HE was a scrawny teenager growing up in a small farming community where rearing sheep was the order of the day.
But years later his actions on a battlefield several hundred miles away, just outside a town he had most likely never even heard of, catapulted him into the limelight, his name suddenly synonymous with bravery and heroism.
It was 200 years ago today that Charles Ewart came face to face with Napoleon’s soldiers on a battleground just outside the town of Waterloo.
The encounter saw him capture the French Napoleonic imperial eagle after a bloody and brutal battle with the enemy. That moment changed the life of the young soldier forever.
He went to battle an unknown and came back to a hero’s welcome, with Sir Walter Scott among his biggest fans.
Ewart was born in 1769 and raised on the small hillfarm of Bidhouse in the uplands of southern Lanarkshire, not far from the hamlet of Elvanfoot, in what was typical sheep-rearing country.
In this somewhat bleak and inhospitable landscape, young Ewart would have grown up imbued with a certain toughness of both body and character.
He did not see his future lying in farming, however, harbouring a burning ambition to become a soldier. But his first attempt to join the army failed. Still in his mid-teens, he lacked the necessary physique to become a soldier.
Determined, Ewart began an exercise regime which soon transformed him into a fine specimen of youthful vigour, well known in the district for his strength and energy, as well as for his horsemanship.
At the age of 20 in 1789, Ewart finally enlisted in a cavalry regiment at Kilmarnock, commonly known as The Scots Greys.
The next few years were spent going from one garrison town to another all over Britain, and it was not until the French Revolutionary War that the Greys saw action in the field.
In 1815 they were placed on battle readiness after Napoleon escaped from exile.
A few weeks later, they sailed from Gravesend to Ostend, from where they set forth on the road which led to Waterloo, and one of the biggest clashes in British military history.
The showdown was on – the Duke of Wellington versus the Emperor Napoleon.
The vast armies which had been assembled by several European nations met in a most terrible conflict at Waterloo, not far from Brussels, on June 18.
Ewart saw off the enemy to take the imperial eagle, a decoration atop every French regimental standard. He was the Scottish star of an eagle’s capture.
He returned home to a hero’s welcome. Promotion awaited him; he would have become a cornet had he remained with the cavalry, but he moved to the infantry, joining a Royal Veteran Battalion, and was consequently given the rank of ensign.
Ewart no doubt appreciated that with Napoleon finally defeated, the high point of his army career had already been reached.
He was celebrated wherever he went, notably by Sir Walter Scott at the Waterloo First Anniversary Dinner, held in the Capital’s Assembly Rooms. Essentially a shy man, when asked to speak he at first declined, saying that he would rather fight the Battle of Waterloo all over again than stand up in front of such a distinguished audience.
He was also honoured in Kilmarnock, the town in which he had enlisted, and in Ayr and Leith, and he was made a freeman of the Royal Burgh of Irvine because of “his brave and gallant conduct”.When his regiment disbanded in 1821, Ewart retired on full pay, and lived out the rest of his life quietly in the Manchester area – neighbouring Salford was the home town of his wife, Margaret Geddes.
He latterly moved nearby to Davyhulme, Manchester, dying there in his bed in 1846, leaving no family. He was buried in Salford, but the graveyard fell into disuse and Ewart’s grave was lost. Upon its rediscovery in 1936, his remains were disinterred and brought to Edinburgh with due pageantry.
The composite trophy he won at Waterloo is now safely preserved in the Grey’s Regimental Museum in Edinburgh Castle – the standard of the French 45th Regiment, its cravat, and its all-important eagle, while Charles Ewart’s remains lie under a granite sarcophagus on the north side of the Esplanade.
‘SCARCELY POSSIBLE TO PASS DUE TO DEAD BODIES’
Sergeant Charles Ewart described the taking of the eagle from the enemy in his own words:
“It was in the charge I took the eagle from the enemy. He and I had a hard contest for it. He made a thrust at my groin, but I parried it off and cut him down through the head. After this, a lancer came at me; I threw the lance off by my right side, and cut him through the chin and upwards through the teeth. Next, a foot-soldier fired at me, then charged me with his bayonet, which I also had the good luck to parry, and then I cut him down through the head. Thus ended the contest.”
His commanding officer, Sir William Ponsonby, immediately ordered Ewart to take his prize to the rear to prevent its recapture, which he did with some reluctance.
He later recalled: “I retired to a height, and stood there for upwards of an hour, which gave me a general view of the field, but I cannot express the horrors I beheld. The bodies of my brave comrades were lying so thick upon the field that it was scarcely possible to pass, and [dead] horses innumerable.”
He was ordered to take the eagle to Brussels, it was then dispatched to London and displayed before the Prince Regent. It remained there until it was brought to Edinburgh Castle in 1956 for permanent safekeeping.