Six years ago today one of the biggest ever European re-enactment events took place on the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo.
Arriving on site around midday on Friday 16th June I queued to register and receive my access wristband. (Why do organisers insist on total authenticity of appearance while requiring you to wear a visibly displayed brightly-coloured plastic wristband?) I had to ask the registration clerk to repeat the question: “Do you require the weefee?”. No, I saw no purpose in paying for wi-fi in 1815!
I was directed to 2nd British Brigade’s campsite, within the former walled garden at Hougoumont. The Brigade HQ was against the wall. Unloading the car I soon had my bell-tent up and began to furnish it.
I lived in luxury. A carpet on the floor, a home-made rope-tensioned bed with a horsehair mattress, washstand with a large copper bowl, a chair and small table with my portable writing desk, a large sea-chest and a couple of other wooden boxes. My concession to modern living was beneath a blanket behind the bed. I provided my own toilet facilities – a modern day “thunderbox”.
Suspended from the central pole by chains were a circular iron chandelier for six candles and another iron ring with six hooks for my clothes and accoutrements.
After assisting in erecting the Officers’ mess tent and furnishing that with table and chairs plus table furnishings, I set about my duties. My first task as quartermaster was to ensure that arriving groups camped in their allotted areas within the brigade area, and to collect expected numbers from each group. I also had to prepare a guard rota for the weekend based on these numbers, and to make a trip to the museum office to make more copies of the forms we would need for organisation.
In the evening the Brigade marched out to drill while I remained as duty officer. When they returned I was deputised with one of the sergeants to give one of our constituent units some extra training. They were from Italy and not totally up to speed with British drill. My job in this case was interpreter, and I soon discovered that my “business Italian” was not up to military terminology. Fortunately their interpreter was better.
And so to dinner and bed.
First job next morning was to call on each sub-unit to obtain the day’s attendance for rations and gunpowder issue, and to distribute the guard rota. Then breakfast and an officers’ briefing from the Brigade Commander.
Once again we drilled as a Brigade. I believe we had about 250 soldiers (say a half-battalion in real life). Ours was one of five Allied infantry brigades. For the rest of the day every time I sat down there was someone with a problem to be sorted out or an errand to be run. Such is the life of an Aide de Camp.
Among the issues was to assist with taking evidence for an inquiry into an accident at Friday evening’s “Son et Lumiere” event where the pyrotechnics had got out of hand and one of our ladies was hospitalised. The “Royal Dutch Army” groups issued an ultimatum, supported by the Allied High Command on behalf of the whole Army that unless the planned pyrotechnics were removed from the battlefield they would not be participating.
We set off for the evening battle. The French marched from Plancenoit and the Allies from Hougoumont, entering the field via the courtyard of La Haye Sainte farm. Unfortunately the modern road is higher than the entrance gate to the farm. A ramp/bridge had been constructed, but not strong enough for our artillery. Almost one hour later than planned we marched onto the field through waist-high crops. The original road layout had been mowed or rolled through the crops.
Good reduced-scale representations had been built of both Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte. These were occupied by the appropriate regiments. On the barricade blocking the “road” beside the farm some wag had hung a cardboard sign: “Frogs Go Home”.
The battle opened with our rocket troop preempting the French cannonade by inadvertently firing a salvo onto our KGL allies in La Haye Sainte, to the ire of the British Army Commander.
The valley soon filled with smoke in the fading light and I felt sorry for the spectators who had spent €60 each to see very little. But the volleys looked great from where I was standing.
The battle progressed in choreographed fashion to the historical conclusion with the destruction of the Imperial Guard and rout of the French. Because of the late start many spectators had to leave before the end to catch the last bus or train.
And so again to bed.
Next morning I followed the same routine as before. The Allied forces paraded to stand in silence at 11:35, two hundred yers after the start of the battle. A column of French soldiers arrived and I quickly halted them. They had come to salute their forbears at a memorial within our camp, so I had them escorted with due procedure through the camp.
My Commander had told me that he was to dine, as a public display, with the “Duke of Wellington”. He was not keen and asked me to bring him an urgent message during the meal to get him out of it! At the last moment he was told he should bring another officer and chose me because I was the only one in full uniform at the time. I grabbed my white gloves and bicorne and quickly passed the request for an interruption to another officer.
On arrival my hat and gloves were taken by a footman and I was seated between to “Prussian” officers, both German. We conversed in a mixture of German and English while a succession of courses, cooked to original recipes and beautifully presented, were placed before us.
During the course of the meal I reminded “His Grace” that we had the Inniskillings with us and we concocted a plan based on the “pig in a knapsack” scene from the film. I had a friend in the regiment and would provide him with some loot to be discovered by the Duke.
In due course our “urgent message” arrived, just before the coffee and dainties. We retrieved our hats and left. “Bugger,” said my C.O. “I was enjoying that.”
I found my Inniskilling friend and gave him one of the brass candelabra from our mess tent. I then sent a note back to the Duke with the name and details. Later, as we formed on the battlefield, the Duke rode up and called him out. Ordered to turn out his haversack he fumbled about and produced – a small pink toy pig!
Our battle followed in a similar way to the previous day.
At one point we were surprised by a troop of enemy cuirassiers on our right flank. We hastily formed square but the Light Company did not make it. They formed a defensive “clump” but our square was left with a Light Company sized hole at the rear. The gap was quickly filled, first by officers and then by the quick action of a sergeant moving men to help.*
The order was given to reform the line, but we quickly went back into square again when light cavalry in French-style shakos loomed out of the smoke. They were our Dutch allies returning to reform after a charge.
On the march back to camp after the battle we had another incident. A drunken local tried to shove some of our chaps from the road into the ditch as we marched past. I intervened to prevent fisticuffs and then had to explain the situation to the Belgian police, who led the chap off after hearing both sides. Returning to camp I wrote a report of this incident.
By this time it was 11:30 p.m. and I realised that, apart from the public lunch display, I had not sat down since 6:30 a.m. I lay on my bed for a few minutes before joining the noisy “last night” celebration outside. I awoke at 7:00 next morning.
We packed up in pouring rain and set off home.
I remember thinking during the battle: “Re-enactment doesn’t get better than this. If I gave up now, I would be satisfied.” I still re-enact, but have not worn that uniform again.
* The incident with the cavalry and the square is shown in a series of pictures on page 6 of this site. Phil Thomason managed to encapsulate the whole weekend in his photographic record.