Witnesses, wives, politicians, soldiers: the women of Waterloo

Napoleon’s step-daughter Hortense and his second wife Marie-Louise.

The nature of warfare 200 years ago made the Battle of Waterloo a predominantly male affair. But, two centuries on, the history of the battle and our understanding of it by no means have to be predominantly male affairs too. If we see the battle in its wider context of Napoleon’s return to power in the spring of 1815, then women take their place as players in their own right. So before we get to the 200th anniversary on June 18, learn a little about the women of Waterloo.

On the battlefield

There were women present on the battlefield at Waterloo – serving drinks and food, following husbands or lovers, and even occasionally fighting. There was even one who was officially sanctioned: the Prussian sergeant Friederike Krüger, who had been awarded the Iron Cross in an earlier campaign, was in the thick of the action at Ligny (June 16) and survived unscathed.

Undoubtedly there were other women unofficially present in the ranks, dressed as men to fight, and there were also considerable numbers of women travelling with the armies, women who preferred to be with their menfolk than wait behind for news (there were reportedly 4,000 women with the British forces alone). Unless killed or wounded, or in some way memorably widowed, these women are barely visible in accounts of the battle.

But we shouldn’t focus so much on the battle itself, because Waterloo was simply the culmination of 100 days between March and June 1815, a period which in its totality had a momentous effect on the shape of European politics for the rest of the 19th century (and beyond). With this broader focus, the parts women had to play come to the fore.

French aristocracy

Marie-Louise, Duchess of Parma, was an Austrian archduchess. She was also Napoleon’s second wife. In 1814 when the allies had forced Napoleon to abdicate, she chose to go into exile with him but instead returned to her father’s court in Vienna. When Napoleon escaped from exile on Elba and returned to France, seizing power once more in March 1815, she decided to stay in Austria with her son rather than return to the side of her husband.

Marie-Louise in 1810.

This move was calculated. There were secret negotiations during the 100 days to investigate the possibility of putting Napoleon’s son on the throne in his place. And so Marie-Louise’s decision not to return to France was politically motivated: it increased her chances of being regent. This decision not to stand by her husband had a profound effect on Napoleon (he broke down in tears when he realised the pair of them would not be joining him) and a direct influence on his responses to the allies. Without his heir by his side, Napoleon knew that there was little chance of resolving by political means the question of who should rule France.

In Marie-Louise’s absence, it fell to Hortense de Beauharnais, Napoleon’s step-daughter (and sister-in-law) to take over her official duties. One of the first to arrive at the Tuileries to welcome Napoleon back to Paris, Hortense remained faithful to his cause to the end, hosting dinners, smoothing tricky negotiations, facilitating his brief escapes from Paris to Malmaison where he would weep in memory of his first wife Josephine. After Napoleon’s abdication, it was Hortense who sacrificed her diamonds for him, sewing them into a black ribbon so that he would have ready cash in case of emergency. Of course, she paid for her steadfast support once Louis XVIII was restored. She went into exile but raised her son to continue the family tradition – he became Napoleon III in 1851.

Women also played a part in the 100 days on the royalist side. The Duchesse d’Angoulême, whom Napoleon famously declared was the only man in the royal family, tried to rally support for the king in Bordeaux. Her actions were an inspiration for royalists the length and breadth of the country, even if she couldn’t hold the city and had to flee to England.

The Duchesse d'Angouleme.

Eye witnesses

And then there were a number of women who provided astute observations of the political ramifications of the allies’ interfering in questions of French sovereignty. Kitty Wellington was effectively her husband’s representative in Paris after he left for the Congress of Vienna and took her duties very seriously. It is common knowledge that Wellington treated her badly, as the recent BBC documentary stressed, and she hoped to win back some of his affection by being a model ambassador’s wife. Such was her perceived importance that the French thought she had helped smuggle the crown jewels out of France when she fled ahead of Napoleon’s arrival in Paris.

Helen Maria Williams (in Paris), Frances Burney (first Paris, then in exile in Ghent) and Charlotte Eaton (Antwerp and Waterloo) remain to this day important British eye witnesses. On the French side, Claire de Duras, a French noblewoman at the court in exile in Ghent, wrote letters to one of the leading intellectuals of the period, Germaine de Staël, providing telling details of court and society.

The Duchess of Richmond, her ten children with her, had a pivotal role in keeping British society in Brussels together in the run-up to the battle. Her ball on June 15 was interrupted by news of Napoleon’s imminent approach and has become one of the iconic moments in almost every retelling of the battle over the years. Recently the ball has been revived as an annual charity event, confirming its legendary status.

The Duchess of Richmond’s Ball, Robert Alexander Hillingford.

One word

Of course, not all of the women caught up in the ramifications of the 100 days were able to play an active political role. For many it was by far and large a period of “torturing suspense ” caused by “the overwhelming anxiety of being so near such eventful scenes, without being actually engaged in them”.

Whether on the French side or the allies’, women’s experience of the 100 days was dominated above all by waiting for news. They bore the brunt of the practical complications arising from exile, displacement, and conscription and, after the battles of mid-June, from the death or injury of loved ones. Burney’s letters to her husband remind us that for many of the women caught up in the 100 days, there was little they could do but wait and hope to receive “one word! one word!” to confirm that their loved one was safe and well.

The women of Waterloo are more than passive victims. Listening to them provides a more inclusive narrative of 1815 that reclaims the significance of the bicentenary from the exclusive preserve of military historians and those who take delight in the gore of the battlefield.

We produce knowledge-based, ethical journalism. Please donate and help us thrive. Tax deductible.