Lord Uxbridge's leg was a famous leg, more specifically, the right leg of British cavalry commander Henry Paget, 2nd Earl of Uxbridge (in later years the 1st Marquess of Anglesey), which was blown off by a cannonball in the waning moments of the Battle of Waterloo. The leg later became one of the most famous legs in Europe and a major tourist attraction, before meeting its demise.
Breaking a Leg
Lord Uxbridge was a British nobleman whose original career was as a politician serving in Parliament. During the Napoleonic Wars, he took up military service as a cavalry officer. At the Battle of Waterloo, where French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte met his final doom, Uxbridge was a lieutenant general commanding 13,000 allied cavalry troops under the supreme British commander Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (Uxbridge and Wellington disliked each other intensely). During the battle, Uxbridge personally led a series of cavalry charges and had either eight or nine different horses shot out from under him, but miraculously was himself unscathed.
As the battle came to a bloody conclusion late in the evening on June 18, 1815, Uxbridge didn't have much to do, as most of his men had either been killed, wounded, or scattered during the bloody charges, so he fell back to Wellington's command post where he stood dismounted. As the French forces began to retreat in disarray following the arrival of Prussian reinforcements under Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, it looked like Uxbridge was going to make it through the battle untouched.
However, one of the very last cannonballs fired by the French whistled through the command post and struck Uxbridge on his right kneecap. According to a very famous, if apocryphal, anecdote, there was a moment of silence as everyone recovered from the shock, until Uxbridge calmly announced to Wellington,
"By God, sir, I've lost my leg."
Whereupon Wellington looked down at the shattered remains of Uxbridge's limb and replied,
"By God, sir, so you have."
A perhaps slightly more accurate account comes from the diary of Wellington's friend J.W. Croker, who recounted in an entry dated December 8, 1818 a conversation he had with Horace Seymour, the man who carried the wounded Uxbridge from the battlefield. Seymour recalled that when Uxbridge was shot he cried out, "I have got it at last," to which the Duke of Wellington replied, "No? Have you, by God?".
Doing the Legwork
Upon receiving the wound, Uxbridge was transported back to his headquarters, which had been set up in the home of a certain Monsieur Hyacinthe Joseph-Marie Paris at 214 Chaussée de Bruxelles in the nearby Belgian village of Waterloo. The British military doctor, John Hume, determined that the leg needed to be amputated immediately, and proceeded to do so, assisted by two other British surgeons, without any anesthetic or antiseptics. The bone saw he used is now held by the National Army Museum in London.
On the occasion of his amputation, Uxbridge is recorded as having made several glib remarks. As the surgeons were getting ready, he is recorded to have said "I have had a pretty long run. I have been a beau these forty-seven years, and it would not be fair to cut the young men out any longer." During the actual procedure, which must have entailed tremendous pain, his only remark was that "The knives appear somewhat blunt." However after the amputation was finally finished, he seemed in good spirits and was heard to say "Who would not lose a leg for such a victory?"
According to the account of fellow British general Hussey Vivian, 1st Baron Vivian, recorded by Henry Curling in 1847:
Just after the Surgeon had taken off the Marquis of Anglesey's leg, Sir Hussey Vivian came into the cottage where the operation was performed. "Ah, Vivian!" said the wounded noble, "I want you to do me a favour. Some of my friends here seem to think I might have kept that leg on. Just go and cast your eye upon it, and tell me what you think." "I went, accordingly", said Sir Hussey, "and, taking up the lacerated limb, carefully examined it, and so far as I could tell, it was completely spoiled for work. A rusty grape-shot had gone through and shattered the bones all to pieces. I therefore returned to the Marquis and told him he could set his mind quite at rest, as his leg, in my opinion, was better off than on."
Upon returning back to England, Uxbridge was fitted with a new type of above-the-knee prosthetic leg, invented by a certain James Potts, that he used the remainder of his life and that became known as the "Anglesey leg," after his marquessate. He was also offered a pension of £1,200 in compensation for the loss of his leg, but being a proud member of the nobility, he refused.
An Important Leg of the Tour
Monsieur Paris asked if he might bury the leg in his garden, to which assent was given. However, after the British had left, the enterprising Paris turned the burial spot and indeed his whole house into a shrine to Lord Uxbridge's leg. He began charging tourists to visit the leg; first they would be shown the bloodstained chair in which Uxbridge had sat while the leg was sawed off, and then they would be taken out to the garden to see the tombstone that had been erected upon the spot where the leg was buried. It read:
Here lies the Leg of the illustrious and valiant Earl Uxbridge, Lieutenant-General of His Britannic Majesty, Commander in Chief of the English, Belgian and Dutch cavalry, wounded on the 18 June 1815 at the memorable battle of Waterloo, who, by his heroism, assisted in the triumph of the cause of mankind, gloriously decided by the resounding victory of the said day.
However, according to a report in the British journal Notes and Queries, a somewhat less impressed grafitti artist later vandalized the leg's tombstone with the following doggerel:
Here lies the Marquis of Anglesey's limb;
The Devil will have the remainder of him.
In the ensuing decades after the battle, Lord Uxbrige's leg attracted large numbers of tourists from a broad cross-section of European society, up to and including such illustrious figures as the King of Prussia and the Prince of Orange, as it became a "must-visit" on the package tour of the Waterloo battle site. As a result, several generations of the Paris family had a very sizable source of constant recurring income.
One of the famous visitors was former British Prime Minister George Canning, who was so struck by the hilarity of a leg having its own grave and tombstone, that he was moved to compose the following comedic poem jam-packed with leg-related puns:
Here rests, and let no saucy knave
Presume to sneer and laugh,
To learn that mouldering in the grave
Is laid a British calf.
For he who writes these lines is sure
That those who read the whole
Will find such laugh were premature,
For here, too, lies a sole.
And here five little ones repose,
Twin-born with other five;
Unheeded by their brother toes,
Who now are all alive.
A leg and foot to speak more plain
Lie here, of one commanding;
Who, though his wits he might retain,
Lost half his understanding.
And when the guns, with thunder fraught,
Pour'd bullets thick as hail,
Could only in this way be taught
To give his foe leg-bail.
And now in England, just as gay -
As in the battle brave -
Goes to the rout, review, or play,
With one foot in the grave.
Fortune in vain here showed her spite,
For he will still be found,
Should England's sons engage in fight,
Resolved to stand his ground.
But fortune's pardon I must beg,
She meant not to disarm;
And when she lopped the hero's leg
By no means sought his h-arm,
And but indulged a harmless whim,
Since he could walk with one,
She saw two legs were lost on him
Who never meant to run.
On Its Last Leg
Unfortunately, however, all good things come to an end, and the Paris family's money-making venture finally came crashing down in 1878 when Lord Uxbridge's son visited the house, and was shocked to find that the leg was no longer buried, but on display in a special case. This led to a minor diplomatic incident between Great Britain and Belgium. Under pressure from the British government, the Belgian ambassador to Britain launched an investigation, whereupon it was found that the leg had been uprooted when a storm knocked over the willow tree beside which it had been buried. The ambassador demanded repatriation of the leg to England, but the Paris family refused to part with their prized cash cow, instead offering to sell the bones at an exorbitant price to the Uxbridge family, who were outraged and insulted by the "offer." Finally, the Belgian Minister of Justice intervened, ordering that the bones be reburied not in the garden but rather in a proper cemetery, and thereafter incident petered out.
However, the bones were never actually reburied; instead they were kept hidden. In 1934, after the last Monsieur Paris died in Brussels, his widow was cleaning out the old house in Waterloo and found the bones hidden in his study, along with historical documents proving their provenance. Disgusted by the mangled bones and horrified at the thought of another scandal, she ordered the maid to incinerate them in the home's heating furnace.
Although the leg was no longer around to foot the bill, nobody can deny that it left behind a lasting leg-acy.