The Royal Sussex Regiment was involved in the Napoleonic Wars and in the conflict in France leading up to it. Soldiers from the 35th Foot (Royal Sussex) were held in reserve at the Battle of Waterloo, stationed on the extreme right of the British Army in a defensive position. However, although they did not engage directly in the action, the Royal Sussex men were subsequently awarded the Waterloo Medal and took part in the allied Victory March through Paris. Some original documents related to the battle can be researched at West Sussex Record Office and a small display may be seen in the foyer. Further details can be found on the Record Office Search Online catalogue
The word "Waterloo" has entered into the English language partly by giving its name to a London railway terminus but also because of its importance in the military career of one of the world's most famous leaders, Napoleon Bonaparte. After losing the battle of Waterloo Napoleon's military career was at an end and he spent the rest of his days in exile on the island of St Helena. Now, any major defeat or loss tends to be described as "meeting one's Waterloo". There's even an Abba pop song about Napoleon's capitulation, of course!
The battle itself brought to an end almost twenty years of conflict across Europe, between France and her neighbours. Napoleon's military brilliance was a major factor in his country's pre-eminence but he proved to be fallible after all. He and his troops suffered a major blow when they foolishly invaded Russia in 1812. As a result Napoleon's star began to fail and two years later was forced to abdicate his position as emperor. He was then sent into humiliating exile on the island of Elba.
It wasn't long before Bonaparte returned to France, intent on overthrowing the already unpopular Bourbon monarchy. Once that aim had been achieved he set about raising a new army which he promptly marched into Belgium, his ultimate aim being the capture of Brussels. Before they could reach the capital however the French were attacked by the Prussian army at Ligny. Napoleon's troops fought back hard and sent the Prussians into retreat. The emperor believed that the Prussians had been vanquished and continued to press his troops forward. Later that same day the French were again attacked, this time by the British, at Quatre Bras. Commanding the British troops was Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, as pre-eminent a general as Napoleon himself. Wellington had fought the French many times but had never before taken on troops under the emperor's command. On this occasion both sides suffered casualties but were able to retreat to consolidate.
The French finally reached Waterloo the next day, in poor weather conditions. Wellington meanwhile had taken up a defensive position on and just behind a ridge. His intention was to hold the French at bay for long enough to allow the Prussian army to offer support. Napoleon remained convinced that this would not happen. As a consequence he made the fatal mistake of delaying engagement until the weather improved. The Prussians duly arrived and the French army was defeated.
Soldiers from the Royal Sussex Regiment were involved in the battle. They were requisitioned shortly before the defence of Brussels, having latterly been involved in fighting at Antwerp. Napoleon's initial abdication seems likely to have spared them further bloodshed there and they were manning the garrison at Ostend when called upon by Wellington. On the morning of the battle they were stationed on the right of the ridge chosen by the duke as the most defensible position. By the time the Prussian army arrived to attack the French no shots had been fired at the right flank. Nonetheless, all the men of the 35th received the Waterloo medal despite not having fired a shot.
The total number of troops involved was said to have been close to 200,000. At the end of the day nearly 54,000 men were dead, dying or injured, and they all lay within an area of only 6 square kilometres.
After this defeat it really was the end for Napoleon. Forced to abdicate once again he prepared to leave for the United States but was prevented from doing so by the British. Finally he agreed to be taken into British protection and was transported by them to the remote island of St Helena where he lived quietly until his death six years later.
By contrast, the Duke of Wellington was received as a national hero back in England. He became commander-in-chief of the British army in 1827 and held various senior posts in Tory governments from 1818 to 1846, including Prime Minister. On his death in 1852, he was given a state funeral.
Adkin, M.(2001) Waterloo companion. Aurum Press.
Crawley Reference Library