False Steps.


The Duke of Wellington turned over in bed early and as was his habit he immediately turned out. He began each day by dealing with correspondence. On that morning, Thursday the 15th of June, the primary piece of business was the renumbering of the army’s infantry divisions. There was many a regiment that had served in Spain that resented having to serve in a 5th Division when they had formerly been in the 3rd and so on. After writing to Sir Henry Clinton, commanding the 2nd Division he wrote another, in French, to the Tsar of Russia, and went to breakfast.
Every dawn in Brussels brought news of some sort. The papers for one predicted that the coming campaign would begin very soon, what Wellington thought of that would be interesting to know, but what the Duke knew and what he said were usually two different things, especially in a city so full of listening ears.
That morning the Richmond’s received Lord Hill at their garden in the Rue de

Charlotte Duchess of Richmond, whose ball, along with the French Invasion dominated the 15th of June in Brussels.
Charlotte Duchess of Richmond, whose ball, along with the French Invasion dominated the 15th of June in Brussels.

Blanchisserie, and he categorically denied any knowledge of a move. Rumours of the opening of the campaign were nothing new, especially as the Summer drew on. It was known that Marshal Murat, King of Naples, had already been defeated and that the Russians had reached the Rhine. Most people thought the troops would march in mid July, and as such the bothersome rumours that were beginning to buzz in the air were not given much attention. The emptiness of the most recent murmuring seemed confirmed by the fact that the Richmond’s son Lord March was on duty at Braine Le Comte were the Dutch Belgians were again on full alert. March had left for his post so often that the ritual of bidding goodbye to their son had become a joke. Whenever they parted the Duchess and girls said “Oh we shall see him again in a day or two”.
There had been a well attended cricket match at Enghien on the 13th between the gentlemen of the Guards, in which the Duke of Richmond had taken part, he was a noted player said to be one of the two best in England. Wellington was there as well, and had taken the precaution of warning one of the Richmond girls, Lady Georgiana Lennox, who had asked about organising a pleasure party to Lille or Tournai, that they had “better let that drop”. No one thought Napoleon was so close to attacking. No one believed the resumption of the old rumours.
As of the 15th, it was still peaceful and tranquil with many having a fine day, a cricket match was again played. While at the Richmond’s House preparations were being made for the party that evening, the work was overseen by the Household staff and the doting captain Gurwood of the 10th Hussars, while the family watched the sport.
The invitations had been ready by the 13th and delivered to over 200 guests by 3 men. The Mayor’s man for the “Bruxellois” the British Embassy’s Running footman for the corps diplomatique and a sergeant, most likely from the Guards, delivered the Duke’s and the other military guests’. Another accommodating British diplomat was Sir Charles Stuart, who was officially the ambassador to France, he had also formerly held the post in Spain and was close with Wellington who he referred to as “Padrone” to friends, and was only too pleased to have his servants wait upon the Duchess of Richmond and made his plate available to her as well.
Looking out of her window Lady De Lancey felt as if she was living in a dream, as she watched the uniforms of all kinds in the streets, and people strolling and sitting under the trees in the park.

A posthumous portrait of the Duke of Richmond, a noted cricketer and friend of the Duke of Wellington, was uneasy about the Ball.
A posthumous portrait of the Duke of Richmond, a noted cricketer and friend of the Duke of Wellington, was uneasy about the Ball.

Wellington always breakfasted alone but rarely dined without guests. He, General Alava and Lord Uxbridge were planning dinner parties that afternoon, many would dine before going to dance and have supper, and Wellington would be entertaining 8 of his personal staff at an early meal before going to the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball.
The first course was not yet over when the Prince of Orange arrived, it was sometime around 5. He asked to speak to the Duke and Wellington took him aside. The two were closeted for a while during which time the Prince informed him that the Prussians had been attacked. Wellington was already aware that things had started happening. At 3PM Prussian Liason von Müffling had brought a message from General von Zieten, the letter was at least 5 hours old, and appraised him that the French had driven in the Prussian outposts at Thuin, Wellington had therefore been on his guard but had as yet done nothing. Orange now updated this information with the news that the town of Binche had fallen and that he had personally hard gunfire from Charleroi on his way from Braine le Comte.

The early stages of Waterloo are like an episode from a political drama, were an international incident interrupts a routine day, and obscure, usually outdated dribs and drabs filter in as they happen, while the star awaits further developments and calls the shots as best he can. Wellington now began giving the first orders to alert the army, while at the same time refusing to react to what might be just a feint to weaken his right flank.
Acting Quartermaster General William De Lancey was at dinner with, General Alava, the Spanish ambassador and an old Peninsular Comrade. A bright and companionable man, who spoke a amusingly distinctive form of English but unfortunately suffered from bad teeth. De Lancey was hurriedly summoned from Alava’s to set the army in motion.
If any of the Duchess of Richmond’s guests had paused as they began to dine or dress prior to the ball, they might have heard the faint sound of gunfire, or noticed urgent riders begin to gallop through the streets. Between the hours of 5 and 7 messengers were sent throughout the army to give the alert. Meanwhile having set things in motion Wellington strode out to the park, where he knew he would find a good many officers. His military secretary Lord Fitzroy Somerset found him there shortly after Orange had arrived with the news. The Duke was giving orders for a rapid movement to officers around him, including Sir Thomas Picton who had that very day arrived in Brussels after coming out of a quasi retirement, brought on partly by pique at being overlooked in the honours list and fatigue of long active service. He had returned on Wellington’s personal request. There are conflicting reports about this meeting, for Gurwood said that Wellington snubbed him, whereas Picton’s biographer said that Wellington met him warmly. Cordiality was farthest from Wellington’s mind at this point, it is true, however with such sparse information he had yet to drop his mask of imperturbability, and to snub his toughest general at their first meeting would be inconsistent with his behaviour to his other officers, such as the Earl of Uxbridge.
Meanwhile things at HQ were getting busy, ADC’s had been pulled from their leisure and rushed to work. The Quartermaster General’s department was fairly buzzing with officers copying out routes for the divisions and brigades, messages for couriers were written and copied, riders briefed. Anyone with staff experience was liable for impressment like Major De Lacy Evans. For the first 3 hours of the emergency they were kept writing orders and sourcing units and routes that were carried by hussars especially selected for steadiness to their destinations. Riders were going clattering around Brussels from the Duke and QMG, grabbing more staffers and alerting senior officers. Word from these men was of an attack on the Prussians but orders consisted of nothing more definitive than to be ready.
Despite this sudden frenzy of activity, many in Brussels put it from their minds, many officers were still allowed to attend the Ball that night so long as they were back by morning. When well intentioned staff officers warned them that they had best be ready to march, many merely shrugged it off. Lt John Kincaid of the Rifles was too seasoned a campaigner to treat such a nose tap so lightly, and after receiving some similar advice dropped everything to get ready. De Lancey arrived back at his house at 9, worked with his staff long into the night, while his wife kept them going with trays of strong green tea.

A night to remember.

An engraving of a proposed location for the ball.
An engraving of a proposed location for the ball.

The Duke of Richmond had an uneasy feeling about his wife’s ball, but in all truth there was not a single person except the Duke of Wellington that had any good reason to cancel it within hours of its commencement. The house was large, affordable and commensurate with their dignity. It was a three story residence, flanked by two, double story wings, with a large garden at the back. It was in the lower (less fashionable end of town), a rectangular building extending from the foot of the old city wall to the Rue de la Blanchisserie, bordered on the east side by the Rue du Malaise and a footpath on the west running parallel to it, beside which was a working laundry that overlooked it.
The house had once been the residence of a rich coachbuilder and the two barn like wings were the old carriage works. The former owner Jean Simons had even built carriages for Napoleon. To the east of the residence, overlooking the footpath was a wing connected by an annex to the main house, formerly this was the company offices, a coachhouse showroom and workshop, and was to be the setting for the ball.
Lady Georgiana Lennox (later de Ross), Richmond’s 3rd daughter, remembered that it had been papered by the time they came in 1814, with a trellis pattern and roses. The Richmond Sisters had played shuttlecock and battledore there on wet days, and had also used it as a schoolroom.

Baron von Muffling, Prussian Liason officer at Wellington's headquarters.
Baron von Muffling, Prussian Liason officer at Wellington’s headquarters.

General Müffling returned to headquarters at about 10 with another dispatch, adding another piece to the unfolding puzzle. Wellington had been busy writing to various Royalist Dukes, warning the Duc de Faltre to be prepared to evacuate King Louis from Ghent and had just began to dress for the ball. The Prussian wearing his full dress uniform stomped inside to find the Duke dressed in his chemise and slippers and handed him the dispatch. It was from Graf von Gneisenau, informing him that the Prussian army had concentrated at Sombreffe, 25 or more miles to the south east, and that Charleroi was now in enemy hands. As they looked at the maps spread across the table De Lancey arrived having left his staff still scribbling busily away over cups green tea in his house. Having found the situation on paper Müffling asked what Wellington would do to support Blücher, to which he replied that he could make no decision without first hearing confirmation that Mons was not under threat. As to what he would do at that instant he was perfectly clear. As gunfire had been heard he said “Let us show ourselves at the duchess’ ball, it will reassure people”. Müffling returned to his quarters and prepared a message to Blucher with the rendezvous left blank and had a chaise ready to fly at a moments warning.
Fitzroy Somerset had come in just as Müffling was about to leave and after exchanging bows Somerset came to the Duke’s side and cast an eye over his dispositions. Somerset noted hopefully that all things considered, they should be able to handle the French, to which Wellington agreed, so long as no false movement occurred.

Select sources.
The Duchess of Richmond’s Ball: David Miller.
Dancing into Battle: Nick Foulkes
Wellington, the years of the Sword: Elizabeth Longford.
Your Obedient Servant, Cook to the Duke of Wellington: James Thornton.

Leave a Comment