Waterloo: How you can help the National Army Museum reveal the untold stories

By Jon Bauckham, 11 September 2015 - 1:21pm

Dr Matthew Thomas reveals how family historians can help make fascinating records from the Battle of Waterloo more accessible thanks to an innovative new project

Gareth Malone WDYTYA

Soldiers from the British Coldstream Guards are seen repelling a French attack in this depiction of the Battle of Waterloo by Denis Dighton (Image: National Army Museum)

The National Army Museum is calling on family history enthusiasts to help digitise an archive of over 400 Waterloo-themed letters, official documents and soldier journals. Interested parties can sign up through the new crowdsourcing platform Heritage Helpers.

Commemorating the 200-year anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, the documents within the archive reveal the real-life stories of those fighting in the battle and also how their efforts were remembered years on by the families of those who served – and the nation as a whole.

The story of the Leeke family – told in the collection – is a perfect example of this. It is recounted through three letters to William Leeke from his son, Henry, congratulating his war hero father on the 58th, 59th and 60th anniversaries of the Battle of Waterloo, remembering the action he experienced with a seemingly boundless sense of pride and respect.

Henry’s father, William Leeke (born 1797) had joined the British Army aged 18 and carried the Regimental Colour during the Battle of Waterloo.

Having told his son about the battle, Henry’s three letters show the significant respect and pride he carried for him as well as the British Army. Henry writes: “a regiment never surpassed in arms since arms were first borne by men” and “you defended the honour and glory of your country, by showing the French what Englishmen were really made of”.

William Leeke left the army in 1828 and later joined the Church of England priesthood. In the final letter his son, who obviously looked up to him, wrote:

“The Country is only part beginning to recover from the loss of such an invaluable officer from her army, for this man is remarkable alike for his learning and piety...”

Leeke letter 1919

First World War soldier B Wyatt Bagshawe wrote to the descendants of William Leeke, whose actions at Waterloo were still being praised a century later. Click here to see the full first page (Image: National Army Museum)

Admiration of William Leeke extended way past the family itself, to unrelated soldiers who remembered his actions when reflecting on their own service during the First World War.

For example, in 1919, B Wyatt Bagshawe of the 25th Ordnance Mobile Workshop (Light) sent home a Union Jack flag that had travelled across France during battle. In his letter accompanying the flag (above) Bagshawe reveals he was reading the terms of the Armistice when he realised that victory in this battle was as important to his generation as victory at the Battle of Waterloo had been over 100 years before.

For this reason, he asked for the flag to be given over to William Leeke’s descendants, so that both wars could always be remembered and connected.

The 100-year story of the Leekes is just one of many family history tales waiting to be discovered by volunteers, with the aim to publish them on the National Army Museum’s Online Collection here.

The project is part of the National Army Museum's Waterloo Lives programme, which commemorates the 200-year anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. It's supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund - as is the wider Building for the Future initiative that will culminate in the reopening of the museum in 2016.

There are still thousands of letters from the Napoleonic Wars that need to be transcribed and tagged – and the Museum needs help from the public to do it.

You can hunt down new Waterloo stories by signing up to the project at heritagehelpers.co.uk, helping generations to uncover history about this famous battle.

Dr Matthew Thomas is Curator of Archives and Photographs at the National Army Museum
 

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