A book cover with a portriat of a man in Napoleonic dress

Sir Evelyn Webb-Carter reviews WATERLOO MESSENGER, The Life of Henry Percy by William Mahon, Published by Pen and Sword

This small volume is something of a gem penetrating a very small part of the Waterloo story. Henry Percy, a scion of the Northumberland Family, was the man who brought the dramatic news of Waterloo to London in June 1815. The book is less about that journey and its prequel, for others have done this, but more about Henry Percy’s unusual career and life.

Henry was one of Sir John Moore’s ADCs and had served with him for over a year in Sweden, Portugal and Spain. At Corunna Henry was present at the burial so romantically but inaccurately told in Charles Wolfe’s poem, “The Burial of Sir John Moore”. After this Henry returns to duty as an infantry officer in the 7th Foot and fights in many of the battles of 1809 and 1810. As an aside the author tells the interesting story of Wellington being nearly captured at the Casa de Salinas in front of Talavera. In the comprehensive notes, which is one of the excellent features of the book we learn that the author – when Military Attaché in Madrid – took the late Duke of Wellington to the spot in 1990.

Henry Percy kept no diary so the author has been painstaking in piecing together the evidence to tell the story. We are fortunate to learn a bit more about Henry through the pen of John Cooper of the 7th  Foot who was a soldier in the same company. There is a hilarious quote about some flax, which had been burnt in which John Cooper states “nobody did it!” something the author (an Irish Guardsman) could entirely relate to.

Henry is captured after having transferred to the 14th Light Dragoons and we then learn of the world of prisoner exchange in some detail. This aspect is seldom told and is most revealing of the communications which existed between French and British commanders and Wellington in particular. Intertwined in this story is the interesting tale of General Charles Lefèbvre-Desnouettes, a favourite of Napoleon’s who was captured before Corunna and who spent a year or so in society in Cheltenham until he absconded.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of Henry’s story is his liaison with Marion Durand a modest girl who lived near Moulins. Henry’s father Lord Beverley was being held on parole in a small town in the absolute centre of France, and when Henry was being conveyed to the Prisoner of War centre in Verdun it was negotiated he could join his father at Moulins. Henry whilst there formed a liaison with Marion and two children were born. In many ways it is a sad story as Marion never came to England and although provided for until Henry’s death little is known of her. However the elder son became Sir Henry Durand, a senior administrator in British India and his three sons all distinguished themselves in India as soldiers or administrators. The Durand Line dividing Afghanistan from British India in the 19th and early 20th Centuries is the legacy of one of them.

Although a slim volume the book packs a punch as an intriguing tale related to Waterloo and the author can be congratulated for his thorough research and turning it into a very coherent and interesting story.

WATERLOO MESSENGER, The Life of Henry Percy by William Mahon is published by Pen and Sword, ISBN: 978-1-47387-050-5. Price: £25.

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