On Sunday 18th June 1815 the Duke of Wellington led British forces to face Napoleon’s French army at the Battle of Waterloo. This was a pivotal moment in European history. Since 1804 Napoleon Bonaparte, the French Emperor and military leader, had been gradually taking control of continental Europe. Though the British had already defeated him at Trafalgar in 1805 his reign looked set to continue. In June 1815 Napoleon invaded Belgium, so Britain declared war. After a series of unsuccessful battles, the scene was set for a final, decisive meeting.
The day began in Napoleon’s favour. He had 72,000 men as opposed to Wellington’s 68,000 troops and had won the vast majority of his 60 battles so far. But he made a fatal error. On that wet and muddy Sunday Napoleon decided to delay his first attack until midday in order to let the waterlogged ground dry out. This allowed time for General Blücher’s Prussian army to join the British troops from where they were stationed 18 miles east of Waterloo. Though they were pushed to their limits, Wellington’s troops managed to hold back the French army in a series of hard-won battles. By the time General Blücher arrived Napoleon’s fate was sealed.
The Battle of Waterloo was a landmark victory for the British. Wellington stopped Napoleon in his tracks and restored order in Europe. Now, 200 years later, the epic battle will be re-staged at Penielheugh, near Jedburgh. On Sunday 28th June the Duke of Wellington will once more face Napoleon Boneparte, only this time among the scenic countryside of the Borders. Bringing together over 300 horses and riders from the region, including The College Valley & North Northumberland Hunt and Jedburgh Rideout, the reenactment will be a spectacular commemoration of this remarkable day, with Olympic equestrian hero Ian Stark taking up the reins as the Duke of Wellington.
‘I’m really looking forward to playing the part,’ he tells us. ‘He was a towering historical figure of huge significance. My horse Silver Monument will be playing the role of Copenhagan, the mount the Duke rode during the battle and which stayed with Wellington when he retired. It’ll be a fantastic spectacle and I’m delighted to be taking part.’
Sir Humphry Wakefield from Chillingham Castle will take on the role of Napoleon, while the reenactment will be narrated on the day by broadcaster and historian Peter Snow. ‘The Borders will have seen nothing like it and I’m thrilled to be playing a key part in it,’ he says. ‘It will be an extremely lively reminder of how the Duke of Wellington defeated Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Waterloo exactly 200 years ago. For me it is the single most important contest in British history, and I hope this magnificent spectacle will help people understand how the victory was won and how much we all owe to the tens of thousands of British and allied soldiers who fought and died on the battlefield.’
The event will take place at the impressive 150-foot Waterloo Monument at Penielheugh. The biggest and most significant monument to the battle in our area, it was erected shortly after the battle ended, having been commissioned by the 6th Marquis of Lothian, who was a cousin of the Duke of Wellington. It serves as a potent reminder of the troops who fought at the Battle of Waterloo and this year’s reenactment is designed to honour local heroes.
‘I thought it would be totally wrong to let the 200th anniversary go by without commemorating it at the monument,’ the current Lord Lothian explains. ‘Hundreds of men from Northumberland and Scotland were involved in the battle and we believe it is right to remember their outstanding bravery and sacrifice.’
Lots of troops took part in the battle, but the reenactment will pay tribute to two particular local regiments, the Coldstream Guards and the Scots Greys. Formed in 1650 at Berwick, Northumberland, the Coldstream Guards are now famous for being the longest serving regiment in the British Army, and they played a crucial role in bringing down Napoleon at Waterloo.
One of the pivotal moments in 1815 was the Battle of Hougoumont Farm. While the Allied troops were waiting for Blücher’s army to arrive, Napoleon attacked the farmhouse that Wellington was using to shield his troops. Napoleon ended up wasting considerable time and effort trying to overcome British forces there, which resulted in defeat for the French soldiers, a significant factor in the British victory at Waterloo.
Major General Jeremy Phipps, who is organising the reenactment, explains that the Coldstream Guards played a vital role in defending the farmhouse. ‘Wellington was very pushed at one stage,’ he recounts, ‘But thanks to the efforts of the Guards, Napoleon failed miserably.’ With the help of a purpose-built farmhouse (actually scaffolding and a scrim) this scene will be recreated on 28th June.
The reenactment will also highlight the effort of two particular local heroes, Piper Mackay of the 79th Highlanders and Sergeant Ewart of the Scots Greys. Piper Mackay risked his own life to march around the perimeters of his regiment’s square and play a traditional Piobaireachd, Cogadh Na Sith (War or Peace) to rally the troops. For his valiant effort he was awarded with a set of silver engraved bagpipes by King George. ‘It wasn’t a Victorian Cross,’ Major General Phipps explains, ‘But it was the first time a monarch had given a medal or a prize to a young soldier.’ Likewise Sergeant Ewart was promoted in the field after capturing the all-important French flag or standard.
The important role that troops from Northumberland played in the Battle of Waterloo has recently come to light with the sale of a letter penned by Corporal Richard Coulter on the battlefield. Originally a cabinet maker from Northumberland, Coulter served in the Life Guards during the battle. His letter offers a dramatic first-hand account of the ‘glorious’ charge of the Household Heavy Brigade, when Allied troops rode down to meet an enemy brigade who had tried to attack while Wellington was distracted at Hougoumont Farm. It was another gallant victory for the British. Though Coulter took hits to his hand and shoulder, he boasts of British swords ‘reeking with French Blood’. The letter sold for £2,000 at Bonhams in Cumbria.
The reenactment will conclude with the arrival of General Blücher’s Prussian army and the organisers hope to have 300 men riding dramatically over Penielheugh. It will bring together horses and riders from across Northumberland, as well as pipe bands from Jedburgh, Hawick and the surrounding area, and a local army band will beat the retreat. As well as the reenactment there will be daylight fireworks, bouncy castles, climbing walls, stalls and food outlets and even a specially-brewed beer.
This will be an unforgettable day and you can get involved. The organisers are keen to find modern-day heroes to join Wellington’s troops. Register online to join the reenactment and try your hand at face-to-face combat. Or perhaps you have a trusty steed and fancy storming the hill with Blücher’s Prussian army? Everyone is welcome to join this spectacular celebration.
The Battle of Waterloo was a major turning point in British history. Do not miss this opportunity to commemorate those achievements and celebrate our local soldiers.
Penielheugh 200 will be on 28th June 2015
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