I’ve been taken up with two anniversaries that fall this year. The first one is the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo.
Although I tell people I write books set in the Georgian period, my real speciality is the earlier period, the 1750’s. So when I was asked to write a couple of novellas to help commemorate the event, I had a lot of research to do. And what fun it was! Of course I do have quite a lot of information on the Regency, since I’ve written books set in that time before, but the details of Waterloo, the nitty-gritty, are fascinating. The letters, records and accounts are legion, especially in this bicentenary year.
At university I had to read Thompson’s “Europe Since Napoleon,” which is still as interesting as it ever was, but my real interests lay in the lives of the people, how it affected them and what they did afterwards.
So I plunged into letters and newspapers. Utterly riveting. I could have read for a long time, but I had books to write!
I decided on a medical theme. The first book has more of a medical background, concerned with a surgeon and his nurse who are forced by circumstances into marriage. But with similar ideals it was only a matter of time before they found their way into each other’s hearts. The second is about a war hero who has what we would call PTSD, a little understood condition at the time. Just because they couldn’t put a name to it, didn’t mean they didn'tt experience it. From the Berserkers of the Dark Ages to the present day, traumatic events have triggered unfortunate responses in some people. So how did they cope with it back then, after Waterloo? Mostly by telling people to pull themselves together, which was no help at all.
I thought it might help to have a quick overview of the battle, and why it was so important. With the plethora of books to commemorate the battle, most either concentrate on a small part of it or go into huge detail, which might be fascinating for me, but isn’t necessarily what the regular reader, somebody who wants a general background, might be looking for. I just ask for some indulgence from my fellow historians, who will doubtless wince at my ruthless elimination of events in my attempt at a broad overview.
Waterloo was a terrible battle. There were thousands of men on each side, with their women, children, camp followers and support staff like medics all waiting anxiously for the outcome. The figures often given are 68,000 British and Allied troops against 74,000 French, and the official date is 18th June 1815.
But like most messy events involving real people, this doesn’t tell anywhere near the whole story. There were skirmishes before and after, for instance. Nobody shouted “Start!” and “Stop!” at the beginning and end. In charge of the armies were the Duke of Wellington, a brilliant strategist who had turned the fortunes of the Peninsula War around, and Napoleon, a self-aggrandising man, but also brilliant. There are no reliable recorded instances of Wellington meeting Napoleon. That leaves the field nicely free for the novelist because there were many chances for them to do so. The other intriguing thing is that Waterloo was the first time Wellington and Napoleon faced each other on the field of battle.
Wellington was cold in his interpersonal relationships. He hated war, and tried to minimize losses to his men. Napoleon threw men at the enemy, treating them as disposable cannon-fodder.
The battle was further complicated by a torrential downpour the day before, that turned the battlefield into a churning mass of mud and made the quick charges that the Hussars specialised in even more difficult than they were already.
On the 15th June, Napoleon took position by ejecting the Allies at Charleroi, but although Wellington knew of it, he wasn’t yet sure that this was the main thrust of Napoleon’s army, so he kept a watching brief on it. He didn’t want to commit his army before knowing that another flank wasn’t going to attack from somewhere else. He was also waiting for Marshall Blucher and his troops to arrive for the main engagement. The Prince of Orange’s army was involved in the skirmishes before and during, but not the main battle itself.
He heard about the attack on the 16th June, at the Duchess of Richmond’s ball. The speed of Napoleon’s advance shocked him into taking action. Wellington’s army could be overrun.
The start of the battle was signalled by a fight at the crossroads of Quatre Bras. In a way this indicated how the rest of the battle would go. A narrow victory for the Allies at a terrible cost. First the French won, then when Wellington sent reinforcements, the Allies won.
By the end of the 17th, the British army was in position, with Blucher around 7 miles away.
On the late morning of the 18th, the French attacked the house at Hougoumont, where Wellington had stationed some of his vanguard. The other fortified position, at the farmhouse at La Haye Sainte, was attacked a few hours later. The French managed to cut it off from the rest of the army. By around two pm, it looked like the French were winning.
Then the British cavalry moved in. Although Napoleon’s army had the superior reputation, the mud helped to make things a bit more equal. No horse, however skilled, can move fast when its hooves are deeply embedded in thick mud.
After that, came the infantry’s turn. When Napoleon attacked, Wellington formed the infantry into squares, with the cavalry in the center.
Then Wellington regained the farmouse at La Haye Sainte and the tide started to turn. The Prussians arrived and helped to reinforce an exhausted British army.
Napoleon finally committed his precious Imperial Guard. This was his last throw. By the time dusk had fallen the French army was in disarray and the day was won.
But as I said earlier, they didn’t just stop. It was a bit like putting out a big fire. They had to set a watch and cover the skirmishes and final flickerings of the great French army.
Like Wellington said, it was a damned near-run thing.
On the 24th June, Napoleon abdicated, and a few weeks after, was once again in custody, this time until the day he died.
After Waterloo? Britain went into economic depression, a lull that was only redressed when the middle class began its inexorable rise to wealth and influence. Lines and frontiers were redrawn. After Waterloo, nothing was ever the same again.
Lynne's books, "It Started at Waterloo" and "Dreaming of Waterloo" will be out in June, in time for the commemoration of the battle.
"Dreaming of Waterloo" is part of a box set, and will be out soon.