The Duke shall go to the Ball.
Colonel Colquhoun Grant was Wellington’s most trusted intelligence officer. Call him what you like, spy, observer, secret agent, whatever; he got the job done. He was intelligent, practical, ever reliable, discreet and resourceful, when he had been captured by the French in Spain, Wellington had offered a high reward for anyone who helped him escape and he was the man that the Duke was especially waiting to hear from. That the French could have attacked without Grant’s forewarning was a deep source of concern. Indeed the Duke’s faith was not misplaced, Grant was now in France doing what he did best: watching. He was an expert at reading the hidden signs of military manoeuvres, noting down troop concentrations and strengths. Like a seer could read a palm Grant could read an army. But Napoleon had kept his plans a dark secret, and when he moved to the frontier he drew a veil across his intentions that no one in Belgium could pierce, he sent false and varied information across the border and exercised tight security throughout his army. By accident or design he had already fooled Wellington into thinking he would probably lunge at Mons, and kept the Prussian’s in inky mystification, threatening every point along the hundred mile front, and yet nowhere. Grant however, working amongst the French about a days ride from Belgium had sussed him. On the morning of the 15th General Dornberg, commanding a brigade of cavalry at Mons had intercepted an urgent message, it was from Grant, informing Wellington that Napoleon would strike at Charleroi. Dornberg did not know Grant, nor did he know how much trust Wellington placed in him, he judged the note too absurd to believe and that because of the audacity of its contents, he believed all the more that Napoleon would strike at Mons. Dornburg returned the letter to Grant explaining this. In a futile gesture born of desperation and unqualified frustration Grant mounted a horse to ride to Wellington himself, but he would not reach him in time to help coordinate a response.
It was about midnight when a dispatch arrived in Wellington’s hands from Dornberg, who after hearing of the French attacks against the Prussians had realised his mistake. With a sickening sense of realisation Wellington wrote to Müffling.
“I have a report from General Dornberg at Mons that Napoleon has moved on Charleroi with all his force and that he, General Dornberg, has nothing in his front”
Everything the Duke would hear that night was passed down a chain of officers so that every report acted like a phrase in a game of Chinese Whispers, but in this case everything was outdated by the time he got it. This message changed it all, rapidly grasping the situation he issued a series of orders to reroute the army towards Nivelles and Quatre Bras. There would be no rest for the QMG’s department that night, and many a foul curse for the staff from the columns already marching towards the frontier.
Apart from wanting to calm nerves and silence enemies, Wellington knew that by attending the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball he would be in a central position were he could easily be found and amongst the majority of the armies senior officers. He dropped by Müffling’s quarters to inform him of the armies new heading and carried on to the Rue Blanchisserie.
Coaches cabriolets and carriages had been pulling into the Richmond courtyard since 10, and they were now causing congestion in the street. The windows were open and let the light stream out into the dark and the sound of voices and music drifted into the cooling night air. Wellington’s carriage pulled up through the heavy traffic, to what he humorously called the “Washhouse”, close after the city bells struck midnight. Drums and bugles had been sounding assembly since 10:30, and underneath the smiles, laughter and party talk there was a real consternation that something terrible was happening. The ball had begun with promise nonetheless, the Duchess had gone to some length to make sure it was a standout affair, and through her links to the Duke of Gordon, she had prevailed upon the newly honoured Colonel Cameron of the 92nd (Gordon) Highlanders to provide a display of Scottish sword dancing.
The room hushed as from the corridor there was a drone of filling pipe bags, then bursting out from it came a pulse quickening skirl, to make any true Scot stand straighter. With his kilt swinging in step, Pipe Major Alexander Cameron, a legendary veteran of the Peninsular Campaign, came strutting in, to the delight and fascination of the guests. Cameron was followed by his pipers and they were followed by four Sergeants, all ramrod straight with claymores at the carry. The pipers probably formed a semi circle to one side and the deafening noise filled the room and blocked out the murmur of conversation. The Sergeants halted mid floor, the front rank facing about and marking time. At the order they halted and placed their swords on the floor to form a line of steel X’s. On the proper note, they made a light sidestep and began to dance. The most famous Ball in History had begun.
The warlike wail of the pipes had given way to the sublime grace of strings and the dancing was already two hours old when the Duke arrived. His late entrance caused an inevitable stir. As soon as she saw him enter the ballroom Lady Georgiana Lennox left her partner and made her way towards him through the twirling and gliding couples. Talk at the ball was not the usual patter of social niceties and gossip, everyone was talking about the French invasion. Where the rumours true? She asked the duke. Wellington scanned the room still trying to mask his concern and nodded “Yes they are true” he replied breezily “We are off tomorrow”.
News travelled fast after that and officers immediately began to make their excuses, the
Duke of Brunswick had been sitting playing with the young Prince de Ligne, who was sitting on his knee. When he heard the news he jumped to his feet with excitement and dropped the child with a bump on the floor. In the ballroom Wellington sat down on a sofa and picked out officers to wait on him. Lady Dalrymple Hamilton came to sit his side and watched as the carefree mask slipped from his face. With the fixed “press” smile of a dignitary before a media pack, he looked cheerful and relaxed, but his expression was full of care and anxiety. He spoke naturally to her but then a thought would suddenly cross his mind and he would break off mid flow and summon the Prince of Orange, Uxbridge or the Duke of Brunswick, with whom he would exchange a few nods and whispers and then return to the present.
Lieutenant Henry Webster, extra ADC to the Prince of Orange, rode up through the traffic to the Richmond’s house and dismounted. He had ridden from the Dutch Belgian Headquarters at Braine le Comte with the latest piece of intelligence. He crossed the courtyard, the light from the ballroom was stretching over the ground and music and voices still swelled from inside. He had no invitation and so waited inside the door for the party to go in to dinner. Presently he observed the Prince of Orange and the Duke escorting the Duchess of Richmond and Lady Greville out of the ballroom. Webster came up to the Duke and handed him a slip of paper which Wellington put into his pocket, telling him to wait. Webster obediently stood aside and stood out of sight until Wellington, having escorted his hostess into the dining room, reappeared and summoned him. In a whisper he said that
Webster was to get the Prince’s carriage ready, and leave at once for Braine Le Comte, he then advised Orange to return to his headquarters and rejoined the party. He was seated beside the concerned Lady de Ross and opposite the irritable Marquiss de Asche. Though Lady Hamilton had seen the mask slipping, to many less observant guests, Wellington was still radiating an aura of extreme calm and nonchalance, even though the trickle of officers leaving to join their regiments was fast becoming a flood. The Marquiss and other French and Belgian guests found it intolerable that he should show such unconcern when their relatives were soon to go into battle. De Asche dearly wished that she could reach across the table and throttle him for his calm. Wellington paid them no mind, these after all were the people he was performing for, and they would tell everyone, he turned to Lady Georgiana and gave her a miniature of himself painted by a Belgian artist, and watched as the room emptied. She soon made her excuses too, all of her brothers where in the army and unable to bear the strain, she left to help Lord March (who was a guest that night as another ADC to Orange,) pack. Out in the hall there was a general exodus in effect. The Duke of Brunswick brought the poor girl to tears as he boasted how well his division would fight and young Lord Hay made her furious by pompously boasting similar. Despite the discharge now streaming out into the night that was ringing with the the sounding of trumpets, the skirl of pipes and the roll of drums, as much as violins and cellos, there were still some latecomers. Lieutenants Verner and O’Grady of the 7th Hussars arrived late after riding into town and taking a room to dress in. Entering they witnessed the many trying scenes that typify the ball in popular memory. Gallant officers hearing duty calling, coldly leaving their partners to the embrace of their handkerchiefs and the commiserations of the similarly broken hearted. As if everyone was in love that night! Most found the heartbreak in seeing their happy world come to an end, seeing family members and friends walk willingly out into the night and into danger. The two hussars saw that it was all over but decided to steal inside to take a peek at the ballroom before they left, if nothing else than to say that they had been there. They cleared a passage to the door where they beheld more couples parting, and everything in much confusion, seeing that there was no hope of even one dance they then left to fetch a cabriolet. The Earl of Uxbridge knew that the officers needed to get back to their regiments, but at the same time did not want to cause undue distress and panic by a hurried exit. Planting his dashing frame before the ballroom door he announced. “You gentlemen who have engaged partners, had better finish your dance and get to your quarters as soon as you can”, and so the last dance played out.
Supper was finishing as the last waltzes were danced. Wellington was still at the table when the Prince of Orange returned. The young prince whispered a word to his chief over his shoulder. The Duke looked incredulous for an instant but as quickly as the expression had come it disappeared, he nodded and told the Prince to return to his headquarters and get some sleep. Outside there was now a marked lack of uniforms, the Duchess who must have slipped out of supper to make the rounds discovered that everything was unravelling and appears to have momentarily lost her head. In an absurdly affecting scene she blockaded the exit and attempted to persuade the departing officers to stay for one more dance, and not ruin her ball. Quite how we should take this is open to debate, it may well have been an emotional response to the strain of what was happening coupled with the undoing of all her plans, or, and this is persuasive, as hostess, her rightful place was to see guests on their way, and her supposed entreaties could therefore be interpreted as social politeness. Either way each officer with as much grace as could be managed gave hurried excuses and left.
It was probably getting on to 1:30 or thereabouts, not long after Orange had finally left, when Wellington casually turned to the Duke of Richmond and said, “I think it is time for me to go to bed likewise,” the party rose and went to the hall. As they were saying goodbye he leant over and whispered again to Richmond “Have you a good map in the house?” Richmond nodded and took him aside into a study next to the ballroom where he laid out a map of the countryside. Wellington looked at the map, in his mind he went over the Prince’s information, a Brigade under General Saxe Weimar had occupied a crossroads at a place called Quatre Bras and had held his ground against a French attack. His eye traced the spidery network of roads and focused on the X that marked were the Namur road bisected the Brussels Chausée to form the junction at Quatre Bras, 70 odd miles to the south. After confirming his thoughts he said “Napoleon has Humbugged me by God! He has gained 24 hours’ March on me”
At a loss, Richmond asked “What do you intend doing?”
“I have ordered the the army to concentrate on Quatre Bras”he said, probably speaking his thoughts aloud, “But we shall not stop him there, and if so, I must fight him here” he bent over and pressed his thumbnail over a small ridge-line about a mile south of the hamlet Mont St Jean on the Brussels road. Not long after this, he bid Richmond adieu and left by a discreet door. He returned to his house on the corner of the Rue Royale and the Rue Montague de Parc were he went to sleep, by which time the most famous ball in history had ended.
The Duchess of Richmond’s Ball is legendary, touted as a prime example of British phlegmatism in the face of danger. However the reality is that it was an accidental quirk of fate that the ball should have occurred on the 15th. No matter how much the duchess liked to make a splash, that would not have extended to holding her event on such a stupid date.
Despite the myth of a perfect regency night of romance and tragedy, the truth is that the whole thing was a disaster of unmitigated proportions and it is a miracle that only 11 guests would die in the coming days fighting. It’s fame is actually in its tragedy, for it is a legacy of a car wreck that had not gone two hours before it began to fragment. Strip away the sentiment and you realise that as of the morning of the 15th the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball had been a fairly ordinary thing, a pleasant and notable affair no doubt, but not so much to elicit more than a few lines in a letter home, but not so different to a thousand others, whose memory would only linger until the next one came along.
It is clear that the Duchess was quite put out and distressed by the whole thing as many where, for it is no delight to dance with the dead, and indeed for a while the ball was thought of as a scandalous if not infamous occurrence or a deeply regrettable incident, which has unfairly coloured our appreciation of the Duchess as a fairly silly headed socialite wanting to trade on men’s lives to cause a splash. Instead what really happened was that the Duchess became a victim of fate, and went down in history for throwing the most famous, disastrous ball in history.
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.