Sunday, October 17, 2010

Colonel Ponsonby's Waterloo ordeal

Sunday, October 17, 2010
Loretta reports:

Some years ago, in Miss Wonderful, I had a hero suffering from what’s now called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  This was a result of my sticking him in the middle of the Battle of Waterloo and subjecting him to something very like the ordeal that Colonel Frederick Cavendish Ponsonby, against all odds, survived.

Since, over the years, Colonel Ponsonby turned up more than once in my reading, I can’t say exactly when or in what book he first caught my attention.  In Richard Rush’s A Residence at the Court of London,  a gentleman “tall but limping” is identified thusly:   "Colonel Ponsonby; he was left for dead at Waterloo; the cavalry it was thought had trampled upon him.”  Elizabeth Longford’s Wellington: The Years of the Sword,  summed up in a few unforgettable lines what Ponsonby endured: “Frederick Ponsonby, desperately wounded first by French sabres and then by Polish lances, ridden over and tossed by the Prussians, robbed, used as a musket-rest by a tirailleur and as a place to die on by a mortally wounded soldier, but later found alive by a British infantryman who mounted guard over him till morning...”

I added a bit of another officer's experience to my hero’s, and made up my own account of how he survived injuries that should have killed him several times over (no antibiotics!!!—he'd been stabbed all over the place, & the doctors treated him by bleeding him some more!!!)—but the great kernel of truth is there, and the credit belongs to Colonel Ponsonby (later a General and Sir Frederick), one tough gentleman. 

Ye of the Nerdy History persuasion can easily imagine how thrilled I was recently to find, not a summary of his experience in a book by or about someone else, but his very own account—all thanks to the magic of Google books— in Ackermann’s Repository of arts, literature, fashions of 1817.     You can read the whole story here.

I think the just-the-facts, ma'am approach makes it all the more poignant, and conveys in a powerful way the experience of being in the middle of that battle.  What with the rumors flying about who was winning, who was losing, who was dead, who wasn’t, I wondered all the more how anybody knew what the devil was going on anywhere.


Heather Carroll said...

Googlebooks, bless 'em. They are the gift that keeps on giving! I admit I only know about the Colonel's childhood due to my interest in his mother and family, so this is all quite interesting!

Michael Robinson said...

His son, H. Frederic Ponsonby, was the well known secretary of Queen Victoria (Ponsonby, Frederick. Recollections of Three Reigns.1952) and Harriet Russell, a modern lineal descendant, continued the family habit of addressing letters
in pictures:
It's a really fun book ...

Jane O said...

Aside from being a fascinating article in itself, I'm intrigued to see it in a women's periodical along with the fashion plates. It does suggest that the women of 1817 were far more interesting and aware than we sometimes assume.

Monica Burns said...

Talk about surviving unbeatable odds!! The man had to have been part Irish!! Yikes. This one line really clutched at my heart.

"Tu n'es pas mort, coquin" and stuck his lance through my back. My head dropped, the blood gushed into my mouth, a difficulty of breathing came on, and I thought it was all over.

Talk about COLD! I translated the French (You're not dead,____), but I didn't recognize coquin. When I looked it up it says naughty. I'm thinking it must have meant something else back thing. A disparaging name. Great article though.

Lexi Best said...

I find myself thinking about the Prussians riding through. He says he was "tumbled about". Imagine that multiplied by all the bodies, alive, dying and dead on the field. It must have been horrific.
You read so often about the cries of the wounded on the field of battle calling out for help. I think it must be the loneliest and most terrifying place on earth.

Bearded Lady said...

I am just so impressed you don't get all your military weapons confused. I would be arming the British with Polish lances if I tried such a thing.

SusannahC said...

Wow! Amazing that he survived all that, isn't it? Not to mention the bleeding. Thanks for sharing his story.

nightsmusic said...

What a stark, matter of fact rendition of one of the most horrific battlefield experiences I've read. If you really put it into context for it's time, it's a wonder he wasn't flayed at some point as well!

That line that Monica quoted is the one the really got to me too.

And I found coquin to mean 'rascal' so again, in context of the time...yeah...probably a whole lot worse than that! ;)

nightsmusic said...

As a side note and totally unrelated to this post...

Did you know that today was the surrender at Yorktown?

Hopelessly trapped, Virginia, British General Lord Cornwallis surrendered 8,000 British soldiers and seamen to a larger Franco-American force, effectively bringing an end to the American Revolution.

Audra said...

Another fabulous post -- I never thought I wanted to know so much about Waterloo! :)

Jolene said...

Because I'm mad for genealogies and aristocratic relationships, can you confirm if I am correct that this same intrepid Colonel Ponsonby is brother to Caroline Ponsonby Lamb, of Byronic fame?

Michael Robinson said...

Major General The Honourable Sir Frederick Cavendish Ponsonby (as he became), b 1783, was the second son of Frederick Ponsonby, 3rd Earl of Bessborough and Lady Heniretta Spencer; Lady Caroline, b. 1785, was the only daughter and third child, of four, of the marriage. In June of 1805 Lady Caroline Ponsonby married the Hon William Lamb, she died in 1828, prior to his succession as 2nd. Viscount Melbourne.

['Colonel Ponsonby' as often refers to the General's son, Colonel Sir Henry Frederick Ponsonby GCB (10 December 1825–21 November 1895), the Private Secretary to Queen Victoria]

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