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Wine and Waterloo

Gin rations and recreating the Battle of Waterloo at the dinner table, even 200 years after the event this pivotal moment in history never fails to fascinate.

“The bravest of the brave”, Marshal Ney leads the French cavalry on its famous charge

The Battle of Waterloo fought across a ridge in Belgium 200 years ago today, decided the course of European history for 99 years until the next great change in 1914.

Notwithstanding the two titans of history at its heart, Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington, the battle contains many, many moments that have become immortalised in art, books and film: the closing of the gates at Hougoumont, the pyrrhic charge of the Union Brigade, the British squares standing firm against waves of French cavalry and the shattering of the French Old Guard against the thin red lines of the British Foot Guards, Oxfordshire Light Infantry and Dutch of Chassé’s Division.

Sweeping in spectacle and awash with tragedy and heroism, yet taking place on a patch of ground a mere 4km squared over nine hours, Waterloo contains more stories than many other historical events combined which is why it remains such an object of fascination two centuries later.

Naturally alcohol plays its part in many stories of the battle; before, during and after.

This was the battle which saw the last hurrah of that glorious body, the French cavalry; the men who invented sabrage, whose approach was described as an, “overwhelming, long moving line, which, ever advancing, glittered like a stormy wave of the sea when it catches the sunlight,” and who were cut down as, “grass before the mower’s scythe.”

They threw themselves with their customary dash against redcoated men who’d stormed ashore at Oporto and used Port barges to cross the Douro and who won a victory near Cadiz that gave a famous Australian wine region its name (albeit with a typo).

Finally, with the battle in the balance, the Prussians under General Blücher arrive. These were the soldiers that passed through the Rheingau and Mittel-Rhein vineyards as they crossed the Rhine in 1813 and then fought through Champagne in the bloody start of 1814 on their way to Paris.

The film epic “Waterloo” from 1975 – big on spectacle and a fine performances from Christopher Plummer and Rod Steiger but not always historically faithful – adds a couple of authentic touches such as Wellington (Plummer) and his staff toasting “the day’s fox” with Sherry as battle is joined, and one Irish soldier’s predilection for gin which he swigs copious amounts of before shooting passing cuirassiers while shouting, “come on ye bastards!”

As Napoleon himself is alleged to have said of Champagne: “In victory you deserve it, in defeat you need it.”

Whether his favourite wine was on the menu as the night drew in on a battlefield strewn with corpses, victims of one man’s ambition (or perhaps conceit), is not known but he did end his days in British captivity sipping Vin de Constance.

Click through to read a few (a very few) of the stories of the battle involving wine, beer and spirits as well as a highly amusing way of recreating the battle at the dinner table (be sure to use cheap wine and cheaper glassware in doing so – you have been warned).

For more information about the battle, visit the National Army Museum’s website here.


The officers and men of the Light Company of the Coldstream Guards close the gates at Hougoumont

Most histories describing the British soldier of the Napoleonic era (and before it) will focus on Wellington’s oft misquoted comment about them being the “scum of the earth”.

Actually he then added what fine soldiers they always turned out to be despite their apparently unpromising beginnings.

Nonetheless, unlike Napoleon, Wellington was not adored by his men, respected most certainly and trusted not to squander their lives but not loved.

He in turn knew their fighting qualities and expected the utmost professionalism from them but was under no illusion that many had enlisted, “for drink”.

Gin – and later rum – was a standard ration for the British army of the day and was issued before battle as a little “Dutch courage” – not unreasonable given the savagery of 19th century warfare which belies the bright uniforms.

The ration was even known as “Hollands”, after the country of origin of the spirit in question.

When drawn up in line before battle volunteers would be called for to gather water bottles and go back to the commissariat’s wagons to collect the “Hollands” ration.

Naturally this was a popular detail but not without its dangers – or disappointments.

Thomas Morris of the 73rd (Perthshire) Foot was collecting his company’s ration recalled: “We had scarcely received it, when a cannon shot went through the cask and man too,” much to the excruciating despair of those still waiting.

Morris then spied one of the battles legends, Corporal John Shaw of the Lifeguards climbing onto his horse a little unsteadily having consumed, “a considerable portion of the raw spirit.”

Well over six foot and a prize fighter, Shaw apparently fell off his horse when his regiment charged later that day – possibly a direct consequence of his pre-battle imbibing – but was seen later cutting down cuirassiers left and right and almost captured an eagle. His sword shattered and with enemies all around him he battered his opponents with his helmet until he was overcome.

A wounded lifeguard saw Shaw that evening, crawling towards him covered in blood. “Ah, my dear fellow, I’m done for,” he whispered and was dead by morning.

Waterloo men drink for free

The capture of La Haye Sainte. Painting by Richard Knotel

Once the battle was won, the news was greeted in England with wild rejoicing. It is best compared to the elation following the end of the second world war, people at the time convinced that Napoleon would invade if he beat the allied armies on the continent.

The name became synonymous with victory and “Waterloo men”, those who’d fought in the battle, were fêted everywhere they went.

Pubs changed their names, two on one street in Durham for instance and as late as 1834, the Durham Regatta Committee included in its constitution the item that: “Any man presenting himself to the Secretary who can prove he fought at the battle of Waterloo will be entitled to free ale for the day at the Committee’s expense.”

Within regiments that fought at the battle, anniversaries were occasionally raucous affairs. On the first anniversary of the battle, the 30th (Cambridgeshire) Foot got a little carried away with their festivities while stationed in Ireland.

The party began on 16 June, the date of the action at Quatre Bras, at which, “our good men got drunk – so did the sergeants – so did the officers – so did the garrison staff – the Commandants of Corps and our worthy General, and all at the expense of the officers of the 30th Regiment.”

Not content with stopping there, the next day the NCOs gave a ball at O’Brien’s Tavern where there was little drinking but apparently a “great deal of fornication”.

Then, on the 18th itself, came the main event. The men lifted their officers on ribbon covered chairs and led them through the streets singing various popular songs.

The battalion then sat down to, “an excellent dinner of rounds of beef, legs of mutton, and bacon-hams, with an abundance of good beer. They were joined by a hundred friends from other corps, and there was also a cold collation for the ladies of Limerick. Buckets of whisky punch were emptied as toast after loyal toast was proposed by Sergeant-Major James Woods as president, so it is no surprise to read Macready’s opinion that within two hours the majority were happily drunk.”

Needless to say the party went on into the early hours of the morning and on the morning of the 19th when the battalion was drawn up on parade only 12 out of 500 were found to be “sufficiently sober”.

As for the regiment’s officers who footed the bill for most of the festivities, they no doubt would have agreed with the RAF pilot who in later life commented on Winston Churchill’s stirring utterance on the Battle of Britain, “Never was so much owed by so many to so few”, with the line, “we thought he was talking about our mess bill.”

Wars d’Oeuvre

“Scotland forever!” – Lady Butler’s depiction of the charge of the Scots Greys

The anniversary of the battle is being commemorated in a number of ways, not least by a huge recreation of the battle at Waterloo.

If however you don’t wish to don period garb and tramp around in a large hat, then the editor of The Chap magazine, Gustav Temple, has a much more engaing solution – particularly if you don’t value your crockery.

Redolent of battles recreated at the dinner table in (the original) Four Feathers by Alexander Korda and Kind Hearts and Coronets (“the Boers emerged from behind the kopje. Boom, boom.”) the entire (and utterly brilliant) article can be read here but here are some of the key points to ensure a stimulating and informative evening for all concerned:

  • Use a cruet set as the farmhouse of La Hay Sainte in the centre and a bread basket as Hougoumont on the right of the British line.
  • Use napkin rings to represent the initial exchange of artillery fire and then fling cutlery back and forth as the first French infantry attack is checked by Picton’s 5th Division.
  • For heightened drama use glasses full of claret to represent the charge of the Union and Household brigades. Knock over a few glasses to represent their heavy casualties, particularly the Scots Greys on the far left who did great damage to d’Erlon’s corps but charged too far and were cut up in turn by Jacquinot’s lancers.
  • Now take your most hideous Champagne flutes (or more preferably coupes) and smash them with relish against anything hard to represent the French cavalry now breaking themselves against the British squares.
  • While everyone is taking cover set fire to the bread basket/Hougoumont.
  • Slap a sausage or two on the table to represent the arrival of the Prussians at Plançenoit. Throw a few more napkin rings/bread rolls at them to represent French counter-attacks.
  • Move the gravy boat towards the British line to represent the Old Guard’s advance.
  • Cry loudly “Now Maitlaind! Now’s your time!” and “Up guards and at ‘em!”
  • Throw the gravy boat across the room with a further shout of “La Garde recule! Suave qui peut!”
  • “Allow a single tear to course down your left cheek. Under your breath, but audibly, say: ‘Next to a battle lost, the greatest misery is a battle won’.”
  • Invite the ladies to withdraw.

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