Today marks the 200th anniversary of Waterloo, the great battle that sealed both the fate of Napoleon, and the fate of 19th-century Europe. For this very special occasion, I have decided to share a very special find with you. As opposed to my usual posts, it has little to do with historical fashion, or sewing.
Yet I made this discovery while I was still in Vienna, researching fashion plates at the Modemuseum’s library. While I was leafing through an 1816 issue of Ackermann’s Repository, looking for the fashions of the season. But suddenly, a heading caught my attention. It read: “Some Particulars Of The Battle Of Waterloo”. As I am also an avid reader of historical fiction, and particularly love the Sharpe novels, I was really intrigued. So I turned back a few pages and started reading.
What I had found was a letter, recounting the events of Waterloo that had occurred between the 18th and 19th of June, 1815. The letter was signed by a “C.W., Colour-serjeant, 3rd battalion, 1st Foot Guards”. Of course, I started wondering who he might have been and just how genuine his letter really was. So I researched a bit and found out a few amazing facts about the author that lead off the paper, and into real life. I want to share them with you in the following section, accompanied by some historical annotations to the letter.
C. W. – One of Waterloo’s heroes
To find out more about the man behind the letter, I went by searching for members of the Grenadier Guards who had served in 3rd Battalion during the Battle of Waterloo. The search did not return a lot of useful information. So I clicked on the image results, hoping to at least find you a drawing of the 1st Foot Guards in action. Instead, I stumbled upon this:
It shows Charles Wood, who is waving a bloodied officer’s coat to cheer on his men into the charge. This exact event is retold in the letter, so I have little doubt to have found its author. According to a foot note, Colour Sergeant Wood resorted to this unusual measure in a charge of Napoleon’s 105th Imperial Guards. The coat belonged to one of the battalion’s junior officers, Ensign Purdo, who had been killed in an earlier attack. Wood retells the story like this:
“It was at this juncture that I picked up Ensign Purdo’s coat, which was covered with his blood, lying on a horse. […] I stepped about twenty-five paces before the line and waved the coat, cheering the men, and telling them, that while our officers bled we should not reckon our lives dear.” -p. 99
The retelling of this act of bravery, stepping out of line in the middle of a charge to boast the battalion’s confidence, and the reprinting of his tale in a period journal, marks Charles Wood as one of the, small, but very notable heroes of the battlefield at Waterloo. But, to be honest, every soldier who fought in the battle, on this day two centuries ago, can be called a hero in its own right. Wood’s story is but one of many, yet it is well worth a read.
To read about it yourself, you can access a scan of the original journal and the letter here, in the Google Books reader. In the following, I will review and annotate a few passages and facts of the letter. Hopefully, the commentary will provide you with a few insights that will improve your reading experience.
A word of warning – Losses and bloodshed
When reading about historic battles, it is important to recall that the warfare back then, with the opposing factions’ troops clashing face-to-face on a battlefield, holds a special quality of brutality. And, while most of the Regency-era writings and romantic novels we usually read care about the reader’s sensibilities, the letter at hand could not care less. Since it is written from the viewpoint of a soldier, it does not forgo retelling the carnage in rather explicit detail; at least for period standards. The number of losses Wood gives for his company alone speaks for itself. It amounts to almost two third of the men:
“I lost of my company, killed and wounded, three officers, three serjeants, and 54 rank and file out of 97.” -p. 100
But the depiction of the battle itself is no less graphic. Among others, this account is given:
“Towards the evening, Bonaparte directed against us his choice 105th regiment ; and in half an hour we cut them all to pieces, and took one stand of colours.” -p. 99
The colours he mentions here refer to one of the most important captures Wellington’s troops made at Waterloo: One of two French regimental standards, complete with their pole and Napoleonic eagle. Both of them can still be viewed at the National Army Museum in London today.
Friends and enemies – The Coalition and the French
What is further to add, is that, of course Napoleon’s and the Duke of Wellington were not the only ones who had brought their soldiers to fight at Waterloo. While Napoleon fought with soldiers drafted from all over his empire, Wellington’s forces consisted of coalition troops. Alongside the British soldiers fought men from the Kingdoms of the Netherlands and Hanover, as well as from the smaller duchies of Brunswick and Nassau. And, as many of you will know, the Prussians also made their contribution to the battle: It consisted of military leaders, such as Generalfeldmarschall von Blücher and 6000 foot soldiers and cavalrymen of the King’s German Legion (K.G.L.), about 1200 of which also fought alongside the 1st Foot Guards.
Another issue that becomes clear from Wood’s letter is that Napoleon and the French were well-hated among Wellington’s soldiers. Very early on, we read about the “Tyrant of the World” (p. 97). At first glance, this statement seems general, but I doubt that it really is and much rather refers to Napoleon himself. Further onwards, Wood also describes the vile behavior of the French towards their prisoners of war:
“The French behaved very ill to our prisoners on the 16th; […] (These were not the old soldiers we used to fight with.)” -p. 101
On recounting the Coalition’s march into Paris, and Napoleon’s defeat, the author shows no less contempt:
“But in his presumptuous thought he falls ; his strength and glory depart ; he sues at the feet of our sovereign for mercy, and proves himself to be no more a monarch, but a captive thrall.” -p. 103
Underpayment and Methodism – A social critique
When Wood does not retell the events of Waterloo, he talks about contemporary social events and issues that touch his personal life. One of them is that the author is an outspoken follower of Methodism. On the one hand, it becomes apparent through his many mentions of God and his faith. On the other, he openly positions himself against some anti-Methodist claims made by a Mr. Griffiths, with whom he would like to have a word. In English society at the time, Methodist teachings and beliefs were not greeted with open arms. Its founder, John Wesley, had died in 1791, only 24 years before Waterloo and Methodism was still a very young faith. Seeing that Wood can now openly talk about his religious views, and even voice a little criticism, is in fact a great improvement. Only a few years earlier, Methodists had been subject to public persecution and many other injustices.
Another notable figure the author mentions is Sir Francis Burdett. Burdett was a reformist politician who openly denounced the corporal punishment practices in the British Army. At this time, soldiers were still flogged in front of their mates for a whole series of transgressions. Amongst them was also the crime of cowardice, or desertion. Wood cannot understand Burdett’s opposition to the practice of flogging these men:
“For instance, if any part of the line had not stood firm, […], but had left the field and gone to Brussels, Sir F. I suppose, would not have these men flogged !” -p.103
But then again, Wood approves of Burdett’s suggestion to have the men hanged instead, since it is by far the more merciful punishment, compared to days of pain and deathly fever after a flogging.
The author also used his commentary on Burdett’s ideas to complain about the lack of compensation the soldiers were to receive after fighting at Waterloo. All of them had risked, or given, their lives for king and country, yet nobody considered to reward their dedication with a small extra pension. Of all the men, this financial neglect hit the invalids the hardest: After being discharged from service, they were usually left to fend for themselves. And not few of them ended as homeless beggars in the streets. Wood disguises his criticism of this fact as follows:
“Had the hon. baronet moved, that the House should have taken into consideration the valuable services the troops had rendered their country at Waterloo, and the addition of a small pension […], Sir Francis would have been a friend…” -p. 103
This concludes my thoughts about the colour sergeant’s letter. It has been one of the most astonishing chance finds I have ever made. And I hope that my closing remarks have not left you with a bitter aftertaste about the Battle of Waterloo. Since, despite the harsh conditions the combatants faced in 1815, it has been one of the most memorable and glorious battles in world history.
To me, Charles Wood’s letter provides a somewhat different contemporary view of the battle’s events. And, in the spirit of today’s great anniversary, it has been my pleasure, and my obligation as a history nut, to share it with you. Please feel free to pass on the word and share it with those who would enjoy to read this unusual account.