On 18 June 1815, British and other allied forces faced Napoleon’s army at the Château d’Hougoumont, Belgium, in one of the most important battles in British and European history: Waterloo.
My 2015 book Waterloo: The Bravest Man is a fictionalised account of the gallant British defence, led by Colonel James Macdonell of the Coldstream Guards, and during my research I came across two separate stories of individual bravery which particularly piqued my interest. Of course, at both Waterloo and at the battle of Quatre Bras (fought on June 15-16) – battles in which Napoleon Bónaparte’s troops fought the combined forces of the Duke of Wellington’s allied army for dominance over the European continent – there were many such stories. However, the two stories that follow were notable because one concerned an English civilian, and the other a French drummer of no more than 12 years of age – neither of whose names are known.
Contemporary accounts of the events of 18 June are unclear, even contradictory, and the Duke of Wellington himself confessed that it was not possible to say for certain exactly what happened when. In the fog of battle there is always room for error and doubt. But the presence of both the drummer boy and the civilian is well recorded.
A portrait of Arthur Wellesley, the 1st duke of Wellington. Wellesley was one of the leading military and political figures of the 19th century and is noted for having defeated Napoleon Bonaparte at the battle of Waterloo. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
A drummer boy’s nerve
Both Wellington and Napoleon believed that the chateau and farm at Hougoumont would be vital to the outcome of the battle of Waterloo. This was due, in part, to its location: the site lay about mid-way between Wellington’s allied forces – which included forces from the German independent states of Brunswick, Nassau and Hanover – and the French wing. The allies returning from the battle of Quatre Bras arrived first, streaming down from Brussels to occupy the territory.
The French – under the command of Prince Jerome, Napoleon’s younger brother, who had not been a success as a commander during the Russian campaign – took up positions in and behind a copse of woods outside the farm walls, from where they could launch their infantry attacks and batter the defenders with their artillery.
Prince Jerome was determined to prove to his brother that he could take the position; Colonel Macdonell, hand-picked by Wellington for the task, was just as determined to hold it.
The first shots of the battle were fired by the French forces at Hougoumont and many bloody attacks were launched against the south and east walls and the orchard that lay just outside. Wave after wave of brave French soldiers tried and failed to force a way into the farm complex through the south gates. They were picked off by the allied musketeers firing down from steps and through loop holes [firing holes made in the brickwork by the defenders] in the walls. In the clearing between the gates and the trees, French bodies were piled high.
A path led from the clearing around the west wall of the chateau to another set of gates on the north side. While the fighting raged, Lieutenant Le Gros, an enormous man known as ‘L’enforceur’, led a troop of men up the path. They arrived outside the north gates just as they were being closed, having been left open for reinforcements and supplies coming down from the Mt St Jean ridge where the bulk of the allied army was stationed.
Le Gros used an axe to smash through the gates and into the yard inside. He was followed by approximately 30 men and one small boy – a French drummer boy – who slipped in just as Colonel Macdonell and his guards were closing them again (recorded in Hougoumont: the Key to Victory in Waterloo, Paget and Saunders, 1992 and The Battle: A New History of the Battle of Waterloo, Barbero, 2005). Wellington later said that the outcome of the whole battle hinged on the closing of the gates at Hougoumont and nominated Macdonell as “the bravest man at Waterloo”.
Had Le Gros and his men managed to reach the south gates and open them, Hougoumont would surely have fallen. But as it was, Le Gros’s forces were trapped in the complex and all killed. All, that is, save for the drummer boy, who was spared.
How would a boy of 12 manage to join a troop of infantry without being sent back to the safety of the French lines? What would make him do so? And what had happened to him once he was inside the farm complex? Did he survive, or was he one of the hundreds killed by cannon shot, canister or fire? The barn in the farm complex which was used to house the allies’ wounded did catch fire, causing many casualties. Could he have been put in there and was one of those trapped inside? Or did he somehow manage to clamber over the wall and make his escape back to the woods?
Against the backdrop of the battle at Hougoumont – a battle that raged for eight hours – these are the questions for which I found no certain answers and which led me to write his story as I imagined it.
A button seller’s bravery in battle
In 1814, the year before Waterloo took place, Wellington had selected the ridge at Mont St Jean, some 12 miles south of Brussels as the best place to halt Napoleon’s advance towards the city. In doing so, he had heeded the advice given one hundred years earlier by John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough: that if Brussels ever had to be defended, this would be the place to do so. From the ridge, he looked down on the French lines stretching across the field of battle and, behind them, the famed French artillery. As he had done in earlier battles, Wellington disguised his strength by hiding infantry and artillery on the reverse slope of the ridge.
An elm tree stood near the crossroads at Mt St Jean and it was from under this that Wellington, mounted on his horse Copenhagen, observed the ebb and flow of the battle and issued orders which were taken by one of his aides to the appropriate commander. From time to time, heedless of his own safety, he rode along the ridge to get a better view through the smoke that blanketed the valley below. Though one of aides riding beside him, Lord Uxbridge, lost a leg (famously stating: “by God, Sir, I’ve lost a leg”) and others were killed, Wellington, miraculously, was unharmed.
At one point in the battle, Wellington saw from his vantage point that the 8th Brigade, commanded by Major General Sir James Kempt, was in danger of being attacked by French cavalry approaching from their right. However, the folds in the ground meant that Kempt could not see the danger and was exposed.
Wellington looked about for an aide to take an urgent message to Kempt to tell him to turn to face the enemy cavalry, but there was no aide to be seen. All were dead, wounded or had been dispatched to other parts of the battlefield. Then, close by, he noticed a man in civilian dress and mounted on a small cob, observing the battle. He summoned the man over and asked him who he was. The ‘cob man’ (a name given to him later by Wellington), replied by handing over his business card which revealed him to represent the Birmingham firm of Blinks and Blinks, a silversmiths and suppliers of naval and military buttons.
After the battle, the button seller might well have expected business to be brisk. Officers and privates in every regiment wore uniforms decorated with their own distinctive buttons. The gold-plated buttons of an officer of the Light Dragoons, for example, were marked with an elephant and the word ‘Assaye’, to denote their part in that battle, while an officer of the 6th regiment of foot wore buttons decorated with an antelope. Buttons were a source of pride to all regimental commanders and woe betide the man who did not replace one lost or damaged.
After his successes at the battle of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington was fond of telling the story of ‘buttons’ – a civilian button seller who served as messenger for him when no one else was available. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Yet, why the button seller would be near a battle with artillery shells exploding all around him and a French cavalry charge possible at any moment, can only be imagined. Perhaps he was on his way south from Brussels in search of business, or perhaps he had been sent over to Belgium to secure orders for buttons from the British regiments stationed there.
Wellington pointed out Major General Kempt and asked the ‘cob man’ to ride down the slope and tell him to “refuse” his right in order to receive the enemy. The button seller obliged and the French attack was rebuffed.
What happened to the messenger during the rest of the battle is not known, except that he did survive: some years later, Wellington contacted the man and arranged for him to take up a new position at the Royal Mint, of which Wellington’s brother William Wellesley Pole was Master.
Wellington was fond of telling the story of ‘buttons’ or the ‘cob man’ and was known to be delighted at being able to reward him for his service.
As with the story of the French drummer boy, I have filled in the gaps in the story in a manner that seemed to me to be plausible.
Andrew Swanston is the author of the Thomas Hill stories set in the 17th century, Waterloo: The Bravest Man (Allison & Busby 2015), Incendium – the first in a series of Tudor mysteries, and, most recently, Beautiful Star and Other Stories (The Dome Press, £8.99)