This is a fairly large mash up of four subjects dealing with peripheries and little known areas of the Battle of Waterloo. Here I’ll tell you about some of the women of Waterloo, of how news reached Britain, of the suffering and treatment of the horses who fought at the battle and discuss the effects of what we now call PTSD in the aftermath.
The battlefield of Waterloo is miles away from Brussels but during the long Sunday of the 18th of June it’s presence was felt. Gunfire, rumbling like thunder rattled the window panes and filled the streets with the strong scent of sulphur and foreboding. As soon as the first attack ended, wounded and stragglers, malingerers and cowards began to trickle through the gates, even an entire cavalry regiment at one point. Indeed the day before the first wounded had been brought in from Quatre Bras. Soon cartloads of casualties were arriving from the overwhelmed medical station at Mont St Jean, behind Wellington’s battle line, bringing home the reality of war for the once gay, carefree expat population, for whom Napoleon had never been more than a newspaper headline, a caricature or an idea to be discussed at a soirée.
Those who danced with the officers on the 15th and had thrilled to see the massed ranks march off to war, now saw for themselves what it all meant, the uniforms were frail and the men flesh and bone. It must have become horribly real.
As the broken warriors were unloaded and piled on the hay strewn cobbles the ladies of Brussels, waiting anxiously for news and accosting anyone in uniform who passed by for information, brought them water and attempted to alleviate their suffering, aided the few civilian doctors that were available. The British and Bruxellois were not shy of doing their bit. Inhabitants stationed themselves at the Porte de Namur with wine & linen and when the hospitals were full they took them into their houses.
The rumour machine that was the city had been foretelling doom, and the mood was dark, no one brought back good news and if one believed everything one heard, then it was certain that the allied army had been crushed (or was being so) and Napoleon was due to arrive at any minute. Wise heads counselled evacuation. Even senior officers had moved their families to Antwerp just in case the worst happened. Wounded men don’t usually give positive information, and only the brave stayed.
This brief story of the ladies of Waterloo may be familiar to some, it begins in the hell of
Mont St Jean farm, built by the Knights Templar in the 12th century and rebuilt in 1778. The main medical station of the Duke of Wellington’s army. All through the day bandsmen were taking in casualties from regimental dressing stations, were battalion surgeons, did what they could on the spot, sending overflow or hopeless cases to the rear. An endless stream of suffering flowed through the grisly hands of Dr. John Gunning, senior medical officer I Corps. Outside the wounded were piling up agains the walls, over spilling the fetid rooms full of the ultimate testament to man’s inhumanity to man. Out here the heat from the battle could be felt, the gunpowder smoke overpowering and the stench and sounds coming from the converted operating rooms nauseating. Orderlies and surgeons were in high demand, attention to patients was about as sympathetic as a construction line. Help for the overworked doctors and the suffering wounded awaiting their turn under the knife un-sedated, came from the woman’s camp nearby the farm. Mary Gale was married to a soldier in the 95th or 60th Rifles named Daniel, she had her little girl with her who was helping her shred lint for bandages. The girl was called Elizabeth and could not have been more than five years old. Like hundreds of army wives following the drum, she had to pass the agonising hours waiting for news of her man. A medical station was a logical place for women to wait, and the “Women’s camp” was set up nearby. If their husbands were wounded they’d be able to help, ghastly as the idea must have seemed seeing the wreckage Lord. Cannonball, Mr. Musketball and the esteemed Squire’s Shrapnel, Lance, bayonet and sabre sent back to them from the action.
Little Elizabeth would live to see the year 1904 (as Mrs. Watkins), and vividly remembered scenes she saw at the women’s camp at Mont St Jean, proving how bad the overspill must have been, maybe she even saw the farmer’s wife collecting livestock and hiding them in the loft. She helped to “Rudely” dress the wounded soldiers, and saw some die, she recalled her fright as her mother lifted a cloth from the face of a dead man, perhaps tremulously looking to see if she recognised him from more tender moments, and she saw his open eyes, staring back towards the battle.
Mrs Watkins was the last eyewitness to the battle, but many women there that day lived into old age, Sutler Elske van Aggelin, followed the Dutch army and celebrated her 95th birthday in 1889, having gone through the fight on the field. Women often did not feel complacent about hovering behind the lines in the “Woman’s camp”, many accompanied their husband’s directly into the fray to watch over them. Quartermaster Ross’ wife stayed with the 14th foot during the fighting until told to go to the rear, as this was no place for an officer’s wife. It took uncommon courage and A Sergeant-Major of the 7th hussars reprimanded his wife for showing fear as the cannonballs flew past her small pony and sent her to the rear. Made of sterner stuff was Jenny Jones, a hardy lass from Tal y Llyn in North Wales, who stood with the gallant 23rd (Royal Welch) throughout the day. Casualties amongst ladies who braved the iron heavy air are also to be found, a French cantinière of the 1st Grénadiers à pied de la Garde Imperial, was cut in half by a cannonball. Pregnant women seem to have been everywhere, many giving birth after the guns fell silent and calling their children Waterloo. Elizabeth McMullen was another soldier’s wife with child, standing near the rear of her husband’s company in the 27th (Inniskilling) Foot, when Peter McMullen was severely wounded by a cannonball, she raced to his side and attempted to carry him to the rear. It was a hard day for the 27th and men were falling fast, dying were they stood and Elizabeth’s leg was fractured by a musket ball as she desperately tried to get her unborn child’s father to some form of treatment. Both managed to escape death in a hospital in Antwerp and Elizabeth gave birth to a baby girl in England were the tale came to the ear of the Prince Regent, who became little Frederica McMullen Waterloo’s godfather.
Elizabeth Watkins must have known Barbera Moon, a four year old whose daddy was also a rifleman, a colour sergeant indeed, and was witness to the terrible spectacle of a battlefield. Elizabeth’s father survived and lived to the age of 96, but Barbara’s was wounded, and died a few months later, she herself passed away in 1903.
On the peripheries of the great cataclysm, the surreal sight of small children is frequent. As a 13 year old Madame Thérèse Dupuis, a Belgian peasant girl from a village near Charleroi, remembered “long lines of horsemen, guns and tired foot regiments” she gave them water from the door of her family cottage and one newspaper account quotes her as saying that she and some friends had sold gin to soldiers that had been billeted near the house for several days. She heard the “Boom of cannon” and saw the smoke clouds rise like tree’s, in the mill, she saw the windows rattle to the beat of the guns, and all through the night they heard the passage of men and artillery. The next morning, she apparently went out to the battlefield and saw many corpses of men and horses, and wounded men on the roadside. The family watched as soldiers dug ditches in their fields to bury the dead.
“No ; I did not see Napoleon, and I still regret it. Poor Napoleon! We did not like the English or the Prussians. The next day we knew that Napoleon’s power was broken”
Lady Magdalene De Lancey was the wife of Sir William Howe De Lancey Wellington’s Quartermaster General. He had packed her out of Brussels to Antwerp on the 16th so as to be out of any harm’s way, they had not been married long, and he had instructed her to listen to no rumours and not to move unless word from him came. She wrote to him every day, receiving a note from Sir William after Quatre Bras, but her words never reached him.
The next 9 days were a nightmare. A day after the battle the worst happened, word reached her that William was direly wounded, at once she sent ahead to locate him and set off, halfway there she was told he had died. Devastated she returned to Antwerp still desperately hoping for a miracle, and half of one appeared. General Mckenzie visited her and said he had information that William was not dead but was indeed wounded, in the village of Waterloo. Ignoring the General’s warning of what she might encounter on the road, she was on her way by 8 or 9. At first cowering from the sights she might perceive and encountering blocked roads, stubborn soldiers and angry Prussians, they got within 10 Miles of Brussels were she felt the heat from the battle still lingering in the summer air, the horses cried out at the smell of corruption emanating from the field. The road to Waterloo from Brussels was 9 miles long and it took 3 and a half hours to reach it, there she was united with her husband.
De Lancey had been hit in the back by a cannonball and thrown yards from his horse, near the beginning of the battle. He had rallied and surgeons thought he might recover. Magdalene helped nurse him until the end came on the 26th, when he finally succumbed to his dreadful wounds.
Harry Smith was Brigade Major to General Sir John Lambert’s brigade of the 6th Division, a seasoned soldier from the 95th with a belt load of experience buckled on by the time of Waterloo. In a tale as worthy of a movie as the tragedy told above, Harry rescued a young 13 year old Juana Dolores during the terrible sack of Badajoz in 1812. Despite the strangeness of the age gap, the two fell in love and stayed that way to the end, he married her and took her to Belgium with him after being separated while serving in America. Lambert’s brigade had been stationed in Ghent, and marched on the 16th to Asche and en route to Brussels missing Quatre Bras. They arrived at the Capitol on the afternoon of the 17th with orders to proceed to Quatre Bras and halted at the village of Epinay north of the forest of Soignes, they then moved up to Mont St Jean in the early hours of the 18th during the thunderstorm, just in time for the battle. Harry left Juana on her horse with her little dog Vitty, a servant and his groom West, instructing her to return to Brussels and await the
result of the battle.
Juana was a good soldier and did as she was told, however much she felt the pang of separation from one perhaps never to be seen again. She reached Brussels apparently having ridden through the rain, and then went on to Antwerp, escorted by a Hussar officer, a commissary officer and a Hanoverian officer plus a servant. She arrived wet and almost black from mud and dirt, but was accommodated by the commandant of the citadel and his wife. The day of the 19th was an anxious one for Juana, in the afternoon she heard of the victory but no news of Harry. She left Antwerp with West and stayed at an inn where the patron attempted to keep some forgotten belongings, these recovered they rode onwards arriving at Brussels at 7 in the morning of the 20th. Approaching the field Juana was told by a rifleman that Major Smith was dead. Filled with the common desire of many regimental women to see their loved ones one last time she pressed on, and began a maddened search for “Enrique” passing the carnage on the road. Newly dug graves, many corpses, and carts full of dead being taken for interment, it drove her mad to think Harry might be amongst them. Reaching the field she had the luck to run into Charles Gore, ADC to General Kempt, who assured her that it was General Pack’s Brigade Major, Smyth, that was dead and Harry still alive. Taking nothing for granted until she laid eyes on him Juana rode on with Gore to Mons, completing a 60 mile ride from start to finish. The next morning she sped to Bavay were at last she and Harry were reunited.
Two boats to England.
A King’s ship lay becalmed mid channel on the 20th of June 1815. HMS Peruvian, a brig/sloop, 18 guns, 384 tons, 121 men plus one Special Aide de Camp, two French Imperial Eagles, one silk handkerchief and a letter. Major the Hon Henry Percy, 14th Light Dragoons, awaits Captain James Kearny White’s next order, which is to lower the ships gig, to choose four strong rowers, give Percy an oar, to take one himself and start rowing.
The letter is a written despatch in the Duke of Wellington’s own hand detailing the victory achieved on the 18th. The eagles formerly belonging to the 45th and 105th line regiments, the handkerchief had been given to Percy by the Duchess of Richmond at her ball on the 15th, which was likely the last time he had changed his clothes. He took his seat crumpled and stained with blood and dirt.
As the rowers bent to the oars, reminding Percy of his days at Eton perhaps, a message of the victory was already being given to the banker Nathan Rothschild in London. Rothschild’s fortunes had been tied at the hip to the fight against Bonaparte since 1811. It was Rothschild’s ready cash, raised by judicious sale of Treasury Bonds that had kept Wellington’s boys in coin for the past four years, and now it was time to cash in. “Buy when there’s blood in the streets, even if it is your own” he said. The family network of the most famous Jewish banker in British history laced the continent like a spider’s web, connected by secret codes and confidential operatives who knew information was an expensive commodity. His man in Ghent had witnessed the court of Louis XVIII start celebrating, and soon had the victory confirmed in Brussels. No sooner had he learnt of Napoleon’s defeat than he was galloping for the coast, the pigeon post theory isn’t impossible, but it has recently been given the much feared Academic frown. Through contacts and the caché the Rothschild name got him the courier was able to secure a passage, and was in London early on the 20th.
Within the day bonds that would return £1,000,000 of profit had been bought by Rothschild’s agents, despite risking letting the cat out of the bag, the Government was informed but refused to take the word of a banker before his news could be confirmed by Wellington.
An exhausted Major Percy landed at Broadstairs at 3pm on the 21st. He and Captain White found a Post Chaise and four which conveyed them to London by 10pm, having gone via Canterbury, Sittingbourne, Rochester & Blackheath. As they drove through London Percy & White shoved the captured Eagles out of the windows, and were soon pursued by a cheering crowd across Westminster Bridge to 10 Downing Street, frightening the ministers who thought they were under attack. There they collected Lord Arbuthnot and drove on to 44 Grosvenor Square, Lord Harrowby’s house were the cabinet was having supper. An exhausted and dishevelled Percy burst in and cried out a breathlessly, garbled message “Victory! Victory! Bonaparte has been beaten!”
Percy’s orders were to lay the captured eagles at the feet of the Prince Regent, so he left and travelled to the house of Mrs Edward Boehm at 16 St James’ Square were the prince was dining. There was a soirée in motion but upon the news of Percy’s arrival the Prince dismissed the ladies and had the ADC admitted. Prime Minister Lord Liverpool read the despatch. “It is a glorious victory, but the loss of life has been fearful and I have lost my friends”, the prince said when Liverpool was finished. Percy was made a Colonel on the spot and finally allowed to retire to bed. Meanwhile Mrs. Boehm’s guests were all making their excuses in order to spread the news, prompting her to say tartly “Those Beastly French, why couldn’t they have had their battle on another day?”, had Percy not likely been dead asleep at Number 8 Portland Square, he might have recalled the night of the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball, when the news of the French advance reached Brussels and the party broke up. The Duchess had planted herself at the door begging departing officers and guests not to ruin her ball and to have one more dance. But that had been a lifetime ago.
The forgotten victims.
The night of the 18th/19th of June 1815 was full of horrors. “The fields were made slippery with human gore” wrote Christopher Kelly “And here and there were seen wounded horses limping and trying to find a blade of uncontaminated grass, but in vain”.
The eight hours of fighting must count as some of the most terrible in equine history, by the time the guns fell silent over 7,000 and maybe as many as 10,000 horses were dead and dying, out of 60,000 present on the field. Hundreds of animals, mad with pain, rode kicking and plunging over the field, trampling the wounded until their strength gave out. Frederick Hope Pattison of the 33rd remembered one poor amputee, and seeing his agony, dearly wished he had a pistol to put him out of his misery, many would remember the lonely sound of shots in the night as peasants mercifully did just that. Kelly remembered the wounded horses, having collapsed, feebly pulling at the grass around them, “Surrounding themselves with a circle of bare ground”. He had seen riderless animals grazing in the shallow valley that had separated the two armies, and others noted invalid herds that had gathered together in sympathy to each other’s pain.
Captain Mercer, G Troop RHA, calculated that out of 226 horses he had lost 140, he witnessed scenes that I cannot bring myself to write word for word, but he saw wounded horses with ghastly wounds trying to rise but always falling, and lifting their heads to look wistfully around before trying again until quietly lying down and at last expiring. Mercer saw another, so badly wounded that it was unable to move except to prop itself up on its front kegs and rest on its tail, looking around as if in expectation of aid, neighing pitifully through the night. The Captain had been so scarred by the killing that he couldn’t bear to have it shot, and the poor animal was still alive the next morning to reproach them for abandoning him in his hour of need. Two days after the battle a visiting coachman commented that “It was more shocking to see the wounded horses than the wounded men, because, poor things, they had no will of their own or knowledge of why they were thus tormented”. During the fighting, men of the 14th regiment were more disturbed by the sufferings of some wounded horses trying to take shelter in their square than that their own. It should be noted that the squares were described as “perfect hospitals” choked with human dead and wounded. The next day they were even more grieved to see the horses had suffered the same range of wounds as the men, and could only be helped by destruction.
With scenes like this and veterinary science being even more primitive than even it’s human counterpart, wounded horses depended on the courage of a man to put it out of its misery. Some however did survive, due to the aid of men like James Paterson of the Scot’s Greys, who is reported to have tended to wounded horses in the aftermath of the battle. Perhaps managing to patch some up to the point that they could be sold at auction like the 20 bad cases that Sir Astley Cooper bought (purportedly mounts of the Garde Cavalry). Cooper had been moved by the plight of the animals, and being a noted surgeon and anatomist who had recently taken a keen interest in the anatomy of animals determined to buy them, with a view to rehabilitating them. Cooper was a prominent man, a Copley Medal winner, Fellow of the Royal Society and professor of comparative anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons, with an annual salary of 21,000 pounds in 1813.
He had the horses shipped to England under the care of six grooms and had them transported to his park in the country, were he spent months removing musket balls, grapeshot and stitching the sabre cuts from their bodies and limbs. Amazingly he was successful and he was soon able to turn them loose in the park, were they exhibited an unusual behavioural trait of their distinguished service.
One morning Cooper observed the horses gather together in a line and advance to a charge across the field, halt, retreat and then gallop about excitedly. Their evident pleasure at their new lot in life delighted Cooper, who was treated to this display most mornings, as were most visitors who came by. Kelly remembered a horse that showed a similar hang up from its violent past. “An officers horse, which survived the battle of Waterloo, still retains a lively recollection of the wounds received on this occasion; the clamour and bustle of the engagement seem to have perpetuated in his ears:- when anyone approaches him in the stable, he puts himself on alert for a charge, and starts, as if to avoid a sabre cut”.
Please, don’t shut the door.
Wolfgang Goethe was a writer but he had managed to get himself on the staff of the Duke of Saxe Weimar as an observer. In 1792 he witnessed the battle of Valmy, and as a civilian he found the experience disturbing. He noted the eerie sound of incoming artillery fire “The sound is quite strange, as if it were made up of the spinning of a top, the boiling of water, and the whistling of a bird.” He never forgot the heightening sense of surreality and disturbance he felt in the battle “I could soon realise that something unusual was happening in me … as if you were in a very hot place, and at the same time impregnated with that heat until you blended completely with the element surrounding you. Your eyes can still see with the same acuity and sharpness, but it is as if the world had put on a reddish-brown hue that makes the objects and the situation still more scary … I had the impression that everything was being consumed by this fire … this situation is one of the most unpleasant that you can experience.”
Goethe’s disturbance probably relates to many soldiers new to battle. Yet the effects of war on the mental stability of its participants, hundreds of years ago is a grey area, however the fact that it did effect the survivors is known.
In particular veterans would describe the terror of coming under artillery fire, and others who had felt the impact of the projectile’s slipstream as it passed by them. Though physically unscathed the force of it could knock a man off his feet, French surgeons even began to notice that soldiers exposed to the phenomenon of passing shells would fall into a kind of protracted stupor. They called it “vent du boulet” explaining that the men had been frightened by the wind of a passing cannonball. In modern terms this is called cerebrospinal shock, “typified by twitching tingling and partial paralysis”.
However it was noticed that after returning from a war some men exhibited post event symptoms of battle. Presumably isolated cases became “sad, taciturn, listless, solitary, musing, full of sighs and moans. Finally, these cease to pay attention and become indifferent to everything which the maintenance of life requires of them. This disease is called nostalgia.” The French felt that men from rural areas were more likely to exhibit the symptoms of “nostalgia” and prescribed listening to music, exercise and “Useful instruction”.
In Britain doctors had noticed “vent du boulet” exhibited in men who had felt cannonballs pass, they diagnosed such casualties as suffering from “Wind Contusions” which may have given rise to the term of cowardly men being called “Windy” or having “Got the wind up”. The British knew of “Nostalgia” as well but they also euphemistically called it “Male Hysteria”, since women already had a “Hysteria” and this specific kind of soldier ailment would rarely manifest itself in women.
In the case of Waterloo, veteran’s accounts are laced with suggestively vivid passages of surreal thought patterns. Bullets hitting cuirassier’s breastplates and it sounding like an army of demented tinkers, or hail on a plate glass window, their fallen lying like upturned turtles on the ground, and one remembering a small tortoiseshell kitten seen lying dead in the mud near Hougoumont. Lady De Lancey noted that she had seen many men became so moved by the strain that they would shamelessly burst into tears.
In the aftermath of Waterloo a particular case of “Nostalgia” (A much better word than hysteria) seems to have displayed itself in Captain (Guards rank Lt Col) Henry Wyndham, 1790-1860.
In 1815 Wyndham commanded the Light company of the 2nd (Coldstream) Guards, and at Waterloo his company was deployed in the kitchen garden beside the west wall of the Chateau Hougoumont, on Wellington’s right flank. With him was the light company of the Scots Guards both under command of Colonel McDonnell of the 2nd, both were deployed by half companies, one wing in front and one in reserve. When the first French attack hit the buildings the Guards drove the enemy back into the wood, but then became perilously over exposed and withdrew back down the line of the wall, pursued hotly by the French 1st Légère. Retiring on their reserve wings the light companies came barrelling around the sharp northwestern corner of the great barn and straight through North Gate. Which no sooner was it closed than was suddenly forced open and the French began to pour inside, a melee of visceral close quarter fighting occurred, with bayonets, swords and musket butt’s. In the struggle to close the gates and stop more French from getting in Wyndham was severely wounded but saved by Corporal James Graham, who then employed his considerable strength to helping force the gates closed. When they were shut, the remaining French inside were killed to a man in a brief but savage mopping up operation that does not bare thinking about.
Wyndham survived and returned to England to his home at Pentworth House in Sussex, however the scars of that terrifying brush with death left their mark on him. For the rest of his life Henry Wyndham, no matter how cold it was or how howling the draught let in, could never bring himself to close another door. Nor would it appear anybody else for that matter, for his niece commented once, that no Wyndham had closed a door since Hougoumont.
Episodes of PTSD are often triggered by everyday events that remind victims of traumas long past. Clicks that sound like magazines being clipped in or car backfires that sound like shots, smells, colours, snatches of sound or movement, things unconnected to the event in question except in the victim’s mind and in Wyndham’s case it was the closing of a door.
Men of the 19th century did not believe in PTSD, even men of the early 20th century denied its existence, General Patton is proof enough of that. Yet this very emotive abbreviation very nearly defines the experience of soldiers for civilians today, (because we all supposedly understand trauma). In the 19th century people knew that war had an effect on people, and that it could define them, but in general they didn’t think it made them ill or miserable, and it is because of the public perception of the condition, fostered through TV and Movies in the 70’s & 80’s, that it is unthinkable that it has not been around since wars began. In truth it will probably never be known how PTSD affected the men of the Napoleonic Wars, however we can be sure of this. War is timeless and so are its effects.
See you again for another adventure in Historyland.
Dancing into Battle. Nick Foulkes.
Duchess of Richmond’s Ball, David Miller.
Waterloo Companion. Mark Adkins.
Wellington the Iron Duke, Richard Holmes.
Wellington The Years of the Sword, Longford.
The Battle, Alessandro Barbero.
Waterloo New Perspectives, the Great Battle Reappraised.
Who was who at Waterloo, Christopher Summerville.
Autobiography of Lt Col Sir Harry Smith.
A week at Waterloo, Lady Magdalene De Lancey.
A Full Account of the Battle of Waterloo. Christopher Kelly.
Waterloo, the aftermath, Paul O’Keefe
New Zealand Herald, 27 Sept, 1902.
The Face of Battle: John Keegan.
Bloody Fields of Waterloo, Stephen Summerfield.
The Oxford Book of Military Anecdotes.
A Near Run Thing, the British Army at Waterloo. Ian Knight.
From shell shock and war neurosis to posttraumatic stress disorder: a history of psychotraumatology
Marc-Antoine Crocq, MD and Louis Crocq, MD.
Shell Shock to PTSD: Military Psychiatry from 1900 to the Gulf War, By Edgar Jones.
Witnessing the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars in German Central Europe, By Leighton James
Psychotraumatology: Key Papers and Core Concepts in Post-Traumatic Stress edited by George S. Everly, Jeffrey M. Lating
Historical approaches to post-combat disorders. Edgar Jones.
Pall Mall Gazette. 18th June, 1904.
Waterloo: Myth and Reality, Gareth Glover.