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Plains of Waterloo

[ Roud 1922 ; Laws J3 ; G/D 1:152 ; Ballad Index LJ03 ; Bodleian Roud 1922 ; trad.]

Gordon Hall of Horsham, Sussex, sang The Plains of Waterloo on his 2001 CD on the Country Branch label, Good Things Enough. Roy Palmer commented in the album’s songs notes:

The battle of Waterloo (18 June 1815) gave rise to several ballads, of which this starts the narrative two days earlier. It has been attributed to James Robertson, a bugler in the 92nd Regiment (later known as the Gordon Highlanders), to a Sergeant Grant of the same regiment, and to two anonymous soldiers of the Highland Brigade. It was printed on broadsides and in chapbooks, and enjoyed a long life in oral tradition on both sides of the Atlantic. Almost a century after the battle Greig and Duncan found a dozen versions in Aberdeenshire alone.

Some explanatory notes are needed:

Quatre-Bras (verse 2):
Belgian hamlet where a preliminary battle took place on June 16
Victoria, Salamanca, Toulouse, Burgos (verse 4):
respectively, the battles of 1813, 1812 and 1814 (all won by Wellington’s forces), and the siege of 1812 (unsuccessful, which gave rise to the song, Jamie Foyers)
Prince Jerome (verse 10):
Napoleon’s brother
Marshal Ney (verse 12):
leading commander who transferred his allegiance from Napoleon to Louis XVIII during the Hundred Days, then fought for Napoleon on his return and was shot for treason for doing so after the defeat at Waterloo
Casualties (verse 13):
for once, a ballad does not exaggerate—some 50,000 men were killed or wounded at Waterloo, divided more or less equally between the French and the Allies

Steve Turner sang this Plains of Waterloo on his 2015 Tradition Bearers album Spirit of the Game. He noted:

Christie, in his footnotes to this song in his collection Traditional Ballad Airs, says that it was written by Sergeant Grant of the 92nd Regt Gordon Highlanders immediately after Waterloo. But having spent quite a few years dipping in the two volumes and learning several songs from it a the same time I have concluded that his writing and research tends to be a little romanticised regarding publishing his sources.

The Plains of Waterloo is a generic title used by at least ten different songs, several of which are broken token ballads, at least three of which are, unusually, from Canada. This differs, however, being exceptional in its length and in that it reports the battle in fairly accurate detail and does seem to be of Scottish origin. I have to admit to having known of this song for many years but never had the courage to sing it until this year, when it became part of my Waterloo anniversary concert. I decided that having looked at in on paper, and despite the length, the quality of the words and tune prevailed and made the decision to record it for me.

Matt Quinn learned The Plain of Waterloo from the singing of Gordon Hall and recorded it for his 2017 CD The Brighton Line. He commented:

I really enjoy Gordon’s peculiar singing style and his epic ballads, this one being a highlight. A song like no other and detailed beyond belief, a lot of research (on Gordon’s part) obviously went into concocting this ballad. Well done that man!


Steve Turner sings Plains of Waterloo

It was on the 16th day of June in Flanders where we lay,
Our bugles their alarm did sound before the break of day;
We British, Belgians, Brunswickers and Hanoverians too,
All Brussels left that morning for the plains near Waterloo.
By forced march we did advance till three in the afternoon,
Our British heart with ardour burnt to pull the tyrant down.
Near Quatre Bras we met the French, their shape to us seemed new,
For in steel armour they were clad on the plains near Waterloo.

Napoleon to his men did day, before the fight began,
“My heroes, if the lose this day, our nation is undone;
The Prussians we’ve already beat and we’ll bang the British too,
And display victorious eagles on the plains of Waterloo.”
Our immortal hero, Wellington, no speech to us did make,
We were Peninsula heroes that had often made them shake
At Victoria, Salamanca and Toulouse and Burgos too;
They saw their former conquerors on the plains near Waterloo.

But in bright array Britannia stood and viewed her sons that day;
And to her much loved heroes came, and thus to them did say,
“If you the wreath of laurel twist from yon usurper’s brow,
To ages all you shall be called brave sons of Waterloo.
The bloody battle then began and the cannon loud did roar,
But being short of cavalry, they pressed on us full sore.
Three British cheers we gave to them with volleys not a few,
Which made them wish themselves in France and far from Waterloo.

For full four hours and longer we sustained the bloody fray,
Then during a long weary night all our arms we lay.
The orders of our general then next day we did pursue
And retired in files for full six miles to the plains of Waterloo.
This day, both armies kept their ground and not one shot was fired,
The French did boast of victory because we had retired.
This noble act of generalship them from their strongholds drew
Then we had a share of fighting fair on the plains of Waterloo.

On the 18th in the morning both armies did advance.
On this side stood brave Albion’s sons, on that the pride of France.
With the fate of Europe in our hands each man his sabre drew
And death or victory was the word on the plains of Waterloo.
Then to the right they did advance, Prince Jerome led the van,
With imperial guard and cuirassiers that though none could them stand.
But British steel soon made them yield though our numbers were but few;
We prisoners made, but more lay dead and the rest like lightning flew.

Then to our left they bent their course in disappointed rage;
The Belgian line fought for a time but could not stand their charge.
Till Caledon took up her drone and loud her chanter blew,
Playing Marshall Ney, a new strathspey to the tune of Waterloo.
The tune was scarcely half played up till the French had danced their fill
And thousands of their warriors all upon the field lay still;
Some thousands prisoners there we made, with imperial eagles too,
Thus British valour was displayed on the plains of Waterloo.

The bloody battle raged on till the setting of the sun,
The French then in disorder flew and owned that the field was won.
Napoleon bold like Cope of old straight back to Paris flew
There to relate his own defeat on the plains of Waterloo.
Success to our Prince Regent and long may he as govern,
And to the Duke of Wellington that noble son of Erin.
Two years they’ve added to our time for pay and pension too
And now we are recorded as men of Waterloo.