The memories of Waterloo 200 will last a lifetime. Here are a few images of one man’s journey (mostly) avoiding the crowds:
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.
Here are a few photos taken through the smoke:
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!
This needs few words:
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).
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.
P.P.S. You can visit Kasteel Gaasbeek with me on the Campaigns & Culture Cavalie Mercer Waterloo Campaign Tour in September 2018.