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The death of General Picton

Phil Carradice

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On 18 June 1815 one of the most important battles ever fought on European soil took place at Waterloo in Belgium. In a brutal and bloody encounter, victory for the Allied army, led by the Duke of Wellington, finally ended the career and reign of the Emperor Napoleon.

It also brought about the death of Sir Thomas Picton. Sir Thomas was one of Wales' most renowned soldiers. He was also, without a shadow of doubt, one of the most infamous.

Thomas Picton had been born on 24 August 1758 in Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire and joined the army at an early age. He was a courageous and brave warrior but a man with a terrible temper that could be unleashed at a moment's notice - at the enemy or at his own troops. His soldiers feared him but respected him at the same time.

Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Picton by William Beechey. Copyright: English Heritage

Sir Thomas Picton fought with distinction at many of the battles in the Peninsular War but was best remembered for the charge of cruelty levelled against him while he was Governor of Trinidad. Although found guilty of illegal torture, the conviction was later over-turned and Picton soon resumed his military career.

When Napoleon escaped from Elba and threw Europe, once more, into turmoil the Duke of Wellington knew that he needed a man like Picton to command one of the infantry divisions in the hastily assembled Allied Army. Wellington called Sir Thomas "a rough, foul mouthed devil" but he was well aware of the Welsh soldier's capabilities.

After being present at the Duchess of Richmond's ball on the night before the Allied Army moved off to challenge Napoleon's advancing legions, Picton fought with his usual relish and bravery at the Battle of Quatre Bras. It was a holding action that was vital in allowing the Allied forces to assemble and Picton was in the thick of the action.

He was seriously wounded at Quatre Bras but somehow managed to conceal his wound and keep command of the 5th Infantry Division.

Two days later, at the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon launched Count d'Erlon's Corps at the centre of the Allied line, close to the farmhouse of La Haye Sainte. It was 1.30pm and a pivotal moment in the battle.

The death of Sir Thomas Picton. Photo by The British Library/Robana via Getty Images

Picton, seeing the danger, immediately ordered and led a bayonet charge that managed to halt the French assault. Unfortunately, fighting at the head of his troops, Picton was shot through the temple and was killed, the highest ranking soldier to die that day on the Allied side.

Picton, like so many of the Allied soldiers, had reacted swiftly to Wellington's call to arms. In fact, the Welsh general was forced to fight his last battle in civilian clothes as his uniform had been lost or left behind in the frantic advance – something that undoubtedly irked the irascible Picton who would have liked to meet his end clad in the finery of his chosen profession.

Over the years a number of interesting legends have arisen about General Picton's death. One story says that his top hat was knocked off by a cannon ball a moment before he was hit by the fatal musket ball. Another says that he was actually shot in the back by one of his own soldiers, one of many who hated and feared their general.

A Picton family legend states that Sir Thomas fought, not in his civilian suit but in a nightshirt and top hat because he had overslept. It is a doubtful tale. Picton was not a man to lie abed and the battle did not start until well after midday. Wellington, who deliberately delayed starting the fight until the ground had dried out, would certainly have been consulting men like Sir Thomas on that last Sunday morning. There would have been no time for Picton to lie in bed.

Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Picton. Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images

After the battle the body of Sir Thomas Picton was brought back to Britain where it was buried in the family vault in Hanover Square. Since then, roads, squares and even schools have been named after the man. In 1823 a monument was erected on the outskirts of Carmarthen – the King himself contributed 100 guineas to the cost.

Sit Thomas Picton was irascible and foul-mouthed, a brutal disciplinarian, not the sort of man you would like as an enemy. He was, however, exactly the sort of man Wellington needed to defeat Napoleon and that is how history will always remember him - Sir Thomas Picton, one of the victors of the Battle of Waterloo.

Discover more about the portrait of Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Picton on BBC Your Paintings.

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