Legend has it that every English schoolboy knows three things about the battle of Waterloo. Each turns on a supposed remark by the Duke of Wellington. The battle was ‘won on the playing fields of Eton’; English footsoldiers were ‘the scum of the earth, enlisted for drink’; and, in a charge near the battle’s end, when his cavalry commander had his right knee puréed by French grapeshot – ‘By G_d, sir, they have shot off my leg’ – the Duke responded with puckered sangfroid: ‘By G_d, sir, so they have.’
The leg, one of few to boast its own Wikipedia entry, belonged to Henry Paget, 2nd Earl of Uxbridge. Wellington had reasons for not moping much over it. Said to feel intellectual contempt for his social betters and social contempt for his intellectual betters, the Duke found Uxbridge, as his social and intellectual better, a problem. As One-Leg, a 1961 biography of Uxbridge by his great-great-grandson (7th Marquess of Anglesey, also Henry Paget) relates, he’d eloped with Wellington’s sister-in-law Lady Charlotte Wellesley.
A few months before Waterloo, Uxbridge had helped quell rioting against the Corn Laws by hungry Londoners; the 7th Marquess comments that his ancestor soon rekindled ‘a spirit of confidence among the property-owners of London’. His account of the episode is framed by tales of Hussars’ blow-outs featuring ‘Turtle, Fish, Venison of the best quality’ washed down with ‘Champagne, Hock, Burgundy, and Claret’ as well as ‘Vin de France and Hermitage drunk in copious libations’. When Bonaparte, back from exile, crossed the Franco-Belgian border, the Waterloo campaign was prefaced by another lavish booze-up, thrown by the Duchess of Richmond in Brussels.
After the battle, Uxbridge was taken to a house in Waterloo village, where an army sawbones took the leg off with a ‘capital’ knife – used for operations the patient was unlikely to survive – and no anaesthetic. During the procedure Uxbridge observed that the blade did not seem very sharp. According to Sir Hussey Vivian, a brother Hussars officer, his stoicism faltered only when he sent Vivian to see whether the newly severed member might not after all have been saved: Vivian vouched that its number was up. The Prince Regent made Uxbridge Marquess of Anglesey, which became the eponym both of numerous pubs and of the design of prosthetic leg he wore thereafter. He got into the Regent’s bad books later, though, when he used a condolence letter for the death of the prince’s daughter Charlotte to wheedle for admission to the Order of the Garter.
As for the leg, Hyacinthe Joseph-Marie Paris, the owner of the house where it was amputated, had it interred in a casket in his garden. It would be gratifying to report that there is a corner of a Belgian field that is for ever Uxbridge, but the leg drew tourists – including Uxbridge himself, who insisted on dining at the table, sedulously kept by Paris in its blood-drenched state, where the operation took place. Paris’s descendants quarrelled with the Paget family, who in 1878 asked for the leg back, to be told that if they wanted it, they’d have to pay for it. The bones were hidden, rediscovered in 1934, and incinerated in a domestic furnace.
As for the other legends, the Prussian Military Academy is a likelier claimant of the credit for victory than Eton, where Wellington’s sporting feats seem to have been confined to dust-ups with other inmates. He threw a stone at a boy named Bobus Smith while the latter was bathing naked; the still-nude Bobus was said to have got a ‘licking’ in the ensuing fisticuffs. The remark about his soldiers being scum, however, seems to be quite genuine, though made during the Peninsular campaign.
Wellington went on to become the eighth old Etonian prime minister (David Cameron is the 19th); Uxbridge, as Anglesey, became Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Meanwhile, as Paul O’Keeffe shows in Waterloo: the Aftermath, some limbs are more equal than others. He quotes a sergeant of the Orange Nassau Regiment, who on the day after the battle passed a barn ‘full of amputated legs and arms’. On 20 June, a witness saw ‘three carts, laden with legs and arms, carried away, leaving many hundreds of poor fellows on the invalid list for the rest of their lives’.