1815, and the Battle of Waterloo, as seen from Shrewsbury
2015 is the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, and I thought it would be interesting to see how the battle, and the events leading up to it, were reported in Shrewsbury. I was especially interested in what they said about the famous Shropshire soldier, General Lord Hill. The quotations are taken from the Salopian Journal.
‘England is at peace with the world’
This was the headline in the edition of January 4th 1815, which reflected the fact that Britain had been at war with France for over 20 years. The effect of the war on all levels of society had been enormous, and at last people could look forward to a brighter future. In February the paper reported that ‘everything is nearly settled at [the Peace Conference in] Vienna’, after 6 months of hard bargaining between France and the victorious allies, Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia. This optimism was reflected by the news the same week that the men of the Shropshire Militia were coming home to be ‘disembodied’ (demobbed in modern language!).
‘Bonaparte in France!’
But soon everything suddenly changed with the astonishing news that on February 28th Napoleon had escaped from the Italian island of Elba, to which he had been exiled on April 5th 1814. Initially the paper reported confusion in France, but soon it heard that Napoleon had marched unopposed into Paris on Monday March 20th, and the unpopular King Louis XVIII had fled.
‘With all possible speed…’
Considering that Napoleon’s escape had been so unexpected, the government reacted ‘with all possible speed’, as the paper said. On 5th April it added that, ‘Yesterday all the officers of the 10th Hussars left town to embark with their corps for Flanders,’ and that ‘Lord Hill embarked at Deal in a sloop of war for Ostend on Thursday last. It is stated that his lordship is to hold his accustomed station of second in command to the Duke of Wellington or to be commander of the British forces in the event of the Duke’s being appointed Generalissimo of the allied forces…’
‘All is bustle…’
By the end of April the paper was reporting a new treaty between Britain, Russia, Austria and Prussia, in which the allies declared war on France. All their forces were marching towards the Rhine, and would come together in Flanders. Later in May the news was that, ‘The latest letters from our army in Flanders mention that all is bustle, but everything in good order, and they expect instantly to be led to action…’ Napoleon was still in Paris, ‘but rumoured to be soon to leave’, but otherwise there seemed then to be a news blackout.
Despite the victory at Waterloo being on June 18th, it took until 28th for the news to be officially reported in Shrewsbury. As well as an effusive editorial, it reproduced Wellington’s first official communiqué, in which he wrote in capitals, ‘I AM ALSO PARTICULARLY INDEBTED TO GENERAL LORD HILL FOR HIS ASSISTANCE AND CONDUCT UPON THIS AS UPON ALL FORMER OCCASIONS’. Praise indeed from a man not known for lavish emotion.
‘What are we to do with [Napoleon]?
Over the next month the papers told of Napoleon’s capture on July 17th, and added, perhaps in exasperation, ‘What are we to do with him?’ But by August 9th it was able to report that he had already embarked from Plymouth to St Helena, with an obvious sense of relief.
Where is our hero?
The building of the column to honour Lord Hill had started at the end of 1814, and the paper reported steady progress in its erection, and also a flood of new donations. But when would the town be able to welcome back its hero? The only time that the reporter could catch a glimpse of Lord Hill was at a fleeting visit to the races in September; the general could not stay for longer as he had been appointed to head up the army of occupation in France. Most Salopians would have to wait for the official unveiling of the Column on the first anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo in June 1816 to see their hero again.
There is now a society to promote Lord Hill and the Column – click here for more information.