By Graeme Callister
The men who fought and died at Waterloo on 18 June 1815 are reasonably well known, but there is another lesser-known set of “Waterloo men” – the soldiers of the Napoleonic Wars who were born and lived in the villages, hamlets, and farms around the battlefield.
Until 1814, the future battlefield of Waterloo was in the canton of Nivelles, in the department of Dyle, which had been French territory for almost two decades. All men in the area aged 20 to 37 at the time of the battle had been liable to French conscription, introduced in 1798, and many had marched beneath the eagles. Amongst other regiments, the 25th Ligne conscripted heavily in Dyle in 1803; the 7th in 1805; and the 21st in 1812.
The largest number of conscripts came from the larger settlements: Braine l’Alleud on the Allied right, Plancenoit in the French right rear, and of course the village of Waterloo itself. They came from all professions, but the most common were labourers, weavers, and pavers. The men were of just above average height and apparently fair health, although at some time in the 1790s there had seemingly been an outbreak of smallpox in the area, as a large number of the conscripts of 1813 are noted as having smallpox scars.
The inhabitants of the battlefield who sensibly fled the feuding forces in June 1815 included dozens of discharged French veterans. Most had been discharged for infirmity after a few years’ service. One of them, Pierre-Joseph Masson of Plancenoit, conscripted into the 112th in 1806 and discharged seven years later, should have been celebrating his 30th birthday on 18 June 1815. His brother Antoine had also served, conscripted into the 21st in November 1812, but had deserted after barely four months.
Some had been wounded and invalided out of service. Sébastien George and Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delannoy, both of Plancenoit, had been wounded in Saxony in 1813, as had Laurent Joseph Bourgeys and Jean Joseph Gille of Braine l’Alleud. They all served in the 21st Ligne.
Others had not been so lucky. Michel Lacroix of Braine l’Alleud, conscripted into the 25th in 1804, died of wounds in hospital in Vienna on 21 January 1810. Melchior Saupoulx of Plancenoit, also in the 25th, was shot in the leg at Wagram but remained with the army, eventually going missing in the snows of Russia in 1812. The Russian campaign claimed several other men from these few square miles of Belgium, including François Raes of the 17th, Gerard Herman of the artillery train of the Imperial Guard, and Pierre-Joseph Ernaelsten of the 25th, all of Braine l’Alleud.
More common, however, were deaths from disease, which took several of the area’s young conscripts. Francois Host of Plancenoit and Pierre Joseph Adan of Braine l’Alleud, for example, joined the artillery train of the Imperial Guard in 1808 and died respectively in hospital in Blois in May 1811 and in an army hospital in January 1812. Jacques Joseph Blondiau from Waterloo joined the 7th Ligne in 1805, was made corporal in June 1806, but died in hospital of fever on Christmas Day the same year. Emmanuel Rodenge from Braine l’Alleud, who had joined up as a substitute for conscript Jean-Baptiste Gerard of Waterloo in 1809, died in hospital at Valladolid on 17 January 1812, only five days after transferring to 1st Voltigeurs of Imperial Guard.
Rodenge was perhaps a man who embraced service, but others evidently did not. Pierre Joseph Delporte and Joseph Ernardesttienne, both of Waterloo, were conscripted in early 1804 but deserted in July the same year. Both were arrested within six months and condemned to five years’ hard labour. Towards the end of the empire desertion became more common, with several conscripts of 1813 absconding after only a few months. The shortest stay was Charles Joseph Delêtre of Waterloo, who spent only three days in the 29th Ligne before deserting in July 1813.
There were dozens more men resident on the future Waterloo battlefield who fought in Napoleon’s legions at some point during the long years of war, each with their own stories of service – but the above is a small flavour of some of the alternative “Waterloo men”.
Note: all information is taken from regimental enrolment registers in the Service Historique de la Défense, series GR 20 YC (Imperial Guard) and GR 21 YC (Line Infantry).