From Ballroom to Battlefield: the Battle of Waterloo

Battle of Waterloo © Bridgeman Images

According to historian Nick Foulkes, in his excellent social history of the Battle of Waterloo entitled Dancing into Battle, ‘The world changed between sunrise and sunset on Sunday 18th June 1815’. The Allied victory just outside Brussels on that June day brought an end to nearly twenty-five years of European warfare; the struggle with Napoleon was over. The battle bridged the gap between the rakish Regency and ‘virtuous’ Victorian eras, and peace encouraged the rapid social mobility that was to become a strong feature of Britain in the nineteenth century.

Waterloo is one of the most famous battles in history, but it is not just the military tactics of Wellington and Napoleon that have fascinated historians for the last two hundred years. The social milieu of Brussels at the time, with its relaxed atmosphere and seemingly frivolous ‘country house party’ mood – just as the very fate of Europe hung in the balance – has been the subject of much analysis. Why were so many aristocrats lodging in Brussels? What was Wellington doing at the Duchess of Richmond’s ball the night before the battle? Why were day trippers allowed onto the battlefield? The answers to these questions will help our understanding of what was going on in Brussels in that moment, and will give us some insights into how, in Julian Fellowes’s BELGRAVIA, the romance between tradesman’s daughter Sophia Trenchard and young aristocrat Edmund Bellasis was able to blossom.

Napoleon’s capture in 1814 and the return of the king to the French throne opened the Continent up to travellers for the first time in years. But it was not just curious tourists who wanted to cross the Channel: impecunious aristocrats desperate to leave London in order to save money were also scrambling to get to the Continent. The soaring cost of living that comes with a war and with having large families, coupled with a craze for gambling, had reduced the incomes of many of the nobility, and Brussels, with its proximity to England and its far cheaper rents and lower cost of provisions, was a tempting prospect.

The Duke and Duchess of Richmond and their numerous children were one of the last families to arrive in the city, which is why they were forced to take a house in the shabbier part of town. Full of noble English families, Brussels must have resembled a fashionable spa town from a Jane Austen novel. Letters from the time tell of military bands playing in the park, leisure gardens, a theatre, race meetings, wolf-hunting, shooting parties, picnics and carriage drives, and more besides.

Of course, another reason members of the aristocracy found themselves in Belgium was because the army was still required to be on hand to help the Allies strengthen the borders of the new buffer zone called the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. The aristocracy was in complete control of the army, and it was not a meritocracy: you gained your commission by buying it. So army officers, their families, their servants and all the other hangers-on rubbed along together in this somewhat charged atmosphere. One can easily understand how in BELGRAVIA Sophia, the daughter of the army’s chief supplier, would have been able to meet officers such as the dashing young Edmund, Viscount Bellasis.

But everything changed in March 1815 with the escape of Napoleon from Elba. The former emperor was soon able to retake Paris, but he knew his army couldn’t match that of the Allied forces that would be recalled to fight him. He decided on a swift attack against the Allied forces already in Belgium, gambling on the hunch that they wouldn’t be able to muster extra soldiers quickly enough to defeat him.

News of Napoleon’s advance through France spread to Brussels, and while some families opted for a quick getaway back to London, many women stayed to support their husbands and sons who were mobilising the forces to fight the former emperor. With the inexperienced young Prince of Orange ostensibly heading up the Allied forces in Brussels, officers and families anxiously awaited the arrival of the Duke of Wellington, who had been at the Congress of Vienna. Wellington’s appearance in early April was greeted with relief, and at that point the Prince of Orange wisely resigned his command. Wellington set about building up the army, and troops disembarked from England daily.

For the English in residence in Brussels, the influx of new officers added a sense of security and also provided the opportunity for a fresh round of social entertainments. Wellington was happy for this to carry on in the face of the enemy’s advance; he was a cool character, and the ‘stiff upper lip’ was all part of his carefully constructed air of insouciance, designed to defuse any tensions and bolster the Brits in Brussels, thus undermining the French – Napoleon’s spies were all over the city. So the parties and balls went on, encouraged and attended by Wellington and the high command, all in an elaborate ‘social smokescreen’.

The feisty and domineering Duchess of Richmond was determined that she was going to throw the best party in Brussels, and that it would be in Wellington’s honour – he was a close family friend. The date was set for 15 June. But as the likelihood of Brussels being on a war footing became a reality, she worried that the party would interfere with Wellington’s plans, and she asked him outright. ‘Duchess,’ he said, ‘you may give your ball with the greatest safety, without fear of interruption’. He was giving his own ball on the 21 June, and with the invasion of France planned for the 25 June, he was happy to be present at her party, despite rumours that the French were on the move.

But rumours of the approaching French army had been a constant for the previous month and many discounted them, concentrating instead on preparations for the Duchess’s ball, which was the talk of Brussels. But during the day on 15 June, it gradually became obvious that the moment had come and war was imminent. Even so, Wellington maintained his outward calm, his attendance at the ball designed to dispel any anxiety among the guests. The events at the ball happened precisely as told in the pages of BELGRAVIA (albeit without James Trenchard’s presence), and many soldiers left the party in their dress uniforms, heading off to join their regiments, in spite of the pleas of the Duchess of Richmond for them to stay and not ‘spoil her ball’.

The following day, the French and the Allied armies met a mere twenty-five miles away at Quatre-bras, and before nightfall Brussels was turned into an open-air hospital, with wounded soldiers tended on the streets as they staggered through the city gates. Fighting was so close to the city that some officers rode back to their houses for dinner and some rest, and then returned to battle on fresh horses. The fighting was fierce, with the French outnumbering the Allies, but the Allies won the day. The toll was high, and twenty-four hours after the ball ended, the bodies of those who had danced with the Duchess and her daughters were being brought back into Brussels on handcarts. The families in Brussels – including the Duchess of Richmond’s – were left to consider whether it was time to pack up and leave.

For the next forty-eight hours, the residents of Brussels had to sit and wait for news from the front line at Waterloo, where the Allied and French armies met again; the fighting was fierce and losses were catastrophic. The Allied victory under Wellington’s command came at the price of 22,000 men. The injured lay on the battlefield for up to a week, at the mercy of looters, before they could be recovered as the army was still engaged in rounding up French troops, and the citizens of Brussels were overwhelmed with caring for the walking wounded and men who had been retrieved from the battlefield by their desperate families. Curiously, the battlefield attracted ‘war tourists’, those who ventured out to see where the great victory had been achieved, not appreciating that it was a scene of utter carnage.

Within three days the city of Brussels had shed its party atmosphere, and the ladies exchanged their ballgowns for sober garb more suited to tending their wounded husbands and sons. The ball faded into memory, but that extravagant event, brought so brilliantly to life in BELGRAVIA, is remembered as ‘the most famous ball in history’.

Download the first chapter of Nick Foulkes’s fascinating social history surrounding the Battle of Waterloo, Dancing into Battle.