The most exciting part of writing Michael Saxon Waterloo, was intertwining my narrative into the events within the walls of Hougoumont.
I didn't want to just throw dates and details at my readers, as that is what non fiction is for. However, I think it is important to add some facts, make sure that at least some of the characters did exist, and also add a few stories that may or may not have happened.
Whilst researching the battle, specifically the events at Hougoumont, I have found some wonderful stories. The picture above is of one of these moments, and had to be included in my story line, as it is one of the major events that took place at the Chateau.
The closing of the gate, depicted here, was an incredible feat of courage and bravery, and if it had not been successful the French would surely have gained a victory, and the very battle itself could well have been lost.
I had read in several places that when the gate was closed, some of the French soldiers were trapped inside and slaughtered. However there were just a few snippets that said that a young French drummer boy had been saved and taken captive.
This was enough for me to create Philip, a character that would fit nicely into the plot and someone I could use to pull it all together. Is the drummer boy fact? Maybe, maybe not. However I always think that if it is mentioned in dispatches then it just may be true.
The hardest part of writing about people that are real, is determining their character and trying to get inside their heads.
Angus, Jimmy, Alec, Philip and Helena are easy as they are purely fictional. So I can choose what they will be like and how they will respond to certain event.
Real characters are not so easy and it is important to try, where possible, to get a sense of who they are, and what they are like.
I managed to find a few pieces that described some of the individuals concerned.
MACDONELL, Sir JAMES 'The night before the battle of Waterloo, Wellington sent Macdonell with the guards to occupy the Château de Hougoumont. Macdonell held this key position against overwhelming French attacks during the early part of the battle. When French troops were forcing their way into the courtyard, Macdonell, aided by a sergeant, closed and held the gates by sheer physical strength. Chosen by Wellington for the award of £1,000 as the “bravest man in the British Army,” Macdonell insisted upon sharing the sum with his sergeant.' From this one passage I figured Macdonnell was a strong character firm but fair. It is believed he was actually educated in France being from a Highland Gentry and of Roman Catholic faith. So I believed him to be a deeply religious man with conviction. His speech I'm my book is purely fictional but I hope it captured some of his leadership qualities which were obviously highly regarded by Wellington.
Lieutenant Dashwood being in command of the 3rd Regiment, light company, took the opportunity of placing himself in the front of the same, and with cheerful countenance and manner addressed us, saying, “Now men let us see what you are made of.”
There is little known of Dashwood apart from a few fragments, but I did gleam from the roll call that he was severely wounded at Hougoumont whilst commanding the 2/3rd foot guards. Whether he survived is conjecture, so I decided his fate, but there is no evidence either way.
Sergeant Graham was one of the Coldstreamers who closed the north Gate at Hougoumont during the Battle of Waterloo. 'Both he and Sergeant Fraser of the Scots Guards were awarded a special medal for their gallantry at the north gate. Graham was also nominated by Wellington for an annuity of '10 a year which had been offered by a patriotic citizen, the Rev John Norcross of Framlingham Rectory in Suffolk: 'To one of his brave countrymen who fought in the late tremendous but glorious conflict.'
Unfortunately, after only two years, the annuity ceased when the rector went bankrupt. But when he died, he left '500 to be given to the 'bravest man in England'. Wellington was now asked to nominate this person and he wrote: 'The success of the Battle of Waterloo turned on the closing of the gates [at Hougoumont]. These gates were closed in the most courageous manner at the very nick of time by the efforts of Sir James Macdonnell.' So the commanding officer received the prize but he gave half to Sergeant Graham.'
Of Irish decent Graham was a true hero who showed great bravery in Hougoumont.
So I figured he would have been greatly respected in the lower ranks but a stickler for dress and duty. Sharp witted and not one to take kindly to slackers, he was the perfect addition to bounce off Angus and Jimmy, and someone Michael would be fearful of.
'The silver medal of Private Brewster whose brave intervention during the Battle of Waterloo is said to have helped save the day at Hougoumont Farm
This medal represents an interesting and mysterious story revolving around the emergency supply of ammunition during the time that the farm at Hougoumont was most in danger. The story goes, and is indeed corroborated by Captain Seymour, Lord Uxbridge’ s ADC in his letter to Captain Siborne that: “Late in the day of the 18th June I was called by some officers of the 3rd Guards defending Hougoumont to use my best endeavours to send them musket ammunition. Soon afterwards I fell in with a private of The Waggon Train in charge of a tumbrel on the crest of the position. I merely pointed out to him where he was wanted, when he gallantly started his horses, and drove straight down the hill to the farm, to the gate of which I saw him arrive. He must have lost his horses, as there was a severe fire kept on him. I feel convinced to that man’s service the Guards owe their ammunition.” The man in question was probably Private Joshua Brewer of The Royal Waggon Train whose name appears on the Waterloo Roll. Allegedly he later transferred to the 3rd Guards rising to the rank of Corporal.'
This is a great story which I decided to include in my own tale. It was a perfect way to expand my story further, taking Michael outside of the walls before returning again with Brewster and the ammunition. I made Brewster a corporal rather than a private as I wanted him to have some authority over the others. If true this is another example of extreme courage in the face of overwhelming odds.
William Hunter was a graduate of the University of Glasgow who served with the Coldstream Guards at the Battle of Waterloo.
His entry in Addison's Matriculations of the University of Glasgow (Glasgow, 1913) reads:
GULIELMUS HUNTER filius natu secundus Gulielmi Mercatoris in urbe Glasguensi.
MD 1813. Entered the Colstream Guards as Surgeon 1814. Was present at the blockade of Bayonne that year, and served during the campaign of 1815, including the battle of Waterloo. Attained the rank of Surgeon-Major, and resided at Woodbank, Largs. Died some years after 1870.
I also found a few lines about his wife WILLIAM HUNTER, M.D., Surgeon Major, Coldstream Guards married to HELEN daughter of the late Rev. David Wilkie, Minister of the parish of Cults, Fifeshire.
I used this information to invent his daughter Helena and placed her within my story, as the love interest for Michael. She also helped me to tie up and the loose ends and bring my story to a close. Without her I may have struggled for an ending.
I hope you find these few real life characters interesting and that my story does them justice.
Even though little is known of them personally, their achievements and courage are remarkable and it is important they are remembered and honoured in some way.
Although I dedicated my book to my four grandchildren I could have easily dedicated it to all those who fought at Hougoumont and gave us one of the greatest military victories the world has ever seen.
I wrote this book with one hope in mind and that was to get the younger generation interested in history. I believe Historical Fiction can do that..