In 1936 the mortal remains of Ensign Ewart were discovered under a builders’ yard in Salford, it would take another two years for his remains to be reinterred in 1938 on Edinburgh Castle’s Esplanade at a grand ceremony to which the descendants of Ewart’s family were invited along with many other dignitaries and honoured guests. There is a longstanding tradition in my family that my great-great-aunt was invited, as a descendant of Ensign Ewart, to attend the re-internment. Indeed it is no coincidence that the family maintained a tradition of carrying on the name of Ewart, which was exemplified by my great-great uncle Harry Fearn of the Coldstream Guards, who named his sons after Ewart. I count it as a privilege to be asked to share my knowledge of a great man, whose heroism has inspired and led me on a journey of discovery into his life story and ultimate bravery at the Battle of Waterloo.
Ewart was born in 1769 in Kilmarnock, Scotland to a family of seven. Little is known of Ewart’s early life until he enlists in the ranks of the 2nd Royal North British Dragoons, currently known as the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards (Carabiniers & Greys) in 1789. One account by Sergeant-Major Cotton describes Ewart as,
“…a man of Herculean strength, and of more than ordinary stature, being six foot, four inches, and of considerable skill as a swordsman.”
Indeed this skill as a swordsman was later recognised when Ewart was made the Regiment’s fencing master.
The first four years of Ewart’s military life were taken up with the traditional duties of a British trooper in peacetime. In 1793 the oppressed populace of France executed their King Louis XVI and his Queen thereby setting in motion a chain of events which would affect almost every part of Europe. France’s new revolutionary government was quick to absorb the Austrian Netherlands, now modern day Belgium.
Across the Channel Britain viewed the crisis with composure. William Pitt the Younger’s government was content to remain at peace, but the tides of change seemed unstoppable, as Revolutionary France threatened the Channel and the sea lanes of maritime trade and continued her relentless expansion especially in the direction of the Netherlands, which had always remained Europe’s banker. Events came to a head on the 1st February 1793 when France declared war on Britain and the Netherlands. Britain was forced to take action; she quickly assembled an expeditionary force under the Duke of York and made preparations to land in Flanders. As Britain mobilised for war, Ewart and the Greys joined the expedition to Flanders. There are some very intriguing stories about this period which have been recounted by James Paterson, a historian who met Ewart in 1846. One of these accounts tells a heart breaking tale with a story book ending.
Our narrative begins with the winter of 1793-1794 when whilst in retreat from the zealous French, Ewart heard the wailing of a baby by the roadside. As he went over to investigate he discovered a mother and child lying in the snow, unfortunately he was too late to save the woman but he was able to rescue the infant who he brought back with him to the camp that evening. On his return he met with his Colonel who offered to cover the costs of a wet nurse for the baby whilst they searched for the child’s father. Ewart’s determination was rewarded when he discovered the man was a Sergeant with the 60th Royal Americans. The Sergeant was so overcome with grief of the news about his wife that he retraced Ewart’s steps in the vain hope of discovering his wife alive.
We do not know whether Ewart ever thought of his discovery of the baby, however his act of kindness was not forgotten by the baby’s father who, in 1798 whilst the Greys were stationed in southern England asked to meet with Ewart. Whilst Ewart did not immediately recognise the soldier, a short explanation was enough and he was informed that the infant was now a healthy young boy, living at home with his grandmother. The soldier eager to show his gratitude tried to give Ewart a financial reward for saving his son’s life but Ewart resolutely refused. Instead the Sergeant hit upon the idea of giving Ewart the gift of a silver watch which he accepted.
Some four months after Ewart’s discovery of the little babe he was captured by the French during the ill fated Flanders campaign. I have found it difficult to find accounts which confirm where this happened, which makes it problematic to pinpoint the battle or area in Flanders where it took place. However after extensive research I have come to the conclusion that it was most likely the Battle of Tourcoing, since this battle has many similar characteristics which concur with the account by James Paterson.
Near the end of the battle, Ewart and the Greys were surrounded by the enemy to such an extent that escape was impossible. In order to save the regiment the Greys were ordered to disperse in small groups of two or three. As darkness slowly rolled over the battlefield Ewart’s group had to make its way through the choking gunpowder smoke, which enveloped the battlefield. Soon after they had set out Ewart’s group almost walked into a squad of French cavalry, they took flight but the French immediately set off in hot pursuit of the unfortunate Greys. Although Ewart and his group were outnumbered they succeeded in breaking away from the French only to find themselves lost in a wood.
By now all the men and animals were exhausted so they decided to bivouac amongst the trees. They secured their horses nearby and slept soundly until the next day when they were shaken awake by a company of French infantry who had taken the wood. Resistance was futile so they were forced to surrender whilst their captors delighted in hurling insults and abuse along with taking anything of value. After two hours at the hands of the French, help arrived in the form of a body of Austrian troops who defeated the French taking many of them prisoner. Before Ewart and his comrades departed to rejoin their regiment, they asked the Austrian commander for permission to, as James Paterson politely puts it,
“… take from the Frenchmen the property of which they had been plundered, and which they did with something of interest, by way of repaying the usage they had experienced.
Paterson does not elaborate further on how they repaid the French soldiers, but I doubt it was limited to harsh words, there being at that time no Geneva convention to restrain either side.
The campaign had not gone well and by late 1794 the Austrians had withdrawn from the Low Countries leaving the British Army relatively isolated. By November 1795 after a long and bitter retreat the Greys with the rest of the British army had departed from Bremen and returned to England. Ewart’s conduct during this gruelling campaign of attrition had earned him the rank of Sergeant.
The decades between the Flanders Campaign and Waterloo was a period of calm for Ewart, despite the embroilment of the British Army and Navy in years of conflict against Napoleon and his Allies which spanned continents and cost many lives, not least the nation’s hero Nelson. I cannot help but wonder how Ewart felt about not being on campaign, was he frustrated by his regiment’s lack of involvement or did he count himself lucky after the disastrous Flanders campaign. I suspect that as a man of action the former would be the most likely reaction of Ewart to inactivity. However he felt, the regularity of garrison duties were to fill his days and over the next twenty years the Greys were frequently re-posted throughout the British Isles. Ewart was a larger than life character, which came to the fore during the monotony of barrack life. Ewart was not only expert with the sword he was also a fine horseman and was known to train his favourite horse Jock to perform tricks.
In one of these tricks Ewart could delight and captivate an audience as he appeared to singlehandedly lift Jock clear of the ground, unknown to the stunned audience he had trained Jock to stand patiently while he bent under Jock’s forequarters and gently pushed up on the horse’s chest until Jock stood on his hind legs, thus giving the impression that Ewart had lifted the horse with his own strength. Indeed such was the relationship between Ewart and Jock that on one occasion as they put on a performance within the parade square the crowd looked on in astonishment as the pair preformed their trademark trick before Ewart commanded Jock to take a cap from the head of one the audience, Jock pursued the terrified fellow and removed his cap to the great amusement of the spectators. Unfortunately during all this merry making, the regiment’s Major appeared and before Ewart could react, Jock was off after the Major who was unaware of Jock’s friendly disposition. Sadly the Major didn’t see the funny side of Jock’s antics, so Ewart had a few hours of confinement ahead of him.
It was during this period that Ewart became a close friend of Corporal Shaw of 2nd Regiment of Life Guards who was described as being around the same height and stature as Ewart. Shaw was said to be one of the finest boxers of his time and was a contender for the boxing title “Champion of England” but he was not as proficient with the sword, so Ewart would instruct Shaw in the use of the sabre and they were not unknown to indulge in the odd boxing match.
The Greys would, as mentioned, miss most of the main British initiatives against the French Republic and later the French Empire, because from 1795-1803 Britain had the unenviable task of keeping together a disparate group of Allies with only the promise of financial support. Whilst militarily she attempted to counter any disruption to her trade with India. During these campaigning years Britain took the opportunity to expand her territories by seizing the spoils of war in the shape of French, Spanish and Dutch colonies. By 1802 the zealous William Pitt the Younger had resigned as Prime Minister in favour of Henry Addington. Pitt had been the driving force behind Britain’s war with France but with him out of the picture and the economies of Britain and France suffering, both parties were forced to sign the Peace of Amiens later that year. This was to be the only peace treaty between Britain and France throughout the entire war.
Within two years of the peace treaty Addington had resigned and Pitt had driven Europe back into war with France. For five years the British army would peck away at the edges of Europe and at the Spanish and Dutch empires. Until 1808 when Napoleon invaded Portugal and made an attempt to place his brother Joseph on the throne of Spain. Soon a revolt spread across Spain in favour of the imprisoned King Ferdinand VII and Portugal attempted to throw off the yoke of French imperialism. Finally the British army had an opportunity to prove themselves equals of the French. In a campaign that would last six years the British, Portuguese and Spanish drove the French out of the Iberian Peninsular and brought the fight into the French homeland, but once again without the Greys
With Britain and her allies Austria, Russia and Prussia on the offensive, Napoleon was forced to abdicate on the 11th April 1814. He was sent into exile on the tiny Italian island of Elba. There Napoleon settled into a restless confinement with his uneasy captors, who soon became complacent, and on the 26th February 1815 Napoleon escaped from his island prison and headed straight for France, once again Paris and the crown were his goal. This was the beginning of Napoleon’s final Hundred Days as Emperor of France, as the Anglo-Dutch forces under the command of the Duke of Wellington and Generalfeldmarschall Blücher with the Prussians, converged on Napoleon and the remains of his Grande Armée. Flanders, Europe’s battlefield, was once again to be the protagonist’s chosen field of conflict.
In this time of great anxiety Ewart and the Greys were sent to Flanders and brigaded with the 1st (Royal) Regiment of Dragoons and the 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons, to form the famous 2nd British Cavalry Brigade, the Union Brigade under the command of Major-General Hon. Sir William Ponsonby. Like Ewart, his old friend Shaw’s regiment the Life Guards was also mobilised for the Waterloo campaign, however Shaw was not to be as fortunate as Ewart. During the battle Shaw was surrounded by French Cuirassiers and although he killed up to nine of his assailants he was brutally slashed and left to crawl through the battlefield until he was captured by the French and subsequently left to bleed to death.
On the 15th June Napoleon rapidly advanced into Flanders, this decisive move increased the pressure on Wellington who was forced to concentrate his army near the village of Quatre Bras. The next day Wellington was still manoeuvring his forces when he was confronted with Marshal Ney and a large French force, a bloody battle ensued as Ney’s troops clashed with Wellington’s men. Wellington called forward the Union Brigade to reinforce his troops but by the time they reached the battle on the evening of the 16th June they had missed the action which had resulted in stalemate.
News however, worsened for Wellington on the 17th June, when he was informed of the Prussian’s defeat at Ligny and in response he ordered a general withdrawal back to the ridge of Mont-St-Jean and the village of Waterloo. At 10am the same day the Greys and the other British cavalry regiments were formed into a rearguard to protect the main Anglo-Dutch column. Although hounded by swarms of French Lancers and Hussars, the British cavalry along with Ewart and the Greys retired in good order and were said to have;
“… displayed a grand spectacle of war, and evinced a high state of discipline.”
They constantly wheeled, manoeuvred and skirmished against the ever present French cavalry, allowing the Anglo-Dutch column to arrive at the relative safety of Mont-St-Jean in good order, where a short fire fight ensued which secured the possession of the ridge for Wellington and his forces.
When Ewart and the Greys arrived there was little shelter for them and they were forced to spend the night out in the open fields in the pouring rain near the village of Waterloo.
The next day the British formed up on the ridge just south of the village of Waterloo with the Union Brigade placed behind Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Picton’s 5th British Infantry Division.
The battle opened with a deafening cannonade under which the French advanced on Hougoumont and a bloody firefight ensued. A little later, to the right of the Brussels Road, Napoleon ordered the Comte d’Erlon’s First Corps forward to attack Picton’s Division. The French advanced up the ridge to the steady beat of the drums, as they reached the crest they came under heavy fire from Picton’s division. The barrage of musketry from Picton’s soldiers only briefly halted d’Erlon’s advance before the solid ranks of the French columns came close to overwhelming Picton and his men. During this crucial moment the Scots Greys were ordered forward whilst the 92nd Regiment of Foot opened their ranks to let their fellow Scotsmen through. The wild tunes of the Highland bagpipes interwove with the cry of, ‘Scotland for ever!’ as the cavalry slowly drove into the tightly packed French columns. Ewart later wrote of this part of the battle saying,
“The enemy began forming their line of battle about nine in the morning. I think it was about eleven when we were ready to receive them. They began upon our right with the most tremendous fire that ever was heard, and I can assure you they got it as hot as they gave it; then it came down to the left, where they were received by our brave Highlanders.
No men could ever behave better: our brigade of cavalry covered them. Owing to a column of foreign troops giving way [These troops were the 1st Brigade from the 2nd Netherlands Infantry Division] our brigade was forced to advance to the support of our brave fellows, and which we certainly did in style. We charged through two of their columns, each about 5,000.
As Ewart slashed his way deep into the ranks of the 45e Ligne, James Paterson relates that he was caught in a fierce fight with a French officer. The Frenchman was saved from Ewart’s strike by the timely arrival of his Cornet, the young Francis Kinchant, who accepted the Frenchman’s surrender.
No sooner had Ewart turned away from the scene when he heard a pistol ring out behind him. He turned back to see the Cornet fall back on his horse and the French Officer attempting to hide the weapon with which he had just killed his saviour. Ewart was very attached to the young officer for whom he said he had more respect than any other officer under whom he had served during the 24 years that he had been in the regiment- and so he rode back, deaf to his opponents cries for mercy and reportedly said “Ask mercy of God. for the de’il a bit will ye get it at my hands.” With those words he took the Frenchmen’s head off with one stroke.
This action brought him near to the 45th Ligne’s standard bearer and spurring his horse forward he launched himself back into the fray and into history. It is probably fitting that Ewart’s own words should describe what happened next
“It was in the first charge I took the eagle from the enemy: he and I had a hard contest for it; he made a thrust at my groin, I parried it off and cut him down through the head. After this a lancer came at me; I threw the lance off by my right side, and cut him through the chin and upward through the teeth.
Next, a foot-soldier fired at me and charged me with his bayonet, which I also had the good luck to parry, and then I cut him down through the head; thus ended the contest.
As I was about to follow my regiment, the general [General Ponsonby] said,’My brave fellow, take that to the rear; you have done enough till you get quit of it’. which I was obliged to do, but with great reluctance.
I retired to a height, and stood there for upwards of an hour, which gave a general view of the field, but I cannot express the horrors I beheld. The bodies of my brave comrades were lying so thick upon the field that it was scarcely possible to pass, and horses innumerable. I took the eagle into Brussels amid the acclamations of thousands of spectators who saw it.
This feat of arms was nothing short of spectacular and as a sport sabre fencer myself I can appreciate the agility and quick thinking needed. Notwithstanding the strength required to cut up through a mans skull and to move from guard with such an unwieldily weapon as the 1796 Heavy Cavalry Pattern Sword. Ewart’s strength, courage and skill as a swordsman undoubtable secured him the eagle of the 45th. I feel, however it is reasonable to say his capture of the eagle, which was one of only two captured on the day, probably saved Ewart’s life in a battle which still holds the dubious record of being one of the few battles with the highest kill ratio in the smallest area of land.
Napoleon was finally defeated at Waterloo, he and the routed French were pursued into the evening by the exhausted British light cavalry and the fresh Prussian troops. Napoleon was later captured and re-confined on the isolated island of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic. Ewart and his regiment on the other hand were sent on to Paris before being moved again to Harfleur in October, to form part of the occupying forces until 1816. At the end of his time as a member of the occupying forces, Ewart was eventually sent to Calais to prepare for embarkation back to England and whilst there he ran into Sir John Sinclair, a well known politician, writer and friend of the Duke of York. Sinclair was so impressed with Ewart that he would become instrumental in obtaining Ewart’s promotion. Sinclair later wrote of Ewart saying,
“ Being much pleased with the modesty, as well as the valour of this gallant soldier [Ewart], I asked him what reward he was most anxious to obtain for his services on that occasion [the Battle of Waterloo]. He answered, that being a married man, and having been long in the service, he wished for retirement, and that an ensigncy in a veteran battalion would suit him best.”
Sinclair gave Ewart a letter addressed to Sir Henry Torrens and instructed Ewart to deliver the letter in person to the Horse Guards. When Ewart returned in early 1816 he followed his instructions and Sinclair received this response from Sir Torrens.
“ Major-General Sir Henry Torrens presents his compliments to Sir John Sinclair, and has the honour to acquaint him, by direction of the Commander-in-Chief [Duke of York], that his Royal Highness the Prince Regent has been pleased, in the name and on behalf of his majesty, to appoint Serjeant Ewart of the 2d Dragoons to an ensigncy in the 3d Royal Veteran Battalion.”
By February 1816 Ewart was an Ensign of the 5th Royal Veteran Battalion. Later in the year he was invited to the Waterloo Anniversary Dinner held in the Edinburgh Assembly Rooms, during which Sir Walter Scott offered, “The Health of Charles Ewart. Scots Greys Sergeant,” who captured “the Eagle” at Waterloo. Lord Provost Arbuthnot delighted in announcing to the assembled guests that whilst Ewart was present at the dinner, he had told the Lord earlier in the evening that he would rather fight the battle all over again than attempt to make a speech. The assembly refused to let Ewart off that lightly and so he was coerced into making a short speech, which was received amid enthusiastic applause.
After 32 years of loyal service within the British army Ewart’s last battalion was disbanded and he retired with full pay to Salford were his wife Margaret Geddes lived. Ewart seems to have been gifted with a restless energy and perhaps more bluntly a lack of funds, since he spends most of his retirement as a fencing instructor. It also appears that he overcame his loathing for public speaking as he travelled the country making speeches at dinners with Sir Walter Scott, his friend and unofficial agent.
In 1846 Ewart died at Davy Hulme near Manchester at the age of 77, still at this grand old age he is described as “…. in the possession of robust health, and vigorous withal.” In fact the footnote at the bottom of the page reads. “He [Ewart] must have been 78 years of age at this time. He did not look more than about 60.” Ewart was buried in a local graveyard. As the steady tread of time took it’s course the church fell and became a builder’s yard, the graves beneath all but forgotten.
That may well have been the end of the story until over 70 years later when Mr H Otto, a veteran of Ewart’s regiment who had served in the army for 22 years, commenced a twelve year search which culminated in the discovery of Ewart’s grave in 1936 under years of discarded rubbish. It was to take two years for Ewart’s body to be exhumed and it was in 1938 that he was brought over 170 miles to his final resting place on Edinburgh Castle’s Esplanade. Here is an account published in the newspaper the Scotsman.
“About half the crowd had assembled when a motor hearse, with blinds drawn, appeared on the Esplanade, and came to a stop beside the spot where the hero’s remains now rest. Some spars and piles of bricks and mortar lay between the statue of Field Marshal the Duke of York and Albany, and that erected in memory of those who fell in the Afghanistan campaign of the 72nd Highlanders.
In such military surroundings a brick-lined vault had been prepared, and workmen stood ready to remove the covering and take their part in the ceremony. The clock in Crown Square had just struck seven when the unpolished oak coffin was taken from the hearse and borne reverently to the grave. As it passed through the lines of onlookers -among them some women and children- heads were bared and policemen saluted.”
Although Ewart would be exhumed again in the 1960s the Castle Esplanade still remains his final resting place and not too far from his memorial resides his Eagle, the last Eagle to be captured in a battle from the French. As one of the Heroes of the Napoleonic wars it seems appropriate that he lived his life like a story book. Ewart’s story was in many ways similar to one of my favorite quotes from Sir John Kincaid of the 95th Regiment of Foot (Riflemen).
“In actual battle, young soldiers are apt to have a feeling (from which many old ones are not exempt) namely, that they are but insignificant characters – only a humble individual out of many thousands, and that his conduct, be it good or bad, can have little influence over the fate of the day. This is a monstrous mistake, which it ought to be the duty of every military writer to endeavour to correct; for in battle, as elsewhere, no man is insignificant unless he chooses to make himself so.
Ewart was a legendary hero who rose from quiet origins in Kilmarnock to become a symbol of British unity and pride. As the Greys ploughed into the ranks of the 45e Ligne Ewart found himself in one of the most extreme situations anyone could find themselves in and he was not found to be wanting. He fought for his comrades, his regiment and his country and within a few short minutes he brought the greatest honour to them all.
I remember standing in front of the statue of Ewart at the National Army Museum as a child and being amazed that someone so incredible could be part of my ancestry, and having this opportunity to delve further into his life story I have discovered the man behind the deed. A man with compassion, bravery and skill, the last man to capture an Imperial French Eagle. He without a doubt has earned his final resting place on the Esplanade of Edinburgh Castle, the accolades history has showered upon him and above all the title “hero”.
The researcher and author, Owen Davis, a direct descendant of Ensign Charles Ewart of the Scots Greys.
Mark Adkin; ‘The Waterloo Companion’; Aurum Press 2001.
Charles Grant; ‘Royal Scots Greys’; Osprey Publishing 1972.
Sergeant-Major Edward Cotton; ‘A Voice From Waterloo’; The Naval and Military Press 2001.
Michael Glover; ‘The Napoleonic Wars an Illustrated History 1792-1815’; Book Club Associates London 1979.
Iain Gordon; ‘Bloodline The Origins & Development of the Regular Formations of the British Army’; Pen & Sword Military 2010.
James Paterson; ‘Autobiographical Reminiscences’; M. Ogle & co, 1871
Sir James Sinclair 1st Bart; ‘The Correspondence of the Right Honourable Sir John Sinclair, bart’; H. Colburn & R. Bentley, 1831
Royal Scots Greys; ‘Historical record of the Royal regiment of Scots dragoons: now the Second, or Royal North British dragoons, commonly called the Scots greys, to 1839’; 1840
; ‘The Scotsman 26th August 1936’;
; ‘The Scotsman 14th November 1936’;
; ‘The Scotsman 25th November 1936’;
; ‘The Scotsman 30th March 1938’;
; ‘The Scotsman 31st March 1938’;
; ‘The Scotsman 4th April 1938’;
; ‘The Scotsman 6th April 1946’;
The image of Ewart’s tomb is by Kim Traynor and it is being used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
 Sir Torrens makes reference to Ewart’s ensigncy in the 3rd Royal Veteran Battalion, however as this Battalion was in fact disbanded in 1826. Five years after Ewart’s battalion was supposed to be disbanded. It would seem more likely that Ewart’s appointment was to the 5th Royal Veteran Battalion. This is supported by the fact that the Battalion was disbanded in 1821 which cooperates with the traditional date for the disbandment of Ewart’s battalion.