This interesting 19th Century watercolour signed Cecile Lévesque is after a work by Carle Vernet. Depicting an English foot soldier of the South Lincolnshire Regiment of Foot, taking refreshment from Camp followers, this watercolour is a fascinating historical document. It provides and insight into life on campaign for soldiers of the Napoleonic wars.
This is the King’s Colour of the 2nd Battalion of the 69th (South Lincolnshire) Regiment of Foot, who fought at the battles of Quatre Bras and Waterloo. At Quatre Bras, two days before Waterloo, they suffered terrible losses retreating from a French cavalry charge, and this regimental standard was captured by the enemy.
The loss of the 69th Regiment’s King’s Colour at Quatre Bras was a terrible dishonour. However, the much-reduced remainder of the 69th fought bravely at Waterloo, eventually recapturing their Colour after the Allied victory.
After Napoleon’s unexpected return from Elba in 1815, the British Army scrambled to assemble enough troops to fight against the French. Many veteran units had been sent overseas to protect the British Empire. The 69th (South Lincolnshire) Regiment, then stationed in Holland, was extremely inexperienced. The average length of service amongst the privates was only 3½ years, less than any other British regiment at Waterloo. The average age was just 21 years old, with over a quarter of the men aged 15-19.
Before the Battle of Waterloo the 69th were stationed south of Brussels, near the crossroads of Quatre Bras. Here on 16 June Dutch & British fought the vanguard of the French army. Both sides suffered heavy losses of over 4,000 men, and the Allied army was forced to fall back towards Brussels, planning to make a stand at Waterloo.
During the battle of Quatre Bras, the 69th were charged by a mass of French cavalry. They attempted to form up into squares, with their bayonets pointing outwards. This formation was almost impossible for cavalry to attack, as their horses would refuse to charge onto a mass of spear-pointed bayonets. However, possibly due to confusing orders from their inexperienced commander the Prince of Orange, the 69th were unable to get into squares in time. Two companies were caught in the open, and hacked down by French sabres, almost to the last man.
In this slaughter, a French cuirassier (armoured cavalry soldier) cut down Ensign Duncan Keith, who carried the King’s Colour. This flag was personally presented to the regiment by the monarch, and served as a rallying point and source of pride for the troops.
The 69th suffered 38 killed and 115 wounded out of 546 men. At the Battle of Waterloo on 18 June, there were too few men to form a defensible square, and they were forced to join forces with the 33rd Regiment of Foot to fight.
At Waterloo, the 69th had their revenge upon the French cavalry, as the horsemen charged the British squares several times, suffering appalling losses from musket- and cannon-fire. Captain Alexander Mercer of the Royal Horse Artillery said the French “were smashed to fragments” on the British squares “like waves beating against rocks”.
Perhaps no scapegoat should be sought – the height of the crops seems to have been the crucial factor, the rye being so tall that the French cavalry were not spotted by the infantrymen until nearly upon them and disaster for the 69th ensued. Help came in the arrival of the British Guards without whom,
“..coming up to their support, and, throwing in one of their destructive fires, compelling the Cuirassiers to return to the wood, not a man save the Colonel and Adjutant [who were mounted] would have escaped.”
The experience of the men in the 69th (South Lincolnshire) Foot at Quatre Bras was undoubtedly a horrific one – youngsters stumbling through the rye in terror whilst the big cavalrymen in armour hunted them down, slashing downwards with their sabres. However, a study of the casualty lists shows that the “annihilation of the 69th at Quatre Bras” is one of many myths surrounding the battle. The total of men listed as killed outright on the 16th June is 27.
In addition to being a painter and lithographer, Carle Vernet was an avid horseman. Just days before his death at the age of seventy-eight, he was seen racing as if he were a sprightly young man. In his own time, Vernet was known primarily as an exceptional painter of horses in full movement–either racing, hunting or in cavalry portraits. Vernet received a conventional artistic education from his father, Claude-Joseph Vernet, as well as from a very successful history and genre painter. In 1782 he won the highly coveted Prix de Rome, and in 1808 Napoleon awarded him the Legion of Honor for one of his battle scenes. Although his sister was guillotined for concealing letters to members of the aristocracy, Vernet’s work does not reflect tragedy. Instead, he concentrated much of his efforts on creating acute observations of daily life. This is especially true of his work after 1816, when he produced engravings of street vendors, horse markets, and dandies. Today Vernet is recognized more for his witty, satirical engravings than for his paintings. He is also frequently thought of in association with his son Horace, whose painting talents he fostered and who became even more famous than his father.