In April 1815 the holiday atmosphere in Brussels reached its peak. Since March rumours had been buzzing in the Belgian capitol that the Duke of Wellington would be appointed commander in chief of the army massing to invade France. Nothing was sure of course, at that moment it seemed as if the Duke’s young friend the Hereditary Prince of Orange would be in command, however the disaster that would have occurred by allowing the brave, well intentioned but young prince to oppose Napoleon was averted when Colonel Campbell, the head of the Duke’s Household staff arrived in Brussels to set up his residence in the Rue de Montague de Parc. Throughout the army camps, the veterans had previously worried over where “Nosey” was at. Now the news that their old invincible general had arrived was greeted with the greatest approval, now they would really show Boney a thing or two.
That Famously Infamous Army.
“It is for you to save the world again” was what Tsar Alexander told Wellington before he left Vienna. If the Tsar really said this, and it is doubtful that he did, he said it to reinforce Russia’s position as the central force of the coalition not as some awed admission of greatness, it should be remembered that the Russians had landed the body blow to Napoleon in 1812, and he wanted to buck Britain up whose main contribution was in equipment, gold and admittedly a celebrated and undefeated General. With these words ringing in his ears the Duke left the congress and endured an uncomfortable journey to Brussels, having helped negotiate Britain’s part in the newly formed 7th coalition, and typically providing a voice of moderation, against the more radical party that wanted Napoleon shot on sight. Unlike Napoleon, he did not return to military command to cheering ranks of troops arrayed in Brussels. Whereas his adversary had absolute power and could orchestrate the difficult task of reforming his army at the wave of his hand, Wellington was immediately beset by troubles that either were out of his control, or required the nicest diplomatic handling.
On the plus side, he didn’t have to worry as Napoleon did about getting enough men, though interestingly the allied army would only reach a paper strength of about 112,000 men and 157 guns, the largest army Wellington had ever commanded, and with the most guns he had ever had at his disposal. However to begin with he had to enter strenuous negotiations with, the Prince of Orange’s father, King William of the Netherlands to allow him to command the Dutch-Belgian contingent. The “Old Frog” was stubborn at first, wanting his troops to fight as a separate entity to the other contingents under his son, however Wellington had to have full command, it was how he worked, and probably with the help of Orange he eventually broke William down. The prince would command I Corps of the army and Wellington would command the whole.
The next problem was organisation. Wellington had never commanded an army that was solely British. In every command he ever held much of the troops had either been Indian, Portuguese or Spanish. In 1815 he had a preponderance of German speaking troops from King George’s principality of Hanover, the Belgian state of Nassau and the Duchy of Brunswick, mixed with a core of Dutch and French speakers from the Kingdom of the Netherlands and Belgium. Far from wishing a more uniform army, Wellington had made arrangements for over 20,000 of his old trusted Portuguese veterans to be shipped in from Lisbon, a hope that never materialised. This was one of the larger armies he had commanded and the polyglot force of nations needed to be welded together into a reasonably cohesive army.
To begin with he created a basic structure of 3 Army Corps and deployed them, the first two were under Orange and the trusted General “Daddy” Hill and a separate grand Cavalry Division was formed under the Earl of Uxbridge. The Duke himself commanded the Corps of the Reserve stationed roughly around Ghent and Brussels, while Orange and Hill’s divisions were spread out across the French frontier, with I Corps to the east and II Corps to the west with the Cavalry in a central position with the Reserve.
Although he was used to multi national commands, from the first he was unhappy with this one, in his own words it was an “Infamous” army. In truth Wellington was rarely happy with any army at first, he had not been spectacularly bowled over by the Peninsular Army at first either, but it bothered him that his old Spanish army was utterly broken up between Britain, the Low Countries and America. It had taken him six years to create the army of 1808-1814 and the prospect of having to start again for a third time must have been close to soul destroying.
Wellington depends on “that article there” to do his duty.
His main issues were the lack of veterans, especially in the British regiments. It was Wellington’s opinion that the redcoats were the citadels around which the army would stand, and he was displeased with the one’s he had. Nevertheless to that end he split up the national contingents and scattered them fairly evenly amongst his divisions in national brigades, angering the Hanoverians and others that felt insulted at being split up and brigaded with foreigners.
However it allowed him more flexibility in deployments and he never paid much mind to bleeding hearts. In his opinion and therefore the only one that mattered, it would be the British battalions that made the difference. He famously had a short interview with a newspaper correspondent named Thomas Creevey one day in the park, after a few questions he pointed to an ordinary British soldier admiring the statuary and said “It all depends on that article there, give me enough of it and I am sure.”
This statement does allot to rectify his often misunderstood “Scum of the earth quip”, yet roughly 17 of the Hanoverian and British battalions were what we might call depot battalions, and while it is unfair to say none of these had seen action, some historians such as Longford calculated that the amount of veterans in the British contingent of some 23,000 men was as low as 7,000. This number is sometimes hard to accept, but it wasn’t so much that veterans were scarce. Most of the British regiments and others besides had seen some active service in the last 20 years, and in even the most fresh units a sprinkling of old soldiers were in evidence. Wellington’s displeasure was that so few were veterans of his campaigns. As a man who did things a certain way and demanded everyone else do the same, the lack of officers that knew how he liked to operate was troubling.
Then there was the Dutch question, or rather more specifically the Belgian problem. As Belgium was the last of the Napoleonic states to surrender in 1814 and whose people strongly objected to Dutch occupation as allowed by the Congress of Vienna, there were credible fears that they might well defect. Wellington indeed predicted that he expected a few high profile desertions from the French, and kept a wary eye on the Belgians who until a year ago had been fighting for Napoleon.
He complained with some destruction that he felt that the Government was deliberately trying to tie his hands. To begin with there was all those 2nd battalions, then there was the fact that no new battalions had been raised, nor apparently the militia mobilised, most irksome of all was his staff. Much like Napoleon, the Duke had a problem with collecting a decent amount of capable commanders that he could trust. Initially he complained that his staff was made up of a bunch of people that he didn’t know and he went to great lengths to try and reorganise it. He dismissed Sir Hudson Lowe as his Quartermaster General, who though did not mean to annoy him fell into that pitied category of officers that didn’t know how the Duke did things. Instead he asked for Sir George Murray, who was hurrying back from Canada, so until he arrived he requested that the newly married Sir William Howe Delancey act in his stead for the time being. He had Daddy Hill of course, the only senior officer Wellington would regularly let out of his sight, guarding his right flank, but he could not get his old cavalry commander Sir Stapleton Cotton, the Prince Regent was meddling again and had insisted that the gifted William Paget, Earl of Uxbridge take command instead.
When Wellington heard his cavalry commander was to be the man that had ran away with his sister/niece, he dryly commented that he would have to watch out that Uxbridge did not run away with him. He wrote personally to the Welsh firebrand of the old “Fighting” 3rd Division Sir Thomas Picton, who would not come out of retirement unless Wellington himself asked him, and Sir Thomas reluctantly heeded his call feeling sure his number was up.
In terms of strategy Wellington was not yet ready to commit himself. Indeed at the time the fighting began his biggest concern was the possibility of re-numbering the divisions of the army. This was not as trivial as it sounds for there was a great deal of inter army politics involved, especially with his veteran troops who wished to serve in the old Divisions that they had fought in during the Peninsular War. As a working model, if Napoleon attacked before July, he would defend but if not he would join the overall invasion of France. In the event of an attack he anticipated Napoleon would feint at Brussels and then strike at his right when he moved to counter him, thus separating him from his lines of communication. This would be in keeping with what he had read of Napoleon’s strategy, and he was to become increasingly focused on his right flank as time wore on. This was not helped by Napoleon’s deliberate smokescreen of false information that he deployed to shield his intentions. In the end two things would determine Wellington’s reactions to any attack, the first his worry about his right flank, and second as a consequence of this he was determined not to move on any report until it was confirmed by his intelligence gatherers in France, most principally the Resourceful Colonel Grant.
On top of this Wellington also had to liaise with the Prussian army of the Lower Rhine concentrated on his eastern flank. The Prussians had a poor opinion of Wellington at the congress of Vienna and it carried over into the field. Their senior officers were certain that the Duke would try and double cross them to gain more bargaining chips amongst the German States when negotiations resumed.
Luckily a purely soldierly presence was brought to the Anglo Prussian alliance by the arrival of Marshal Blucher, the 71 year old warhorse and Wellington could at least coordinate a plan of campaign without a hidden agenda. Just before the remark about “That article” in the same interview with Creevey the Duke had told him “By God I think Blucher and I can do the thing!” Blucher was a man that he could work with, for he had but one goal, to spit Napoleon on the tip of his sabre.
Wellington the years of the sword: Longford.
Waterloo new perspectives: David – Hamilton – Williams.
Waterloo: Alan Forrest.
The Battle: Alessandro Barbero.
A desperate Business: Ian Castle.
Your Obedient Servant: William Thornton.
Waterloo 1815 (1) Quatre Bras: John Franklin.
Waterloo Companion: Mark Adkin.