Surprised by War

Dancing and travel: two of the joys of the Regency. My picture of that elegant period of history is full of flowing dresses and swiftly-moving carriages.

But the balls and the journeys didn’t always end as planned, and on two memorable occasions the frivolity of the English was brought to a shocking halt not by a lame horse or a torn hem, but by the intrusion of soldiers, terror, and war.

Storm in the Strait of Dover by Louis Meyer (public domain)

 

The Breaking of the Peace of Amiens

In 1802, there was a halt to the hostilities between France and England and as a result thousands of British visitors poured into Paris. Englishmen of means had always been fond of visiting the continent, but war had stopped them from indulging in this fondness for some time. When the Peace of Amiens was signed, many of then crossed the Channel to see the sights.

In fact, a gentleman named Edmund John Eyre went over to France and wrote an account of his journey, hoping to sell it as a guidebook to other English travelers. (You can read an electronic copy here.) Alas, he was not to make much money on his endeavor, because in May of 1803, just a little over a year after peace was declared, war broke out again between the two countries.

The problem for our British travelers? When war recommenced, the French declared that all male British citizens between the ages of 18 and 60 currently in France were to be arrested. Many English tourists were trapped on the wrong side of the Channel, most of them unable to return home to England for over a decade. They went to France to see the sights, but they ended up seeing the entire war – from the wrong side.

 

The Duchess of Richmond's Ball, by Robert Hillingford (PD-Art|PD-old-100)

The Duchess of Richmond’s Ball

At the other end of that long decade of war came another surprise for some pleasure-seeking English ladies and gentlemen. Once again, those who thought that the war was over were in for a shock.

In Brussels, in 1815, Lady Richmond was holding a ball attended by Wellington and many of his soldiers. There was dancing and drinking, but in the middle of the party Wellington received a message, a confirmed report that Napoleon had escaped and was coming to meet them with an entire army marching at his heels.

The people dancing at the ball didn’t know it, but they were scarce days away from one of the most famous military encounters of all time: the Battle of Waterloo. Some men even went directly from the ball to the battle at Quatre Bras still wearing their evening dress.

It’s hard to picture this happening today, with the nearly instant communication offered to us by telephones and the email. But back then, news traveled only as fast as a boat might sail or a horse might ride. In an instant, a holiday might become an exile, and a dance might become a war.

Jessica Snell 

Comments are closed.