Waterloo 200 : The Sergeant, The Jacket And The Eagle

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:

Colour Sergeant Charles Wood, 1st Foot Guards, 3rd Battalion. Source: “Wellington’s Foot Guards” by Ian Fletcher (1994)

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.

The regimental standard of Napoleon’s 105th regiment, as captured at Waterloo. Source: National Army Museum.

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.

A depictions of soldiers from the King’s German Legion.

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.

Yours, Nessa

War & Peace: Summing up the Toque

At last, after another day’s delay, here comes the final challenge post to sum up Josephine’s toque. Looking back at this year’s HSM entries so far, I must say that it has been my favorite project so far. It made me realize just how much I enjoy delving into period embroidery and how I should really be doing more of it again in the future. :)

Yesterday, the time had finally come to put the toque on the hat stand to take a few pictures. I noticed then that it looks a bit big on my ladies’ XL-sized form. This is most likely owed to the fact of me having grown quite the mob of hair over the past year. Although I now have enough hair to work with in a proper Regeny way, the toque might get an “extension”, in the shape of a curly hairpiece, over one of the upcoming challenges. Here is an image of the matched piece Joséphine used to wear with her stunning cap, to give you an idea of what it would look like:

Curly hairpiece worn by Empress Joséphine (French National Museum, Grand Palais).

But now, here are some more facts and photos detailing my toque:

The Challenge: HSM #4 – “War & Peace”.

How does the item fit into the challenge? I recreated this toque (in a slightly more modest fashion) to iliustrate how Napoleon’s success on Europe’s battlefields enabled his family to dress lavishly and become fashion icons of the period.

Fabric: Approximately 1/2 yd. of cotton net and some plain white cotton shirting to line the band.

Pattern: My own, modeled after Empress Joséphine’s extant example.

Years: Before 1815.

Notions: Textured gold embroidery thread, seed beads, cotton thread.

How historically accurate is it? The toque is embroidered and sewn entirely by hand, but some of the materials used might not conform with period equivalents.

Total cost: The cotton net came from a thrifted old curtain (which is now a rather lavish, somewhat wearable curtain ;) ). The beads and gold thread cost about € 7. So it should be € 8 altogether.

Hours to complete: Many evenings and two whole weekends. ;)

First worn: This Wednesday night, to try it out and make it dry more quickly, after rinsing out the last of the pattern markings,
And, here are the pictures of the completed goodness. I still do a little happy dance, every time I look at them. Perhaps, once I have completed a matching ball gown of sheer white muslin, I will post a picture of how it looks on my actual head. :) For now, I got Jane, the hat model, to show it off:

The toque’s front.

The toque’s side.

The toque’s back.

This brings a very productive April to its end. In May, I will finish a very practical Edwardian item for everyday use around the house. After that, it is due time for me to finally get cracking on my first “real” Regency corset. Of course. I will keep you up to date about these sewing adventures as well as I can. But, for now, I will enjoy the remainder of the holiday weekend. :)

Have a wonderful weekend, Nessa


Josephine’s Toque: The Complete Embroidery

Just in time for the challenge, the toque’s embroidery is finished. And, as promised to Lady Constance in the previous post, here is a glimpse at the results. Even though I have never worked with gold thread, net fabric or beads before, the outcome is rather neat. After washing off the blue pattern marker, I was really  stunned for a moment.

Especially the beading was much easier than expected. I finished the scallops on the band over the past two evenings, using this simple outline stitch. Although, I recommend using a hoop, to keep the fabric smooth and more manageable. ;)

The leaves on the toque’s crown, however, were a little less easy-going. They are stem-stitched, using two strands of textured gold floss. Since this kind of metallic thread has a mind of its own, it took me about a week to figure out the right amount of tightness and the best direction to pull through the stitches. But, after that initial phase, working the leaves was great fun.

Long story short, here are the pictures:

The Crown

The crown’s embroidery of golden leaves, worked in stem stitch.

A closer look at the leaves.

The Band

The toque’s band, embroidered with small white seed beads. :)

Even though my toque’s design is not as elaborate as Josephine’s original gold braid and bees, I am still proud of finishing it in time. Now, on to line the band and gather up the crown. I am hoping to share the completed toque with you soon.

Until then, please have a nice evening and a wonderful weekend. :)

Best, Nessa

War & Peace: Josephine’s Toque

With the exam season finally coming to a close, it is due time for me to fill you in on my April “War & Peace” endeavor. I have thought long and hard about this one but, at last, I have come up with a solution of which I am very happy. As a result, this month’s thing item will focus on Napoleon’s first wife, Josephine de Bonaparte. Here is a posthumous engraving of the two, walking in the gardens of their estate at Malmaison:

Posthumous engraving of Napoleon I and Josephine, c. 1824 (Found on The History Blog).

The Backstory

Now, how is this project linked to the “War & Peace” challenge theme? Well, I have thought about it in the following way: The piece I am making is meant to portray the wealth and splendor that can be achieved through a series of successful war campaigns. With Napoleon turning himself into the ruler of France and becoming the protector of an increasing number of territories, his success on the battlefields also reflects on his wife and family. During the first decade of the 19th century, Josephine enjoyed the status of a fashion icon, sporting an impressive collection of lavish outfits.

For this challenge I will be making my own lavish fashion item, based on one of hers. It is a gold-embroidered turban cap, or toque, modeled after this extant one:

Josephine’s extant, gold-embroidered toque.

Making Up The Toque

Based on the photos and this tutorial from the Oregon Regency Society, I patterned my own cap. Instead of a circle, my crown came out slightly more oval, with the vertical diameter being slightly longer than the horizontal one. To find the right drape and sizing, I made a muslin and adjusted it by the trial and error method. Here is a quick photo history of my tries:

My toque mock-ups, progressing from left to right.

With the final pattern down, I decided on how to embellish the finished product. As a student, splurging on lavish decorations is not always easy, but I have found my fill of nice things to use: Textured gold embroidery floss, some washable seed pearls and a reasonably priced length of gold braid. Seeing as the braid color does not match the thread all that well, i might leave this one for another project… ;)

The modest selection of embellishments ;).

As for the embroidery design, I decided to swap the Napoleonic bees, which were mainly reserved to be used by the members of his royal family, for a period leaf pattern which I outlined onto my net fabric with a pattern marker. At the moment I am in the process of embroidering it.

The outline embroidery pattern on the crown.

The plan is to also repeat the leaf design on the cap’s band, using the beads. Since I have never beaded anything before, it is something I would really love to try. But, until then, there is still a mountain of gold embroidery to tackle… Although, at the current rate, it is likely that I will finish my “Practicality” item for the May challenge before the toque. I will keep you posted on the progress on either front. (No pun intended ;) .)

Love, Nessa

P.S.: Today, Cassidy has posted a more general overview of the Napoleonic War’s impact on fashion across Europe and America on her blog. It sets a nice backdrop for the “War & Peace” challenge and is well worth checking out.