This coming Monday will be the two-hundredth anniversary of perhaps the most famous social event in history, the ball hosted by the Duke and Duchess of Richmond in Brussels on the same day news came of the French army’s advance from the south. Three days later, less than ten miles south of the city, would be fought the momentous Battle of Waterloo, which would drive Napoleon Bonaparte from power once and for all.
The night Wellington was humbugged . . .
Napoleon Bonaparte arrived in Paris after his escape from Elba, on 20 March 1815, by which time the delegates at the Congress of Vienna had declared him "an Enemy and Disturber of the tranquility of the World." On 29 March 1815, the Duke of Wellington departed Vienna, where he had been attending the Congress, to travel to Belgium, where it was generally believed Napoleon would strike. The Duke arrived in Brussels on 4 April 1815, and was soon given the responsibility of Commander-in-Chief of the allied forces which would stand against Napoleon. But Wellington suffered under severe handicaps as he began to undertake this critical effort.
The majority of Wellington’s most competent officers and seasoned troops had been dispersed the previous year after Napoleon’s defeat. Many of them were sent to America to reinforce the British troops fighting the War of 1812. Some of his more experienced officers were available, but the Duke of York, who had regained his position of Commander-in-Chief of the British army, resented Wellington, and refused to assign either the officers or the numbers of troops Wellington requested. Thus it was that Wellington was to say he had "an infamous army" with which to fight Napoleon.
Military intelligence was also a challenge for Wellington. Unlike the Peninsula Campaign, where his own intelligence officers, and a number of the Spanish guerillas, could routinely gather information on French positions and troop counts, he had no friendly eyes and ears in France. In fact, he was prohibited from sending intelligence officers into France at a time when Britain and France were not technically at war. Though Colquhoun Grant would soon return to Wellington’s service, they still had only the intermittent reports sent along by the Prussians, some of whom resented the British Commander-in-Chief and delayed or detoured some reports.
The last thing Wellington needed during this time was a panic among the civilians in Brussels. He believed that by keeping things as normal as possible and encouraging and even attending, a number of social events, he could distract the populace from their concerns of an imminent attack by the French army. Such events also helped to maintain the morale of his officers, many of whom were invited to these events. The Duke made it a point not to discuss any intelligence or other military news he might have received, letting people believe he was following his already well-known policy of secrecy when it came to military affairs. It never occurred to most people his silence was due in large part to the fact he simply had very little information.
On 6 June 1815, an intelligence report reached Wellington that Bonaparte was marching north, probably toward Lille. In actual fact, Napoleon would not leave Paris until the evening of 12 June 1815. While in conversation with seventeen-year-old Lady Georgiana Lennox, the daughter of the Duke of Richmond, on 6 June, she confided in Wellington that her mother was planning a picnic outside the city at Tournai or Lille on 8 June. Wellington replied, "You’d better not go. Say nothing about it, but let the project drop." Though the Duchess of Richmond was usually not a woman to be gainsaid, the picnic idea was quickly and quietly dropped.
A few days later, the Duchess of Richmond pulled Wellington aside and said quietly, "Duke, I do not wish to pry into your secrets . . . I wish to give a ball, and all I ask is, may I give my ball? If you say ‘Duchess, don’t give your ball,’ it is quite sufficient, I ask no reason." By then, Wellington knew that Napoleon was still in Paris. He believed then, as did most of his senior commanders and other advisors, that Bonaparte would not attack until early July. Wellington, who was himself planning to give a ball on 21 June, the second anniversary of his victory at Vitoria, said, "Duchess, you may give your ball with the greatest safety, without fear of interruption." With Wellington’s blessing, the Duchess of Richmond set the date for her ball, Thursday, 15 June 1815.
On the evening of 14 June, the Duke of Wellington was a guest at the Richmond home on the Rue des Cendres. The Duke of Richmond, who was determined to be part of the fight against Napoleon, had been given command of reserve troops who were to protect Brussels, should Bonaparte threaten the city. That night, partly to give Richmond the impression he had no worries, and partly because he enjoyed children, Wellington spent some time playing with the youngest of Richmond’s fourteen children. His officers were enjoying themselves at other social events throughout the city, and his troops were all relaxing in their billets and encampments across Belgium.
Early on the morning of 15 June 1815, Napoleon began his march into Belgium. By then, Colquhoun Grant had sent a message to Wellington apprising him of Bonaparte’s movements. Unfortunately, Grant’s message was intercepted by the idiotic Hanoverian General Dörnberg, who had once served under Jerome Bonaparte and then deserted to the British in 1813. Full of himself, Dörnberg decided Napoleon could not possibly be in Belgium and returned the letter to Grant with the comment that he did not believe it. Furious, Grant then rode hell-for-leather to take the message to Wellington himself. Unfortunately, Dörnberg’s arrogant stupidity had cause such a delay that by the time Grant arrived in Brussels, the Battle of Quatre Bras was already engaged.
The little information which trickled in to Wellington’s headquarters that day suggested that the French attack on the Prussians might be one of Napoleon’s well-known feinting movements, while he was secretly planning to throw his main force against the Anglo-Dutch positions. At about three o’clock that afternoon, while Wellington and his staff were having an early dinner, a dirty, sweaty Prussian officer arrived at Wellington’s headquarters with news of the French attack at Charleroi that morning. By the time they reached the dessert course, the Prince of Orange arrived to report he had heard gunfire coming from Charleroi and had word the Prussians had been pushed back from their original position. Wellington decided that he could not take the chance that the attack on the Prussians was a feint. By five o’clock, orders began to go out to all of the divisional commanders to have their troops ready to march at a moment’s notice.
Every officer of rank would be at the Duchess of Richmond’s ball that evening. Wellington quickly grasped it would be an ideal cover for him to meet with them without raising any suspicions in a city he knew was crawling with French sympathizers, if not outright spies. Wellington had begun dressing for the ball when General, Baron von Müffling, the Prussian liaison officer from Field Marshal Blücher, arrived at about ten o’clock. Müffling carried a message that Blücher and his troops were holding at Ligny and would need support to hold off the French. Wellington, in his shirtsleeves and slippers, met with Müffling, telling the General that he would make his final decision once he had more information on French movements. As Wellington finished dressing, yet another intelligence report arrived, which advised him that the attack on the Prussians had been a feint, while the attack on Charleroi was the real thing. The Duke issued updated orders for several of his commanders, then called for his carriage.
About midnight, Wellington arrived at the house where Müffling was staying. The Duke explained to the Baron that he would not immediately be able to send troops to reinforce Blücher at Ligny, because he now knew the bulk of the French army was marching on Charleroi. He told Müffling he would be going to the Duchess of Richmond’s ball, and intended to set out with his troops for Quatre Bras at first light. The Duke left the house and stepped back into his carriage, which took him on to the Richmond’s house. He arrived there about half past midnight.
Expecting a large attendance at her ball, the Duchess of Richmond used the coach house which abutted their home, but faced the Rue de la Blanchisserie as the ball room. This large space, on the ground floor, had been transformed under the direction of the Duchess into a glittering fairyland for the evening. Rose-trellised paper-hangings covered the walls, and the pillars were richly ornamented with vast numbers of leaves and flowers entwined with many fluttering ribbons. To obscure the rough roof of the coach house, luxurious hangings in the royal colors of crimson, gold and black were used to create a tent-like ceiling over the room, with matching draperies at the windows. Dozens of candles were used to illuminate this elegant ballroom in which dozens of couples were dancing away the night.
By the time Wellington arrived, some of his officers had received their orders and were taking quiet leave of the ladies and slipping away to their quarters to prepare for the morning’s march. When he walked through the door, Lady Georgiana Lennox, who was dancing, broke away from her partner and swiftly approached the Duke, asking if the rumors were true. Very gravely, she thought, Wellington replied, "Yes, they are true, we are off tomorrow." His words were overhead, and Lady Georgiana remembered that as the news rapidly circulated, the whole room was like a hive which someone had kicked as a buzz of excitement rose from the guests. Even those officers who had not yet received their orders began to make their farewells. Some gentlemen stayed with their ladies until the last possible moment, arriving at their quarters too late to change from their ball garb and rode out the next morning in knee-breeches and dancing pumps.
Wellington spent about a half hour circulating among the guests, chatting with friends and acquaintances. He was about to take Lady Charlotte Greville into supper when Lieutenant Henry Webster arrived from Quatre Bras with a message for the Prince of Orange. The Prince, enjoying the attentions of a lovely lady, handed the message, unopened, to Wellington. The Duke quietly slipped the missive into his pocket, waiting for a private moment to read it. The news was grim, the Prussian army had been force out of Fleurus, which was located on the road north-east of Charleroi and less that eight miles from Quatre Bras. The Duke ordered Lt. Webster to have four horses hitched to the Prince of Orange’s carriage and strongly recommended the Prince return immediately to his field headquarters. Wellington scribbled terse orders for a few others in the ballroom and proceeded to the supper room.
Only a few moments after Wellington had seated his lady companion and taken his own seat, the Prince of Orange slipped quietly up to him and whispered into his ear for several minutes. Some thought Wellington looked quite incredulous as the Prince finished speaking, but said nothing beyond reiterating that the Prince should return to his field headquarters will all dispatch. (Fortunately for Wellington, Baron Jean de Constant Rebecque countermanded the Commander-in-Chief’s orders to evacuate the Dutch troops from Quatre Bras, and sent General de Perponcher to support Prince Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar, who was holding off the French under Marshal Ney at the crossroads there.) For another twenty minutes or so, Wellington continued to smile and make polite conversation with those seated near him. Lady Frances Webster and Lady Georgiana Lennox were seated on either side of him and the Marquise d’Assche was seated across from him. That lady was very frustrated by what she called the British phlegm while her brother was with the Allied troops in position in the area where cannon fire had been heard near Charleroi.
Wellington maintained his pleasant, social facade until he was on the point of making his good-byes. He briefly whispered into Richmond’s ear, "Have you a good map in the house?" The second message which the Prince of Orange shared with Wellington was that the French army had already reached Quatre Bras itself. The speed of the French army’s movements and their now clear intention to attack the Allied forces was a most unpleasant surprise to Wellington. Wellington followed the Duke of Richmond into his study, which was just off the ballroom. Richmond spread out his map. Wellington looked down at it and said, "Napoleon has humbugged me, by God! He has gained twenty-four hours’ march on me." When Richmond asked Wellington what he intended to do, he replied, "I have ordered the army to concentrate at Quatre Bras, but we shall not stop him there, and if so, I must fight him here." Wellington ran his thumb-nail over the map in the area just south of the small village of Waterloo. He then took his leave of Richmond and left by a side door to avoid the guests still lingering near the ballroom entrance. The Duke of Richmond made a light pencil mark on his map just where Wellington had run his thumb-nail and related the events of that brief meeting to his aide-de-camp, Captain George Bowles, only minutes after Wellington’s departure. The Duke of Richmond kept that map for the rest of his life. But when he died in Canada, in 1819, the map was not returned to his family with the rest of his effects. Its whereabouts today are unknown.
The following morning, Friday, 16 June 1815, at five o’clock, Wellington rode out of Brussels at the head of his army, marching south to meet the French. Many of the guests who had attended the Duchess of Richmond’s ball the night before, especially the ladies, lined the streets, waving to the troops as they left the city. Two days, later, on Sunday, 18 June 1815, the Allied troops defeated the French army at the Battle of Waterloo.