One might think, from the title, that A Week at Waterloo in 1815 is an old soldier’s memoir of a glorious battle. But the lengthy subtitle, “Lady De Lancey’s Narrative: Being an Account of How She Nursed Her Husband, Colonel Sir William Howe De Lancey, Quartermaster-General of the Army, Mortally Wounded in the Great Battle,” is the first clue that this is no ordinary military tale. Lady De Lancey’s narrative is, instead, a heart-wrenching account of a young bride who tended to her husband in his last agonizing days.
Magdalene Hall De Lancey (1793-1822), daughter of the noted Scottish geologist Sir James Hall of Dunglass, married Sir William Howe De Lancey (1778-1815) in April 1815. De Lancey was a descendant of the prominent De Lancey (or Delancey) family of New York City (Delancey Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan was named after them). Sir William’s branch of the family were Loyalists during the American Revolution, and fled to England when the British lost the war in 1783. Sir William joined the British Army as a teenager in 1792, and, shortly after his marriage to Magdalene, began serving under the Duke of Wellington in the last Napoleonic War.
As was the custom in those days, Magdalene accompanied her new husband when he was posted to Brussels for the Belgian campaign, in June 1815. Their first days there were surprisingly peaceful and happy. It soon became clear, however, that the French would attack Brussels, so Magdalene moved to Antwerp while Sir William went off to battle. He wrote her on June 16, assuring her that he was safe.
It was the last letter she would receive from him. On June 18, 1815, in the first hours of the Battle of Waterloo, a cannonball struck Sir William in the back, sending him flying off his horse. Wellington himself saw Sir William fall, and rushed to his side. Believing that the wound was fatal, Sir William begged to be left to die on the field of battle, and asked Wellington to give his wife a last message. He was moved to a cottage, where, believed to be dead, he was left untended for a day and a half.
Meanwhile, the day after the battle, Magdalene was told that her husband had “died like a soldier.” Overcome by grief, she locked herself in her room:
I locked the outer door, and shut the inner one, so that no one could again intrude. They sent Emma [her maid] to entreat I would be bled; but I was not reasonable enough for that, and would not comply. I wandered about the room incessantly, beseeching for mercy, though I felt that now, even Heaven could not be merciful.
But Heaven was, for a time, merciful. The following day, Magdalene received the news that her husband was, in fact, alive, though badly wounded; a fellow officer had found him in the cottage and had gotten a surgeon to treat him. Magdalene made ready to go to her husband immediately. She was in a state of terror as she waited for her carriage:
I would not if I could, describe the state I was in for two hours more; then I lost all self-command. . . . My agitation and anxiety increased. I had the dreadful idea haunting me that I should arrive perhaps half an hour too late. This got the better of me, and I paced backward and forward in the parlour very fast, and my breathing was like screaming.
The horrors of the battle were brought home to her as her carriage approached Waterloo. “The horses screamed at the smell of corruption, which in many places was offensive,” she wrote. But she rejoiced to find her husband alive. His first stoic words to her were, “Come, Magdalene, this is a sad business, is it not?”
For the next six days, Magdalene nursed her husband in what was essentially a hovel with few supplies or conveniences. At first, he seemed to improve somewhat, but he was soon coughing up blood. His breathing became labored, and he developed severe chest pain and a fever. And no wonder: the cannonball had smashed eight of his ribs, and his lungs were punctured. The only medical treatment he received, typical of the day, was to be bled repeatedly — a fine treatment indeed for one who was bleeding internally!
On the night of the fifth day, Sir William, unable to sleep, asked Magdalene to lie down with him in his tiny sickbed against the wall:
He said if I could lie down beside him it would cut off five or six hours. I said it was impossible, for I was afraid to hurt him, there was so little room. His mind seemed quite bent upon it. Therefore I stood upon a chair and stepped over him, for he could not move an inch, and he lay at the outer edge. He was delighted; and it shortened the night indeed, for we both fell asleep.
The next day his lungs filled with water, and Magdalene knew the end was near:
I sat down by my husband and took his hand; he said he wished I would not look so unhappy. I wept; and he spoke to me with so much affection. He repeated every endearing expression. He bade me kiss him. He called me his dear wife. . . . [H]e looked up at me and said, “Magdalene, my love, the spirits.” I stooped down close to him and held the bottle of lavender to him: I also sprinkled some near him. He looked pleased. He gave a little gulp, as if something was in his throat. The doctor said, “Ah, poor De Lancey! He is gone.” I pressed my lips to his, and left the room.
Sir William was buried two days later near Brussels. Magdalene made a final visit to his grave on July 4. Her narrative concludes: “At eleven o’clock that same day, I set out for England. That day, three months before, I was married.”
After her return to England, Magdalene wrote A Week at Waterloo in 1815 at her brother’s request. It was privately circulated among family and friends. Magdalene remarried, but died in 1822, at the age of 29, giving birth to her third child. A Week at Waterloo in 1815 was published for the first time in 1906, and became a part of the Project Gutenberg library in 2010.
Magdalene De Lancey’s simple, unaffected style has an impact that no florid emotional verbiage could match. An introduction and notes in the published edition give historical context to the narrative, but her story transcends mere historical fact. It is a story of love and loss, ineffably human, and unforgettable.