Waterloo, Walloon Brabant, Belgium
Usually most of the articles I write are set in the historical framework of the Spanish Netherlands, i.e. between 1556 and 1714.
Outside these dates, the Spanish presence in the Netherlands is very small, and not even a genetic trace was left that even today would allow Spain to be associated with these lands.
However, the fact that this presence was scarce does not mean that it was non-existent. Spain maintained its global influence for many years yet, retaining territories around the world and participating in many of the conflicts between the European powers.
Thus, in many episodes in which one might initially think that our people did not participate, it is possible to find that «small» Spanish representation that in one way or another took part in the construction of the modern and contemporary world.
There were Spaniards in Russia fighting with the Germans in World War II (Blue Division), but there were also Spaniards with the Allies fighting against the Third Reich, and the participation of «la nueve» (a company formed by Republican exiles) in the liberation of Paris in 1944 is widely known. There was also a Spaniard in the Normandy, Manuel Otero, a Galician who went into exile from Spain and enlisted in the US army.
Perhaps none of them fought out of a desire to serve their country, but they certainly fought to serve their ideas or for other reasons. Certainly, none of them were forced by anyone to be there, and yet they were there. And the same can be applied in other fields, and not exclusively in the military or war fields, where the Spanish presence seems to abound.
Almost a century before the World Wars, Europe was also ravaged by war. But this time it was Napoleonic France that was putting the old European regimes in check, which were already predicting their downfall in the face of the ideas born or derived from the recent French Revolution.
However, this end was slow in coming, and in some modern-day nations such as the United Kingdom, the monarchy still forms the basis of their states. In the case of the UK, much of the responsibility lies with the British victory over Napoleon, specifically at Waterloo in 1815.
And at Waterloo, although there are few records, there were also Spaniards.
Most people will probably have heard this name; many will associate it with the famous song by the Swedish band ABBA, but many others will no doubt link it to the battle that took place on 18 June 1815 near the Belgian town of Waterloo.
Briefly, it can be summarised as the definitive battle in which the Anglo-Allied troops (British, Prussians, Dutch, German states…) commanded by the Duke of Wellington overcame the Napoleonic troops, causing the fall of the French Empire and the forced exile of Napoleon to the island of St. Helena, where he would spend the rest of his days.
Much has been written and much more could be written about this battle. But that is not what this article is about, however interesting it may be to know how the French and the English beat the heck out of each other, causing more than 40,000 deaths and putting an end to Napoleon’s expansionist madness. It is not about the English or the French, but about a Spaniard, a Basque to be precise: Miguel Ricardo de Álava.
Before discussing the interesting life of this character, it is important to note that there were most likely more Spaniards there that day, and that many probably died there. Many Spanish soldiers had fought with the French in Russia and Denmark, so there can be no objection to the possibility that they also took sides at Waterloo. In 1808 a Spanish expeditionary division under the command of the Marquis de la Romana moved to Denmark to fight alongside the French. When Spain declared war on Napoleon, many Spaniards deserted and others were forced to march far away to fight in Russia. Although many were taken prisoner by the Russians, the Tsar treated them as allies and even formed the Imperial Alexander Regiment with Spanish volunteers.
However, if the figure of Miguel de Álava has stood out above the rest, it is because of his closeness to the Duke of Wellington.
De Álava, born precisely in that Basque city (Álava), is the only «known» Spaniard who took part in both the Battle of Trafalgar (under the orders of Admiral Gravina) and the Battle of Waterloo. In other words, in two of the main and few defeats suffered by Napoleon’s France.
Knowing this and coinciding with the 203rd anniversary of the battle (which took place on 18 June 1815), I decide to visit the battle scene, which also includes a live historical re-enactment of this event.
After taking the train from Brussels, the nearest station is Braine l’Alleud. It is about a 25-minute walk to the historic site of the battle.
It is curious that, although the battle did not take place at Waterloo but in a nearby town, Wellington gave it this name because he was in the habit of naming battles after the place where he had slept the night before, in this case Waterloo.
Somewhat away from the built-up areas, you can visit the statue commemorating the battle, consisting of a cast-iron lion resting its paw on a globe, which is associated with the peace and tranquillity that Europe achieved after Napoleon’s shocks.
The sculpture is located on top of a 40-metre high artificial hill, which can be reached after climbing 226 steps and from which the fields where the two armies fought are overlooked. On the 200th anniversary of the battle, a grand re-enactment of the event took place, with hundreds of actors. The one I will see today, however, is much more modest and takes place behind a small nearby forest. Adjacent to the forest is Hougoumont, a former inn where fighting also took place.
On this occasion, the historical re-enactment was not very impressive. The lack of volunteers resulted in the participation of small units and small formations, the costumes were not very accurate and the cannons did not always work as expected. However, the explosions, fumes and screams do give a very real approximation of the horror that must have been experienced in this battle in which so many men died.
Many people, especially families, come to see the spectacle. It is worth it, as it reproduces what was experienced in the Belgian countryside and helps to keep European history and awareness alive. Knowing where you come from is always important. People have a good time watching the re-enactment and even make jokes when a cannon misfires or gets stuck, causing a noise that reminds me of balloons deflating. In any case, the work of the participants in the re-enactment is very commendable.
After the end of the show it was possible to take photos with the soldiers, as well as to visit a small camp that simulated the conditions in which the British lived alongside their Prussian and Dutch allies.
Indeed, according to some historians, Miguel de Álava was the «only soldier loved and esteemed by Wellington, to the point of lodging him in his own house». Moreover, De Álava was one of the few «privileged ones» who shared a table with the Duke of Wellington the night after the victory. I cannot confirm this, but there are historians who even claim that he was the only one who ate with him that night. Perhaps a visit to the inn where they dined would have clarified this for me, but unfortunately I do not have time to visit it on this occasion (it is in the centre of Waterloo).
But who was exactly this Spaniard who, despite not being of capital importance in the battle, was at the heart of many of the events that shook Europe in those decades? I have not been able to delve deeply enough into his figure, but what is clear is that the life of Miguel Ricardo de Álava was anything but boring.
Born into a noble family, he inherited his uncle’s vocation for the Navy, which he served in America and Europe. After the beginning of the French invasion, he seemed to side with the French, and was even a member of the Junta that approved the Bayonne Constitution (although he claimed that he was a military man and not a politician in order not to sign it). However, Álava soon left his post in Vitoria to join the patriot side in Madrid, taking part in various actions against the French (anecdotally, it should be noted that in Dueñas the French blew off his testicles, something that Wellington sometimes referred to in his letters, and which perhaps explains his perseverance in fighting Napoleon).
After a snack, I visit the 1815 Memorial. Located just below the Lion’s Hill, it provides an interactive tour that helps you understand what the battle was really like and I found it very interesting. Also, as it is the anniversary of the battle, there is a festive atmosphere, with many local and foreign tourists coming to see the events and visit the memorial.
I see nothing linked to Spain, except for a few panels in the museum recalling the leaders of the European nations of the time. Among them, there is one of Ferdinand VII and in the annotations it is specified in small print that the first defeat of a Napoleonic army was at Bailén.
To a certain extent, the memorial keeps a historical neutrality without taking sides. However, there is a certain nostalgia for the Napoleonic armies, partly justified by the French-speaking character of this part of southern Belgium.
We have already explained (in general terms) who Miguel de Álava was and where he came from. The question now arises as to why he was the only Spaniard (known, we recall) to be present at Waterloo.
In 1815 De Álava was Spain’s «ambassador» in Brussels and, at Wellington’s request, he joined (unofficially) the Duke’s General Staff.
But the friendship between both men (apparently they shared many tastes and hobbies) was forged years earlier, during the British campaign on the peninsula, in the context of the «War of Independence» or «French War». As I mentioned earlier, De Álava had gone to Madrid to fight the French. Once there, he was assigned as a liaison to Portugal to help Wellington’s troops. Due to his skill in the missions entrusted to him, he soon won the sympathy of the British general, and was even placed in command of the troops that took Ciudad Rodrigo. His work as an interpreter was also very important, as Wellington had serious problems getting along with the Spanish military juntas. These vicissitudes helped forge a close bond between the two men.
It is very interesting to read the dispatch issued by De Alava to the Spanish Government after the victory (see the following link http://www.batalladetrafalgar.com/2013/04/miguel-ricardo-de-alava-y-nicolas-de.html).
The dispatch is interesting not only for its description of the battle (which we will not go into in this article), but also for the final reference to another Spaniard who was apparently also at Waterloo, Nicolás Minussir. De Álava refers to Minussir as a captain in Doyle’s Regiment of Sharpshooters, and adds that he «behaved with the greatest valour and bizarreness» and that the Crown should certainly give him «a proof of satisfaction».
However, I have not been able to find much more information about this Spaniard or others who were part of this decisive victory that saved Europe from Napoleon’s ambitions.
And what happened to de Álava after the battle? It is easy to imagine, from the life he led, that de Álava’s ideology was not absolutist. His liberalism caused him numerous conflicts with the regime of Ferdinand VII. With the favour of the English, he managed to become ambassador to both Paris and London. He even became president of the Council of Ministers. However, these moments were mixed with others of exile in London and even arrests in Madrid.
In 1843, he returned to Spain from the London embassy. Very ill, he died shortly after his return.
It was a great surprise to learn about these two Spaniards, who were totally unknown to me before visiting Waterloo. It is «a shame» that there is still a lack of knowledge in Spain about so many people who, like Miguel de Álava, left their health and even their lives in lands so far from their own.
I hope that articles like this one will serve as a first approach to this figure for any Spaniard who, moved by the curiosity of history, might one day visit the fields of Waterloo.
Although there is no reference to De Álava in the 1815 Memorial, I will settle for the idea that some of the officers depicted in the museum alongside Wellington is Miguel de Álava, and that Spain was in some way defending Europe at Waterloo that day.
- Personal visit on 24 June 2018
Guillermo Vergara Pérez- Villalobos
Brussels, 2nd July 2018