The Carnage dreadful beyond description…Lieut. John Roberts 18th June 1815
In our document collection is a small pocket diary chronicling one man’s experience of the final campaign against Napoleon which led to the Battle of Waterloo and the eventual overthrow of the Emperor.
In 1815 Lieut. Roberts, of Bideford, said goodbye to his wife and three daughters (the youngest, Elizabeth, not yet two months old) to join his brigade before setting out to Canterbury and leaving England from Dover Harbour on 1st May 1815. Arriving in Ostend, Belgium, on the 4th he marched on to Saas, then on again, with a brigade, to Bruges a few days later, before moving on through Ghent to a small village just outside Ghent called Merelbeke.
Whilst staying in and around Ghent he saw the King of France, did a spot of sight-seeing, dined with other officers and wrote and received letters before he received orders to march to Grammont on the 14th June just days before the battle…
15th [June] Marched to Soignes report of French having driven in the Prussians. Ordered by the Prince of Orange to be in readiness to turn out at a moment’s notice.
16th Marched to Nivelles remained 2 Hours in a clover Field beyond the Town. Col. Harvey arrived with Orders to advance immediately in Double Quick. Got into Action about 3 p.m. at a Place called Quatre Bras – action very severe, Our Brigade suffered particularly; at Night the Enemy gave way. Out loss was more severe than it would have been had our Cavalry been up. Marshal Ney commanded the French.
17th Began to retire slowly our Brigade ordered to protect the retreat. The French Cavalry deployed and were charged in fine style by the Life Guards. We gave them a few round Shot and they did not afterwards molest us during the day.
Sunday 18th Our line was formed about 1 to 2 miles in front of a village called Waterloo. Our line formed nearly a half circle. The right crossed the Nivelles road and in its front the Seat of Hougoumont. Out left crossed the road leading to Charleroi in rear of us the immense Forest of Soignes. The Action commenced by the most dreadful cannonade I ever heard. The French after a short fight of Artillery commenced a most furious Attack on our Post at Hougoumont but was bravely repulsed by our Foot Guards. Our Brigade was stationed not far from Hougoumont and frightful havoc we made among them by Shapnell Shells and Case Shot. We were during the day 5 times charged by the Enemy’s Curassiers the Guns were taken but as they had no Spikes no injury was done. The French were every time they charged the Guns driven back by Gen. Byng’s Brigade of Guards. The Action was most obstinately contested throughout the day. I believe none but British Troops would have withstood the Enemy’s repeated and furious attacks. The French began to give way towards Evening when Lord Wellington commanded the whole Line to advance. The French retreating in all directions and the Prussians coming up about this time a general panic must have taken them for they fled in every direction. Thus ended our Sunday. The Carnage dreadful beyond description.
19th As soon as day break rode over the Field and never I believe was there such a sight of dead wounded and dying. In Front of the Position at Hougoumont the French lay in Heaps. Ordered to Brussels for a fresh supply of horses we having lost more than half our number in the lasdt Action. Capt. Rudyard took command of the Brigade Major Lloyd being dangerously wounded. Our second Lieut lost his Arm.
The following days were spent collecting arms and guns taken from the French during the action and also includes a more personal note…“21st [June] Halted at Lillers, Servant arrived two-thirds of Baggage lost.”
Once the Armistice was concluded in early July he marched on to Paris where on the 7th July he “…saw Prussians enter Paris over the Pont de Jena. Went into Paris saw Palais Royal – Louvre – Touilleries – Grand Cathedral – King of France’s entry.”
He stayed just outside Paris, taking the opportunity to explore the city and it’s surrounds, until the 15th August when he “Left Paris for England”
On his return to England he saw Elizabeth baptised in Bideford that September and had another daughter in 1818. The family spent time in Instow and Bristol and it was while he was visiting a friend in Bristol in August 1858 that he passed away. His body was brought back to Westleigh (just outside Bideford) where he was buried in the same graveyard his daughter Elizabeth had been buried in 1853. His wife, Mary, was also buried in Westleigh when she passed away eleven years later.
His Diary was given to us by his great-grandaughter, Miss Berry-Torr, along with his campaign medals and several letters written after the Battle and other bits of ephemera. The diary and letters have all been transcribed and are available along with the orignal in our Document Collections…Barum Athena