Friday, June 13, 2014

Waterloo: Two Years in a Day

By Mark Bois


On 11 June, 1810, a seventeen year-old farm labourer named Thomas Rider of Loughborough, Leicestershire, enlisted in the British army. Appropriately, Rider joined a cavalry unit, the 1st Regiment of Dragoon Guards. It was a prestigious regiment, and while the British army was always short of recruits, he must have been a strong, healthy young man to have been assigned to the Guards.

He served many years, but he was never promoted past private. It is thus likely he was illiterate, since reading and writing were necessary for an NCO. He was discharged in 1826 due to back pain, the chronic complaint of men who spent their lives in the saddle. Rider served for more than sixteen years, but his discharge papers reflect a total of eighteen years of service.

Tom Rider, and every other British soldier who survived Waterloo, was granted two extra years for having served on one terrible day: June 18, 1815.

Government further marked the importance of Waterloo by awarding Prize Money to the British troops who served in that campaign, ranging from £1,275 10s. 10d. for generals to the £2 11s. 4d. given to Private Rider. Such largess, then as now, was not typical of government, but of all the battles fought by the British army in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, Waterloo was heralded as pivotal to Britain’s fate.

What did Thomas Rider experience on that verdant Belgian ridge?

Rider was twenty-three years old in 1815, with brown hair, hazel eyes and a fresh complexion. He was five feet six inches tall; average for the day, but rather short for a man in a showy Guards regiment that craved tall men.

He cut a sharp figure, in a heavy scarlet jacket with the blue facings that reflected his regiment’s status as a royal unit. He also wore a dragoon’s helmet of black leather and brass fittings, with a brass peak and horse-hair tail. The helmet might have deflected a sword cut, but it offered no shelter from sun or rain. He also carried a cartouche of carbine ammunition, a canteen, a haversack for his rations, his cape rolled and draped across the front of his saddle, and a valise stuffed with his belongings.

Rider would likely have ridden a black hunter with a docked tail, a strong, good sized horse fifteen or sixteen hands high. While the British cavalry was noted for having fine mounts, all cavalry horses carried a heavy load. Beyond the typical horse furniture and rider, weapons were heavy, and a horse on campaign typically had to carry its own fodder. Even on a short campaign great care had to be taken for the horses, as no man wanted to risk his life in battle on a sick or tired mount.

On his right side Rider carried a carbine, a heavy, awkward, muzzle-loading weapon, impossible to accurately fire from horseback. On the right side of his saddle he kept a pistol, a single-shot last-ditch weapon that was accurate only at very short range. His primary weapon was the 1796 heavy cavalry sabre, slung at his left hip, a remarkably bad sword reviled in the service as ugly, heavy, badly balanced, and as it had only a rudimentary point it was useful only as a brutal hacking weapon. And yet the British heavy cavalry carried it to victory.


William Holmes Sullivan’s 1898 interpretation of the 1st Dragoons capturing
the Eagle of the French 105th Line Infantry Regiment at the Battle of Waterloo.

At Waterloo, the 1st Dragoon Guards fielded the strongest British regiment in Wellington’s army, 583 men in three squadrons. They were a part of the Household Cavalry brigade, along with three other elite Guards regiments: the First and Second Life Guards, and the Royal Horse Guards. But that would likely have mattered little to Tom Rider, as he would have been more concerned with his own small part of the war.  He was doubtless a typical soldier, primarily concerned with his own officers, his own troop, and the men of his own mess, that handful of men with whom he ate, drank, slept, worked, and drilled for years on end.

In the days before the battle, the 1st Dragoon Guards were constantly mounted and on the move, battered by frequent storms. They eventually were placed just behind the center of the Allied line, near a little village called Waterloo, the place where Wellington was determined to meet the French.

That night, the men and horses were cold and wet, bivouacked in muddy, manure-covered fields, sleepless in the driving rain. Rider would have lain on the sodden ground beside his horse, the reins looped around his arm. It was too wet for fires, and with the French just across the shallow valley the men could not be allowed to scatter in search of shelter.

He had little to eat beyond what he had in his haversack, as the commissary wagons never reached the battlefield; there was talk they did not try very hard to do so. Drink, however, was plentiful. Liquor was issued every day, a standard part of their rations, and many canteens contained more rum than water. When the cold, sodden dawn came and orders came to mount up, there were certainly many men in the ranks who were less than sober, and some who were clearly drunk, and who can blame them?

Rider and most of the men of the 1st Dragoon Guards had never seen battle prior to the cataclysm of Waterloo, as the regiment had been posted to England and Ireland since 1803. The ranks must have been filled with men who were terribly frightened.

The Household Cavalry was positioned next to the Union brigade, the other British heavy cavalry brigade. At a critical point in the day, Wellington ordered all the heavy cavalry forward, in the greatest cavalry charge of British history.  Seven regiments charged, catching the French disordered at the crest of their ridge. Tom’s regiment found glittering masses of cuirassiers, the most feared heavy cavalry in Europe, to their front, but the French were disordered, unprepared for the British charge, and the 1st Dragoon Guards rode them down.

Heady stuff, that charge, fear, noise, then the breathless exhilaration of seeing your enemies flying before you, galloping after them, roaring triumph, but then too far, too far, the French reserves driving the scattered dragoons back to whence they came. Again and again, all that long day, the 1st Dragoons Guards were called upon to charge. The men were exhausted, the horses blown, and after each charge the ranks grew thinner, men and horses killed and wounded.

By the end of the day and the final French retreat, the 1st Dragoon Guards had lost 279 of their 583 men - 48 percent, a terrible price for victory. Tom Rider, though, was unhurt, still in the ranks, though we can only imagine what horrors he witnessed, what friends he lost.

The regiment’s commanding officer was killed, as were three of the ten captains, and three more captains were wounded. Of the Other Ranks, 40 were killed, 100 wounded, and 124 missing. Those listed as missing were either dead, lost, strewn across the path of the regiment’s charges and buried in anonymous graves, or deserted - men who had never seen battle and who fled in terror from its reality. And again, who can blame them? The deaths and wounds were terrible, bodies torn by solid cannon shot, howitzer shells, musket balls, sword cuts and lance points. All talk of glory, honour, and victory pales in the light of that truth.

Tom Rider’s ultimate fate is unknown; with a good conduct rating and eighteen years of service he would doubtless have qualified for a pension of perhaps a shilling a day.  That princely sum might have kept him off the parish, but little more. He was still a young man at his discharge, just thirty-three. We do not know how badly his back was injured, nor do we know how the memories of Waterloo haunted him. He disappeared from history, no trace of him in any record, but that cannot dissuade the modern reader from hoping that he returned to Loughborough and that he found peace there.

Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.


Born in Chicago and raised in Kansas City, Mark Bois is of Belgian and Irish ancestry. It is perhaps natural, then, that he would develop a fascination with the First Battalion of the 27th Foot, an Irish regiment, at the Battle of Waterloo. He would eventually return to school to earn a master’s degree in history, writing his thesis on the Inniskilling Regiment in 1815.

Amongst the dusty rosters and letters in the British National Archives, and then in the artifacts and records of the Inniskilling Regimental Museum, he found what he needed to write his thesis, but he also discovered the fascinating personal stories that provided the basis for Lieutenant and Mrs. Lockwood (2014, Fireship Press).

Many actual experiences of the men and officers of the 27th Foot were pulled from those sources to be used in the novel.

2 comments:

  1. Mr. Bois provides details and insights difficult to find in most works of the period...his fiction is all the better for it!

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  2. A well-written, fascinating history! Thank you for writing it! I can't believe people like Tom Rider (and other veterans over the centuries) can one day be witnessing such unbelievable heroics and horrors alike, then some time later be sitting down to a nice quiet tea with neighbors and other company... it's just mind boggling.

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