Sergeant Ewart’s Eagle
Lady Butler’s ‘Scotland Forever’ is one of the iconic images of the Battle of Waterloo. The 2nd (Royal North British) Dragoons, probably best known as the Scots Greys, are pictured at a full, charging gallop as they head for the French infantry brigades of Compte D’Erlon’s I Corps.
It’s a brilliant picture, full of action. Emotive, too. Makes one proud to be British, you might say.
But a picture is all it is: an impression of what might have been, infused with a goodly dollop of national pride.
Because actually, the battlefield had suffered twelve hours of heavy rain and was probably thick with mud. Travelling across such wet ground, did the Greys get above a trot? Were they in fact walking when they came upon the retreating 92nd Regiment (Gordon Highlanders), whose infantrymen then clung onto the dragoons’ stirrup leathers and allowed themselves to be helped back into the fray?
Despite all that’s been written about Waterloo, we don’t really know.
Were the Scots Greys galloping when they eventually hit Marcognet’s Division? One of the 92nd reported they were still at the walk, so we don’t really know.
We do know the Greys took the eagle of the 45e Ligne Regiment, to gain everlasting fame. The story goes that Sergeant Charles Ewart found himself within striking distance of the French eagle-bearer and fought his way alongside, sabreing a number of the enemy until he was able to grab the eagle’s staff. His selfless act in capturing what was in effect the French regiment’s colour has been immortalised in any number of paintings.
Of course, it might not have been so selfless. Ewart was promoted Ensign for his trouble once he returned home and apparently was feted everywhere he went. He retired from the army in 1821 able to draw an officer’s pension, far more than he would have received as a lowly sergeant.
Now questions are being asked about whether Ewart actually fought for the eagle or was simply handed the trophy and ‘took’ it from the battlefield. By all accounts he was a big man (6′ 4″) and as a regimental fencing master and experienced horseman would likely have been confident enough in his abilities to ‘try for the eagle’ if such an opportunity arose.
Over the years discrepancies in his personal accounts of the action have been found, as well as important differences within those of other witnesses, all of which seem to suggest he may only have had a hand in the fight for the eagle rather than being at its centre.
It would be a shame to muddy the reputation of an obviously brave man, but surely if others were involved in such a glorious feat of arms their names should also sit alongside Ewart’s in the regimental hall of fame.
So who else contributed to the taking of Sergeant Ewart’s Eagle?
Guess what – at the moment we don’t really know.