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Thursday, 18 June 2015

In the shadow of the Battle of Waterloo - three days in June: part 3 - 18 June 1815

The Battle of Waterloo in The wars of Wellington, a narrative poem  by Dr Syntax illustrated by W Heath and JC Stadler (1819)
The Battle of Waterloo in The wars of Wellington, a narrative poem
by Dr Syntax illustrated by W Heath and JC Stadler (1819)
For two days, Friday 16 and Saturday 17 June 1815, the population of Brussels, including many visitors from England, had endured painful uncertainty. They could hear the sounds of cannon to the south and knew that Wellington's army was engaging the French under Napoleon. But it was far from clear who had the upper hand.



What these thousands of civilians feared most was that victorious French troops would enter, and ransack, the city.

An anonymous observer of events in the city later published an account of their experience, offering us a vivid insight into what it was like for civilians during the Battle of Waterloo.

Decisive charge at Waterloo by A Cooper engraved by P Lightfoot  from The Life of Field-Marshal His Grace the Duke of Wellington  by WH Maxwell (1852)
Decisive charge at Waterloo by A Cooper engraved by P Lightfoot
from The Life of Field-Marshal His Grace the Duke of Wellington
by WH Maxwell (1852)
Day 3: Sunday 18 June 1815

“On Sunday the terror and confusion reached its highest point.” After two uncomfortable nights for Brussels, probably sleepless for many, “news arrived of the French having gained a complete victory, and it was universally believed”. (1)

Panic swept through the baggage train at the rear of the British army, and a torrent of frightened people fled into Brussels, leaving a trail of “broken and overturned waggons – heaps of abandoned baggage – dead horses, and terrified people”.

Surrounded by this chaos, everyone in Brussels was desperate for news. “Ladies accosted men they had never seen before, without preface or apology, with eager questions. Strangers conversed together like friends – every body addressed each other without hesitation, and English reserve seemed no longer to exist.”

Despite all the questions, there were no answers. The dreadful overture of battle, the distant rumble of cannon fire, again played in the background throughout the day. Their nerves shredded by three days of suspense, “constant agitation and fluctuating hopes”, the population who chose to stay, or could not flee, had no choice but to wait. Just a few miles away, one of the most celebrated battles in European history was being fought in the fields, woods and hedgerows of Waterloo.

Finally, at around 9pm, “some wounded officers arrived on horseback from the field, bringing the dreadful news, that the battle was lost!” This prompted a fresh exodus away from the city, and the sense of foreboding deepened as carriages filled with wounded rolled into the city.

Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Picton  - one of the officers who died at the Battle of Waterloo  from The Life of Field-Marshal His Grace the Duke of Wellington  by WH Maxwell (1852)
Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Picton
- one of the officers who died at the Battle of Waterloo
from The Life of Field-Marshal His Grace the Duke of Wellington
by WH Maxwell (1852)
Reliable news at last!

Finally, at around 3am on Monday 19 June 1815, an official message arrived from Waterloo, “containing a brief account of the victory. A party of wounded Highlanders, who had found their way on foot from the field of battle, no sooner heard the news, than, regardless of their sufferings, they began to shout and huzza with the most vociferous demonstrations of joy”.

The ‘near observer’ who recorded this account soon paid a personal visit to the battlefield. “Every tree in the wood of Hougoumont is pierced with cannon-balls – in one alone, I counted the holes, where upwards of twenty had lodged.”

The mixture of relief and disgust engendered by a trip to the battlefield so soon after the conflict is hard to imagine.

“Wild flowers are still blooming, and wild raspberries ripening beneath their shade; while huge black piles of human ashes, dreadfully offensive in smell, are all that now remain of the heroes who fought and fell upon this fatal spot.”

Horse Guards at the Battle of Waterloo from Historic, military and   naval anecdotes of particular incidents by E Orme & illustrated   by Heath & Dubourg (1819)
Horse Guards at the Battle of Waterloo from Historic, military and 
naval anecdotes of particular incidents by E Orme & illustrated
 by Heath & Dubourg (1819)
A summary of the events on Sunday 18 June

Following two days of smaller military engagements, Napoleon and Wellington faced one another on the battlefield for the first and only time. The Battle of Waterloo began at around midday and continued into the long June evening, both sides bitterly contesting the battlefield in a bid to break the other. Many of those present later recorded that it was the most ferocious battle they had ever experienced.

In early evening the Prussian army under Blucher, defeated by the French two days earlier, arrived to support the struggling Allied army led by Wellington. Napoleon made a final assault with his Imperial Guard, undefeated in all their previous engagements. They were broken and their defeat signalled the end to the French, who fled the battlefield.

The meeting of Wellington and Blucher at La Belle Alliance in  The wars of Wellington, a narrative poem  by Dr Syntax illustrated by W Heath and JC Stadler (1819)
The meeting of Wellington and Blucher at La Belle Alliance in
The wars of Wellington, a narrative poem
by Dr Syntax illustrated by W Heath and JC Stadler (1819)
While not the last battle between the French and the Allies, Waterloo was effectively the end of Napoleon's campaign. He raced back to Paris, but discovered he had little support and on 15 July, at Rochefort on the French coast, he gave himself up to a British warship. He hoped to be allowed to travel to America, or make a quiet home in England, but was instead exiled to the distant island of St Helena. 
List of dead and wounded at the Battle of Waterloo  from The Life of Field-Marshal His Grace the Duke of Wellington  by WH Maxwell (1852)
List of dead and wounded at the Battle of Waterloo
from The Life of Field-Marshal His Grace the Duke of Wellington
by WH Maxwell (1852)
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)

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