1815: The Bat­tle of Water­loo

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News of Napoleon’s ap­proach to Brus­sels came to Welling­ton while he was at the Duchess of Rich­mond’s ball on Thurs­day 15 June. Welling­ton, com­man­der of the Al­lied forces, was shocked at the speed of his en­emy’s ad­vance. “Have you a good map?” he asked the Duke of Rich­mond who was in charge of the de­fence of Brus­sels. He took Welling­ton to his dress­ing room and they pored over the map. “Napoleon has hum­bugged me, by God, he has gained twenty-four hours march on me,” said Welling­ton.

The fol­low­ing events were re­ported in breath­less terms by cor­re­spon­dents who raced to Os­tend to send their dis­patches across the chan­nel to be car­ried to the Lon­don news­pa­per of­fices from Dover. The Morn­ing

Chron­i­cle re­ported ‘Hos­til­i­ties Be­gan Yes­ter­day’ but there fol­lowed a cer­tain amount of jour­nal­is­tic pen­cil-suck­ing, “a heavy fir­ing was heard dur­ing the whole of Satur­day, the re­sult of which was not known”. Three days af­ter the Bat­tle of Water­loo, the Chron­i­cle was still re­port­ing “we are yet in­deed in the dark as to the real char­ac­ter of the com­bat which has taken place”.

This was an anx­ious time for your an­ces­tors at home, not least for rel­a­tives of those in the army of 70,000 that Welling­ton com­manded. Their dis­tress was com­pounded by the early re­ports of clashes and ma­noeu­vres that al­ways seemed to show that the French had the up­per hand.

Welling­ton had his army hold a

cross­roads, Quatre Bras, in or­der to have com­mand of the main routes. Napoleon at­tacked here on Fri­day 16 June, and sent the Bri­tish into re­treat. At the same time, Napoleon’s forces suc­cess­fully drove back the Prus­sians at the Bat­tle of Ligny, thus split­ting the Bri­tish from their al­lies. Welling­ton with­drew the army to a spot on the road to Brus­sels near the vil­lage of Water­loo, tak­ing up de­fen­sive po­si­tions. With this pre­lude, it is easy to un­der­stand how early re­ports en­ter­ing Bri­tain were of de­feat and sent govern­ment stock prices fall­ing.

The French at­tacked mid-morn­ing on Sun­day 18 June; the bat­tle con­tin­ued all day with ter­ri­ble losses. Even hard­ened war­riors were ap­palled at the car­nage in the blind­ing smoke and chok­ing fumes. By the evening the day did not look good for the Bri­tish. How­ever, the Prus­sian forces had re­grouped fol­low­ing their set­back at Ligny, and now joined the bat­tle and se­cured a vic­tory for the Al­lies. It was “a damned nice thing – the near­est run thing you ever saw in your life” ac­cord­ing to Welling­ton.

The Morn­ing Chron­i­cle, which was the first news­pa­per to re­port the vic­tory, was typ­i­cal of an im­por­tant sec­tion of na­tional opin­ion inn its dis­dain for thhe war. In the leead up to thhe con­flict, ed­i­to­ri­als were ask­ing if it wasw worth spend­ing so much to de­cidee who should rule France. How­eveer, once the war had started pa­tri­o­tism came to the fore and the pa­per com­mented, “we must hope for the suc­cess of our gal­lant coun­try­men”.

The Morn­ing Chron­i­cle was Lon­don’s lead­ing daily, fea­tur­ing par­lia­men­tary rep ports, lit­er­ary and the­atri­cal re­view ws, for­eign news, crime re­ports s and ship­ping news. There was a cir­cu­la­tion of 7,000 but a far larger rea ader­ship, as dis­carded copies were used for wrap­ping prod­ucts and pages were rea ad by oth­ers, in­clud­ing ar­ti­sans who mig ght be read­ing scraps of news to il­lit­er­ate

Con­fus­ing the is­sue

The con­fu­sion of the in­form ma­tion com­ing in about Water­loo led to bizarre sto­ries. Banker Nathan Meyer Roth­schild was said to have known the out­come so early as he’d watched the Bat­tle of Water­loo from a hill. As soon as he knew the re­sult, he be­gan to ma­nip­u­late the stock mar­kets. An­other story was that he was in Lon­don and re­ceived the mes­sage by car­rier pi­geon. The truth was more pro­saic: he had re­ceived the in­for­ma­tion by courier just like ev­ery­one else, but had smarter couri­ers and had hired a faster boat.

Roth­schild came to dom­i­nate Euro­pean bank­ing af­ter the Napoleonic Wars be­cause of the ser­vice he had per­formed for the Bri­tish govern­ment. He had been com­mis­sioned to buy bul­lion in se­crecy across Europe so the Bri­tish army cou uld be paid in coin. His suc­cess in thi is op­er­a­tion con­firmed the Roth­schild ffam­ily as in­ter­na­tional oper­a­tors. They be­came a vi­tal link be­tween Bri­tain and Europe in the trans­fer off goods and funds which was so vit tal to a na­tion that was rapidly in­dus­tri­al­is­ing. It helped in this de­vel­op­mentd of mod­ern bank­ing g that Bri­tain was markedly more sym­pa­thetic to Jews than other Euro­pean na­tions; Nathan Meyer Roth­schild had been nat­u­ralis sed as a Bri­tish sub­ject in 1809. There were ‘dis­abil­i­ties’ against t Jews in Bri­tain: no­tably they wwere for­bid­den any of­fice unde er the Crown, any part in civic govern­ment or the ad­min­is­tra­tion of jus­tice.

Th­ese were no more than the dis­crimin na­tion suf­fered by Catholics and non­con­formists, how­ever, which se­cured the dom­i­nanced of the Angli­canA Church.

Re­li­gion in so­ci­ety

Re­li­gion was im­por­tant to your an­ces­tors liv­ing at this time, but that does not mean they were likely to have been very religious. Re­li­gion was an in­di­ca­tor of a per­son’s re­la­tion­ship to power, to pub­lic


of­fice and in­flu­ence. There were 18 mil­lion peo­ple in Eng­land, Scot­land, Wales and Ire­land but only three per cent, just over half a mil­lion, were Easter Day com­mu­ni­cants in the Church of Eng­land. Religious be­liefs were to be­come much more im­por­tant as the 19th cen­tury wore on.

Open­ing lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tion

Com­mu­ni­ca­tion was mainly by let­ter but it could be un­cer­tain, par­tic­u­larly when send­ing mes­sages to other coun­tries dur­ing wartime. Let­ters were fre­quently en­trusted to trav­ellers known to be head­ing in the gen­eral di­rec­tion of the re­cip­i­ent. They were writ­ten on folded sheets of pa­per; postage was charged to the re­cip­i­ent by the page so peo­ple wrote ad­dresses on the out­side of the sheet rather than on a sep­a­rate en­ve­lope. The pa­pers were sealed with hot wax so it was ob­vi­ous if any tam­per­ing had taken place. The postage sys­tem was so un­re­li­able that cor­re­spon­dents of­ten num­bered their let­ters so that their re­cip­i­ents knew if one went miss­ing.

Postage was to be­come more re­li­able in the near fu­ture as this year the first pad­dle steamer, the Thames, car­ry­ing pas­sen­gers, cargo and let­ters, re­duced the trav­el­ling time be­tween Dublin and Lon­don. Steam power was go­ing to trans­form trans­port. The end of the war caused eco­nomic de­pres­sion in Bri­tain as the de­mand for mil­i­tary sup­plies ceased, prices fell and hun­dreds of thou­sands of de­mo­bilised troops be­came an un­em­ploy­ment prob­lem.

Re­stric­tion on im­ports

All this year there was un­rest over the hated Corn Law. This, prop­erly called the Im­por­ta­tion Act, re­stricted the im­ports of all grain; ‘corn’ was a gen­eral term for wheat and other grain. It meant cheap grain from abroad could not be brought in to feed the poor, they had to pay the high prices of Bri­tish landown­ers. This en­sured the prof­its of the rich but en­raged the poor. Im­por­tantly, for the bal­ance of power in Bri­tain, the law also an­gered the ris­ing middle class fac­tory own­ers as high bread prices meant that they had to pay high wages in their fac­to­ries, or peo­ple could not af­ford to work there.

Tak­ing to the streets

Just five per cent of peo­ple had a vote so when their rulers be­haved un­ac­cept­ably, with no le­git­i­mate means of ex­pres­sion, the only re­course was the ‘tra­di­tion of riot’. Mobs marched to the homes of govern­ment min­is­ters to protest. They at­tacked the Lord Chan­cel­lor Lord El­don, who had to be res­cued by troops with his fam­ily; Lord Palmer­ston the War Min­is­ter or­dered his ser­vants to ‘pep­per the faces of the mob’ with shot; and the spon­sor of the bill in the House of Com­mons, Fred­er­ick Robin­son, was be­sieged in his home and his but­ler and sol­diers who were there to guard him opened fire, killing sev­eral. The Corn Law saw out the protests of this year, how­ever, it would take 30 years of cam­paign­ing be­fore it was re­scinded.

The great love of Nelson

This year, Emma Hamil­ton died in Calais. She had been the great love of the na­tional hero Nelson, who had died at the Bat­tle of Trafal­gar in 1805. Emma was born in Cheshire, the daugh­ter of a black­smith. She went to Lon­don where her beauty and nat­u­ral grace meant that she was able to find work as a model. She be­came the lover and then the wife of Sir Wil­liam Hamil­ton who was the Bri­tish en­voy in Naples, where she met and fell in love with Nelson. Their love af­fair con­tin­ued dur­ing the Napoleonic Wars.

Af­ter his death, Nelson’s wishes that she should be pro­vided for by the na­tion were not ful­filled and she de­clined into penury, run­ning to France to es­cape her cred­i­tors where she died, im­pov­er­ished and al­co­holic, at the age of 49.

Bri­tish sol­dier Sergeant Charles Ewart ( shown cen­tre) of the Scots Greys cap­tures the reg­i­men­tal ea­gle of the 45e Rég­i­ment

de Ligne at the Bat­tle of Water­loo

Napoleon’s re­treat from the Bat­tle of Water­loo Lt Col Sir Charles Philip Belson com­mands the 28th Reg­i­ment of Foot to de­fend against the

French Lancers at the Bat­tle of Quatre Bras

Banker Nathan Meyer Roth­schild

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