William Cross – Waterloo veteran?

David McGill

In August 1876 several UK newspapers including Jacksons Oxford Journal and Trumans Exeter Flying Post carried a brief story about the death of William Cross, a resident of Hook Norton. Virtually all the newspapers had the same text which may have been a result of the founding of the Press Association in 1868.

William Cross was said to have served with the 43rd Foot in America in 1814, travelled across the Atlantic to Spain and went through that campaign under the command of Sir William Napier. Following the conclusion of the Peninsular Wars he marched with his regiment to Waterloo. The article said that he “distinguished himself by taking Bonaparte’s carriage.” Subsequently he entered Paris with the Army and was an eye witness to Marshal Ney’s execution.

He was discharged from service when peace was proclaimed, but it was not until within a few years of his death that he finally applied for a pension which was awarded in the sum of 1s 3d per day. To us this does not seem a great amount but the equivalent sum today is roughly £27.80 using average earnings. The newspaper reports concluded by saying that he was buried in Hook Norton Churchyard on 12 August.

It sounds as if he had an interesting life whilst in His Majesty’s Service. However, were the newspapers’ reports true or was there an element of journalistic licence?

According to the Chelsea Pensioners Records held in the National Archives and available through the Find my Past website William did serve with the 43rd Foot reaching the rank of corporal. He enlisted on 24 March 1814 for unlimited service and was discharged on 24 May 1817. His record said that he served in Spain, France and America but this entry was subsequently altered to show service in New Orleans and France after Waterloo. William had never been wounded.

As he joined the 43rd in March 1814, William may well have fought at the Battle of Toulouse which took place the following month. According to a history of the regiment Wellington entered Toulouse in triumph on 12 April. After six weeks the army marched to Bordeaux and sailed for Plymouth arriving there on 23 July. The regiment had a rest of three months and then sailed for America where part of the 43rd took part in the attack on New Orleans on 5 January 1815. The regiment suffered great losses in this defeat. It must be noted that this battle took place after the peace treaty had been signed. The remaining troops of the 43rd sailed for England on 8 April.

A short break in England followed before they embarked yet again, this time for Ostend on 16 June, reaching Ghent on the 19th, the day after the Battle of Waterloo. Were the 43rd involved in the capture of Bonaparte’s carriage? If various contemporary reports are to be believed then the answer is no! It was some soldiers from the Prussian Army under their immediate commander Major von Keller who had this honour. The carriage ended up on display in London.

Following the victory at Waterloo the 43rd remained on the continent and at Christmas 1815 marched from Melun, on the outskirts of Paris, into the city itself. The “obituary” for William said that he had been an eye witness to Ney’s execution. Ney had been arrested in early August and tried for treason on 4 December. Condemned on 6 December he was executed by firing squad on the following day. According to a history of the 43rd it would seem that on this date they were still outside Paris so the fact that William Cross was a witness may be conjecture.

William was discharged from the army on 24 May 1817 having served for 3 years, 62 days. Although born in Sandford he settled in Hook Norton, when exactly is unknown. He is listed on the Census’ from 1841 to 1871 as an agricultural labourer. He married twice, first to Ann who died in late 1852/early 1853 and secondly to Elizabeth Townley, that marriage taking place in 1857.

At the age of 79 he applied for a pension in respect of his military service over 50 years earlier. Due to his advancing years he was almost blind and unable to work. He had no means of support and was dependent on parish relief. It was noted that his wife was sick in bed. The authorities were satisfied with his identity, his name was on the Waterloo Prize Rolls, but he had not been awarded the campaign medal. A medical report said that he was suffering from chronic bronchitis and that he had been unable to work for about two years and thus would not be able to earn a living. His plight was brought to the attention of the authorities by the village rector, Rev John R Rushton. The application confirmed that he had been born in Sandford in 1794, stood 5’4” with grey hair, hazel eyes and a fresh complexion.

Did the “obituary” in the newspapers accurately reflect William’s army career? A history of the regiment and other sources may not agree with what the Fourth Estate published. However, an old man who was proud enough not to claim a pension until close to his death may say a bit about the spirit of those who served their country in the early years of the 19th Century. Without concrete proof who are we to argue?