Wednesday 27 December 2017

La Belle Alliance

It being Christmas, I've not had time for painting, so I've been researching La Belle Alliance.  This article doesn't yet include the model, which is under construction, but sets out my research.  My plan is to show the inn, the annex to its rear and Decoster's house.  I will show the Emperor and his staff, the service squadrons of the Guard Cavalry, the Emperor's carriage, and the Old Guard.  The area covers the following:

The inconsequential drawing shown above would never attract attention, were it not by J M W Turner.  It shows the inn of La Belle Alliance  and was one of a series of sketches by the great artist made during a visit to Waterloo not long after the battle.

Of course, there are two other reasons why this humble building has found its place in history: it served as Napoleon's advance headquarters (Rossomme and Le Caillou being the other locations).

It was also, most famously, the scene of Wellington and Blucher's rendezvous at the end of the battle.  

The most famous rendition of this meeting was by Daniel Maclise who was commissioned by Prince Albert to produce the piece for the new British Parliament after the fire of 1834.  After extensively researching the subject, including consulting eye-witnesses, Maclise produced a full scale drawing (or “cartoon”) dividing it into ten panels which allowed him to work on it in his London studio.

The cartoon was exhibited a year later at the Royal Gallery and then at the Royal Academy (the ten panels having been reunited to appear as a single work). It was met with considerable acclaim by his contemporaries, and praised not only for its powerful composition but also for its almost obsessive attention to detail (although he made the usual Victorian mistake of showing uniforms of a later period). The whole scene extends over a width of nearly 14 metres and more than three metres in height. The lower three-quarters of the composition are occupied by a total of nearly a hundred men and about twenty horses, densely represented in a very foreshortened space. The final work, shown here, is much smaller, but proved to be technically challenging.

It is 2100hrs on the evening of 18 June, 1815. In the centre of the composition, the Duke of Wellington is shaking hands with Marshal Blücher directly in front of the sign on the inn, appropriately-named “à la Belle Alliance”. Wellington is mounted on Copenhagen, and immediately beside him to the right are Lord Arthur Hill (said to be the fattest man in the British Army, but looking trim in this picture!), General Somerset and the Hon Henry Percy (the aide-de-camp who would deliver Wellington’s victory message to London), together with various Life Guards and Royal Horse Guards. Blücher is accompanied by Gneisenau, Nostitz, Bülow, and Ziethen. The scene is dominated by the dead and wounded, men and horses from all regiments, emphasizing the tragedy of war rather than glorifying it.

One of the most notable features of the work is the central position of the words “Belle Alliance” (Maclise deleted the word "Hotel" which was present in reality on the sign on the north wall). There had been debate in Britain concerning the veracity of the meeting between the two generals, Wellington famously doubting that it had occurred.

The choice of subject for Maclise's painting reflected Prince Albert’s (and Victoria’s) desire to cement the marriage of their daughter to the Prussian crown prince, a beautiful union, so the parents hoped). This underlining of a Prussian-British alliance also took place in the context of mistrust of Napoleon III and his action in Italy.

It wasn't just the British Royal family who favoured the name.  On 22nd October 1815, Rondel Platz in Berlin  was renamed Belle-Alliance-Platz, Prussia's preferred name for the battle, a choice vigorously rejected by Wellington who preferred to play down the role of his allies.

Belle Alliance Platz, Berlin

But while “La Belle Alliance” became a metaphor for the successful partnership of Wellington and Blücher, in fact, there is some doubt about where Wellington and Blucher really met. While Nostitz was sure the meeting took place at the inn, Sir William Gomm (who was a staff officer with the 5th Division) felt otherwise:

"The meeting certainly did not take place at La Belle Alliance, but at a place so near it that the Prussians were justified in slightly extending the application of so appropriate a name. "The point of meeting", says Sir William, "was at or near to a small farmhouse or cabaret called 'Maison Rouge', on the roadside between 'La Belle Alliance' and Rossomme, a more considerable farmhouse and the furthest point on the road to which the Duke advanced. He was returning from it when the meeting took place". 

The Duke himself said that "When all was over, Blücher and I met at "La Maison Rouge". The distance from La Maison Rouge to La Belle Alliance was inconsiderable, and the Duke was returning towards La Belle Alliance when he met Blücher on the road.

Yet whatever the truth of the story regarding their meeting, the name of the inn was established well before 1815.

The inn is named on Ferrari's map as 'Cabaret La Belle Alliance.'  The site is first mentioned in 1697 when Pierre Doudelet, being short of money, sold three pieces of land to the seigneur of Plancenoit, one on the site of Remeval and two between the Brussels road and the village of Plancenoit. The new owner was Jacques Pastur, also known as General Jaco who fought Marlborough at the First Battle of Waterloo. He died in 1723. After that, his son, André Pastur, inherited the area. His wife sold it on 6th March 1761 to Antoine Joseph Art and his wife Marie Noëlle Gouttier. In 1764 the site was sold to Albert Joseph Monnoye.

At the end of 1763 Albert Monnoie decided to live in Plancenoit where he owned some land.  In 1764, Monnoie (who Walter Scott described as ‘old and ugly’) married  a woman called Barbe Marie Tordeur, an apparently beautiful young girl.  When Monnoie died just a year later she remarried in 1766, choosing a farmer from Plancenoit; he then died in 1770, whereupon she promptly married the farmhand, Jean Jacques Delbauche. It seems that the original marriage to the pretty peasant girl, or perhaps the regularity of marriage, raised some mirth within Plancenoit.  Delighted by this third marriage and undaunted by the gossip, she named the inn in honour of the union.  They had four children. Barbe died in 1778. 

Albert Monnoie built the house. Delbauche built a separate barn and a stable to the east, as well as a bakery on the south side.  In 1773 Delbauche built an inn in Plancenoit, but this enterprise wasn’t very successful - he got into debt and was obliged to sell La Belle Alliance in 1783 to Jean Maréchal.   Maréchal maintained the farm and the inn; he traded horses and transported sand, which was needed for the maintainance of the road to Brussels.

In June 1794 La Belle Alliance witnessed the march of  French forces on their way to secure their victory over the Dutch-Austrian army at Mont St Jean, following their victory at the Battle of Fleurus. The young Brigadier General Soult served in this army, returning 21 years later as Chief of Staff.

La Belle Alliance was sold to Antoine Delpierre in 1807. His son, Nicolas Antoine Delpierre (a brewer from Plancenoit), bought the building in 1813. He, in his turn, rented the building to Jean Joseph Dedave; Dedave used La Belle Alliance as an inn and farmed the land attached to it.

After the battle of Waterloo, La Belle Alliance served as an inn for the numerous tourists who came to visit the field of battle.  Many commented on the unusual name and clearly disapproved that the owner had married her servant: Sergeant Major Cotton, who had fought at the battle and made a career as a battlefield guide, felt the name came from a marriage of 'low company'.  Addison described a scoundrel from Plancenoit who married 'a woman of low character'.  Colonel Von Reiche was more charitable and felt the name was derived from the very happy marriage of the owner.

The inn was one of the sites at Waterloo to which visitors were inevitably drawn.  Paintings in the aftermath of the 1815 battle show the roof-tiles dotted with artillery shot, with the barn behind depicted as a wreck. There followed months of intense tourism to the ‘Hotel’ La Belle Alliance, and suspicion that the inn was serving meat sliced from the victims of Waterloo.  On his trip to Waterloo, the Revd E Stanley wrote in 1816 to his niece, Lucy Stanley, as follows:

"From Hougoumont we walked to La Belle Alliance, crossing the neutral ground between the armies; a few days ago a couple of gold watches had been found, and I daresay many a similar treasure yet remains. At La Belle Alliance, a squalid farm house, we rested to take some refreshment. For a few biscuits and a bottle of common wine the woman asked us five francs, which being paid. I followed her into the house; not perceiving me at the door, she met her husband, and bursting into a loud laugh, with a fly-up of arms and legs (for nothing in this country is done without gesticulation), she exclaimed, "Only think! ces gens-là m'ont donné cinq francs." In this miserable pot-house did the possessor find 280 wounded wretched jammed together and weltering in blood when he returned on Monday morning. We sat upon a bench where Lord Wellington and Blücher perhaps met, and drank to their healths in Vin de Bordeaux. In spite of the corn, there are still bits of leather caps and bullets and bones scattered about in the fields, and you are pestered with children innumerable with relics of all sorts."

In November 1815 La Belle Alliance was sold to a Scotsman, Richard Ramsay who had been living in Brussels for some years. He died in 1816 but left seven children and so the inn was sold two years later to Jean Ignace Gambier and his wife, Jeanne Marie Vandenbrande. Though they were the owners,  Jean Joseph Dedave and his wife, Félécité Sergent, continued to live there.   When her husband died, Félécité Sergent remarried  Jean Philippe Leclerc in 1830. Going bankrupt, they sold the inn to Jean Baptiste Cornet and his wife, Marie Cathérine Cheruwier.

The building ceased to be an inn, and became a farm only. Cornet kept the farm for 45 years. In 1876 he sold La Belle Alliance to Emile Henne and Désirée Nicaise, both farmers at Plancenoit. They in their turn sold La Belle Alliance in 1906 to the family Scoup-Debout, farmers at Heffelingen.

Before describing the building in detail, it's worth putting the inn in its proper context at the apex of the French position, situated as it was with the best possible view of the British position and rearwards over Napoleon's right shoulder to Planchenoit.  Of course, I say best possible view but in truth La Belle Alliance underlined the shrewd nature of Wellington's dispositions: Hougoumont cannot be seen from the inn and neither, obviously, can the reverse slope of the Mont St Jean position, where Wellington had situated the bulk of his troops.

These pictures below show La Belle Alliance from a distance and demonstrate the open, rolling nature of the terrain and the dominant tall crops planted across the battlefield.

This distant view shows the north end of La Belle Alliance with the burnt barn to the left (east) and Decoster's house to the  rear right (south-west).  

The road outwards to La Belle Alliance by Dennis Dighton

The view eastwards, again by Dighton

Numerous illustrations enable us to reconstruct how La Belle Alliance must have looked in June 1815. One of the sources available is the deed of sale dated 1805 which describes the building as:

A main building and adjoining stables on the Brussels road to Charleroi. Built in brick and covered with tiles, the main building contains four rooms on the ground floor, a vestibule, two cellars, an attic; the same with a barn adjoining it built in stone, part in bricks with a thatched roof; having crossed the courtyard there is a well, a barn and a stable built in bricks, with a thatch roof, two pig pens and a shed."

Taking all details together one could describe La Belle Alliance in June 1815 as follows: the north side of the main building was without windows. It had a sign stating in black: La Belle Alliance.  On the south side of the main building was a bakery with a lean-to roof and a chimney.

The roof of the main building was covered with red, round tiles and two stone chimneys. The front had a door just off centre; on top of it was a small window. There were two windows on each side of the door. All these windows were divided into two parts: a larger lower part and a smaller higher part. Only the lower parts could be covered with shutters.

On the left side was a smaller bricked up door, with a curved top.  On top of this door was a small rectangular opening in the wall.

The Denis Dighton sketch - the best evidence for what the inn looked like in 1815.  You can just make out the sign "Hotel La Belle Alliance' on the north end.

The fully worked up picture by the same artist

I know of only one rough sketch of the rear (east) side of the building:

In 1815 there was a well in rear of the main building. It consisted of a square brick basis with a wooden frame on top of it. It was covered by a slate roof in the form of a pyramid. 

Many pictures show an annex to the rear of the main building. It contained a barn, a shed and some pigsties. The northern end was lower than the southern end.   The annex had a door and two windows on each side of the door  The annex was covered with a thatched roof which burnt during the battle.

The well and the annex are clearly shown in this picture and many of those below.

Victorian photographs of La Belle Alliance show the addition of a barn to the north of the inn, built by Jean Baptiste Cornet. In 1942 it burnt down, but was rebuilt after the war. The layout of the windows in the main building has also been changed since Dennis Dighton's pictures.

Paving of the route running beside the farm from Mont St Jean to Charleroi started in 1680 and took over 30 years to complete. The paving was some two to three meters wide, flanked by paths taking the total width to five to six metres. During the Allied retreat from Quatre Bras on the 17th June 1815  the dust from coal carts drawn from Charleroi to Brussels blackened both the mud and many a soldier along the route.

A good view of the paved road with poplar trees
At some point the poplars were removed.

No article on La Belle Alliance would be complete without a description of the neighbouring building, Decoster's house, situated further south on the ground on the opposite side of the road.

Jean Baptiste Decoster

The farmer, Decoster, is shown with the Emperor and his staff with La Belle Alliance to the rear. Decoster's house was to the south on the other side of the road. This Victorian rendition mistakenly shows the barn which was added to the north end of the inn long after Waterloo.

Decoster's house