As we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo, much of the focus inevitably centres on the duke of Wellington’s achievements as a military commander and saviour of the nation. His other extraordinary career, as a highly accomplished politician, party leader and prime minister, seems almost too much to take in, especially given that as a Tory premier he succeeding in passing a number of key liberal reforms, including the repeal of the Test Acts (1828) and Catholic emancipation (1829). Polymath, on this occasion, doesn’t quite seem to cover it.
As a ‘military politician’, however, Wellington was by no means alone. Many of those who fought alongside him at Waterloo also went on to pursue successful (though less spectacular) political careers, most notably in the Commons. Horace Seymour, aided by his unenviable reputation for having slain more Frenchmen than anyone else during the battle, clocked up almost a quarter of a century as an MP, sitting for a variety of English and Irish constituencies until his death in 1851. Veterans like William Browne MP, severely wounded in a Waterloo infantry charge, Lord Fitzroy Somerset MP, who had his arm hacked off, and Frederick Ponsonby, who was ‘pierced by lance and sabre, ridden over by Prussian cavalry and left for dead on the field, where he was twice plundered’, became a familiar sight in late Hanoverian and early Victorian elections.
On the hustings military credentials could even count for more than party allegiance, enabling veterans to make broad based appeals and even attract cross-party support. The independently-minded veteran Thomas Davies MP, for instance, refused ‘to act on the principle of party’ during his 21 year career representing Worcester, claiming to have kept himself ‘entirely free from every government’. The 1820s and 1830s witnessed the largest influx of MPs bearing Waterloo medals, but a surprising number also served well into the Victorian era. Henry Wyndham MP, celebrated for his daring but unsuccessful attempt to capture Napoleon’s brother Jerome during the battle, represented Cockermouth from 1852-60. Lord Hotham, who had first entered the Commons in 1820, was still in place in 1868.
In total almost fifty Waterloo veterans eventually made their way into the Commons, creating a cohort of army officer MPs whose political influence and ability to capitalise on their military experience has yet to be fully explored. (For related work on the ‘politics of patriotism’ see in particular J. Parry’s study below.) Distributed across both sides of the House, but also containing a striking number who refused to declare any party allegiance, these veterans undoubtedly helped to sustain cultures of backbench independence at a time of growing partisanship and government control. Along with the great commander himself, they serve as an important reminder of the enduring role of ‘military politicians’ well into the era of modern British politics
Parry, The Politics of Patriotism: English Liberalism, National Identity and Europe, 1830-86 (2006)