Waterloo: The day that decided Europe's fate
In June 1815 the Duke of Wellington’s army defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. The victory had a profound impact on European history, bringing to an end decades of war and heralding the collapse of an imperial dynasty. It is remembered in popular consciousness as a heroic British victory, which the BBC has termed ‘the day that decided Europe’s fate’.
The Napoleonic Wars touched the lives of millions of people, including those who lived in the West Midlands during the period. The West Midlands grew rich on the profits of the gun trade and also played host to Napoleon’s brother Lucien during his exile from France. Some of these stories are explored in a new book Fortunes of War: The West Midlands at the Time of Waterloo by University of Birmingham academics, Dr Andrew Watts and Dr Emma Tyler, from the Department of Modern Languages.
In the early 1800s Birmingham was at the heart of the global munitions industry and was renowned for the quality of its craftsmanship. Many guns used by British troops in the Napoleonic Wars were manufactured by the Galton family from their base in Steelhouse Lane. Samuel Galton senior entered the gun trade in the 1750s, and his son Samuel joined the company in 1774. The first orders of weapons for the Napoleonic Wars arrived in 1793 for muskets, carbines, pistols, gun barrels and even 5,100 ‘French pattern’ muskets. Over the course of the war, the Galtons’ profits rose to £139,000 in 1799, the equivalent of nearly seven million pounds today. While business was booming for the Galtons, their success as gun makers did not sit well with the Quaker Society of Friends to which the family belonged. Quakers were pacifists and in the Yearly Meeting in 1790 they issued a firm anti-war statement. In 1795 the Galton family was accused of ‘fabricating, and selling Instruments of war’ and was investigated and threatened with being disowned by the Quaker community. The Galtons not only manufactured guns for the army, but also for African traders who exchanged them for slaves. The Quakers were at the heart of the anti-slavery movement and in 1796 Samuel Galton Junior was disowned by the Quaker community after an argument with Thomas Clarkson, a leading anti-slavery campaigner about whether or not the Galtons were responsible for the abuse of the weapons they created.
In January 1811 Lucien Bonaparte, Napoleon’s younger brother, was brought to the West Midlands as a prisoner of war. Lucien and his family had set sail from Rome in 1810 on their way to voluntary exile in America; they were then captured by the British off the coast of Sardinia and taken to Plymouth in December of 1810. Upon arrival in England, Lucien presented the captain with a diamond watch and in return received a double-barrelled shotgun, which became his hunting weapon of choice. Lucien took up residence with his family and a large retinue of servants at Thorngrove House in Worcestershire. The 40-strong entourage included a doctor, chaplain, tutor and painter. The house was set in 130 acres of country estate, which Lucien equipped extravagantly, living the life of a country gentleman. He stocked the lake with fish, applied for a licence to shoot game, maintained a large stable of horses and purchased a pleasure boat, furnished with red Moroccan upholstery. Lucien returned to Paris after Napoleon’s abdication in April 1814 and his family then joined him in Rome where he lived until his death in 1840. Thorngrove was placed on the market and its contents sold at auction, including 650lbs of ‘good, family cheese.’
Perhaps the most fascinating tale of the West Midlands and the Battle of Waterloo is that of the Birmingham button seller and the Duke of Wellington. In the midst of the fighting a button seller from Birmingham, who was in Brussels on business, strayed onto the battlefield after becoming curious to witness a battle first-hand. Seeing the button seller riding between the fires, the Duke of Wellington beckoned him over to ask what he was doing. Upon hearing his story, Wellington asked whether he would be willing to take a message across the field to Marshal Kempt, Commander of the 8th British Brigade. The Birmingham Daily Post reported that Wellington then went to sleep; upon waking he saw that Kempt had changed tactics and the button seller’s mission had been a success. Wellington later summoned the button seller to his home in London and in recognition of his service he was rewarded with a post in the Royal Mint at £800 per annum. The Duke of Wellington would have been in a good position to secure such an appointment as his older brother was Master of the Royal Mint, and at £800 a year, the button seller would have been paid more than the Chief Engraver who received a salary of £500 per annum. The Birmingham button seller has never been identified, and whether or not he existed at all remains a mystery to this day.
The end of the Napoleonic Wars heralded a peace in Europe which was not broken until the outbreak of World War One in 1914. In the century following the Battle of Waterloo an increased respect developed for the figure of the soldier. The Battle ‘became mythologised in the nineteenth century and is now embedded in our cultural memory as one of the great British success stories’ according to Dr Emma Tyler. Dr Andrew Watts continues, suggesting that ‘we still celebrate Waterloo because it was a great British victory – even if we had a little bit of help from the Prussians. It embodied the British bulldog spirit and marked the moment we finally overcame Napoleon and his empire after a decade of being at war.’
The ramifications from Waterloo and the Napoleonic Wars are still felt today in contemporary politics. Dr Watts sees ‘parallels between Waterloo and today’s European politics. The effort to defeat Napoleon was a collaborative one involving Britain, Prussia and Austria, and a number of other European powers. Waterloo helped to establish a template for the kind of European collaboration we still see today.’
Fortunes of War: The West Midlands at the Time of Waterloo is available now from the History West Midlands website, priced £11.99 including UK delivery. A podcast to accompany the book is also free to download from the HWM site.
- Picture credit: Elizabeth Thompson, English 1846-1933, The 28th Regiment at Quatre Bras, 1875. Oil on canvas; 97.2 x 216.2 cm. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Purchased 1884