How scared have you ever been in your life. For most people fear is something that is happening to us in circumstances that make us uncomfortable. For most of us we haven’t ever had the gut wrenching fear that goes with a threat to our lives. But for those who have it is an experience unlike any other. For the men about to fight in Waterloo they were knowing the full blast of that icy, gut wrenching fear. The only way I can describe it is knowing that you have to do something. You don’t want to do it perhaps. You know it might be dangerous. But there’s not avoiding it. It’s that feeling in the pit of your stomach when you are about to perhaps sit an exam, or propose to someone, or go to court. Well I can’t even imagine those feelings amount to anything like the feeling of standing in line as a Napoleonic Infantryman hearing the drums begin to beat. Seeing the Eagles or the banners raised high and the shouts of the officers “advance” Sergeants counting time. Drums beating the tempo. But for the thousands of men at Waterloo, that was exactly what happened. No one quite knows the exact time of the first attack the French made at Waterloo. But whatever happened. Whatever time it actually was, we do know that it was at Hougoumont.
On the right was I Corps under d’Erlon with 16,000 infantry and 1,500 cavalry, plus a cavalry reserve of 4,700. On the left was II Corps under Reille with 13,000 infantry, and 1,300 cavalry, and a cavalry reserve of 4,600 men. In the centre about the road south of the inn La Belle Alliance were a reserve including Lobau’s VI Corps with 6,000 men, and the 13,000 infantry of the crack Imperial Guard, and a cavalry reserve of 2,000. If you’ve listened to my previous episodes you will know why I said precise timings in battle are hard to judge.
Whatever the precise time, the first proper French attack was to be against Hougemont. The plan was for itto be led by Prince Jeromes division. It was to be a faint attack that would draw off Wellingtons reserves. Then a grand battery pounding would weaken Wellingtons centre, followed by a massive attack by Reille on the left of La Hay Sainte and General d’Erlon on the right. d’Erlon would therefore be attacking Wellingtons left as Wellingtons centre collapsed, and the British flank and centre would be broken, pushing them into retreat to the sea and probably destruction.
Things started badly for the French. If you had to pick a bad spot to be during the battle of Waterloo, then attacking Hougemont was probably high on the list for the French. I’ve called it a farm in the last episode or a fortified positionwhich implies it was a small house perhaps with some fortifications. It was actually much more. It was turned into a miniature fortress.
I’ve put a plan of the Hougemont complex on the website. That gives you an excellent outline of how the buildings stood. It is basically a square shaped series of buildings. All solidly stone built made up of a Great Barn, a 3 storey main house, a chapel and formidable wooden gates in stone arches. If this was all, it would be a horrible place to attack with just a musket and no armour. But it was far, far tougher. To one side was a surrounding 6ft high wall that created an enclosed garden. This was on the right hand side of the farm from the French point of view. Then around this was an orchard that was surrounded by a large thickhedge with gates in it. This was then surrounded by a wood. The attackers couldn’t see much through the smoke of battle, which meant they were stunned by finding the heavy defensive wall.
Defending Hougemont were the 1st Battalion, 2nd Nassau Regiment, with additional detachments of jägers and landwehr from von Kielmansegge’s 1st (Hanoverian) Brigade. The light company of the 2nd Battalion, Coldstream Guards under the command of Lt-Colonel Henry Wyndham, was also stationed in the farm and chateaux, and the light company of the 2nd Battalion, Third Guards, under Lt-Colonel Charles Dashwood in the garden and grounds. The two light companies of the 2nd and 3rd Battalions, First Guards were initially positioned in the orchard, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Lord Saltoun. Lieutenant-Colonel James Macdonnell, Coldstream Guards, had overall command of 1,500 men at Hougoumont. He was ordered to hold it to the last.
So to capture Hougemont, the French had to cross a wood, push through a thick hedge, then get through the Orchard, break through the outer walls or breech one of the great gates, all the while under heavy fire from the defenders, who included expert riflemen and some of the Elite British Guards Regiments. At the rear of the farm was a hidden sunken lane that could be used to move re-enforcements and ammunition to the defenders.
If this is sounding like one of those horrific WW1 style attacks, then that is a little like what it was. The fighting in Hougemont was to be a brutal affair, hard fought on both sides with moments of intense heroism.
The initial French units had no idea what they were in for though, and began the assault with vigour. They were soon shattered. Despite great bravery the first French assault was broken up by rifle, musket and artillery fire, with the French General Bauduin dying.Vicious fighting developed as the French attempted to clamber up the walls, sometimes standing on each others shoulders. Finally as the French were pushed back, Allied re-enforcements were sent in. The French had lost 1,500 men in around 30 minutes. Still, in some ways they had been successful. They had pulled some of Wellingtons reserves into Hougemont and diverted some Allied attention from the centre and left wing.
Now comes a moment of controversy. It seems that General Reille, who was Jerome’s superior, advised him that he had done enough at Hougemont. Yet Jerome certainly didn’t stop the attacks. He intensified them. Years later Prince Jerome is supposed to have claimed to have received orders directly from Napoleon during the battle to capture Hougemont no matter what. According to Prince Jerome Napoleon said
[QUOTE] If Grouchy does not come up or if you do not carry Hougoumont, the battle is decidedly lost – so go – go and carry Hougoumont – coûte que coûte.’ [END QUOTE]
If that is actually true, then Jerome was bound to carry on with attacking Hougoumont. Not just attacking. If the order was as Jerome described, then he was being told that his role of capturing the farm was mission critical to winning the battle. It was perhaps phrased with the “at all costs” tag that signified casualties and difficulties were irrelevant. Of course it might be that Prince Jerome was seeking to justify making repeated futile attacks that might have killed thousands pointlessly and even ruined Napoleon’s chances of winning. Equally it is wholly possible that Napoleon did view Hougemont as just that vital. He directed other attacks at it during the day and seems to have had his eyes on it. Napoleon could spot a pivotal point easily and was known to be willing to spend troops lives carelessly if it would give him a victory. Hougemont falling into French hands would have opened Wellington’s right flank to serious fire and attacks just as he would have been struggling against attacks on his centre and left. Heavy guns could have been moved up to batter the British and allied positions.
On Napoleons orders or not more attacks would go in.Especially between between 12:30 and 15:00. The French attacked from multiple directions, through trees and hedges. Desperately trying to get shots at hard to see Allied soldiers who were in hard cover. The French didn’t waver. Under heavy fire, a group of brave beyond reason Frenchmen charged the north gate. At their head was Lieutenant Legros of the 2nd Light Infantry, a giant of a man nicknamed “the smasher” and wielding an axe . He battered his way in with 40 men. A bitter fight began in the courtyard. The French weren’t supported by re-enforcements and the British defenders were desperately trying to get the gates closed before more French troops could arrive. The French fought frantically as the gates were closed and were finally killed to almost the last man; only a 9 year old drummer boy was spared. Wellington certainly regard this as a critical moment. If Hougoumont fell early, he would be exposed
Whilst the troops at Hougoumont had their battle reduced to the hell of trying to climb walls under fire, or batter down gates, or for the defenders, hold off hordes of desperate enemy assaults, elsewhere the “Great men” of the day decided that they were ready to start things off for real. At 13:00 General Desalles the Commander of the French Grand Artillery, opened up a massive fire that shock the heavens in one massive similtaneous shot.
The French had delayed starting the battle to let the ground dry out. This was to make the guns easier to move and more effective when they fired. Even so, artillery could weigh a couple of tons or more. Even on dry roads, they were hard to move. Here the French had to drag them through mud. Gunners were exhausted before the battle even started. The Allies had watched some French Gunners struggling into position since at least 11:00. Not that being in position would bring the gunners much rest. The cannon didn’t have any recoil control mechanism so when they fired, they rolled backwards and then had to be dragged back into position with ropes. Guns could require 8 man teams to position, load, aim, fire, clean, re-position, clean again, then repeat the process. There was no ear protection, so gunners became progressively deafened during their careers. Some wrapped cloth around their ears or stuffed them with cheese. The cannon were unreliable, and a miscut fuse could cause a gun to fire early. A man who didn’t keep well clear of a cannon as it fired could be crushed as 2 tons of metal were propelled backwards by the recoil. Defects in the cannon barrel could be lethal. Constant firing could cause the defect to become a disaster as barrels burst in use, killing gun crews.
Still the guns were the key to Napoleon’s plan for the day. That his great guns would shatter key points of the Allied line. Cannon shot would kill whole ranks of men. Imagine that for a moment. Soldiers could take years to train yet be swept away in 10’s by a single cannon shot. All their hopes and dreams snuffed out. Families lost brothers, sons, uncles in seconds. But it wasn’t remarked. “Close the ranks” the sergeants would call. Stoic British soldiers would move to close the gaps. The newer allied regiments would shuffle more nervously together. This was what Napoleon’s success rested on. Being able to shake and shatter the perfectly chosen spots in an enemies lines, then batter the weak point with infantry, and then turn loose his cavalry to break the remains and ride them down.
The Grand Battery pumped out 2,700 rounds in 30 mins at around 700 yards. This was murderous for exposed troops. Napoleon viewed his great guns as the real winners of battles, saying
[QUOTE] “it is with artillery that one makes war.” [END QUOTE]
I’m going to quote from 24 Hours at Waterloo by Robert Kershaw, describing the opening of the French Bombardment.
[QUOTE] Lieutenant Emanuel Biedermann, with the same battalion, was also gravely reflecting on his survival chances ‘I was confronted with the question: will you see your homeland and loved ones again, or will your restless life be cut short by an enemy’s sword?’ Soldiers often dwelled on the trauma of an anonymous death, craving reassurance that their loved ones would at least remember them. Biedermann philosophically reflected that a ‘man is always at the threshold of eternity; it is only that the world around does not always remind him of it in all its earnestness.’ He was re-acquainted with the fickle nature of his own mortality when the Grande Batterie suddenly opened fire. ‘Soon the balls from the artillery on both sides were flying over and beyond us’ There was activity both to their right at Hougoumont and to their left. For the moment their sector remained quiet except for the ‘the incessant buzz of the cannon balls which only caused broken branches to shower on our heads.’ [END QUOTE]
Thoughts like this were common on both sides. It is probably a common feeling for most soldiers throughout history I would imagine. It isn’t possible to say with certainty. Warfare has changed over time, and also warfare is often a continuation of the culture. Did a Christian Knight reflect with fear the night before battle? Or was his world view different enough that he only saw the blessing of God if he died in battle? Did a Mongel archer even view what he did as war under Genghis Khan, or was it just another form of hunting from the saddle, no different form hunting a dangerous beast? Was it the lack of autonomy that created particular fear for Napoleonic troops? Having to stand motionless in ranks as cannons blasted your friends to either side away and you couldn’t take cover unless given orders.
Worse, unlike modern artillery or the shells that cannons could fire, which were invisible, men could see the slow moving cannon balls lazily flying through the air towards them. They looked slow and clumsy the more distance they covered, heavy balls of metal slowly bouncing a few times across the ground. This might no sound too bad, but they were still fast moving hunks of heavy metal. If they touched a man they would tear off limbs, heads, break bones and rupture organs. Even spent ones could lop off a foot with terrifying ease. Raw recruits had to be sternly warned not to put a foot out to stop a ball that was lazily coming towards them like a slow moving bowling ball as it would easily take off the lower half of the legs. Men and horses would be chopped in half by these cannon balls, arms or legs disappeared, and a hit to the torso was invariably fatal. These bowling balls of death would carry on to finish men behind as well. They didn’t even have to hit. The immense force and change in air pressure could fatally change the pressure of body fluids in a person as it passed, causing heads to explode without even touching the victim. Some soldiers remembered being a mass of bruises and turning almost black from cannon balls coming close but missing.
If you are still struggling to visualise the damage a cannon ball can do, remember those pirate films you watched, where the ships fire broadsides at each other, smashing great chunks of timber away. Those were the larger versions of the battle field cannons. Frankly, if the descriptions of cannon fire from the grand battery at Waterloo sound awful, spare a thought for those poor sailors at Trafalgar where the ships guns would fire the equivalent in a few broadsides.
Survivors of Waterloo left vivid accounts of the opening fire of the Grand Battery.
Sergeant William Lawrence of the 40th Foot described a direct hit
[QUOTE] A shell from the enemy cut our deputy Sergeant-Major in two, and having passed on to take the head off one of my company of grenadiers named William Hooper, exploded in the rear more than one yard from me, hurling me at least two yards into the air. [END QUOTE]
He was left with the skin on the left side of his face scorched off, his sash burnt and his sword handle blacked.
A few things strike me about that quote. First is you can see that cannon balls and shells really would cut things in half and keep going. Second is that survival was just a matter of luck. Sergeant Lawrence was only missed by a yard. Third though is that Sergeant Lawrence knows one of the dead soldiers. These weren’t just people in red coats, dying namelessly in the background to him. They weren’t like they are for us, unidentified figures in the background of history. These were his fellow soldiers, his brothers in arms. We can’t know what the Sergeants relationship was with Pvt Hooper. Was it just that he knew the face and name? Or had they shared a bottle and a laugh on guard duty? Had the Sergeant taught Pvt Hooper the ins and outs of campaign life when he joined the regiment?
I’m emphasising this so that it brings home that any battle we talk about on the podcast is a human affair. Fought by humans, for humans reasons. We can’t just zoom out and say “ah the blue ranks of the French moved in mass columns as Napoleon directed them against the neat red ranks of the British line” We have to go deeper than that to move beyond the superficial presentation we get in art or computer games.
It was too much for some men. Sergeant Lawrence was greatly annoyed at a new recruit to the 40th Foot. A Private Bartram, who was in his first battle. He couldn’t take the artillery fire and begged to be allowed to fall out as he was ill. The Sergeant wasn’t going to allow that, and shoved Bartram back into line. Bartram then fell to the ground and refused to move. Lawrence latter recalled that
[QUOTE] He ought to have been shot [END QUOTE]
That sounds harsh, but the Sergeants job was to keep the men fighting under fire. He was there risking his life with them, and he was seeing his friends and comrades die. He probably had little sympathy for those who didn’t do what he felt was needed.
Sergeant Lawrence wasn’t the only person under artillery fire. Ensign Wheatley who was stationed with the Kings German Legion, described the effects too.
[QUOTE] The first man who fell was five files on my left. With the utmost distortion of feature he lay on his side shrivelling up every muscle of his body, he twirled his elbow round and round in acute agony, then dropped lifeless. [END QUOTE]
Sergeant Tuittmeyer of the Kings German Legion had his arm removed at the shoulder by a round. Only a tiny stump of bone was left. This was a horrific injury, but his men pushed him up on a horse and he had to ride off to Brussels miles away to try to get medical help. He was certainly alive a month later, but after that it is unclear. Did he succumb to his wounds, or infection? Or did he return home to be supported by family, or was he left to starve and die of unemployment and drink like many unwanted soldiers after the war was over? It didn’t matter to the chroniclers of history, but it mattered to him and those who knew him perhaps? I think that means it should matter to the podcast.
Albrecht Heifer also in the Kings German Legion was hit in the chest by fire. He had suffered a glancing blow from a cannonball. He lost the skin and muscle down to the bone. It was miraculous that he survived. Few soldiers survived a direct hit to the torso. Captain Adair 1st Guards, who were stationed near Sergeant Lawrence, was hit in the hip. It shatter his hip bone and ripped all the flesh and muscle from his thigh. This was fatal.
Invisible shells mixed with the more easily spotted cannon balls hammered the Allied army up and down the line. Men took cover in the mud if they could. This was not glorious, it was dirty and unpleasant. Fine uniforms became mud covered, and men under fire couldn’t move to drink water or relieve themselves. They had to piss themselves in the mud rather than risk exposure. Still it was better for those that could take cover to do so.
Don’t forget that this is the opening music to raise the curtain for the opera. Napoleon has teased Wellington at Hougoument and treated him a powerful opening salvo to show him what is coming. Other armies facing Napoleon have been shaken and wavering at this stage from the early diversionary attacks and the heavy cannon fire. Nicely softened for the main assault, they would be easy to break. Often Napoleon wouldn’t even have to use his Imperial Guard reserves. He guarded them preciously. His “Grumblers” as he called them. Today would be different. Despite the noise and fury of the grand battery, most of the allied army was carefully hidden behind the reserve slope of Wellingtons ridge. Officers familiar with Wellingtons tactics in Spain would order their men to lie down to give them further protection from fire. For all its sound and fury, the fire from the grand battery wasn’t as effective as Napoleon would have believed. Worse for him, the ground was still muddy, so cannon balls would often stick in the mud rather than bouncing round killing. The angle of shot meant some French guns fired only to see their shots bounce up off the top of the Allied ridge and sail harmlessly over the enemies heads. Allied troops were dying, but not enough of them and not quickly enough.
For reasons I’ve understood, but not fully agreed with, during his career Napoleon had thrown away an immense technological advantage. France had a hot air ballon corp at one stage. The balloons were heavy, hard to move, weather dependent and slow to inflate so Napoleon had no patience for them. But imagine at Waterloo if they had been present. They could have been inflated overnight and done an aerial reconnaissance of the Allied position. Imagine the advantage this would have given Napoleon. Accurate information about the hidden Allied deployment. Now take it a step further. The French had the technology to use mortars, not just cannon. A mortar is basically a short barrelled cannon that can fire up over walls instead of a straight line. The British used them in the defence of Hougoumont. They were common in siege warfare too. Again though, Napoleon’s focus on speed meant he was unimpressed with the slow moving mortars and didn’t bring many to Waterloo.
How history might have changed if he had balloons and mortars available is an interesting question. The balloons were very unreliable and weather dependent, but the weather during the day of Waterloo was ideal for them. The balloons could have dropped notes to the ground to help direct mortar fire. Primative and slow, but given the extremely small size of the battlefield, the limited view needed, and the slow reaction times, this might have worked.
Still, idol speculation aside, the fact was that the French opening fire hadn’t been very effective, and Hougoumont was turning into a bloody meat grinder for the French. Napoleon was deferring most battlefield control to Marshal Ney. This was fairly standard practice for Napoleon especially as the battles grew larger. Napoleon would set the overall approach, moves, and goals for the battle, then he would leave the precise implementation to his Marshals. It was highly empowering in some ways, meaning that the men on the spot got to take the decisions, but it required highly performing Marshals and experienced, motivated, disciplined troops.
Marshal Ney was planning to send D’Erlon and his fresh troops in as the main assault on the British & Dutch section of the line to the right of the main road from the French point of view and was to the right of La Hay Sainte. This was therefore against the British left of centre. It required crossing the valley and ascending the light ridge, crossing it and shattering the British regiments. Now this was a tricky prospect. An uphill assault is never ideal in warfare. Men get tired, it is harder to hit shooting uphill than down. If you can’t see all the enemies at the top, it is especially risky. Marshal Ney had suffered defeats against Wellington in Spain in just this situation. It would require particular care and it needed the fiery, leading from the front Marshal to hang back and carefully control his generals and men, bringing infantry, cavalry and close artillery support together with clockwork precision but retaining the flexibility to adapt and overcome the enemies response. At the same time, Marshal Ney had to keep an eye on Hougoumont, and manage his reserves carefully to prevent counterattacks or exploit any opportunities. It would have been asking a lot of any commander, and even at his very best this would have been a tall ask for Marshal Ney. Of course if you’ve listened to my previous episode about Quatre Bras, you will know that not only was this basically well out of Marshal Ney’s character and abilities even at his best, but that he was almost certainly psychologically damaged by now. Perhaps suffering PTSD, certainly erratic and perhaps with a death wish. This was absolutely not a man to give an intricate and difficult battlefield command. Marshal Devout was in Paris as Minister of War. He certainly would have been the right man for this job, but it was too late. Ney had command of the field and Ney it would have to be.
And it wasn’t as if the French generals hadn’t been planning for this. They had experience of the devastating fire of the British. It is interesting to note that it was the British that were the main consideration. Other nationalities besides the British didn’t really feature in their worries. They knew it was the British regiments that provided the solid foundation of the Allied army, and if those could be broken, the rest would crumple quickly.
In many ways things were going well for Napoleon. The weather and late start had done him no favours. The assault on Hougoumont was nicely occupying Wellington, and despite not being at its most effective, the artillery fire was ferocious and causing immense damage. With care and good management an assault against Wellington’s left would break him. Wellington had deployed the bulk of his forces on the other side of the Brussels road. On his centre and right. Napoleon probably felt that he had yet again wrong footed Wellington. In a way this was correct, but as always the difficulty was in the execution rather than the idea.
D’Erlon had also thought carefully about this attack. His men had missed the battles of Quatre Bras and Ligny so crucially they were fresh and eager to get into battle. General Drout d’ergon was committed, calling out to his men “Today it is necessary to vanquish or die.” The troops roar “Vive l’Empereur” British and Hanoverian officers and men watched in awe as the mass of French infantry began to move forward, whilst the cannonade intensified. Captain John Kincaid 1/95th near La Hay Sainte recalled
[QUOTE] Countless columns began to advance under the cover of it. The scene at that moment was very grand and imposing, and we had a few minutes to spare for observation. A smaller body of infantry and one of cavalry moved on their right and on their left, another column of infantry and a formidable body of cuirassiers. [END QUOTE]
Other officers recalled seeing 16 eagles and 33 battalions. Masses of French forming up in columns, white cross belts gleaming in the sun, tall shakos crowned with shining badges.
In all General D’Erlon was about to advance in a narrow area of 1000 yards wide with 17,00 supported by 800 cavalry just to the West of the Brussels road. That’s the Allied left wing from Wellingtons point of view – his slightly weaker side. All seemed in the French favour. Here was the great attack of the day. An irresistible mass of fresh, almost fanatical troops directed by the fighting Marshal Ney. Yet even as the French began, the next great setback of the day was about to occur. At 13:35 Napoleon was surveying the ridge with his telescope one last time before it was obscured by smoke during the battle. He spotted something in the tree line to the far left of the Allied line from Wellingtons point of view. Could it be mist and trees, or a dark cloud? Or men moving? Staff officers hurried trained their telescopes on the spot. Some swore it was trees in the mist, but some said they were troops. But if they were troops, whose? Was it the Prussians or was it Grouchy. Whoever they were, they were only five miles away. Napoleon dispatched 3,000 of his precious cavalry to investigate. If it was Grouchy, then the cavalry would link up with this, and Wellington would probably face utter catastrophe.
15 minutes later, the cavalry sent a captured Prussian Black Hussar to the Emperor, who confirmed that Bulow’s IV corp of 30,000 men was arriving. Like D’Erlon these troops were fresh. IF you listened to earlier episodes you will know that they had been subject to muddled orders and were late to learn that the war had started, so they missed the thrashing at Ligny. This must have been grim news for Napoleon. They would change the odds. Stilll, the situation was not a disaster. If Grouchy arrived hot on the heels in pursuit of the Prussians as he’d been odered, well then Napoleon would not only have Wellington in the net, but a whole isolated Prussian corp too. If this happened, well then he’d have knocked his two enemies out of the war in a day.
Oddly enough, the Prussians were suffering a fit of reluctance. That came from one man. General Gneisenau. He was regarded as the brains of the Prussian army, and was openly referred to as such by Blucher. Unlike Blucher, he wasn’t very good on the battlefield. He also mistrusted Wellington and the British. He was hesitant to cross the Lasne defile and join the battle. He deliberately held up the order of march to slow the Prussians down. It took Blucher to over come his concerns and push the Prussians to march to aid Wellington. Still, that would take time to organise and would require co-ordination with Wellington. Napoleon didn’t delay though, he knew what the arrival of the Prussians meant. Wellington had to beaten, quickly before the Prussians could tip the scale. He had launched D’Erlon in attack. He sent two cavalry divisions and two infantry divisions of 8,000 badly needed men under General Lobau as well as 32 guns to hold up the Prussians. With these gone, Hougoumont sucking in more and more men, and now D’Erlon committed to the main attack Napoleon was stretched thin. He still had the magnificent Imperial Guard and the cavalry reserve, but there was nothing else available to him. D’Erlon must break Wellington. The reserves were there only to guarantee a victory by exploiting a win or to stave off absolute defeat by covering a retreat.
By 14:00 the Prussians had begun to cross the Lasne gap with Bulow’s IV corp in the lead, but it was in marching order. Long thin lines of men to thread their way through narrow forest roads. They would take hours to get to Wellington. Von Zeithens I Corp was even further away. For now Wellington and the Allies would fight alone. This was the crucial period for Napoleon. Did Napoleon silently kick himself for not starting the battle at day break. Imagine if the main attack had started at 09:30 instead of 13:30. Imagine that Ney hadn’t delayed at Quatre Bras. Imagine that Napoleon hadn’t delayed after Ligny. It is interesting to note that some of Wellington’s men Lambts Brigade had arrived by ship from America, unloaded from the ships, force marched to Waterloo and arrived at the battlefield at 10:30. If Napoleon had started at 09:30 Wellington would have been short a brigade and the Prussians would have been basically a whole day away from being able to help. Although this would have meant that the gallant Sergeant Lawrence would have missed the battle as his regiment was part of Lambts Brigade. I don’t know if the sergeant fought the Americans in the war of 1812, but the 4tth Battalion had and had lost a lot of its officers at the battle of New Orleans.
Why am I telling you that? Well apart from it being mostly relevant, have a think about what it means. British troops could be deployed anywhere in the world. The government thought nothing of redeploying a regiment from combat theatre to combat theatre as needed. Some of these regiments would become fearsome veterans. More than that though, it meant that soldiers who survived major battles like Waterloo would shape the spirit of their regiment for years to come. Regiments carried the memory of these actions into future wars. Some of the troops who fought in the brutal action of Waterloo would be sent to fight in colonies of the British Empire, on the Frontiers or in more major actions. They would have been tough men, who came from a life of poverty, where death and violence were commonplace. Then then join the army, only to be forged to a new hardness by Wellington and Napoleon at Waterloo. They took these attitudes, experiences and life views with them around the world as they started the major period of British expansion. They and their officers would train and mould new recruits to the army. In times of major crisis some officers would remind troops that the regiment had fought at Waterloo. In the same way that WW2 or 9/11 shaped generations, well Waterloo was shaping the British army and giving it almost a creation myth.
Time lost can’t even be regained. Especially in war, time is the most precious resource available. All rested on General D’Erlon and Marshal Ney. They had to succeed and do it quickly. Unfortunately, the problems began for D’Erlon and his men almost immediately. They marched through the French guns and down the slopes. Drums pounded and cheers went up, but they were soon in the mud of the valley bottom. Men couldn’t march, just struggle through the mud as best they could. Some men had their shoes sucked off in the deep mud. The fire of the Grand Battery roared overhead, but it had to stop as the French climbed the slope.
Dubois and his cavalry went up the Brussels road towards La Hay Sainte and moved off round to the left of the road making for the centre. General Quiot was close by with two Brigades, in a more open formation than the dense battalion columns used by Generals Donzelot and Marcognet. He was supposed to attack La Hay Sainte and the cross roads, supported by Dubois and his heavy cavalry. Then to his right were Donzelot and Marcognet with the massed formations. General Durette and his division were to protect the right side of the attack and perhaps link with Grouchy if he arrived.
The men on both sides knew that this was about to be the moment where they really earned their pay as soldiers. Either the French attack would succeed, in which case it was likely the French cavalry would sweep in to butcher thousands, or the Allies would kill enough French to stop the attack and beat it off.
We have vivid descriptions of the attack from both sides. British guns ranked the approaching French with vicious fire. Gun fire and dum beats and shouted orders and cheers filled the air. Smoke hung across area’s and mouths went dry from fear and the constant biting off of gunpower charges. It was hellish confusion. Up till now, apart from the fight at Hougoumont, much of the battlefield had been relatively peaceful. There had even been some civilians wandering around chatting and sight seeing.
Now though the French were closing. A French account gives us a powerful feeling of what it was like.
[QUOTE] We were met by a hail of balls from above the road at the left. Two batteries now swept our ranks, and shot from hedges distant distant pierced us through and through. [END QUOTE]
That’s interesting to note there. Some of the British position was hidden by a hedge in front of the concealed sunken lane. The French didn’t know about the lane, and it was a serious obstacle for them. The British had taken the opportunity to carefully hide cannon in the hedge to add to the impressive firestorm that the French had to face. The British 95th Rifles added to the French pain by pouring in accurate, long range rifle fire from their position in a sand pit near La Hay Sainte.
The French pressed on hard. The noise must have reached a horrific pitch. This is not something we can understand just from the static and highly stylised artwork and prints of the period.
Now though the pressure on the Allied line also intensified. The French were forcing the top of the ridge, pushing through hedges. The British gunners acted on Wellington’s standing orders to leave their guns and take shelter from a main assault, to return to their guns later if the attack was beaten off. This lessened the Allied fire considerably. Bijlandt’s 7 Infantry Battalion from the Netherlands began to waver. They began to break. The French were seriously hampered by the sunken lane. This was more like a ravine according to some eye witnesses, and forced the French to slow down and struggle across. As the Netherlanders broke and ran, it looked like the French had done it. They were on the cusp of breaking the Allied centre, splitting Wellington’s army in half and smashing it. The French were showing why they were considered one of the toughest, bravest fighting powers in the C19th. Still French formations were disordered and confused by the hedge, and the sheer number of men crammed into a small area. Smoke hung heavily over everyone. The French just needed time to carry the assault and reform then push on to victory. They were only yards and minutes away from victory.
There were still some British units left to try to check the French attack. This might be one of the numerically weakest parts of Wellingtons line, but it was held by some very dangerous men. Sir Thomas Picton was the well known commander, experienced and tough. In his younger days in the Caribbean he had tortured slaves to an extent that he was actually put on trial. He secured a dubious acquittal on appeal on the grounds that Spanish colonial law allowed the torture. Despite this Francisco De Miranda had recommended him to Wellington and he had distinguished himself in Spain. He was still in his civilian clothes, but he was committed. He had two brigades to use, and he sent them forward. One, commanded by General Pack was made of fearsome Highlanders. 1st, 42nd and 92nd. It is never nice to be on the receiving end of an attack by the Highlanders, and at Waterloo they would give the French a lesson. They were the tough men of the glens and the rough towns and cities of Scotland. They were fiercely proud and ready. They might be only 1800 against 8000 but they would fight. They moved forward the 50 yards to fill the gap left by the fleeing Netherlanders and poured three brutal volleys into the French. Then they stood to hold the line.
At the critical point of La Hay Sainte, the fighting was brutal and intense. The Germans holding the position wanted revenge on the French after years of war. La Hay Sainte was not well fortified, and fighting raged fiercely. British General Alten spotted the danger of losing La Hay Sainte. He sent more German troops to steady the situation. They set off across the open ground to re-enforce their belligered comrades. Unfortunately, the ground was gently rolling in the area, and the French cavalry under General Dubois was hidden in a fold. A disaster was about to unfold for the Germans. The German re-enforcements were marching in column as fast as they could, but they were spotted by the French cavalry. The high discipline of the French was about to pay off. The ground was too wait for a full on charge, but they could manage a fast well ordered trot against the exposed Germans. It was too late to form square. Imagine the horror the Germans must have felt. To know you are doomed, and not be able to do anything, but still having to wait for death to hit home. Hit home it did though. The Lundberg Battalion was effective wiped out. Three officers were killed, the standard capture, half the men were killed, another 180 more were left missing in action.
Then the cavalry pushed on past La Hay Sainte, towards the British centre. They even captured two British guns.
Now the battle hung in the balance. What could turn the tide for the Allies?