Battles Of Breguet Part Two: Waterloo
by Martin Green
When you are really good at your craft and universally recognized, you might unwittingly find yourself on the opposite side of a battlefield.
This is what happened to Abraham-Louis Breguet in the early nineteenth century as the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) were being waged throughout Europe. For many years these conflicts offered both opportunities and challenges to Breguet.
The political disputes made it sometimes difficult to sell his watches and clocks abroad; Breguet was keen on expanding his business beyond France. However, members of the Bonaparte family were loyal clients throughout their lifetimes.
Notable among them was, of course, Caroline Murat, queen of Naples and Napoleon’s sister. She ordered large quantities of Breguet watches and clocks, prominently among them the very first wristwatch in history (see more about her and her purchases in The First Wristwatches From Breguet, Hermès And Patek Philippe Were Made . . . For Women).
Breguet’s ledgers show no less than 100 purchases by the Bonaparte family between 1797 and 1814.
The watchmaker’s relationship with Napoleon himself was a bit strenuous at times. As the general started working through the ranks of French society before going on campaign in Egypt in 1798, he bought three pieces from Breguet. Among them was No. 178, the first modern carriage clock. A quarter-repeating “travel clock,” it even included a moon phase display.
However, there were also times when Napoleon seemed to forget that Breguet even existed. This was most obvious in 1804 when he was crowned emperor but neglected to commission even a single piece from Breguet to mark this special occasion, while other watchmakers were hardly able to cope with all the work.
On the other side of the battlefield
One of the reasons for that could perhaps have been that Breguet also had many loyal customers on the other side of the English Channel. The watchmaker was well respected in Great Britain, a country that was at that time not exactly suffering from a shortage of excellent watchmakers itself. It was a market that had provided his firm with some stability during the French Revolution.
Among his most notable clients was the Prince of Wales, who would later become King George IV. Another was Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington, who owned No. 2470, a repeating watch that he most likely also brought with him to Waterloo.
In those days wars were fought differently than today: vast armies would march through the countryside with reconnaissance units in search of the enemy. Once found, an organized battle would take place in which both sides would take a position and charge each other in bloody battle.
The commanding and high-ranking officers generally came from the noble class, which became more than obvious when Napoleon fought his final battle at Waterloo (back then located in the Netherlands, but now part of Belgium); there were many Breguet clients in attendance on both sides.
Along with Napoleon himself, there was also his younger brother Jérôme Bonaparte, who bought no less than 12 pieces from Breguet between 1805 and 1809. Also, many of Napoleon’s general staff were Breguet clients as was his chief surgeon Dominique Larrey. This man followed Napoleon to all the great battlefields, and in 1809 he purchased a marine chronometer from Breguet.
On the other side of the battlefield was the aforementioned Duke of Wellington, who was joined by the Earl of Uxbridge, Lord Somerset, Major Percy, General Cooke, General Maitland, and General Ponsonby, who were all Breguet clients. In those days it was already common for them to bring their timepieces to the battlefield.
This was also why some favored Breguet’s work over the competition, as his watches were robust enough to cope with the harsh reality of a soldier’s life. In fact, Napoleon’s general staff had the tradition of visiting Breguet’s atelier after returning to Paris from a campaign to have their watches serviced.
While Napoleon was an extremely skilled general, on June 18, 1815 he was not able to defeat the armies of the Seventh Coalition opposing his rule. The force led by the Duke of Wellington consisted of the Netherlands, Hanover, Nassau, Brunswick, and Prussia.
Nearly 200,000 men fought that day, and although both armies were equally matched, it was the Duke of Wellington who in the end claimed victory. This also marked the last battle Napoleon ever fought as after capture he was exiled to the island of Saint Helena, off the west coast of Africa, where he passed away on May 5, 1821.
The Duke of Wellington traveled to Paris after his victory, where he immediately visited Breguet and bought what’s known as a montre à tact, a specialty of Breguet containing only one hand to display the time.
This was only the beginning of the duke’s relationship with the watchmaker, who took a genuine liking to his craftsmanship and expertise. Multiple pieces followed in the ensuing years.
The Duke of Wellington referred to the Battle of Waterloo as one that could have very easily gone either way and considered that holding ground at Hougoumont farm was a decisive point in the battle. Part of the farm still exists and was restored with help from Breguet as it is the last building in existence that not only witnessed the battle but also played a vital role in it.
The Hougoumont farm reopened in 2015 in the presence of Breguet’s president and CEO, Marc A. Hayek, as well as descendants of the commanders pitted against each other on both sides of the battlefield. They are now bound in friendship, just as their ancestors were bound by the same watchmaker two centuries ago.
To learn about what Martin Green considered Breguet’s first “battle,” see Battles Of Breguet Part One: Conquest Of The Seas.