Throughout the Waterloo campaign of 1815 the allied forces maintained a semi-regular field post system in order to communicate efficiently with each other and the anxious home front. The prospect of Napoleon invading his lost territories (including The Low Countries), defeating Wellington and subsequently consolidating his rule in France sent shivers down the spines of many allied generals and the populace. A certain defeat of Napoleon couldn’t be taken for granted.
Before we scrutinize the letter, we should embed its contents into the situation at the time. Napoleon returned from his exile on the small Italian isle of Elba on the 26th of February 1815 with a small personal guard of 600 men. On the 1st of March he reached France and he immediately marched on Paris. By that time the king of France, the unpopular Louis XVIII, still deemed it possible to stop him in his tracks. On the 14th of March however one of Louis’ generals, Michel Ney, joined his former emperor with 6000 men. Several days later Napoleon entered Paris and Louis had fled to England.
In the months before June the 15th both Napoleon and the allied forces mobilised for war. Eventually Napoleon succeeded in raising over 200,000 soldiers which formed his l’Armée du Nord. During the congress of Vienna the allied forced declared Napoleon an outlaw and subsequently the Seventh Coalition was formed to defeat him. Initially they thought they could invade France before Napoleon would even dare to start with any hostilities. They were wrong. In the early hours of June 15th Napoleon’s l’Armée du Nord crossed the river Sambre at Charleroi – the very day our letter was written.
Otto van Limburg Stirum (1789-1851) wrote this letter in 2 parts on the day the French commenced their hostilities. As one of the personal aide-de-camps to Prince Willem of the Netherlands, he reports his personal thoughts about the situation to his father Leopold. Leopold resided in Amsterdam at the time and had close contacts to King Willem I. He was part of the famous triumvirate which returned the banished Stadtholder-heir to the Netherlands after the withdrawal of French troops from the Low Countries in the 2nd part of 1813. Prince Willem the VI was proclaimed King Willem I of the Netherlands in November of 1813.
To reinforce the close bond between Leopold and King Willem, the king made Leopold’s son Otto aide-de-camp to his son Willem (who later became king Willem II) during the Waterloo campaign.
Because of his close ties to the Prince of Orange, Otto gives us first-hand insights into the very day Napoleon rushed into Belgium. He states that Napoleon, Jérôme and Murat have camped at Fontaine-l’Évêque near Charleroi, but that Le Prince (Prince of Orange) and the Duke of Wellington are still at a ball in Brussels. If the situation would worsen though he estimates that his Prince would return as soon as possible. He also ponders about military tactics which could be used, e.g. general Hill should replace the Dutch detachment in order to combat the French. A rather strange passage appears near the end of the actual letter: Otto seems to warn his father not to enrage the prince (Mais surtout gardez vous je vous prie de dire que vous tenez quelque chose de moi le Prince serait furieux). To be explained by an earlier letter between the two?
In a postscript written that evening, Otto shares the latest information with his father. He appears to be a bit pessimistic about their chances. The Prince hasn’t returned from Brussels yet and a French paper confirms the report that Napoleon and his army are making progress. According to the paper the last sighting of his l’Armée du Nord was done at Valenciennes, but the Allied Force knew that the French were at Charleroi already. Otto ends the letter by saying that it would probably take a while before they would see each other again.
The day after Otto wrote this historical document, he was severely injured during the battle of Quatre-Bras. The French troops misidentified him for the Prince of Orange due to his young age. They allegedly said: “tuons-le, c’est le Prince!”. He was left for dead on the battlefield but eventually recovered from his wounds.
On the 18th of June the Allied Force defeated Napoleon at Waterloo.
In summary: this field post entire with a clear strike of the very rare Genaal = Postkantoor te Velde mark gives us a concise, but detailed and unique insight into the very upper levels of the Waterloo military campaign.
Transcript of the letter – by G. Vink
Je m’emporte mon cher Père a vous communiquer en hate qu’en le moment le Prince vient de recevoir la nouvelle que les français ont commencés les hostilités du cote de CharleRoi. A Fontaine l’Eveque Napoléon, Jérome & Murat sont à l’armée.
Les Prussiens qui occupant la ligne celon l’ordre qu’ils en avoient prennent position dessus la Sambre. Sur le fameux champ de bataille de Fleurus bientôt prépare on va s’engage sérieusement, je ne doute pas on nous allons faire un mouvement, parfois nous illustrons ce fameux champ par une 3eme bataille a y […] de manière a le pousse jusqu’a Laon.
Le P[rince] qui a fait 18 heures ce matin est encore allé a Bruxelles, parler au Duc de Wellington. S’il y a quelque chose de sérieux, il reviendre encore ce soir, nous languissons tous de le voir rentrer d’après mon idée nous devrons être remplacés ici par le 2ond Corps du General Hill, pour pouvoir faire un mouvement vers la gauche a tomber les français dans le flanc s’ils osent s’aventurer s’il y a quelque chose de nouveau demain a que je puisse vous écrire je le serai.
Mais surtout gardez vous je vous prie de dire que vous tenez quelque chose de moi le Prince serait furieux. Adieu mon cher Père parfois vous apprendre quelque chose de moi par les Papiers ayez …. de rassurer ma femme s’il engage quelque chose de sérieux. Adieu je vous embrace tous tendrement a m dis votre fils affectionné
Le Soir P.S. Nos espérances sont plus ou moins réduit en fermé, le Prince ne revient p. Bruxelles, mais il a envoyé l’ordre de faire rentrer les trouppes dans leur cantonnements d’ou ils étaient sortés pour ressembler les brigades croyant que demain il y aurent quelque chose a faire. –
Les Papiers français que nous venons et voir affirment le départ de Nap: de Paris, et la marche de ses Corps d’Armée sur Charleville, Maubeuge et Valenciennes; Il me semble cependant que nous ne pouvons pas tandis de nous voir bientôt de près
For the original publication see the Dutch Philately blog by Hugo Brieffies.