These are battlefield orders from the Duke of Wellington, written to one of his officers at a crucial moment during the Battle of Waterloo. The Duke was gravely concerned about the defence of the Château (manor house) of Hougoumont, which was being used as a fortress by British troops.
The note reads:
“I see that the fire has communicated from the hay stack to the roof of the château. You must however still keep your men in those parts to which the fire does not reach. Take care that no men are lost by the falling in of the roof or floors. After they will have fallen in occupy the ruined walls inside of the garden, particularly if it should be possible for the enemy to pass through the embers to the inside of the house”.
These orders were written to Colonel James Macdonnell, the commander of the Coldstream Guards at Waterloo, who had been tasked by Wellington to hold Hougoumont Château. This was a large farmhouse on the Waterloo battlefield, which was fiercely fought over all day long. When he wrote these orders, Wellington had just noticed that French cannon shots had set fire to Hougoumont. These detailed orders show how concerned Wellington was with the defence of Hougoumont. They show that Wellington was a micro-manager, giving his officers explicit instructions on the smallest details even in the heat of battle.
It was common for generals in this period to let the officers under their command make most of the decisions about how to lead their soldiers. Wellington was unusual because he rode up and down the battlefield constantly, writing notes to his subordinates on a special “writing slope” or small desk. These orders were written on goatskin, which was tougher than paper. A rider, usually a brave, fit junior officer would then deliver the orders.
Wellington believed his extremely involved style of command was crucial to his success. He famously said of the Allied victory at the Battle of Waterloo: “By God! I don’t think it would have been done if I had not been there.”
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This object is in the collection of Apsley House – English Heritage