Wednesday 16 September 2020

Battle of Waterloo - Ensign Thomas Deacon wounded at Quatre Bras and a daughter born during the Battle of Waterloo

The Battle of Waterloo was fought on Sunday, 18 June 1815. It was a contest between the coalition of Britain, Prussia, the United Kingdom of the Netherlands including Belgium, and the Germanic States of Hanover, Nassau and Brunswick; and against the re-assembled French Army under the command of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Bonaparte had escaped from exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba in February 1815. He landed at Antibes in the South of France with his personal escort of 600 men and marched towards Paris. Louis XVIII, the newly restored King of France sent an army to stop him, but the army allied themselves with the old Emperor and joined his ranks. The King, a constitutional monarch, who had spent so much of his life in exile, fled Paris and Bonaparte marched into Paris, unopposed, at the head of a large and still growing army.
   The coalition included Russia and Austria, but they were not able to raise their respective armies in time for military intervention. The coalition formed two armies, a British Army and their Dutch and Germanic allies, under the command of the Duke of Wellington, and a Prussian Army under Field Marshal Von Blucher. The British Army included the King's German Legion mainly comprised of Hanoverians who had fled to Britain to serve in the military with the aim of freeing their homeland from Napoleonic occupation. In June 1815, Bonaparte left Paris at the head of an army of some 123,000 men and 360 guns with the intent of defeating the two opposing armies before they could come together. The defeat of the two armies would open the way for the subjugation of continental Europe.
   Lord George Byron, the romantic poet and adventurist, described the allied countries, in his lengthy epic poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, as the 'United Nations', and in so doing, gave rise to the moniker that replaced the League of Nations. It was a massive set-piece battle that from the outset stirred the imagination of Georgian Britain and the rest of Europe. It was a clash between the nation-states of Europe and the concept of the French-controlled superstate. The victory brought peace to Europe for some 100 years.
    Charlotte, the Duchess of Richmond, hosted a ball in Brussels on the night of 15 June. It was attended by the Duke of Wellington with his officers, many of whom were accompanied by their ladies, who had come out to Brussels to be with their husbands. It was by all accounts a grand occasion.

The Duchess of Richmond's Ball by R.A. Hillingford
Byron captured the essence of the evening so vividly in his poem The Eve of Waterloo. He describes how the ball was interrupted by the cacophony of the cannon's opening roar. It was a call to arms, the army of Napoleon Bonaparte was heading to Brussels.
There was a sound of revelry by night, And Belgium's capital had gathered then Her beauty and her chivalry, and bright The lamps shone o'er fair women and brave men; A thousand hearts beat happily, and when Music arose with its voluptuous swell, Soft eyes looked love to eyes which spake again, And all went merry as a marriage-bell; But hush! hark! a deep sound strikes like a rising knell!  
The opening battle was fought at Quatre Bras on 16th June, and the main battle two days later at a location on rising ground south of the village of Waterloo. The battlefield is still a very popular tourist destination, just as it was in the 19th century. The topography has been somewhat altered by the amount of soil dug up for the construction of the Butte du Lion (the Lion Mound) seen in the photograph below. The construction of the mound was commissioned by King William of the Netherlands in 1820 and was completed in 1826 near the spot where his son, the Prince of Orange, was wounded in the battle.

The Writer on the Battlefield of Waterloo with Butte du Lion in the background

You can ascend to the base of the lion by a steep flight of steps. The platform below the lion provides in one coup d'oeil a 360-degree view of the battlefield, the sunken lane, and the farmhouses of La Haye Sainte and Hougoumont. The mound commemorates all those who fought, and the many who died, at Waterloo and Quatre Bras. There is also a circular building near the mound that is called the panorama. It houses a painting 360 foot long and 39 foot high that was commissioned in 1912. 

    I am digressing, so let me now return to the subject of this post. He was a young officer, an Ensign, by the name of Thomas Deacon who fought at Quatre Bras and was wounded in the battle. His pregnant wife with two young children walked from Quatre Bras to Brussels searching for her wounded husband. She found him in a military hospital in Brussels. She by then was exhausted, famished, sick and wet-through. Her baby was delivered that night on 18 June and named Waterloo Deacon.

    I first heard of Thomas Deacon when reading a book with the rather grand title Recollections of Military Service, in 1813, 1814, and 1815 through Germany, Holland, and France including some details of the Battles of Quatre Bras and Waterloo. The book was written by Sgt Thomas Morris who served with the 73rd Regiment of Foot. It was first published in 1845 and is one of several first-hand accounts of the battle. 

    Whilst advancing under fire through the rye fields at Quatre Bras, Sgt Morris recalled that Ensign Deacon was on his right-hand side. On his left was Private Sam Shortly. Pte Shortly was killed outright by a musket ball to the forehead. Ensign Deacon was severely wounded by a musket ball that passed through his arm. The young officer withdrew to the rear to get his wounded arm dressed and attended. Deacon had been accompanied by his wife Martha and their two children who were somewhere in the rear. After having his wound dressed he looked for his wife but was unable to find her, and was later put on baggage-train to Brussels for hospitalisation. Martha heard from soldiers from her husband's battalion that her husband had been wounded and conveyed to Brussels.

28th Regiment of Foot form a square to fend off French cavalry at Quatre Bras (by Lady Butler)
Martha and her two young children, Louisa Maria (b. 1809) and Charles Clemments (b. 1811) walked all the way to Brussels, a journey of some twenty miles.
Conveyances there were none to be had, and she was in in the last stage of pregnancy, but encouraged by the hope of finding her husband, she made the best of her way on foot, with her children, exposed to the violence of the terrific storm of thunder, lightning, and rain, which continued without intermission for about ten hours. Faint, exhausted and wet to the skin, having no other clothes than a black silk dress and light shawl, she yet happily surmounted these difficulties, reached Brussels on the morning of 18th, and found her husband in very comfortable quarters, where she was also accommodated; the next day giving birth to a fine girl, which was afterwards christened Waterloo Deacon. (Sgt Thomas Morris)
Thomas Deacon was born in 1788. He married Martha Ann Durrand on 31 August 1809. They married at St George's Church in Hanover Square. They were both aged twenty-one. She was the daughter of John Hodson Durand, who was Member of Parliament for Maidstone from 1802 to 1806. She appears to have been from a well-to-do family. However, I can not find much information on Thomas Deacon. I wonder whether he may have been a soldier in the rank and file. This is pure speculation but if he was an NCO, rather than a commissioned officer their marriage may not have been approved by her family and she may not have received financial support. Their first daughter Louisa was born in Woolwich, an Army depot, in 1809, in the same year in which they married. Suggesting the marriage may have been a necessity.  Their son Charles Clements was born in Hythe in 1811, another Army garrison town. This suggests that Thomas Deacon may have been in the Army before he was commissioned in the 73rd Regiment in April 1813 at the rather late age of twenty-five.  It would not be late if he had been commissioned from the ranks. We know his commission was not purchased. At that time officers in the cavalry and infantry regiments generally purchased commissions. There were exceptions, for example, the Royal Artillery and the Royal Engineers commissioned those who had attended training courses at their depots, and promoted on merit and seniority. During the Napoleonic Wars, there was a shortage of officers which was not filled by those willing to purchase a commission in the normal way. Gentlemen generally purchased commissions, and there was a derogatory term of 'not quite gentlemen' for some officers commissioned other than by purchase, for example by merit on the battlefield. There were some officers who were gentlemen, but impecunious, and could not afford to purchase a commission. Some of these joined as rank and file but messed with the officers. They looked to distinguish themselves during the battle to win a commission.  Perhaps Deacon was one of these.
   Gordon Corrigan in Waterloo A New History of the Battle and its Armies  (2014) sets out the cost of purchasing a commission as an Ensign as being £900 for the prestigious Foot Guards and £400 in the Line infantry. The purchase price would be nine and four times the annual salary of an ensign. A sergeant could be commissioned without purchase following gallantry on the battlefield or a record of long service and good conduct. Gordon Corrigan suggests that as many as 10 per cent of officers at Waterloo had been commissioned from the ranks. Officers commissioned from the ranks were particularly useful as Adjutants as they were responsible for drilling, which was vital in battle in getting men into position and to form squares etc. Deacon served as an Adjutant in Ceylon.
    Waterloo Deacon, born 18 June 1815 during the Battle of Waterloo, was in fact christened Isabella Fleura Waterloo Deacon. After recovering from his wound, Thomas Deacon was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant and was sent out to India and Ceylon. During Deacon's service in the Far East, Martha had five more children, but four of these died in infancy. Thomas Deacon reached the rank of Brevet Major in 1846. He died in 1853, whilst still serving in the Army, at the late age of sixty-five. He was buried in Madras, Southern India. Martha his loyal, long-suffering wife, died in 1855.
    As for Isabella Fleura Waterloo Deacon, as far as I can see she never married. She lived a long life and died in 1900 in Southsea, Hampshire. The local newspaper The Hampshire Advertiser reports the death of Isabella Fleura W. Deacon. I wonder whether she had stopped using Waterloo in her name. At the time of her death, she had been living with her niece who was the daughter of her brother, Charles Clements Deacon, who had walked, with his mother and sister from Quatre Bras to Brussels where Isabella was born in a military hospital just as the Battle of Waterloo unfolded and changed the history of Europe.


Main Sources:

Recollections of military service in 1813, 1814, and 1815  by Thomas Morris

A blog entitled All things Georgian

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