The Man who ate Napoleon’s Dinner: Letters and Reminiscences of a Waterloo Hero

An essay written by Andrew McKenzie in 2015 to mark the Bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo

“In our issue of today appears the first of a series of letters from the pen of a common soldier, still alive – a native of this neighbourhood, and who received a good and pious education – who saw service on many a bloody battle-field, and was one of those immortal veterans whose indomitable valour repulsed and routed the Old Guard the flower of the army of France – on ‘Bloody Waterloo’. They were written in his later years to gratify the dying wish of a fond mother. They are as creditable to his head as to his heart, and in style and composition, and the talents they display, would do no discredit to more than a mere amateur in literature. They are full, too, of interesting anecdotes and of facts which have never before been given to the public.” Thus begins an article published in 1862 in the Highland Sentinel.

Astonishingly Donald McKenzie’s exceptional correspondence appears to have been forgotten by historians since they were re-published in the Guelph Mercury in April 1892, in which the editor described him as a “man of no ordinary stamp of mind and with much literary ability.” In summary, “The observations are those of a true man, not only a brave soldier, but a very intelligent, thoughtful citizen of the world.” This assessment is by no means flattering. Sergeant Donald’s ability to convey the contrast of the pastoral idyll of his upbringing with the horrors of war at its very worst are deeply moving; while the impression we gain of his own engaging nature bring to mind the innocent and romantic heroes of Stendhal’s novels.

In this, the bicentenary year of the battle of Waterloo, the letters of Sergeant Donald (or Danie, as he was affectionately known) most certainly deserve to be revived, not only for celebrating, in the words he quotes, “genuine British valour crowned with resplendent triumph … in that never-to-be-forgotten fight”, but also for the humanity and compassion he so often displays to all those involved, his sympathy extending to not only the French but even the horses who suffered in the conflict.  

It was through research into our own ancestors that my brother, Kevin and I stumbled across Sergeant Donald and his remarkable account of one of the most momentous events in British history. Rarely do we hear the voice of the ordinary person, while in these letters – written in response to the request of a fond mother – we glimpse what this great battle must have really meant to a regular soldier. Early in his correspondence, he asks of his nephew if he will “oblige me very much by transcribing two copies of this letter and send one to my mother with my dutiful and affectionate acknowledgement of the debt which I owe her – the other copy you will be so kind as to send to your aunt Margaret, the early companion of my childhood and in early years my bed fellow, and at the present moment I cannot call to mind that we ever quarrelled. Our many morning walks about the burn and the brae, our meeting the sheep on their way home in the evening with the young lambs skipping and leaping on every dyke and hillock, our falling asleep in the garden while watching the bees, our simple attempt at platting crowns made of rushes, one for the King and another for the Queen, damning the burn to catch trout, over-flowing grandfather’s field and injuring his corn – those and many other of our innocent amusements are as fresh in my memory as the day they occurred, nor do I forget her agreeable surprise on the Sunday night that covered with snow a soldier asked her for one night’s lodging, her double quick retreat and in alarm said ‘Mother, it is a soldier.’ ‘Tell him to come in’ was the noble and generous reply, not knowing at the same moment that the suppliant was her own son just returned from Waterloo.”  As he wrote on another occasion, “There is nothing more pleasing in the sight of God than family harmony.”   

Owing to the fact that our own direct ancestor at the time of Waterloo, William McKenzie, came from within a few miles of Fort George, it seemed inevitable that members of his family would not only have pursued a career in the army during the Napoleonic campaigns but also may well have taken part in Waterloo itself. This indeed proved to be the case. William’s own nephew, for example, another William Mackenzie, was in the 78th (his Chief, Lord Seaforth’s) regiment. He fought at the Battle of Maida in Italy, then in Egypt, where he contracted ophthalmia and went blind in 1807, going to the Royal Chelsea Hospital. But it was one particular cousin, Sergeant Donald (or “Danie” McKenzie) who engaged our close attention owing to the fact that he had written an extensive series of letters about the campaign. Having researched our ancestors extensively, once we looked at the relevant parish records, it was not difficult to establish how Sergeant Donald fitted on to our family tree. Ours is a little known branch of the Mackenzies of Gairloch which had by 1700 established itself in the more gentle countryside east of Inverness and it was from our own ancestor, Donald McKenzie, a merchant and baillie of Inverness (the second son of Murdo, Bishop of  Moray and subsequently of Orkney), that we can also trace Sergeant Donald’s own descent.

In 1715 and then again between 1743 and 1748 we find this man’s son, yet another Donald, “in Culloden”, renting a small farm, Little Leanach, on President Forbes’s estate. This farm is close to where the Culloden Stone now is. We also know that Donald lent his horse to President Forbes, allowing the Government’s local man to escape from Culloden before the arrival of Prince Charles Edward Stuart and his Jacobite troops. Donald’s sympathy for the Hanoverian regime, or at least a desire to keep out of trouble, was typical of his family as a whole by this point in history. The Clan had previously suffered from rising in great strength in 1715 in the hope of restoring to the throne James Francis Edward Stuart, the legitimate hereditary heir of King James VII (II of England) – and to a lesser extent, again in 1719. Thus by the time of the ‘Forty Five Rebellion the majority of Mackenzie clansmen simply wanted to get on with their lives. Donald in Culloden’s grandson – yet another Donald – who is the subject of this article, was to experience this policy more than anyone.

The Battle of Culloden in 1746

No better example of this desire for reconciliation was the raising of Highland regiments by the chiefs of former Jacobite families at the end of the 18th century. In the last two decades political circumstances had conspired to allow an opportunity for the Scots to gain acceptance among their English counterparts. This was a consequence of the national effort required, first by the Wars against North America, then by the Seven Years’ War, but above all, by the role the British Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, adopted against France, which attracted the support of most of the Scottish gentry and magnates for the first time since the Union. It became a widespread practice for the Highland gentry to use their local influence and display their loyalty by raising regiments. Such was the Mackenzie Chief’s 78th Regiment, the Seaforth Highlanders. It is no surprise that many of Donald’s cousins can be found as recruits in the British army’s northernmost bastion at Fort George, just a few miles east of Culloden, having been brought up in such close proximity.

During the Jacobite rebellion of 1745-6 attitudes towards the Gaels had been at their most hostile, perceived as a bloodthirsty alien race under the sway of foreign powers, bent on the destruction of the British way of life. By the time of the Napoleonic Wars, however, the reputation of the Highlands had been dramatically transformed from rebel savage into the courageous and loyal hero defender of British interests.

Not being of the required age, Danie’s extreme youth had been a barrier to his efforts to enlist in the Army, but in 1814, at the age of 16, to his great delight, he finally succeeded. He wrote: “With open ranks, the major in command began his inspection on the right of the line, and those men deemed fit for service were ordered to the rear. With tremulous emotion I waited his approach. The next moment doubt gave place to resolution. I was rejected, disappointed, but not cast down. Permission being given to speak to the commanding officer I urged my claim, appealing to the Sergeant for the truth of my assertion. Still he hesitated between duty and a natural disposition to oblige, while some of the opposition of the 78 depot gathered round us, most of whom applauded my conduct; others tried in vain to persuade me against such a rash step, but I was obstinate. The Sergeant Major threatened disobedience.” Danie pleaded with him and “At last the Major said, ‘since you are so determined to go, you may go, and I hope that you will never have any reason to repent. If you do remember it is your own fault.'” As things transpired Danie did indeed have no reason to repent; nor do we as the inheritors of his moving account of the momentous events of 1815.  “On hearing these words, I felt as if a heavy load had been removed, I could breathe more freely, but I cannot in words express the joy I felt when the only object of my ambition was about to be realised.”

On hearing that his detachment was ordered to embark at ten o’clock the following morning and none permitted to leave the barracks “… for the first time during my short service, I felt the demon of rebellion at work, and he reasoned thus. ‘Why forbid the enjoyment of a few hours in the society of our friends on the last night that in all probability we may ever see them.”  He continues: “… roll call over, throwing on my great-coat, I made my way to the north corner of the barrack yard, where the wall, covered by a chevaux-de-frize, was about 4 feet high and from 1-14 feet in height from the outside. Getting over the iron rails was a moment’s work, and sitting down on the outer edge of the wall I intended to have dropt easily down and to fall on my feet on the road below, but in doing this the iron spikes caught hold of the lower part of the greatcoat, and I found myself suspended by both arms, with my back to the wall, like a spread eagle on a barn door. Fortunately, the greatcoat was unbuttoned, and in withdrawing my arms the one slipped before the other, which gave me an awkward whirl in the air and a clumsy fall on the ground beneath. In justice to myself, let me here place on record that, during the service of almost a quarter of a century, this was the first and last time that I broke out of my barracks. Experience taught me to find easier and more legitimate means, and the temptation was never so great but the grace of God and common sense overruled the evil practice. I soon gained my kind friends, who knew nothing of the difficulty that I had to contend with, in order to fulfil my promise. After spending a few pleasant hours together, we parted never to meet again, as had been predicted by more than one of the party.”

The veteran of Waterloo then proceeded to relate “an incident which would, in the hands of a novelist, savour of romance; yet, ludicrous as it may appear, it is nevertheless a positive fact. On returning home through East North Street, the night being calm and moon shining brightly … my ears caught the sound of heavy sobs proceeding from some person, apparently in great distress, on the opposite side of the street. Crossing over I found a female with her face buried in both her hands, weeping bitterly. ‘What ails you, young woman?’ I said; ‘can I in any way assist you?’ ‘Oh no,’ she answered, ‘I have been at an evening party, and as I did not, as I agreeable to promise, return at eleven o’clock, my aunt refuses to open the door.’ ‘But you cannot remain in the street all night,’ I said ‘is there not a window where I might assist you in forcing an entrance?’ ‘There is a window at the back of the house,’ she replied, ‘but it is too high, it is in the second floor.’ ‘Never mind,’ I said, ‘let us go round and examine it.'” To his dismay he found that the window was about two feet higher than his head, but “By bending down she placed her feet on my shoulder, and I gradually rose to the perpendicular, when she pushed up the lower sash, and with a faint ‘Good night,’ made one spring, which was immediately followed by a scream. The window sash had fallen when she was half in, and held her fast by the middle of her body, her head and shoulders on the inside. Jumping down on the ground I stood powerless. I had no means of further assistance, but was determined to go round to the street and rouse the neighbourhood, when I heard a light and heard the surly voice of the aunt, and by moonlight I could see the dark figure of the poor girl disappear, and the next moment the window slash fell with a vengeance, and I went my way. She told me her name, that she was a native of Forres, and had been two years in Aberdeen, which made me the more anxious to assist her. It was grey daylight when I reached the barracks, and my first care was to visit the chevaux-de-frize corner and relieve my greatcoat, which had been keeping watch all night. According to orders we embarked at ten o’clock a.m…. No sooner were the men on board than the vessel was towed out to sea, and by 12 o’clock the highest steeple in Aberdeen was seen from the ship like an hand-post on the distant horizon.”

When in September 1814 Donald sailed for Portsmouth and then on to Cork he could not have foreseen that Napoleon was about to unleash his forces and that the young Highlander was on his way to confronting Europe’s most formidable enemy on the battlefields of Quatre Bras and Waterloo.

Quatre Bras

The uniform jacket of a private soldier of a flank company of the Black Watch, circa 1815

For Danie and his regiment their Waterloo truly started on the 16th of June 1815 at Quatre Bras, two days before the famous battle was to take place. On the 15th, some of the officers and soldiers from the 42nd had been chosen to perform the Highland Fling at the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball in Brussels, whilst the rest of the regiments prepared themselves for battle. News then reached Wellington that Napoleon’s armies were marching through France. In the early hours of the 16th of June the 42nd left almost immediately with many of the officers still in their white dress knee-breeches to confront Napoleon, marching to the tune of Hieland Laddie. About 3 pm, after a gruelling journey in full marching order the 42nd arrived near to the French/Belgian border at Quatre Bras by the Charleroi Road and engaged in a 5 hour battle which was undoubtedly a factor in Wellington’s Army finally beating Napoleon.

Danie and the 42nd were posted on a reverse slope in a line above the road where they watched the rapid advance of the French, forming a defensive square in preparation for the engagement. His vivid description brings the colour of this action to life. He tells us how, warning his troops in the Black Watch of what the French troops under Ney could do, his commander, General Pack declared: ‘”‘But 42d, I know what you can do.’ He was scarcely done speaking when the bugler in front of him began to sound the alarm, but was cut short by a ball passing through his bugle and wrist. The skirmishers came in at full speed, closely followed by the cuirassiers, clad in steel, their bright steel jackets and drawn sabres gleaming in the sun. As the distance lessened, their rapid pace increased into a gallop. On they came in a solid mass, and made direct for the front face of the square and the colours. The regiment was thrown into square as the skirmishers came in. We stood as if rooted to the ground, and not a shot was fired until they were within a few yards, when the standing ranks poured a well directed fire among them, which left many a riderless horse. They were staggered for a moment but not daunted, and in vain stuck their heels in their horses’ flanks to force them over our bayonets, but the steady fire of the standing ranks baffled all their efforts. Every face of the little square was assailed in like manner, which broke their regular order, and the riderless horses added to the confusion.”

The significance of the 42nd’s stand in this battle was that they pinned down Marshal Ney and prevented him from going to Napoleon’s aid at Ligny which sealed Napoleon’s fate and stopped Marshal Ney’s men from wiping out Marshal Blucher’s Prussian army at Old Fortwartz, before the Prussian and British armies could merge together.

Many of the details in Donald’s letters may be checked against the documented evidence and found to be accurate, but perhaps of greater value to us today are his beautifully truthful and balanced reflections on his experience. He refers to the “brave but unfortunate Marshal Ney”, going on to describe the actions of the enemy with much respect: “This body of Lancers were very daring; they danced and pranced round and round us, and when repulsed at one face of the square they immediately attempted to break through another, but the steady fire of the standing ranks rapidly emptied their saddles, and they were drawn off at full speed.” His most striking remarks about his very first experiences of warfare are most noteworthy for their honesty:

“As I was reclining against a bank beside officers who carried the colours, a waggon full of wounded men passed down the road, leaving a track of blood behind. As the officers pointed this out to each other, I thought to myself, ‘This is a war in reality and no mistake.’ … I was not under fire, I only saw the effects of it; and callous must, indeed, be that man who can look on the mangled bodies of his fellow men with indifference. The sight overwhelmed me with doubts (or fear, if you prefer it), not of death, but doubtful of the result, and fearing lest my own condition might in a few hours be as helpless as that of the mutilated Dutchmen who had just passed me by.” Donald is thus an exemplar of the truism that the mark of genuine bravery is not a lack of fear, but on the contrary, perseverance in the face of real fear.

“The British soldier” he goes on, “is taught by his profession that death is preferable to dishonour. In addition to this, he is inspired by love of country, relations and friends, animated by the justice of his cause, proud of the land of freedom that gave him birth, always confident of victory, and, I may add, aspiring to fame and distinction. These affections, or even a few of them, combined, will throw every other consideration into the shade and he will face any danger and peril for the honour of his country.”              

The murderous nature of the fighting at Quatre Bras had been almost without precedent. Donald’s Regiment lost 298 men and never was a regiment more deserving of being singled out for praise than was the 42nd in Wellington’s report to Earl Bathurst on the 19th June 1815: ” I must particularly mention the 28th, 42nd, 79th, and 92nd regiments, and the battalion of Hanoverians. ” 

Donald’s evident compassion is then displayed through the words with which he describes the morning after the battle:

“On the morning of the 17th the sun rose behind floating banks of heavy clouds, as if unwilling to shine on the havoc beneath. I had an early stroll over the field, and found many French wounded still alive and loudly calling for water. One poor fellow I remember asked me to unbuckle his cuirass, pointing out where the iron shell gave him pain. After fixing him in an easy position, with his cuirass for a pillow, he implored the Holy Virgin to shower down her richest blessing on my head. How altered in appearance and different in reality was that fine plain, which the day before was covered with luxuriant corn, now trampled in the dust and saturated with human blood, while corpses of the dead lay strewed in every direction and imaginable position and might be compared to sheaves of corn behind a field of reapers.”


The Black Watch at Bay by WB Wollen

Two days after Quatre Bras, on the 18th of June, on the field of Waterloo, among those regiments one might have thought too broken at the previous battle to take part, was the 42nd, the Black Watch. They took up a position in the centre of the line of Allied battalion columns some distance to the north-east of the farm of La Haye Sainte. Wellington had the advantage that he chose the ground: a wide valley going east to west, the British lines to the north facing the French to the south: the supreme master of defensive tactics, the Duke had an expert eye for the ideal terrain. Significantly the British were behind a ridge allowing them protection. No longer as visible as it was since the ground has been disturbed by the construction of the forty metre high Lion Mound it has now been established that the ridge was much steeper than it now appears (in fact, when Wellington returned to Waterloo two years later, so disfigured was the site that he furiously exclaimed: “They have altered my field of battle!”)

Owing to the heavy rain of the previous night, which made the ground too soggy to allow the French to advance their formidable heavy artillery – the pride of the Grande Armée – it was not until early afternoon that Napoleon began his major thrust against Wellington’s left-centre. This was of major significance since the French Emperor was keen to engage before his opponents’ forces were reinforced by the imminent arrival of the Prussians. By 3 pm., however, the ground had dried out and the French were no longer disadvantaged. Napoleon had realised that he could not control the battle and take the centre without taking first La Haye Sainte. Yet at some time between 2 and 3pm he left the battlefield, most likely because he was taken ill. He was absent for nearly two hours, leaving command in the hands of  the unpredictable Marshall Ney. At 3.20 pm. 2,000 Frenchmen attacked the 400 riflemen in the farmhouse. They held out and around 4 pm. the French sounded the retreat.

During the assault on the farmhouse the French artillery pounded the British front lines. The French continued to attack the centre and right and Danie’s account refers to the incessant artillery fire. The 42nd faced a French force of 13,000 bayonets and some of the fiercest of the fighting. Although the Regiment was not as heavily engaged as at Quatre Bras, its 5 killed and 45 injured was a high enough total considering the casualties of the fighting two days before.

Sergeant Donald goes on to give a detailed description of the battle – the final long-awaited sighting of the Prussian troops, whom Donald at first supposed to be French; and the attack of the notoriously fearless Imperial Guard, who, surprised by the sudden appearance of 1,400 British infantrymen standing up at once from behind the ridge, did what they had never done before: they turned and ran. But this is all well-documented elsewhere. Once more it is Danie’s compassion for his fellow creatures that marks out his account of the final phases of the great conflict: “What a terrible scene was presented to our view! Thousands of men and horses were lying wounded, dead and dying, and in many places the plain was scarcely passable with their numerous bodies and the quantity of arms strewed in every direction, with fixed bayonets. As we had to clear every obstacle in our way, it was sometimes rather dangerous to leap over the poor horses. The sound of the human voice seemed to have aroused the last expiring energy of many of those dumb but noble animals, who were plunging and snorting in the death throes of their last mortal struggle.”

On a more amusing note, Donald recorded that on the evening after the Battle, he cooked and ate a ready plucked chicken which he found and which he was pretty sure had been intended as a meal for Napoleon. So, whilst the French Emperor was fleeing the battlefield, a family member was eating his dinner!

In the aftermath, his main frame of reference, as was so often the case, was his home:

“I cannot pass over an incident of kindhearted sympathy and disinterested friendship which occurred at this time. You must, I think, remember our Pipe Major, Sergeant Robertson, well known in 1812-13 to the guardians of the River Ness for his piscatory propensity. While employed as above, I saw the old man coming along the long pile of arms, inquiring which is No. 4 Company. On being told, ‘This is No. 4 Company,’ his next question was, ‘Does any of you ken if Danie Mackenzie is alive?’ ‘Yes,’ I answered, ‘Here he is.’ and I rose to meet him. He quickened his pace, and the next moment I was locked in his arms, and received an embrace I have never forgotten.”

It is also fascinating to see what part kinship in the form of the clan system played in relationships at this time. At one point Sergeant Donald mentions another Donald Mackenzie, a distant cousin from the same particular cadet branch of the Mackenzies. In fact, Lieutenant Donald also wrote his own account, entitled Merely a Memorandum. From Spain to Waterloo in Wellington’s Army. From this we learn that Lieutenant Donald was one of those officers who danced the Highland Fling at the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball in Brussels on the eve of Quatre Bras. Although it can be established that one has to go back six generations to Bishop Murdo’s father, John “the Fair” in the early 17th century, to find a common ancestor, the family ties were still evidently very strong. Sergeant Donald wrote of his encounter with his kinsman following the Battle in words that reflect his refreshingly optimistic philosophy: “In our pilgrimage through life we must expect to find our roses mingled with thorns; and fortunate is he whose path is regularly interspersed by both. Were it not for the storms and frosts of winter we would not appreciate the mild and genial warmth of summer. I have great reason to be thankful, for during my wanderings I have met with much kindness everywhere, at home and abroad, and here I cannot pass over one of many other acts of benevolence bestowed by Lieut. D. Mackenzie. Although belonging to a different company, his watchful eye was always directed to, and heart always open to promote my comfort and welfare; and in writing these recollections, I would not consider myself void of gratitude were [I] to neglect to make mention of his marked attention and generosity.

Lieut. Mackenzie and three other officers, one of whom you must have known (Ensign Cumming), after recruiting service at Inverness, formed a mess on this march, that is, they had their meals in common. Each day, during a midday halt, Mr. Mackenzie’s servant was seen conducting me to some green tree, where the four officers were assembled, and I had a share of whatever their canteens or haversacks could furnish, and from the zeal and activity of the servants they were seldom or never empty.” In total there were 60 Mackenzies who received the Waterloo medal, including 11 in the 42nd Regiment and Donald’s account sheds interesting light on how ties of kinship were still important to the Clan in the early 19th century.  

The Waterloo Medal

What is above all so moving in reading Donald’s letters was the way in which his descriptions of these momentous occurrences are pervaded with personal details and constant references to home, which so charmingly convey how extraordinary were the events that transported this innocent and unworldly family-man – still, indeed, no more than a boy – on to the world stage. To the editor of the Highland Sentinel Sergeant Donald was a hero and, although our values have altered much over the last 150 years, for his innocent charm and above all for his tangibly genuine compassion, Donald McKenzie should still be regarded as a hero for us today.