Heroes of Mont St Jean.

The 200th anniversary of Waterloo is about commemoration. Therefore we should remember that to the French the battle is called Mont St Jean, which is a more accurate but less catchy title. More importantly we should bear in mind that between 27,000 and 40,000 French soldiers became casualties during the battle and in its aftermath, this after over 16,000 had already fallen in the three days previously.

Sometimes derided as a rush job army, the Armée du Nord was in fact a highly professional fighting force, which had a high proportion of veterans serving in it’s ranks, led by capeable commanders. There is no doubt in my mind that man for man the French army outperformed both allied armies in the days leading up to the Battle at Mont St Jean and in the days after it. Therefore I felt it fitting to commemorate their sacrifice and valour here by creating a companion peace to “Waterloo Men” with the “Heroes of Mont St Jean.” Continue reading “Heroes of Mont St Jean.”

Brussels in the Summer.

The Brussels Waltz. It was the age of the Waltz. That scandalous peasant dance that was exhibited at Almack’s in 1812 which had so many ladies of a certain age reaching for their smelling salts. With the hands in constant contact, palm to palm, with bodies pressed close and the gentleman’s arm around the lady’s waist, it was the romantic ideal that encapsulated the spirit of the age, a decade before Strauss wrote a note. The Times and oddly even Lord Byron had dressed it down in typically high minded prose but by 1814 this continental obscenity, this affront to good English taste, was the rage of all the fashionable house parties and balls in Brussels. Any dandy officer worth his salt would have paid good money to be taught how to masterfully twirl a lady around a dance floor with gentlemanly grace and manly reserve. It was as if a stage had been set by a genius of dramatic production. All the ingredients were there, elegant young ladies, fashionable gowns, brilliant uniforms and dashing young officers, a dinner party every night and a ball or two every week. With hindsight it is plain that there was almost a mathematical certainty that romance and tragedy had to collide at some point and create a legend. However at the time the large British expatriate community were blithely unconcerned with the march of history.

Wilson's Correct Method of French and German Waltzing. Despite its rather notorious reputation, its a far cry from you see in ballroom competitions today.
Wilson’s Correct Method of French and German Waltzing. Despite its rather notorious reputation, its a far cry from you see in ballroom competitions today.

British Invasion. Almost as soon as peace was declared in 1814 the invasion began. The city had always been an attractive destination for the aristocracy before the French Revolution, indeed as a young man the Duke of Wellington had lived there with his mother for a while. It afforded a slightly cheaper cost of living, in a fashionable European city, that in many ways resembled a British Spa town, and had none of the current dreary political upheaval then occurring in other capitals. The Belgian capital was best accessed by canals from Ostend, after a sea crossing most civilians were unceremoniously dumped on shore but had the consolation of a barge trip through the countryside to the city. Separated into upper and lower towns and ringed by the old defensive walls, life in Brussels centred on the salons of the wealthy inhabitants, the fine lawns and landscaping of the park, the fine avenues and the grand hotels. Since the “Little Peace” of 1803 had afforded the well heeled in Britain little opportunity for travel, they quickly seized their chance to descend on the Low Countries in 1814 and live it up after 12 years of isolation. The British quickly made themselves at home & the Belgians were shocked and perplexed by the balls that usually lasted past midnight and the copious drinking habits of the newcomers. Yet these glitterati were not the first to besiege Brussels. There had been a British expeditionary force operating in the country under General Graham since 1813, and though he had not convinced the French to surrender a single fortress, he had at least managed to keep them bottled up inside them. Graham had briefly assumed command of the allied forces, and had his headquarters in Brussels, before giving up command to the Prince of Orange in August 1814. Thus there were already a good deal of scarlet uniforms and gold lace present in Brussels when in March 1815, news came that Napoleon had escaped from Elba and was once more in control of France. If anything the slow buildup of British, Hanoverian, Dutch, Belgian and other troops across the country only added to the glamour of the social scene, and most likely extended its shelf life. Instead of packing up and going home the British expatriates stayed on, after all, the allied powers were to attack into France to fight Napoleon, not defend Belgium.

A plan of Brussels park from the 18th century. A focal point of the city where much socialising could be done.
A plan of Brussels park from the 18th century. A focal point of the city where much socialising could be done.

The Shadows Lengthen. Despite the endless minutiae of running an army Wellington somehow managed to mix business with pleasure. There is not a work on Waterloo that does not mention a “Dalliance” or “Affair” with the heavily pregnant Lady Harriet Webburn Webster. Since Wellington never disclosed a single personal remark about whom he spent his time with, I will not add to the weight of words theorising about the affair, as it can never be anything but unprovable gossip. Nevertheless what is certain that he was usually always entertaining or in attendance on fashionable ladies, probably as much for their company as the fact they probably knew more about what was going on in the city than did his adjutant general. More important was his social strategy of bluff. The capital was full of French sympathisers, and while he felt certain that Napoleon was going to advance against his western flank via Mons, he knew that this was an unsubstantiated hunch, and that the intelligence that had been gathered at this stage was nothing but an indicator. Since 1808 Wellington had worked only on firm information, therefore as he knew nothing of Napoleon’s intentions he dug his heels firmly into the ground, while watching over his right shoulder. While he waited, he played. In public he was the not a military commander, nor was he stern and distant as his formidable reputation suggested, he was an aristocrat on holiday. He was charming and witty and was always seen to be having a good time, but in private he was busy organising the army, arranging payment, food and supplies, sending for trusted officers, and scanning intelligence reports, while growing more and more concerned that Napoleon would strike first. Apart from his administrational work he would breakfast alone in his house on the Park and usually dine with his staff. He had large dinners every day and by the 4th of June he had held 3 large Balls and was planning to hold another on the 21st of June to mark the second anniversary of the Battle of Vitoria, which up till then had been his greatest victory. The Duke was a fixture of Brussels society, and the star around whom the little galaxy increasingly revolved. Because he maintained an air of carefree gaiety to the public nothing changed in Brussels, except that more officers became available to socialise with. Gentlemen still went to “Reading” Clubs to gamble, there was carriage and horse riding, strolls and picnics and outings into the country, cricket matches, military reviews, hunting parties and the racing days provided by the Prince of Orange and the Earl of Uxbridge were always popular and hostesses vied with each other to entertain. However the gay and carefree British expatriate community living in the Belgian capitol; like animals scenting the air for danger, felt the mood changing. Something was going to happen that would bring and end to their happy way of life, perhaps they felt things reaching a peak, and the only way to go now was down. It was no secret that the Duke of Wellington’s army was in Belgium to fight, but when it would do so was anybody’s guess. The wise heads suggested that the Duke was awaiting word that the Austrians and Russians had invaded France, which would be sometime in July. Until then there had been an air of tranquility, a miasma of springtime holiday activity in a little London created overseas. For almost a year now, hardly interrupted by Napoleon’s escape and the concentration of the Duke of Wellington’s army, they had danced on, cloaking the reality that Napoleon was massing troops on the borders of France. Now as spring turned to summer, the days began to stretch and the shadows began to lengthen over the lawns in Brussels park. But just as one can tell, after a long summer day of activity, that the night is fast approaching, both soldiers and civilians began to realise that they were playing on borrowed time. The constant passage of military couriers seemed to tell their own story.

A map of Brussels from 1837 shows roughly it's 1815 extent, with North more or less to the right. The area around the park shows Wellington's street, the Montague de parc, the house of the Prince of Orange and at the right, at the edge of where the walls used to be is the Rue de Blanchisserie were the Duke and Duchess of Richmond stayed.
A map of Brussels from 1837 shows roughly it’s 1815 extent, with North more or less to the right. The area around the park shows Wellington’s street, the Montague de parc, the house of the Prince of Orange and at the right, at the edge of where the walls used to be is the Rue de Blanchisserie were the Duke and Duchess of Richmond stayed.

Save the date for the 15th. Charlotte Duchess of Richmond was a noted socialite, who had presided over several balls already, and she was determined to pack in as much as possible before the army marched. Seeking out the Duke of Wellington, who himself was behind many of the balls and dinners in the city; entertaining most nights, she asked him in the true regency fashion of Austen or Heyer, whether she could give a ball without it being interrupted. She asked for no secrets, and no reasons, just if she could give her ball. “Duchess” Wellington said fatefully “You may give your Ball with the greatest safety without fear of interruption” in truth he could not say anything else and maintain the facade of calm. The date was set for the 15th of June. In the meantime the round of balls continued. The Duchess of Richmond knew how to do things properly, and she engaged two officers of the 7th Hussars to hand deliver her invitations to the officers of the cavalry when Lord Uxbridge held his next field day at Grammont. Despite the rumours of the army preparing to march, no one could be sure of anything except that on the 15th the Duchess of Richmond would be giving a very select and private ball at her home in the Rue de Blanchisserie. Roughly 230 invitations were sent out, over half of the recipients were to officers. Yet it was not really a large ball, though it was reasonably well attended, nor was it yet the event of the season. It was to be a private party thrown at private expense. Had it been on any other day it would have been little different than any other ball and faded into the parchment of history like all the others, but it was not to be.


Sources. The Duchess of Richmond’s Ball: David Miller. Dancing into Battle: Nick Foulkes. Wellington, the years of the sword: Elizabeth Longford. Freshly Remembered, The story of Sir Thomas Graham: Oglander. Your Obediant Servant: James Thornton Cook to the Duke of Wellington. Spencer and Waterloo, letters 1814-1816: Spencer Madan. Wellington, the iron duke: Richard Holmes.

Britain’s Greatest Battle

On the 20th of April the National Army Museum London will hold a speakers event to determine Britain’s Greatest battle. A selection of battles covering a span of time from the English Civil War to Afghanistan has been chosen, and a online poll has been opened for the public to vote for five finalists that guest speakers (as yet unnamed) will argue for on the 20th.  Previously the Museum has chosen Britain’s Greatest General, and Britain’s Greatest Enemy General by this means, and has found that The Duke of Wellington and Field Marshal Slim (A name not generally known) where tied for greatest general. And by a large margin George Washington beat out Napoleon for British enemy number 1.

At this moment the leader board looks like this:
Battle Votes
1 D-Day/Normandy 256
2 Waterloo 248
3 Musa Qala 131
4 Imphal/Kohima 130
5 El Alamein 115
But there is a choice of 20 well and not so well known choices.
You can vote here for the battle you think is your greatest. http://www.nam.ac.uk/exhibitions/online-exhibitions/britains-greatest-battles

Here’s my thoughts.
For a long time I have had WM stamped after my name. These initials, found on muster books at the end of a soldier’s name who fought under the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo . Essentially this makes me biased, but everyone who gets involved in this debate will have their favourite. However I feel perfectly certain in my belief that Waterloo deserves its place in the popular imagination as Britain’s Greatest Battle.
Because The victory over Napoleon in 1815 has numerous threads that lead down to today. It was the full stop of an age and the first word of another, the 18th century died on the slopes of Mont St Jean that sunday morning, and modern Europe was born by the gunsmoke tarnished sunset, and an Empire was being born out of the ashes of another. The reason why the British Army is the force it is today is Becasue of the steadiness and dedication of the troops at Waterloo. The image of the steel rimmed squares of British redcoats, being swamped by angry sea’s of French Cuirassiers, inspired the nation and was the epitome of the stiff upper lip, the Victorian Empire we are descended from, came about not Becasue of steam and mills, but Becasue the Waterloo men won the peace that allowed progress to happen.
As a military victory, it shows Wellington’s mastery of position, deployment and improvisation, on the 15th of June he should have been knocked out of the game, but he was able to concentrate his force and fall back to ground he knew, where he could be supported and utterly crush Napoleon. The Duke said his Infantry never behaved so well, and indeed never had the ties of Regimental loyalty and dicipline been tested so hard, in all arms, from the redcoats to the cavalry’s magnificent charges to the solidness of the Artillery, all played their part in the eventual victory.

The reason I have decided to write this is because I myself cannot see how Washington could have defeated Napoleon, or how Field Marshal Montgomery was a poorer general than Slim, just Because Slim has unjustly been forgotten, in my opinion that is like saying General Hill was better than Wellington just because he didn’t have as much notoriety.

If we consider what a Great Battle is, it clearly is a conflict that shaped the history that followed it or possibly overshadows the battles that preceded it. That by virtue of its outcome has influenced the world today, and has left an indelible impression on the tactical thinking, motivation and performance of the military units that can trace their ancestry to it. This is not to say that the older the battle the more deserving, for not every battle has been fought with the same stakes riding on it and thus has a lessened impact on today.

Waterloo represents the peak of proficiency of the army that Wellington fought in. This why for the rest of his life he fought to keep it that way with only minor changes creeping in. The British would not fight another war against an “Industrial power” until the Crimea in 1854 so the tactical benefits of the battle where obsolete almost as soon as the last shot was fired, yet the use of squares, lines, volleying and cavalry was widely used across the Empire, but in different ways. Indeed it could be argued that WW2 was the final proving of the post Waterloo army and, the post world war army has yet to evolve into its penultimate form as it faces the challenges of counter insurgency and guerrilla warfare, perhaps Iraq and Afghanistan will prove to be this benchmark and another change awaits. In this sense Waterloo’s influence on the following generations of soldiers was tradition and spirit, which obviously carried through to the first and second world war, and by extension to the troops fighting today.

Please follow the link and vote how you think is best
Thanks for reading.