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Waterloo: Stories of Love, Death and War

Last updated: 28 April 2016

Recorded on 30 April 2015

Waterloo 200 project officer, Alwyn Collinson, shows the human face - and human cost - of the greatest battle in British history through a selection of letters, diaries, and personal possessions.

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Alwyn Collinson:

So, Waterloo: Stories of Love, War and Death.

Let's begin on the night of 17 June, exactly 200 years ago in 1815. Major Arthur Heyland sat in the countryside of Belgium writing a letter to his wife. It was a terrible night - a summer thunderstorm. Rain lashed down churning up the thick clay into mud.

The army, of which Arthur Heyland was but one small part, a rag-tag assembly of British, Dutch, German and others, were spending a miserable night huddling in barns, under hedges and around bonfires in a vain attempt to keep dry. Not so much for themselves as for the gun powder that they carried. They knew that a fight was coming because a French army over 70,000-strong outnumbering the Allied troops was camped a few miles south.

That French army was led, of course, by the Emperor Napoleon. And the British commander, the Duke of Wellington, had made a decision to stand and fight on a ridge south of the sleepy village of Waterloo. Those men in the night may not have known it, but this was a battle that would end 20 years of war and determine the future of Europe and the world.

But for now, I would like to forget Europe and the world, and the other men who would fight - more than 200,000 of them in the end - and return to Arthur Heyland.

As I said, he was writing to his wife, Mary, who was back in England looking after their six children and expecting the seventh. The letter assured her that: 'the happiest days of my life have been from your love and affection. I cannot help but think it almost impossible, however, that I should escape wounds or death.'

Major Heyland had been a soldier for over seven years of near constant war against the French and had survived, although he had been wounded many times. However, he now composed this letter on the night before the battle, in case he should not return from Waterloo, to be given to Mary.

He urged her not to grieve too much for: 'I die loving only you and with the fervent hope that our souls may be reunited hereafter and part no more. We cannot, my own love, die together. One or other must witness the loss of what we love most.'

Major Heyland fought in the battle leading a detachment of the 40th Somersetshire Regiment of Foot. He survived the long and dreadful day until about 7pm, when he led a charge of his musket men to recapture a shattered farmhouse - La Haye Sainte. There, he was shot in the neck by a French skirmisher, his body discovered heaped among the corpses of his men.

His letter made it to Mary. She was 34, and by the time she had received the letter she had given birth to their last son, Herbert.

I am, you may think, perhaps focusing overmuch on just one man out of tens of thousands. Waterloo was after all a vast battle, a turning point in world history and one that captured the imagination of generations. However, I don't propose to give a blow-by-blow account of the battle or of its political consequences. That would be to repeat the excellent work of other lecturers in this series and I think there are other elements of the battle that are just as fascinating.

There is a saying in the publishing industry that popular science books lose a thousand sales for every equation that they print. I think we could say the same for every map in a military history book, with the little coloured arrows depicting the troop movements. It is necessary, of course, but I think it's also dehumanising and it distances us from the reality of combat. It turns huge numbers of people full of hope, fear, hatred and courage into sort of chess pieces.

I do think that we gain a fresh perspective on Waterloo through the stories of those whose lives it touched and in many cases, of course, ended. I have some letters, some diaries and some personal accounts and some artefacts that I would like to go through in order to gain that kind of eye-level perspective.

I think it's particularly appropriate given that almost as soon as the battle was over, the participants and bystanders began to tell stories about the battle. No one was in any doubt - none of those who fought or none of those who witnessed the battle - that they had witnessed a world-changing event. The final defeat of Napoleon, a victory that would echo down the ages.

They saw their own experiences as a part of that narrative and started trying to carve out a place for themselves as a valiant soldier, an eye witness to history, a frustrated lover or a grieving widow. We shall judge whether they succeeded.

Now I am going to over a very quick thumbnail sketch of the political and military situation at the time. I apologise if what I am saying is old news to most of you, but some of you may have done GCSE or O Level history, so you will need my help to catch up.

So the French Revolution of 1789 had first opposed then executed the King Louis XVI. The new French Republic was immediately invaded by almost every European monarchy in an attempt to crush this new spirit of republican liberalism, or revolutionary terrorism, if you prefer.

Incredibly the French armies fed by mass conscription overwhelmed their invaders and counterattacked, sweeping across Europe. Excellent generals rose through the newly meritocratic ranks, chiefly of course Napoleon. By 1804 he had declared himself Emperor and was spreading French domination across Europe and the world.

It is almost impossible to overstate the trauma of the French Revolution and its aftermath to Europe. Leave aside even the appalling destruction of the wars that raged from 1792 to 1815. These killed perhaps 8 million people at a time when Europe's population was less than a fifth of what it was today.

The French carried with them radical social and legal changes, even after Napoleon had perhaps somewhat undermined the principal of egalité. The rest of Europe used a genuinely feudal principle of government. The nobility used separate legal systems, they were often exempt from taxation. Sometimes only the nobility could legally own land, as was the case in most of Italy and the Holy Roman Empire. The tidal wave of modernity created modern bureaucracies, modern legal systems, even uniform weights and measures. The Code Napoleon after all is still the law of the land in one form or another in most of continental Europe.

Nationalism was being unleashed, first by French propaganda then against French invasion. London was stuffed with fugitive aristocracy fleeing these changes and the armies that enforced them. Waterloo was seen by all as a turning point. The Ancien Régime struggling against revolutionary change.

Europe, of course, fought back against Napoleon, eventually forcing Napoleon's abdication and making him go into exile on the tiny Mediterranean island of Elba. You can see his exile depicted here by a contemporary cartoonist, no doubt with scrupulous accuracy.

After 20 years of war, Europe was at last at peace. In 1814 Britons were free of the fear of French invasion, as demonstrated here by James Gillray. The privations of war were to be lifted. European luxuries had for 20 years been unattainable, European travel impossible. It was hoped that there would be peace and plenty.

In particular the wealthy looked forward to the abolition of the income tax. This most unwelcome innovation had been introduced only for the duration of the war by [William] Pitt's government in 1798. I believe they are still waiting for its abolition.

Then suddenly, Napoleon escaped from Elba in the March of 1815. With astonishing and disturbing speed he marched through France gathering support as he went. Armies that were sent to arrest him instead joined his cause. The newly installed king, Louis XVIII, sent one of Napoleon's own marshals [Michel] Ney to arrest the fugitive - in retrospect perhaps not the brightest idea. Ney promised to bring back Napoleon in an iron cage. Instead he joined his forces.

The great powers of Europe had assembled in Vienna to divide the spoils of the French Empire. Here we see them - the assembled powers of Europe with Louis XVIII skulking under the table and Napoleon turning up rather like the ghost at the feast, slicing off France from their machinations here.

The assembled princes and ambassadors were genuinely horrified to hear of Napoleon's escape. Contemporary accounts depict them going white or swearing. Our heroes are standing up here. They have defeated Napoleon and then like a monster in a horror film he arises and threatens to destroy all of their gains.

The assembled potentates declared Napoleon the enemy of the world. His return from exile threatened to re-plunge the world into the disorders and miseries of revolutions. And as such Napoleon had manifested to the universe there can be neither peace nor truce with him.

The former French Emperor was declared an outlaw. He had no legal protection. His orders were illegitimate. The meanest foreign soldier could kill him without official sanction. He was now a living crime. That declaration was signed by the emissaries of Austria... I'm not going to around them all - Austria, Great Britain, Portugal, Russia, Prussia, Spain and Sweden.

France was faced with overwhelming odds. The Allied armies from across Europe totalled over 700,000 men. Napoleon had managed to assemble his own forces with great speed. Within 12 weeks of his return from Elba he had 500,000. But many of these must be sent to deal with internal uprisings against his return, or to guard the frontiers of France.

Napoleon's Armée du Nord had about 123,000 men, the best he could gather - all volunteers, almost all veterans of his previous campaigns. His personal elite, the Imperial Guard, were there, and so was the fantastic French Artillery Corps built at vast expense. But he had to act quickly before those aforementioned overwhelming odds could catch up with him. So Napoleon marched his army north into Belgium where British, Dutch and Prussian armies were trying to join up before marching on Paris.

So our scene is set. At least we come to Waterloo. Here, the Duke of Wellington led the mixed British and Dutch Allied army. A force that, although it had over 60,000 men, the Duke described as 'a most infamous army' made up of troops he did not feel he could rely on - many fresh veterans or of the Dutch, perhaps worse.

His hope lay with the Prussian army under Marshal von Blücher, who had just been defeated and driven back by the French at Ligny to the south of Waterloo. However, they had retreated in good order and had eventually joined up at Wavre here. So this is just east of Waterloo.

Here is the Duke of Wellington.

I am sorry, I have gone to the maps again. We will move onto people again very shortly, I promise.

So if the Anglo-Allied armies could hold the French for long enough, the Prussians would arrive, catching the French army in the flank.

Here we have the British army arrayed on the ridge above the valley of Waterloo. Here the Prussians off to the east arriving to catch them in the flank.

The British would be the anvil to the Prussian hammer. And if you don't want to know how that worked out, if you don't want to know the result, please look away now.

So the scene was set for an extraordinary battle, an extraordinarily bloody battle. This is a painting by [JMW] Turner, 'The Field of Waterloo'. Interestingly, unlike so many other military painters, Turner has chosen not to depict a glorious charge or men locked in combat. Instead we have the serried ranks of the dead. This is with, of course, almost typical Turnerian light play, but it is almost like the judgement of heaven is looking down on this terrible display.

Waterloo was an exceptionally bloody battle. Perhaps a quarter of those who fought were killed or wounded, which is genuinely exceptional for the time. And it was fought with exceptional ferocity. All sides knew this was a last chance. For Napoleon, his last chance to return to power and defeat his enemies before they could regroup and overwhelm him. And for the British and the Prussians, a chance to stop Napoleon at last, to throw back that monster. And for the Prussians and their hated enemy the French there was no quarter. Prisons were mercilessly hacked apart.

Nowhere on the battlefield saw fiercer fighting than the farmhouse of Hougoumont. This was a small chateau on the west of the battlefield. This had been turned into kind of an impromptu fortress by the British troops.

The Coldstream Guards had been sent to guard it because it was guarding Wellington's entire right flank. Wellington knew that if the French were to take it, his position on the battlefield would be severely threatened. So Guards went into the building. They knocked loopholes in the walls, they locked the gates and Hougoumont became a strong point.

Lieutenant Colonel Macdonnell of the Coldstream Guards was put in charge. And contemporary accounts describe an absolutely brutal scene as they mowed down serried columns of French infantry advancing on the battlefield.

Eventually, however, a French lieutenant, a man named Legros, wielding an axe, managed to break open the north gate. A desperate fight ensued between the invading French soldiers and the defending guards.

In a near miraculous attack Macdonnell and a small party of his men and officers fought through the melee - they were, needless to say, hopelessly outnumbered - and managed to shut the gate trapping Legros - who we can see here having just fallen over, having cut the gate open - with about 30 other soldiers of his regiment within. All of the French who entered, apart from a young drummer boy of only 12 years old, were killed in a desperate hand-to-hand fight.

Interestingly one of the officers, Lieutenant Colonel Wyndham who had helped to press the door closed, for the rest of his life was so affected by what he had seen that he could never bear to close a door again. Contemporary accounts describe him sitting in a howling gale coming through a door, refusing to shut it if there were not a servant available to do so.

This painting is from Robert Gibb, painted in 1903. To the Victorians, Waterloo we can see is the supreme height of British heroism and it is due to acts like these. A visitor the day after described of the farm of Hougoumont: 'Heaps of dead men in various uniforms positively covered the whole area of the orchard.' Not less than 2,000 men had fallen there.

Meanwhile, in the centre of the battlefield, French infantry charges were met by British calvary. Here we see the truly astonishing story of Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Ponsonby, commander of the 12th Light Dragoons - a cavalryman who perhaps suffered more than most on the battlefield. I have compressed Colonel Ponsonby's perhaps rather long narrative, but I thought I would keep track of his misadventures on the screen as we go.

We begin about one o'clock in the afternoon with the battle starting to rage in earnest. Ponsonby led his men down from the ridge to attack some French infantry. They rode too far and were hit by the French lancers. The long weapons of these cavalrymen were deadly effective.

So I turn to Ponsonby's account.

'In the melee I was disabled almost instantly in both arms. I was carried on by my horse till receiving a blow on the head from a sabre. I was thrown senseless on my face to the ground.

'A lancer passing by exclaimed, "You're not dead, you coquin!" ('lucky dog', I gather) and stuck his lance through my back. My head dropped, the blood gushed from my mouth. A difficulty of breathing came on and I thought it was all over.

'Not long after a skirmisher came up to plunder me, threatening to take my life. I told him that he might search me, directing him to a small side pocket in which he found three dollars, being all I had.

'By and by another skirmisher came by, knelt and fired over me, loading and firing many times and conversing with great gaiety all the while. At last he ran off saying, "You will be pleased to hear we are retreating, good bye my new friend."'

There is a magnificent British understatement that runs throughout the entire thing.

'While the battle continued in that part several of the wounded men and dead bodies near me were hit with the balls which came very thick in that place. It was dusk when two squadrons of Prussian cavalry, both of them two deep, passed over me in full trot, lifting me from the ground and tumbling me about most cruelly. The clatter of their approach and the apprehensions it excited may be easily conceived.

'I found a soldier of the Royals lying across my legs who had probably crawled thither in his agony. His weight, convulsive motions, his noises and the air issuing through a wound in his side distressed me greatly.

'About an hour before midnight I saw a soldier in an English uniform coming towards me. He came and looked in my face. I spoke instantly telling him who I was and assuring him of a reward.

'At eight o'clock in the morning a cart came for me and I was carried to a farmhouse about a mile and a half distant. The jolting of the cart and the difficulty of breathing were very painful.

'I had received seven wounds. I was saved by continual bleeding - 120 ounces in two days besides the great loss of blood on the battlefield.'

120 ounces, incidentally, is equivalent to about six pints of blood. And, let's just be clear, Ponsonby is referring to the doctors deliberately bleeding him, not to wounds coming out of his side.

In order to save Ponsonby's life his doctors had deprived him of over half his blood. Sorry, 'doctors'.

Meanwhile... so to hear from the French side of this fight, these sort of constant cavalry charges and infantry battles in the centre of the field, I would like to present one of my favourite objects from the battlefield.

This is a cuirass. It's body armour which belonged to a French cavalryman whose name we know, it's Antoine Faveau. Antoine Faveau had been a baker. He was 23 years old, just over six foot tall and he had joined up with Napoleon when he returned in the hope of, we assume, some excitement.

Of course, we know what he found on the battlefield. I think we can all agree that although the cuirass was in fact capable of deflecting sword blows in combat, or even occasionally pistol balls, it was not capable of deflecting the cannonball which has, as we see, gone straight through and out his back.

It's a shame I can't show you the entire object which is in the collection of the Musée de l'Armée in Paris, but the metal has been bent out in the most extraordinary way. You can see how the cannonball wasn't even briefly stopped as it flew straight through Faveau's chest.

This is during the afternoon of 18 June when the carabiniers, who were cavalrymen, and the cuirassiers again along with the rest of the French heavy cavalry were thrown repeatedly against the Allied lines.

The Allied troops were forming squares - thick, dense fences of muskets - shooting out at the French troops as they did so. And as the French made repeated charges trying to break these squares, which they never succeeded in doing so unless they were assisted by infantry or cannonballs, the British gunners fired amongst them. And here Faveau received his death wound.

It was also in these cavalry charges in the mid-afternoon that the French lost the two of their regimental eagles. These standards - these were at the top of the French standard which were carried onto the battlefield - were the personal gifts of the Emperor Napoleon. They were part of his majesty and they represented the honour and pride of the French regiment. A regiment was supposed to die to the last man before losing their eagle.

It can perhaps give you some idea of the savagery and destruction of Waterloo that not one but two French eagles were captured in the brutal fighting of that day. They were carried by a special sergeant known as a port-aigle (imaginative, I know). He was a strapping man chosen especially for height and ferocity and accompanied by two other sergeants who were bedecked with pistols and sabres.

The 105th Regiment, you can see the title engraved on the bottom of the eagle here, were charged by the British 1st Royal division of cavalry. Captain Alexander Clark led his squadron around the French flank, when he caught sight of the eagle and made a dash at it. He later told how he ran the eagle bearer through his right side above the hip, and then again through the body, but was unable to grab the standard.

The standard fell across the horse of Corporal F Stiles. Clark, again according to his own account, shouted, 'Secure the colour! secure the colour! It belongs to me!' Then he ordered Stiles to take the honour of carrying the eagle back to the British lines.

So that is Captain Alexander Clark's account.

Unfortunately, we know a little bit more about the affairs of the day than Captain Alexander Clark might have anticipated. The port-aigle, the eagle bearer of the 105th, was a man named Jean Chantelat whose service papers show that he survived Waterloo and was wounded not by a sabre but by a gunshot in the leg. It may be, of course, that he had already been wounded and that another man was carrying the colour. But again we have issues with Alexander Clark's account.

Both Corporal Stiles, who actually carried the eagle back, and a Lieutenant Gunning claimed that they had captured the colour and that Alexander Clark was trying to take credit for something that he hadn't actually done. Interestingly, it was Corporal Stiles and not Captain Clark who was the one to be rewarded for capturing the eagle, and he was promoted first to a sergeant and then to an officer.

Clearly Captain Clark had written his own story about Waterloo in which he was the conquering hero. However, his superiors believed a humble corporal over him. Stiles, after all, had the vital possession of the eagle.

I think we should move on to some other perhaps arguably self-serving accounts. This is the diary of Lieutenant Edmund Wheatley, an officer of the King's German Legion who has left a truly remarkable illustrated account of the battle. This is part of a long diary illustrated with his own sketches and watercolours, which he sent to his beloved, a certain Miss Eliza Brookes.

Wheatley, who was just 23 years old at the time of the battle, was deeply in love with Eliza, but her parents had forbidden him to see her. As a poor junior officer in an unfashionable regiment he was not considered a suitable husband. Wheatley sent this diary to Eliza partly to explain his life on campaign - during which he had obviously been unable to see her, even in brief secret liaisons - but also as a sort of love letter.

At Waterloo the German Legion fought courageously but were ordered into a suicidal charge on the French by the inexperienced Prince of Orange, who had been appointed arguably because his father was one of the Allied kings, rather than because of any particular military experience. Most of Wheatley's battalion was killed with just 19 men making it back to the Allied lines.

Wheatley was not one of them. He himself was captured and he suffered a horrifying forced march back through the French lines. Wheatley's captors had taken his shoes and stockings to replace their own tattered ones, forcing him to march barefoot south alongside the French, who were retreating from the French defeat at Waterloo and ahead of the pursuing Prussian and British armies.

Wheatley: 'We suddenly came upon a plane strewn with naked bodies and I was forced to keep outside the road. The multitude was so thronged I felt a temporary relief to my injured feet in treading on through soft jellied lumps of inanimate flesh.'

Wheatley had stumbled, literally, upon the battlefield of Ligny which I mentioned earlier where two days before the French had defeated and temporarily driven back the Prussians.

Soon after, Wheatley was able to escape fleeing into a wood to hide. Here he describes himself in the wood: 'My beard was of five days' growth. My feet cut and pricked with flints and thorns. My clothes tattered, damp and chilly. Skulking like an outlaw, rejected and despised by all society in a thicket, in a wood, in an unknown foreign country. Hungry, and no prospect of food.'

His rather unorthodox costume here is again explained: 'Taking the oil cover off my cap I put it over my head. My sash I tore in half and bound over each foot. And laying my hat under my head I placed my feet against a tree and endeavoured to sleep.'

Here Wheatley's thoughts turn to love: 'Although I despaired of ever seeing  you again, my dear Eliza, I felt even in that hour of acute distress and severe privation a certain yearning towards you which neither the cold could petrify or hunger absorb. Absence, neglect and misery had smothered the fire, but a latent spark remained which was capable of being aroused into a volcano. Most people would grin at the sight of this and call me a fool, but there is such a delight in being guilty of this folly that I am resolved to die an ass without their permission.'

We see that young men have changed little in 200 years.

Wheatley continues in the romantic vein:

'If I love sincerely, it is nature. If constantly, it is virtue. If unselfishly, it is commendable. If successfully, it is happiness. Having chewed some leaves and drank plentifully of water, I was seized in the night with the most violent gripings of the stomach and vomiting.'

Perhaps charmed by this romance, Edmund and Eliza were eventually married in the summer of 1821. One witness was her brother, showing that perhaps that victory at Waterloo, or some of the prize money to which Wheatley was entitled, had softened her family's attitude towards him.

In a similar vein, Captain Philip Wodehouse of the 15th Hussars wrote a letter to his sweetheart, Miss Parry, on 19 June 1815. He rested the paper on top of a captured French drum. He chided Miss Parry for having not answered his most recent letter, particularly for failing to send him a promised good luck charm.

'I cannot persuade myself that the wish that you once so kindly expressed is still as lively as then. Yet, not to use you as you appear to use me, I write to say that I suffered no harm from the affair of yesterday, even though the charm has not arrived.'

The emphasis is very much in the original.

'In spite of your forgetfulness, my affection for you is as strong as ever. If a cannonball hits me tomorrow, I believe I shall die thinking of you.'

The sharp-eyed amongst you may have noticed that 19 June was after the battle of Waterloo and Captain Wodehouse was somewhat unlikely to be hit by a cannonball, as the British Army would never again fight another battle against the French.

One wonders if Captain Wodehouse was perhaps indulging in a touch of melodrama. Perhaps Miss Parry thought so too, as Wodehouse married Miss Lydia Lee in 1832, some 17 years later.

So, we have come to the end of the battle. Again, excuse me for eliding over most of the cut and thrust of the military affair. Suffice it to say the Prussians fell upon the French, and that the British and Dutch and Belgians, after a long day of resolute defence, eventually joined in the general advance.

One of the last cannonballs fired hit a very important gentleman indeed. It hit Lord Uxbridge, who was the commander of the British cavalry. It smashed him in the leg, or rather we assume a piece of shrapnel did as the leg was still together enough to be amputated when he was carried behind the lines.

A famous exchange recounts that the Duke of Wellington, who was riding exactly next to Lord Uxbridge when the later was hit, exclaimed: 'By god sir, you've lost your leg!' And Lord Uxbridge exclaimed 'By god sir, so I have!'

I'm sorry, that should have been the other way around. I do apologise, I'm messing up my own punchlines. Suffice it to say that both showed remarkable British stiff-upper-lip-ness all around.

Anyway, Lord Uxbridge was carried behind the lines where his leg was amputated.

These are two items in the possession of the National Army Museum Collection. This is the bone saw which was used to slice through Lord Uxbridge's leg, and the glove of his aide, Captain Thomas Wildman. You might be wondering what the brown stains are. This is the blood of Lord Uxbridge kept for 200 years.

Captain Thomas Wildman held down his lordship during the affair, although by all accounts he was remarkably composed and not crying out - only remarking once to the surgeons that he did not think the blades were very sharp.

Also at one point Captain Thomas Wildman asked him if he felt all right. Lord Uxbridge replied: 'I have been an old beau these last 20 years. It would be not fair for me to cut out the young people from dancing any longer.'

As we see here, the saw doesn't look particularly as though it has been sharpened much in the intervening time.

So one gentleman who was not perhaps quite so lucky was Colonel Sir William De Lancey. This man was a dashing cavalry commander, three months married to his wife Lady Magdalene De Lancey.

He was riding next to the Duke of Wellington, again late in the day, who described the scene.

'A ball came bounding along on ricochet, as it's called, after bouncing off the ground and striking Colonel De Lancey on the back sent him many yards over the head of his horse.'

Again, recall the extraordinary damage done to Antoine Faveau and his cuirass by a ball striking him, an entire cannonball.

'De Lancey fell on his face and bounded upwards and fell again. All the staff dismounted and ran to him. When I came up, he said: "Pray, tell them to leave me and let me die in peace."

The impact broke eight of De Lancey's ribs, actually ripping them off his spine. They then pierced the lungs. However, remarkably, he was not dead, although news of his death was carried to his wife, Lady Magdalene De Lancey who was waiting to see him in Antwerp.

In fact, in the confusion after the battle of Waterloo she was first told by a so-called friend that he had escaped entirely uninjured, then that he was dead, then that he was in fact alive, then that he was severely injured. She travelled to Brussels and then onwards to Waterloo hoping to see him.

I begin her narrative with a phrase that she uses herself: 'I cannot recollect a day of my marriage that was not perfect. We were soon out of Brussels again and on the road to Waterloo. It is nine miles and we took three hours and a half. Mr Hay, a friend, rode before us with sword drawn and obliged them to let us pass. The horses screamed at the smell of corruption.'

Arriving at the cottage where Sir William lay, she was told to wait by her escort while he rode ahead to check whether Sir William was still alive.

Magdalene De Lancey: 'I hope no one will ever be able to say that they can understand my feelings during the half hour that passed till he returned. How fervently and sincerely I resolved that if I saw him alive again for one hour, I would never repine.

'I had almost lost my recollection with the excess of anxiety and suspense, when Mr Hay called out: "All is well. I have seen him, he expects you."

'We got to the village. Sir George Scovell met me at the carriage and, opening the door, said: "Stop one moment."

'I said: "Is he alive?"

'"Yes. Alive and the surgeons are of the opinion that he may recover. We are so grieved for what you have suffered."

'"Oh never mind what I have suffered. Let me go to him now."'

She did indeed see him and nursed him for six days until William 'gave a little gulp and died', in her own words. His life was almost impossible to imagine being spared given the medicine of the day.

Lady De Lancey wrote her narrative to circulate to family and friends. Although the copy which the National Army Museum holds has a note attached from one such friend, a duchess who I will not name now, claiming that Lady De Lancey had showed a lack of compassion, planning to return to England long before Sir William's death. Her note describes the attached manuscript as 'rank hypocrisy'. It is impossible to say which is the more true, but I have to say on the whole, on balance, I am with Lady De Lancey.

I will say however that the horrors of Waterloo did not end when the night fell across the battlefield. The field was crowded, as we have already heard, with the wounded and the dying. Amongst them were moving the scavengers.

Could I have any guesses perhaps as to what these are? Teeth? I heard.. someone said false teeth.

Sort of true. They are, as of course some of you know already, these are real teeth. These are real human teeth set into an ivory base. These were known as Waterloo teeth.

These items were much prized by the rich of Europe whose teeth after all had given out often with the rich sugary diet that was then popular. Before the invention of dental enamel the best possible replacement for human teeth was human teeth.

Dentists would employ plunderers to scavenge the battlefields of Europe pulling out the teeth of dead men and sometimes dying men as well. One British plunderer, a man named Butler, openly wished for a huge battle boasting: 'Just let there be such a fight. There will be no want of teeth. I will draw them as fast as the men are knocked down.'

These would have been incredibly valuable, more valuable than the ivory or sometimes gold in which they were set. And it could take months for a dentist to root through their barrels of teeth and assemble a correct set for their client's needs.

In fact, even though it seems disgusting today, these were well-known as Waterloo teeth as an advertisement. The idea was that rather than having false teeth that came from perhaps a convicted criminal or a victim of disease, you would instead have the teeth of a brave, young, clean living, fit army soldier. And they continue to be known as Waterloo teeth for some 80 years right up until they were using barrels full of teeth shipped over from the American Civil War.

Finally I come to one last relic of the battle. This is an item from Captain William Holmes. He was a senior officer of the 27th Inniskilling Regiment who was killed during the fighting on 18 June. It is in fact a part of Captain William Holmes, one of his vertebrae of his backbone.

His widow, Mrs Holmes, wanted a souvenir of his death. So she had his body - which had been put in one of the mass graves of the battlefield - dug up and macerated. That is to say boiled in order to extract his spine.

This in fact was the damaged vertebra that killed him because he was shot in the back with this musket ball. You can see where it snapped off part of the vertebra itself.

Mrs Holmes, who sounds like a remarkable and possibly fearsome woman, had the bone varnished, set with silver - this is actually a small lid which I assume must have been used to keep the musket ball in. The idea of someone offering you snuff or salt out of your dead husband's spine is too fearful to contemplate.

You can also see that Mrs Holmes was clearly very proud of the fight in which her husband died, because the word 'Waterloo' is engraved onto the silver.

I lied. I said that actually that was the last item. I actually have one more artefact still to come. This is the famous Waterloo medal.

Since we have been talking so much about the stories of Waterloo and about the heroism and sometimes less than glamourous heroism of those who fought, I thought that it would be briefly interesting to talk about the story that perhaps has spread through British society since Waterloo.

This item is one of over 30,000 Waterloo medals that were produced. Waterloo is the first campaign in British Army history in which every soldier who fought was awarded a medal.

Previously medals had been reserved for generals. You can see the fantastic gold Peninsula Cross that was given to high ranking officers, which is absolutely beautiful. But this is a piece of common silver and it is cast with the head of the Prince Regent there, who looks his usual beautiful jowly self.

Immediately after the battle, the idea of common soldiers being awarded a medal became remarkably popular. These were produced within 1815. It was something that spread throughout all ranks of society. And I think that in many ways Waterloo marks the turning point of a narrative about the British Army and about the whole of British society.

Before, the Duke of Wellington had at one point described his men as 'the very scum of the earth'. He said in one famous exchange: 'Some talk of our men enlisting from fine military feeling - all stuff - no such thing. Some enlist from having got bastard children, some from debt, some to escape minor crimes, many more from drunkenness.'

He does go on to say it is remarkable that they have been turned into fine British Army soldiers, but nevertheless we are talking about a sea change in opinion. I think the Waterloo medal, marking as it does the start of a tradition that continues to the present day, is in many ways the sort of climatic Waterloo story. Nowadays all soldiers are regarded as heroes, even if they have perhaps fought under less than glamourous circumstances.

If you have enjoyed any of the stories or would like to know more about these artefacts or a couple of hundred more that we have got, you can go onto the National Army Museum's website Here we are putting together 200 objects, including things like the Wheatley diary, Captain Holmes's vertebrae and the Waterloo teeth, which together tell a series of stories about the battle and about what has happened since.

1 comment

Julian Maples
1 February 2016, 7.15pm



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