Went the Day Well? Witnessing Waterloo

Went the Day Well? Witnessing Waterloo by David Crane. Vintage, 2016, paper.

The Battle of Waterloo ended Napoleon’s effort to reverse his and French fortunes. In1814 he had been banished to the island of Elba off the coast of Tuscany, escaped, took command of the French army, and invaded Belgium. He was defeated by the Prussians at Ligny on 16 June 1815, fought the British at Quatre Bras, and was soundly defeated the next day by the combined armies of Prussia and Britain, near a village called Waterloo. David Crane’s book is a group portrait of the English on the day of battle.

Crane is critical of Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, and field marshal of the British army. Britain had always relied more heavily on her navy. But Wellington’s army had performed well during the Peninsular War in Spain. Perhaps it can be said that Wellington lucked out; Waterloo brightened a generally lackluster military career.

Crane presents the army officer, George Keppel, as exemplary of the British nobility ­- an entrenched, privileged caste. Keppel cared nothing about his opportunity to acquire an education, preferring instead the London of prize-fighting and bull-bating. His father, 4th Earl of Albemarle, decided that a commission in the army might straighten out his sixteen-year-old son.

Some of the nobility acknowledged the obligations of their caste; Keppel did not. He landed in Brussels in command of an undistinguished unit of commoners, best his father could arrange for a second son. In no way prepared for leadership in a field of battle, Keppel survived. Many under his command did not.

William DeLancey did not survive Waterloo. He was a respected young officer, under Wellington as well. He had just married and the couple had spent a night or two together in Brussels, before he left for the front. She, like many female family members of the privileged class, had rented a room in the city to await news of the battle and the fate of her husband. They came: a report that he had been wounded but still alive, another that he was dead, was badly wounded and sheltered in a cottage near the field of battle. There was little care for the wounded, so she made her way to his side. They spent the last few hours of his life together.

Frederick Ponsonby was wounded at Waterloo as well. He was also the second son of a titled Englishman. Armed with only a long spear or lance his company of Light Dragoons had battled French cavalry. Ponsonby was wounded in the encounter and left on the field with the dead and dying. He spent eighteen hours there before being rescued.

Lying wounded, he had had a series of “visitors.” The first was a lone French soldier, a straggler, who stabbed Ponsonby in the back. Next a French infantry man looking for loot. Then a French officer came by, friendly but unable to come to Ponsonby’s assistance because the battle was still raging. He did offer Ponsonby a swig of his brandy. He conveyed the news – false – that the Duke of Wellington was dead and Allied battalions surrendering. Next a French infantryman used his body as a shield, chattering gaily while he fired away. Finally a gang of murderous Belgian looters came by. He survived.

Many of the stories are not about participants at Waterloo, but ordinary English folk on the “home front.” A young servant girl, Eliza Fenning, was on death row. She had insisted on baking some dumplings for her mistress, according to her mistress. It turned out that they were poisoned with arsenic. Spats between servants and mistresses were common, and this appeared to the prosecution to be the outcome of one of them. The English press, however, had doubts about Eliza’s guilt and stirred up a public controversy. All of England witnessed her trial through the newspapers. Eliza was hanged on the Friday before Waterloo. Life went on, notwithstanding events in Belgium.

In 1815 communications across Britain were limited mostly to newspapers. No wire service then, most of the news from Waterloo would be distributed in the usual way, by coach-and-fours setting out from Lombard Street, London. On this occasion, delivering the victory at Waterloo, coaches and drivers were bedecked with flowers and ribbons. On to Lincoln, Winchester, Portsmouth, Gloucester, Oxford, Bristol, Manchester, York, Newcastle, Edinburg, Perth, and Glasgow. Criers on the mail coaches proclaimed news of the great victory.

David Crane reminds us that despite the glorious defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, the ordinary Englishman saw no real improvement in his or her lives. At this juncture, crofters were being forced off their enclosed parcels of tillable land to create sheep ranges. The great landed barons, claiming outright ownership, were responding to the growing demand for wool for the mills in many of those towns through which the mail coaches passed. Many of the young men who ‘witnessed Waterloo’ would find employment in the mills, with their long hours and dangerous working conditions.

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