The field of the Battle of Waterloo was a terrifying and shocking place to be that night and for the following few days. Nine hours of desperate fighting on such a small area of ground had left a butcher’s bill that is truly staggering to contemplate. In an area of ground of only approximately 3 square miles, over forty three thousand men and nearly twelve thousand horses lay out in the inky blackness of that barmy summer’s night. To put this into perspective, the entire area was covered with a body (human or equine) for every 50 square yards; but as the conflict was much more localised than this, in many areas of heavy fighting the bodies literally carpeted the ground and it was difficult to walk across the fields without standing on flesh of some kind. As Lieutenant Henry Dehnel of the 3rd Line Battalion K.G.L. remarked:
Entire ranks of fallen warriors all over the vast field indicated those well recognisable places where the most violent fighting had occurred: a horrifying, heart-rending scene met the terrified eye, of mutilated and often already nude corpses, of fallen and mortally wounded horses, which wrenched the stomach almost more than the gnawing hunger could do.
The weaponry of the period made for horrendous injuries; lead musket balls flattened on low velocity impact, smashing through soft tissue and bone whilst dragging detritus deep into the wound where it would usually rapidly cause sepsis. Bayonets and lances caused deep stab wounds which often penetrated vital organs and caused slow agonising deaths; stabbing swords could replicate these wounds, whilst slashing swords preferred by the light cavalry, could cut cleanly through both flesh and bone severing limbs cleanly; but more often struck glancing blows which left horrendous injuries with large masses of skin and muscle hanging limply down from the savage cut. Cannonballs simply tore through flesh and bone as if paper; the lucky died instantly as heads were simply obliterated, but more often limbs were ripped away, whilst many more suffered large areas of flesh and muscle being simply torn off. In the initial trauma of a severe wound, the body’s nervous system often closes down and the pain is initially deadened, hence the contemporary movement in surgery to amputate early to avoid death from shock later. But those unfortunate to be operated on, many hours if not days after the initial trauma had occurred, suffered severely as the surgeons hastily amputated without any anaesthetic and often with blunted instruments. Many terribly mutilated men implored their colleagues to put them out of their miseries with a ball to the head, few are honest enough to recall these situations and none are brave enough to admit that they did release their sufferings. The stoicism of many soldiers during the battle is however, hard almost to believe. As related by Lieutenant Henry Dehnel of the 3rd Line Battalion KGL:
…an English soldier approached us, whose left arm had been smashed by a cannon ball so that his lower arm seemed to hang on by just a strip of flesh or a tendon. His right arm he held in to his lower body. His bronzed face that may have seen many an enemy in all parts of the world was slightly contorted from his pain. He calmly asked us to cut off his injured arm, or have somebody do it, since it was inconveniencing him very much. To my question why he did not hold the arm with his right hand until he had had medical help, the badly wounded warrior held his hand off from his lower body for a brief moment, looking reproachfully at me, and now I saw that the hand had covered two holes from enemy bullets from which blood was flowing. Without any moaning nor repeating his wish, the unfortunate man took a few steps, then tumbled and, crying ‘Oh dear Jane!’ suddenly fell down and was dead…
But perhaps the horses called forth even greater pity from those that witnessed their terrible suffering. The horses were often mutilated by cannonballs, tearing out their intestines, which they dragged around behind them until their strength failed them. Many more had legs torn away causing them to patiently sit or lay upon the ground, whilst chewing away at the grass within reach; their mournful eyes silently imploring someone to finish them off. The most awful of all according to eye witnesses, were those horses that had the lower portion of their heads ripped away, few could look at these horrors impassively.
The dead were probably the lucky ones, for their sufferings were at an end; the ignominy of the stripping of their clothes and the theft of their valuables were beyond their cares. For the far more numerous wounded, that night would be one of nightmarish horror and tormenting agony. Darkness had fallen before the battle had ended, making it impossible to offer succour to the wounded before morning. They would have to lie in their own gore, with little or no chance of a single drop of water to relieve their raging thirst and praying that the small army of marauding camp followers and soldiers who spread out across the fields like locusts would spare their lives as their looming rush torches warned of their approach. They roughly turned over the
dead to rifle pockets of valuables and search coat seams for the soldiers’ hidden hoards. Neck chains were ripped away and rings removed, often by simply hacking away the fingers, allowing the rings
to be harvested at leisure. Gold teeth were ripped out, but so were many a natural tooth by the barrel load, to be sold for dentures and were highly prized as coming from young men. For many decades after, false teeth were known throughout Europe as ‘Waterloo teeth’. These vultures were none too picky either, the wounded often suffering a similar fate; any resistance being met by a stiletto plunged into the heart or their throat slit from ear to ear. That night, many a camp follower earned a fortune from the corpses but their exploits later tainted the Victorian version of the battle, when every Belgian peasant was unfairly transformed into a heartless murderer. But marauding was an accepted part of warfare; as Lieutenant Emanuel Biedermann of 2nd Light Battalion KGL recalled in his memoir the following day:
On our march we encountered already a great number of country people who had returned from the battlefield and carried all kinds of equipment. Some had woollen blankets, cavalry coats, harnesses; others had weapons and other implements in their collection. Many now drove there with wagons, to gather any leftovers. We did not begrudge them this kind of harvest as small compensation for the devastation by both armies of the cornfields far and wide.
Those that were lucky enough not to be approached, or survived such a mauling by feigning death, or at least offering no resistance, had to endure the moans, shrieks and crying of the wounded and dying lying all around. By morning many of these wounded men had succumbed as their very life blood seeped out of untended wounds.
But for those that survived that night, help slowly started to arrive the next morning. It was recorded by Captain Kincaid of the 95th Rifles, that that morning, no one asked the usual greeting of ‘Who’s been hit?’ but after Waterloo, it was easier to ask ‘Who’s alive?’
That morning every regiment was required to send a party of men onto the bloody field to bury their dead and bring aid to their wounded with draughts of precious water and a lift to the roadside where they awaited a cart to collect them to carry them to Brussels. A number were certainly helped by this initiative, but soon the regiments were ordered to march on into France and many of their compatriots lying further away from the main scene of the fighting would remain unattended for another day or sometimes more.
The villagers of Braine l’Alleud largely stayed at home to prevent the troops marauding, but once the fighting was over there is clear evidence that some of the villagers turned looters and when caught were actually executed on the spot.
Already, on the 17th of June after the fighting at Quatre Bras, Baron d’Hooghvorst, mayor of Brussels had announced that the city would be the General Hospital for the army. Every cart, carriage, driver and horse was requisitioned to collect the wounded from the battlefield and despite continuous return trips the allied wounded were not all removed until two full days after the battle and many of the French wounded, being a lesser priority, lay on the field for three, four and even five nights before being transported to Brussels, if they still hung to life. Any sizeable building near the battlefield had been filled within hours of the battle commencing and the need to transport the wounded to Brussels became paramount. There were not enough hospitals, so churches, public buildings, large private residences and even the streets were turned into makeshift wards.
Some of the wounded were transported on to Antwerp to alleviate the crush and all surgeons in the capital were requisitioned whilst Belgian and Dutch surgeons flocked in from all over the country to help. Major Frye who was a mere witness at Brussels recorded the overwhelming response:
The medical practitioners of the city have been put in requisition, and are ordered to make domiciliary visits at every house…in order to dress the wounds of the patients. The Bruxellois, the women in particular, have testified the utmost humanity towards the poor sufferers.
As soon as news reached Great Britain that surgeons were urgently required, a large number set out independently to proffer their services. But despite this international effort it cannot be denied that many wounded died unnecessarily because of poor facilities and too late an intervention. Assistant Surgeon Donald Finlayson of the 33rd Foot wrote of the wounded:
Of the total loss, one in 7 or 8 may be killed, the rest are wounded. A great number of the wounds are from cannon balls. Officers have compared the discharge from the cannon to discharges of musketry. Most wounds of the limbs are in the lower extremities. There are perhaps 15 or 16 legs taken off for one arm, there are not many bayonet wounds. There are sabre & lance wounds, the French cavalry have lances, we have none.
Even those that were lucky enough to be seen by surgeons during or soon after the battle and were immediately operated upon, most often by amputation, still did not have as great a chance of survival as they should have. Wellington had previously complained that this was no longer his old ‘Peninsular Army’ and the medical staff attending the army were no different. Many army surgeons present immediately after the battle were simply not prepared for the deluge of wounded and the system rapidly broke down. Survival rates after Waterloo were nowhere near as good as after the last battle of Wellington’s old army at Toulouse in 1814.
Poor Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Gordon’s leg was amputated at a field station near the battlefield on the very door he was carried off the field with and was then carried to Wellington’s headquarters, where he later died in bed.
Uxbridge was persuaded to undergo amputation on his leg, despite some faint hopes of recovery as the safer option to preserve his life; his operation was successful.
Even the Duke of Wellington, renowned for his firmness and stiff upper lip was emotionally affected by the terrible losses. Doctor Hume arrived at headquarters after performing numerous amputations including those of Gordon and Uxbridge to inform Wellington of the medical situation. He records that:
I went upstairs and tapped gently at the door, when he told me to come in. He had as usual taken off his clothes, but had not washed himself. As I entered, he sat up in bed, his face covered with the dust and sweat of the previous day, and extended his hand to me, which I took and held in mine, whilst I told him of Gordon’s death, and of such of the casualties as had come to my knowledge. He was much affected. I felt the tears dropping fast upon my hand, and looking towards him, saw them chasing one another in furrows over his dusty cheeks. He brushed them suddenly away with his left hand, and said to me in a voice tremulous with emotion, ‘Well, thank God, I don’t know what it is to lose a battle; but certainly nothing can be more painful than to gain one with the loss of so many of one’s friends.’
Fears soon arose of disease spreading throughout the city, with gangrene and cholera almost certain to spread; but the pestilential air from the thousands of corpses lying on the battle field, caused even greater anxiety.
Immediate orders had been given for work parties of local farm hands to begin burying the dead, but the sheer numbers were overwhelming and the sights often nightmarish. Sergeant Archibald Johnston of the Scots Greys particularly recalled:
…all the road along was covered with slain, bruised in a shocking manner by the wheels of the guns and other warlike vehicles on the retreat of the French army on that road; numbers were actually crushed as flat as a piece of plank and it would have been difficult for any man to distinguish whether they were human or not without a minute inspection...
A number of officer’s bodies had been buried individually with care; some brief form of service read over their remains as they were gently lowered into the ground and their location recorded by simple markers; but they were the lucky few. Most corpses had already been stripped of every article by the marauders and were simply tossed uncaringly, friend and foe alike, along with any odd body parts found lying around, into shallow mass graves hurriedly dug measuring about twenty by fifteen feet. Once full of bloated flesh no more than a thin layer of earth was thrown over the pit and was left for the wild animals to disturb at their ease. It was not uncommon for visitors to the field for months to come to talk of the stench of decaying flesh and to witness the horrors of only partly covered bodies protruding from the soil.
The innumerable bodies of the horses caused an even greater problem as the heat of the following days had caused their abdomens to swell to two or three times their original size making them heavy and difficult to manoeuvre. Ropes were tied to the legs and their grossly inflated bodies were simply dragged to huge funeral pyres; it was also reported that many human corpses were simply added to these same pyres when the graves were full. Such work was far from appealing and it is with little surprise that we hear that those forced into this unenviable task were loath to do it and constantly sought to absent themselves. Even today Belgian farmers, whilst tending their land, frequently unearth the bones of the fallen and a number of osaries have been built in the area where their scattered bones may lay in respectful peace.
There were also at least five thousand unhurt French prisoners in Brussels who were soon marched to Ostend for shipment into captivity in England, many ending up at Dartmoor.
The morning after the battle, as the troops attempted to clear the battlefield, they were horrified to discover that many of the French cannon captured the previous night had vanished. Lieutenant Colonel Sir Augustus Frazer set out, and after a thorough search, he found the French cannon in a field at Genappe where the Prussians had taken them. Not wishing to be the man who would have to explain their loss to the Duke, Frazer negotiated with the Prussian officer who commanded there, and very fortunately persuaded him to relinquish those which bore the British chalk marks on them and had them returned to Waterloo before the Duke became aware of their loss.
The Duke completed the Waterloo despatch at Brussels on 19 June and about midday his aide de camp Major Henry Percy rode off in a post chaise carrying the despatch and the two eagles on the road to Ostend on route to England. Percy arrived at the port where he immediately embarked on HMS Peruvian, a 16 gun brig, which sailed for Dover without delay. However, mid channel, with no wind, the ship was becalmed. Captain White launched the gig and he with four seamen and Percy formed the six oarsmen and rowed towards the English coast. They reached Broadstairs at 3 p.m. on 21 June and Percy, still accompanied by White, rode a chaise and four for London with the eagles sticking out of the windows and their flags streaming behind as they galloped through the Kent countryside. They arrived in London at 10 p.m. but pulling into Downing Street at the War Department, a little further down the road from the Prime Minister and the Treasury; Percy sought Earl Bathurst, Principal Secretary at the War Office, but discovered that he was dining at a Cabinet dinner at Lord Harrowby’s, 44 Grosvenor Square. Arriving at Lord Harrowby’s, Percy ran into the house carrying the eagles whilst crying ‘Victory…Victory….Bonaparte has been beaten’. The Prince Regent and Duke of York were attending a Ball held by Mr & Mrs Boehm at their home at 16 St James’s Square. Percy arrived in his chaise and dashed into the house carrying the two eagles; dashing up the stairs to the ballroom on the first floor, he advanced directly towards the Prince Regent and dropping on one knee as he lay the eagles at his feet, announced ‘Victory….Victory, Sire’ and presented him with the despatch. The prince retired to read the despatch and everyone hurriedly left to announce the great news, leaving Mrs Boehm suddenly bereft of guests. She never forgave Percy for ruining her Ball, recalling many years later that surely ‘the unseasonable news of the Waterloo victory could have been kept until the morning!’ Even the gift from the prince of a solid gold eagle with the inscription that the news of the Battle of Waterloo had been announced in her house, failed to placate her. In 1819 her husband became a bankrupt and the house had to be sold. Presumably she blamed Percy for that as well. The news spread like wildfire and soon the country was in jubilant mood. After the initial euphoria had subsided however, the enormous losses took hold of the public’s thoughts and a national subscription was announced in every church across the land to provide both for widows and orphans and also to help those seriously wounded throughout the remainder of their life. The now well known company of Scottish Widows also owes it origins to such a subscription raised for families in 1815. The Waterloo Subscription raised from the British public reached the huge sum of £518,288 which in modern terms equates to approximately £17.6 million, but even this was inadequate to help all those in need.
The Duke of Wellington was granted land by a grateful King of the Netherlands, he was created Prince of Waterloo and granted 2,600 acres of woodland (10.5 km2) between Nivelles and Quatre Bras producing 20,000 Dutch florins per annum (in modern terms nearly £150,000). The Duke was feted by every European nation, becoming an honorary Field Marshal in many armies and receiving their highest awards.
The British troops were also to receive special recognition for this great achievement. Everyone serving in the battle was allowed two years additional service to be added to their records when eventually applying for a service pension; whilst the pension and payments for those wounded in service were increased for all from that date.
Medals were regularly awarded to all ranks in most continental armies before Waterloo, but were unknown in the British army. Only members of the Staff and commanding officers of units had routinely received a gold medal after a battle whilst some regiments had issued ad hoc unofficial medals for specific actions in which they had played a conspicuous part. However, the Duke of Wellington was keen for all ranks to receive a medal for Waterloo and although initial consideration had been given to a medal being produced in three
metals, gold for officers, silver for NCO’s and those for the rank & file from the captured brass French cannon. However, parliament actually ordered thirty-nine thousand solid silver Waterloo Medals, each weighing one ounce, to be produced by the Royal Mint for all ranks. This was the first single medal granted to all ranks in the British Army, each personally named to an individual stamped into the rim. However, its distribution was erratic because of a lack of understanding by regiments of eligibility. When each battalion was ordered to send in a return of those to be awarded the medal, it is clear that each battalion answered differently. Some only included those actually present at Waterloo; others correctly included those also involved at Quatre Bras; a few did not include those on baggage or other duties behind the lines; whilst some included the dead, presumably to award posthumously to their families; the regiments at Hal and some reserve artillery units were included, whilst others who garrisoned Brussels or were in reserve units that did not actually step foot onto the battlefield were omitted. To be honest, the award of the medal was both erratic and unfair to many; and the list of medals recorded by the Royal Mint as issued to individuals over the next forty years indicates that many genuine claimants spent a lifetime claiming for one, many ultimately successfully. The medal rapidly became a badge of honour and was virtually guaranteed to earn the wearer a free dram at their local inn; hence a black market soon developed with rogues purchasing and renaming medals to hoodwink the public. But, the poor soldiers who had fought bravely throughout the Napoleonic Wars looked on with envy. For their exploits were left unrecognised until Queen Victoria instigated the General Service Medal and it was decided that claimants could apply for medals for major actions back to 1800. But, as this did not occur until 1847, too many old soldiers had gone to their graves harbouring great bitterness before they were so belatedly recognised.
In time honoured tradition, every soldier was entitled to a share of the Prize Money for the weaponry and supplies captured that day and in the subsequent capture of Paris. The sums paid were not however sizeable; through General Officers at £1274 10s 10d; Captains £90 7s 3d; Subalterns £34 14s 9d; Sergeants £19 4s 4d and Rank and File £2 11s 4d each. The Duke personally received £61,178 3s 5½d, the princely sum of £2.5 Million in today’s terms.
The Prussians issued a medal for the 1815 campaign as did Brunswick, both made from the brass of captured French cannon. Nassau issued a silver medal. The Netherlands troops did not receive a medal, until an 1813-15 campaign medal was rather belatedly issued in silver in 1865 to the remaining survivors. The French not surprisingly did not issue a Waterloo Medal either, but in 1857, Napoleon III issued a bronze medal to all surviving participants in the French wars from 1792-1815; remarkably over 400,000 were issued.
But perhaps the greatest achievement for most soldiers that day, as in any era, was to be one of the lucky ones who survived unharmed, for as Assistant Surgeon Donald Finlayson stated so eloquently in a letter:
A man liable to danger at all moments cannot congratulate himself on his escape from any particular danger. Otherwise I should have much reason to be thankful. In future I will at all events endeavour not to incur unnecessary danger.
Casualties at Waterloo
Killed Wounded Missing
British and K.G.L. Troops 1781 5,734 815
Hanoverian Troops 328 1,321 358
Brunswick Troops 154 456 59
Dutch/Belgian Troops 700 1,520 1,139
Horses Killed/Wounded 4,365
Prussian Troops 857 3,070 970
Horses Killed/Wounded 520
French Troops Killed/Wounded 25,000+
Horses Killed/Wounded 7,000+
Total Casualties 13,700 29,700
Total Horses Killed/Wounded 11,900