Monday, 15 June 2015

A Private Occasion of Family and Friends

In the run-up to the bicentenary of a certain great battle, I thought it would be appropriate to share this guest post from our old friend Dr Gerald Morgan of Trinity College, Dublin.  Although it has nothing directly to do with Siegfried Sassoon, it brings to mind earlier conflicts of which Siegfried must have been aware during June 1915, as he began his service as an officer with the RWF at the Western Front:

The 1st Duke of Wellington, appointed commander of the Anglo-Netherlands army on Napoleon's escape from Elba, left Vienna on 29 March 1815 accompanied by Lord William Pitt Lennox,  fourth son of Charles Lennox, 4th Duke of Richmond, as one of his aides-de-camp  and arrived in Brussels on 4 April 1815 to prepare for what turned out to be the decisive battles with Napoleonic France at Quatre Bras and Waterloo on 16 and 18 June 1815. On 6 April he was at a dinner party with the Richmonds. On 22 May 1815 he was accompanied by Lady Georgiana Lennox (third daughter of Charles Lennox) in inspecting Hanoverian and Brunswick troops at Vilvorde.

The Duke of Richmond, a notable cricketer and founder-member of the MCC, was an old friend from Dublin as far back as the late 1780s, when he and Arthur Wesley (as Wellington then was) were aides-de-camp in Dublin Castle to the then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, the Marquess of  Buckingham (1787-1789). 

The Duke of Richmond was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland from 1807-1813 when Wellington himself (1807-1809) and his elder brother, William Wellesley-Pole (1809-1812), were Chief Secretary. Richmond's eldest son, Charles, Earl of March (Westminster and TCD), was aide-de-camp to Wellington in the Peninsular War in 1810-1814 and at the time of the ball aide-de-camp to the Prince of Orange (who was wounded at Waterloo).

The Duchess herself, a formidable lady who produced seven sons and seven daughters for the Duke, was born Charlotte Gordon, eldest daughter of Alexander, 4th Duke of Gordon, who raised the 92nd (originally 100th) Regiment of Foot, the Gordon Highlanders. They distinguished themselves at the ball, as they were later to distinguish themselves in the battle, with a display of highland reel and sword dance in the presence of their Commanding Officer, John Cameron of Fassiefern (mortally wounded at Quatre Bras, dying in Waterloo village itself on the night of 16 June 1815).

As Wellington prepared himself and Europe in Brussels in April, May and June 1815  for the decisive battle, he would perforce have had to attend many balls. He himself, for example, hosted a concert, ball and supper for the King and Queen of the Netherlands and the young Prince of Orange on 28 April and on 27 May a Grand Ball in honour of Field Marshal Prince Blucher of Prussia. The trust engendered between these two men on such an occasion assured Europe of victory at the end of the day at Waterloo. More worthy of comment on that occasion, perhaps, was the fact that Wellington danced always with the young (born 23 May 1793) and no doubt adoring Lady Frances Caroline Webster-Wedderburn (nee Annesley, second daughter of the 1st Earl of Mountnorris). She was pregnant at the time and gave birth to a son, Charles Byron, in Paris on 28 August 1815.

The Duchess of Richmond's ball of 15 June 1815, however, was a private not public event, organised and paid for by the Richmonds and held at their residence in the Rue de la Blanchisserie. It was the Duchess herself who controlled the invitations (some 230 in all), and the Lennox family turned out in force, although the Duchess was helped by Capt John Gurwood (10th Hussars) (wounded at Waterloo) in making the arrangements, since just over half of the guests were military officers.

Naturally many Irish men and women of note were present at the ball. Sir William Ponsonby of Imokilly, Co. Cork, was there (killed leading the famous cavalry charge of the Union Brigade at Waterloo). So too Sir Denis Pack of Kilkenny.  So too was Henry, Earl Conyngham, his wife, Elizabeth, Countess Conyngham, and three of their children, including Viscount Mountcharles, a name still famous in Slane today. 

So too the lady who had attracted so much of Wellington's attentions on the dance floor. Lady Frances Webster-Wedderburn evidently inspired him by her presence and beauty as the fateful day approached. Thus he wrote to her on the morning of the battle, at.3.30 a.m. on 18 June 1815, to assure her of the 'desperate battle on Friday (16 June), in which I was successful'  and of the need to make preparations for a possible move from Bruxelles (sic) to Antwerp,  and again at 8.30 a.m. in the immediate aftermath of the battle to tell her that 'the finger of Providence was upon me', as it surely must have been.

But the price of victory was ' immense'. No wonder Wellington was overcome by the loss of his friends after the battle. 

The people of Ireland, and particularly of Summerhill and Trim, Co. Meath, may well be proud of such a man to this day. I have no doubt that the battle would have been lost without him. Blucher would have exposed his troops to the French guns at Waterloo as he did at Ligny.
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