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.

Quatre Bras

Quatre Bras

While Napoleon was chasing off the Prussians (see last week’s blog post) he had left the bulk of his force heading directly for Brussels under the command of Marshal Ney. Ney was ordered to head for a hamlet called Quatre Bras. He should sweep up any Prussian rearguard on his route and prepare to be joined by Napoleon for a triumphant entry into Brussels.

Ney was a courageous general, fiercely loyal to Napoleon, but he was no great military strategist. He moved northward in “a leisurely fashion” (Marshall-Cornwall). On 16 June, as Napoleon engaged the Prussians at Ligny, Ney ordered his leading commander to dislodge the enemy holding the crossroads at Quatre Bras.

In England, a tiny hamlet like Quatre Bras would probably be called Four Ways. It was a few houses and some farms clustered around a crossroad on the main route north from Charleroi to Brussels.

Wellington had not expected Napoleon to move into Belgium through Charleroi and only a small force was positioned on that road. Unfortunately for Ney, Wellington had reacted quickly to news of the attack on Charleroi and the leisurely advance of the French meant that by the time they arrived at Quatre Bras some reinforcements were already in place there.

Quatre Bras was held by about 7,000 men and eight guns. They were Dutch-Belgian troops under the command of William, Prince of Orange. William was far too young and inexperienced to be in command of anything important, but Wellington had not realised until too late where Napoleon’s main thrust would be made. British troops were on the way from Brussels, but until they arrived William was to face the French – 20,000 men and 60 guns – on his own. More than 20,000 Frenchmen were marching north to join them. There was, it seemed, no realistic prospect of Prince William’s troops holding the position. Indeed, by 2:30 the French were close to taking the crossroads. Prince William’s forces had increased to sixteen guns and 8,000 men, but this was all that stood between Marshall Ney and Brussels.

Nobody knows why Ney hesitated. It seems likely that Napoleon’s orders had been unclear and that Ney was reluctant to commit himself without definite instructions. His reserve had already been ordered away from Quatre Bras to support Napoleon at Ligny (nobody thought to tell Ney) and he was finding the Dutch-Belgian resistance greater than he had expected. Napoleon’s orders weren’t helping – in the midst of the battle Ney received an order from Marshal Soult at Ligny:

“His Majesty intends that you should attack whatever is in front of you and, after driving it back vigorously, that you should move to our support and help to envelop the enemy.”

It was the first of a series of command blunders that suggest that Napoleon was no longer the brilliant general in complete command of his forces, as he had been before Elba. Some of his most solid and dependable marshals were no longer available to him and Ney was simply not a good enough general to cope on his own in the absence of clear instructions. He hesitated, and Wellington took advantage of Ney’s uncertainty, taking personal command of the Allied troops and moving more and more forces from Brussels to reinforce his position at Quatre Bras.

Brunswickers at Quatre Bras by Richard Knotel

Throughout the afternoon both sides moved more troops into the fight. On several occasions, it seemed that the Allied positions must be overrun, but, every time, reinforcements arrived at the critical moment. The fighting was intense. Much of it was in fields of rye which grew up to eight feet high. The infantry could not see each other. (It’s quite possible that if Prince William had been able to see how many French he faced at the beginning of the fight, he would have withdrawn.) There was extensive use of skirmishers and the cavalry often advanced in very loose order, unable to group for a classical charge because of the amount of woodland at key points around the battlefield. The result was a very fluid fight, much of it very close quarters. At one point, the Duke of Wellington himself was almost captured, riding a little too far ahead of his line. He famously escaped by fleeing at a gallop toward his own troops and ordering them to lie flat as his horse jumped across the British soldiers who then rose to their feet and drove off the French cavalry that had been pursuing their general.

Black Watch at Quatre Bras by William Barnes Wollen

At the end of the day, both armies were in a similar position to where they had been when the engagement had started. To the east, though, Napoleon’s troops had been successfully driving back the Prussians at Ligny. Wellington feared that, as the Prussians withdrew, Napoleon would be able to do exactly what he had planned: defeat the British the next day at Quatre Bras and then turn his army against the isolated Prussians. Wellington therefore took the decision to withdraw back toward Brussels, in the hope that he would be able to form a common front with the Prussian army further north. We now know that that was exactly what happened. The Prussians were able to join up with Wellington’s forces at Waterloo, and it was their arrival which finally produced an Allied victory. At the time, though, Wellington was taking an enormous gamble. With no proper communications with the Prussian army, he could not be sure that they would not just retreat for home.

For the French, Quatre Bras was a victory. The day after the battle, the British were withdrawing northward, and the French were in pursuit. The British, though, have always considered Quatre Bras as an Allied victory. An overwhelming French force was held at bay for a full day, with the British making an orderly withdrawal to a previously planned position in order to meet up with the Prussians at a strategically optimal point.

In fairness, Quatre Bras is best regarded as a score draw. The French were not defeated, but they were delayed. The British were able to withdraw in good order and prepare themselves at Waterloo for the battle that would take place there two days later. What is clear is that if Ney had smashed through Prince William’s lines at the point when he had overwhelming superiority, the French troops would have been on Brussels before the British could position themselves to mount an effective defence. It is quite probable that Napoleon would have ended by defeating the British. The Prussians, already beaten at Ligny would have withdrawn to Prussia, leaving Napoleon in control of Belgium. Many of the Belgian army would have rejoined the Eagles.

Could victory at Quatre Bras have saved Napoleon? In the long-term, probably not, but he would have seen off the British and Prussian Armies and been in a much stronger position to negotiate some sort of settlement with the great powers. It is possible that the young Prince William, inexperienced and totally out of his depth – and maybe only trying to hold the position because he lacked the strategic understanding that it should have been impossible to do so – changed the course of European history. It is also clearly true that the British victory at Waterloo was made possible because of the outstanding courage of the Dutch and Belgian troops who were later to be dismissed as “Waterloo cowards”.


General Sir James Marshall-Cornwall (1967) Napoleon as Military Commander

Picture at head of page is ‘The 28th Regiment at Quatre Bras’ by Elizabeth Thompson

A Word from our Sponsor

The battle of Quatre Bras features in Burke at Waterloo. (“A good general account of the battles described.” – Amazon review.) Burke at Waterloo has just been republished and is available on Kindle at a ludicrously cheap £3.99.