William II, King of the Netherlands (1792-1849), when Prince of Orange, by Nicaise de Keyser, 1846, the Royal Collection UK.
“Victory! Victory! My dearest parents. We have had a magnificent affair against Napoleon today … it was my corps which principally gave battle and to which we owe the victory, but the affair was entirely decided by the attack which the Prussians made on the enemy’s right. I am wounded by a ball in the left shoulder but only slightly. In life and death I am ever thine, William.”
(Quoted in Waterloo: The Hundred Days by David Chandler)
Thus wrote the 22-year-old Prince of Orange exuberantly to his parents after the Battle of Waterloo. It this short missive is nearly everything one needs know about the Prince, popularly known as “Silly Billy” or “Slender Billy” or “Young Frog” (his dad was “Old Frog”): he was still but a youngster, terribly excitable, and enthralled to the idea of military glory.
The first child born to King William I of the Netherlands and Wilhelmine of Prussia (Queen Louise’s sis-in-law), “Willem Frederik George Lodewijk van Oranje-Nassau” spent much of his early life in exile, between Berlin, England, and serving in the Peninsular War, his homeland having been overrun by French Revolutionary and Imperial forces.
Bust of the Prince of Orange at the Royal Museum of the Army and Military History, Brussels, December 2011
Made Colonel and ADC to Wellington in 1811, he proved himself an affable but impetuous officer. His youth was not entirely out of place — Wellington’s ADCs were all rather youngish and he affectionately called them “my boys” — but his inexperience in the field was, despite the fact that he received military training in Prussia. Lord FitzRoy Somerset was himself only 23 when he wrote, upon learning that the Prince of Orange was to join the ADC ranks, “We understand that a great many amateurs intend to favour us with their company” (source). Wellington, understanding the diplomatic implications of having an Allied monarch’s son on his staff, wrote he had
"a very good education, his manners are very engaging and he is liked by every person who approaches him; such a man may become anything; but, on the other hand, he is very young and can have no experience in business." (qtd. Wellington: A Military Life by Gordon Corrigan)
He rose quickly through the ranks — again, no doubt a result of his royal status; whether or not he actually deserved much of the praise that Wellington returned to London about this young fellow, the fact that Wells often mentioned him for promotion and overlooked other officers just as suitable means he was probably well aware of the need to keep the Dutch royal family happy with the progress of their heir apparent in the Peninsula. William was made full General by 1814, having taken distinguished part in Salamanca, Cuidad Rodgrigo, Badajoz and Vittoria.
Yesterday, the Duchess of Wellington asked me what exactly happened with the Prince of Orange at Waterloo, as the Sharpe films made him out to be something of a “blithering idiot.” Well, that portrayal can’t be far off the mark because William singlehandedly did a fair job of making Waterloo far messier and challenging for Wellington and his forces than it need have been!
During the brief peace of 1814-1815 when Napoleon was on Elba, Wellington busied himself ensuring that the Low Countries were well fortified, believing that if the French were to ever strike out militarily again, Belgium and the Netherlands would be the first target. This area had always been of prime importance to the British, the ports there being the main entryway for their trade into the Continent; even well into the Peninsular War politicians at home were clamoring for renewed expeditions to the Low Countries, despite the grand failures of the 1790s under the Duke of York and Walcheren in 1809. Anyway, Wellington was running all about the Netherlands, urging King William to take these fortifications more seriously than he was; the king was lackadaisical in seeing Wellington’s desperate measures put into action, declaring that his country was full of French sympathizers (partly true) who obstructed the business, though cost was probably a big factor. Who seriously thought Napoleon would threaten Europe again? When that appeared to be the case again, however, after Napoleon landed on French soil on 1 March 1815, King William handed over supreme command of the Dutch-Belgian forces to Wellington on 3 May, on the condition that the Prince of Orange — who was being passed over for this position — be given senior command of some force. No one foresaw the day when the Prince of Orange’s men might be the only thing standing between Napoleon’s own army and the hinge between the Allied forces (as was the case at Quatre Bras for a time on the 16th of June).
Thus Wellington was forced to give William command of the 1st Corps, a British-Dutch-Belgian force of about 31,500 men. In the days leading up to Napoleon crossing the Sambre, the Prince of Orange and his 1st Corps were stationed pretty far forward at Braine-le-Compte, though Wellington was constantly having to keep him in check. As Elizabeth Longford writes,
"The Duke was in constant terror of his impetuous young colleague beginning the war before the other Allies were ready."
The Duke wrote to William:
"I recommend you not to have your troops too far in advance. It is easy to move forward if necessary, but very difficult and disagreeable circumstanced as we are to fall back." (Wellington: Years of the Sword)
After William II, King of Holland, when Prince of Orange, by John Singleton Copley, 1813, Apsley House
It was the Prince of Orange who sent the first word of Napoleon’s crossing at Charleroi to Wellington on the 15th. On the morning of the 16th, Wellington personally reviewed and approved William’s positioning at Quatre Bras before heading over to check on Blücher at Ligny. The Prince of Orange’s corps was stationed to the centre-right at Quatre-Bras, and was closely supervised by Wellington; the Duke, however, could not — though he tried — to be everywhere at once, and when distracted on the left, the Prince of Orange was left to defend against a final heavy cavalry charge towards the main crossroads and foolishly had the men of the 69th deploy into line, instead of remaining square (the customary infantry defense against cavalry), hoping to increase fire and reduce the target for the vaulted French artillery. What ensued was a butchery and the 69th lost the only regimental colours ever to be captured in one of Wellington’s battles — much to the chagrin of Generals Halkett and Picton, who were gallingly below Young Frog. Wellington himself dismounted upon returning to this side of the field and personally rallied his old regiment, the 33rd, after they had simply scattered into a nearby wood. The French heavies managed to get to the crossroads, but only for a slight while before being repulsed. In the end, Orange’s foolishness did not spell disaster.
Well-meaning though William might have been, and critical as his appointment to senior command was in keeping the Dutch happy, the Prince of Orange was not the sort of general Wellington wished to place over an significant chunk of his motley army. His youth was not the only problem — Somerset was only 4 years older but he was the model of an ADC and officer in Wells’s eyes, perfectly obedient and level-headed and Wellington would probably have gladly substituted Silly Billy for Somerset if he could have.
If Slender Billy believed it was his corps which delivered the decisive blows at Waterloo, it was because it was placed as close under Wellington’s personal supervision as was tactfully possible, understandable after what Wells had seen of him at Quatre Bras. At Waterloo, the 1st Corps and some of Wellington’s carefully protected General Reserve formed Wellington’s centre-centre-right, in front of La Haye Sainte farm. When Wellington wasn’t exposing himself to the greatest of harm as he and Copenhagen charged to and fro atop the ridge of Mont St Jean to direct as much of the battle as he could himself, he was stationed here, under a tree, meaning Slender Billy would never be allowed too much room for independent action.
Nevertheless, Silly Billy made himself conspicuous during the battle for two instances: sending a Hanoverian battalion to its death in line, and getting himself wounded.
As a fortification dangerously close to Wellington’s centre, La Haye Sainte farm needed to be defended at all costs; some 400+ Hanoverian troops of the King’s German Legion had been stationed there since the start of the action, and by around 6 pm, they were running out of ammunition and things were looking grave indeed. The Prince of Orange sent Col. Ompteda and two battalions of the KGL down, in line — much to Ompteda’s objection since there were still French cavalry about from Ney’s furious charges up the Allied right. Ompteda was himself killed and one of the battalions was massacred.
Not long afterwards, the 40ish surviving KGL men from La Haye Sainte were forced to abandon the farm and the French were able to seriously bombard the Allied centre. This was the low point of the day, as far as Wellington was concerned, though it did bring some relief: Silly Billy was shot through the left shoulder and had to retire the field, his good friend and fellow upstart ADC Lord March putting him on his horse to carry him away.
The Lion’s Mound or Butte du Lion at Waterloo, December 2011
His final act at Waterloo — getting himself injured — left a greater lasting legacy than it probably merited. Far worthier men and officers perished on the fields of Waterloo, but it was the Prince of Orange who was honoured by the construction of the Lion’s Mound on the battlefield in 1820, all directed by his proud papa, William I of the Netherlands. It marks the spot where he was wounded, and the lion atop it is not, importantly, a British lion, but a Dutch lion of courage, as found on the Dutch royal coat of arms. Construction of the mound resulted in an alteration of the critical ridge of Mont St Jean that did not much please the Duke; “They have ruined my battlefield!” he was said to have remarked. While it does offer a tremendous view of the field, and serves as a good orientation point, I would have loved to see the ridge at its original height in order to better appreciate Wellington’s strategical placement of his troops on that decisive day.
The Prince of Orange, for all his military blunders, was no worse than some of the British cavalry commanders who were equally impetuous and rash and without the bonhomie and youthful cheerfulness of Slender Billy. He was a fabulous leader of men, very inspiring to the younger recruits of Wellington’s army, if he did need supervision when it came to directing them about. And any exasperation displayed at his misplaced gallantry should be read not as entirely his fault. I am rather fond of Silly Billy, as was Wellington, who consistently had nothing but the highest things to say about his character and delighted in his company during and after their campaigns together.