On 18th June, a battle fought near the village of Waterloo, in modern-day Belgium, would prove to be one of the bloodiest and most decisive in history. Napoleon Bonaparte was deposed, the Duke of Wellington had his place in British national consciousness assured, and the map of Europe was changed in a way which still has repercussions today.
Waterloo’s story is a fascinating one, but its telling is too large a task to be undertaken here. The connection between that momentous day and Worcester Cathedral is rather more manageable – and brings out some rather fine examples of just how seemingly bizarre the administration of the British Army was in the 19th Century.
In the southwest nave of the Cathedral is a rather imposing monument to Sir Henry Walton Ellis, Colonel of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, who died on the 20th June 1815 from wounds he sustained on the battlefield – or so the monument tells us.
Ellis was born in Worcester in 1783, the son of a Major-General. Evidently the father had aspirations that his son should follow his footsteps into a military career. Upon his birth, he bought him an officer’s commission. Aged 0, young Henry became an Ensign in a local militia unit. When a few months later the militia disbanded following the Peace of Paris (the treaty that ended the American Revolutionary War), poor Henry was reduced to half-pay. Aged five, he became a Lieutenant in the 41st (Welch) Regiment of Foot, before transferring to the Fusiliers and becoming a Captain at 14.
It was common practice for army officers to have to buy their positions, known as commissions, and the price varied depending on the particular regiment. Line infantry regiments – such as the Royal Welch Fusiliers – were considered relatively un-prestigious. However, to join the Guards or the Cavalry – with their ludicrously ornate but ever so fashionable uniforms – cost rather a lot more money. While the practice of purchasing commissions (the sum of which would be returned upon completion of satisfactory service) helped to ensure loyalty and good conduct of officers, it also had its downsides. Crushing incompetence was rife in certain regiments, where wealth rather than ability was the route to leadership. Perhaps the best known example of what could happen when sporting massive epaulettes and shiny braid was held in higher esteem than finesse in command and control was seen during the Crimean War in the 1850s. For obscure reasons, Lords Cardigan and Lucan – both cavalry officers – charged the Light Brigade into oblivion during the Battle of Balaclava. Shocked by this and similar disasters, the practice of purchasing commissions was abolished in 1871.
We cannot, however, accuse Henry Walton Ellis of incompetence. He served with distinction in the Low Countries, Germany, Denmark, Egypt, Canada and the Caribbean. For his services in the Peninsular War, he was appointed Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath – a great honour.
At Waterloo, Ellis, by then a Colonel in charge of a whole regiment, was held in reserve with his Fusiliers until the afternoon of 18th June. Arranged in the ‘British Square’ formation, they received and repelled several French cavalry charges. While in the square, Ellis was shot in the chest by a musket. Riding out of the square and towards the rear, he fell from his horse and received yet further injuries. He made his way to a small hovel, where he hoped to recuperate. Maybe he would have recovered from his wound and returned to active service, but for the fact that – for unknown reasons – the hovel later caught fire. Although rescued, he had received severe burns, and it was from these that he finally succumbed on the morning of the 20th.
He was, like many soldiers, buried at Waterloo. In his memory, his monument was erected in Worcester Cathedral, paid for by the officers and men of his regiment. At the time it cost £1200 – roughly equivalent to about £40,000 today – surely testament to the esteem in which he was held by the men under his command.