Today's date, June 18th, marks a major day, not just in the history of the Household Cavalry, but in the history of Europe.
On a field in Belgium 202 years ago today, an allied army of British, Dutch and Prussian troops defeated the Imperial French army of Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Waterloo, destroying the threat of a resurgence of French imperial power under Napoleon, and ushering in a lengthy period of peace across Europe.
When Napoleon escaped exile on the Italian island of Elba and returned to France in February 1815, the French army defected to him: Napoleon then marched on Paris, deposed King Louis XVIII and proclaimed himself Emperor once more. Britain, along with Russia, Austria and Prussia, all vowed to put 15,000 men in the field to defeat Napoleon after the Congress of Vienna declared him a outlaw four days before the Emperor entered Paris. Aware that he had no chance of diplomatically convincing his enemies against an invasion of France, Napoleon knew his only option was to take the initiative and destroy his enemies before they were in a position to defeat him.
In the military campaign that followed (known as the Hundred Days), a series of running battles across Belgium culminated on Sunday 18th June 1815 at Waterloo, where Napoleon faced an Anglo-led army under the command of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington. Aware that a Prussian army under the command of Field Marshal Gebhard von Blücher was on its way, Napoleon chose to attack, hoping to defeat the British before the Prussians arrived to reinforce them. The battle was a savage and bloody affair, but the British held firm, fending off repeated attacks by the French throughout the course of the day at key points across the battlefield. With the arrival of Prussian troops in the early evening and the narrow defeat of his army's elite, the previously invincible Imperial Guard, when a combined British and Prussian counterattack on his right flank and centre overwhelmed the French lines, Napoleon conceded defeat and quit the field, his army effectively destroyed (records indicate French casualties ranged from 24-26,000, in comparison to the combined Allied casualties of around 22,000, 15,000 suffered by the British, 7,000 by the Prussians). Returning to Paris, Napoleon hoped to convince the French government to back him in fighting on, but he was instead met with outrage at the disaster that was Waterloo and, under the threat of being deposed, abdicated on June 22nd 1815.
When he learned Prussian troops were marching on Paris with orders to take him dead or alive, Napoleon fled to the French port of Rochefort. His initial plan was to try and flee to America, but upon learning the British were blockading all ports, he surrendered to Captain Frederick Maitland of HMS Bellerophon and demanded asylum from Britain. The British exiled Napoleon to the island of St Helena in the South Atlantic, where he remained a prisoner until his death of stomach cancer on May 5th 1821 (despite his claims to the bitter end the British were discreetly poisoning him).
The Household Cavalry and the Battle of Waterloo
The regiments of the Household Cavalry all fought at Waterloo and all won great distinction in the fighting; over the course of the day, Napoleon sent successive cavalry attacks to try and swamp the British lines, and it fell to the British cavalry to fight them off, pushing the French back despite being outnumbered and pitted against an enemy with better training, mounts and equipment.
The Household Cavalry Museum contains many artefacts from Waterloo which tell the stories of the men who made names for themselves on that field in Belgium over two centuries ago, including:
- The Eagle of the 105th Regiment of the Line, captured by members of the Royals at Waterloo: A French Regiment’s eagle, personally given by Napoleon, was mounted on top of its standard, and represented the honour and pride of the soldiers who fought under it. For the enemy to capture an eagle was a terrible blow to the French Army, and a great honour to the man who took it (as such commemorated on the left arm of the uniform of the Blues and Royals)
- A lock of hair and a snuff-box made from the hoof of Marengo, the horse ridden by Napoleon at Waterloo
- The sword wielded by Major Edward Kelly of the 1st Life Guards, with which he killed Colonel Habert of the 4th Cuirassiers during one of the savage cavalry clashes at Waterloo (winning him a knighthood of the Order of St. Anne, as well as the personal commendation of the Russian tsar), as well as the tail of Kelly's favourite bay mare, which carried him to safety despite a fatal lance injury to the head.
- The uniform of Sir Robert Hill, commanding officer of the Blues at Waterloo, including the musket ball removed from his arm on the field.
- A cast of the skull of Corporal John Shaw of the 2nd Life Guards; a veritable Hercules of a man, over 6ft tall with a career outside the army both as a boxer and a life model for the Royal Academy, Waterloo was Shaw's first and last battle; he died during one of the cavalry clashes, accounting for 10 French cavalrymen before he was cut down (when his sword shattered, Shaw resorted to clubbing enemies with his helmet and the broken hilt). Given a hero's burial on the battlefield, Shaw's body was later exhumed and casts of his bones made to feed the vogue in British society for souvenirs with a connection to the battlefield.
- The prosthetic leg of the Earl of Uxbridge. A musket wound sustained at Waterloo necessitated the amputation of his right leg below the knee; dissatisfied with the prosthesis provided for him, Uxbridge commissioned a fully articulated prosthetic leg which would be the standard of such until as late as 1914.
These artefacts and the histories attached to them are just some of the stories that can be discovered at the Household Cavalry Museum, tied to that grey, damp day in June where on a field in Belgium over 200 years ago, the course of history was changed...
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