Wellington’s Smallest Victory

Wellington’s Smallest Victory

I’ve long been fascinated by the way in which the British claimed Waterloo as a British, rather than an Allied, victory – particularly as only a minority of the troops under Wellington’s command were actually British. The insistence that the British essentially pulled off victory on their own accounts for the way that the Prussian contribution is regularly dismissed. Nowadays we often read that the Prussians arrived late at the battle and that they had no effect until the very end. Some accounts even suggest that the final advance by the British would have taken place successfully whether or not the Prussians had been there. 

This rewriting of history started on the evening of the battle when Wellington rejected Blucher’s suggestion that it be called the battle of La Belle Alliance (after the inn where Blucher and Wellington met at the end of the day), insisting instead that it be called Waterloo, after the town (not on the battlefield) where Wellington had set up his headquarters the night before the fighting started.

The most blatant rewriting of the Prussian involvement centred on a model of the battlefield created by William Siborne, a young army officer who was commissioned by the government to produce a large scale model as a permanent commemoration of Wellington’s victory. Siborne took his commission seriously, corresponding with hundreds of the officers who were at Waterloo, including Prussian officers and, although many were reluctant to discuss it, the French. As a result he was able to produce a picture of the battlefield representing the situation at 7.00pm, just after the fall of La Haye Sainte. Siborne considered that this was the crisis of the battle.

At this point, Prussian troops were already attacking the French in Plancenoit while others had linked up with Wellington’s left, enabling him to strengthen his centre. Hundreds of detailed models of Prussian soldiers were placed to reflect that. Yet if you look at the model today (it’s on display in the National Army Museum) these soldiers aren’t there. At the crisis of the battle, just before the decisive charge by Wellington’s troops, the French are faced only by the British. The Prussians, as so many people still believe, weren’t there. They arrived too late to have any decisive impact on the battle.

There is Plancenoit in the distance, with a suspicious absence of attacking Prussians

I love that model and I’ve visited it several times. I knew it misrepresented the Prussian position and I understood the politics behind it. But this Christmas I was given a copy of Peter Hofschroer’s wonderful book, Wellington’s Smallest Victory and now I know how the model came to be so inaccurate.

It’s a story of a naïve young man who set out to produce something that was to be both the historical record of a famous victory and a significant work of art in its own right. The project ran out of control, taking over his life, and he became quite obsessive about its accuracy. What he did not realise was that he was taking on the Duke of Wellington himself, who had no intention of allowing Siborne’s model ever to see the light of day with the Prussians in place.

It’s a story of a powerful man using money and position to crush somebody who threatened the image he had created for himself. Wellington, it is fair to say, does not come out of the story well.

Hofschroer’s book is incredibly detailed. Very occasionally it even verges on the boring with its accounts of exactly who corresponded with whom as the government tried to deprive Siborne of money owing to him. The detail is important, though, as Hofschroer is presenting a version of the battle of Waterloo which many people, after 200 years of propaganda, will find difficult to accept. He is also attacking the reputation of Wellington, somebody who was practically a demigod while Siborne was working on this model and who is still seen as one of the Great Britons of the 19th century.

The meticulous descriptions of exactly which troops were where helps the reader visualise exactly what was going on and will probably provide new insights even for those already very familiar with Waterloo. Hofschroer also extends the scope of his book to cover Wellington’s response to Prussian setbacks at Charlesroi and Ligny. Again, his account is detailed and convincing and does not show Wellington in a good light. Given how much time I spend reading accounts of Napoleonic battles, it’s worrying how much I struggle with many of these books, but Wellingtons Smallest Victory reads like a crime thriller. It’s gripping.

A Word from our Sponsor

There is a lot of detail about elements of the Battle of Waterloo Burke at Waterloo. (“A good general account of the battles described.” – Amazon review.) Burke at Waterloo is available on Kindle at a ludicrously cheap £3.99. If you enjoy my blog, you might consider buying it. mybook.to/BurkeWaterloo

It’s also available in paperback for £8.99.

Burke vs Sharpe! (Book review)

Burke vs Sharpe! (Book review)

Sharpe’s Assassin is presented as a story about Sharpe freeing a spy from a fortress and then hunting down some rogue Bonapartists who would assassinate the victorious Duke of Wellington. It has enough similarities to Burke and the Pimpernel Affair (freeing a spy from a fortress) and Burke at Waterloo (hunting down rogue Bonapartists who would assassinate the Duke) to make it a ‘must-read’ as far as I was concerned.

So how do Sharpe’s exploits compare with Burke’s?

Cornwell’s creation is first and foremost a soldier and Sharpe’s adventures follow him through Wellington’s military successes from India to Waterloo. His fans love the military detail in the stories and the scenes of action, whether Sharpe is brawling with an individual or part of an army engaged in a historic battle. This story is set after Waterloo, so the possibilities for military set-pieces are limited. Even so, Sharpe’s approach to saving the spy from the fortress focuses on a brute-force military approach. Burke and Sharpe both use cunning to infiltrate the fortress, but where Burke’s approach is designed to slip out quietly with as little fighting as possible (though things don’t work out exactly as planned), Sharpe, having won past the first gate, goes for a straightforward military assault. It means Cornwell inventing an action where there wasn’t one but it does mean Sharpe can get in a small battle early in the book. Sharpe is, after all, not about subtlety. The story has him working alongside a rather foppish spy who is all about subtlety but is all-too-easily fooled by the Bonapartists. Fortunately he has Sharpe watching his back and cheerfully blasting away at the French at every opportunity.

There’s an attempt at blowing up a dinner being held by the victorious British (very similar to one of the attempts in Burke at Waterloo) and Sharpe, like Burke, foils it. Like Burke, he fails to stop the villains escaping, setting things up for the final conflict which, again, involves lots of troops in a firefight with some artillery and the odd Congreve rocket to liven things up. Burke would, I suspect, find the outcome messy, but Sharpe ends up seeing off the Frenchies and disrupting their evil plans. The Duke is saved and peace finally comes to Paris.

By the end of the book, Sharpe is living peacefully in Normandy with his lady love. Burke gets no such happy ending. The real James Burke continued to spy for Britain long after 1815 and there is no sign of an end to war for him. I suspect we may see more of Sharpe in time, too. I wonder if he will ever decide that there are problems not best solved by bloody violence. Probably not. The world needs men like Sharpe as well as men like Burke. Long may they both thrive.

The books

Amazon provides a platform that is happy to host both a famous author like Bernard Cornwell and a significantly less famous one like me. Sharpe’s Assassin is available on Kindle at £4.99 or in paperback at £4.50 (it’s on offer). It’s an interesting pricing policy and explains why traditional publishers claim that e-books aren’t doing that well. It’s because they deliberately over-price them. The paperback is a bargain though.

My own tiny publishing effort can’t afford to subsidise paperbacks so I’m afraid Burke and the Pimpernel Affair and Burke at Waterloo will both set you back £8.99. (Printing isn’t getting any cheaper.) On the other hand, I do pass on the savings that come with e-publication, so the Kindles cost just £3.99.

At these prices, why not sort out your Napoleonic spy escapade needs for the rest of the month and buy all three?

Waterloo Weekend at Apsley House

As promised in last week’s blog, this weekend we made a visit to Apsley House, where there were some special events to mark Waterloo Weekend.

Apsley House is well worth a visit in any case. Once known as ‘Number One, London’, because it was the first house that you came to when entering the city from the west, Apsley House was the home of the Duke of Wellington. The present Duke still lives on the upper floors, but the two lower floors and the basement are now open to the public. The décor and furnishings are those of a very grand Georgian House, but its main interest is obviously its connection with the Duke. Wellington was well aware of his place in history, and Apsley House (complete, even when he was living there, with its own museum of Wellington-related memorabilia) is the history of the British victory expressed as architecture.

This weekend, though, we could only spend a short time there, so we concentrated on the special events for Waterloo Weekend.

The Rifles

Before the house was open to the public, representatives of the 95th Rifles marched into the forecourt of Apsley House and gave a demonstration of drill.

Even with just four men, making all the prescribed moves smartly together is much harder than it looks, and the 95th were impressive. It was interesting to see how close together they marched, presumably reflecting the fact that in the line the ranks of infantry would be packed together much more tightly than you would expect nowadays – “bollocks to backsides” as one re-enactor explained to me. (Not this weekend, when everyone was on their best behaviour.) Later I had a chance to talk to a couple of the men who were inside the house displaying their equipment. As ever when I meet re-enactors, I learned lots of stuff that isn’t immediately obvious when you read about the period. For example, I had always thought of the flints used in a flintlock rifle as being similar to the sort of flints that you would find in a cigarette lighter. After all, you only need one spark and how hard can that be? In fact, the flints were decent size pieces of stone about three quarters of an inch wide. I was told that the flints for the Brown Bess musket were even bigger.

The Brown Bess was generally bigger in every respect. Muskets need a longer barrel than rifles but this meant that when Rifleman was standing alongside other infantry to resist a cavalry attack there was a danger that the line of bayonets that the enemy faced would be ragged, because the weapons of the Rifles were so much shorter than the muskets of the regular infantry. The Rifleman I talked to showed how this was addressed by issuing rifles with sword bayonets, so long that they could stand alongside other infantry to make an unbroken line of steel. The sword bayonets had the additional advantage that they could also be used as swords in close combat. The length of the bayonets is clearly shown in the photo below. (I hope the sergeant had words with the man furthest from the camera or perhaps he was just preparing to attack a very short Frenchman.)

The Riflemen carried pre-cut patches – pieces of paper that were wrapped around the musket ball so that it gripped in the rifling of the barrel. At this stage rifle ammunition was issued as loose balls rather than pre-prepared cartridges and loading was a slow and laborious process. Apparently early Riflemen were sometimes issued with mallets to help them force the ramrod down the barrel. It was not surprising that the Rifleman I spoke to said that after the first couple of shots they were likely to load without patches as once the enemy was near the advantage of accuracy was not worth the reduction in rate of fire.

There was a tent in the courtyard where one lucky Rifleman could shelter from the weather. Presumably he was an officer, because British troops at this period were seldom afforded the luxury of tents. Hanging around the real fighting men, as the artillery so often do, were a couple of representatives of the Royal Horse Artillery, looking very splendid in uniforms which, confusingly, were predominantly blue – the colour of the enemy’s uniform. There were a lot of different colours of uniforms among the Allied armies and what we nowadays call blue-on-blue (though I guess then they might have been red-on-blue-with-orange-facings-because-that-won’t-confuse-anyone) casualties were not uncommon. The RHA did have very pretty uniforms though (and they don’t half look smarter than the representatives of 2019 hanging around the place).

There were a few women around too, adding a touch of glamour. I was particularly impressed with this outfit, which was a riding habit with a jacket and bonnet that made clear the lady’s admiration for the Rifles.

It was a useful reminder that the war affected every aspect of society, including fashion. The idea of clothing that showed your support for particular regiments was apparently quite common, although it’s not something that I’ve come across before. I must admit it seems more credible to me than the idea popularised by Jane Austen fans that the war was something separate from everyday life back home in England.

The  Surgeon

Paul Harding gave an interesting talk on surgery in the aftermath of Napoleon. I’ve been to a talk on this before, given by a well-regarded expert who showed off his case of surgical instruments, which was rather like the one in this (unfortunately rather blurry) picture from the National Army Museum.

Mr Harding’s approach was less refined. A few drills and saws and a bloody bandage were scattered around on his table as he explained how he would treat various wounds in those lucky enough to make it as far as the field hospital at Waterloo, some distance in the rear. He pointed out that operating on the field of battle was impractical and, probably more importantly as far as he was concerned, left surgeons open to the possibility of getting killed. There weren’t a lot of them and they had no intention of dying they could avoid it.

Mr Harding’s approach was down and dirty. Finding musket balls with a probe was all well and good, but nothing beat sticking your finger into the bullet hole. Cauterisation might create problems in the future, but applying a white hot iron to bleeding wounds provided a quick fix.

I learned some interesting things I didn’t know before. Patients were generally operated on while sitting, rather than laid on a table. They’d be sober too: rum might be offered after surgery but the last thing he wanted while operating was the struggles of a drunken man. He also explained that the idea that amputations were done very quickly is a little misleading. If you cut through skin and flesh your saw clogs up, so the surgeon prepares for the amputation by making an incision in the skin and drawing the flesh back to expose the bone at the point where the cut has to be made. This approach is illustrated very clearly in this contemporary drawing.

The cutting of the bone was, indeed, done very quickly, but the whole operation could easily take twenty minutes without anaesthesia. Most patients would fall unconscious after only a few minutes and the physiological response to the shock of surgery meant they would often survive the actual operation, but the after-effects of shock, infection (equipment was often not cleaned, let alone disinfected, between operations) and pre-existing weakness meant that Mr Harding’s best estimate for post-operative survival rates was about 9%.

We were given a quick introduction to trepanning and told how to leave a decent flap of skin to sew over the stump. (Lots of surgeons didn’t so that wooden prosthetics will be fitted straight against areas of scar tissue. You might be able to imagine the pain this would inflict, but you’ll probably be happier if you don’t.) Fascinating stuff and makes you realise just how glad you are to live in an age of anaesthetics and antibiotics.

For more about Apsley House:

I’ve written more about the house here: http://tomwilliamsauthor.co.uk/apsley-house-a-statement-in-stone/


Many thanks to all who worked on this at Apsley House and who were so patient answering my questions.

Special thanks to Marcus Cribb at Apsley House for the photo of the surgeon’s demonstration and to Claire Donovan for posing in her splendid dress.

The illustration of a leg amputation by Sir Charles Bell is in the Wellcome collection and reproduced with permission.

Burke at Waterloo 

If you would like to read a ripping yarn that climaxes at the Battle of Waterloo (and which does tell you an awful lot about what it must have been like), then I’d love you to consider Burke at Waterloo. It does tend to get slightly more sales at this time of year, and because of the way Amazon works the book gets much more visibility if you buy now rather than waiting until you go on holiday. If you enjoy reading me wittering on about the events in Belgium 200+ years ago, I’d really appreciate it if you could buy the book. Thank you.

Here’s the link: mybook.to/BurkeWaterloo

Waterloo weekend

Waterloo weekend

We’re coming up to the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo on 18 June. I’ve written a book which climaxes at Waterloo: Burke at Waterloo. It’s a lot of fun and also gives you a useful summary of the events leading up to Waterloo and the battle itself. According to the mysterious laws of promotional blogging, because I’ve written this book I now have to write about the history. The problem is that the anniversary of Waterloo comes round every year and I covered it quite thoroughly last year.

It’s impossible, though, to ignore Waterloo completely. This weekend we may well end up going to the special events at Wellington’s London home, Apsley House. For those more adventurous, there is an annual re-enactment every year at Waterloo. This year it will be next weekend (22-23 June).

Why do the British get so excited about Waterloo? I was once talking about this to a French army officer who suggested that the French really were not interested in Waterloo, but were more enthusiastic about Austerlitz. There is no doubt that nations do tend to remember the battles they won, but Wellington won a lot of battles in the Peninsula and their anniversaries pass by with hardly any commemoration at all.

Field at Waterloo from the top of the Lion’s Mound

Waterloo holds a place in British history which is completely disproportionate to its actual military importance. Bloody as it was, it was far from the bloodiest battle of the Napoleonic wars, and the British have always overstated its strategic significance. In truth, the era of Napoleon had ended the previous year with the fall of Paris and the Emperor’s exile to Elba. Waterloo was rather a sad coda to the story of French military supremacy in Europe.

Waterloo, though, was a decisive victory which could be presented as a uniquely British achievement. (It wasn’t – fewer than half of those fighting Napoleon were British). Britain had been central to the struggle against Napoleon, bankrolling the armies of other states across Europe and maintaining control of the seas. It was only at Waterloo, though, that the British Army directly engaged French forces on the main front of the war. The battle cemented Britain’s position as one of the leading powers of Europe with a decisive influence in the settlement of the continent after the Allied victory.

For 200 years following Waterloo Britain saw itself as arguably the most important military and political power in Western Europe. This was not a view that would have been shared by other countries and its effects were not always positive. For example, some commentators consider that it was victory at Waterloo that convinced the British that they did not need the sort of military reforms that were seen in, for example, Prussia. The failure of the British army to adapt to the new forms of warfare that were emerging in the 19th century was a contributing factor to the disaster of the Crimean War. Yes, we were on the winning side, but militarily the campaign did not reflect well on the British Army. British soldiers behaved heroically, but their leadership let them down time and time again, not only in well-publicised disasters like the Charge of the Light Brigade but in less high profile – though arguably more significant – failures in supply and communications.

Politically, too, the myth of British exceptionalism, of which Waterloo was a significant element, has often damaged our relationships with the rest of Europe, culminating in the rejection of continuing EU membership. For better or worse, the reverberations of Waterloo continue to resonate more than 200 years later.

We are probably right to remember Waterloo. It marked the end of an era. What historians call “the long 18th century” ended on that bloody field just south of Brussels. The world was, indeed, never quite the same again – but the changes that we were to see in the 19th century were probably inevitable anyway. The growth of industrialisation, the increase in the franchise, the rise of the middle classes, the dramatic changes brought about by improvements in transport (notably the railways) and communication (like the electric telegraph) – all these things would almost certainly have happened whoever had won at Waterloo. 18 June, 1815, though, is one of those milestones in history. The journey does not radically change as we pass a milestone, but it is the milestones that remind us where we are.

If you have the chance this weekend or next, it’s worth thinking about that milestone and how the world has changed since and, perhaps, how we want it to change in the future.

Burke at Waterloo

Of course, you could commemorate the battle by reading my book. Burke at Waterloo starts off as a straightforward spy story. Burke is in Paris to foil an attempt on the Duke of Wellington’s life. (Yes, there really were attempts on Wellington’s life.) Burke’s pursuit of the Bonapartist spy leading plot takes him to Brussels with a climax at Waterloo. Military history enthusiasts are likely to enjoy the details of the Battle of Waterloo and of the (nowadays sadly neglected) Battle of Quatre Bras two days earlier. Everybody else can just relax and enjoy the spy story.

Burke at Waterloo  is available on Kindle or in paperback. In the USA it is also distributed by Simon & Schuster.

Image at top of page is Wellington at Waterloo by Robert Hillingford

After the battle

While I was writing here about Waterloo, I had a suggestion that I wasn’t paying enough attention to the human cost of the battle. I promised I would come to this and we’ve not talked about Waterloo for a while, so this week might be a good time to come back to the battle and. more particularly, its aftermath.

Waterloo was far from the bloodiest battle of the Napoleonic wars (that dubious distinction belongs to Borodino). However, the number of dead in such a small field was horrific. An idea of what it was like can be gathered from this account by an anonymous private soldier:

In the first place, the ground, whithersoever we went, was strewed with the wreck of the battle. Arms of every kind, cuirasses, muskets, cannon, tumbrils, and drums, which seemed innumerable, cumbered the very face of the earth. Intermingled with these were the carcasses of the slain, not lying about in groups of four or six, but so wedged together that we found it impossible in many instances to avoid trampling them, where they lay, under our horses’ hoofs; then, again, the knapsacks, either cast loose or still adhering to their owners, were countless. I confess that we opened many of these, hoping to find in them money or other articles of value, but not one which I at least examined contained more than the coarse shirts and shoes that had belonged to their dead owners, with here and there a little package of tobacco and a bag of salt; and, which was worst of all, when we dismounted to institute this search, our spurs forever caught in the garments of the slain, and more than once we tripped up and fell over them. It was indeed a ghastly spectacle, which the feeble light of a young moon rendered, if possible, more hideous than it would have been if looked upon under the full glory of a meridian sun; for there is something frightful in the association of darkness with the dwelling of the dead; and here the dead lay so thick and so crowded together, that by and by it seemed to me as if we alone had survived to make mention of their destiny.[1]

Print of William Frye’s painting of Waterloo after the battle

The French had specialised sprung ambulances to transport their wounded, but in the chaos of the French defeat their wounded were abandoned on the field. As darkness began to fall, the victorious allies began to sort the living from the dead, carrying those who could not walk in whatever carts they could find.

We found on every side poor fellows dying in every variety of wretchedness, and had repeatedly to join the strictest silence that we might hear their scarcely audible groans … Before morning we collected several wagon-loads of brave fellows, friends and foes. [2]

Whilst the Allies did attempt to remove the casualties and give them medical care, the sheer scale of the exercise meant that people lay in the open for days – by which time, of course, most of them were already dead. Only after the Allied troops had been cared for did the British turn to the French. An anonymous Staff officer who was there wrote:

I have reason to believe it was not till the fourth day after the battle that the last of the French were taken up; and it is painful to think of the suffering they endured from pain, cold, and even hunger, during so many weary days and nights, – numbers of them, doubtless perished who would have survived had they been taken care of. Neither does it appear that any food was regularly supplied to them … [3]

The British had set up a field hospital at Mont St Jean in a big farmhouse that still stands today. This is an account of the site by a sergeant of the Scots Greys:

We having arrived at the farmhouse, Mont St Jean, which is situated on the road in short distance in front of the village of the same name, entered the yard, where a most shocking spectacle presented itself. This house and yard, during the time of the battle, had been occupied by some of the British and Belgic surgeons and in it many amputations had been performed. A large dunghill in the middle of the square, was covered with dead bodies and heaps of legs and arms were scattered around! A comrades who stood near me on entering unconsciously muttered “Oh God. What a sight.” To which I made no answer, but felt as he did, for a great number lay by the sides of the house and basked in the beams of the sun who had only life’s last spark remaining and gasped for relief. [4]

The farmyard at Mount Saint Jean as it is today

Here the surgeons had to deal with a range of injuries. The Scottish surgeon, Charles Bell, who was operating on French soldiers in the Gendarmerie Hospital, made detailed watercolour paintings of the sort of things treated at Waterloo.

Sabre wound to head. (Wellcome Library)             Grapeshot wound to the neck (Wellcome Library)

Most wounds were caused by gunshot and the main concern of the surgeons was to remove the ball and ensure that the wound was left clean. Usually the ball would have carried fragments of clothing into the wound and these had to be carefully removed one by one with forceps. Remember that this would have been done while the patient was fully conscious.

A major cause of death was infection. Gangrene was a particular problem. Without antibiotics the only way to treat wounds that were liable to turn gangrenous was by amputation. Arms and legs were cut off with gay abandon. There was a pile of detached limbs in the courtyard shown in the photograph above.

I observed with some warmth of national feeling, several highlanders’ legs, still wearing the emblem of their country; Auld Scotia’s tartan hoe! As also the legs of dragoons in boots and spurs and many others which still wore a part of the garment in which they had proudly paced the causeways of their native land. [5]

The secret of a successful amputation was that it should be done very fast. A sharp bone saw was crucial to a surgeon’s success rate. The photograph below shows the saw that was used to remove the leg of the Earl of Uxbridge, who had been hit by a cannon-ball while sitting on his horse alongside Wellington.

Bone saw displayed at National Army Museum

Surgeons had to work quickly so that their patients did not die of shock as they went through the amputations unanaesthetised. But there was another reason for speed as well. There were only 270 surgeons available to treat the wounded, and with tens of thousands of men requiring attention they had no time to spend on any but the most basic of procedures.

As the wounded were moved from the battlefield, so Brussels filled with makeshift hospitals. Soldiers who were less badly injured were cared for in the parks, because all the buildings were full, with contemporary accounts claiming that every private house had three or four wounded soldiers in it. [6] Modern authors estimate that around 62,000 Allied and French wounded flooded into Brussels, Antwerp, and other towns and cities of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. [7] The scale of the horror was such that a British tourist (himself an ex-Army man) wrote ten days after the battle:

You may form a guess of the slaughter and of the misery that the wounded must have suffered and of the many that must have perished from hunger and thirst, when I tell you that all the carriages from Bruxelles, even elegant private equipages, landaulets, barouches and berlines, have been put in requisition to remove the wounded men from the field of battle to the hospitals, and that they are yet far from being all brought in. [8]


  1. Quoted by Gleig in his Story of the battle of Waterloo p253
  2. Augustus Fraser: Letters of Colonel Sir Augustus Simon Frazer, K.C.B. commanding the Royal horse artillery in the army under Wellington, Written during the peninsular and Waterloo campaigns
  3. Recollections of Waterloo by a Staff Officer United Service Magazine 1847 PartIII p355
  4. Sgt William Clark, whose writings have recently been published as A Scots Grey at Waterloo edited by Gareth Glover
  5. Ibid
  6. After Waterloo – Reminiscences of European Travel 1815-1819 by W E Frye
  7. See, for example, Michael Crumplin and Gareth Glover (2018) Waterloo – after the glory
  8. Frye ibid

To be continued …

There is more about the aftermath of the battle in next week’s blog.