This month in history: the Battle of Waterloo

Waterloo painting18 June 2015 marked the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo, documented in The Gazette in army despatches and reports of military engagements, and the campaign medals that followed. 

The Duke of Wellington's despatch

The London Gazette Extraordinary (issue 17028), 22 June 1815, reproduces a despatch from the Duke of Wellington, which arrived on the night of the 21 June, delivered to Earl Bathhurst. It details the battle’s events and losses against the French Army under the command of Napoleon Bonaparte:

‘The enemy repeatedly attacked us with a large body of infantry and cavalry, supported by a numerous and powerful artillery, but all were repulsed in the steadiest manner’. Mention was given to those who highly distinguished themselves, including the Duke of Brunswick, ‘who fell, fighting gallantly at the head of his troops’, and ‘Major-General Sir W. Ponsonby, having taken many prisoners, and an eagle’, the French regimental eagle being a symbolic battle trophy. Marshall Blucher and the Prussian Army’s contribution were notable for providing timely assistance on ‘this arduous day’, though this would later be downplayed by Wellington.

The fatalities and injuries at Waterloo were many, ‘such advantages could not be gained without great loss and I am sorry to add, that ours has been immense.’ A list of losses ends the despatch, which (including casualties) amounted to 15,000 dead or wounded of Wellington’s army. Up to 50,000 died on all sides.

Napoleon surrenders

Following his defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon Bonaparte returned to Paris and abdicated in favour of his son. He surrendered to Rear Admiral Sir Frederick Lewis Maitland, KCB (CB Gazette issue 17061, KCB 18779), aboard HMS Bellerophon, heralding the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the end of Napoleon’s imperial ambitions.

Maitland refused to allow Napoleon to sail for America, but offered to take him to England instead – 4 days of negotiations later, Napoleon agreed, and on 7 August, he and his staff were removed to HMS Northumberland, which conveyed him to his final exile on Saint Helena.

The extract of a letter from Captain Maitland of His Majesty’s Ship Bellerophon (Gazette issue 17044) says:

‘For the information of my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, I have to acquaint you that the Count Las Casses and General Allemand, this day came on board His Majesty's ship under my command, with a proposal for me to receive on board Napoleon Bonaparte, for the purpose of throwing himself on the generosity of His Royal Highness the Prince Regent. Conceiving myself authorised by their Lordships' secret order, I have acceded to the proposal, and he is to embark on board this ship to-morrow morning. That no misunderstanding might arise, I have explicitly and clearly explained to the Count Las Casses, that I have no authority whatever for granting terms of any sort; but that all I can do is to convey him and his suite to England to be received in such a manner as His Royal Highness may deem expedient.’

Napoleon died in 1821 on St Helena, appearing as a despatch from Captain Crokat (Gazette issue 1722). ‘St Helena, May 6, 1821. It falls to my duty to inform your Lordship, that Napoleon Bonaparte expired at about ten minutes before six o'clock in the evening of the, 5th instant, after an illness which had confined him to his apartment since the 17th of March last.’ The cause is thought to have been stomach cancer, with some detail of the postmortem described.

After Waterloo

The painting 'Chelsea pensioners reading the Gazette of the Battle of Waterloo', by Sir David Wilkie (pictured, © English Heritage), was commissioned by the Duke of Wellington. It was immensely popular at the time, and depicts wounded, invalided and elderly soldiers celebrating the British victory at Waterloo, while reading the Gazette Extraordinary of 22 June. 

Beyond the jubilation and patriotism, though, over 20 years of war had left the nation with huge national debt, and tens of thousands of returning soldiers who were jobless and hungry.