From one anniversary to the next

Yesterday it was the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta. In Lincoln a giant effigy of King John was carried to the castle. Today, however there is another anniversary.

Two hundred years ago today, two important battles in the Waterloo Campaign took place. The Battle of Ligny, fought between the French and the Prussians, was Napoleon’s final victory. The Prussians got away with some casualties, but enough men survived to make trouble for the French and they played a decisive role in the Battle of Waterloo two days later, arriving late, yet just in time.

The other battle fought on this day was between the Allies led by the Duke of Wellington, and the French, at the Battle of Quatra Bras. Quatra Bras is a cross roads on the way to Brussels, the Allied headquarters. Though considered an Allied victory, casualty rates were high. For most of the last two centuries the Prince of Orange, an inexperienced commander and generally considered not the sharpest bayonet in the armoury, got the blame for the high casualty rate because he didn’t order the battalions into square as soon as the French cavalry were spotted (as seen in Bernard Cornwall’s novel and the TV film based on it, Sharpe’s Waterloo).

Recent ideas challenge that; the battalions were in line, in rye fields and the rye had grown incredibly high. High enough that the French cavalry were invisible until they were nearly on the Allied line.

One of the regiments present at Quatra Bras was the South Lincolnshire Regiment, 2nd Battalion. Known as the ups and downs because their regimental number was 69, and looks the same whichever way up it’s held, or possibly because they were an uneven mix of veterans and brand new recruits. Many had yet to reach their 20th birthday; the battalion had an unusually high percentage of under age recruits (aged 15 – 18) – almost 30% of other ranks, or 159 men. The number of veterans was much smaller; only 20 of the 598 men in the battalion had served for more than ten years. 44% joined in 1813, and the average age of the battalion was 21. This made it an unusually young and inexperienced battalion The second battalion was formed in 1803 but the Waterloo Campaign was their first period of active service, and the battalion was dissolved a year later.

The 2/69th had the highest casualty rate in their Brigade, at 41% for the campaign, but actually only lost 27 men in their first battle. The arrival of the British Guards prevented a serious disaster, though about the same number later died of their wounds and between 70 and 80 men were so badly wounded – the French cavalry hacked down with their swords, resulting in the soldiers receiving severe defensive wounds to hands and arms – that they were later discharged wounded.

Those who survived went on to fight at Waterloo, defending the farmhouse at Hougoumont that anchored one end of the Allied line. I will continue the story of the 69th at Waterloo on Thursday.

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