200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo - what happened to its heroes

How the historic Battle of Waterloo affected Britain and the lives of people in the country, on its 200th anniversary

Francis Stiles capturing Eagle
Francis Stiles capturing Eagle

Writer Colin Brown has provoked a bit of a debate of late with his take on the Battle of Waterloo.

In the annals of popular history it is portrayed as a victory over a despot, a pivotal moment in history which saved Europe from tyranny.

It transformed Britain into the world’s foremost superpower, a position it held from that historic day in 1815 right up until the beginning of the First World War.

To the victor came the spoils, but those spoils were not divided equally among the British and, in particular, those rank and file soldiers who gave their lives that day for King and country. It is something Mr Brown has addressed in his book ‘Scum of the Earth – What Happened to the Real British Heroes of Waterloo?’

And its message is one that has echoes down the ages right up until the present day.

The ‘scum of the earth’ tag was given by the Duke of Wellington to the ordinary soldiers who fought for him at Waterloo.

Although an undoubted military genius who was well rewarded for his heroism, he was far from a celebrated figure in his time by those outside his immediate social circle.

In history he is known as the ‘Iron Duke’, a nickname not coined for his steadfastness on the battlefield, but for the iron shutters he put on his London home, Apsley House, to keep rioters out who were demanding parliamentary reform.

Four years after Waterloo came what became known as the Battle of Peterloo, which saw a massacre of British subjects on home soil as they protested for better representation in parliament.

Cavalry charged into a crowd of 60,000–80,000 that had gathered to demand reform, killing 15 and injuring hundreds more.

Among those killed was John Lees, a Royal Artillery Driver who drove a cart full of powder and shells to supply the gunners on the battlefield at Waterloo in the thick of the fighting.

At Peterloo, Militia on horseback were backed by the 15th Dragoons, who had fought at Waterloo.

They cornered Lees as he cowered under the speaker’s platform. He was slashed across the right elbow down to the bone when he tried to protect himself from their blows. Then he was battered by the special constables with their truncheons. Three weeks later, he died from his injuries.

The idea for his book, Mr Brown says, came from the TV series Age of Elegance by Lucy Worsley, a time of grand architecture and patronage of the arts overseen by the Prince Regent, who was to become George IV. But there was a dark side to that time.

“She talked of a Britain at war with itself,” said Mr Brown. “I thought that was interesting and something I should explore.”

His researched how individuals highlighted as heroes in the Battle of Waterloo fared after it.

And the answer to the question in the title of his book ‘What Happened to the Real British Heroes of Waterloo?’ is not an edifying one.

Many ended up destitute or starving.

As Mr Brown said: “The Battle of Waterloo wasn’t the end for them but the beginning.” The beginning of their fight for survival and representation in Parliament.

An image of Napoleon Bonaparte
An image of Napoleon Bonaparte

When Napoleon escaped from exile to return as leader of France, there was little popular support in Britain to take him on.

Many were against it as the country had spent more than 20 years engaged in wars against the French. The country was exhausted from the conflict and had domestic troubles to deal with, namely poverty, unemployment, and unrest.

On his return Napoleon himself sued for peace, something the British government at the time tried to cover up. Radicals were outraged that Britain should try impose a regime change on the French people who acclaimed the return of Napoleon.

The cost of war was huge. While the French largely paid for it through plunder, the British paid for it through debt which stood at around 230% of the country’s GDP around the time of Waterloo. To put this in context, in 2008 at the time of bank bail out it stood at around 75%.

A few days before the Battle of Waterloo, the Chancellor asked Parliament to support an increase in borrowing to pay for the new war of £6m - a colossal sum in those days. Prime Minister William Pitt had introduced income tax as a temporary measure to reduce the debt from the French wars.

Parliament had passed the Corn Laws bill in 1815 to keep the price of grain high to benefit domestic producers which led to the price of bread going up, and bread riots.

As most of the land in Britain was held by members of the small aristocratic elite, Parliament was accused of helping the very rich at the expense of the poor.

In the run up to Waterloo there were food riots on the streets of London, while a ring of steel was put up around Parliament to protect MPs and peers from a mob protesting against the passage of the Corn Law legislation.

There were also riots against the industrialisation that was forcing people from the farms to the factories and protests for Parliamentary seats for the new industrialised towns in the Midlands and the north of England.

The them and us mentality, according to Mr Brown, was even evident in what happened after the battle.

As well as the demise of John Lees there was the story of one of the two captured French Napoleonic imperial eagles captured at Waterloo.

The Eagle of the 45th French Infantry was captured by Sergeant Charles Ewart during the charge of the Scots Greys.

The other, captured by the Royal Dragoons, was reputedly taken by Captain Alexander Kennedy Clark, from the French 105th Infantry who described how he gave it to a Corporal Francis Stiles to take it to the rear.

Later an eye witness said it was actually Stiles who had captured it.

Colin Brown - author
Colin Brown - author

Mr Brown added: “There was only going to be one winner. It was a clash of class. Stiles was not a senior officer.”

He said their lives could not have been more different after Waterloo - Kennedy Clark inherited a fortune, became laird of an estate in Scotland, and Queen Victoria’s Aide-de-Camp, an honorary post held today by Prince William. Stiles died relatively young in a cholera outbreak in Clerkenwell, London.

Interestingly military artist James Prinsep Beadle, born in 1863, painted the scene of the capture of the Eagle portraying Stiles as the man who captured it.

“I have no idea why he chose Stiles. But the painting isn’t held in a Military Museum - it is kept at Great Yarmouth town hall.”

Then there is Irishman James Graham of the Coldstream Guards, who was hailed as “the bravest man in Britain” for helping to close the north gate at Hougoumont farm – a turning point in the battle – and rescuing his brother from the burning barn.

Colin described how Graham later wrote to the Chelsea Hospital Commissioners when he was 50, applying for an increase to the 9d – or roughly £2.50 in today’s money – that he received as a daily pension.

After the battle the defence budget was slashed by 75% and the Army cut from 233,000 to 92,000, thousands of former “Waterloo Men” were forced to get poor relief or beg for a living.

As they struggled the Prince Regent, later George IV, presided over a period of huge extravagance.

Another grim reminder of the fate of the ordinary soldier was given by historian John Sadler. Many who died that day in Waterloo were buried in shallow graves but their bodies were later disinterred and their skeletons taken.

“They were ground down and used as fertiliser and taken back home to be used on English crops”, he said.

However, he added it must not be forgotten the Battle proved a pivotal moment in British history from which the country did eventually benefit.

Mr Sadler added: “Wellington was the right man for the battle, the right man in the right place, He was a military genius.

“The battle established Britain as the world’s foremost superpower, a position it held from 1815 to 1914.”

* ‘Scum of the Earth – What Happened to the Real British Heroes of Waterloo?’ by Colin Brown is published by The History Press and costs £20.

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