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The Shropshire Star marks 200th anniversary of Battle of Waterloo

Telford | News | Published:

It was the battle which finally stopped Napoleon in his tracks and brought a lasting stability and peace to Europe after 16 years of conflict and upheaval.

Bonaparte had proven a hard man to keep down. Despite defeats and setbacks, he kept bouncing back.

Lord Hill's Column

Lord Hill, Shropshire's great hero from the Battle of Waterloo, stands high on his perch overlooking the town, as befits a man who was held in the highest esteem by Salopians.

The Column, that landmark in Hill's honour topped by his statue, would be there even had he never set foot on the Waterloo battlefield.

He was already a local hero who had made his name in the Peninsular War as the right hand man of the Duke of Wellington in a long, bloody, but ultimately successful campaign against Napoleon's forces in Spain and Portugal.

The regard Wellington had for Lord Hill was shown when the government of the day asked him if Hill could be transferred to take command of the British Army in Holland. His reply was: "Had you not better cut off my right hand?"

The ceremony for the laying of the first stone of The Column was on December 27, 1814, long before the Battle of Waterloo was fought and won on June 18, 1815. It was performed according to Masonic rule, by the Salopian Lodge of Masons – presumably Hill was himself a Mason.

In a cavity underneath the stone was placed a bottle containing gold and silver coins of the reign of George III, together with a contemporary copy of the Shrewsbury Chronicle.

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The last stone was laid in 1816, on the first anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo in which Napoleon had been decisively defeated.

Accounts of the life of Hill often pick up on a perhaps unexpected quality in a man involved in the business of killing – his humanity to both friend and foe.

One story was that during the Peninsular campaign three terrified Spanish orphans were found hiding among straw by British soldiers. Hill went out of his way to ensure they were looked after and then, after the battle, had them taken back to the family home at Hawkstone Hall where they were brought up.

It seems that they became so much a part of the family that when the news came that Hill's brother Colonel Clement Hill was taken from the field wounded at Waterloo, one of the orphans, searched the battlefield for three days trying to find his body.

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In her book, The Hills of Hawkstone and Attingham, Joanna Bastin – herself one of the Hill family – says he was "an unassuming man, totally lacking the mien of a successful soldier, but he inspired affection and respect in all who came in contact with him.

"In many ways he appeared the antithesis of a fighting man. He was sincerely religious, scarcely ever swore, used no foul language and, although he must have had ambition, he never put personal aspiration before the good of the Army. It is also impossible to find any trace of jealousy among his fellow officers at his success and rapid rise."

The names of the battles of the Peninsular War in which Hill shone are not well known and while his role at Waterloo, in which he had around 10,000 men under him, was not as prominent, it was nevertheless to add lustre to his reputation.

The Shrewsbury Chronicle reported in its obituary of him that "in the great crisis of this conflict, when Napoleon made his last effort, and the Imperial Guard advanced to the attack, the services of Lord Hill, and especially of that brigade of his lordship's corps commanded by Lieutenant General Adam, were conspicuous; and by the judgment and ardour with which he supported the British guards, he largely contributed to the final and glorious result.

"The horse of his Lordship was killed under him, and of his staff the majority were either killed, wounded, or dismounted by the fire of the enemy."

His role at Waterloo is told by Gordon L. Teffeteller in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: "As Wellington formed his army, Hill received command of a corps of 25,000 to 30,000 men, which Wellington placed to the far right of his main position at Mont St Jean, south of Waterloo. Bonaparte's movements were carried out in secrecy, but Wellington could not give up his view that Bonaparte might direct his advance over good roads to Hill's position, so he kept his right wing strong, perhaps too strong.

"Hill's force played no appreciable part in the battle of Quatre-Bras (on June 16) and was engaged only peripherally at Waterloo (June 18). As the battle progressed, when Hill saw that no threat was offered on the far right, he began leading some of his units to support the allied troops around the key position at Hougoumont. His horse was shot under him but, though bruised, he survived the desperate fighting."

Rowland Hill was born at Prees Hall in 1772 into one of the county's leading families, with around 16,000 acres making up the Hawkstone estate.

His Army nickname of "Daddy" Hill was both due to his benevolent appearance and his care for his men.

He was a man of obvious courage on the battlefield. Not yet 21, he was slightly injured in his right hand at Toulon. Fighting the French in Egypt in 1802, he was wounded by a musket ball which knocked him unconscious. However, it had hit the strong brass binding on the peak of his helmet, probably saving his life.

In 1808 he was sent to Portugal serving under his friend Sir Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington. Facing overwhelming odds, the British forces had to come home, only to return. In the Battle of Talavera Hill was hit by a musket ball near his left ear, but his hat saved his life once more.

Given command of the 2nd Corps, he was able to show his mettle as a military leader and his guile and tactical skill led the British to victory at the Battle of Almaraz in 1812.

He was elected MP for Shrewsbury in 1812 but never took his seat in the Commons, being engaged abroad until he was made a peer in 1814, Sir Rowland becoming Lord Hill of Almaraz and of Hawkstone, which brought with it an annuity of £2,000 voted by Parliament, which was a huge sum for the time.

In June that year he returned home to Shropshire and was greeted by huge crowds. There was a day of rejoicing in Shrewsbury, with around 20,000 celebrating.

Three years after Waterloo, he retired in 1818 to Hardwick Grange in Hadnall where he farmed, hunted, fished and shot.

From 1828 to 1842 however he was General Commanding in Chief of the British Army. He retired again in 1842 – which was 52 years since being first commissioned as an Ensign in July 1790.

An unexpected achievement of Hill's was contributing to the saving of the ancient and historic Westminster Hall from destruction during the great fire in 1834.

In the confusion Lord Hill, who was unknown in the crowd, saw that the flames were approaching the hall and "pointed out the propriety of making a gap in some buildings, so as to cut off the flames." This was done "and thus was a great national structure saved from demolition."

Coalition forces had captured Paris on March 1814 and the following month Napoleon was forced to abdicate and was exiled to Elba, off the coast of Italy.

But less than a year later he escaped and returned to France where he was welcomed by cheering crowds. The new king fled.

Napoleon raised a new army and embarked on his final campaign, which came to be known as his Hundred Days campaign.

Once more an international coalition opposed him and the climax came at Waterloo, about nine miles south of Brussels.

Why Waterloo? It was on the line of Napoleon's advance towards Brussels, and the Duke of Wellington had chosen it as a defensible position. Facing the French army of around 72,000 troops was a 68,000-man British army which also included Belgian, Dutch and German troops.

Absent as the battle was joined on June 18 was the Prussian army under Marshal Blucher.

Napoleon threw everything against the British, who held firm.

With little scope for manoeuvring, it was a bloody battle of attrition characterised by brutal frontal assaults.

Fighting had begun in the late morning, and by the late afternoon, with things in the balance, the Prussians began to arrive.

Theirs was a decisive intervention which turned the tide.

A counter-attack by the allied forces drove back the French in disorder. Defeat turned into a rout. It was all over.

Bonaparte abdicated but still tried to get up to tricks, pushing to have his son named emperor, but the coalition rejected the offer.

The British made sure that he would make no further comeback. This time he was exiled on a remote island in the South Atlantic – St Helena.

His health began to deteriorate and he died on May 5, 1821. He was buried on the island, but his remains were returned to France in 1840.

The Duke of Wellington was already a national hero at the time of Waterloo, and after his climactic victory at Waterloo a grateful nation presented him with an estate in Hampshire and a fortune of £400,000.

He had been elected an MP as early as 1806. After being commander in chief of the army in occupied France until November 1818 he returned to England and was given a post in Lord Liverpool's Tory government.

In 1827, he became commander in chief of the British army, but in 1828 reluctantly accepted the post of Prime Minister.

He described his first Cabinet meeting thus: "An extraordinary affair. I gave them their orders and they wanted to stay and discuss them."

Despite being very conservative, and his opposition to parliamentary reform made him unpopular, Wellington controversially oversaw Catholic emancipation, which granted almost full civil rights to Catholics in the United Kingdom.

He was to fight a duel at Battersea Park with one of the opponents. Wellington fired but missed – on purpose, he claimed later – while his opponent did not fire. Honour was satisfied.

The government fell in 1830 and when returned to power in 1834, Wellington declined the office of prime minister.

The "Iron Duke" died on September 14, 1852, and was given a state funeral.

There was to be an enduring legacy of the epic battle.

Europe was to be spared a major war for many years.

It was not until the Crimean War of the 1850s that British troops were to be called upon again in Europe.

The name "Waterloo" entered the language, to be immortalised in an untold number of street names and building names.

Waterloo Bridge in London opened in 1817 on the second anniversary of the battle. It gave its name too to the railway station nearby, which opened in 1848.

Only a few days ago Britain's first memorial remembering the soldiers who fell in the battle was unveiled at Waterloo Station.

It entered the language in other ways too. People still talk of people who "meet their Waterloo" if , like Napoleon, they come across something that defeats them.

Four years later, when the cavalry were used against a crowd gathered in St Peter's Field in Manchester, killing 18 – estimates vary – and injuring hundreds, it quickly became dubbed, with echoes of the Waterloo encounter which was fresh in the memory, the "Peterloo Massacre".

For the troops who took part in the campaign, they got something that they were to value all their lives – a medal.

The Waterloo Medal was the first campaign medal awarded to every participant. Once they would fetch hundreds at auction, but today they sell for thousands of pounds, and a "good story" behind the medal bumps up the price.

Wellington's finest hour

Paul Ridgley has been researching the Battle of Waterloo for many years

For Paul Ridgley, his fascination with the Battle of Waterloo started over 30 years ago.

"We had a family holiday in Belgium and Holland and went to Brussels. I saw the signpost for Waterloo and thought I will go and have a look at the battlefield. From then on, it took over," said Paul, from Baschurch.

"It was a whim to go and have a look at this famous battlefield. I went there and was enthralled with it – and have been ever since."

And for those of you who know your history, this is a very big year, as June 18 is the 200th anniversary of that battle which stopped Napoleon in his tracks and finally ended the Napoleonic Wars.

Cut and thrust – British dragoons engage with the French during the fighting on June 18, 1815

"It's one of the few battlefields which is virtually as it was on the day of the battle 200 years ago. I've been back many times. I have friends which I have made over there and I'm a member of the Waterloo Association.

"One of the things I've done over the last 20 years is research a number of Shropshire men who were either at Waterloo, or in the Peninsular War which preceded Waterloo, from 1808 to 1814. I've found over 100 men who fought with the Duke of Wellington from the county. Where there are graves or memorials, I have identified them and in some instances I've been able to restore them."

When looking at the Salopians who played a part in the battle, the name that some people will know is that of Lord Hill, who is commemorated by the impressive column on the eastern outskirts of Shrewsbury.

"He was born at Prees Hall and fought throughout the Peninsular War and at Waterloo. He was Wellington's most trusted general."

On his return to Shropshire in 1814 after his Peninsular War exploits, he was greeted as a hero by big crowds.

"He was feted in the Quarry and had to leave because the people wanted to shake his hand and pat him on the back and were overwhelming him. He was taken away by the officials for his own safety."

Paul, who is 67 and who some people will remember from his days as a divisional officer in the fire service in which he had a 34 year career, said Lord Hill served as a corps commander at the Battle of Waterloo and was tasked by Wellington with keeping open a potential line of retreat to the ports if the unthinkable happened and Napoleon was victorious.

A drawing called The Morning of Waterloo, dating from around 1900, from Weston House

"His horse was shot from under him. I think that was the sixth horse shot from under him in the many battles he was in. He was lost for about half an hour during the battle. His three other brothers, Robert, Noel, and Clement, were also in the battle. Robert was shot through the shoulder and Clement was sabred through the thigh while on his horse. The French sword went through his leg, through the saddle, and into the horse, and he was pinned to the horse when he returned from his charge."

In the aftermath, the battlefield was a terrible scene, strewn with the dead and the helpless wounded who were to die. These were the ordinary soldiers on both sides. Unlike Wellington and Napoleon, their names would not make the history books.

And then there were the other victims – the vast number of horses that were slaughtered.

Death came in a variety of gory forms in an orgy of slashing, stabbing, and cutting, as well as injuries from musket balls and cannon which shattered bones and smashed flesh.

The Battle of Waterloo – the battle that finally stopped Napoleon Bonaparte in his tracks. The battle saw a 68,000-man British Army, led by the Duke of Wellington, face the 72,000 troops of the French Army.

This was war, but not as we know it. In World War Two many combatants never saw their enemy, and those on the ground would often only have an occasional glimpse of each other in the distance as they crouched in their foxholes wearing battledress designed to make them blend in to the landscape.

At Waterloo all was a blaze of colour. Brightly-dressed soldiers marched upright into a hail of fire. Much of the fighting was personal, close-up, hand-to-hand stuff.

The troops would have fought amid clouds of dense smoke – there was no smokeless powder then – smells, and deafening noise including the sounds of the guns, the thunder of the horses, the cheers, yells and calls of the men, and the screams of those as they were cut down or lay in agony.

The Battle of Waterloo happened in an age in which many people could neither read nor write, but there are written accounts which give a flavour of the savagery of the contest which Wellington described as "the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life."

There were Shropshire soldiers in the thick of it, and Paul's researches have turned up the stories of some of them. There was, for example, Thomas Davies of St Martins, who served with the 23rd Foot Royal Welsh Fusiliers. On Hill's recommendation he became the first keeper at the Column, living in a small house next to it, which was demolished when the 1960s Shirehall was built. His duties were to look after the Column and show visitors around. He lived there until his death aged 41 in 1820.

Francis Kinchant, born at Eaton just south of Ludlow, rode in the famous charge of the Scots Greys. A colleague wrote later: "The French were fighting like tigers. Some of the wounded were firing at us as we passed. Poor Kinchant, who had spared one of these rascals, was himself shot by the officer he spared."

Kinchant had told a sergeant who was about to cut down a French officer to spare him, only to be shot by the Frenchman. The culprit, who was spotted trying to hide a pistol under his coat, was promptly decapitated by one of Kinchant's colleagues.

Then there was Shrewsbury-born John Parsons, a private in the 73rd Foot Regiment. On the eve of the battle, he dreamt that his mother had asked for him, and told him that tomorrow would be his last day. He quickly made a will leaving his arrears of pay to a Flemish girl called Therese. The dream prophesy proved correct.

Another was Stephen Sayer, who charged at Waterloo with the King's Dragoon Guards, giving his life at the age of 44. There is a memorial inscription to him at St Eata's Church, Atcham.

Paul has turned up at least seven Shropshire soldiers who were either killed on the battlefield or died of wounds later.

They were just part of an appalling toll – allied casualties at Waterloo were around 15,000 dead and wounded, 7,000 of whom were British, and the Prussians some 7,000. Napoleon lost around 25,000 dead and injured. Eight thousand were taken prisoner. For those lying on the battlefield there was a ghastly aftermath.

"There were what were called the army followers and they were the carrion. They would follow the army and after the battle they would rob the dying, cutting off rings, jewellery and watches and the braid of officers. They would rob the dead and dying."

Among the warriors who were to write about that epic day, one of the most celebrated is Sergeant Charles Ewart of the 2nd Royal North British Dragoons who won fame by capturing the standard of the French 45th regiment.

He wrote later: "It was in the first charge I took the eagle from the enemy: he and I had a hard contest for it; he made a thrust at my groin, I parried it off and cut him down through the head. After this a lancer came at me; I threw the lance off by my right side, and cut him through the chin and upward through the teeth.

"Next, a foot-soldier fired at me and charged me with his bayonet, which I also had the good luck to parry, and then I cut him down through the head; thus ended the contest.

"As I was about to follow my regiment, the general (General Ponsonby) said, 'My brave fellow, take that to the rear; you have done enough till you get quit of it' which I was obliged to do, but with great reluctance.

"I retired to a height, and stood there for upwards of an hour, which gave a general view of the field, but I cannot express the horrors I beheld. The bodies of my brave comrades were lying so thick upon the field that it was scarcely possible to pass, and horses innumerable. I took the eagle into Brussels amid the acclamations of thousands of spectators who saw it."

Ewart died in Greater Manchester in 1846. His body was exhumed and in 1938 he was reburied on Edinburgh Castle's esplanade.

After his decisive defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Napoleon surrendered to the captain of HMS Bellerophon, which had fought at Trafalgar.

Paul said: "Waterloo is one of the most important battles in British history and and dislodged the threat of the dictator Napoleon.

"What would have happened to Europe if he had won the battle is beyond thinking about. We would all be speaking French now."

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