Magdalene Hall De Lancey (1793 – 1822)
Magdalene Hall De Lancey, an East Lothian lass, found herself on the field of Waterloo in tragic circumstances. Her account of her experiences throws light on the reality underlying that battle, of which even the victorious commander Wellington stated
Believe me, nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.
Magdelene, born 22nd March 1793, was a remarkable daughter of a remarkable man, Sir James Hall of Dunglass. Sir James (1761 – 1832) was a well-travelled and significant figure of the Scottish Enlightenment, a geologist, inventor, politician, and President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Her brother, Basil Hall, was also a noted traveller and author. He rose to the rank of post-captain in the Royal Navy and, while a lieutenant on a ship sent to Portugal at the time of the battle of Corunna, he met and became friendly with Magdalene’s future husband William Howe De Lancey, then serving in the army with with Sir John Moore. Subsequently, during 1814, William De Lancey renewed his acquaintance with the Halls after he was posted to Edinburgh. Romance blossomed between the dashing colonel and Magdalene and they were (very rapidly for the period) married on 4th April 1814.
Magdalene’s new husband was by that stage one of the British Army’s rising stars. He had shown great bravery during the battles and campaigns across Portugal and Spain and had risen rapidly through the Quartermaster General’s Department after early regimental service. At the end of the war he was knighted. When Napoleon escaped from Elba and the prospect of war loomed again, he was recalled to the colours on the express request of the Duke of Wellingon. Appointed as Quartermaster to the army assembling in Belgium, De Lancey held a pivotal position in the mobilisation. William found himself responsible for every military need of an army of 68,000 men – from billets and bullets through fodder and food to weapons and wagons. Despite this burden the De Lanceys’ were able to continue their honeymoon in Brussels (arriving 8th June 1815) where Magdalene remarked
fortunately, my husband had scarcely any business to do, and he only went to the office for an hour a day,
which observation causes some consternation amongst commenters on Magdalene’s published account. However, the newlyweds’ situation was transformed on the evening of Thursday 15th June. From her window Magdalene watched a sudden stir and flurry of riders; within hours her husband had arrived to arrange her relocation to Antwerp (for safety) while he headed out to oversee the dispatch of the entire army into the field. At Antwerp Magdalene reported the waves of rumours that swept the military wives and lines-of-communication troops with mounting concern for the safety of her own husband. Her worst fears were realized when, after hearing of the fighting, reports of casualties began to come through. De Lancey was reported safe, then dead, then alive but wounded. The last was true.
De Lancey was seldom far from Wellington’s side from the moment he left his wife. On the day of Waterloo he was riding close to Wellington when a ricocheting cannonball took him in the back, knocking him some yards from his horse. He was seen to leap up, then collapse. When assistance reached him he requested to be left to die in peace – and subsequently even Wellington thought he had. In fact, he was carried from the field and deposited in a house in the nearby village. It was there that Magdalene eventually found him, immobile and in pain but given a possible chance of recovery. However, although the cannonball had failed to break his skin there was massive, unseen internal damage. Magdalene nursed him for the next six days, seeing to his every need through rallies and relapses until the inevitable end. William was buried firstly at St Josse Ten Noode and removed to Everre Cemetery in 1889. He is recorded on a memorial tablet in the former Collegiate Church of Dunglass.
Magdalene outlived her first husband by only seven years. In that time she married again (and had children) but she also produced an account of her last days with William. It circulated at first as hand-written copies which were praised by all (including Dickens and Walter Scott) who read it. As a remarkably composed account of the run-up to and aftermath of the battle, from a non-military viewpoint, it has been widely cited by other writers. It was eventually published, first in an abridged form and then in full with an explanatory preface in 1906. Digital copies can be viewed by following the links at the top and bottom of this page.