17 August 2023
Peter Duckers looks at the awards for the pivotal battle of the Napoleonic Wars.
In what was for its day, a most unusual honour, it was decided after the battle of Waterloo to give every British soldier present in the 1815 campaign a special medal – the Waterloo Medal. Although collectors usually regard this as the first campaign award in a modern sense, ignoring the mass award of campaign medals by the East India Company for the Deccan and Mysore campaigns in the 1780-90s – it was given more as a token of the importance of the victory than as indicating a general desire to award war medals to British forces. Indeed, there were no other army campaign medals for a whole generation after 1815, until the Afghan and China War medals of 1839-42.
Nevertheless, the medal was indeed special, since ordinary soldiers in those days did not get medals and the evidence is that it was highly regarded; judging by the poor condition of many surviving examples, they were worn and cherished by their recipients over many years.
The award, apparently suggested by the Duke of Wellington himself, was the first to be issued in what we would now regard as a standard type – a circular silver medal of 37mm diameter, given in the same form and metal regardless of the recipient’s rank or status, and most unusually for those days, named around the rim to its recipient using a new impressing machine devised by the Soho Mint in Birmingham. There was even allowance for the award of the medal to the next of kin of those who were killed during the campaign, by special application, though comparatively few of these are known.
The medal was suspended via a crude-looking clip and ring (which were often replaced by personalised types) from a distinctive wide ribbon of crimson with dark blue edges; this was essentially the same as had been used on the earlier Army Gold Crosses and Gold Medals and was used again on the 1847 Military General Service Medal. It was at one time known as the Military Ribbon of England.
The obverse of the medal shows the profile and titles of the Prince Regent (later George IV) ruling in place of his incapacitated father, George III. The reverse, based on a coin of the ancient Greek state of Elis, has a seated Victory above a tablet with ‘WATERLOO’ and the date ‘JUNE 18 1815’ and curving above the whole design, the name ‘WELLINGTON’.
Approximately 40,000 of these medals were awarded to British army units and to the men of the King’s German Legion, about 6,000 of whom were present in the campaign, who were largely volunteers from the British-ruled state of Hanover, previously under French occupation. As they were regarded as part of the British army establishment, their men received the British medal.
The value of the medal on the collectors’ market depends largely on the regiment represented – some were more heavily engaged than others or were involved in famous actions, like the defence of La Haye Sainte or Hougoumont and their medals fetch premium prices. Medals to the reserve division and other units not heavily engaged or deemed to be less glamorous are less expensive. Condition does matter to some extent, but prices begin from around £1,500, with the better units around £2,500-£3,000. As always with British medals, the rank of the recipient or their personal story can add greatly to the interest of the award and therefore its market price, so that, for example, a good officer’s medal can fetch anything from £5,000 to much more than that.
It will be apparent that Wellington’s army at Waterloo was considerably greater than 40,000 men. In fact, it is usual to suggest that he had over 70,000 men under his command on the day. It was of course a coalition army, representing a number of Allied states united in the fight against Napoleon and French expansion, all under the overall command of the Iron Duke. Wellington’s army contained elements of Dutch and Belgian origin, along with sizeable contingents from the larger German states like Hanover, Nassau and Brunswick. As an example of the very mixed nature of Wellington’s force, the following figures (which vary from source to source, and are all approximates) are of interest:
British troops –30,000
King’s German Legion (mainly Hanoverians) – 6,000
State of Brunswick – 6,000
State of Hanover – 11,000 (excluding King’s German Legion)
Kingdom of the Netherlands (Dutch and Belgian) – 16,000
State of Nassau – 7,000
Of these, 15,000 Allied troops were casualties, along with 7,000 Prussians and 30,000 French – reinforcing the contemporary opinion that Waterloo was one of the bloodiest battles of its day.
Nor can we ignore the Prussian army of approximately 45,000 men under Field Marshal Blucher, which came up later in the day and sealed the victory at Waterloo. In its ranks were not only Prussian nationals but representatives of many smaller German states, like Saxe-Altenburg-Goth, Baden, Weimar, Württemberg, Coburg, the Hanseatic States and others. All these states produced medals for distribution to their own citizens, sometimes considerably after the war had finished and not all exclusively for service at Waterloo.
The German medals
Two medals popular with collectors, for the simple reason that they were, like the British medal, named to their recipients and thus researchable, are those for the German states of Hanover and Brunswick. Since the men of the largely Hanoverian King’s German Legion were awarded the British medal, the Hanoverian Waterloo Medal was awarded to men of the regular battalions of the Hanoverian army (reformed after the French occupation) and associated Militia battalions. Most of these, even the six regular battalions, were newly-raised formations who had seen little or no action. The only Hanoverian cavalry regiment actually present during the battle, the Cumberland Hussars, ran away during the day, but the rest played their part.
The Hanoverian Waterloo Medal, instituted in 1817, is an attractive award, very like the British medal in its suspension, basic size and metal – a silver medal of 35 mm diameter, hung from the same clip-and-ring suspension as the British type, featuring on the obverse the laureate head and German titles of the Prince Regent (since Britain ruled Hanover at that time). The reverse bore a trophy of arms with ‘HANNOVERSCHER TAPFERKEIT’ (Hannoverian Bravery), a laurel spray and the name and date of the battle. Its ribbon was in crimson with light blue edges. Though of late their value has been increasing, these named silver medals are much underrated on the market, and are still available at prices from £850 – far less than the British version.
The other named medal was that given by the German state of Brunswick to its own forces. This award is in bronze, with clip and small ring suspension, and said to be made from captured French guns. It too is impressed around the rim with its recipient’s personal details, making it a researchable war medal. The Brunswickers had approximately 6,000 men at Quatre Bras and/or Waterloo: two cavalry units, eight regiments of Light and Line infantry and two batteries of artillery.
The medal, instituted in 1818, depicts on its obverse the profile and titles of their ruler, Duke Frederick William, who was killed in action at Quatre Bras on 16 June. The reverse has sprays of oak and laurel around the date ‘1815’, with ‘BRAUNSCHWEIG SEINEN KRIEGERN’ (Brunswick to its Warriors) and ‘QUATRE BRAS und WATERLOO’. Its ribbon shows the heraldic colours of Brunswick, yellow and pale blue. Basic examples of the Brunswick medal can currently be found from around £650-£750 making it another relatively inexpensive medal for the Waterloo campaign.
The Prussians, Dutch and French
The large Prussian army under Blucher, although it had suffered a costly defeat at Ligny on 16 June, nevertheless fought its way to join Wellington’s army, as promised, and inflicted the final, decisive, blows against Napoleon. Its personnel were awarded a small (29mm) bronze medal, suspended from a small ring by a ribbon of orange, black and white stripes (the colours of Prussia). The obverse bore a cross pattee with sunrays between its arms and ‘1815’ in the centre. The reverse has the crowned monogram (FW) of Prussia’s ruler, King Frederick William and ‘PREUSSENS TAPFERN KRIEGERN’ (to Prussia’s Brave Warriors) and the familiar Prussian legend, ‘GOTT WAR MIT UNS; IHM SEI DIE EHRE’ (God was with us, to Him be the glory).
Sadly, from the collector’s point of view, the medal is unnamed but since it too was made from captured French guns, it has the interesting legend ‘AUS EROBERTEM GESCHUTZ’ (From Captured Guns) impressed around the rim. This dated medal is the last in a series of Prussian war medals for the Napoleonic Wars, each bearing the appropriate campaign date on the obverse. Examples of the 1815 type are available on the market for around £185, the fact that they are unnamed obviously affecting their desirability to the collector.
In addition to these major German states, something like 25 smaller German states awarded medals for the campaign of 1815, not all of them solely for Waterloo service. It is not easy to trace the actual location of some of these contingents, whose personnel must have been scattered amongst Prussian units or other German forces rather than serving as distinctive national formations in their own right. None of these awards was issued named, though examples are occasionally found privately detailed or with award documents which identify the recipient.
Amongst the German states and cities which awarded medals for the 1815 campaign are: Frankfurt, Baden, Nassau, Hesse-Kassel, Anhalt, Anhalt-Bernburg, Oldenburg, Saxe-Coburg-Altenburg, Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, Schwarzenburg-Rudolstadt, Schaumberg-Lippe, Württemberg and others. All are scarce, since the numbers involved were generally low, and some types are very rare indeed, so that prices for 1815 medals from the German states vary enormously from around £150 (eg for Hesse-Kassel) up to many hundreds of pounds and more, depending on rarity.
Left: The attractive sliver Waterloo medal of the state of Nassau, obverse and reverse. Reverse somewhat like the later British Crimea medal
Left: One of a series of campaign medals awarded by the large state of Württemberg
Left: The Dutch War Cross for 1813-15 (including Waterloo), awarded in 1865
The United Kingdom of the Netherlands provided sizeable Belgian and Dutch contingents in the final campaigns against Napoleon in 1813-14 and in the Waterloo campaign but Dutch soldiers had to wait until 1865 to get a medal. Awarded only to survivors, the War Cross of 1813-15 is not a very striking example of a campaign medal after all that wait! It took the form of a 35mm five-pointed silver cross, simply bearing the date ‘1813’ in the obverse centre and ‘1815’ on the reverse. Its ribbon was yellow with narrow edge stripes of white. Although approximately 6,000 were awarded – a large number at that late date – examples are scarce and can cost around £500.
Since defeated nations rarely award campaign medals, the French and their allied forces engaged at Waterloo received no immediate reward. Not until the great revival in Empire and the Napoleonic legend under Louis Napoleon (Napoleon’s nephew) did the French institute in 1857 a retrospective medal for the survivors of all the wars of 1792 – 1815. Known as The St. Helena Medal after Napoleon’s supposed last words in exile on St. Helena, recalling his role as head of the army, the largely oval-shaped medal is in bronze with the profile and title of Emperor Napoleon on the obverse, within a surround of laurel and below a crown. The reverse carries the legend ‘CAMPAGNES DE 1792 A 1815 / A SES COMPAGNONS DE GLOIRE SA DERNIÈRE PENSÉE STE HÉLÈNE 5 MAI 1821’ (Campaigns of 1792 to 1815: To His Companions in Glory his Last Thought St Helena 5 May 1821). The medal hangs from a ribbon of narrow red and green stripes, later revived for the French Croix-de-Guerre of 1914-18.
Remarkably, it is estimated that nearly 400,000 St. Helena medals were awarded, of which approximately 55,000 went to allied forces (ie to personnel of those states which had sided with the French and provided contingents to serve with them). The medals are easily available from around £55-£85 – a remarkably low price for a medal with such a potential history! Miniature versions and more expensive personalised types (eg gilded, enamelled or bejewelled) are also seen. Regrettably, from the collector’s point of view, they were awarded unnamed but one occasionally sees the actual award certificate, from the Chancery of the Legion of Honour, which accompanied the medal – though these are far rarer than the medals themselves, as are their white boxes of issue.
The document names the recipient and usually states his regiment, so that research on him is possible in local archives or in the French national military archives in Vincennes. An excellent starting point is the detailed (and growing) French website on the medal, Les Medailles de Ste. Helene, (www.stehelene.org) which has over 200,000 names so far recorded. There must be some fascinating stories waiting to be discovered!
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