Research Subjects: Eyewitness Accounts

The Art of Alexander Cavalie Mercer

By Gareth Glover

Anyone who has ever read anything about the Waterloo campaign of 1815, will know of the journal of General Alexander Cavalie Mercer; with its vivid and dramatic portrayal of the role played by G Troop Royal Horse Artillery during the retreat from Quatre Bras and the Battle of Waterloo itself. But readers may be amazed to hear that no one has actually seen the full glory of his journal as Mercer intended it to be seen….until now

Only Known Portrait of Alexander Mercer

Mercer’s Journal

Around 1830 Mercer wrote up his journal[i] from the original notes he had written contemporaneously, with additions from correspondence and other sources. It covers the period only from April 1815 to January 1816, when Mercer returned to Canterbury with D Troop which he had succeeded to on the death of Major Beane. By Mercer's own admission he had little time to write his journal up in the hectic few days before and after Waterloo, so his account may not be entirely reliable. Indeed in an article I wrote a few years ago, I was able to establish that Mercer had formed a great dislike for his number two, Second Captain Robert Newland[ii], whom he barely mentions throughout and that the troop had not received as many casualties in men or horses as he stated in his journal[iii].

It is also clear from his later correspondence, that he had become a bitter old man; still cavilling over the failure of the establishment, in his eyes, to recognise and adequately reward his achievements that day[iv].

Despite the fact that the journal is written in a style clearly designed to achieve the greatest appeal with the British public and promoted his heroic achievements unashamedly, it was not brought to a publisher during his life time. The reason for this is not clear, but within two years of his death, the journal was published by William Blackwood in 1870 as a ‘Journal of the Waterloo Campaign kept throughout the Campaign of 1815 by the late General Cavalie Mercer, commanding the 9th Brigade Royal Artillery’ in two volumes.

It was re-published with a foreword by Sir John Fortescue in 1927 in a single volume edition for the ‘Soldier’s Tales’ series. This latter version was published again by Greenhill Books in 1985 and at least five different versions are at present available to purchase from various publishers.

Mercer’s son states, regarding the journal, that ‘It has no pretension to be an account of the military operations of the war, but merely a diary of the writer's own impressions - what he saw and felt while with the army, from the first landing in Belgium to the final embarkation for England. Of the great battle, no other description than that of the part taken in it by his own troop of Horse Artillery, or those corps in his immediate vicinity, is given; but from its very nature as a diary, the tedium, of out-quarters, the fatigues of the march, and the hardships of the bivouac, are made present, as it were, to the reader.’

The Strange Omission

Mercer was an accomplished amateur artist and during his service in Lower Canada (1828-29) and Nova Scotia (1840-42) Mercer painted a number of watercolours which were acquired by the National Gallery of Canada in the 1980s. These watercolours show that he had a good eye for a scene and that he must have enjoyed spending many hours of his free time in various cantonments perfecting his craft.

It is therefore very strange that his journal contains no images at all, not even new images commissioned by the publisher to enhance the volume.

The Great Discovery

I have recently been involved in contacting archives from all over Europe and collating their holdings of material relating to the Waterloo campaign, for a very ambitious project to publish as much as possible of this material during the run up to the two hundredth anniversary of the campaign.

This project is now beginning to show fruit, with the publication of Volume 1 of The Waterloo Archive – British Sources’ by Frontline Books in January 2010. Volume 2 from German sources is due for publication in July 2010 and eventually it is hoped to publish no less than six volumes if there is enough public support for the project. During this process I contacted the National Library of Scotland who were very helpful in finding me a great deal of valuable material which they kindly gave me permission to publish in this series. They also, in passing, mentioned that they also held the original hand written manuscript of Alexander Mercer’s Journal of the Waterloo Campaign, adding the minor bombshell ‘Including his twenty one illustrations!!’ As may be imagined, this caused my heart to skip a beat, knowing that these drawings had never been published, and within seconds I was in contact to obtain copies and to gain the rights to publish them in the Archive which was graciously given.

The twenty-one pen and ink line drawings were clearly made at the time of the campaign and depict various aspects mentioned in the book. They range from simple views of his surroundings and his billets, to depictions of the shipwreck he witnessed at Ostend and of course scenes of battle and are clearly labelled with their subject and the page in the journal where they should be placed when published. It is therefore a complete mystery as to why these etchings were omitted from the published version and why his son fails to mention their very existence in his foreword to the book, despite mentioning his father’s artistic ability. These invaluable eye witness depictions are of enormous historical significance and are reproduced in full in Volume 1 of The Waterloo Archive. But I am happy to reproduce here a few of these drawings for the delectation of members of the Napoleon Series.

Gareth Glover

For more details of the work of Gareth Glover, visit the Gareth Glover Collection

 

Ostend 1815
Chateau de Gaesbec from the Road
   
The Battle of Waterloo
Paris from St Denis by La Chapelle
   
Mercer Receiving the Lance from the Lancer of the Imperial Guard


Notes:

[i] His son, in his 1870 introduction, states that his father had written the journal up about 40 years previously.

[ii] Second Captain Robert Newland had served in Spain throughout most of the Peninsular war before joining G Troop. There was clearly animosity between Mercer and his more experienced deputy and in his letters written late in life to Henry Leathes, he suggests that Newland left his post for a safer one. Newland had an exemplary record having fought at Salamanca, Vitoria, Orthes and Tarbes and had often been commended and it is not easy now to establish the truth in all this. I have delved into this relationship more in my novel about Waterloo entitled Voices of Thunder published by UPSO in 2003.

[iii] Mercer states that two thirds of his men were hors de combat and that they had lost 140 horses. Henry Leathes stated that this was too high (see page 16 of Reminiscences of Waterloo’) and the Muster Rolls prove him right. Having checked at Kew, I was able to confirm the troop casualties as 1 gunner killed and eleven wounded; 4 drivers killed and 9 wounded, a casualty rate of 16% and 69 horses were actually lost out of 216, a casualty rate of 32%. For more detail on this see the author’s article Mercer's Troop at Waterloo. It should be noted however, that since writing this article in 2002, I have discovered Mercer’s Waterloo Medal at G Troop, RHA, Parachute Regiment’s little museum.

[iv] Mercer was particularly critical of Sir Augustus Frazer, but I cannot agree with Mercer that Frazer failed to praise his troop adequately.

 

Placed on the Napoleon Series: January 2010

 

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