Monday, 22 June 2015

Who Fought at Waterloo?

Placing a person with certainty at a particular event presents challenges to the family historian.  When the event is as famous as the Battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815, there is the bonus of copious available research and records as well as the potential for confusion, tall tales and fabrication.

The Battle of Waterloo was the culmination of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, which started in 1792.  The French Empire expanded across Europe until the failed invasion of Russia in 1812, and defeat in 1814.  Conflict between European powers extended far beyond Europe, with the French taking the Louisiana territories from Spain in 1800 and selling the territory to the USA in 1803, and the War of 1812 between Britain and the United States.  After the French were defeated in April 1814, their Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled to Elba.  European armies had been dispersed when Napoleon returned to France in March 1815 and regained power.  Britain had made peace with the USA in February 1815, but British troops had not yet returned from America.

The period between Napoleon's return and Waterloo is a very short time to muster large land armies and move them to the battlefield at a time when the horse was the fastest means of transport.  Consequently many men who served during the campaign did not participate in the battle. 

The four main European powers in opposition to Napoleon, Russia, Prussia, Great Britain and Austria, each agreed to provide 150,000 troops, including cavalry and artillery, at the Treaty of Vienna on 25 March 1815.  By June 1815, the Russian army was still in Poland and the Austrian army was fighting the King of Naples, brother in law of Napoleon, in Italy.  Britain was allowed to pay for foreign soldiers to make up the British contingent, because troops in America could not be recalled in time.  Consequently the Anglo-allied army was made up of troops from The Netherlands and Belgium (17,000 men), and German states of Hanover (11,000 men), Brunswick (6,000 men) and Nassau(3,000 men) joined the King's German Legion (6,000 men), a British Army unit comprised mainly of German expatriates, and rest of the available British Army (25,000 men). 

Three armies fought at Waterloo: the French (ca. 70,000 men) versus the Anglo-allies (ca. 68,000 men) and Prussians (ca. 50,000 men).

Map of the Battle of Waterloo showing movements of the three armies

Waterloo Medals

According to The Numismatic Chronicle published in 1869, Waterloo medals were issued by the English (1816), Hanoverian (1817), Nassau (1815), Brunswick (1818), and Prussian (1813,1814,1815) heads of state.
Waterloo medals

These medals were issued to all ranks.  There are some differences between them in which military actions made men eligible for a medal.  The issue of thousands of medals generated records that potentially place individual soldiers at the battle.

French soldiers did not gain recognition until the issue of the Saint Helena Medal in 1857 to surviving soldiers of all ranks, who served between 1792 and 1815.  I found an incomplete database of soldiers granted the Saint Helena medal.

Using British records, I present an explanation of the use of medal rolls and some other military records to determine if an individual was a Waterloo hero.

British Waterloo Medal Records

For the British, this was the first time rank and file soldiers were entitled to a campaign medal.  The British medal was intended for 'Waterloo men' of the British army and the King’s German Legion, who were present at the battles of Ligny and Quatre Bras on the 16th June 1815 and Waterloo on the 18th of June 1815.  In all 39,000 medals were issued, which included all officers and men who were in the Low Countries at the time.  Lists of eligible men, used by the Royal Mint to engrave the medals with the recipient's name and distribute them, were based on regimental muster lists, but there was confusion over which units were at the battle.
British Waterloo medal

The Waterloo Medal Book (reference MINT 16/112), used by Royal Mint, is available to download in sections from The National Archives for a fee.  A version published by The Naval & Military Press is apparently the source of Ancestry's " UK, Waterloo Medal Roll, 1815" collection and FindMyPast's "Waterloo Medal Roll 1815" collection.

The Waterloo Medal Book was a simplified list, containing name, rank and regiment.  It was derived from the army's own lists, compiled for the purpose of claiming medals by the regimental officers, typically with little more detail than name, rank and comments about wounds or death.  The "War Office: Campaign Medal and Award Rolls (General Series)" (reference WO 100) collection at The National Archives includes Waterloo medal lists in the subseries WO 100/14 (Cavalry, Wagon Train, Artillery and Foot Guards), WO 100/15A (1st to 52nd Foot) and WO 100/15B (53rd to 95th Foot, Rifle Brigade, King's German Legion).  These can be downloaded for free, but are not indexed. 

The TNA Campaign Medal and Award rolls are indexed and presented as the "UK, Military Campaign Medal and Award Rolls, 1793-1949" on Ancestry.  Waterloo medal rolls can be accessed by browsing the collection or using the search form having chosen Service Region as  'Europe' and Service or Campaign as 'Battle of Waterloo 1815'.  Note that a large chunk of records relating to medals issued for service in India with the similar TNA reference WO 100/I4 have erroneously been included and indexed as part of the Waterloo medal rolls.

The medal rolls give a good indication of whether a person of interest served in the Low Countries at the time of the battle, but may not definitively prove the case.

Muster Books and Pay Lists for Ordinary Soldiers

The day to day records of the army are fabulously detailed.  The regimental pay lists record how each soldier's pay was calculated, based on rank, length of service, the number of days he served during a particular muster period and allowances.  In addition to medal entitlement, 'Waterloo men' were also allowed two years’ extra service in the reckoning of pay or pension. 

The records are housed at The National Archives and organised by regiment.  Most regiments active in 1815 are in series WO 12, but artillery and militia regiments are spread across several other series (see TNA's research guide).   A selection of muster books from TNA reference WO 12, dating from around 1815, are available as digital images in the "UK, British Army Muster Books and Pay Lists, 1812-1817" Ancestry collection.  It is not clear if the collection covers all regiments at Waterloo and it is only partly indexed.  The limited time spans leaves me frustrated as I want to track individual soldier's whole careers, not just a few years around 1815.
Royal Scots Greys depicted in "Scotland Forever"

The quarterly pay list (image nos. 103-142) for the 25th April - 24th June 1815 for the 2nd Dragoons (Royal Scots Greys) reveals many men were killed on the 18th June, or absent from the muster of the 24th due to wounds.  Several men were "sent to Depot in England" on the 24th May, so missed the battle and are not listed on the medal rolls.  Later muster rolls note "Waterloo man" to help administer extra pay entitlements.

Army Lists for Officers

The official published Annual Army Lists document officer's rank and seniority.  Officers held a rank in their regiment, in ascending order, ensign (coronet in the cavalry), lieutenant, captain, major, lieutenant colonel and colonel.  Promotion within the regiment required a vacancy, but officers could hold a more senior rank in the army.  Regimental colonels were usually generals in the army.  Seniority, determined by the earliest date of promotion, placed officers of the same rank in the command hierarchy and eligibility for promotion.

Many officers who served at Waterloo were rewarded with promotion, enhanced pensions for the wounded and allowed to count two extra years service for pay purposes.

The Army Lists are available for free download from The National Archives (reference WO 65).  The highly annotated 1815 list (reference WO 65/65) shows which officers were promoted and who they replaced.  Promotions dated 18 June 1815 are a tell-tale sign of service at Waterloo.  The 1816 list contains a long list of officers honorary distinctions (medals), which were also published in the London Gazette.  "Waterloo" is noted for regiments that participated in the battle.

These records are just a starting point.  If your ancestor is included in the medal rolls, you can rapidly determine their regiment and tap into some very juicy records.

1 comment:

  1. The National Archives have published a podcast on Waterloo men


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