The Morning Post, 13 June 1815:
Mr. and Mrs. Boehm will entertain the Prince Regent, the Duke of York and a large party of distinguished personages, with a grand dinner, on Wednesday, the 21st instant, at their house in St, James’s Square.
As John Adams’s version of Richard Nixon sings in that catchy number from Nixon in China, ‘News … News … News … News … [repeat x 8] Has a … Has a … Has a … Has a … Kind of mysteryyyyyyyyyyy’ … Of course, that opera was set in 1972; today we take for granted our access to instant information (or disinformation); indeed, I have met ‘digital natives’ who find the idea of living without the internet as being impossible to comprehend. Imagine those times when news was disseminated slowly, by ship, by horse, by foot, and over great distances.
On the night of 21st June 1815, the Prince Regent was attending Mr. and Mrs Boehm’s ‘grand dinner’ at their swanky townhouse at 16 St. James’s Square. The Boehms were not aristocrats but a pair of shrewd grafters; Edmund Boehm was a rich banker and his wife Dorothy was a social butterfly with a gift for public relations. By 1815 they were well established as society hosts; but, even though it was the middle of the London ‘season’, their grand dinner on Wednesday 21st might have been better timed. On the previous Sunday the Duke of Wellington defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo; but as guests were arriving at the Boehms’ supper party three nights later, news of Wellington’s victory had yet to reach London. For days the city seethed with rumour, newspapers presenting conflicting reports based on conjecture and wishful thinking. The news of Wellington’s victory had been entrusted to Major Henry Percy, who was still en route from the battlefield. Percy had in his possession Wellington’s official dispatch, as well as captured French flags and a pair of Napoleon’s imperial eagle standards. (Although they were relics of Napoleon’s Roman grandiosity, the eagles were charged symbols of the Imperial French army and were seized in the battle at great cost.) Percy had made slow progress to the French coast and by Wednesday morning found his ship becalmed in the English Channel. Despairing of the situation, Percy disembarked twenty miles off the Kentish coast, and was rowed ashore in a small boat by four sailors, making landfall at Broadstairs at 3 p.m. on the 21st. Percy then chartered a coach and aimed towards London, seventy-five miles distant. His mission was to hand Wellington’s dispatch to the Secretary of State for War, to the Duke of York, and deliver to the Prince Regent the dispatch and the French flags and eagles: definitive proof of Napoleon’s defeat. It took him about eight hours to reach the capital and when his carriage finally made it across Westminster Bridge, just after 11 p.m., he had to locate the addressees. He finally tracked down the Secretary for War and the Prime Minister at a dinner in Grosvenor Square; and as the news spread, crowds followed Percy’s progress as he headed to St.James’s to alert the Prince.
As Percy’s coach headed down St. James’s Street, the dancing was about to begin at the Boehms’s establishment; but the noise of the mob in Percy’s wake became audible to their guests in the first floor ballroom, the windows thrown open because it was a warm night. The coach turned into St. James’s Street and moments later pulled up outside 16 St.James’s Square. Percy ran into the building, bolted up the stairs to the ballroom and threw the French flags and eagles at the feet of the Prince, saying ‘Victory, sir!’. Percy was still covered in mud and blood from the battlefield, the smell of cordite clinging to him and the tokens of war: an emissary of carnage materialising in polite society. The Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, who had accompanied Percy in the coach from Grosvenor Square, read Wellington’s dispatch aloud, which made it clear that many of the most eligible men in London were now either dead or gravely injured. The Prince Regent wept as the names of those who had suffered and died were read out. The party broke up very soon after that, the roll call of casualties acting as something of a wet blanket on the proceedings. But London the following day was in full, bellowing roar.
Accounts of Waterloo have plugged directly into the national psyche, whether it be the calm nobility with which Lord Uxbridge told Wellington that his leg had been blown off (a story that is so inadvertently comic that it has to be true), or Wellington’s – apocryphal – remark as he surveyed his troops before the battle: ‘I don’t know what effect these men will have upon the enemy, but, by God they frighten me.’ It cast such a spell over British identity that the start of the First World War took the War Office rather by surprise, as the top brass had been preoccupied with plans for ceremonial proceedings to mark the centenary of Wellington’s victory. Reading Brian Cathcart’s magnificent book The News From Waterloo (to which I am indebted) one is struck by the football fixture flavour to the proceedings: a comparison which is more acute now than it was just a few years ago, before British foreign policy was infected by ersatz soccer fan sentiment. Wellington’s other legendary (i.e., probably untrue) comment about Waterloo was that ‘it was won on the playing fields of Eton.’ That comment now rings very hollow indeed. Wellington’s victory (at vast human cost) and its aftermath is an amazing episode of history that, like so many other moments in British history since, feels like an anchor around our collective necks. It’s as if our place in world history is defined by winning the 1966 World Cup. But Wellington’s victory was assured by the late but decisive intervention of Blucher and his Prussian troops; we don’t hear so much about Blucher and his mob these days. What was it that Churchill said in the House of Commons in September 1940? ‘You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!’ ? Something like that. Here we go, here we go, here we go.