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Monday, 15 June 2015

In the shadow of the Battle of Waterloo - three days in June: part 1 - 16 June 1815

The Battle of Waterloo from The wars of Wellington, a narrative poem by Dr Syntax, illustrated by W Heath & JC Stadler (1819)
The Battle of Waterloo from The wars of Wellington, a narrative poem
by Dr Syntax, illustrated by W Heath & JC Stadler (1819)
According to many who where there, the Battle of Waterloo was the most ferocious engagement of its time. But what was it like for the thousands of civilians living in the nearby city of Brussels? Within earshot of the engagement, they knew that the outcome of the battle would have an immediate impact on their own lives. Should the French win, they would ransack the city.

“An open town like Brussels, within a few miles of contending armies, is subject to perpetual alarms, and scarcely an hour passed without some false reports occurring to spread general terror and confusion.” (1)

So wrote a ‘near observer’, author of one of the many published accounts of the greatest and final battle in the Napoleonic wars. The writer opens their work with a firsthand experience of life just a few miles from the epic engagement, portraying a city in a febrile condition, undergoing convulsions of panic as, for three days, the sounds, sights and smells of war filled the streets of a town hoping desperately to remain free from the ravages of a French occupation.

Prelude: Thursday 15 June 1815


On this long, early summer evening, Brussels saw probably the most famous of all Regency social gatherings – the Duchess of Richmond’s ball. The Duke of Wellington and almost all his officers attended, as did many of their wives and daughters, who were travelling with them.

The glittering occasion was a stark contrast to the grim reality of war that would follow. There was “dismay and consternation” on every face, as news spread that the army would march out in the morning. Many young officers took their final leave of loved ones that night, never to return.

The Duke of Wellington from The Life of Field-Marshal His Grace the Duke of Wellington by WH Maxwell (1852)
The Duke of Wellington from The Life of Field-Marshal
His Grace the Duke of Wellington
by WH Maxwell (1852)
Day 1: Friday 16 June 1815

In the early hours, the city was roused “when suddenly the drums beat to arms, and the trumpet’s loud call was heard from every part of the city”. Very quickly the “whole town was one universal scene of bustle”. Wellington had ordered his army out to meet the swift advance of Napoleon.

The troops gathered in Place Royale, “with their knapsacks on their backs, some taking leave of wives and children; others sitting down unconsciously concerned upon the sharp pavement, waiting for their comrades”.

It being mid-June, dawn came early, bringing with it a procession of carts coming in from the country for the market. Old Flemish women came into town with poles of cabbages, green peas and potatoes and gazed in surprise at the bright array of soldiers assembling around them.

By 4am the regiments were formed up and began marching south out of the city. Many had little experience of battle, the core of the army who had fought in the recent wars having been sent to fight in other conflicts.

Just four hours later, at 8am, the streets of Brussels were empty and the Place Royale deserted. A convoy of wagons had been assembled, in preparation to move the wounded, but its Flemish drivers dozed as they waited to be called to action.

Illustration from The Life of Field-Marshal His Grace the Duke of Wellington by WH Maxwell (1852)
Illustration from The Life of Field-Marshal
His Grace the Duke of Wellington
by WH Maxwell (1852)
A long and uncertain day

After a restless night, the people of Brussels waited anxiously to discover their fate. The day wore on without much expectation of news, when at around 3pm the sound of nearby cannon fire rocked the city. It came from the south, from the direction of Waterloo, which was just 13 miles from the heart of Brussels.

“Had our troops then encountered the French before they had joined the Prussians? Were they separately engaged? Where? When? How?”

Keen for news, many people took horses or carriages in the direction of the sound, to find out what was going on. The reports they brought back were confused. Some said the French had been defeated, others that the English were fleeing. Finally, late in the afternoon, an officer brought news that the British had met, and resisted, the French. “In the words of this officer, ‘all was well’.” 

The sound of distant guns continued to rattle the city and its inhabitants, into the long summer twilight. “Unable to rest, we wandered about the place the whole evening, or stood upon the ramparts listening to the heavy cannonade, which towards 10 o’clock became fainter, and soon afterwards entirely died away.”

A summary of the events on Friday 16 June

What the residents of Brussels overheard that Friday were the twin battles of Quatre Bras and, more distantly, Ligny. At Quatre Bras, the French army led by Marshal Ney, was beaten back by Wellington as they tried to secure a strategic crossroads. Napoleon, leading another French army, was more successful at Ligny, where the Prussians under Field Marshal Blucher were defeated.

With the Prussians beaten back, Napoleon prepared to defeat Wellington and march victoriously into Brussels.

Windmill at Quatre Bras during the Battle of Waterloo
by Carle Vernet (c1815-36) © Trustees of the British Museum
See how the story progressed - read about Day 2: Saturday 17 June 1815

Read about Day 3: The Battle of Waterloo - Sunday 18 June 1815

Note
(1) All quotes from The Battle of Waterloo by a near observer (1815).

Sources used include:
Booth, J (publisher), The Battle of Waterloo by a near observer (1815)
Maxwell, William Hamilton, Life of Field-Marshal His Grace the Duke of Wellington in three volumes (1852)

2 comments:

  1. read the diary of an officer's wife - constant alarms .and incomplete information. As always waiting in anxiety is difficult, that much doesn't change.

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    Replies
    1. As you say, not knowing what is happening is always dreadful. We rely so much on today's technology that it is hard to imagine waiting for news to filter through from those returning from the battlefield.

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