Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics

The Dutch-Belgian Cavalry at Waterloo Archives: Some Thoughts on the Dutch-Belgian Cavalry

By André Develloet

 

Almost two centuries have passed since the climactic battle of Waterloo, which marked an abrupt end of the Napoleonic era. The subject deserves continued research into all relevant aspects so that, maybe, one day, we may conclude that all is said and done regarding the famous Waterloo campaign, including the role of Wellington’s allied troops. I hope that this book has been able to make its contribution to that goal and shed more light on the actions of the Dutch-Belgian cavalry during those fateful days in June 1815.

Before I rest my case, I would like to offer an explanation why the role of the Dutch-Belgians, including the cavalry remained so unknown, even controversial, for so long. The roots of this problem can be traced back to those who had actually taken part in the Waterloo campaign. Additionally, in England, Prussia and the Netherlands, prejudice and nationalistic bias effectively influenced the way in which the public would remember the Battle of Waterloo.

Nowhere was this better illustrated than in London and Amsterdam where simultaneously, only a year after the battle, the allied victory over Napoleon was commemorated by exhibiting a gigantic panorama painting.  A Dutch businessman who stayed in London at the time noted:

“…The battle of Waterloo has raised the English spirit the most; everything which reminds of that victory, has become dear to the national soul. There is no Englishman who would not spend a shilling to see the carriage of Buonaparte… Likewise the Museum of Waterloo, where a multitude of cuirasses, weapons and all kinds of utensils for battle are being kept, which were collected on the battlefield of Waterloo, and which is being visited with such zeal, comparable to the pilgims for the relics of the Roman Church. However, nothing draws the attention of the nation more than both panorama’s, which were produced for the depiction of the battle; but nothing also shows the spirit of the nation more clearly than the way in which it is presented, whereby everything is so completely English, as if no Dutchmen had had any important part in the complete victory. The biggest panorama was in Leicester Square of J. Burnet and H.A. Parker…..I found myself surrounded by infantry and cavalry, but everything in red uniforms; and where I saw blue coats, and thought to find my brave countrymen, English Guards, guns, hussars and dragoons were pointed out to me… In the description itself [entitled: formation of the British force under the command of the Duke of Wellington] no mention is made of the Dutch troops”[1].

When the Dutchman returned to Amsterdam soon afterwards he also visited the panorama by Mr. Maaskamp on the Leidscheplein and added in the same letter:

“….I understood and saw in my imagination everything, and was exhalted by the factual and highly important part which not only our crown prince, but also our national troops had played in the battle and victory…. In the description could be found a highly accurate state and distribution of the allied army under the Duke of Wellington on June 18th… The true heroism is not pushed away from anyone who took part. Just as the Generals de Lancy, Fitzgerald, Ponsomby, Picton and Vivian shine in full splendour, likewise the bravery of the English Guards is illuminated, who compete with our cavalry for the bloody laurels; but also the Hannoverians and Brunswickers and Prussians all stand on their place, and justice is done to them all….”[2]

This narrow view on what really took place at Waterloo was also typified in the development of the Waterloo literature.  In the early years after the Waterloo Campaign, when fresh memories of veterans about the battles were still abundant, British and continental publications naturally focussed on the contribution of their countrymen, but also paid at least some attention to the role of their allies. A British publication in 1815 gave the following account:

“Throughout the line the whole of the troops had done their duty. The old Hannoverian legion well supported that high character they had acquired by their service in Spain; and the young Hannoverians, the Brunswickers, the Belgians and the Nassau troops, generally did credit to themselves and their country”[3].

Another contemporary work lauded the Dutch-Belgians as well, stating that to the surprise of the French the Belgians didn´t come over to them; “In vain the cry of “Brave Belgians”come over and join your old comrades, was vociferated. These troops remained firm to their allegiance and during the day, their conduct was pre-eminently heroic”[4]

In the Netherlands, few publications were based on eyewitness accounts and were mainly limited to a general description of the battles on the basis of the official army despatches and several articles in the National Newspapers.  To the general public, there was absolutely no doubt that the Dutch-Belgian troops had done their duty.

The consensus on both sides of the Channel that Waterloo had been an allied effort and not only a British one, radically changed when Captain William Siborne, an officer of Engineers in the British army, in 1848 published his “History of the War in France and Belgium in 1815”[5]. The book was a reflection of his earlier scale model about the Battle of Waterloo, which was first exhibited in London in 1838 and now rests at the National Army Museum in London. The uniqueness of this eminent work lay especially in the exclusive correspondence with hundreds of British and Hannoverian officers about the Battle of Waterloo. A work so fundamental that it found no equals in the Waterloo literature. It has been the “bible on Waterloo”since that time and most British accounts on the 1815 campaign have been based on it, up to the present day.

But Captain Siborne´s work, valuable as it undoubtedly is, was highly biased and incomplete. This is especially so with regard to the Dutch-Belgians.  Siborne had little information on the Dutch-Belgians, not about their position nor their exploits, and many British officers, when asked in the wake of the 2nd and 3rd editions, explicitly told him that they had no idea. Siborne then chose not to pursue the matter any further by seeking correspondence with Dutch of Belgian sources, not even with the French or numerous German officers who had been present at the Battle.

Because of his lack of understanding what went on where the Dutch-Belgians stood, Siborne either put them in reserve or fabricated incidents from circumstantial evidence. This could not hide the clear contradictions in his account of the battle. For example, according to Siborne, the Netherlands heavy cavalry brigade in one instance charges upon their French adversaries with "utmost steadiness and gallantry”and the next instance, after the personal appeal of Lord Uxbridge to charge the French, supposedly retires in great haste and disorder[6]. A confirmation or even indication of this story, so eagerly picked up in much of the British literature, couldn't be found in any of the Dutch or Belgian literature. In any event, such a major incident, where not a regiment such as the Cumberland Hussars (who were Hannoverian mercenaries) quits the field, but an entire Brigade, would certainly not have gone unnoticed in the contemporary publications on Waterloo. It would have caused widespread outrage among the press and public in the Netherlands if any truth would have been in this story.

However, Siborne can´t be entirely blamed for this serious omission in his work, because after reading all the letters of his vast Waterloo Correspondence at the British Library, his judgment on the Dutch-Belgians seems to me merely an echo of the low opinion most British officers had of their Dutch-Belgian allies. So there was clearly a basis for this neglect or even dismissal of the role of the Dutch-Belgians in the numerous British sources, many of them written by officers and men who had taken part in the battle. These primary sources, which included such men as Lord Uxbridge, Captain Tomkinson and Captain Mercer, were mostly quite negative about the Dutch-Belgians.

What value should be placed on these first hand accounts of the battle? The answer, I hope, has been found in my book, but I would like to make a few additional observations, which should serve as a general warning to all prospective Waterloo historians.  After reading the original Waterloo letters I can only conclude that one must be very careful with accepting these accounts of the battle as authoritative for a number of good reasons:

1) The letters were written more than 20 years after the event and numerous correspondents confess that loss of memory had blurred the picture considerably. Indeed, many officers briefly replied that they were not able to provide the requested information. Others admitted that they only remembered what happened immediately around them. This was evident to Major Brown (at Waterloo lieutenant of the 4th Infantry Regiment) who told Siborne that:

“I also hold the opinion that officers and more specifically those who stand in a company, have little time or occasion to know something about what happened outside their own division or brigade and that the gunsmoke and the turmoil, which I fear to be inseparable from the regiments which are close to the enemy and more so for the attention it requires from the men, denies every opportunity to the officers in the company to give any credible story about the battles in which they took part”[7]

2) Many British officers had made a career after Waterloo and were remarkably hesitant to be frank about the part which their regiment played in the battle and likewise about other British regiments. This restraint was well described by Lieutenant General Lord Seaton in his letter to Captain Siborne of 22 February 1843:

“I have been so fully occupied since the year 1815, that I have seldom had time or inclination to read any of the accounts of the Battle of Waterloo. Indeed, it has always been a most unpleasant task to refer to our past military operations, which are connected with many painful recollections. I have cautiously abstained from giving opinions on controverted points that would draw me into discussions …..We were all so intent in performing our own parts, that we are disposed to imagine that the Brigade or Corps with which we were engaged played a most distinguished part, and attribute more importance to the movements under our own immediate observation than they deserved. I am persuaded that none but mounted officers can give a correct account of the Battle, and very few of those had an opportunity of seeing much beyond the limited space which they traversed”[8]. Naturally, the British officers who corresponded with Siborne remained silent about events that reflected poorly on their own regiment or on their fellow officers. It was much easier to blame any shortcomings on foreigners, such as the Dutch-Belgians or the Prussians, whom they mistrusted anyway.  However, most accounts provide little information on what the Dutch-Belgian cavalry actually did but rather indicate what the British thought of them. If they were seen retreating in confusion, then it obviously also means that they must have charged first, but the latter was not taken in account by Siborne et alia. We will see how these different interpretations of what transpired on the battlefield has greatly influenced the difference in perception and to my opinion has been the root cause for the contradictory and persistent negative accounts about the role of the Dutch-Belgian cavalry at Waterloo.

3) By the mid 19th Century, the myths of Waterloo had captured the imagination of romantic novelists and artists who naturally added their own interpretation of reality.  Many stories grew in the telling by would be experts and dandy´s. Stories about the 1815 campaign became a popular pastime in the clubs and tearooms of Victorian England. As the brutal experience of war subsided, the other side of the coin was forgotten, and numerous stories, intimately linking virtue, adventure and extraordinary bravery of individuals and regiments, mushroomed. “Edited” diaries and memoirs of British veterans such as those of Captain Tomkinson and Captain Mercer found an enthusiastic market. For serious historians, it became very difficult to separate fact from fiction. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle described the phenomenon in his novel “The Great Shadow”:

“To tell you the truth I have learned more about the Battle from what I have read than from what I saw, for how much could I see with a comrade on each side and a big white cloud at the end of my rifle. It was from books and stories of others that I learned how the heavy cavalry charged, how she overthrew the famous cuirassiers and how she was cut to pieces before she could go back. From them I learned everything about the consecutive attacks, how the Belgians ran etc.”[9]  Not suprisingly, Siborne´s extensive work influenced almost every author on Waterloo since. Hence, every fugitive became a “Belgian”and once enough people repeated it, it became the accepted truth. Siborne never corresponded with Dutch or Belgian officers. Since then, hardly any foreign author ever took the trouble to study the Dutch-Belgian primary sources himself and establish a correct understanding. I suppose everyone was comfortable with the myth.

In the Netherlands and Belgium, military historians such as General Knoop, General Renard, and Van Löben Sels, strongly reacted to Siborne´s allegations and in the same period published several, well documented studies on the contribution of the Dutch-Belgians to the Allied victory[10]. Much of the actions described were based on the testimonies of officers who had participated in the battles of Quatre-Bras and Waterloo. Unfortunately, these testimonies were not used as quotes, because this method was very unusual at the time. Instead, the authors mainly concentrated on the strategic and tactical aspects of the 1815 campaign. Nonetheless, the works of these military historians were wholeheartedly welcomed by the public and the officer corps in both countries and it was felt that the honour of the Netherlands army had been adequately upheld.

However, the seeds of endless controversy had been sown. Notwithstanding the serious historical flaws mentioned above, Siborne´s work was henceforth used by most British and many foreign historians. Some of them even went further and claimed that the Dutch-Belgians had not taken part at all in the Battle of Waterloo. For example, in the “autobiographical memoirs of Sir James Shaw Kennedy”, published as late as 1865, it is said that “the large bodies of Dutch-Belgian cavalry, and the regiment of Cumberland Hussars, that stood in reserve behind the 1st and 3rd divisions of infantry, took no part in the action”[11]. This denial of a role for the Dutch-Belgians, was also evident in one of the few works which focussed exclusively on the cavalry at Waterloo. In 1895,  Sir Evelyn Wood published  “Cavalry in the Waterloo Campaign”(London 1895). Even though the title suggested that the book dealt with all the cavalry at Waterloo, the book only paid due attention to the French and British cavalry or those German units such as the King´s German Legion or Brunswick troops that were part of the British army since the Peninsular war.

Throughout the 19th century, more publications were added on the Waterloo campaign but generally offered few new perspectives. The low opinion on the Dutch-Belgians had become commonplace. Later authors such as Sir Charles Oman, John Fortescue, Michael Glover, Philip Haythornthwaite and others continued that tradition into our own time. Only in the 1990´s did a British historian make a serious attempt to describe the true role of the Dutch-Belgians[12].

In the mean time, by the beginning of the 20th Century, the wave of British criticism again sparked another monumental attempt by the Head of the Military History Section of the Dutch army, Colonel de Bas, and an officer of the Belgian General Staff, Count ´t Serclaes de Wommersom, to do justice to the Dutch-Belgians who fought at Waterloo. In their three volume study on the Waterloo Campaign, which was published in 1908, the authors based themselves on the official army reports on the battle of Waterloo and succeeded in writing the most comprehensive study on the Waterloo Campaign in the Low Countries to date.[13]  During that time, the authors could also refer to numerous primary sources which had been collected by the Military History Section of the Dutch army.

Other authors would not have that privilege. The buildings of the Military History Section, including the archives, were bombed by the RAF in 1944 and more devastatingly in 1945 and almost every original source went up in flames. 

Wommersom’s and de Bas’s extensive study unfortunately never received the respect it deserved, perhaps because of the language barrier (published in Dutch and French), perhaps because two world wars had shifted the attention to contemporary military conflicts. The result was, until the early 1990’s, that the controversy regarding the true role of the Dutch-Belgians persisted.  Only recently, with the advent of digitalised libraries and archives, the lowering of language barriers, now that English has truly become the predominant language in our globalised world, and a still growing interest in the Napoleonic era among a new generation of historians,  more historical sources resurface than at any other time since 1815. Finally, we are beginning to see the complete picture. Not surprisingly, that picture comes close to the observations by the Dutch businessman when he compared the London and Amsterdam panorama’s of the battle, almost two hundred years ago: “The true heroism is not pushed away from anyone who took part….all stand on their place, and justice is done to them all”.

Notes:

[1] From a letter of 22 October 1816 entitled “Comparison between the London and Amsterdam panorama´s of the battle of Waterloo, in a letter to a friend”, in: Vaderlandsche Letteroefeningen, part II, Amsterdam 1816, pp. 671-682.

[2] Letter in Vaderlandsche Letteroefeningen, ibid.

[3] in: Account of the Battle of Waterloo fought on the 18th of June 1815 by the English and allied forces commanded by the Duke of Wellington….by a British officer of the Staff, 5th edition, London 1815, p. 22

[4] From; John Tregortha, Britain Triumphant on the Plains of Waterloo, being a corrected circumstantial narrative of that memorable battle with biographical and characteristic anecdotes of the principal commanders…, Burslem 1817, pp. 198/199.

[5] Captain William Siborne, History of the War in France and Belgium in 1815, London 1848, 3rd edition. Reprinted in 1990 by Greenhill Books under the title “History of the Waterloo Campaign”.

[6] Siborne, ibid,  p. 286 and p. 296/297

[7] See H.T. Siborne, Waterloo Letters, London 1891, p. 394

[8] See the letter reprinted in; H.T. Siborne, Waterloo letters, London 1892, p. 280-281

[9] A. Conan Doyle, The Great Shadow, quoted in: W.E.A. Wuppermann, Engelsche Beoordelingen over de Nederlandse troepen in 1815 aan de feiten getoetst, in: Vereeniging ter Beoefening van de Krijgswetenschap, 22 March 1895.

[10] Siborne´s  neglect of the substantial role of the Prussians in the 1815 Campaign triggered the same type of reaction by German historians. These studies are extensively used in Peter Hofschröer´s very useful two-volume study on the Waterloo Campaign from the German perspective, called “1815, The Waterloo Campaign”published by Greenhill in 2000.

[11] From:  Autobiographical Memoir of General Sir James Shaw Kennedy KCB, London 1865, p. 119. To my knowledge this is the only author who even denies the slightest role of the Dutch-Belgian cavalry at Waterloo.

[12] David Hamilton-Williams, Waterloo, New Perspectives, Arms and Armour Press, 1993.

[13] F. de Bas and J 't Serclaes de Wommersom, La Campagne de 1815 aux Pays-Bas, d'après les rapports officiels néerlandais, parts 1, 2 and 3, Bruxelles 1908.

 

Placed on the Napoleon Series: December 2009

The Dutch-Belgian Cavalry at Waterloo Archives ]



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