Friday, 29 August 2014

The Duchess of Richmond's Ball on the Eve of Waterloo

These stanzas are taken from a much longer poem by Lord George Byron entitled Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. This a book length poem - so not for the faint hearted. I have shortened the several stanzas concerning the Eve of Waterloo to just two,  because it is these two which are most captivating, at least  for me. The first stanza vividly conjures up that ball hosted on 15 June 1815 in Brussels by the charming socialite,  the Duchess of Richmond. All the officers of any importance including the Duke of Wellington had been invited. It must have been a glittering occasion - the ballroom lit by a mass of candles - the officers in their dress uniform and the ladies in all their finery. 

There was a sound of revelry by night,
And Belgium's capital had gathered then
Her beauty and her chivalry, and bright
The lamps shone o'er fair women and brave men.
A thousand hearts beat happily; and when
Music arose with its voluptuous swell,
Soft eyes looked love to eyes which spake again,
And all went merry as a marriage bell;
But hush! hark! a deep sound strikes like a rising knell!
  
Did ye not hear it? — No; 'twas but the wind,
Or the car rattling o'er the stony street;
On with the dance! let joy be unconfined;
No sleep till morn, when youth and pleasure meet
To chase the glowing hours with flying feet.
But hark! — that heavy sound breaks in once more,
As if the clouds its echo would repeat;
And nearer, clearer, deadlier than before;
Arm! arm! it is — it is — the cannon's opening roar!


The Battle of Quatre Bras (painted by Lady Butler)

In the 1970 classic film "Waterloo" in which Christopher Plummer plays the Iron Duke it depicts the Duchess of Richmond's ball brilliantly with the military bands, the Scottish dancing, and the ceremony of the occasion . Here are some stills from that film.



Christopher Plummer as the Duke of Wellington in the 1970 film - 'Waterloo' 

The Duchess of Richmond's  Ball  (from the 1970 film 'Waterloo')
Some poetic license has been employed as in actual fact the ball was hosted on the eve of the Battle of Quatre Bras fought on 16 June 1815 two days before the Battle of Waterloo.

The Duchess of Richmond's Ball by Robert Hillingford (1870s)


It was whilst the Duke of Wellington was attending the ball that a messenger arrived from Marshal Blucher with news that Napoleon's army had crossed the border and were advancing towards Brussels. Officers hurriedly left and the next day the army was leaving Brussels heading south to bolster British  and Prussian positions at and around Quatre Bras which were facing the advancing French army.

But let us return to the poem where Byron sets the scene so well that we could almost be there :


 There was a sound of revelry by night,
And Belgium's capital had gathered then
Her beauty and her chivalry, and bright
The lamps shone o'er fair women and brave men.
A thousand hearts beat happily;

What a fabulous line that follows (below) depicting the romance of the occasion and what a vivid description of the music :

and when
Music arose with its voluptuous swell,
Soft eyes looked love to eyes which spake again



Then we are interrupted by the sound of the gun, the foe is approaching and the officers must make their leave to do battle on the morrow.

But hush! hark! a deep sound strikes like a rising knell!

Arm! arm! it is — it is — the cannon's opening roar!

Poetic license again as the cannonading had not yet commenced nor would it until the following day when the Prussian Army under Blucher which were on the left flank, were attacked and after a short and brutal battle suffered a defeat and had to withdraw and regroup. 

The British led Anglo-Dutch  army at Quatre Bras (literally 'four roads' or 'Cross Roads') on the right flank were attacked by Marshal Ney  who had some 42,000 men outnumbering the British who initially were defending the cross roads with only 6,000 men. Marshal Ney did not press home the attack fast enough and British reinforcements from  the direction of Brussels allowed Wellington to hold the position.

The following day Wellington withdrew his army to Waterloo where he intended to make a stand and …………….the rest as they say is history ! 





2 comments:

  1. Philip, you might enjoy this on Byron: http://simonjohnsonofclowne.com/2014/08/28/day-359-so-great-a-man-i-have-forgotten-his-faults/

    I follow Simon's posts and he is well worth the connection.

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  2. Thank you I did enjoy that posting about Byron. Lady Caroline Lamb famously said of him "he was mad, bad and dangerous to know". As Simon points out in his blog he swam the hellespont between Europe and Asia re-enacting the myth of Hero and Leander. Philip

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