Designated collection: Wellington's campaign map from the Battle of Waterloo

Richard Dunn and Rebecca Nash interviewed by Richard Moss | 05 October 2009
photo of a map mounted on a wall

(Above) Wellington's Waterloo Map on display at the Royal Engineers Museum

Head Curator Rebecca Nash and Director Richard Dunn of the Royal Engineers Museum talk about a prized item in their Designated collection; the map used by Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo.

Rebecca Nash
“The story goes that at Quatre Bras, the day before Waterloo, Wellington turns to his staff officers and says: “I need a map, get me a map of the area".

“So this young staff officer goes galloping off to Brussels and you get this sense of him bursting in breathless to the Royal Engineers depot where he meets a Major Oldfield of the Corps who doesn’t have a map of Quatre Bras but has several maps of nearby. So they hastily paste them all together and the young staff officer goes galloping back to Wellington.

“Unfortunately on his way back he runs into a bit of trouble with some French cavalry, loses his horse and knocks himself out. As he stirs and wakes up he realises his horse has disappeared but he soon finds it chomping on carrots in a field half a mile away with all the plans and maps still on it. He grabs the reins, jumps back in the saddle and heads back to Wellington.”

photo of display cases with missiles and a mannequin with a red dress uniform

The map is part of the Napoleonic displays at the Museum.

Richard Dunn
“What’s also interesting is the very fact that Wellington is asking to have a landscape surveyed. He was a great user of landscape tactically in battle. He consistently fought defensive actions in which he goes to the reverse slopes of hills to hide his army and then feeds bits of it up to the opposition.

“If the line broke and it all fell apart he knew the landscape to regroup and start all over again.”

Rebecca
“You get a great sense of him seeing the map and marking out the terrain – it’s prime Wellington terrain. It’s exactly what he looked for in Spain and Portugal – you can see a reverse slope to hide the majority of the army away from French Artillery fire."

Richard
“Military mapping was becoming very scientific. Rather than using contours and shading to indicate where hills are they had developed a system whereby particular densities and natures of cross hatching indicated gradient and things like this.

“They could satisfactorily survey using separate pieces, separate surveyors and bring it all together and join it up with a pretty good connection."

a close up of the map

Detail of cross hatching around La Hay Saint

Rebecca
“Traditionally battles are either fought either on the edge of maps or in the crease in between the maps. Here the battle is on the edge and you can see clearly La Hay Saint and Châteaux Goumont, which is Hugemont and the ridge running around there.

“Importantly for the British it’s also got the main route back to Brussels on it – so this is the route the main armies were heading down.

“It’s thought that these are pencil marks from Wellington himself – even marking where the British are supposed to line up and the Prussian entrance onto the field.

“The map was actually carried on the battlefield by William De Lancey – but he was wounded by cannon shot and fell from his horse. De Lancey was left for dead for 30 hours and despite being taken to a farmhouse and nursed by his wife, who rushed down from Brussels, he died from his wounds five days later.

“After the battle Lieutenant Colonel (later General) Oldfield, the Royal Engineers officer who originally issued the map, found it and gave it to his commanding officer, Carmichael Smyth, who kept it in his family until 1912 when it was given to the Institution of Royal Engineers. That’s how it is here today.”

designation logo with photo of a woman looking at displays

The collection of the Royal Engineers Museum is a Designated collection

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