BEHIND THE HEADLINES
1815: The Battle of Waterloo
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 friends.fr
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
“THE PRUSSIAN FORCES REGROUPED FOLLOWING THEIR SETBACK AT LIGNY AND SECURED VICTORY FOR THE ALLIES”
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