June 18, 1815: The Day the World Changed

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First published on June 18, 2015, the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo

“…”In the course of the evening the duke asked my father for a map of the country and went into his study, which was on the same floor as the ball-room, to look at it. He put his finger on Waterloo, saying the battle would be fought there. My father marked the spot with his pencil, but alas! That map was lost or stolen for it never returned from Canada with his other possessions.” …”Dowager Lady De Ros

This day and age, if someone stresses and event that occurred in Europe as being so important that it changed the history of humanity, we’re accused of being Euro-centric. It’s part of the new censorship, plain and simple. But – the events that were set into motion on the evening of February 26, 1815. Fast forward to April 10 of that same year. On the island of Sumbawa in Indonesia, one of the most powerful eruptions in recorded history occurred when Mount Tambora exploded in a VEI-7 event. To put it into context, the Mount Vesuvius eruption of 79AD was a VEI-5 event, as was Mount St. Helens. Krakatoa’s 1883 eruption was a VEI-6. There have been 6 VEI-5 eruptions: Mazama (56ooBC), Thera (1620BC), Samalas (1257AD), Taupo (180AD) and the 1815 eruption of Tambora. Mount Penatubo’s 1991 eruption is classified as VEI-6. If you want to know what a VEI-8 event would be, there hasn’t been one since 24,500BC when Taupo erupted. A VEI-8 is a supervolcano. Yellowstone is a supervolcano. It last erupted in 640,000BC and is showing signs of reawakening. The damage rating for a supervolcanic event is Apocalyptic. The damage rating for a VEI-7 eruption is Mega-Colassal.

The Duke of Wellington, by Sir Thomas Lawrence.
The Duke of Wellington, by Sir Thomas Lawrence.

Tambora’s April 10, 1815 eruption was enough to cause major climate change, disruption world-wide. On the other side of the world, another cataclysmic event was occurring. Napoleon, having escaped Elba on February 26, was now in Paris. All of Europe was in a panic. Everyone in England knew his eventual target. The blast from Tambora could be heard over a thousand miles away, with enough molten rock and ash to cover a 100 square mile area 12 feet high. It was the most powerful explosion in over 2000 years. The blast was 100 times more powerful than Mount St. Helens , and 10 times greater than Krakatoa. It was also one of the deadliest eruptions in recorded history. The immediate result of the eruption and the devastation which followed was upward of 100,000 people dead in Indonesia alone. That was the immediate result. The long-term effects were even more devastating.

What followed was known as the Year Without a Summer in 1816. Making matters even worse was the fact that the past four years had seen four other other major volcanic eruptions, which had already started cooling the climate. When the dust had literally settled, two years later, well over 200,000 people in Western Europe, alone were dead. Culturally, there was so little to feed horses, German inventor Karl Drais began trying to find a way to travel without the use of a horse. He basically invented the draisine or velocipede, which, among other things, led to the emancipation of women, giving them an inexpensive Screen Shot 2015-06-16 at 9.07.28 PMmode of transportation which required shorter skits, sensible shoes, and blouses and jackets which gave them room to move their arms. Culturally, in Switzerland, that summer, a group of writer were having a house party. The rain was so bad, they were almost trapped, indoors. They challenged one another to write the most horrific tales they could imagine. The house party included Lord Byron, Shelly, Mary Shelly and John William Polidori. Byron created a tale called A Fragment, which Polidori later used to write a little tale called Dracula. Mary Shelly, a beautiful young woman, imagined a tale so horrific it led to the birth of modern horror and science fiction – The Modern Prometheus, better known as Frankenstein. In America, so many New England and northern farm families were wiped-out financially that they realized they needed to move elsewhere. American Expansion was born.  Artistically, the magnificent sunsets of Constable and Turner come from those years.

But, back in Europe, the summer of 1815 was chilly and miserably wet. It did not prevent the marauding little dictator from amassing an army of about 300,000 men. He threatened, once again, to devistate all of Europe, the way he had the past 15 or so years. Even the United States was drawn into his mess. In 1803 Napoleon needed the big bucks to finance his war to create another Roman Empire. Needing the cash, he decided to sell a chunk of land, and attempt to con that wide-eyed dupe, Thomas Jefferson. Jumping at the offer, Jefferson strong-armed the new nation into shelling out $3 million for all of the French territory near the United States. In other words, Jefferson bought the Louisiana Territory and gave Napoleon the money to devastate Europe and slaughter millions. Pissed with the US, the British declared war in 1812. To teach the upstarts a lesson they burned their new capital, Washington, DC. The bottom line was that the War of 1812 was just another footnote in the never-ending war between the British and the French.

On June 18, 1815, the British won, once and for all. Anyone who is a fan of Regency novels knows what happened. The Duchess of Richmond was hosting a ball in Brussels on June 15. When word began circulating that Napoleon was on the move, and battle was eminent, men rushed from the ball, to enjoin the battle, many in such a hurry they did not stop to change into their uniforms.

“…whispered to ask the Duke of Richmond if he had a good map. The Duke of Richmond said he had, and took Wellington into his dressing-room. Wellington shut the door and said, “Napoleon has humbugged me, by God; he has gained twenty-four hours’ march on me. … I have ordered the army to concentrate at Quatre Bras; but we shall not stop him there, and if so I must fight him there” (passing his thumb-nail over the position of Waterloo). The conversation was repeated to me by the Duke of Richmond two minutes after it occurred…” Captain Bowles

Intelligence of the Battle of Ligny (1818) by William Heath,
Intelligence of the Battle of Ligny (1818) by William Heath

NOTE:  Please take note of the length of the gowns – for dancing.  Also note the figure on the left, and the completely exposed breasts.  Fashions of the day were so extreme and ‘immoral’ that Victorian society censored them.  Many writers and historians still deny they existed.

Those fighting Napoleon were not just enlisted, but the ‘flower’ of British nobility.  Today, Prince William and Prince Harry have followed in those footsteps, going directly into the line of fire and putting their lives on the line, for their country.

“…When the duke [of Wellington] arrived, rather late, at the ball, I was dancing, but at once went up to him to ask about the rumours. He said very gravely, “Yes, they are true; we are off to-morrow.” This terrible news was circulated directly, and while some of the officers hurried away, others remained at the ball, and actually had not time to change their clothes, but fought in evening costume. I went with my eldest brother (A.D.C. to the Prince of Orange) to his house, which stood in our garden, to help him to pack up, after which we returned to the ballroom, where we found some energetic and heartless young ladies still dancing. I heard afterwards that it had been said that “the Ladies Lennox were fine, and did not do the honours of the ball well.” …

It was a dreadful evening, taking leave of friends and acquaintances, many never to be seen again. The Duke of Brunswick, as he took leave of me in the ante-room adjoining the ball-room, made me a civil speech as to the Brunswickers being sure to distinguish themselves after “the honour” done them by my having accompanied the Duke of Wellington to their review! I remember being quite provoked with poor Lord Hay, a dashing merry youth, full of military ardour, whom I knew very well for his delight at the idea of going into action, and of all the honours he was to gain; and the first news we had on the 16th was that he and the Duke of Brunswick were killed. …” Georgiana, Dowager Lady De Ros

Those who were attending the ball knew they were seeing friends and loved ones for a final time.  They all knew how critical the situation was.  It was going to be a battle to the end, with the fate of many nations to be determined in the next few days.  If Napoleon were to win, he would become an unstoppable force, and a total dictator of all of Western Europe.  If he were to be defeated, the women who were left, standing there, knew their husbands, fiances, sons, and friends may not be coming home, alive.  There was never a discussion about the legitimacy of the war.  Should they fight or just let Napoleon have his way?  Everyone knew their duty, and the cost of freedom from Napoleon’s tyranny and irrational ambition.

“… on our arrival at the ball we were told that the troops had orders to march at three in the morning, and that every officer must join his regiment by that time, as the French were advancing, you cannot possibly picture to yourself the dismay and consternation that appeared on every face. Those who had brothers and sons to be engaged openly gave way to their grief, as the last parting of many took place at this most terrible ball; others (and, thank Heaven, we ranked amongst that number, for in the midst of my greatest fears I still felt thankfulness was my prominent feeling that my beloved Dick was not here) who had no near relation yet felt that amongst the many friends we all had there it was impossible that all should escape, and that the next time we might hear of them they might be numbered with the dead; in fact, my dear aunt, I cannot describe to you mingled feelings; you will, however, I am sure, understand them, and I feel quite inadequate to express them. We stayed at this ball as short a time as we could, but long enough to see express after express arrive to the Duke of Wellington, to hear of aides-de-camp arriving breathless with news, and to see, what was more extraordinary than all, the Duke’s equanimity a little discomposed.

We took a mournful farewell of some of our best friends, and returned home to anything but repose. The morning dawned most lovelily [sic], and before seven o’clock, we had seen 12,000 Brunswickers, Scotch and English pass before our windows, of whom one-third before the night were mingled with the dust. Mama took a farewell of Duke [of Wellington] as he passed by, but Fanny and myself, at last wearied out, had before he went, retired to bed. … ” Katherine Arden.

It was a horrible and bloody fight. There were approximately 75,000 French Troops, against 50,000 under Wellington, from the UK, Germany, Netherlands, Hanover, Brunswick, and Nassau.  There were 50,000 Prussians for a total of 118,000.  In the end, 41,000 French troops were either injured or killed.  ‘Only’ 24,000 of Wellington’s men were either injured or killed.

“…22 June. This morning I went to visit the field of battle, which is a little beyond the village of Waterloo, on the plateau of Mont-Saint-Jean; but on arrival there the sight was too horrible to behold. I felt sick in the stomach and was obliged to return. The multitude of carcasses, the heaps of wounded men with mangled limbs unable to move, and perishing from not having their wounds dressed or from hunger, as the Allies were, of course, obliged to take their surgeons and waggons with them, formed a spectacle I shall never forget. The wounded, both of the Allies and the French, remain in an equally deplorable state. ..”Major W. E. Frye After Waterloo: Reminiscences of European Travel 1815–1819.

The Battle of Waterloo was a turning point in history.  It ushered in a modern age. It is entirely possible, without the lessons of Waterloo, Hitler never would have been defeated. It ended nearly 8 centuries of open hostilities between England and France, and ushered in what was literally a century of European peace.  It was a symbolic moment where the world began changing, socially, politically, culturally and technologically.  In many ways, our modern world began on June 18, 1815.

Not long after the battle, the weather began changing.  It began raining, and grew chill.  The following months brought famine, disaster, cholera in India, starvation in China, and debilitating cold in Europe.  Crops failed throughout the world.  In England, thousands of soldiers, now home from the long wars, had no work.  Their families were starving.  The Enclosure Laws brought an end to an easy to raise stock in small villages.  Technology was replacing life on the farm.  People left their rural homes for high-paying jobs in factories.  They found little pay, few jobs, and little future as they began crowding into the cities, creating dismal slums.  Politically, as the situation deteriorated, had it not been for the quick thinking of Arthur Wellesley, it is entirely possible England would have gone the way of France, with a bloody revolution.

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