Tag Archives: To the Field 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 & From Waterloo. Week 18. The End for Napoleon, London Parties, The Country Celebrates

The Allies advanced, carrying with them such booty as Napoleon’s beautifully-fitted carriage (shown in the moment of its capture in the print below), while in Paris the first wounded had begun to arrive the day Napoleon abdicated. Some of the Old Guard were spotted on the streets on the 25th and newspapers and posters appealed for linen and rags to make bandages.
Napoleons carriageBeyond the problems of the wounded, things were looking up. French government stocks rose with the news of Waterloo and kept rising – the abdication and the approach of the Allies pushed it even higher. Labretonnière noted that Paris was taking on an “aristocratic look” and the Tuileries Gardens was filled with “brilliant society”. The English visitor, Hobhouse, was asked why he looked gloomy and wrote that it was strange that the only person not looking happy in the crowd was a foreigner when “you consider that the Square Vendome, close by, is covered at one corner with wounded men, laying on straw.”
On the 25th Napoleon moved to Malmaison, the Empress Josephine’s old residence, fifteen miles west of Paris. As the Allies drove on hard for the capital he fled again on the 29th to Rochefort, a port on the Charente estuary in the South West, hoping at first to flee to America, but eventually surrendering to the British..
On Friday 30th June the Allies opened fire on the plain of St Denis, wakening the Parisians with cannon fire. The French Commission of Government dithered, fighting went on – and, finally, the capitulation was signed on July 3rd. It was all over.
In London that Sunday 25th June, one week after the battle, Londoners were not short of reading material. The Examiner printed “The London Gazette Extraordinary” recapping the events from the arrival of Major Percy onwards and also “Miscellaneous Information Respecting the Late Battles”, filled with a hodgepodge of news gleaned from letters, dispatches and downright speculation.
The whole of London Society seemed to be throwing itself into balls, routs and parties, despite the number of deaths and injuries amongst officers aDuke of Brunswickt Waterloo, which must have touched almost every aristocratic and upper class family in the country. The Morning Chronicle’s Mirror of Fashion for Monday 25th June lists eleven forthcoming parties including the Marchioness of Douglas’s “elegant ball and supper”, Mrs Tighe’s “large rout” and Lady Saltown’s “large assembly”. The only mention of mourning I could find was that of the Princess Charlotte on behalf of her father’s cousin, the Duke of Brunswick.(Shown left)
To end this story in a far less sophisticated town – Bury St Edmund’s – there is a rather charming report in the local Bury and Norwich Post recording that, “The glorious news of Lord Wellington’s Victory over Bonaparte was first received here on Thursday evening, amidst the most general joy; and which was most happily confirmed on the arrival of the mail at six the next morning; when by the vigilance of our most worthy postmaster the several newspapers were instantly delivered throughout the town and its vicinity.”

I hope you have enjoyed this series of posts tracing Napoleon’s route to Waterloo and how Londoners reacted to it. I began to be fascinated by the story when I was researching for a Waterloo trilogy of novels – The Brides of Waterloo – with two friends and fellow authors,Waterloo books Sarah Mallory and Annie Burrows. Inspired by the exploits of G Troop, Royal Artillery, the three novels are available as paperbacks and ebooks: why not visit our websites to find out more, including buy-links and snippets about research. http://www.melinda-hammond.co.uk , http://www.annie-burrows.co.uk , and http://www.louiseallenregency.com. Our heroes also tweet at @RandallsRogues!

I also became intrigued by the tourists who flocked to the scanned medbattlefield from the day after the battle. The story of this phenomenon is told in the words of six of them – the Poet Laureate, a lady travel writer, a schoolmaster, a journalist, a friend of Sir Walter Scott’s and an adventurous young man – in To the Field of Waterloo: the First Battlefield Tourists 1815-1816. It is available as an ebook for Kindle http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00VMQWN74/

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00VMQWN74/

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