December 21 1815: Problem with True History


On December 21 1815, the Duke of Wellington writes to Earl of Mulgrave, and expresses some opinions about the Battle of Waterloo. 

To the Earl of Mulgrave, Paris, 21st December 1815

My Dear Lord – I received yesterday your Lordship’s letter of the 10th, regarding the claim of the field officers of the [Royal] Artillery present at the battle of Waterloo, to the same measure of favour granted to those in the battle of Vitoria.

In my opinion you have done quite right to refuse to grant this favour, and that you have founded your refusal on the best grounds. I cannot recommend that you should depart from the ground you have taken. To tell you the truth, I was not well pleased with the Artillery in the battle of Waterloo.

The army was formed in squares immediately on the slope of the rising ground, on the summit of which the Artillery was placed, with orders not to engage with artillery, but to only when bodies of troops came under their fire. It was very difficult to get them to obey this order. The French cavalry charged, and were formed on the same ground with our Artillery in general, within a few yards of our guns. In some circumstances they were in possession of our guns. We could not expect the artillerymen to remain at their guns in this case; but I had a right to expect that the officers and men of the Artillery would do as I did, and as all the staff did, that is to shelter in the squares of the Infantry till the French Cavalry should be driven/the ground, either by our Cavalry or Infantry. But they did no such thing; they ran/the field entirely, taking with them limbers, ammunition, and everything: and when, in a few minutes, we had driven/the French cavalry, and had regained our ground and our guns, and could have made good use of our artillery, we had no artillerymen to fire them; and, in this point of fact, I should have had no Artillery during the whole of the latter part of the action if I had not kept a reserve in the commencement.

Mind, my dear Lord, I do not mean to complain; but what I have mentioned is a fact known to many; and it would not do to reward a corps under such circumstances. The Artillery, like others, behaved most gallantly; but when a misfortune of this kind has occurred, a corps must not be rewarded. It is on account of these little stories, must come out, that I object to all propositions to write what is called a history of the battle of Waterloo.

If it is to be a history, it must be the truth, and the whole truth, or it will do more harm than good, and will give as many false notions of what a battle is, as other romances of the same description have. But if a true history is written, what will become of the reputation, and who deserve it for their gallantry, but who, if their and casual misconduct were made public, would not be so well thought of? I am certain that if I were to enter into critical discussion of everything that occurred from 14th to the 19th June, I could show ample reasons for not entering deeply on the subjects.

The fact is, that the army that gained the battle of Waterloo was an entirely new one, with the exception of the old Spanish troops. Their inexperience occasioned the mistakes they committed, the rumours they circulated that all was destroyed, because they themselves ran away, and the mischief which ensued, if the thing was to be done again, they would show what it was to have the experience of even one battle.

Believe me, &c.,

PS – I am very well pleased with field officers for not liking to have their application referred to me. They now the reason I have not to recommend them for a favour.

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