The road to Waterloo: Week 14 (25 – 31 May 2015)

‘A fearful interval expecting the bursting out of the war.’ *

23 days to Waterloo

May 1815 was an anxious time of preparation and anticipation. Naples had capitulated; the Allies were gathering their forces; while Napoleon prepared the defences of Paris:

“The Emperor mounted his horse yesterday morning at six o’clock.  He made the tour of the works which are executing from Montmatre to the heights of Belleville and Charonne, and thence to Vincennes, where he visited the artillery establishments and the armouries… These works have been laid out with skill and there is reason to hope that they will be finished and armed within 20 days. All that part of the exterior of Paris will then be secured against attack.”

The same papers reported the strength and position of the Allies, noting that it might take Russian forces another five weeks to cross the Rhine: “Will the Emperor Napoleon wait patiently until all the preparations of the Allies are completed?” The Allied army lacked unity – with its diversity of interests, languages, and manners – compared to the French army “comprised of one people, united in common cause, and directed by one single genius.” [The Times, 30 May 1815 quoting the French papers, Paris, 26 May 1815]

The Duke of Wellington was also busy with preparations: his correspondence shows him accepting the services of officers, disposing troops, and organizing transport and subsistence.  He negotiated treaties of subsidy with foreign powers to settle the expenses of the war. Wellington’s letter of 26 May 1815 to Viscount Castlereagh, the Foreign Secretary, contains a rough sketch of the probable British, Hanoverian, and Brunswick forces:

“I enclose a rough memorandum of the state of our force at present, with a view to the calculation of subsidy. In this calculation I include officers, non-commissioned officers, men sick, absent, and present, and those absent on command, but not garrisons. I reckon the Hanoverian reserve, that is, those last arrived, which are called 10,000 men, as the contingent of Hanover; the remainder, or 15,867, as foreign troops in British pay will come into our numbers to make up our 150,000. I have not yet settled with the Duke of Brunswick, as the details of that settlement depend upon the settlement of Hanover, respecting which I am still in discussion; but taking his contingent at 3000 men; we shall have about 5000 to carry to our account, of which 500 will be cavalry.

You will see then that the demand which the Allies will have upon us for subsidy, on account of our deficiencies, will amount to about £1,800,000.”
[MS 61 Wellington Papers 1/465/77]

Meanwhile The Times derided the repeated postponements of the Champ de Mai – or “Field of May”, a great national assembly in Paris which Napoleon had summoned to approve the ‘Additional Act’ to the Constitutions of the Empire. Originally planned for the 26th May, it was then postponed to the 28th. The roads to the capital thronged as members of the electoral assemblies, and officers of each army regiment, were ordered to attend the ceremony. Wellington received regular intelligence:

“A gentleman.. who arrived here yesterday directly from Paris, says that it [the Champ de May] is to be this day the 26th and that he met on the road a great number of officers, all going there for that ceremony at which they are to receive the eagle’s for their respective regiments. He met also several depots, going to the interior. The National Guards from the interior are sent to the frontiers, and those from the frontier to the interior.”
[MS 61 Wellington Papers 1/463/12 Letter from General Dornberg to Lord FitzRoy Somerset, Military Secretary to the Duke of Wellington, 25 May 1815]

The following day, Lionel Harvey, the Duke’s secretary, informed him:

“Accounts received from Paris state that the assemblée du Champ de Mai is adjourned to the 28th instant, and that Buonaparte is losing ground every day. He has been to visit the catacombs, and they are in great dread of some desperate determination on his part to destroy the city, in case he should be obliged to abandon it.”
[MS 61 Wellington Papers 1/463/26, 26 May 1815]

The Champ de Mai finally took place on the 1st June – a piece of splendid pageantry – in the shadow of the darker theatre of war.

*[diary of William Wilberforce, M.P., 13 May 1815]


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