A Queen’s Ranger Fights Napoleon at Waterloo
The Battle of Waterloo is widely recognized as a major turning point in modern western history. On June 18th, 1815 a combined army of British, Prussian and other allies routed Napoleon in Belgium ending his career as a military and political leader.
Two hundred years on, the name ‘Waterloo’ is synonymous with ultimate defeat.
One of the thousands of soldiers at Waterloo was Captain Alexander Macnab, who from 1800 to 1802 was Adjutant for the Queen’s Rangers at Fort York. He is regarded as the only ‘Canadian’ who fought in the actual battle. Leading a Company in the 30th Battalion, Macnab was killed by grapeshot during the final French assault.
Born in 1768 in the British colony of Virginia, Macnab (also spelled Mcnabb, Mcnab) was from a Loyalists family who moved to Upper Canada during the Revolutionary War. They settled just to the west of Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake) in a small hamlet still known today as McNab.
When the capital of Upper Canada moved from Newark to York in 1793, Macnab followed and was granted “considerable property” abutting what is now the corner of Bay Street and Wellington, a street named for his future commander.
At first he worked as a clerk with the Executive Council governing Upper Canada but apparently he craved a more adventurous position. After a few years, he commissioned as an ensign in the Queen’s Rangers and in February 1800 became Adjutant.
Not much is known about his time as a Ranger. The town of York was small, as was the garrison. Most of the military energy was directed at improving the roads and other infrastructure.
“When Macnab joined the Queen’s Rangers, it was a period of relative quiet. There were problems at the frontier but no military operations,” said Professor Tanya Grodzinski of the Royal Military College. “In the1790s there were concerns about a French invasion in maritime Canada but Napoleon gave up on North America.”
When the Treaty of Amiens was signed in early 1802 putting Europe in a temporary peace, the Rangers were disbanded that October. Within a year, Macnab had gone to England; if being active in the military was his motivation, Europe was a better bet than North America.
Taking on Napoleon in Spain
Macnab wound up in the 2nd Battalion, 30th Foot, where on 16 January 1804, he was promoted to Lieutenant and appointed battalion paymaster. By May 1809, Lieutenant Macnab was given command of one of the Regiment’s companies and was sent to Iberia; Napoleon’s Peninsular War against the Bourbon rulers of Spain had now been hot for two years.
According to Professor Grodzinski, Macnab was not the only resident of British North America to serve there; Captain Francis Simcoe, 3/27th Foot (son of John Graves Simcoe), was among several ‘Canadians’ in Spain. Macnab was given staff jobs and was mostly away from the fighting. Simcoe did not survive the conflict. When the war ended in 1814, now Captain Macnab was sent to the Netherlands for his first leave in five years.
Only months later, Napoleon was headed in the same direction. Despite the loss in Spain and his subsequent exile, L’Empereur was not done with Europe. After his escape from the Island of Elba with 700 soldiers, he landed in the south of France and began marching north amassing an army on the way. These “100 Days’ would come to a crescendo in Belgium at the battles of Ligny, Quatre Bras and ultimately Waterloo on the 18th of June 1815. As Napoleon approached the Belgian border, Macnab’s leave was cancelled.
For many years, Macnab was believed to have served as an aide to General Picton at Waterloo. And although he died in battle there were no details about how or when. Those aware of Macnab’s military career considered it “less than distinguished” however, Professor Grodzinski’s research has corrected the record on Macnab.
Instead of being a staff officer, behind the lines and not in command of any troops, Macnab was in fact a Company Commander in the 30th and led about 200 soldiers into battle twice during the three days of Waterloo. Serving under General Halkett, Macnab fought with his Regiment at Quatre-bras on June 16th, then found himself on the line again two days later at Waterloo.
With the cavalry unable to break the British-Allied line, the Prussians closing in, and dusk approaching, Napoleon decided to make one final effort against Wellington. At 7:30 p.m., eight battalions of the Imperial Guard began the attack. Two battalions, the 4th Grenadiers and the 1/3rd Grenadiers, with Marshal Ney at their head, advanced against the combined 30/73 square. Halkett ordered his two battalion groups to form line. The two forces were only 40 metres apart.
As the losses mounted, Halkett moved his brigade behind the crest line to shield it from the artillery fire. The combined 2/30th and 2/73rd turned about face, and as they began moving down a slope, the “fire thickened tremendously,” and an “extraordinary number of men and officers from both regiments went down almost in no time.” The chronicler of this action, Major Edward Macready (or Macreary) continued: “Prendergast of ours was shattered to pieces by a shell; McNab killed by grapeshot, and James and Bullen lost all their legs by round-shot during this retreat, or in the cannonade immediately preceding it.”
Historians refer to this as “The Crisis” when the battle could have gone either way. But a Dutch-Belgian brigade from the 3rd Netherlands Division then advanced past the right of the 30th/73rd in an attempt to push back the enemy, only to find the Imperial Guard was leaving the field. The battle and the war was over. Wellington called it the “nearest run thing you ever saw in your life”.
As Macnab lay dying, his orderly remained with him and was instructed to convey his watch, ring, sword and regimental sash, along with some messages, to his family in Scotland and Canada. Macnab was buried on the battlefield. Six of the 41 officers in the 2/30th were killed, and Macnab was the only company commander that was lost. In 1903, his sword and watch were still with his nephew, Canon Alexander Wellesley Macnab in Toronto.
Casualties at during these battles were enormous. Macnab was one of an estimated 50,000 dead most of whom were left on the battlefield to die untreated, have their effects looted, their teeth pulled for dentures and finally their bodies burned in mass pyres.
Waterloo was also a turning point in remembrance. Up until then, knowledge or acknowledgment of combatants was reserved for the leaders. Most of the officers and soldiers were simply forgotten to history. Waterloo marked the first time an effort was made to collect the names and hand out medals to surviving soldiers and the families of dead ones. Regiments put up memorials to their dead and veterans were accorded great reverence for being “Waterloo Men”.
The men of the 30th returned to the town of Waterloo and put Macnab’s name up on a plaque of their dead at the Church Saint Joseph but being single – Macnab never married – and his immediate family in North America, that is where remembrance of Macnab’s story ended for over five decades.
Almost Lost to History
Macnab’s story is picked up again in 1868 and this is where things get muddled and bizarre. That year, Macnab’s grand-nephew, Reverend Dr. Alexander Macnab visited England and met with a few aging members of the 30th Regiment. But they remembered Macnab’s as the Aide-de-Camp to General Picton. The Reverend began applying for recognition and medals for his deceased great-uncle eventually securing a Waterloo Medal and an allotment of prize money.
Ten years later, an even more prestigious form of recognition occurred. A marble tablet was placed in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral in his memory. The memorial describes him as AdeC to General Picton and dying with his boss. Macnab’s was the first colonial marker to be put there and is near to memorials to Sir John A. Macdonald, and Wellington’s crypt. This is quite extraordinary for a mere Captain who all remembered as a staff officer.
It would not be for another 130 years that Macnab’s true and much more heroic role at Waterloo would be corrected by Professor Grodzinski. And thanks to that research, the placement of his memorial at St Paul’s now seems more fitting.