Wellington on Waterloo

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The De Lancey Disposition – Can it be Genuine?

By ©Peter Hofschröer

When the Duke of Wellington arrived at Quatre Bras on the morning of 16 June 1815, he first examined the situation, then at 10.30 a.m. wrote the so-called Frasnes Letter to Field Marshal General Prince Blücher von Wahlstadt, commander of the Prussian Army of the Lower Rhine. This letter presented Wellington’s concentration as more advanced that it actually was and in 1876, General Karl Rudolf von Ollech reproduced it in facsimile in his Geschichte des Feldzuges von 1815. This led to Wellington being accused of having misled his Prussian allies as to the positions of his forces, his movements and his intention at the beginning of the Waterloo Campaign. British Waterloo historians of the time considered the Duke’s integrity beyond question, so an explanation was sought. The only document found that might provide a vindication was the so-called De Lancey Disposition, a chart published in the Waterloo volume of the 2nd edition of Wellington’s Dispatches, that apparently showed the positions and movements of Wellington at 7 a.m. on 16 June 1815.1 As this document was largely incorrect and highly misleading, positioning his army much closer to Blücher’s than it actually was, these historians construed that Wellington must have been given it before writing the Frasnes Letter and as such, he must have unwittingly misled the Prussians. Although no evidence has ever been produced to show that he saw this chart or based his letter on it, this myth continues to be given credence even in modern works on the Waterloo Campaign.

The first of Wellington's defenders to examine this question was Colonel J. F. Maurice of the Royal Artillery. Writing in the United Service Magazine of 1890, he commented, 'Whoever was responsible for it, and however it was produced, a more muddled and muddling document than the paper called "Dispositions of the Army at 7 o'clock A.M., 16th June" was, I suppose, never composed.'2 Maurice continued, 'My own private belief is that it is just such a document as a bad Staff, which had neglected its duties, might have composed in order to salve over their own carelessness and neglect. I have throughout carefully abstained from assuming that Colonel Sir W. De Lancey, though he was, of course, as Wellington's chief officer of the Quarter-Master General's Department, the person responsible to the Duke for it, was necessarily the author of all its blunders.' Maurice later mentioned Wellington's references to apparently having 'a very bad staff', ' . . . and that he had been misled into writing it by the statements made to him by his Staff . . .'3

So there we have it: Wellington was of course blameless. De Lancey's staff misinformed him, although he should have known better, and in the resulting confusion, the Duke unintentionally sent Blücher false information. Maurice did not however produce a single shred of evidence in support of his contention. Subsequent research showed the main plank of his argument, the 'bad staff', to be untenable.
Stated disposition of the British Army at 7 o’clock A.M., 16th June

Brigadier-General Sir James Edmonds, in his article Wellington's Staff at Waterloo, published in the Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research in 1933, demonstrated that all but one of the officers manning the Brussels headquarters in June 1815 were Peninsula veterans. 4

Nevertheless, most subsequent Waterloo historians have unquestioningly followed Maurice's construction of supposed events. Horsburgh, writing a couple of years later, acknowledged Maurice's influence: 'His articles in the "United Service Magazine" are by far the most scholarly contributions to the subject made by an Englishman in recent times'.5 When discussing the Frasnes Letter, Horsburgh commented, 'A comparison between this document and the Memorandum of Sir W. De Lancey shows that Wellington, in giving information to Blücher, depended almost implicitly upon the Memorandum'.6 Maurice's speculation seems to have become established 'fact' almost immediately. What Horsburgh however did not do was consider the possibility that the Disposition might have been produced after the event to cover Wellington's deception of Blücher. 'Truth lover' was the English Duke, 'whatever record leap to light.'

Major-General Sir C. W. Robinson devoted a whole appendix to the De Lancey Memorandum in his Waterloo volume of Wellington's Campaigns.7 In it, he speculated as to the possible interpretations of the information given in this document. Did it show where the army actually was, or was it indicating to where it had been directed? He went so far as to consider that 'at' on this document could well be an abbreviation for 'about', giving rise to the subsequent confusion, a case of the sublime becoming the ridiculous. Robinson was however thorough in his researches. 'The original, lost at Waterloo, we can of course scarcely now hope to see,' he mentioned in a footnote, 'and Sir De Lacy Evans' copy seems also now to have disappeared. It is not among the documents at Apsley House.'8 Neither the original, which would have been in De Lancey's hand and supposedly lost at Waterloo, nor the copy purportedly made by Evans, are extant, nor have they been sighted by any historian. It is not possible to prove the involvement of either of these staff officers in the production of this document.9

Robinson turned speculation into fact without any supporting evidence. One would have hoped that subsequent historians would have been circumspect about accepting such unsubstantiated conclusions. Sadly, they have not, as the two most recently published accounts of these events show. Ian Fletcher's A Desperate Business and David Miller's Lady De Lancey at Waterloo, follow the time-honoured tradition of unquestionably accepting the questionable. 'All in all,' wrote Fletcher, 'the Disposition was a poor piece of work . . . Faulty staff work is nothing new'.10 Miller devoted more thought to the issue, writing an appendix on it.11 Here, he tried to explain the questionable origins of this document, but concluded: 'In the absence of any conclusive evidence to the contrary, the "De Lancey Memorandum" must be considered authentic'.12

Let us now consider the evidence: First, what was the sequence of events that led up to the writing of the Frasnes Letter? The Allied outposts in the Netherlands were well aware of the build up of French forces on the border early in June 1815. From 9 June, the troops on the frontier were placed on alert. The situation was closely followed in Wellington's headquarters in Brussels. On the night of 12/13 June, De Lancey drafted orders for the eventuality.13 On the evening of 14 June, Lt-Colonel Sir Henry Hardinge, Wellington's liaison officer in Blücher's headquarters in Namur, wrote to Wellington informing him that, 'The prevalent opinion here seems to be that Bonaparte intends to commence offensive operations'.14 In the days leading to the outbreak of hostilities,15 Wellington made assurances to his Prussian allies that he would move rapidly to their support, should their positions be attacked. In particular, he promised Colonel von Pfuel, one of Blücher's staff officers, that he would be able to concentrate his army either at Nivelles or at Quatre Bras within twenty-two hours after the first cannon-shot. Wellington had also made a similar promise to Lt-General Hans von Zieten, commander of the Prussian I Army Corps, now facing Napoleon's build up. The anticipated assault on the Prussian outposts near Charleroi took place as expected at daybreak on 15 June. Zieten informed his headquarters, Brussels and the neighbouring outposts of this.16 All was now set for Wellington to honour his promises and move his army to support the Prussians. He did not.

Wellington's supporters have thought up various excuses for his inaction. Apparently, Zieten neglected to send him a report; Müffling took thirty hours to ride thirty miles with the message; then Dörnberg refused to forward information from Grant, Wellington's trusted spy; and of course, the Prince of Orange too failed to tell the Duke the news in good time. If these stories were to be believed, then it would appear that only one person in the Netherlands did not know what had happened - the otherwise omniscient Wellington. This is all the more surprising, as Hardinge had informed the Duke the previous evening what was expected the coming day, so Wellington knew that he should have received news of the commencement of hostilities from the front that morning. Dawn was about 4 a.m., when hostilities would have begun, and Brussels was about four hours ride from the front, so Wellington should have heard shortly after 8 a.m. If he had not, then surely he would have enquired of his outposts as to the situation. As he did not, unless one considers Wellington to have been incompetent, then logic tells us this can only be because he had already received this news. He stated this was at 9 a.m. in a letter he sent that evening to the Duc de Feltre.17

Nevertheless for reasons he never explained, Wellington did nothing. He did not react on receiving the first confirmation of this news from the Prince of Orange at 3 p.m.; nor did he react to the second confirmation from Major-General von Müffling, the Prussian liaison officer in the Duke's headquarters, a little later; nor to the third confirmation from Blücher that arrived about 5 p.m. Only when Dörnberg's report finally arrived at 6 p.m. - Lt-Colonel Sir George Berkeley, Wellington's Assistant Adjutant-General in the Prince of Orange's headquarters in Braine-le-Comte had not forwarded it immediately - did Wellington have his first set of orders for the day drafted. He had now lost vital hours in circumstances when he had promised the Prussians rapid support. Despite the fact he could no longer honour his obligations, Wellington continued to give the Prussians the impression all was running to plan. Blücher was sent various messages in this vein, the final one being the Frasnes Letter. While Wellington had the option of blaming Müffling for all the false information sent previously - Müffling had written those messages on behalf of Wellington - the Frasnes Letter was the one and only communication to the Prussians in this entire campaign that Wellington wrote himself. On all other occasions, Müffling was acting in the dark, accepting information Wellington had given him at face value. This time however, Müffling, who accompanied the Duke on his ride that morning and saw the real position of the Reserve, was not asked to write to Blücher. Can it be because Müffling would have been aware the information given on that point was misleading?

In the years following the great battle, historians had relied on Wellington's Waterloo Despatch of 19 June 1815. In it, the Duke had claimed he first received the news of the outbreak of hostilities on the evening of 15 June, which was clearly not the case. Once the construction of his Large Waterloo Model, currently on display at the National Army Museum in London, was nearing completion, William Siborne spent more time working on his forthcoming History. Among the documents he was hoping to get sight of were Wellington's Headquarters Papers. Included in those Papers would be the Letter Books, that is the registers of incoming and outgoing messages, which would show at exactly what time the news of the outbreak of hostilities did arrive. On 17 March 1838, Siborne contacted Colonel John Gurwood, who was editing Wellington's Dispatches that were published between 1834 and 1838. Gurwood, then in Paris, replied a few days later, writing, ' . . . at the present moment I do not recollect the points adverted to in your queries - the particulars would be best ascertained, that is the orders of movement &c, from the registers of the QMG's dept. which of course were never mislaid, even at the unfortunate moment of Col Delancey's death. I should think that Col Freeth might give you some hint where these are to be found.'18

Gurwood continued, 'I will however carefully look over them on my arrival at Apsley House after the 15th April & let you know.' Gurwood, who presumably consulted Wellington on this issue, does not appear to have come back to Siborne. Neither did Siborne ever get to see the Registers. Gurwood completed the editorial work on the Waterloo volume of the Dispatches that summer and it was published in November 1838. In a footnote on the page accompanying the orders of 15 June, Gurwood commented, 'The original instructions issued to Colonel De Lancey were lost with that officer's papers.'19 In those few short months, the registers that were 'never mislaid' were now 'lost' years earlier. It is noteworthy that the De Lancey Disposition was not included in the memoranda of movements published in this edition of the Dispatches.

The first two editions of Siborne's History were published in 1844. They contained nothing regarding the Frasnes Letter. However, the Prussian General Staff responded favourably to the History, publishing a positive review of the work in their official organ, the Militair-Wochenblatt in 1845-6. Francis Egerton, once Secretary at War and one of Wellington's close advisors, had earlier translated Clausewitz's account of the Campaign of 1812 from the German and is known to have brought German-language material to Wellington's attention.

Siborne contacted a lengthy correspondence with the Prussian General Staff in which certain points of their review of his History were discussed. This communication ran via the Horse Guards, where Wellington's close associate FitzRoy Somerset was Military Secretary. Parcels of copies of documents from the Prussian War Archives and other items of information were sent to Siborne, who announced on 21 October 1846 he was preparing a third edition of his History. There was a chance that he had received a copy of the Frasnes Letter and would publish it, a prospect Wellington could not have relished. It would help if that could somehow be pre-empted.

The De Lancey Disposition appeared for the first time in Volume VIII of the second edition of Wellington's Dispatches, published in 1847. Its content supported not only the false information Wellington put in the Frasnes Letter, it also gave credence to the misleading statement the Duke made in his Waterloo Despatch on 19 June 1815 that he had ordered his 'whole army' to Quatre Bras. Siborne had already challenged the accuracy of other parts of the Despatch both with his Model and in his History, embarrassing Wellington. Can it be that that the Disposition was fabricated to excuse certain of the false statements Wellington had made and to discredit any further revelations that might have come in the 3rd edition of Siborne's History, published in 1848?

Let us now consider the plausibility of the defence put up by Wellington's apologists against the charge that he had knowingly misled the Prussians. The information the Duke received on 15 June 1815 was that of the commencement of hostilities; confirmation of this from both his outposts and the Prussian headquarters; the news that Charleroi had fallen; that Blücher was concentrating in the Sombreffe position and finally that an unspecified number of French had advanced as far as Quatre Bras that evening. Wellington's reaction was first to order his army to concentrate in its assembly points, then to issue a set of movement orders that left all his options open. Evidently, the Duke was waiting for more information before making a decision on where to concentrate. He did not order his 'whole army' to Quatre Bras at that time, or indeed at any time. By 7 a.m. on 16 June, he had not even ordered a single man there, so how could De Lancey, who had administered the issuing of the orders given - and these are on record - and the staff officers that transcribed them possibly have thought this to be the case?

Wellington left Brussels that morning, riding to Waterloo, where he arrived about 9 a.m. Here, his Reserve was resting after having carried out its orders to advance to the road junction just south of the village of Waterloo. The Duke expressed no surprise at seeing these troops here - although, according to the Disposition, at 7 a.m. they were supposedly 'beyond Waterloo, marching to Genappe'. Neither did he at that time issue them with orders to march anywhere. Instead, Wellington rode on towards Quatre Bras to observe the situation there before making his next decision.

The fact that the Duke hesitated for a while at the fork in the road south of Waterloo, enquiring if the second road led to Nivelles, is a further indication that he had yet to make a decision on his movements for the remainder of that day. About this time, he received a letter the Prince of Orange had sent him at 7 a.m. from 'near Frasnes'. The Prince informed Wellington he had ordered that, 'A Brigade of the British 3rd Division is to occupy the heights behind Arquennes, the rest to be in position on the ridge behind Nivelles, and that town to be occupied.'20 This information too conflicts with the contents of the Disposition, which placed the 3rd Division at 'Nivelles, marching to Quatre Bras'.

If we are to believe the story put forward for more than a century by Wellington's defenders from Maurice to Fletcher, at some time between 7 a.m. and 10.30 a.m. on 16 June 1815, the Disposition was thrust into Wellington's hands. A number of people that accompanied Wellington on his ride that morning have given accounts of it, including FitzRoy Somerset, Müffling and Dörnberg. None of them mention De Lancey or indeed anybody else handing any Disposition to Wellington. Neither did the Duke himself ever made such a claim. Nevertheless, Wellington is then supposed to have used it to write the Frasnes Letter, disregarding the orders he had given in the preceding hours, knowing where his Reserve actually was and having received the above letter from the Prince of Orange. Wellington's supporters are no doubt unwittingly making the case that the Great Duke was so incompetent, he lost track of the positions of his entire army, failed to notice the Reserve resting at Waterloo and did not understand the Prince of Orange's message. This defence is implausible as it conflicts with a substantial body of evidence: Wellington was no fool - he was one of Britain's greatest commanders.

The Disposition conflicts with the facts as Wellington knew them. There is no evidence to support the contention that he ever saw it before writing the Frasnes Letter. The Duke never ordered his 'whole army' to Quatre Bras, so any disposition showing that could not have existed on 16 June 1815. As he first claimed to have done so in his Waterloo Despatch of 19 June 1815, then any such disposition can only have been produced after that. The available evidence indicates that the Disposition first came into existence some time after 1838 and before 1847. As De Lancey was mortally wounded at Waterloo, he could not have been involved in its production. It is questionable that De Lacy Evans had anything to do with it either. The De Lancey Disposition therefore cannot be genuine.


1 Gurwood, Col John, Dispatches of Field Marshal the Duke of Wellington, viii, (London, 1847), 143.

2 United Service Magazine, i, New Series, 261.

3 Op cit, 262.

4 JSAHR, xii, 1933, 239-47.

5 Horsburgh, E. L. S., Waterloo – A Narrative and a Criticism, 2nd ed., (London, 1900), preface, vi-vii.

6 Op cit, 51.

7 Robinson, Maj-Gen Sir C. W., Wellington’s Campaigns: Peninsula-Waterloo 1808-15, iii, 1815 – Waterloo, 6th ed., (London, 1927), 743-764.

8 Op cit, 754.

9 See Notes and Documents No. 1624 in the JSAHR, lxxx, 322, Summer 2002, 163-6.

10 Fletcher, Ian, A Desperate Business, (Staplehurst, 2001), 49.

11 Miller, David, Lady de Lancey at Waterloo, (Staplehurst, 2000), 181-94.

12 Op cit, 192.

13 PRO WO37/12.

14 Wellington, 2nd Duke of, Supplementary Despatches, Correspondence and Memoranda of Field Marshal Arthur Duke of Wellington, xii, (London, 1863), 476.

15 Damitz, Carl von, Geschichte des Feldzuges von 1815 in den Niederlanden und Frankreich, 2 vols, (Berlin, Posen & Bromberg, 1837-8), i, 70.

16 Zieten wrote to both Blücher at Wellington at about 4.45 a.m., then sent Major von Arnauld with the news to the Prussian outposts to the west and onwards to the Allied outpost at St Symphorien.

17 Wellington to Feltre, 10 p.m. 15 June 1815, in Gurwood, Dispatches of Field Marshal the Duke of Wellington, (London, 1837-8), xii, 473.

18 Gurwood to Siborne, 23 March 1838, BL Add MS 34,706 fol 459.

19 Gurwood, Dispatches, xii, 474 fn.

20 Prince of Orange to Duke of Wellington, 7 a.m., 16 June 1815, Archive Prince Frederic, A 37. VII b. no. 9A.

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Contents - Wellington on Waterloo

De Lancey Disposition

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