was done before he started worrying about keeping his feet dry.

Whether it acted as an irritant or a leveller, the rain certainly had an impact on the battle. If one is weaving national myths, it is very tempting to say that the British were perhaps a little more prepared for showers. Nonetheless, this helps to demonstrate the contingency of such moments, but also the humanity involved. For all Victor Hugo’s posturing about the cruel divine intervention of rain, the humorous thought of umbrella bearing Horse Guards is a moment of lightness amidst the sounds, fury and action of the epochal Battle of Waterloo.

[1] Paul Gillespie, ‘200th anniversary of Battle of Waterloo raises intriguing question’, Irish Times Online, 6 June 2015. (Url: http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/paul-gillespie-200th-anniversary-of-battle-of-waterloo-raises-intriguing-question-1.2239260) (Accessed: 17/06/15)

[2] R. McGreevy, ‘ Just how many Irish fought at the Battle of Waterloo?’, The Irish Times 18 June 2015. (Url: http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/heritage/just-how-many-irish-fought-at-the-battle-of-waterloo-1.2254271) (Accessed: 18/06/15)

[3] A. Forrest, ‘ How do we remember the Battle of Waterloo?’, OUP Blog, 15 June 2015. (Url:  http://blog.oup.com/2015/06/remember-battle-waterloo) (Accessed: 17/06/15)

[4] ‘Waterloo: a victory for European co-operation, not just for Britain’. (Url: http://www.swansea.ac.uk/media-centre/latest-news/waterlooavictoryforeuropeanco-operationnotjustforbritain.php) (Accessed: 17/06/15)

[5] Katherine Astbury, ‘ Witnesses, wives, politicians, soldiers: the women of Waterloo’, The Conversation, 12 June 2015. (Url: http://theconversation.com/witnesses-wives-politicians-soldiers-the-women-of-waterloo-42648) (Accessed: 17/06/15)

[6] Paul Gillespie, ‘200th anniversary of Battle of Waterloo raises intriguing question’, Irish Times Online, 6 June 2015. (Url: http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/paul-gillespie-200th-anniversary-of-battle-of-waterloo-raises-intriguing-question-1.2239260) (Accessed: 17/06/15)

[7] ‘A Salon Guest… Caroline Bonaparte Murat, Napoleon’s Treasonous Sister’, Madame Gilflurt Blog, 24 July 2014. (Url: http://www.madamegilflurt.com/2014/07/a-salon-guest-caroline-bonaparte-murat.html) (Accessed: 17/06/15)

[8] ‘A Salon Guest… Caroline Bonaparte Murat, Napoleon’s Treasonous Sister’, Madame Gilflurt Blog, 24 July 2014. (Url: http://www.madamegilflurt.com/2014/07/a-salon-guest-caroline-bonaparte-murat.html) (Accessed: 17/06/15)

[9] Katherine Astbury, ‘ Witnesses, wives, politicians, soldiers: the women of Waterloo’, The Conversation, 12 June 2015. (Url: http://theconversation.com/witnesses-wives-politicians-soldiers-the-women-of-waterloo-42648) (Accessed: 17/06/15)

[10] S. Robertson, ‘Who were the Waterloo Scots?’, BBC News Online 16 June 2015. (Url: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-33080291) (Accessed 17/06/15)

[11] ‘The making of a dynasty: the Rothschilds’, BBC News Online, 28 January 1998. (Url: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/50997.stm) (Accessed: 17/06/15)

[12] ‘N. Ferguson,The House of Rothschild: Review’, Business Week (Url: http://www.businessweek.com/1998/49/b3607071.htm) (Accessed: 17/06/15)

[13] ‘The News from Waterloo: the Race to Tell Britain of Wellington’s Victory by Brian Cathcart, review’, The Daily Telegraph, 29 April 2015. (Url: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/11558359/The-News-from-Waterloo-the-Race-to-Tell-Britain-ofWellingtons-Victory-by-Brian-Cathcart.html) (Accessed: 17/06/15)

[14] ‘The making of a dynasty: the Rothschilds’, BBC News Online, 28 January 1998. (Url: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/50997.stm) (Accessed: 17/06/15)

[15] B. Cathcart, ‘The Battle of Waterloo, and Not a Journalist in Sight’, The Guardian, 15 May 2015 (Url: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/may/15/battle-waterloo-news-aggregation-journalism-brian-cathcart) (Accessed: 17/06/15)

[16] ‘The News from Waterloo: the Race to Tell Britain of Wellington’s Victory by Brian Cathcart, review’, The Daily Telegraph, 29 April 2015. (Url: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/11558359/The-News-from-Waterloo-the-Race-to-Tell-Britain-ofWellingtons-Victory-by-Brian-Cathcart.html) (Accessed: 17/06/15)

[17] http://www.nms.ac.uk/national-museum-of-scotland/whats-on/waterloo/

[18] A. Forrest, ‘ How do we remember the Battle of Waterloo?’, OUP Blog, 15 June 2015. (Url:  http://blog.oup.com/2015/06/remember-battle-waterloo) (Accessed: 17/06/15)

[19] Stephen Clarke, How the French Won Waterloo (Kindle version, Loc: 745)

[20] Stephen Clarke, How the French Won Waterloo (Kindle version, Loc: 722)

[21] E. McFarnon, ‘ 7 things you (probably) didn’t know about the Napoleonic Wars’, History Extra, 2 June 2015. (Url: http://www.historyextra.com/article/international-history/7-surprising-facts-about-napoleonic-wars-waterloo-napoleon) (Accessed: 17/06/15)

[22] http://www.britishbattles.com/waterloo/waterloo-june-1815.htm

[23] http://www.britishbattles.com/waterloo/waterloo-june-1815.htm

[24] http://www.britishbattles.com/waterloo/waterloo-june-1815.htm

[25] http://www.lady.co.uk/people/6139-how-an-umbrella-helped-win-waterloo

[26] http://www.nam.ac.uk/waterloo200/200-object/a-pair-of-wellington-boots/

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