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The Road to Waterloo: Week 16. The Young Men Frolic, Napoleon Invades, the Duchess Holds her Ball – the Conflict Begins

Richmond 2
On June 11th Napoleon marched an army of approximately 120,000 men to war against Wellington’s 93,000 and Blücher’s 115,000 men. Wellington was still poised to invade France and was uncertain whether the French would halt at the frontier or whether he would have to meet them once they had crossed it. His main anxiety was to protect the “hinge”, the weak point between his army and Blücher’s.
Nick Foulkes in his engrossing social history of the months leading up to the battle, Dancing Into Battle, notes a “holiday atmosphere” amongst the Allied officers and the upper classes living in and around Brussels. “They may have been assembled to fight the most daunting military commander of the age, but in many cases the regiments were filled with and run by boys still in their teens and on their first trip abroad. They were young, they had foppish uniforms and they were having the time of their lives.”
Horse racing was a particular favourite amongst the young officers. The Earl of Albermarle (sixteen at the time) recalled that, “Races on a grand scale came off at Gramont on 13th June…Everyone was determined to make the most of the holiday.” The crowds numbered thousands.
The impact of so many spirited young men on Brussels was, probably, predictable. Wine, women, parties, petty vandalism (no statue was safe) and pranks kept the officers busy when they weren’t with their troops, and the charismatic teenage ensign James, Lord Hay, ADC to General Maitland, was one of the leaders of the mischief. “Very poor I hear…[but] very good looking I know and particularly gentlemanlike,” sighed one smitten young lady. He took to jumping the boundary fences of the Parc, the smaller-scale Brussels equivalent of Hyde Park, and reveled in being chased by the park keepers and the local gens d’armes. It was only when complaints were made to Wellington that he stopped.
On the 15th the French crossed the Sombre at Charleroi which placed their forces in the gap between the cantonment areas of Wellington’s army, to the west, and Blücher’s army to the east. Napoleon had found the weak spot in the Allies’ defenses with his usual tactical brilliance – Wellington had concentrated his forces at Nivelles, twelve miles from the Prussians who were at Ligny.
The news of the French move to the frontier reached the London papers on the 15th and the country must have been bracing itself for the news of the coming clash. The Morning Post reported receiving “advices from Paris of the 11th inst. stating that BONAPARTE had left the city for the head-quarters of the Army of the North and that orders for laying an embargo on all shipping had been sent off to several ports in the channel. The communication between this country and France was therefore expected to be immediately cut off. All accounts agree in stating that hostilities would commence about this time, and the present day (the 15th) is mentioned by some as the particular day, on which a blow would be struck, every arrangement for that purpose being complete. There has been no arrival of French Papers since Monday.”
Thursday 15th was, of course, the date set for the Duchess of Richmond’s famous ball, shown in an entertaining, but particularly inaccurate picture at the top of this post. The Duke, perhaps maintaining his pretense of insouciance, assured her it could go ahead, although by the evening rumours were already circulating around Brussels. Some officers were already leaving the city to go to their troops, others were coming in, unaware as yet of the increasing certainty that Napoleon was on the move. In the event the news hit the revelers at some time around 11pm. Lord Uxbridge announced, “You gentlemen who have engaged partners, had better finish your dance, and get to your quarters as soon as you can.” In full dress uniforms and evening slippers the young officers headed south.
By the 16th Wellington’s forces were still all attempting to concentrate around Quatre Bras to meet Marshal Ney’s troops – not all of them made it in time for the battle. Meanwhile Napoleon led the main French force against the inexperienced Prussian troops at Ligny. The Prussians suffered heavily, but thanks to Blücher’s generalship, and a chaotic French mix-up which sent 16,000 French troops marching from Quatre Bras to Ligny only to be immediately recalled, the Prussians were able to retreat in relatively good order.

Quatre Bras
On the 17th Wellington had held back Ney at Quatre Bras (above), but with the Prussian defeat at Ligny he now had the French army on his eastern flank. Fortunately the Prussians were retreating northwards to Wavre, not east back to their base, and the armies were able to stay in contact while Wellington fell back to the ridge at Mont St Jean. That evening the heavens opened in a thunderstorm of epic proportions. As Private Wheeler of the 51st Regiment wrote later, “The ground was too wet to lie down…the water ran in streams from the cuffs of our jackets.” The exhausted men of both sides faced spending the night soaking wet, cold and muddy with the prospect of battle the next day.
That day the London papers were confidently predicting that the first action in the conflict would be the Allies invading France. Meanwhile the social round in London continued unabated with the society pages full of routs and balls.

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The Road to Waterloo: Week 15. Napoleon Swears An Oath, Wellington is Laid Back & London Boycotts French Bonnets

On Sunday 4th June Napoleon presented his new army with regimental colours and on the 6th he ordered his generals to begin to assemble on the Belgian border. Perhaps critically, he decided to leave behind his “Iron Marshall”, Louis-Nicolas Davout, to be Minister of War. One of his most experienced generals, Davout’s presence on the battlefield as chief of staff in place of Marshal Soult might have made all the difference to the outcome of the battle.
On Wednesday 7th Napoleon opened Parliament, swearing on the Bible to uphold the troubled new French constitution which made him a constitutional monarch.
parc mapMeanwhile in Brussels Wellington was putting on a masterly show of relaxed imperturbability, entertaining, attending balls, strolling in the Parc (shown left) and flirting with ladies. Besides this attitude being good for morale in Brussels (except possibly for the husbands of his flirts), he would also have been aware that spies were reporting his behaviour back to Paris and he must have seemed to Napoleon (or Buonaparte as Wellington always dismissively referred to him) to be over-confident or simply dangerously unaware of what he was up against. Meanwhile Wellington let it be known that he was planning a grand ball for the 21st June to celebrate the second anniversary of his victory at Vittoria.
In London readers of Sunday’s Examiner would have found several items of interest in the Deaths column including the report of the decease of Mr Steele of Round Green, Durham, aged 102, leaving over one hundred descendants living. James Hare, labourer of Beaconsfield, died of hydrophobia from a dog bite, despite having been dipped in the sea to cure it. This was a considerable journey from Beaconsfield and, as a result, the paper concluded, the delay resulted in this usually reliable cure for the bite of a mad dog not being effective.
The Examiner also contained a lengthy report on fashions, including the essential information that “The only novelty in colour this month is that called the Maria Theresa, which is as yet too little known to be generally adopted. The most prevailing colours are lilac, peach blossom, imperial-green, Saxon-green, pale pink, straw or primrose.” It quoted the patriotic opinion of The British Ladies Magazine that, “Our fair countrywomen are to be congratulated on the improvement made to the fashions this month. Those frightful French bonnets etc have given place to the more simple but elegant English taste.”

The print is from Ackermann’s Repository for June 1815 and shows a lady in a Carriage Dress, apparently viewing pictures at an exhibition.
June 1815 carriage dressOn Monday the most recent Paris newspapers in the hands of the London press were those for June 1st, so as far as readers were concerned, Napoleon and his troops were still in Paris. On Friday the report of the House of Commons showed a remarkable lack of concern about the French threat, with debates about a petition against nude bathing in the Thames, the increase of begging in London and the building of ships by the East India Company. The House spent some valuable time considering the vexed question of the importation of clover seed.
Friday’s papers also included a report of the Prince Regent’s Levée held the previous day at St James’s Palace with the band of the Coldstream Guard appearing in a magnificent new court uniform. The American Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to the Court of St. James’s, John Quincey Adams, was “most graciously received” by the Regent and presented his credentials. (To this day, foreign ambassadors are still accredited to the Court of St James’s and not Buckingham Palace.) The U.S. Legation in those days consisted of the Envoy and two secretaries based in a small office in Craven Street. The post was not well paid and Adams and his wife lived a house called “Little Boston” in the village of Ealing to save money to spend on the expensive trappings required by the court. Adam’s later move to the White House must have made an interesting contrast in accommodation.

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The Road to Waterloo Week Nine – Mrs Wilmot Flops at Drury Lane, l’Orient Blows Up at Sadler’s Wells & Paris is Flooded By Arms

All the London newspapers began the week by printing long, stolidly indigestible, extracts from the Paris press along with editorial pieces sneering at Napoleon’s attempts at establishing a constitution and reports of arms and ammunition flooding into Paris for the army.
The Times reported that the Duke of Wellington was expected to make his headquarters at Brussels and that he commanded troops in a line from Ostend to Charleroi, but that opinion was very divided on the continent about whether war would – or should – break out. The Duke (shown in a portrait by Thomas Phillips) was reported to be in favour of it.

“Drury Lane Theatre – on Saturday night a most crowded and brilliant assembly were attracted to the representation of a new tragedy by Mrs. Wilmot, a Lady of Fashion, which had been got up with great splendour of decoration and in favour of which there was the most sanguine anticipation. It is a story of the Saxon era of our nation…There were abundant materials for dramatic interest and effect… The plot was pregnant with those high sentiments of honour and gallantry which distinguished our Saxon ancestors… The materials were, in short, ample for the production of a play of great interest but the Lady has rather produced a dramatic poem than a regular drama.” By the third act, despite Mr Kean in the leading role, the audience was getting restless and “the whole of the fifth act passed with the incessant impatience and condemnation.” The unfortunate Mrs Wilmot presumably retired discomforted and the piece was never heard again. The print below shows the fashionable crowd outside the boxes at Drury Lane – and the dashing young ladies hoping to attract one of the dandies on the strut there.

Drury Lane
Rather more successful productions were attracting audiences elsewhere. Astley’s Royal Amphitheatre was featuring a “new serio-comic equestrian pantomime called the Life, Death & Restoration of the High-Mettled Racer; or Harlequin on Horseback. In the course of 21 interesting scenes will be introduced a Real Horse Race and a Real Fox Chase.”
Sadler’s Wells, which had been showing a recreation of the Battle of the Nile “on real Water” had now, presumably reflecting the popular mood, added more ships and the “blowing up of l’Orient” along with an illuminated transparency of Nelson.
On Saturday 29th Generals Ponsonby and Bing, along with their horses, embarked at Ramsgate on the “Duke of Wellington” for Ostend. Colonel Smith’s F Troop of Artillery had also arrived at Ramsgate and were expected to embark on the next tide.
On which note, with the artillery bound for the continent, I will mention the trilogy of Waterloo novels – Brides of Waterloo – which I have written with two fellow authors. They are available for pre-order now. The first, A Lady For Lord Randall, by Sarah Mallory, will come out in May. A Mistress for Major Bartlett, by Annie Burrows, is due in June and my book, A Rose for Major Flint, comes out in July. The novels are linked by their heroes – all artillery officers – and the timeframe runs from several weeks before the battle until several weeks afterwards. Waterloo books

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The Road to Waterloo Week Four – Napoleon Arrives In Paris & the London Exchanges Shiver

No doubt Londoners sitting down on Sunday morning, 19th March, read with relief the excellent  – and completely inaccurate – news from the continent. As Bell’s Weekly Messenger’s headlines said, quoting the Paris papers of the 15th – “Gratifying Change In The State Of Affairs –Bonaparte Still At Lyons – Marching of troops On Duchess_of_Courland_kauffmanAll Sides Against Him – Vigour of the Bourbons.”
In fact King Louis, whose reactions so far had been so far from vigorous as to be positively flabby, had fled Paris by night, heading for Brussels. The Duchess of Courland (shown left as a young woman in a portrait by Angelica Kauffman) set out at the same time to take the news to the Congress at Vienna. Meanwhile Napoleon continued to advance on Paris, despite further British headlines – “Reported Defeat of Bonaparte – Defection Of His Troops – His Probable Destruction.”
Meanwhile the London newspaper reader could pass on with relief to such good news as the signing of the peace treaty with the Americans and the assurances that Syphilis could be completely cured by doses of Velos’s Vegetable Syrup which “acts salutarily on the whole system, throws off all its impurities, and also removed the various forms of diseased Liver, Scrofula and Scurvy, that are so frequently left to medicines which aggravate their ravages.”
Bell’s Weekly Messenger’s “Died” column reported a curious selection of deaths in scrupulously alphabetical order, including:
O’Halloran, Sir Caesar Felix O’Neill, “the notorious swindler in Giltspur-street Counter.” [debtors’ prison]
Ripon, Mr Thomas of Nottingham, aged 75. “He was no more than 54 inches high. On a prodigious large head he wore an enormous cocked hat, and acquired a handsome income by former habits of mendicity (sic). ”
Saxe Cobourg, the Prince of, aged 77. “He commanded the Austrian Armies in the campaigns of 1793 and 1794.”
On Monday 20th Napoleon arrived at Fontainbleu and left again at 2 pm for Paris. He was met on the way by the 1st, 4th and 6th Chasseurs à Cheval anLargeNapoleonasGuardColonelbyLefevred the 6th Lancers who had been sent to intercept him. Instead of arresting him they presented arms and joined his forces.
Bonaparte entered Paris at 10.30 pm without a shot being fired and was carried shoulder-high into the Tuileries, eyes closed, a smile on his face.
Perhaps the relieved Londoners who had read that he was in the process of fleeing through France at that very moment flocked to the Adelphi Exhibition in Adam Street, off the Strand to see Robert Lefèvre’s portrait of Napoleon in the uniform of Colonel of the Guard of Chasseurs.
A stir was caused on Tuesday 21st by the escape of the quite impossibly colourful Admiral Cochrane from the King’s Bench prison. He strolled into the Palace of Westminster to take his seat in Parliament, from whence he was returned to custody. On the same day anyone still worried about Napoleon would have been reassured by the arrival of the Hyperion frigate in Plymouth, loaded with troops and en route for Holland.
Then on Thursday the devastating news arrived that Napoleon had entered Paris and the King had fled. The 24th was Good Friday, and in his diary Mr Oakes in Bury Saint Edmunds recorded, “This morning the London papers this morning announced the arrival of Bonaparte at Paris on Monday last, 20th Inst, without opposition. Not a gun fired.” The Duchess of Courland reached Vienna the same day to report the King’s flight to the Allies.
By Saturday the Congress had acted, ratifying the Treaty of Alliance against Napoleon in which each of the great powers (Britain, Austria, Prussia, Russia) agreed to pledge 150,000 men for the fight. The Duke of Wellington was made commander-in-chief.Bank
In London the crisis was having its predictable consequences on the Exchange. Bell’s Weekly Messenger reported “… a close holiday at the Bank, but in the private bargains the Three per cent. Consols, the leading Stock, have suffered a decline of one per cent, reckoning from the closing price on Thursday, and one quarter from the closing price yesterday. The causes of the depression are to obvious to require specification.” The view above is of te Bank of England in 1809 (from Ackermann’s Repository). It is a view from the north, standing in Lothbury and looking down Princes Street on the right towards Mansion House.

The City around the Bank is still a fascinating place to walk – and Walk 8 from Walking Jane Austen’s London will take you from Temple Bar to the chop houses and coffee houses frequented by the Hellfire Club and Benjamin Franklin. (Not necessarily at the same time!)

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