THE DUCHESS OF RICHMOND'S BALL
When Lady Charlotte Gordon, Duchess of Richmond, decided to organise a Ball in Brussels on 15th June, 1815, she had no idea that the event would go down in history as one of the most momentous parties ever held. Like many other impoverished aristocrats, the Duke and Duchess of Richmond had moved to Brussels to escape from massive debts in England and to benefit from the cheaper continental lifestyle. Brussels, in 1815, was a bustling metropolis, filled with soldiers from many different nations. Officers tended to travel with their wives and girlfriends and there were parties and balls almost every other night.
Determined not to be out-classed, the Duchess of Richmond decided to send out invitations to a Grand Ball. There was much talk in Brussels of the re-emergence of Napoleon Bonaparte, who had escaped from exile on Elba and had been restored to power in France, causing the French court to flee. The talk was that Napoleon would shortly march into Belgium and confront the allied troops in a major set-piece battle. Afraid that such a conflict might interrupt her plans for the Ball, the Duchess even checked in advance with her friend the Duke of Wellington, who replied “Duchess you may give your ball with the greatest safety, without fear of interruption.”
Invitations were sent to the most important people in Brussels. Of 228 names that appeared on the guest list, only 22 did not have aristocratic titles or military rank. As well as the Duke of Wellington, Commander of the Allied Army, the guests included the Prince of Orange (later King William II of the Netherlands), his brother Prince Frederick of Orange, the Duke of Brunswick (who was killed next day at the battle of Quatre Bras) and the Prince of Nassau. There were also many diplomats, 22 colonels, 16 Comtes and Comtesses and many English peers.
As the daughter of the Duke of Gordon, a Scottish aristocrat, the Duchess had engaged kilted sergeants and privates from the 92nd Foot and the 42nd Royal Highlanders to entertain the company with reels and sword dances. The British, Dutch and Belgian military officers were kitted out in their finest dress uniforms and the women were resplendent in richly embroidered, flowing gowns. The music for the sword dance was provided by the legendary pipe-major Alexander Cameron, renowned for playing his pipes in some of the fiercest battles against the French.
Wellington was late arriving at the Ball, adding to the tension that had already been aroused amongst the guests by rumours that Napoleon had crossed the border from France and was now in Belgium making steady progress towards the capital. As Wellington and the Prince of Orange were being ushered towards the buffet by the Duchess of Richmond’s daughter, Georgiana Lennox, a young, mud-splattered officer - Lieutenant Harry Webster, pushed his way noisily through the crowd. He had an urgent message for the 23-year-old Prince of Orange. Embarrassed by this unexpected interruption, the Prince casually stuffed the message into his pocket without reading it, but Wellington insisted that he hand it over. The message revealed that Napoleon had crossed the Sambre River at Charleroi and was advancing from the East, intent on cutting off communication with the Prince’s Prussian allies. Georgiana Lennox was anxious to know what the message said and asked Wellington if it meant his army would have to get ready for battle. In a calm voice, Wellington said, “Yes, it is true. They are off tomorrow.”
Wellington asked the Duke of Richmond if he happened to have a map of Belgium handy. Richmond quickly spread the map on a desk. Suddenly Wellington exclaimed “Bonaparte has humbugged me, by God, he has gained twenty-four hours march on me.” The Duke of Richmond asked him what he would do and pointing to a crossroads near a small village, Wellington replied “I have ordered the army to concentrate at Quatre-Bras, but we shall not stop him there and, if so, I must fight him here.” He pressed his thumbnail against another small hamlet called Waterloo.
As Wellington studied the map, pandemonium broke loose in the hall and ballroom. The news of Napoleon’s advance had spread like wildfire and soon many of the young officers were hurrying to join their regiments, while others lingered for a final dance with their beloveds. Girls were hugging their sweethearts, making tearful farewells, parents were scurrying around the crowded room eager to say a last goodbye to their departing sons and all the while, the small orchestra played on, adding to the general cacophony, as bugles and drums sounded outside. 72 hours later, 4 out of every 10 of the officers who had attended the Ball would be either dead or wounded.
In the distance, the rumble of cannon fire could be heard, adding to the mounting excitement in Brussels, as the cobbled streets rang with the clatter of cavalry horses’ hooves and the tramping of infantry battalions heading for Charleroi. Wellington himself took his leave of the Duke and Duchess of Richmond and left the Ball at 2am returning to his quarters for a few hours’ sleep, before setting off for the front on horseback at around 7am. Throughout the night, the weary citizens of Brussels had watched from their bedroom windows and doorways as regiment after regiment marched past, disappearing into the early morning mist. It was a dramatic end to the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball, but for the young officers who had been dancing only hours earlier, the most eventful days and for some, the last days of their lives, had only just begun.
Wellington was victorious at Waterloo, but at great cost. Over the three days of the conflict from 16th to 18th June, there were an estimated 55,000 dead and wounded Allied troops, including almost half of all the officers. On the French side, there were more than 60,000 casualties. It is said that the stench of roasting horsemeat, as the starving Allied soldiers feasted on the battlefield, could be smelled for days in Brussels, over thirty miles away.