Tag Archives: Battle of Waterloo

Waterloo Battlefield, the First Tourists & the Fate of Wellington’s Tree

How soon did sightseers arrive on the battlefield of Waterloo? Astonishingly, the answer is, first thing next morning. Some brave – or very foolhardy – gentlemen had ridden out from Brussels while the fighting was still in progress, which might be expected, but Cavalié Mercer, commander of G Troop Royal Horse Artillery, records the first ‘day trippers.’ In his Journal of the Waterloo Campaign, Kept Through the Campaign of 1815, he records how on the morning of the 19th, immediately after the battle, he was surveying the field, helping get water to the wounded and seeing his men were fed. They made a stew of a “quarter of veal, which they had found in a muddy ditch” and ate for the first time in three days, surrounded by mangled corpses and the wounded.

“We had not yet finished our meal, when a carriage drove on the ground from Brussels, the inmates of which, alighting, proceeded to examine the field. As they passed near us, it was amusing to see the horror with which they eyed our frightful figures; they all, however, pulled off their hats and made us low bows. One, a smartly-dressed middle-aged man, in a high cocked-hat, came to our circle, and entered into conversation with me on the events of yesterday. He approached holding a delicately white perfumed handkerchief to his nose; stepping carefully to avoid the bodies (at which he cast fearful glances en passant), to avoid polluting the glossy silken hose that clothed his nether limbs…With a world of bows my man took leave, and proceeded, picking his steps with the same care as he followed the route of his companions in the direction of Hougoumont.”

Residents in Brussels were the first to reach the battlefield, but almost immediately after news of the victory reached London, civilians began to flock to the area. In To The Field of Waterloo I used the accounts of six visitors in the first year after the fighting to explore why they made the journey and what impressions they carried away with them (along with the souvenirs of battle, poignant, gruesome and glorious.)

Charlotte Anne Eaton, novelist and travel writer, was staying with her brother in Brussels before and during the battle and they visited on July 15th. She recorded her impressions in The Days of Battle or Quatre Bras and Waterloo by An Englishwoman. She had to have a very strong stomach to cope with what they found.

“…the road between Waterloo and Brussels was one long uninterrupted charnel-house: the smell the whole way through the forest, was extremely offensive, and in some places scarcely bearable. Deep stagnant pools of red putrid water, mingled with mortal remains, betrayed the spot where the bodies of men and horses had mingled together in death…” Like all the visitors whose accounts I read, her party eagerly scavenged on the battlefield for souvenirs. “In some places patches of corn nearly as high as myself was standing. Amongst them I discovered many a forgotten grave, strewed around with melancholy remnants of military attire. While I loitered behind the rest of the party, searching among the corn for some relics worthy of preservation, I beheld a human hand, almost reduced to a skeleton, outstretched above the ground, as if it had raised itself from the grave. My blood ran cold with horror, and for some moments I stood rooted to the spot, unable to take my eyes from this dreadful object, or to move away: as soon as I recovered myself, I hastened after my companions, who were far before me, and overtook them just as they entered the wood of Hougoumont.”

In Charlotte Eaton’s case her motive seems to be a desire to remember and celebrate the dead. At Hougoumont (below right), where the ashes from the great funeral pyres were still blowing around, she gathered up some of the “sacred ashes”, resolving to give them a reverent burial when she returned home. And, “As we passed through the wood of Hougoumont, I gathered some seeds of the wild broom, with the intention of planting them at H. Park [Hendersyde Park, Roxburghshire, her family home], and with the hope that I should one day see the broom of Hougoumont blooming on the banks of the Tweed.”

Others simply seemed to want to collect whatever they could find in their passion for souvenirs. The local people lost no time in setting up a battlefield tourism industry – and who can blame them, considering the chaos their lives and livelihoods had been thrown into? They scavenged the battlefield for everything from weapons to bits of uniform to the books and letters of the fallen and discovered that the tourists would buy almost anything. Or, help themselves. One significant victim was the ‘Wellington Tree’. John Scott, a journalist, described its significance in Paris Revisited, in 1815, By Way of Brussels: Including A Walk Over the Field of Battle At Waterloo. (Longman, Hurst etc. London. 1816).

“From St. Jean, the road immediately rises up the back of the ridge, on the height and in the front of which, the infantry of the Duke of Wellington’s army was formed in line. The cavalry, at the beginning of the battle, were posted on the St. Jean side of the eminence. The ascent is easy: you reach the top unexpectedly, and the whole field of battle is then at once before the eye. Its sudden burst has the effect of a shock, and few, I believe, are found to put any question for the first five minutes. The point from whence this complete view of the scene, so often pictured in imagination, first presents itself, is one of the most interesting that it includes. It is the summit of the ridge close to the road, over which hangs an old picturesque tree, with a few straggling branches projecting in grotesque shapes from its ragged trunk. The British position extended on the right and left of the road, for the extent of about a mile and three quarters, along the top of a continued line of gentle eminences, immediately confronted by very similar heights, distant from half to three quarters of a mile along which the French army was posted. … The tree, already mentioned, fixed on the bank above the high road from Brussels to Charleroi, denotes the center of, our position, and, the Duke of Wellington having been near it the greater part of the day, it goes by the name of the “Wellington tree.” I found it much shattered with balls, both grape and musket; all of which had been picked out by visitors. Its branches and trunk were terribly splintered. It still retained, however, the vitality of its growth, and will, probably, for many future years, be the first saluting sign to our children and our children’s children, who, with feelings of a sacred cast, come to gaze on this theatre of their ancestors’ deeds.”

But the tree was not to survive for long. The party with schoolmaster John Evans, author of An Excursion to Windsor in 1810…to which is annexed A Journal of a Trip to Paris in the Autumn of 1816, by Way of Ostend, Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, Brussels and Waterloo. (Sherwood, Neely and Jones. London 1817) showed far less respect for the tree as a symbol than Scott did. “…we came in sight of WELLINGTON TREE, situated on a rising ground to the left of the road [seen from the south]. I took a Sketch of it, and some of my companions a bough or two. The bough immediately over the place where THE DUKE had stood, still bore the mark of a cannon-shot! This bough fell under the axe of an Irish officer in our party.” Charlotte Eaton, returning to the battlefield for a second time, records the end of the tree.  “*Footnote: It is on the left of the road in going towards Waterloo, behind the farmhouse of la Haye Sainte. But this tree, which ought to have been for ever sacred, has been CUT DOWN!!!”

Below is a picture of La Belle Alliance, drawn on June 25th.  It became a virtual tourist centre, stuffed with items to buy and with guides, both locals and military, to take visitors over the battlefield.

My other tourists were a young man on a spree with his friends, a lawyer and friend of Sir Walter Scott and Robert Southey, the Poet Laureate. They all had their own motives for visiting and each account recounts different emotions and reactions to what they found.  Perhaps the remarks that moved me most were those of John Scott, searching for – and finding – hope in the shattered, trampled, bloody ground where, somehow, flowers were managing to bloom.

 

 

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“On Waterloo’s Ensanguined Plain” – Walter Scott Goes Souvenir hunting

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Walter Scott was one of the first tourists to visit the battlefield of Waterloo, arriving there in August, just weeks after the battle. He had the laudable idea of publishing an epic poem on the theme with the proceeds to go to a fund for the widows and orphans of British casualties. Scott was fortunate in being shown around the battlefield by senior officers who had fought there and later, in Paris, met Wellington himself.

This short extract gives a taste of the poem –

Ay, look again–that line, so black and trampled, marks the bivouac,

Yon deep-graved ruts the artillery’s track, so often lost and won;

And close beside, the hardened mud still shows where, fetlock-deep in blood,

The fierce dragoon, through battle’s flood, dashed the hot war-horse on.

These spots of excavation tell the ravage of the bursting shell –

And feel’st thou not the tainted steam, that reeks against the sultry beam,

From yonder trenched mound? The pestilential fumes declare

That Carnage has replenished there her garner-house profound…

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Unfortunately it was badly received and critics panned it. One wit wrote:

On Waterloo’s ensanguined plain
Full many a gallant man was slain,
But none, by sabre or by shot,
Fell half so flat as Walter Scott.

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When I recently visited Abbotsford, Scott’s home in the Borders, I discovered that he had taken more than impressions and notes away with him. In my book  To The Field of Waterloo: the First Battlefield Tourists I had written of the insatiable souvenir-hunting of the visitors and I suppose I should not have been surprised to discover that Scott had collected a very superior set of trophies for the vast and eclectic collection that decorates the walls of the house. Photographs of some of them illustrate this post, handsome examples of the arms and armour of Napoleon’s vast army.

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The Road to Waterloo: Week 17. The Battle is Fought, The Tourists Arrive, Napoleon Flees, The Regent Weeps

So much has been written – and is being written – about the battle of Waterloo itself that this post is not going to go into any details but will concentrate on what was known to be happening in London. The detail below shows the fighting on the left wing of the battle.
Waterloo left wing bottom strip
On the 18th Londoners were going about their normal Sunday business – attending church, followed, for the gentlemen, by reading the papers which had no up-to-date news from Flanders. Readers could safely turn to lighter matters such as the report in thElopemente Marriages column: “Some days ago, at Gretna Green, Capt. Bontein, of the Life Guards, son of Sir G.B. to the daughter of Sir E. Stanley. The parties rode out from Lady Bontein’s to take an airing before dinner; they took post-chaise and four at Barnet, and proceeded to Gretna Green, wither they were unsuccessfully pursued by Lady Stanley. The only objection to the match, was, it is said, the age of the bride, who is under fourteen and has a handsome fortune. The parties have since been re-married in London.” Where, presumably, Captain Bontein was enjoying the company of his child bride and her handsome fortune while his comrades plunged into battle.cattle on street
A glimpse into the state of the London streets, with vast herds of livestock being driven through them daily, is captured in the report that, “On Friday-forenoon, a large bullock that ran from a drove in Newgate-street, ran into the shop of Messrs. Baldwin & Co. booksellers, and the parlour door being open, he walked in, where there were three or four ladies sitting who were very much frightened…they were at length rescued… by a drover…all the furniture had to be piled in one corner to make room for the animal to turn around: he then walked out very deliberately.” The picture shows a detail from a print of Soho Square (Ackermann’s Repository 1812)
By Monday 19th there was still nothing in the newspapers, but rumours of three days’ fighting around Brussels were beginning to spread by word of mouth from the Channel couriers.
Meanwhile, on the battlefield, the first tourists had arrived from Brussels, despite the desperate needs of the wounded in the city and on the battlefield, the state of the roads and the appalling scenes. In his Journal of the Waterloo Campaign, Kept through the Campaign of 1815, Cavalié Mercer, who commanded G Troop Royal Horse Artillery during the battle, records some of the very first tourists. On the morning of the 19th he recalls surveying the field, helping get water to the wounded and seeing his men were fed, surrounded by mangled corpses and the wounded. “We had not yet finished our meal, when a carriage drove on the ground from Brussels, the inmates of which, alighting, proceeded to examine the field. As they passed near us, it was amusing to see the horror with which they eyed our frightful figures; they all, however, pulled off their hats and made us low bows. One, a smartly-dressed middle-aged man, in a high cocked-hat, came to our circle, and entered into conversation with me on the events of yesterday. He approached holding a delicately white perfumed handkerchief to his nose; stepping carefully to avoid the bodies (at which he cast fearful glances en passant), to avoid polluting the glossy silken hose that clothed his nether limbs…With a world of bows my man took leave, and proceeded, picking his steps with the same care as he followed the route of his companions in the direction of Hougoumont.”
Finally some hard news reached the London papers on Tuesday 20th June, albeit four days out of date. Under the headline, “Commencement of Hostilities” the Morning Post reported, “Yesterday afternoon an Officer arrived with dispatches from the Duke of WELLINGTON, announcing the important fact of BONAPARTE having, soon after his arrival on the frontiers, put his army in motion, and attacked the Prussian outpost at Givet. This took place on the morning of the 16th, on the evening of which day a Prussian officer arrived in Brussels to communicate the intelligence to the Duke of WELLINGTON. His Grace lost not a moment in putting his whole army in motion…A general battle has in all probability ere taken place. In Heaven we trust that our confident hopes in regard to it will be speedily and completely realised.”
The Morning Post on the 21st reported rumours of a great battle and stated that, “an Officer was on the road to London with the official accounts, and in the meantime the report brought by MR SUTTON, the Packet Agent [ie in charge of the mail boats] was sufficiently circumstantial to prove its authenticity.” The article repeated the news about the 16th and stated that Wellington had brought Bonaparte into “a sanguinary contest” on the 17th. News of the death of General Picton was given, but all the details were unclear.
By now Napoleon had reached Paris and late that same evening Wellington’s exhausted aide Henry Percy arrived in London, having started out a few hours after the battle with the Duke’s dispatches and two captured eagles. He travelled day and night, with the eagles poking out of the chaise window, and reached Horse Guards between eleven and midnight. He found no-one in authority but eventually tracked Lord Liverpool down who insisted they go immediately to tell the Prince Regent who was dining with the Duke of York at Mrs. Boehm’s house (now no.14) in St. James’s Square.
Lord Liverpool, followed by footmen carrying the eagles, announced to the Prince Regent, “I have brought Major Percy, who comes with the news of a great victory for your Royal Highness.”
“Not Major Percy, but Lieut.-Colonel Percy,” said the Prince as Percy knelt and kissed his hand. ” We have not suffered much loss, I hope.”
“The loss has been very great indeed,” replied Percy and the Regent burst into tears. Major Percy was finally to escape and go to bed for the first time since the battle.
The second edition of the Morning Post on the morning of the 22nd carried “Official Bulletin of the Complete Overthrow of Bonaparte’s Army With a List of the British Officers Killed or Wounded.” The dispatch was brief and to the point, the list of casualties very long – and that was just the officers. Londoners would have been left in no doubt that a great victory had been won at enormous cost. The Morning Post wrote, “With hearts gratefully elate (sic) and all thanks due to Heaven for the event, we have this day the supreme happiness of announcing one of the most complete and comprehensive victories ever attained, even by British valour…While Bonaparte… coward at heart…narrowly effected his escape.”
As Londoners were reading the news, in Paris Napoleon was abdicating in favour of his son.
after the battle

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