A local man, Levi Grisdale, played an important role in the Battle of Waterloo 200 years ago.
Two hundred years ago, on June 18 1815, near the village of Waterloo in present-day Belgium, two great armies faced each other in battle. Over nine frantic hours, 180,000 men, crammed into 2.5 square miles of countryside, tore into each other in brutal fashion.
Some of the historians among you may know that the tipping point of the Battle of Waterloo was the arrival of the Prussians, under Blucher, who were allies of the British commanded by the Duke of Wellington. The fighting had been going on all day and could have gone either way, in fact, the Duke later remarked it was “the nearest run thing you saw in your life.” Late in the day on being told the Prussians were approaching, Wellington asked for an experienced trooper to be sent to meet the Prussians on the road and bring them on to the field of battle at precisely the key place. Sergeant Grisdale, battle-hardened after over 30 engagements with the enemy in 12 years with the cavalry was the man selected to perform this duty, which he did assiduously, and that is surely his place in history.
The full story of how Levi Grisdale came to be at Waterloo and what happened afterwards is related here by Penrith historian David Fallowfield.
As is only right, Penrith has honoured a son of the town, namely, Trooper William PEARSON of the 4th Light Dragoons who was involved in the “Charge of the Light Brigade” at Balaclava in 1854 during the Crimean War. Pearson Court is named for him and his birthplace in King Street bears a plaque. A hero of history no doubt. However, there is another local man, also a cavalryman, who should be better known and who was of equal heroic character. This man’s name was Levi GRISDALE, and a chance reading of a somewhat worn, old headstone in Penrith Cemetery led to some research on Grisdale.
It was early in 2006 on a walk around Penrith Cemetery that I suddenly saw the word “Imperial” on an old gravestone. On closer examination I saw that it was a memorial to an old soldier called Levi Grisdale. I later returned to photograph the headstone and started to research his interesting life story.
Levi Grisdale, the son of Solomon and Mary Grisdale, was born at Greystoke Parish in 1783.
The Grisdales were an old Cumberland yeoman family from Matterdale. They were obviously a family who liked biblical names for the children. Some reports say that Solomon named his 12 sons after the 12 tribes of Israel, however, only 8 brothers and 2 sisters have been identified, but many did have names from the Bible, such as Reuben, Benjamin, Joseph, Mary, Jonathan. Levi was destined to serve in the cavalry and on 26th May 1803 he enlisted in London in the 10th Light Dragoons (later renamed as Hussars).
He left Portsmouth with his regiment in October 1808 for the Spanish/Portuguese Peninsular. The Peninsular War against Napoleon’s Armies lasted from 1808 to 1814. The regiment passed through Corunna, Spain and joined General Sir John Moore, who had taken command in the absence of the Duke of Wellington who was back in England temporarily, this was at Zamora on 9th December.
Incidentally, Sir John Moore had only weeks to live as he was hit by a cannon ball at the Battle of Corunna on 16th January 1809. Since leaving England Levi Grisdale had been promoted to Corporal having been a Private for 5 years 183 days. Only days after getting to the front Levi was involved in the Battle of Sahagun on 20th December where it is said he acted as “coverer” for the regiment Cornet (i.e. 2nd Lieutenant) Earl Fitz-Clarence. The term “coverer” meant he was a body-guard close by the Officer in case any enemy got through.
It is worth mentioning here that the 10th Hussars had strong Royal credentials. Earl Fitz-Clarence was George Augustus Frederick Fitz-Clarence the illegitimate son of the Duke of Clarence (later William IV), 3rd son of George III, and his uncle (later George IV) the Prince of Wales was Colonel in Chief of the regiment. Trooper Grisdale is said to have been slightly wounded in the left ankle by a musket ball during the battle. It cannot have been much because just after Christmas 1808 he was in action again during the Battle of Benevente and this is worth recounting in some detail.
On the morning of 29th December, 1808 a detachment of the Chasseurs-a-Cheval of the Imperial Guard, numbering about 550, and led by General Lefebvre crossed the River Esla at Benevente in Spain. General Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes was one of Napoleon’s most loyal officers and regarded as a highly skilled horseman and gifted commander. Some sources rate him in the top four of French generals during the Napoleonic period. Born in 1773, he originally enlisted in December 1789 but twice his bourgeois parents purchased his release. After a third enlistment they conceded defeat.
He saw action in Belgium in 1798 and was then involved in a whole series of important conflicts across the length and breadth of Europe. He was made ADC to Napoleon when he became Premier Consul. In 1806 he was promoted to General-de-Brigade, and to General-de-Division in 1807, at the age of 34. He had never put a foot wrong and was, up to the time of crossing the River Esla, having a good war. Maybe he had become complacent, with his experience he should have sent scouts well ahead of his force to check for enemy troops in the vicinity.
As it was, he was entirely unaware of a substantial body of enemy cavalry still present in the town. Having reached the opposite bank, the French were first attacked by the English 10th Hussars under the command of General Henry William Paget. Among the men of the 10th was our hero Corporal Levi Grisdale, who, like the tough Cumbrian he was, got stuck in to the fray.
The unfortunate General Lefebvre, was not only wounded but unable to defend himself having lost his sabre in the river during the action. He was subsequently captured and the man credited with his capture was none other than Levi Grisdale. The 10th Hussars had a field day and captured a further 60 of General Lefebvre’s men, and other French casualties included a Lieutenant who was killed and two Captains who were wounded.
As a reward for his brave action in this battle Levi was later awarded a silver medal by the Officers of his regiment. It is now in the Regimental Museum in Winchester. After the Battle of Benevente, Napoleon himself arrived in Spain with an Army of 200,000 men and the British were pushed back to Corunna on the coast to await evacuation. Before the fleet arrived they had to engage in battle, in which Levi Grisdale participated, and remarkably were victorious but as I said earlier their commander Sir John Moore was killed.
The 10th Hussars were back in England by February and the Hampshire Telegraph of 18th February 1809 announced that hero Grisdale was at Brighton with his regiment and gave a description of him as “tall, well-made, well looking, ruddy and expressive!”
On 29th May 1809 Levi married Ann Robinson at Bath and in 1811 they had a son, Levi.
The regiment, and Levi, were in England for sometime but then returned to Spain, Portugal and France being actively engaged in the Battles of Orthes, Vittoria and Toulouse. At Toulouse, Levi had his horse shot from under him, by now he was a Sergeant having been Corporal for only 1 year 137 days. His Commander in Chief would have been the Duke of Wellington.
It is interesting to look at what happened to General Lefebvre following his capture at Benevente.
As a result of his capture by Levi Grisdale, General Lefebvre was brought to England as a prisoner of war. However, this country being a civilised nation, was not harsh on a prisoner of his rank and he was paroled at Cheltenham where he was eventually joined by his wife Stephanie. They were in demand socially and attended social events around the district. As it happened, General Lefebvre was in possession of a fine signet ring of considerable value which had been given him years earlier by his Emperor, Napoleon.
In 1811, Lefebvre used this ring as a bribe to get away from parole in Cheltenham and he was able to escape back to France, where he rejoined his Division. He was soon in action again, including the disastrous Russian Campaign of 1812, but survived this and other conflicts, eventually to find himself on the greatest battlefield of the Napoleonic War, Waterloo, in June 1815. There were about 200,000 troops on the battle field that day.
By fate and coincidence also on the Waterloo battlefield among the thousands of allied soldiers, under the Duke of Wellington’s command, facing the French on those eventful days in mid-June was our Cumbrian hero Sergeant Levi Grisdale. Some of the historians among you may know that the tipping point of the Battle of Waterloo was the arrival of the Prussians, under Blucher, who were allies of the British commanded by the Duke of Wellington.
On being told the Prussians were approaching, Wellington asked for an experienced trooper to be sent to meet the Prussians on the road and bring them on to the field of battle at precisely the key place. Sergeant Grisedale, battle-hardened after over 30 engagements with the enemy in 12 years with the cavalry was the man selected to perform this duty, which he did assiduously, and that is surely his place in history.
Levi survived the battle, although again his horse was shot from under him and he again sustained a minor injury in his right calf when hit by a shell splinter. He must have witnessed the scenes of utter devastation resulting from continuous cannonade and musket shot being discharged against the close formations of troops who were bravely standing their ground. The numbers of dead and wounded amounted to about 50,000. If there was such a thing back then as “post traumatic stress disorder”, and there probably was, it looks like Levi Grisdale was unaffected to any real degree for he served his King and Country for a further ten years, retiring in 1825 after 22 years of service.
General Lefebvre was less fortunate, being on the losing side at Waterloo, he was out of favour with the new regime which followed Napoleon’s removal from power, and he had to flee to the United States. He lived there until 1821 by which time his wife had arranged for him to return to Amsterdam where he could wait for permission to return to French soil. In the Spring of 1821 he sailed for Europe but the ship on which he was aboard encountered bad weather on the approaches to the coast of southern Ireland and sank just off Kinsale and that was the end of General Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes.
Like others involved in that great battle 200 years ago, Sergeant Grisdale received the Waterloo Medal and had two years added to his service record. Later he was awarded the Peninsular Medal with clasps for Sahagun, Benevente, Vittoria, Orthes and Toulouse.
From 1816 to 1825 Levi was a Sergeant Major. Though he was only 42 years of age when he left the Army he was described as “worn out by service”. He was granted a pension of 1 shilling and 10 pence per day. He was said to be suffering from chronic rheumatism & described at discharge as 5ft 10ins, hair light brown, eyes grey, complexion fresh, occupation labourer, intended place of residence Bristol. In fact, in an 1826 trade directory of Bristol he is listed as landlord of the Stag & Star public house in Barr Street, Bristol.
By 1832 he had moved to Penrith and his wife Ann died there. She was buried on 11th July at St Andrew’s church as ‘Ann Grisdale wife of Levi of Netherend’. Then two weeks later on the 28th July 1832 Levi Grisdale married a Penrith lass, Mary Western, some nineteen years his junior, at St Andrew’s Church, Penrith. The couple went on to have five children, three sons and two daughters. The last, John, born in 1846, when Levi was 62-years-old.
However, in 1834 Levi is mentioned in a Penrith directory as a retailer of beer at Netherend. At his son Levi’s baptism on 12 April 1835 he is recorded as an Innkeeper. His inn or alehouse was in Southend Road, previously known as Netherend and was known as “The General Lefebvre” with a large picture of the general above the door. However, the locals called the pub the “General Grisdale” and no doubt the innkeeper Levi was a bit of a character! By 1837 the family were living in Great Dockray, Penrith in a house behind the Golden Lion and Levi is shown as being employed as a gardener, certainly up to 1841, however, by 1851 he is shown in that year’s Census as being a Chelsea Pensioner.
This means he was an “out-pensioner”, that is, living at home and not at the Royal Hospital Chelsea. He finally died of Dropsy on 17th November 1855 at Great Dockray, aged 72 years and was buried in Christ Church burial ground, Penrith. His death and obituary were mentioned in all the newspapers of the day here in the north west.
His widow Mary continued to live in Great Dockray with daughter Mary Ann and sons Thomas, a Post Office clerk and John, a railway clerk. Her eldest son, Levi, a tailor, was married but unfortunately died in 1864 aged only 29 years. He too was buried at Christ Church and it was only when both widows died that a memorial was put up in the Cemetery.
It seems that from simple rural beginnings, Levi Grisdale led a very full and eventful life and after the horrors of war he saw some peace and family life in our town of Penrith. In my opinion, it is a great pity his memorial is becoming weather worn and illegible but even sadder is the fact that he has become something of a forgotten hero.