On Sunday we dropped in for a quick visit to Apsley House on our way to dance at the Argentine Ambassador’s Residence (as you do). Someone at English Heritage had said that we had to see the Duke’s robes, which were on display there and which had been worn at the coronation of Charles III.
I always do what I’m told, so we duly went in to gawp. Apsley House doesn’t allow photography but they have an excellent picture on their website:
The robes are interesting to me, not because they were worn by the current duke, but because they were worn by the Iron Duke at the coronation of George IV in 1821.
The robes say something about the whole ceremony of crowning the new monarch, which was true then and now. The robes worn in 1821 were not some traditional costume handed down through the centuries, but had been specially designed for the occasion. Say what you like about the Georgians, but they knew how to put on a spectacle. In this case, they decided that the robes should be designed in the style of Tudor and early Stuart dress to create an impression that these were ancient finery and that the ceremony was a continuation of a rich tradition. It was a “tradition” that the Georgians were anxious to emphasise as, in fact, their claim to the throne hung by a slender thread. (When you are next told that the king traces his ancestry back to Alfred, you might reasonably ask why his family is German.) It is a similar perceived need to appeal to ancient traditions that saw these early 19th century robes taken out of mothballs for a 2023 ceremony. In fact, we were repeatedly assured by the BBC that this ceremony was essentially unchanged in a thousand years. I wonder what people would have made of it had it been conducted in Norman French and Latin.
What did the first Duke of Wellington (a man famously thrown out of his club for wearing trousers instead of breeches) make of this fancy dress? He is on record as having said he thought it was ridiculous but seeing how the spectacle was received by the thousands of spectators he admitted that the magnificence of the display achieved the required effect.
Two hundred years later, it seems that this aspect the ceremony, at least, is following an established tradition.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 atWaterloo. 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.
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.
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 São Vicente (often referred to as 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.
Burke and the Lines of Torres Vedras
Fort São Vicente features in the latest of the Burke books. The forts were built in great secrecy and in Burke and the Lines of Torres Vedras, Burke is in Lisbon to put an end to a French spy ring that is on the verge of discovering Wellington’s plans.