The famous 1815 exploits of ‘G Troop’ RHA and their junior captain Alexander Cavalié Mercer are rightly celebrated. Mercer’s “Journal of the Waterloo Campaign” is often regarded as the finest campaign account ever written.
We hope you like the fresh look and feel of this site, but we have even more exciting news to share:
HOT OFF THE PRESS
It is an enormous pleasure to announce the launch of Campaigns & Culture, a new and high quality battlefield & cultural tour business with my friend and doyen of Napoleonic authors, Gareth Glover.
Join us for our journeys to the Battlefields of Waterloo, or follow Mercer’s Campaign through Bruges, Ghent and beautiful countryside taking in the best Chateaux and chocolate; or further afield with Wellington in The Peninsula with vineyards and port; or with Nelson & Wellington seizing the Danish fleet in Copenhagen.
We challenge accepted history with fresh insights, seen through the eyes of those who were there. We enjoy the best landscapes, art and architecture, great food and hospitality, so our tours are genuinely entertaining as great holidays for couples aswell as history buffs.
Please roam around the Campaigns & Culture site to learn more, and of course this GTroopRHA site remains here to inform you about the restoration, Mercer’s book of paintings, and our original research.
If you like what you see, please join the Campaigns & Culture News Club which will feature updates on our tours, the latest Mercer research and our talks.
This article was kindly published in the Waterloo Journal Vol.39 No.3 Autumn 2017.
Cutting through the heart of the Waterloo battlefield is the Charleroi-Brussels road. Numerous old postcards record the many monuments that line this road, from the Belgian, Hanoverian and Gordon on Wellington’s ridge, to the Hugo and Wounded Eagle on the French ridge. Images of these are numerous, and the monuments are little changed, so this fourth article in our postcard series focuses on significant buildings.
We start at Wellington’s overnight headquarters in Waterloo. Built in 1705, by 1815 this was the widow Bodenghien’s inn and stables. In the late 1800s this opened to the public, becoming a proper museum in 1955 and the Wellington Museum that we know today in 1975. Signage on the face of the property prior to the museum museum states “In this house is to be seen the bed in which the Duke of Wellington slept the glorious eighteenth of June 1815 … the room not only contains the bed, but also many things most interesting to English people” The adoring travellers could then calm themselves in the Café Restaurant, enjoying the advertised Allsopp’s Pale Ale or Imperial Stout (in fine condition!) stiffen-up with a choice of Irish, Scotch or Canadian whisky, London gin, Schweppes or a gentler Horniman’s tea:
A haven of calm offering tribute to the fallen is the Royal Chapel opposite the museum. This wonderful echo-chamber of a building was inaugurated in 1690 in the hope that the Hapsburg Charles II of Spain and the Southern Netherlands would sire a son. He failed, leading to the War of the Spanish Succession in which the Duke of Marlborough proved himself such a masterful leader, campaigning over much the same territory a century before Wellington. The main church was added behind in 1826:
Moving towards the battlefield we reach the strategically vital fork in the road, splitting towards Nivelles and Charleroi. Following the Charleroi road towards the allied ridge we pass the great Mont St Jean farm complex, which took its current shape in the 1770s, and where the Life Guards dug potatoes on the morning of the battle. The most recent evolution includes an excellent medical museum and micro-brewery. This image looks North to Mont St Jean village, showing the tramway that led South to the battlefield, and taken long before the Royal Army Medical Corps tablet was erected in 1981:
The intriguing and commanding property in the distance is Cheval Castle, built in 1895 on the road fork by a Frenchman who made his fortune in chemical fertilizers. Comprising 4 towers and 99 windows, he slept in his castle just once, but his daughter and her husband occupied it through to 1962. It was demolished to permit road widening in 1966, and you can now walk over the site by visiting McDonalds.
We now move on, over the allied ridge to La Haye Sainte. Famed in battle, and little changed today, it also played host to military topographer William Siborne from May to November 1830, the man to whom we owe such thanks for collecting so many first-hand accounts of the battle. This image also shows on the right the tramway, which beyond the spur to the lion mound was extended further for the crowds attending the unveiling of the wounded eagle monument on 28th June 1904. In 1898, a tram also connected Braine L’Alleud railway station to the battlefield:
Further down the road towards the French ridge we come across this haunting view. The two nearest houses are post-Waterloo, but beyond them is La Haye Sainte and up on the ridge the Lion mound, panorama and the buildings covered in the previous article:
Moving on towards the French ridge we reach Belle Alliance, to which we devoted the first article in this series. Beyond this was the modest home of Jean-Baptiste De Coster who made his fortune telling tales of his seizure to act as reluctant guide to Napoleon during the battle. The house still exists, but with a brick façade:
Heading on South beyond the heights of Rosomme we finally reach Le Caillou, now home to Napoleon’s Last HQ Museum. Now set back from a wide road, this image illustrates how much the road network has changed. Plundered and torched, the ruins were put up for sale within five weeks of the battle, whilst a substantial claim for losses was prepared, so little of this is original:
Le Caillou became famous for displaying the original table, chairs and cloth used by Napoleon, although how these could have survived the looting and destruction, before being remarkably discovered over 50 years later is beyond me. Like Wellington’s bed, the allure of relics must have been compelling.
For the next in the series we will head South along the road to Genappe and beyond.
This article was kindly published in the Waterloo Journal Vol.39 No.1 Spring 2017.
Standing proud, disdainfully facing the French border, overlooking the ‘mournful plain’ described by Victor Hugo, the imposition of Le Monument may well have “ruined” Wellington’s battlefield by removing much of the escarpment. Yet this mighty mound, and the community of properties that grew up around it on the allied ridge has been at the forefront of visitor attraction, doing much to sustain the interest of the masses to this most important of battlefields over so many years.
In the immediate aftermath of Waterloo, the opportunity to cement the identity of William I’s Kingdom of the Netherlands was too good to miss; memorialising a monumental battle on the soil of such a young Kingdom, on the spot where its eldest prince had played his gallant part, shedding blood whilst leading the united Dutch and Belgian troops who played such a conspicuous role in the defeat of Napoleon.
In the aftermath of battle competitions of painting, poetry, and architecture were established. Queen Wilhelmina, formerly a Prussian princess, took a keen interest in selecting the architectural winner, sorting the plans from sarcophagus, ossuary, stone and brick monuments, arch and fountain to the winning mound design.
The mound and lion was described by their architect Van der Straeten, the lion symbolising victory, the paw rested on the globe signifying the repose of Europe. Construction commenced in 1824 and was completed in October 1826, the mound over 40 metres high surrounded by 140 blue stones. The 28 ton cast iron lion, sculpted by J-L Van Geel from Malines, forged in Liège, is formed of nine pieces, each pulled by 20 horses in the final part of their journey to the mound. The pedestal and plinth pushes the monument over 50 metres tall. There was no formal unveiling ceremony.
Our first image looks towards the Nivelles road and Braine L’Alleud before the construction of the motorway, showing the lion mound with some interesting undulations and views in the surrounding landscape. Many of these features are either no longer present or obscured by development and trees. At the foot of the mound is the Hotel de la Paix, built in 1904 as a private dwelling, becoming a hotel in 1932:
This view to the crossroads, across to Papelotte and beyond shows a wonderfully open view due to the almost total absence of trees. Taken before the construction of Le Monastère de Notre-Dame de Fichermont in 1913, before the private driveway running down to La Haye Sainte, with no vegetation in the sandpit area and a much deeper curve than exists today along the Rue de la Croix:
The only house to be built before the mound, in 1823, became a cabaret (inn), evolving into the Hotel des Touristes. This hotel shared the same fate as Hotel de la Paix, demolished in 2013/4 to make way for the underground Memorial museum. Next, in 1828, a Waterloo veteran was given the job of guardian of the mound, for whom a small house was built, then rebuilt in 1929, before finally being demolished to make way for the Visitor’s Centre. The post of guardian continued through to 1989.
By 1834 three thatched houses had been built near the crossroads. As this row of properties evolved, one constructed in 1882 as a café-restaurant (since extended, and still the closest restaurant to the crossroads) was known as “La Vue de l’Arbre de Wellington” looking over to the former location of the famous Elm. The image below shows what is now the frontage of Le 1815 Hotel, formerly the Grande Musée du Chemin Croix and Restaurant des Monuments:
Much of the British appreciation of the hamlet revolves around Edward Cotton, a Waterloo veteran in the 7th Hussars and author of “A Voice from Waterloo”. Mr & Mrs Cotton moved to Mont St Jean in 1828, and subsequently to a house adjacent to the guardian. Cotton became the doyen of battlefield guides, until his death in 1849 when his body was interred beside Guards officer Blackman in the gardens of Hougoumont. His collection of battlefield memorabilia was subsequently displayed by his niece in the Hôtel du Musée in the lion hamlet, often referred to as the ‘Cotton Museum’ although the building wasn’t constructed until after his death.
This image taken from the top of the mound shows the largest building, the Hôtel du Musée. Just to the left in front of Hôtel de Musée the tall building is Hôtel des Touristes. Further to the left are the 1902 Waterloo Hotel (and subsequently Cotton discotheque!), and to its left the 1893 hotel, restaurant and tearoom Laiterie du Lion / Le Hussard, both demolished in 2015:
The above image also shows, behind the line of large trees, Mont St Jean farmhouse, and to the left of the trees the tall Castle of Mont-St-Jean. This imposing property was built in 1895, demolished in 1966, and now ignominiously is the site of the McDonalds “drive-thru”. Similar ‘march of history’ is evident just across the roundabout on the location of the modern Jaguar Land Rover dealership, which stands on the site of the former Hôtel des Collones, where Victor Hugo stayed whilst polishing his grand tome Les Miserables (and much Waterloo fiction!):
The distinctive rotunda building was created in 1911 to house the famed Dumoulin panorama as the great French cavalry charges swept the ridge. Still one of the largest paintings in the world, and restored to its full beauty for the bicentennial, 110m. long x 12m. high it took ten months for the team of painters to complete. This again changed the lion hamlet considerably, and 1913 saw the building of the adjoining Le Grand Hôtel du Lion and Hôtel du Prince d’Orange, part of which survived until 1989 to make way for the Visitor Centre, alongside part of the Le Wellington Café which survived until the Visitor Centre was demolished as part of the bicentenary improvement scheme:
Over the years the lion mound has survived many threats to its existence. In 1831 French troops passed this way in support of the Belgian Revolution, damaging the Prussian Monument in Plancenoit and threatening the lion, behaviour that was promptly corrected by their Marshal Gerard who in 1815 had fought at both Ligny and Wavre. In 1832 the independent Belgian parliament saw the lion mound as a sign of Dutch oppression and odious to their friends the French, but all was protected by locals keen to preserve their roaring tourist trade. In 1918 proposals to blow up the lion as a means of celebrating French-Walloon solidarity, or less severely turn its face to the North, were by 1925 amended to plans for the demolition of the entire monument! In WW2 the mound featured anti-aircraft defences. Thankfully it survives.
Initially there was no intention that anyone should climb the mound, but log steps were added in 1835, the 226 steps in 1863, the platform at the top in 1864. This image shows the somewhat unkempt bushy look before today’s robotic lawnmowers enabled the current close-cropped shave:
The prime location of the mound, at the centre of Wellington’s ridge, so hotly and valiantly contested on the day of battle, has witnessed much change over its 190 year life. The huge investment for the 2015 bicentenary has dramatically improved the visitor experience, but at the same time we have lost some history. These old images help us understand the experiences of those early battlefield tourist pioneers and provide a vital early connection to the landscape as it once was.
Can you help?
If you can help to date the cards, or if you have a different opinion, or additional information to offer, please do get in touch. This is the third in a series of articles by the author covering the evolution of different buildings on the battlefield, and your contributions and suggestions will be most welcome. Next up is the Mont St Jean-Le Caillou road including the Wellington Museum, Mont St Jean, La Haye Sainte and the old tramway.
Recommended further reading:
1815–2015, 200 years of stories around the Lion Hill (book, mostly in French)
Mercer dedicated an entire chapter of his famous Journal of the Waterloo Campaign to Ghent. Yet most of us omit Ghent from a trip to Belgium. Waterloo (of course), Brussels the busy architectural capital, and the compact stunning medieval beauty that is Bruges are the main stopping points. Yet Ghent is easy to find, standing half-way between Brussels and Bruges, a vibrant City in its own right, and at the heart of the British build-up to the Waterloo campaign. Ghent deserves a visit, and once again Mercer’s Journal of the Waterloo Campaign is the ideal tour companion.
A few words of wisdom to get you there: In the old days there were no road signs and few maps, so troops improvised their journeys from town to town with the help of a local guide. Often the guide had never travelled beyond their immediate boundaries, and confusion often arose with villages having numerous different names. Relying on road signs or maps or train destinations to find Ghent is equally tricky these days with the Flemish name for Ghent being Gent, and the Walloons calling it Gand. Just be prepared for a variety of confusing signs, and head onwards with confidence!
Having spent just one night in Bruges (see here) Mercer travelled via Eccloo, where he faced his first awkward encounter with the Duke of Wellington, the next day arriving in Ghent. Reaching the City at the Barriere de Bruges (also known as Brugge Poort or Brugsche Poort), a boundary gate and meeting point of canals and rivers, his G Troop Royal Horse Artillery of 6 guns, over 200 horses, almost 200 men, with their limbers, wagons and baggage made their way right across the City “into the very heart of bustle, business, fine shops, and crowds of people” to the cavalry barracks adjoining the Barriere de Bruxelles.
The cavalry barracks was full, so having “parked up our guns and put up our horses” the men headed back to the other side of town. Those searching for the cavalry barracks today will search in vain, but there is an interesting story to tell. Now the site of a 1990s social housing project, Hollainhof, in 1815 the cavalry barracks already had a long history. Created as a hospital in 1582, the Pesthuis (Pesthouse) could accommodate 200 patients, and in epidemic free periods soldiers were cared for. The dead were buried on site. Rebuilt just in time for the capture of Ghent by the French in 1678, it became an army billet. During the Spanish War of Succession (1701-1714) the hospital treated British, French, German, Prussian, Spanish and Swedish soldiers. As the site evolved by 1735 it boasted 34 chimneys and became a full-time regimental cavalry barracks, a ‘cazerne’. The Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars diminished the maintenance and furnishing of the barracks, degrading to such an extend that in 1814 the Prussians would house only their horses, but not their men, on site. Over the last century the barracks became known as the Hollainkazerne, in memory of a Belgian officer who died in WW1.
Mercer records that he was billeted in ‘Bruge Straet’. The most likely candidate is Brugsche Poort Street, leading to the Brugsche Poort, both of which have mostly been subsumed into modern streets and road junctions. But there is much else to see. Just around the corner Mercer writes that he established his breakfast mess with one of his officers in a palace on Pepper Street, with rooms of ‘magnificent dimensions’ but ‘very bare of furniture’. This 1724 palace built by Baron Reylof is now the premier hotel of Ghent, the Sandton Grand Hotel Reylof, the ideal base for your stay, grandly and brightly furnished and boasting the finest restaurant in the City. Parts of the old interior and high garden wall described by Mercer remain intact.
Mercer’s men had the honour of furnishing a guard for King Louis XVIII of France, who had fled from Paris, via Bruges, to Ghent. The 1767 rococo Hotel d’Hane-Steenhuyse in Veldstraat is now on one of the major shopping street of the City. During 1814 the Hotel and neighbouring buildings saw much of the activity leading to the Treaty of Ghent, ending the war between Britain and America, but not before the British burned the White House and the Americans imposed numerous ignominious defeats on the British. It is interesting to note that the French King used retired grey horses from our very own ‘Scots Greys’ for his stud, kept at the same cavalry barracks as Mercer’s horses.
A few hundred metres from the Reylof, towards the City Centre, along Poel, is the Hotel de Flandre, one of two places where Mercer and his fellow officers kept their council over supper in the company of Frenchmen who Mercer ‘shrewdly suspected … were spies’. At the time Hotel de Flandre was also the base of the French minister, writer and historian François-Rene de Chateaubriand who fell in and out of favour with both Royalists and Bonapartists. The hotel’s balcony above the main entrance, and the entrance hall remain original.
Daytime wanders around the City lead you to the magnificent Place d’Armes, now known as Kouter, the flower square, where Mercer first laid eyes on the Duc de Berri, a French royal who was later to cause so much amusement to G Troop and the entire British cavalry force. Close by is where Mercer, along with many other Waterloo diarists, were hugely surprised to see French Marshal Auguste de Marmont, with two good arms, whereas it had been common knowledge in England that he had lost one in his defeat at Salamanca in 1812. Mercer spotted Marmont exercising his horse near the Place d’Armes beside the river; then as now there is only one candidate for such an open space, Koop Handelsplein, now the car park in front of the Law Courts.
Mercer visited and admired the countryside views from the Citadel. Search a modern map and you will head for the wrong Citadel, a park to the South of the City. In 1815 the Citadel was a huge but ancient defensive structure on the East side of the City, actually known as the Kasteel, now mostly subsumed within industrialised Ghent and over-run with rail tracks. A visit to the romantic ruined remains of St Bavo’s Abbey, which used to sit within the Kasteel, will have to satisfy the modern traveller.
If you do wander towards the modern Citadel Park, en-route you’ll find the hill where Mercer stumbled on an old abandoned square monastery with a central court – which became part of a more modern barrack complex, the Kattenberg, now part of Ghent’s huge University. The Citadel park was laid out in the 1870s, on the site of a Citadel erected by none other than the Duke of Wellington from 1819 to 1831 whilst Belgium remained part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
Walking back to his billet from the Kasteel, Mercer passed through the Marche aux Grains, another huge square, before reaching an enormous cannon, the Basilisc, 18 feet long and 3 feet in diameter. This clearly intrigued him and he quotes various sources for his research. The cannon still stands proud in Groot Kanonplein, a wonder of solid construction weighing 12,500 kg dating back to 1431. It was probably more of a threat than a weapon having never been fired in anger.
A keen observer of architecture, Mercer was intrigued by the old castle, Castle Ganda, or Gravensteen, which now forms such a major feature at the heart of the old City. In Mercer’s day the castle was crumbled, industrialised as a textile mill and housed working families. Much of the destruction of medieval Ghent, and its subsequent restoration, is due to Ghent’s pre-eminent role in the continental industrial revolution. A brave Ghentois smuggled an English spinning machine piece by piece from England; had he been caught his treason would have carried the death penalty, but he survived to kick-start the continental industrial revolution. Ghent’s pre-eminent industrialisation led to the 1913 World Fair when the city received a major facelift and rebuilding programme.
Mercer admired the cleanliness of the meat market, writing “If ever I could relish a sausage it would be a Ghent one.” The architecture of the Town Hall and the Cathedral St Bavon inspired him, just as much as the behaviour of Catholics intrigued him. The Cathedral’s marble tombs and wooden pulpit that he so admired are there to be seen, and the Cathedral also houses the medieval Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, an altarpiece by van Eyck. This, the most stolen piece of art in history, was at the time of Mercer’s visit was sitting in the Paris Louvre, one of many art treasures looted by Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. The Cathedral’s interior is simply staggering.
A must-visit is the Ghent City Museum, STAM. But beware, all museums and public places have different opening days and sometimes very limited opening times, so forward planning is absolutely essential.
In Belgium you also need to know the best Chocolate shops in town. Fear not, your author has done all the hard testing and sampling for you. The very best is Yuzu, in Walpoortstraat. Here, Nicolas Vanaise, a former middle-east archaeologist whose grandparents ran a top traditional Ghent cake-house, hand-makes chocolates of stunning simplicity and beauty, yet with taste of enormous complexity and richness. Pricey, yes, but the flavour just lasts and lasts, and lasts, so you only need consume one at a time. As a historian Nicolas will also engage in active debate on the what-ifs of the Waterloo campaign!
And finally, do enjoy a stroll after dark. The City’s most beautiful old guild houses, along Korenlei and Graslei, are shown off at their best.
This article was kindly published in the Waterloo Journal Vol.38 No.4 Winter 2016.
Hougoumont, Hougomont, Goumont, Gomont. This multi-named, tight-knit assemblage of château, home, farm, chapel, woodland, orchards, gardens, walls, hedges and gates, ditches and lanes has impressed itself upon our psyche as a stoically defended killing ground of huge international significance.
Often argued as the “key to victory” of Waterloo, the shattered remnants of fruit-trees, flowering shrubberies, woodland and alleys of holly and yew that bore witness to the events of 18th June 1815 are long gone. Yet three great lighting-scarred Sweet Chestnuts still stand near the South Gate, and of these just one clings to life, our enduring witness to the heroism and horrors of war and the trials and tribulations of Private Clay. Peppered with musket balls, massive, gnarled and ancient, this tree is our one surviving link with this place on that famous day.
The ground and property are also giving up their secrets, with the current superb works of archaeologists challenging and adding to the received wisdom of the past two centuries. The bicentennial restoration of the property now preserves this great fortress for future generations, but what of its history before the battle, and what can we learn about its evolution following the battle?
The local historian Jacques Logie found two mentions of “Gomont” in the 1300s, the second as a “tenure and home”. In 1474 the Order of St John of Jerusalem (the Knights of Malta) sold, for 100 crowns, ‘the Goumont’ comprising 24 bonniers of land (a bonnier being a measure of the amount of land that could be sown with around 8 bushels of seed). As the estate passed through various hands and grew in size the château was built, before passing in 1671 to a Spanish Lowlands courtier, whose grandson became Lord of Gomont. Left to a childless widow in 1791, the land then passed through marriage to an Austrian Knight, Philippe Louville, who had previously built a large house ‘Hotel d’Hougoumont’ in Nivelles in 1771.
The layout of the extensive woodland and formal gardens surrounding “Chateau d’Hougoumont” in 1771 is recorded in the beautiful cartography of Ferraris. By 1815 the land-use was much changed, mostly turned over to farmland, with a gardener living on site. In May 1816, the 86 year old Louville finding that he was unable to restore his damaged estate, sold it. Whilst the new owner pledged to preserve Hougoumont, the long-suffering gardener who’d survived the travails battle was required to leave his home. Hougoumont remained in private hands until 2003.
The extensive paintings following the battle show us varying and often misleading images, so it is good to jump the decades to the age of photography to get a ‘feel’ for what Hougoumont and its surroundings were like to the Victorian and Edwardian traveller. But to prove the point, our first postcard is just a drawing, giving a wild interpretation of how the Chateau looked prior to the battle. This image is very different to other images of the Château (such as those now on display at Hougoumont and the model beneath the Panorama), in design, style, layout and finishing, a warning that artistic licence knows no bounds!
Postcards of Hougomont are numerous, so we can only show a small selection here. Our second card is typical of the familiar scene taken of the chapel, connected to remnants of the Chateau that was destroyed on the day. Rustic workers are often a feature of these images:
Moving back we take in a wider view of the working farm complex, looking on to the gardener’s house and the South gate, above which today is the cosy and tasteful apartment now let by the Landmark Trust:
Turning around to look down towards the North Gate, various postcards over the years show many different forms of gate, heights of wall and changes in land-use beyond the gate up towards the allied ridge. In the foreground is the well, much collapsed since the end of the battle, which itself became a popular photography spot thanks to Victor Hugo and his myth of 300 French bodies:
This famous view from outside the North Gate appeared on many cards, echoing the famous ‘closing of the gates’ event. Again showing many different sections and levels of brick and stone, confirming that the walls that we see today are not what the soldiers of 1815 saw. Just visible are pillars which used to extended the main barn out into the courtyard:
Walking around to the South Gate we have two images. The first shows the onset of organised tourism, with the Victoria to Waterloo coach with some very well dressed ladies and gentlemen:
The second, older view without the ugly extension, is particularly unusual, showing two glazed windows above the South Gate with a view right through the Gardener’s house, into the courtyard and up to the ridge beyond:
Walking along the South side of the wall, we reach the corner of the formal garden wall. The preparation for the defence of these walls on the night before Waterloo has consumed much ink, and it is intriguing to reflect on the latest thinking that the loopholes were actually prepared by Frenchmen, loyal French royalists, as they prepared to defend Hougoumont against the revolutionaries back in 1794!
Climbing back in to the formal garden (not encouraged today!) we head back to the courtyard and a very unusual view showing the internal West wall of the complex with low farm buildings that today are simply not there, and from studying many maps from 1816 and 1820 they appear to have been erected long after the battle:
This final evocative image of the crumbling North Gate amply shows the state to which Hougoumont can deteriorate without love and care. It also serves as a reminder that restoration did not just occur for the recent bicentennial, but has been an essential and necessary part of the Hougoumont story ever since the battle:
Can you help?
If you can help to date the cards, or have additional information to offer, your contributions and suggestions are most welcome. Please do get in touch with the author at www.GTroopRHA.co.uk. This is the second of a series of articles covering the evolution of different buildings on the battlefield, and if you missed La Belle Alliance in the last journal the full article is on the author’s website. The next article will feature the Lion Mound complex.
Recommended further reading:
The recent output of high-quality analysis on Hougoumont is quite extraordinary. This list is a selection of my favourites, mostly on the web. Finding the time to read them will richly repay those with an enquiring mind:
It is always a pleasure to share enthusiasm with others, particularly so amongst fellow The Waterloo Association members. The Editor of the Waterloo Association Journal has kindly published this, the first of a series looking the evolution of properties on the battlefield, in Vol.38 No.3 Autumn 2016. The eagle-eyed will spot that this version is different, as the published version unfortunately omitted one of the postcards and comments. So read on for the full, as originally intended, real deal!
Peppering the field of battle are properties that, despite damage on the day, have withstood the test of time. Maps, drawings, paintings, eyewitness and visitor testimonies attest to the destructive events that these properties suffered, endured and in many cases survived.
Many of the precious original drawings and paintings of these battle-weary buildings handed down to us are interpretations of what the artist saw. Many more are copies or re-interpretations of another artist’s work by those who were never there, and so even in the months and years shortly after the battle the depictions vary enormously.
The evolution of these evocative properties adds another dimension for the modern battlefield tourist. Since the adoption of the battlefield preservation act of 26th March 1914 no changes can be made to existing buildings or structures without government authorisation, indeed the Government is even authorised to expropriate them! The benefits to us now are incalculable.
Yet well before Government intervened, the local community had an interest in preserving these buildings, as their homes, livelihoods, and to draw economic benefit from travellers keen to visit the furnace of Europe’s destiny. Soldiers, poets, clergy and artists drew the battlefield, but in time photography enabled postcards to record snapshots in time as the properties, and their immediate surroundings, evolved.
La Belle Alliance, centre of the French line, objective of the victorious allied advance and witness to the defeat of the Imperial Guard has an ample place in history. Its name was used for a celebratory square in Berlin, and it is, for many Frenchmen, still the preferred battle title.
Looking back to the turn of the 18th Century the land on which La Belle Alliance now stands was in the ownership of ‘General Jaco’, a mercenary commander who was to embarrass a portion of Marlborough’s Anglo-Allied army in the first Battle of Waterloo in 1705, more of a night-time raid upon drunken troops, much celebrated in France and later described by Winston Churchill as the ‘unfought’ Battle of Waterloo.
Construction of the main building, a farmhouse, took place in 1764/5. The barn at the back (Plancenoit side) of the main building was added in 1772, with a small bakery attached to the south. The largest barn that we see today, on the North side closest to the road junction, was built after the 1815 battle.
Paving of the route running beside the farm from Mont St Jean to Charleroi commenced in 1680, and took over 30 years to complete. The paving was some 2 to 3 meters wide, flanked by summer paths taking the total width to 5 to 6 metres. As observed on the 17th June 1815 on the allied retreat from Quatre Bras, the dust from coal carts drawn from Charleroi to Brussels blackened both the mud and many a soldier along the route.
The name “La Belle Alliance” has been used as a backdrop to the successful partnership of Wellington and Blücher’s armies, adding froth to the dispute over the precise meeting place of Wellington and Blücher after the battle. Yet its name was established well before 1815. The beautiful 1777 cartography of Ferraris, an Austrian who mapped in detail and wondrous colour what is now modern-day Belgium, records the Cabaret La Belle Alliance as a cluster of three buildings.
Local historians’ research has built on the observations of one of the early battlefield visitors, Walter Scott. The ‘old and ugly’ builder of the 1764 farm married, in the same year, an apparently beautiful young girl Barbe-Marie Tordeur, who died just a year later. She remarried in 1766, choosing a farmer from Plancenoit who died in 1770, whereupon she promptly married the farmhand, only to expire herself in 1777. It seems that the original marriage to the pretty peasant girl, or perhaps the regularity of marriage, raised some mirth within Plancenoit, encouraged by the local priest who coined the phrase “Belle Alliance”. Naturally, many variations of the tale exist!
In June 1794 La Belle Alliance, now under new ownership, would have witnessed the march of the French forces on their way to secure their victory over the Dutch-Austrian army on Mont St Jean plateau and on to Waterloo, following up on their success at the Battle of Fleurus. One of their number was a newly- promoted 25 year old, Brigadier General Soult, whose return 21 years later as Chief of Staff was to be less successful.
By 1815 La Belle Alliance was owned by a Plancenoit brewer who rented the premises to the innkeeper. Paintings in the aftermath of the 1815 battle show the roof-tiles dotted with artillery shot, with the barn behind depicted as a wreck. There followed five months of intense tourism to the ‘Hotel’ La Belle Alliance, and suspicion that the Inn was serving meat sliced from the victims of Waterloo, before the property was sold for a huge sum to a Glaswegian.
With the demise of the travelling coal trade the inn lost its purpose, and by the mid 1800s it seems La Belle Alliance simply became a farm. But postcards show many interesting evolutions from this point.
This first image (below) appears to be one of the earlier cards, with a set of mature trees lining the cobbled road. This and most subsequent cards show the marble plaque above the door, claiming this as the meeting place between Wellington and Blücher:
The cobbled road is well shown on this next image, originally black and white, subsequently colour-enhanced, with young replacement trees planted opposite the building beside a new pathway which opens up the view. Fewer trees are planted on the right, and a road sign now points to Plancenoit:
Our third card below shows the property now with a hoarding recording the meeting of Blucher and Wellington, and the attraction “Chambre Historique de Napoleon”, although most historians would now agree that the meeting occurred elsewhere and that Napoleon certainly never slept there! If that wasn’t enough to bring in the punters the “Café Restaurant” also promoted “Heinz Sauces Tomate Baked Beans Olives”. Heinz only started to go global from 1886, and the postmark on the rear of the card reads 1926, so this image has a broad range of possible dates:
Next is broadly the same image with its signage, shuttered windows, and the addition of a few young trees beside the simple Plancenoit signpost. The post- Waterloo barn beside the road junction features “Auld Reekie”, now and possibly then an Islay malt, or some other evocation of Edinburgh’s nickname, as the North barn evolved into an advertising hoarding:
By the time that Ford Autos were advertising on the site the inn is closed, trees have grown, the signpost has some ornate additions, the road has been resurfaced and a water pump has been added to the front of the property. The smaller entrance door has been bricked up and the windows either side made smaller. The sign above the water pump “La Dernière Heure Bruxelles” refers to a French language newspaper established in Brussels in 1906. A small ventilation hatch has been created high up on the side of the property and many roof tiles replaced. The marble sign above the front door has vanished:
This slightly earlier image (the water pump and newspaper sign are yet to be installed) shows that “Ford” could easily be interchanged for other brands. Two sets of shutters on the right are missing, but we see a good view down the avenue of maturing trees towards the allied ridge:
Reverting again to a farm, this image with the girl beside the water pump is perhaps the best-known and most widely available antique card:
Later, beside a modernised road sign, the property falls on hard times, becoming little more than a dishevelled roadside hovel. All shutters have gone, a modernised road sign has been erected, but at least the barns either side have been repainted and re-roofed, and it sports that modern essential, an aerial above the door. A replacement marble plaque has re-appeared above the door, now set slightly lower than the original plaque which has since found its way via La Caillou to the Musée Wellington where today it can be seen in the garden:
And finally, this unique view shows La Belle Alliance from the North, in its early days, perhaps just after the line of mature trees in our first card had been removed. This is the view, as it would have appeared to travellers arriving from Brussels, with the welcome word “Estaminet” on the wall. Looking this word up in the dictionary, we find the definition “a small café, especially a shabby one”:
Poor La Belle Alliance. Within a few years of the battle it received royalty from the Netherlands, Russia, Prussia and Britain, since when it has attempted to re- invent itself many times. But standing alone, away from the attractions of the lion mound with its famed Panorama and succession of museums, it seems that it has always struggled to be little more than a shabby also-ran!
Can you help?
If you can help to date the cards, or if you have a different opinion, or additional information to offer, please do get in touch. This is the first of a series of articles covering the evolution of different buildings on the battlefield, and your contributions and suggestions will be most welcome! Next up is Hougoumont.
Recommended further reading:
La Belle Alliance: au coeur de la bataille [Internet]. Version 1. micheldamiens. 2011 Dec 9. https://micheldamiens.wordpress.com/article/la-belle-alliance- 3cgja7u7z8vuo-4/.
Jean-Phillipe Tondeur, Patrice Courcelle, Jean-Jacques Pattyn, Paul Meganck; Waterloo 1815 Les Carnets de la Campagne Nos.7 & 9.
Pierre de Wit; http://www.waterloo-campaign.nl/bestanden/files/notes/june18/note.1.pdf
Mercer’s incredible Journal of the Waterloo Campaign stands the test of time as a wonderful travel guide to much of Belgium. For English eyes of the time, to whom the continent had been closed off through two decades or war, his observation of Brussels’ architecture is peerless.
Who can read his Journal and forget his description of ramparts, markets and parks as “I hurried with eager curiosity from street to street and square to square, catching a slight, and but a slight, glimpse of anything, yet delighted, and devouring all”. His page-long description of the the 1380 Hôtel de Ville is well worth reading to yourself in La Grand Place, along with his comment on the architects of the day “notwithstanding the march of intellect, where is the man who could now sit down and conceive such a structure?”
On a number of visits to Belgium this year I have put his descriptions of landscape, town and City to the test, rarely to find them wanting. So what of the incredible medieval delights of Bruges, nowadays a modern mecca for sightseeing, shopping and chocolate which, to Mercer 200 years ago, was just a short stop-over between Ostend and Ghent en-route to fight Napoleon?
Nowadays a popular base for visitors is the Hotel Navarra in Jakobsstraat, and it is this very building in which Mercer was billeted:
The warmth of welcome today is delightful, and certainly much finer than Mercer’s experience. Having parked guns, horses and men in the cavalry barracks, Mercer and his fellow officers headed for what was then known as the Hôtel de Commerce, their first large hotel, “which had the recommendation of novelty, and everything in it became subject of curiosity. The large dreary hall; the comfortless bar adjoining … the equally comfortless and gloomy saloon behind it … the squalid, dirty appearance of the domestics … all served to chill one on first entering.” Happily the bar is bright and clean today:
He goes on to describe the sensation of their arrival, followed by orderlies, servants and portmanteaus, which brought every member of staff out to greet them, including the chef, nothwithstanding their filthy cotton jackets and bonnets de nuit, to show them up the staircase and along the bedroom corridors (which are still there!). Mercer found that “the beds (without curtains) were very homely, but quite clean” although “the furniture and utensils of the commonest kind.” Returning downstairs “the place appeared altogether abandoned, and I hastened into the street to lounge away the time until dinner, of which, however, I had my misgivings.” Oh dear.
The building first became a hotel in 1720, its illustrious guest list included the Emperor Josef II of Austria in 1781. Once the area fell under French revolutionary control in 1794 parts of the building were used as a commercial court and tribunal, but the hotel remained. When Mercer stayed the original 17th Century facade was still intact. Internally the staircase had been especially built for a visit by Napoleon in 1802, although he never arrived to see it. One hundred years after Mercer’s stay the hotel was enjoyed by German officers during WW1.
Today’s visitor can very much echo “My ramble led me through the streets of lofty, whimsically constructed houses … gables, with high pointed roofs … chimneys of bizarre and fantastic forms … here and there towers or turrets with high conical roofs … long streets running in wavy lines …” Incredibly he was unimpressed by the Stadhouse, (which he confused with what we now know as Belfort Belfry) with its climb of 366 steps, within its “lofty square tower, surmounted by another … of an octagonal form”:
He went on to the Cathedral (now Eglise) Notre-Dame in Mariastraat “… the garish light of broad day exchanged for a mysterious twilight … the busy hum of high market for a solemn silence”, drawn by his love of Gothic structure which he knew well from his native Exeter Cathedral. Reading his description today, where he stood, of the variously earnest or hurried worshippers really brings his writing and the building alive. The pulpit “the most elaborate and ingenious sculpture in wood” is still there, as is “The striking feature in this church are the colossal statues of the Apostles perched upon shelves …” :
The Church’s landmark spire that Mercer mentions served as a landmark for vessels approaching Ostend, and that some claim could be seen from the Thames (!), is still the world’s second highest brick spire at 122.3 meters (401 feet). Michelangelo’s famous Madonna of Bruges wasn’t there during Mercer’s visit, having been looted by French revolutionaries in 1794, to be returned after the allies seized Paris following Waterloo.
Both this Church of Notre-Dame, and the neighbouring St Saviour’s Cathedral, are undergoing major restoration due to be completed late 2016. I’ve seen the results of a similar restoration in Ninove (another of Mercer’s descriptive church visits) and they are fabulous. Well worth a visit even now.
And after his sightseeing, what became of Mercer’s hotel dinner? … “to my surprise, an excellent dinner awaited me, exceedingly well served, and the attendants (who had made themselves clean) very active and obliging.” Together with “some very old and genuine cognac ... we went to bed in better humour with the Hôtel de Commerce”.
So, in short, when visiting Bruges, Ghent, Ninove or Brussels do carry a copy of Mercer’s Journal with you; read it in the spaces that Mercer described, and you won’t be disappointed.
Now for a more modern selection of personal tourist tips, other than the unmissable cultural sights, how about these:
Stay: Hotel Navarra, 41 Jakobsstraat (follow in Mercer’s footsteps, on-site parking and centrally located). Click here.
Chocolate: Depla, 20 Mariastraat (gastronomes really must do their own research and try out a little treasure at each of the best establishments, but in my humble opinion Depla has the very best combination of taste and texture as the oldest and best artisanal chocolatier in Bruges).
Hats: The Spirit of Bruges, 11 Stoofstraat (up one of Bruges’ narrowest streets, for both sexes, amazing choice, and Bruges can be cold in the winter!).
Wardrobe: Nicky M, 40 Vlamingstraat (gentlemen head for the basement, ask for Fred, he is an avid reader of the history of Bruges who also happens to sell great clothes).
Dine Italian: Osteria 45, 45 Jakobsstraat (small but great quality Italian, next to the Hotel Navarra. Ask Marco to dig out his best wine, I highly recommend the Roma potato & rosemary pizza with a glass or bottle of his fabulous Sicilian Syrah).
Amongst the many remarkable commemorative events of 2015, around 250 people gathered at St Simon and St Jude parish church in Earl Shilton, Leicestershire on Sunday 14th June. During the service six young children, all descendants of the Almey and Raven families, lit six candles in memory of Earl Shilton’s six Waterloo heroes. Following the service the congregation walked a short distance to the adjacent Hall Field, to witness the unveiling of the new commemorative stone in the shape of a gun carriage wheel, unveiled by Captain Rob Maynard of today’s G Battery RHA of the Parachute Regiment.
The same evening Mandy Chesterton (descendant of Nathaniel Almey) and Paul Seaton of the Earl Shilton Historical Group appeared in Sean Bean’s Waterloo on the History Channel for a brief 60 seconds of fame as a Waterloo cannon being fired. Much of the information used during filming was taken from Alexander Cavalie Mercer’s book The Journal of the Waterloo Campaign, and within the 1815 ranks of G Troop Royal Horse Artillery were the three Almeys from Earl Shilton. Filming also witnessed the firing of replica Congreve rockets, a reminder that Jacques Raven from Earl Shilton was a Gunner in Whinyates Rocket Troop at Waterloo. Images of the event can be seen here.
After a great day in Earl Shilton it was time for the Seaton family to head to Belgium. 18th June saw us visiting the beautiful old town of Ghent, which would have been very similar in appearance two hundred years ago, when G Troop stayed for a week and on one day provided a guard of honour for King Louis. On 19th June Brussels witnessed the Waterloo Dispatch, the message sent by Wellington back to England declaring victory. Amidst plenty of champagne the current Prince Blucher gave a short speech about his illustrious ancestor of 1815 and finished with a nice play on words, ” Europe should move forwards” a direct reference to his ancestor whose nickname was “Forwards”.
Saturday 20th June we spent the whole day at Waterloo, visiting the newly refurbished Mercer/G Troop monument. It makes you realise how close to Hougoumont G Troop were on the day of the battle. We visited the bivouac of the 95th Rifles/RHA re-enactors group and climbed the Lion Mound. What great views you get from the top and a better appreciation of how small the battlefield at Waterloo truly was. An interview for the Hinckley Times resulted in a two page spread which you can read here.
We then watched many of the soldiers marching towards the battlefield as we headed towards the stands for the Allied counter attack re-enactment. It was slow progress with 60,000 spectators going the same way! The artillery fire began the evenings proceedings, it soon became apparent to all attending that smoke at the Battle of Waterloo was a very big issue! It certainly confirms Mercer’s notes as being very accurate on this aspect of the battle.
6,000 re-enactors on a battlefield certainly makes a splendid sight, I particularly enjoyed watching the deliberate slow advance of the French Infantry, just as it would have been on that day. My daughter Sarah took many images throughout the day and they are available to view here.
The Earl Shilton Historical Group have produced a book and CD oral history recording, both priced at £5.00 each, and both entitled From Earl Shilton to Waterloo. Please contact email@example.com for more information.
Those of us at Waterloo 200 were treated to a visual feast by the presence of an enormous number of re-enactors. In their bivouacs during the day and their staged evening events, they have given us the best idea of the movement, counter-movement, confusion and destructive capacity of a Napoleonic battle. Incredible.
On 18th June 2015 today’s Artillerymen took part in remembrance services across the country beside the graves of officers and men who served with the Royal Regiment of Artillery at Waterloo. The service repeated the Waterloo100 event in 1915, with wreaths of laurel and red roses charged with blue cornflower or blue iris.
At Mercer’s freshly restored graveside stood today’s men of Mercer’s G Troop RHA, now part of 7 para, still based in Colchester, from where G Troop commenced their epic journey of 1815 as recorded in Mercer’s wonderful Journal of the Waterloo Campaign.
The event has echoes of Mercer’s own ceremony on each Waterloo anniversary when he selected laurel leaves and roses from his own garden to adorn the French lance that he was given the day after the battle.
Photos courtesy of William Pattinson:
The Reverend Tom Honey officiated. The service included the words: “For their courage and bravery shown during the Battle of Waterloo, For perseverance in the face of danger, For putting others’ lives before their own, We will remember them.”
A few more photos courtesy of Pamela Coleman:
Moving indeed. The event secured coverage on ITV, and hit the local pages of the Exeter Express & Echo and Western Morning News. The latter carried the story alongside a novel idea that the dashing Hussar Major General Sir Hussey Vivian of Waterloo fame was the inspiration for the fictional Poldark!
Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada/James Pattison Cockburn collection/c012624
For decades it was believed that the black and white head and shoulders portrait was the only image that existed of Mercer. Now here he is, painted by a fellow artillery officer in 1828. He looks quite a dandy! Of course historians never take anything at face value, and so I am looking further into the provenance of this portrait.
In the meantime, if you’d like a copy please buy Mercer’s book of paintings, and this image is there, bigger and better quality, on page 14. Exclusively available in the UK through this website only here.
An air of disbelief erupts amongst British Waterloo visitors on the realisation that there has not, for 200 years, been a battlefield monument to their countrymen who fought in the campaign or on that fateful day of 18th June 1815. So what is this document below?
Amidst monuments to soldiers of other nations, Belgians, French, Hanoverians and Prussians, to senior officers (Picton, Gordon), to regiments (27th Inniskilling, 1st & 2nd Light and 5th KGL at La Haye Sainte, the 2nd, 3rd & the Light companies of the 1st Guards at Hougoumont), to services (Surgeons at Mont St Jean, Royal Wagon Train at Hougoumont), why is there nothing to commemorate the entire British army?
The Scottish border region has a 150 foot tower near Ancrum. Closer to where the battle was fought they waited until 1890 at Brussels Evere cemetery and until 2000 at Quatre Bras for the British & Hanoverian monument. In 1858 a monument was erected in the Chapelle Royale Waterloo village, joining the many individual memorials within St Joseph’s Church, which happily also includes one to the Artillery, but that is still 3 miles away from the battlefield.
Of course one of the most famous monuments, the stone stele to Mercer’s G Troop RHA along the allied ridge is very important to us. It forms a great feature for group tour photos. Over time there have been three versions of the plaque on the stele, and here it is in its very latest 2015 incarnation being admired by HRH Prince Charles and the current Duke of Wellington:
At Hougoumont this year the new Project Hougoumont Vivien Mallock memorial will be unveiled, and most impressive it should be. But were there no plans long ago?
The Charles Vanderstraeten Lion Mound has stood since 1826, commemorating the wounded Prince of Orange, although this was rather overtaken by events in 1831 with the Belgian Revolution. Amidst demands to take it down the lion was defended by hundreds of local villagers desperate to maintain their battle-tour living. A year later it survived a French invasion. On the 50th anniversary of Waterloo it was not officially celebrated through fear of upsetting the French, although thousands still gathered on the day!
So did anyone care about the British who fought? Well yes, they did. You may already have read the piece on Mercer’s visits to the beautiful Kasteel Gaasbeek (if not, click here). The quixotic Marquis of Gaasbeek, the one who had an obsessive fondness for all thinks Turkish, did care. This is the man who little more than a decade earlier had built the original Arc on his lands to honour Napoleon, and yet here he was, seeing the shift to a new ruling order, wanting to honour those who fought at Waterloo.
With the very kind assistance of Gaasbeek archivist Boudwijn Goossens, Waterloo historians Erwin Muilwijk and Pierre de Wit, (both of whom are mentioned on my book recommendations page here) and Patrick Nefors of the Royal Museum of Armed Forces and of Military History in Brussels we’ve collectively sought to decipher and translate this most remarkable document. Here is a portion of our discovery:
This precious yet previously unknown plan is the Marquis’ design for a joint memorial to the Belgians, English and Prussians (no mention of the Dutch, Scotch, Irish, Welsh, Hanoverians, Nassauers, Brunswickers etc. but perhaps they were all deemed to be part of the ‘English’ army) It is the original working document, having a preamble, a more detailed explanation of the plan, many corrections, and this fabulous design for a huge pyramid.
We will be publishing a full translation once we are fully confident of our work, but the Marquis’ plan was for a huge pyramid 125 foot high (to put that in perspective the enormous lion mound is 141 ft high). Almost 2000 sq ft at the base, constructed from local stone from his estate which originally stretched across 17 villages towards modern day Anderlecht on the Western edge of Brussels.
Within the pyramid were to be housed tombs for one Belgian, one Englishman (I’m sure the Welsh, Scots and Irish would have been permissible … in those days even Napoleon referred to the British as ‘the English’) and a Prussian who had either died on the field of battle or later from their injuries.
There would also have been housing for four Belgian veterans disabled in action, two married and two un-married, to act as guides and stable-hands to visitors to the Pyramid, with room for stables and carriages. A banner dated 1815 atop the Pyramid would be held in the mouth of an eagle acting as a weather vane. The whole construction would stand proudly beside the main route to Paris, with the inscriptions surmounted with the crowns of the supreme allies.
The description carried on the side of the Pyramid refers to the “decisive and incomparable victory”, of illustrious generals who have “merited the praise of the whole of Europe and which has assigned them immortal laurels of crowns”, and of the soldiers who “with incomparable valour … annihilated a terrible enemy at the head of Phalanxes used to victory”. It mentions by name the Duke of Brunswick and Sir Thomas Picton, and the “illustrious young royal hero Prince William of Orange-Nassau.”
So we have a great Pyramid which sadly was never built. Was he motivated by the visiting British officers including Mercer, or by the need to show common cause with the new rulers? We know that he wasn’t fond of the Dutch ruling class who banned the use of 6 horsed carriages other than for royalty; in protest the marquis had his own carriage drawn by 5 horses and a mule! The Marquis died in 1821 perhaps before it could be built, or after the project had been shelved. We may never know, but it is good to think that when the Marquis was designing his monument to all the allies he may have been wondering just what had happened to his most interested and observant visitor, Cavalié Mercer.
Glorious news! On 10th June 2015 Mercer returned, or more properly his gravestones returned, to St David’s, Exeter. The stonemason team from Williams & Triggs have achieved wonders, and these images record the exciting sequence of events:
A few weeks before, armed with all the certificates and permissions we needed, a few curious onlookers witnessed the heroic struggle as both brain and brawn triumphed in shifting these precious but alarmingly heavy stones. You can see the dedicated team of Gary and Jake hard at work here. The initial work gave a tantalising glimpse of the beauty of the Portland stone beneath the grime.
Not since 1826, when St David’s unwittingly became the centre of the first grave-robbery case in England has there been such activity. Surgeon William Cooke, requiring bodies for medical science, faced prosecution for the felony of removing linen from the body, whereas removal of a body was, at that time, simply a misdemeanour!
Besides the stone cleaning and repair, the inscriptions have also been refreshed. Portland stone weathers heavily and without this work the wording would have been lost forever. Mercer shares his grave with his sister Theodosia who lived within sight of the church, and died in 1881, thirteen years after Mercer. This image reveals the condition of the inscriptions once the top stone was removed:
Here is a real craftsman at work. Peter is re-carving the inscriptions by hand in the original script. This is the other side of the grave to Mercer’s wording, showing Theodosia. Wouldn’t it have been wonderful to know brother and sister first hand, they clearly got on very well!
The Portland stone is wonderfully bright, and this is really very fine quality Portland; often Portland is riddled with fossilised shell but Mercer was buried with the real deal. We even know the name of the stonemason who carved the original Mercer stone, as he inscribed his mark “Faulkner, Mason”.
A few weeks later the stones returned revealing the true beauty that lay underneath the grime. Detailed adjustments to the top stone:
Applying the lime mortar:
The magic that is Fairy Liquid:
After, work concluded by the merry band of (from left) Jake, Matt and Gary:
The very next day, Mercer’s new look was being admired by Capt Luke Denby-Hollis of the current Mercer’s G Troop RHA and Reverend Tom Honey, planning the graveside service for 11am on 18th June. (See here).
And if stills just aren’t enough, here is a little video showing Mercer’s resting place being encased once again here.
We now need to build a fund to continue to care for the grave for the next 100 years. If you can help or encourage others to help us reach our target, please ask them to visit www.GTroopRHA.co.uk/get-involved.
People Power is a wonderful thing, you can play a big part in making this happen, and I’m sure Mercer will be smiling down upon you!
As Mercer would have said as he sung out at Waterloo, intoxicated by success, before almost striking the Duke of Wellington (by accident!) with his sword: “Beautiful! – beautiful!”
Hidden away a few miles to the South West of Brussels is a true gem. Mercer, referring to the 23rd Light Dragoons, introduces it thus: “… the officers were somewhat surprised at seeing guns pointed at them from several embrasures, and at the same time a venerable turbaned head, projecting from one of them, demanded, in good English, how they dared trespass on the property of the Marquis d’Acornati.”
This incident drew many officers, including Mercer, to visit what is now a jewel in the crown of Belgium’s heritage. In our lust for rushing around the battle routes, the months spent in the cavalry encampments before battle are too easily forgotten. But for Mercer Gaasbeek “became a favourite lounge, and I passed many a delicious morning wandering about its cool shady walks.”
The tree-lined avenue described by Mercer is still there, as are views sketched by him at the time. The Chateau itself has since been restored, but many of the original features remain, and the woods and parkland are full of follies.
The quixotic Marquis, Paul Arconti, was a former Mayor of Brussels who received Mercer kindly. Well travelled, he enjoyed dressing himself and his rooms in Ottoman finery. Mercer describes him wearing “a white muslin turban, somewhat soiled, but plentifully beset with precious stones … an ample caftan of blue cloth … tied across the chest with strings… A crimson silk sash girded his waist, in which was stuffed an Oriental poignard (knife) … entirely covered with precious stones.” In his right hand he carried a short spear, and in his left a small cor de chasse (French horn)” . They stood within a “… lofty room, with a coved roof, painted in blue and white stripes in imitation of the interior of a Turkish tent … ornamented with an imitation of golden cords and tassels. Round the walls were suspended trophies formed of sword, daggers, pistols … almost all Oriental.”
Yet despite the beautiful grounds, around him the castle was falling into disrepair, mostly devoid of furniture, the servants and horses hardly in keeping with grandeur of the place. Not so now, the rooms are halls of beauty and the Chateau is open to the public.
Our curious Marquis had extensive connections, and like many living in this historic military corridor would often have been faced with switching allegiance to the latest ruler and religion of the time. Today the Chateau has interior paintings of the French burning down the Chateau in 1684, and a previous owner had lost his head after finding himself on the wrong side. So perhaps best avoided when he took Mercer on a tour of his estate was his monument to Napoleon, a triumphal arch which predates the Arc de Triomphe, through which he had intended a direct road from Brussels to Paris to pass (despite it being in the wrong direction!)
Enormously imposing, yet today almost forgotten, perhaps this the inspiration for Napoleon’s Paris Arc?
If you have time when visiting Waterloo, do take time to visit Kasteeel Gaasbeek, and on a good day go for a walk in the woods to discover Arconti’s Arc.
P.S. We made a truly exciting discovery at Gaasbeek, first news on that here.
Mercer is a popular chap, and as he has no direct descendants to speak up for him, it seemed only right to give him an entry in the Waterloo 200 Descendants Book. We were asked to write it, and you can visit the Descendants Book here.
Hopefully we’ll see many tales of RHA officers and men building up in the Descendants Book. You can also add your own Tribute pages to the Mercer Celebration entry.
At the time of writing there is some confusion within the Descendants Book between “Mercer’s D Troop” and “Dickson’s G Troop”, which is currently being tackled by their technical team. Dickson (who achieved fame as commander of Wellington’s artillery in the Peninsula) was awarded the first captaincy of G Troop in 1815, but never took command, and hence G Troop is generally known as Mercer’s Troop. Dickson met Mercer briefly at Quatre Bras, but commanded the siege train of heavy artillery necessary to subdue hostile fortified towns on the subsequent march to Paris. Once at Paris, Mercer was promoted to first Captain of D Troop, whose Captain Bean was killed at Waterloo. So don’t worry if it looks wrong to you … for those of us who care deeply about such things, it is being sorted. [Update 20th May: Mercer’s page is now fixed, other G Troop entries will be corrected soon]
Here is the Mercer Celebration entry:
Captain Alexander Cavalié Mercer, G Troop Royal Horse Artillery
Surely the most famous and quoted of all junior officers at Waterloo, the name Mercer has become synonymous with ‘saving the Brunswickers’ and the repulse of French cavalry on the afternoon of 18th June 1815.
Today a stone monument on the allied ridge marks the last position of Mercer’s famous troop of six guns. Across Belgium and the Netherlands the name Mercer is also cited and celebrated by local historians thanks to a French translation of his outstanding work, Journal of the Waterloo Campaign.
Amidst all the first-hand accounts of the battle, Mercer’s Journal of the Waterloo Campaign stands out as the most extensive and finest account of the campaign, perhaps of any military campaign, ever. So who was this man?
Descended from the Mercers of Aldie and Meikleour, his ancestors being buried in St John’s Kirk Perth since the 12th century. There is added spice from the Cavalié origins, yet our Mercer was very much an Englishman. Born in 1783 in Cottingham near Hull, Mercer’s father was a General in the Royal Engineers. At 6 months old Mercer and his family moved to London whilst his father took a posting to Jamaica, an unhealthy destination due to the risk of disease.
Enjoying a charmed upbringing amongst the Ambassador set, his father returned to London when Mercer was 6, just as the French Revolution was kicking off, taking the family with him on his latest posting to Guernsey. An unsettled schooling and the death of his mother in childbirth left Mercer to follow his elder brother’s footsteps into the artillery just as he turned 15. Having learned his trade at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich, he was posted first to Plymouth and then to Ireland, dealing with domestic riots and uprisings.
Attachment to the Royal Horse Artillery in 1804, amongst the élite of the armed forces, was followed in 1806 by a transfer to G Troop RHA, which was to remain his home until beyond Waterloo. Under the tutelage of Augustus Frazer, the finest horse artilleryman of his time, Mercer and G Troop were honed into an efficient fighting machine.
His first overseas campaign in 1807 was an ignominious one. Two invasions of South America, focused on Montevideo and Buenos Aires, led to surrender, and Mercer covered the retreat. Back in England whilst his colleagues were achieving glory and fame under Wellington in the Peninsula, in 1809 G Troop was posted to Woodbridge, Suffolk to defend the coast.
Years of barrack duty and practice went unrewarded, although Frazer did secure a transfer to the Peninsula and so Mercer, whilst still a 2nd Captain, took command. Mercer married in late 1813, yet the exile of Napoleon to Elba in 1814 brought hope of advancement to a close. The barracks of Woodbridge were broken up, and the Troop moved to Colchester to await reductions. The news of Napoleon’s return brought one last opportunity to achieve recognition, and G Troop had the pick of horses and equipment as they set off on campaign.
Mercer’s Journal of the Waterloo Campaign tells of the journey to Ostend, through Bruges, Ghent and on to the lush farmland of the Dender valley awaiting the start of hostilities. A keen and often amusing observer of people, landscape and architecture, Mercer’s Journal is also a great companion for sightseeing in the area. At the British cavalry parade on 29th May Blücher, commander of the Prussian forces commented that each of G Troop’s outstanding horses was fit for a Field Marshal.
Awoken early on the morning of 16th June, G Troop marched with the cavalry in sweltering heat, unsure of their orders, only to arrive too late to participate at the battle of Quatre Bras.
Yet the 17th was to bring heroics, as Mercer recounts in his Journal, commanding his G Troop in the retreat through torrential downpours. It seems the day was made for Mercer when he spotted Napoleon, who had long been the scourge of Europe.
On the morning of 18th, G Troop formed part of the reserve artillery. Mercer’s initial desire to support Major Lloyd’s foot artillery led to a reprimand, following which he was posted to the right rear of the allied line. Receiving some light incoming fire, Mercer disobeyed Wellington’s orders and commenced counter-battery fire, only to receive the attention of much heavier fire. He desisted, but only after G Troop had sustained its first casualty.
Mid afternoon Frazer galloped up with the urgent order to move to the centre of the line, and to expect attack by cavalry on arrival. Mercer’s Journal describes; “We breathed a new atmosphere – the air was suffocatingly hot, resembling that issuing from an oven. We were enveloped in thick smoke, and malgré the incessant roar of cannon and musketry, could distinctly hear around us a mysterious humming noise, like that which one hears of a summer’s evening proceeding from myriads of black beetles; cannon-shot, too, ploughed the ground in all directions, and so thick was the hail of balls and bullets that it seemed dangerous to extend the arm lest it should be torn off.”
Mercer just had time to slap his guns into position when the French cavalry crested the rise 100 yards away. Double-shotted with case-shot (canisters containing hundreds of musket balls) and roundshot his cannon piled up French men and horses before them, as each fresh discharge increased the carnage before them. Charge after charge, the effect was the same.
Over his shoulder the Brunswick infantry in square were composed of young soldiers, and Mercer decided to remain at his guns, again against orders, rather than retire to the safety of the infantry squares. When the French cavalry retired they took individual shots at Mercer, and yet despite close shaves from both bullet and cannon-ball he remained untouched.
Towards the end of the day the French artillery fire became hotter than ever, and G Troop were enfiladed from the side until saved by fresh allied artillery. Exhausted by their exertions, they collapsed and slept where they had fought. Firing over 700 rounds on the day, at last Mercer and G Troop had their moment of glory.
On the morning of the 19th Mercer’s Journal reflects seriousness, sensitivity and compassion as his men sought to give succor to the wounded.
Mercer’s Journal of the Waterloo Campaign then tells of the march to Paris, and his frustration at finally achieving promotion to full Captain, but at the cost of leaving his beloved G Troop. Briefly returning to England in the Autumn he found his wife seriously ill, his first son dead and a newborn infant also dead. His father died in 1816, and sadly his wife died following childbirth in 1817, although that son, named Cavalié, went on to lead an accomplished life.
Left alone in the world with a young son to raise, Mercer also found himself a victim of post-war reductions. He served firstly in the Corps of Royal Artillery Drivers, before being placed on half-pay. Rejoining in 1823, he sailed to Quebec, and after breaks of leave and a return to England, he was posted in 1938, now as Lt Colonel, to Halifax, Nova Scotia. His paintings from the time are now treasured by Canadians as an early record of their nation.
After a period commanding at Dover, he settled in Exeter, a City that he had often delighted in during his younger days. He never fully retired, reaching the rank of full general in 1865, just three years before his death at the age of 85.
One of eight RHA troops at Waterloo, why has Mercer become the most famous? The other RHA troop captains had already achieved brevet promotions to the army rank of Major or Lt Colonel, some carrying a knighthood or CBE. These RHA troops led by Bean, Bull, Gardiner, Ramsay, Ross, Webber-Smith and Whinyates all performed with gallantry, with Bean and Ramsay killed in action, and Bull, Webber-Smith and Whinyates wounded.
Many artillery officers also left first-hand accounts of the battle, most particularly in response to Siborne’s requests in compiling a cartographic and written record of the Battle. Yet none left such a distinguished literary account of the entire campaign. Whilst many were exposed to fire and danger for longer, none delivered such a sustained intensity of fire. Mercer’s fame is also partially due to his disobeying of orders, and to the fact that he was, by far, the most junior RHA troop commander at Waterloo (and the British do have a habit of admiring the under-dog).
Mercer did not live to enjoy his fame. His son published his Journal in 1870, two years after Mercer’s death. Today the proud memory of Mercer’s G Troop RHA are sustained by G Parachute Battery (Mercer’s Troop), 7 Para RHA who remain based at Colchester.
Today, Mercer’s Waterloo sword is on display at Firepower, the Royal Artillery Museum in Woolwich, a highly recommended visit.
Mercer’s grave is also being restored for the Waterloo 200 commemorations, and a book of Mercer’s prized watercolours has also been published. You can learn more and get involved by visiting www.gtrooprha.co.uk
Mercer’s direct DNA expired on the death of his son, yet many Mercers remain rightly proud of their kin’s achievements. In the absence of any direct descendants, this article has been written by Mercer historian Robert Pocock.
Sources: Journal of the Waterloo Campaign, General Cavalié Mercer, published by William Blackwood and Sons 1870 / Royal Artillery Historical Trust / Photos courtesy of Robert Pocock
Thank-you to everyone who attended, 72 in all, across all age groups, kindly hosted by the Exeter Civic Society. Visitors from Yorkshire, Leicestershire and London, including descendants of a Bombardier who, with his cousin and another family member all served in G Troop at Waterloo! Special indeed.
It was a pleasure to share so much and to receive such positive comments and information-sharing afterwards.
We are now available for other talks to spread the word and continue to raise funds for the Mercer Grave Restoration Project. Please let me know if you are interested.
Dr Neal Dando is a lecturer in Military History at the University of Exeter. Gordon Read is the author of the book available through this site (see here), and Robert Pocock is the man behind this site and the Mercer Grave Restoration project (see here).
For the first time, a book of Cavalié Mercer’s paintings is available in the UK exclusively though this site, sold in aid of the Mercer Grave Restoration project.
British Artillery officer Alexander Cavalié Mercer is most famous for his detailed account of his experiences leading up to and including the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Fewer know him as an amateur artist, but Mercer often composed what he called “souvenirs”, paintings and sketches of his postings in Europe and North America. While posted in Halifax, Mercer painted nearly 80 watercolours of the area between 1838 and 1842.
Halifax in Watercolour showcases 50 of Mercer’s best sketches, including paintings of the Citadel, the Commons, Artillery Park, Bedford Basin, Dartmouth, and the Northwest Arm. Additional photographs, maps, and historical context from author Glenn Devanney help the reader situate the site of the painting in the present-day. This is Halifax and history as it was before photographs, a visual treasure trove of the time.
Most Waterloo afficianados will know of the black and white head portrait of Mercer. In this book Glenn Devanney has uncovered a full-length colour portrait of Mercer. There will be more on that in a future blog, but you can secure your copy in the book!
Reviews of the book include:
“There are only a handful of cities in Canada with a history as rich and deep as that of Halifax. As a key deepwater port for the British Empire, the city was at the heart of many major movements and conflicts.
In Halifax in Watercolour, Glenn Devanney takes readers on a visual journey back to early-to-mid-1800s Halifax as seen through the eyes — and the paintbrush — of watercolourist Alexander Cavalié Mercer. A British artillery officer who fought against Napoleon at Waterloo, Mercer visited Halifax for only a short time, but his output was extremely productive — more than eighty paintings of landscapes, street scenes, and coastal views.
I found this book a revelation. It depicts a historic Halifax that once was, and of which traces can still be seen today.”
— Mark Reid; Canada’s HISTORY Magazine
We have 100 exclusive new copies waiting to find good homes in the UK! This book, published in Canada by Nimbus Publishing is only available through this website and is not available in UK bookshops, Waterstones or Amazon.co.uk.
To secure your copy, just complete the form below, either e-mail it or send it to us, together with your £20 cheque or pay by Paypal. UK Postage is free, and your book will be sent promptly in a protective Jiffy bag. Please ask if you require overseas delivery.
For an extra £5 you can add a copy of Gordon Read’s dramatic poem on the 27th Inniskillings at Waterloo. More on the book here.
Please email me if you would like any copies Christmas or Birthday gift-wrapped and sent with a message of your choice; I’m happy to oblige!
If you like what you see, you can make a contribution to the Mercer Grave Restoration Project.
By purchasing either, or both books, you will be donating to the Mercer Grave Restoration project, including the permissions, restoration of the grave, the signage, and a fund to maintain the grave for the next 100 years. Please open and complete the form below:
At the centre of Wellington’s line, the 27th Inniskillings performed prodigies of valour in holding their exposed position despite devastating losses. Ever since they have been lauded as one of the greatest examples of regimental motivation and cohesion under fire.
Rushed from Bermuda, the 27th arrived just in time to serve at Waterloo. Of their 730 officers and men they lost 103 killed and 360 wounded, many of whom later died of their wounds. These losses of 63% were the highest of any allied unit.
In 2005, author Gordon Read, living in Mercer’s home city of Exeter, published his poem “The Way of War in the Search for Peace, the 27th (Inniskilling) Regiment at Waterloo”. The 44 page book was written in memory of a friend who had been British Liaison Officer at the French Military Academies at St Cyr. It provides a graphic account of Life and Death in one of Wellington’s famous Squares.
Delightfully presented, the book is available on this site for just £5 (including UK P&P) compared to its original list price of £7.50!
Gordon is kindly donating all revenue from his book sales, so the entire £5 goes to the Mercer Grave Restoration Project. You can purchase the book now by completing the form below: