No battle honour inscribed upon the Regimental Colours of the British Army has been harder fought or better deserved than ‘Waterloo’, in the course of which The 71st Highlanders lost 16 officers, 11 sergeants and 187 other rank and file.
The 71st and 74th Highlanders (later amalgamated to form The Highland Light Infantry) had fought with Wellington throughout the Peninsula campaign and, between them, they fought in all the battles and thus The Highland Light Infantry have all the battle honours on their Colours. The 74th Highlanders missed Waterloo, as they were despatched to garrison duty in Ireland. The Royal Scots Fusiliers also missed Waterloo, as following the defeat of Napoleon, the Regiment was despatched to curb expansionist ambition of the United States, which tried to annex Canada during the war of 1812 (1812-15).
Much has been written recently about Waterloo and I do not intend to add to the prose, particularly as a detailed account of the participation of the 71st Highlanders in the battle can be seen in the article in Our Story: participation that culminated in the honour of firing the last shot!
However, perhaps one of the most interesting aspects that may not be explored in depth is the issue of medals – something that we take for granted nowadays. But things were very different in the early nineteenth century.
The Army Gold Medal (1808-1814), also known as the Peninsula Gold Medal, with an accompanying Gold Cross, was awarded in recognition of field and general officers’ successful commands in contemporary campaigns, predominantly the Peninsula War. However, this was not a general medal, as it was only issued to those whose rank was no less that that of Battalion Commander i.e. Lieutenant Colonel.
The 5th Duke of Richmond, who had fought at Waterloo, campaigned in Parliament and enlisted the aid of Queen Victoria, to persuade a reluctant Duke of Wellington that junior and non-commissioned officers and private soldiers also deserved recognition for their participation in the wars. The Military General Service Medal (MGSM, 1793-1814) was finally approved in 1847, some 32 years after Waterloo, for issue to officers and men of the British Army.
A point to note is that the medal was only awarded to surviving claimants; one had both to have survived until 1847 and then to actively apply for it. A combination of factors, from general illiteracy to limited publicity for the new medal meant that many did not. There are substantially fewer medals issued compared with the number of men who served during this period.
The medal was awarded only to surviving claimants; next of kin could not apply for a medal on behalf of a deceased relative. However, the medal was awarded to next of kin of those claimants who had died between the date of their application and the date of presentation.
There were some 25,650 applications in total.
For each battle, there was a clasp or bar, so the medal ribbons could be very long indeed, if the individual had served in several. The qualifying battles were: Egypt, Maida, Roleia, Vimiera, Sahaagun, Benevente, Sahagun & Benevente, Corunna, Martinique, Talavera, Guadaloupe, Busaco, Barrosa, Fuentes D’Onor, Albuhera, Java, Ciudad Rodrigo, Badajoz, Salamanca, Fort Detroit, Chateauguay, Chrysler’s Farm, Vittoria, Pyranees, St Sebastien, Nivelle, Nive, Orthes & Toulouse, so 29 authorised clasps – but not for Waterloo, because the qualifying period was 1793-1814!
It was announced in the London Gazette on 23 April 1816 that The Waterloo Medal was conferred upon every officer, non-commissioned officer and soldier of the British Army (including member of the King’s German Legion) who took part in one or more of the following battles: Ligny, Quatre Bras and Waterloo.
The medal was issued in 1816-17 and the soldier, known as a “Waterloo Man” was credited with two years extra service and pay – a total of 39,000 medals were awarded. This was the first medal issued by the British Government to all soldiers present at an action and the first campaign medal awarded to next-of-kin of men killed in action. It was also the first medal to have the recipient’s name impressed around the edge by machine.
So it is not really very surprising that the veterans of the Peninsula and other conflicts were a bit cheesed off about the medal being awarded to those at Waterloo -many of whom were raw recruits and had not participated in any other battle – when they had little to show for their loyal service around the world! Which, of course, explains the eventual issue of the MGSM!
Oh, to be fair, the veterans had had some recognition before 1847: thirteen votes of thanks in Parliament!