At Waterloo

Rosemary Hill

On the field of Waterloo the corner that is for ever England is the Château-Ferme de Hougoumont. Here, on 18 June 1815, 2500 British soldiers held off 12,500 French, nearly a quarter of Napoleon’s army, for most of the afternoon. By the time fighting petered out in the early evening the battle was almost over, leaving about five thousand men dead or seriously wounded at Hougoumont. Of the heavily shelled château only the chapel was intact. Today it is an eerily smart ruin at the centre of an immaculately restored farmyard. The great gates from which the French were repelled in a struggle that was the subject of history paintings and re-enactments ever afterwards, are being re-created. The barns are becoming exhibition centres and the Landmark Trust has bought a slice of the outhouses which can be rented by holiday-makers wanting the after-hours battlefield to themselves.

All this interest is recent. The château, a squat tower house, was demolished soon after the battle and the outbuildings and land returned to use as a farm until 2003, when it was sold to the local commune. Since October 2013 the Intercommunale Bataille de Waterloo, an international charity, has been working to excavate, document and restore the farm for the bicentenary. The fieldwork has been led by the Coldstream Guards, who defended it in 1815 and for whom it has always been an important part of their regiment’s history, while the fund-raising charge is directed, fittingly, by descendants of the generals: the Duke of Wellington, HIH Prince Charles Napoléon and HSH Prince Blücher von Wahlstatt.

At Hougoumont as it looks now, sitting in open, rolling country, it is difficult to understand why the French didn’t simply overrun it. But the history of battles is often as much about landscape as strategy and it was the landscape as it looked in the summer of 1815 that I went to try and re-imagine. I work on the history of antiquarianism, the study of the past through its material remains, and there were, surprisingly perhaps, a number of antiquaries at Waterloo. They took careful note of the lie of the land as well as the debris on the surface. Walter Scott was there, on his first trip abroad. By August, when he arrived, the site was a tourist attraction doing a roaring trade. ‘Men, women and children rushed out upon us, holding up swords, pistols, carabines and holsters,’ Scott reported, ‘the great object of ambition was to possess the armour of a cuirassier’. He also acquired ‘a relique of greater moral interest’ which was a gift from a lady ‘whose father had found it upon the field of battle. It is a manuscript collection of French songs, bearing stains of clay and blood, which probably indicate the fate of the proprietor.’

The ruins at Hougoumont today.
The ruins at Hougoumont today.

Scott’s combination of romantic excitement and morbid curiosity was not untypical of sightseers at Waterloo and his account of his visit, Paul’s Letters to His Kinsfolk, was a bestseller. Another antiquary who was at Hougoumont, John Gage (1786-1842), left an account that is more personal and more chilling than Scott’s, in a journal kept during a visit that was, for him too, a first taste of foreign travel. Gage was 29 in the summer of 1815. From an old-established family of Suffolk gentry he was typical of the generation who would have gone on a Grand Tour had the continent not been effectively closed by war for most of his life. The trip to the Netherlands seems to have been conceived with a mixture of cultural and social purposes, and undertaken with a fair degree of apprehension about leaving ‘the comforts and quiet’ of the family seat at Hengrave Hall.

By 9 June, when Gage set off for Harwich, the allies knew that Napoleon was with the Armée du Nord and manoeuvring for battle. On the 15th Gage was in Amsterdam, making a few cautious aesthetic judgments. ‘The old church … has three very fine painted glass windows,’ he noted. ‘I have never seen any so fine yet, but I am young in my travels.’ That night in Brussels the Duke of Wellington was called away from the Duchess of Richmond’s ball by news that the French had crossed the border. Whether or not some of his officers stayed so late at the party that they had to fight at Quatre Bras in their dress uniform is not certain but the scene that passed so rapidly into myth and literature did so because it embodied the ‘moral interest’ of Waterloo for contemporaries, the violence that lies below the polished surface. Scott’s blood-stained ballads, Byron’s reflection that ‘upon night so sweet such awful morn could rise’: these were the collisions of civility and brutality that awaited Gage.

Soon, rumours of the battles at Quatre Bras, Ligny and Waterloo began to reach him and on the evening of the 20th ‘some wounded officers arrived’. The next morning brought news of victory. ‘Flags are flying on every boat as we pass along the canal,’ he wrote, ‘& in every village garlands of flowers & coloured paper & many flags are hanging from the houses.’ He was impatient now to get to Brussels but once there, on the 25th, the mood of celebration evaporated: ‘As I approached Bruxelles every object indicated the influences of war. In the Park or allé verte the Prussian cavalry had a small camp and around the walls of Bruxelles tents were pitched for the wounded French prisoners. The barges on the river were all turned into hospitals … It was Sunday all the shops were shut, it rained, and nothing was to be seen but sick & wounded in carts or litters or at the windows.’

There were few rooms to be had and Gage was forced to stay at the expensive Hôtel de Bellevue where he learned that ‘the dreadful Battles which had been fought the week before my arrival had made sad havoc among my friends … I hardly dared inquire after any one.’ Among his acquaintance in the gentry network were Sir James and Lady Crawfurd who had lost their eldest son at Hougoumount, the 21-year-old Thomas, a captain in the Third Regiment of Guards. All the while the social round limped on. In between visits to the wounded, when Gage was impressed with the care they received from local people – ‘not a single house was without one or more’ – he managed to attend the levée of the Prince Condé. To keep up the cultural side of his travels he called at the house of Mr Donoots, a banker with a notable collection of pictures. In a scene as telling in its way as the duchess’s ball, Gage admired the Rubens drawings and a Rembrandt self-portrait as he tiptoed round one of the casualties, a badly wounded ‘Hanoverian gent … fast asleep on a handsome couch’.

The attempt to make this into any kind of Grand Tour faded as his days became increasingly overshadowed by the aftermath of the battle. On the 27th he went with Crawfurd to look for his son’s body. The road from Brussels to the battlefield ‘was still strewn with dead horses in every direction and covered with broken carts’. On the approach, beyond the village of Waterloo, Gage noted that ‘the country rises.’ About two miles further on at the village of Mont St Jean they left their carriage and took in the panorama. ‘In front of the right of Lord Wellington’s centre was the farm of Hougoumont … where poor Crawford [sic] was stationed.’ On the ground ‘hats, capes & the remains of every species of army accoutrement still remained on the field & heaps of slain lay buried … beneath a slight covering of earth & the fires were still smoking where the dead were burning – the ground looked as if every mote had been contended for. Near a gate at the head of the croft … fell poor Crawfurd, we found his stock on the spot.’

Reading Gage’s journal in Cambridge University Library, where his papers are now kept, I thought it a remarkable fluke that he should have found Crawfurd’s stock among so much debris and surprising that Gage made no comment on the coincidence. At Hougoumont it is clear that confined and outnumbered as they were, the men who held the farm would have been acutely aware of each other’s positions at every moment. Crawfurd is one of a small handful of individuals commemorated on the spot and a plaque records with precision that he died by the west gate ‘at the extreme south-west angle of this wall’. Gage noted the setting. Hougoumont ‘stood on a declivity, composed of large buildings, a garden of some acres having a very thick wall above it, below it a small hop ground, and a deep lane with a very thorny hedge & double ditch running round a croft at the head of the garden’. Despite ‘the flattened appearance of the house’, he remarked ‘the enemy do not appear to have got into the garden … [it] hardly appears to be touched.’ The garden, laid out in parterres had become an improvised cemetery. Crawfurd lay in a shallow grave among the herbs and vegetables. His father and Gage oversaw his exhumation.

The ruins at Hougoumont c.1890.
The ruins at Hougoumont c.1890.

Of all Gage’s observations it may be the thorny hedge, which like the garden and the nearby wood, have disappeared, rather than the careful notes on art and local customs, that is of most use to history. One aim of the excavation at Hougoumont is to work out why the French with their vastly superior numbers couldn’t take it. Alasdair White, the archaeological co-ordinator of the project, has developed a theory based on his deductions from the remains of a bank and ditches.[*] White thinks he has found the remains of a stock-proof hedge within musket range of the farm, a theory borne out exactly by Gage’s description. When the French reached it, having approached through the wood, they were trapped behind a virtually impenetrable obstacle. But a hedge, however thick, would let musket balls through, it would also probably have allowed the presence of moving figures to be glimpsed from Hougoumont, so that Crawfurd and his comrades could take rough aim. Between the wall and the site of the hedge there is now a declivity which White thinks is a burial pit, large enough to suggest that a considerable number of men fell thereabouts. It will not be excavated. Non-invasive techniques can establish the likely extent and the number of bodies it could contain. After that it will be marked as a war grave.

Few of the dead received such dignified commemoration at the time. Gage did not see any bodies on the battleground ‘tho several were taken out of the corn the day I was there they had been buried in different directions over the field … The burning of the bodies was said not to have answered – I found some mutilated remains.’ He stayed at Waterloo for nearly four hours and left the ground with horror, ‘the scene I had gone through in taking up poor Crawfurd & the general appearances of the whole field were sufficient to awaken every feeling.’

Sir James asked Gage to escort his son’s body back to England and Gage felt obliged to do it. The long, grisly journey began on 29 June. After a few half-hearted notes on churches, the journal becomes entirely preoccupied with practicalities. Crawfurd’s body was carried by canal as far as Ostend, where it arrived on 1 July, and Gage, unable to find rooms while he waited for his passage across the Channel, spent a wretched night sleeping on two chairs, his friend’s corpse, 13 days decomposing, next to him under a sail in the close summer heat. Arriving at Wivenhoe Gage hired a hearse and reached home on the night of 2 July in no hurry to go travelling again.

The restoration of Hougoumont two hundred years later is the first British memorial at Waterloo. At the time there was a remarkable lack of will for any monumental commemoration, either in Flanders or at home, of one of the greatest victories in British history. As Byron understood, it was the place itself that mattered. The battlefield became its own memorial:

Stop! – for thy tread is on Empire’s dust!
An Earthquake’s spoil is sepulchred below!
Is the spot mark’d with no colossal bust?
Nor column trophied for triumphal show?
None; but the moral’s truth tells simpler so.

The way Waterloo was and was not remembered reflected the changes coming over history itself. Classical images of war, the ‘column trophied’ and the heroic bust, gave way to a romantic interest in the personal, the spirit of place, the lives of individuals, the blood and mud on a manuscript poem. Before he went to Waterloo, Scott had been having difficulty with the novel he had begun. On his return he finished it in a matter of weeks. It was The Antiquary, not a historical novel, but a novel about the experience of history in the present. An instant success, it is, in its way a monument to what was lost and won at Waterloo.

Gage went on to be a successful director of the Society of Antiquaries to which he actively recruited as many French scholars as possible. In his own studies he stayed close to home, writing mostly about his native Suffolk. In 1838 he edited and published the Chronicle of Jocelin of Brakelonde the account of medieval life and society which Carlyle used as ‘the past’ in Past and Present, a sharp critique of the condition of England and the world it had made after Waterloo.

[*] The Road to Waterloo: A Concise History of the 1815 Campaign by Alasdair White (White and Maclean, £9).