Three local men at the battle of Waterloo 18th June 1815

Our recent volunteer Matthew Clayton is very interested in Waterloo and did some research for us on the three local men who we know were at the battle. There must have been others there who we haven’t yet discovered – if you know about them please tell us!

ABRAHAM RICHARDS

Abraham Richards was born in Ponrhydygroes in 1785. Nineteen years later, on 11 July 1804 he signed up with the 1st (or King’s) Dragoon Guards, known also as the Welsh Cavalry.

Later, in 1815 four Squadrons of the King’s Dragoon Guards fought in the battle of Waterloo as part of the “Household Brigade” and the fact that we have Richards’ campaign medal would suggest that he was among them.

This places Richards in the centre of Wellington’s line, behind the ridge of Mont St Jean out of sight and shot on the right hand side of the Brussels-Charleroi road.

If Richards had hoped to see action that day, he got his wish as the generals’ watches marked two o’clock. Following a half hour long cannonade, Napoleon initiated his assault on Wellington’s centre. General Jean-Baptiste Drouet, otherwise known as Count D’Erlon, had four divisions, 18,000 men, formed across the shallow valley, on the French right, facing Wellington’s eastern line. If he scanned his enemy with his telescope, he would not have seen even the glint of the swords of Richards and the other British cavalry, who were concealed by the ridge; a fact which would give them the element of surprise.

For as the French infantry advanced against the British infantry, who were formed in lines allowing them to offer more muskets to the enemy, the cavalry swooped into action. Richards, who we assume was with the 1st Dragoon Guards at this time, joined the Life Guards and Royal Horse Guards and defeated an opposing force of French cavalry (Cuirassiers). Meanwhile the other portion of Uxbridge’s cavalry charged the approaching French infantry columns.

This account of Captain Duthilt, a French soldier and part of this assault, provides an impression of the immediacy of the British cavalry charge:

Just as I was pushing one of our men back into the ranks I saw him fall at my feet from a sabre slash. I turned round instantly—to see the English cavalry forcing their way into our midst and hacking us to pieces.[1]

Napoleon had hoped that by threatening Wellington’s right he might make him divert his precious reserves from their place in the centre, weakening it. The attack which the 1st King’s Dragoons helped turn back was intended to be the blow that crippled Wellington’s army, shattering his centre. But this was not to be.

Luckily, Richards survived unscathed where many of his comrades were wounded or killed. For, having routed the French cavalry, the British cavalry surged on toward the French cannon and thus became the target for more French cavalry – in particular lancers who were particularly effective against other horsemen.

On 12th July 1820, five years after Waterloo, Abraham Richards was discharged. He later married in June 1823 in Ysbyty Ystwyth where he seems to have remained until his death in 1850. He was buried 20th August in Ysbyty Ystwyth Church.

MATTHEW JOHN MARSH

Though originally born in Surrey, by at least 1861 (according to the census) Matthew John Marsh had moved to Aberystwyth, where he would spend the rest of his life (in Portland Street, Alfred Place and Railway Terrace) up until his death in June 1886 at 92 years old.

The Cambrian News for the 28th of July 1871 tells us that he fought with the 3rd Battalion, 14th Regiment near La Haye Sainte, a short way down the Charleroi-Brussels road from where Richards and the King’s Dragoon Guards were probably watering their horses at the beginning of the day.

La Haye Sainte was one of two key defensive structures on the battlefield of Waterloo. Constructed of brick, with a high stone wall, it acted as a kind of fortress, that had to be addressed if an attack on the ridge behind was to be made. So strong was this position that it did not fall to the French until about 6 o’clock, with the defenders down to just three or four rounds, and by this time we might argue that it was too late.[2]

La Haye Sainte

La Haye Sainte today. Photo by Matthew Clayton

During the fighting Marsh was unfortunate enough to lose the tip of one of his fingers to a musket ball. Napoleonic muskets were not like modern rifles today; they were far more inaccurate. During Wellington’s victory at Vitoria (in which he employed many of the same tactics as Waterloo) it has been estimated that the British army fired 30,000 musket balls causing just 8,000 casualties.[3]

According to the Aberystwyth Observer for the 12th June 1886, Marsh was an “exemplary” soldier; “a most honest, sober and respectable young man.”[4] The Observer supports this with an incident from Waterloo itself in which Marsh stopped his comrade from shooting a lone Frenchman, saving his enemy’s life and allowing him to escape.

In 1821 Marsh managed to buy his discharge and return home, though not – extraordinarily – before being present for the final burial of Napoleon Buonaparte’s remains.

MORRIS WILLIAMS

Morris Williams was born on the 22nd of January 1787. He joined the Cardigan militia in January 1808, but transferred to the 23rd (Royal) Welsh Fusiliers in time for Waterloo. From his surviving letters Morris seems to have not enjoyed regular service and pleaded with his father to negotiate a discharge.

Unlike Abraham Richards and Matthew Marsh, Williams was deployed in the reserve during the battle of Waterloo and then on the extreme right of Wellington’s line. This perhaps explains why the surviving letter that relates to the battle does so only briefly:

about  10 o’Clock the Battle Begun and Continued very hot till about  8 o’Clock in the evening at which Time the French Begin to  Retreat [5]

However, this is understandable. Even after the battle was over people found it difficult to make sense of the details of what had actually gone on. Defining the story of the battle itself proved difficult. Wellington famously likened the writing of a history of a battle to a dance in which too much is happening at once to compose a clear account. Though this is not the case now, it does perhaps in part explain why Morris Williams would not be able to say more in his letter.

With all the cannon and musket fire, Napoleonic battles could often devolve into a haze of smoke and noise. Had we a letter from Matthew Marsh detailing his experiences near La Haye Sainte, it would probably have been no more revealing.

Morris does however reflect to his father on the losses of the day :

on 18th June we lost our head Colonel of the Regt his [name]  was Ellis and another Colonel wounded and one Major kile[d]  3 Captains kiled 3 Lieutenants Kiled Serjt Major killed  I canot give a propor account what number of men was  Killed that day

Unfortunately, Morris lived barely another year after the battle. He died in France on the 13th of April 1816 at just 29 years of age.

Hougoumont

Hougoumont, where the battle was turned. Photo by Matthew Clayton.

AFTER THE BATTLE – THE WATERLOO CAMPAIGN MEDAL

Abraham Richards Waterloo medalIt was intended that all men who fought in the battle of Waterloo should receive a Campaign Medal to commemorate their service and a pension. Although many received the medal (we know that both Abraham Richards and Matthew Marsh received one), few received all of the intended pension. For instance, according to the Aberystwyth Observer Marsh did not receive any money until 1875 or 1876.

Notes and bibliography

[1] Brett-James, Anthony, the Hundred Days, Great Britain, 1964, p115

[2] Brett-James, Anthony, the Hundred Days, Great Britain, 1964, p139

[3] Cornwell, Bernard, Waterloo: the history of four days, three armies and three battles, Great Britain, 2014, p143

[4] Aberystwyth Observer 12th June 1886, from Welsh Newspapers Online

[5] Morris’ letters Ceredigion Archives MUS/59/27

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