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
The Lines of Torres Vedras: Fort San Vicente

The Lines of Torres Vedras: Fort San Vicente

After exploring the Great Redoubt and a quick walk around Torres Vedras castle in the evening, we set off the next day to see Fort San Vicente. This fort was the strongest of all the forts of the Lines and has been heavily, but sympathetically, restored with stonework secured by concrete. A small museum has been built in the hermitage that stood on the site before the fort was constructed and which remained while it was a military fortification (though without a hermit).

Fort San Vicente is made up of three separate redoubts connected to form a single fort. You can see the three redoubts and the large central area in this aerial photo.

The place is huge. Besides the hermitage it contains three windmills used, yet again, as munitions stores. There was also another semaphore in the chain that ran the whole length of the lines.

Two of the (restored) windmills that were used as ammunition bunkers

There was no way that I could capture the size of the place in a single photograph, so I videoed it as I walked around. The video runs 13 minutes! If you’d like to watch it, it’s here.

It’s not a professional production. There’s a lot of wind noise and the focus slips at one point (don’t worry, it comes back) but you do get to see the whole fort, together with my commentary for what it’s worth. If you’re interested in this sort of thing, it’s probably worth looking at.

Fort San Vicente positively bristled with artillery. This is just part of one of the redoubts.

The semaphore mast was in the same redoubt.

The British used a ball semaphore, adapted from the one used by the Navy. They had seamen in the forts to operate them until, in a move that seems very 21st century, the Navy withdrew its men on the grounds that Wellington refused to pay for them from Army funds. They were then replaced with Portuguese veterans from the Corpo Telegraphico, who were trained to operate the British system.

The horizontal arms on the mast standing there today are not really long enough. When this was rigged up and working the arm would have stretched out as far as the five posts at the bottom. Ropes would have run from the arm to each of the five posts and balls mounted on these ropes would have carried the message. A model in the museum at the fort shows how it would have been set up.

The shorter arms on the modern reproduction are probably wise. There were problems with the original masts which could not bear the weight of the arms and which had to be replaced.

The system allows the masts to transmit one number at a time from one to 999. Each number corresponded to a word in a codebook enabling vital military messages to be transmitted very quickly. Anybody could see the signals but without the codebook they were meaningless.

Restoration in this fort means that the firestep is clearly visible. Here Tammy (probably not that much shorter than a typical infantryman of the time) demonstrates its use. There are no gun emplacements on this stretch of wall as it faces into the rest of the fort. If troops are fighting here, the enemy has already breached the centre of the fort and will be at very close range.

The presence of the firestep and the gated entrance (part of which you can see in the foreground) reflects the fact that each of the redoubts was viewed as a separate fortification with its own garrison. In total there were 2,200 troops – mainly Portuguese – garrisoning the three redoubts. Note that there was no barracks accommodation here. Most of the men probably slept on the ground with only their greatcoats for protection from the weather.

As at the Great Redoubt there were other, smaller, forts that protected the flanks of Fort San Vicente. We visited one nearby, Olheiros Fort. This was a pretty basic affair with a garrison of only 180 men. Again, it was built around a windmill, but here it was simply a more or less rectangular shape with a mere seven cannon. The stone faced ditch, though restored, seems to have held up pretty well. Its main claim to fame is that it is the most northerly of the Torres Vedras forts.

That’s all we had time for for the Lines of Torres Vedras. If you’d like to see more, do have a look at the video where I talk about some of the details as well.

When we left Olheiros Fort we headed for Lisbon, which I will be writing about later. Next week, though, as a break from the Peninsular War we’ll have a guest post from Penny Hampson who will be writing about Regency fiction, comparing more modern authors with the mother of them all: Jane Austen.

Acknowledgements and further reading

I’d like to thank Robert Pocock of Campaigns and Culture for his help in planning the trip.

The photograph of the model of the semaphore in use was taken by Roundtheworld and is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International.

The aerial photograph of the fort is from Google Maps.

If you want to read more about the Lines of Torres Vedras, you could try Ian Fletcher’s book, The Lines of Torres Vedras 1809 – 1811.

The Lines of Torres Vedras – the Great Redoubt

Although the original idea of our trip to Spain and Portugal was to see Talavera I was most excited about the idea of seeing Wellington’s Lines of Torres Vedras.

When Wellington took command of the British forces in Portugal in 1809 he was very aware that this was Britain’s only field army facing Napoleon’s troops. At the beginning of that year the army, then under the command of Sir John Moore, had been driven to retreat by the French. The retreat to Corunna was a disaster for the British who came close to losing their army. Thanks to victory in the battle of Corunna, Moore was able to evacuate his troops by sea, but it was a close-run thing. Wellington was determined that if he found himself retreating from superior French forces he would have a secure base that he could withdraw on.

Wellington decided that if his forces had to be evacuated, they would be evacuated from the banks of the Tagus. Lisbon, the landing point for British troops, would also be the base to which he could withdraw.

Portugal then (as now) had a small population. Wellington reckoned that the temporary loss of Portuguese territory was not a strategic problem provided that the army was preserved. In fact, he realised that letting the French occupy most of Portugal could provide a significant strategic advantage to the British. Wellington planned a scorched earth policy which would leave the French army, which famously lived off the land, without food or shelter in the Portuguese countryside while the civilian population and the Anglo Portuguese army sheltered safely in Lisbon.

The French could deploy more troops on the Peninsula that the British, so Wellington knew that he was vulnerable if he found himself defending Lisbon in a conventional siege. He therefore planned a series of defensive works that he was confident the French would be unable to breach. These defensive works became known as the Lines of Torres Vedras, named after the town of Torres Vedras which lay at the centre of the lines.

The key to Wellington’s defensive strategy was that Lisbon is built on a peninsula.

The British controlled the sea and hence also the estuary of the Tagus. The French would therefore have to attack from the North.

Wellington’s plan was to build a line of forts on the mountainous countryside around Torres Vedras. The line ran from the Atlantic to the Tagus. Gunboats on the Tagus could deny the French access to the flat land near the river so they were unable to bypass the defensive line.

The line was not a continuous wall, like the Maginot Line. Instead it relied on a series of forts (technically redoubts), which enabled Wellington to lay down heavy artillery fire on the limited number of passes over the mountains. Most of the forts were small and would not have held for long against a determined attack, but each fort was supported by other forts on either side. Behind the lines Wellington built roads which enabled him to move reinforcements rapidly to any area where the French forces posed an immediate threat. Eventually (by 1812) there were 152 redoubts in the lines.

It was a stupendous feat of military engineering and I really wanted to see it.

The hills in the distance are part of the natural defences

While we had struggled to find Peninsular War sites in Spain, the Portuguese see the lines of Torres Vedras both as a source of national pride and a valuable way of drawing in tourists, so the route was well signposted, though after several miles of steadily steeper and narrower roads my long-suffering wife did wonder if we were lost. No, I assured her, the forts would be at the very top of the hills. And there, indeed, was the first of the redoubts that we found: the Forte Novo or New Fort.

It was one of the smaller forts. Like many of them it was built around a windmill that served as an ammunition bunker for the powder that would supply the five cannon that were placed there. After 200 years it was in impressively good condition. Like all the forts, it was defended by a ditch a two earth ramparts. This was one of the ports where the earth was faced with stone. Although this fort seems not to have had much (if anything) in the way of restoration work, the ditch and the earthworks inside are still impressive.


Looking down from the fort, you can see how the natural lie of the land made it an easily defensible position because of the slope that an attacker would have to climb up, while its situation enabled it to control the road below. This was one of the later redoubts. Some of the earlier ones were situated on such steep elevations that their cannon were virtually useless because they could not be depressed enough for them not to overshoot the path at the bottom of the hill.

Forte Novo was one of the smaller redoubts that provided flank protection to one of the biggest redoubts, the Great Redoubt at Sobral. When Wellington was stationed at his headquarters at Pero Negro he would ride to the Great Redoubt every morning as its location gave him an excellent view of any approaching enemy.

This is the military road that he used.

The Great Redoubt was, as its name suggests, large. It had 27 cannon and was garrisoned by 1,590 men. The photo below shows only a section of the fort with the remains of the Governor’s House clearly visible. The works on the right of the picture are an ammunition store as are those you can just see on the left.

The picture was taken from the site of the semaphore mast. The Grand Redoubt was part of the chain of semaphore masts which allowed messages to be sent from one end of the lines to the other, making it an especially useful point from which Wellington could make his plans for facing the French, had the French turned up.

As my son is an Ammunition Technical Officer with the British Army I was particularly interested in the munitions stores. There were several different designs. Not all were underground (I’ve already mentioned that windmills were often converted for this purpose) but the ones at the Grand Redoubt seem to have been. This one had a dog’s leg entrance, protecting against a direct hit passing in through the door.

This has similar precautions at the entrance but the design is otherwise quite different. It takes advantage of the fall in the ground to make something a lot deeper. It’s typical of the way these forts were designed that each one is different, reflecting the topography of the area where it is built.

This storage bunker it is particularly interesting because you can see how the stonework allowed for a wooden floor to be fitted so that powder was not damaged by damp rising from the ground.

There were half a dozen smaller forts around the Great Redoubt. We just had time to visit one more: Simplicio Fort. This had just six cannon and a garrison of 300 men. It’s an interesting contrast with the Great Redoubt because while there has been some conservation work at the Great Redoubt (noticeably stabilising the stone facings with concrete), Simplicio Fort seems to have been left pretty much alone, yet it the basic structure is still clear.

The ditch here does not appear to have been stone-faced. The stonework is the remains of another ammunition store.

As you can see from the shadows, we had spent hours exploring the Great Redoubt and the area around it. It was time to brave the mountain roads again and press on. The next day we were going to visit the biggest of the fortifications, Fort San Vicente, just above Torres Vedras which gave the lines their name. That’s a story for next week’s blog.

Thank you

Thanks to Robert Pocock of Campaigns and Culture for planning our trip for us. Campaigns and Culture organises tours of European battle sites and more. Robert is now busy planning future tours to the Peninsula with the possibility of bespoke tours before that if you want to hire his services privately. You can find details of his business at www.campaignsandculture.com.

Robert is a well-regarded expert on the Napoleonic Wars with a wider interest in military history that means he can provide significant insight into battlefields from Ramilies to Dunkirk. If you are interested in a trip like ours and don’t want to take your chances driving on some of the ‘interesting’ roads we found ourselves travelling on, I do recommend that you get in touch with Robert.