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Napoleon Bonaparte bestrode the world stage like a colossus. Rising amidst the bloody chaos left in the wake of the French Revolution of 1789, Napoleon began his career as a young officer of artillery. He first made his mark in 1794 as the artillery commander of the Republican forces at the Siege of Toulon. The following year he saved the Republican government (the Directory) from a Paris mob by unleashing artillery fire into the crowd (giving them a “whiff of grapeshot”). He was rewarded with command of the French army operating against the Austrians in northern Italy, all this at the age of 27.
Once in command of an army of his own, the young Bonaparte went from victory to amazing victory, never looking back. After defeating the Austrians in Italy (1796) and conquering Mameluke Egypt (1798), he returned to France to take over the reigns of government as First Consul of the Republic. After defeating the Austrians again in 1800 at Marengo, his popularity and dominance over France were assured. In 1804 he crowned himself Emperor of the French (L’Empereur des Français). At the head of a well trained and drilled “Grande Armee”, he went on in the next eight years to conquer an empire surpassing that of Charlemagne. At its peak, the Napoleonic Empire spanned Europe from the Tagus to the Nieman; from Straits of Messina to the Skagerrak.
But after the disastrous Russian Campaign of 1812, Napoleon faced a determined coalition of nations; financed by the wealth of the British Empire bent on his overthrow. In the battles of 1813-1814, he was continually beaten back to the vary outskirts of Paris. Despite a brilliant defensive campaign by the now aging Emperor, the will amongst his Marshals to continue on against all odds in his service eroded away; and one-by-one they surrendered to the Allied armies invading France. Napoleon was forced to abdicate and go into exile; and the Bourbon monarchy was restored, backed by allied armies that ringed the country.
In February of 1815 Napoleon Bonaparte returned from exile on the island of Elba. Immediately the powers of Europe prepared to invade France to depose him once again. For the next 100 days, Napoleon’s future fortunes and the map of Europe lay in the balance as events hastened toward the climatic battle of the Napoleonic Wars.
The Allied powers who had defeated Napoleonic France in 1814 had granted him, through the terms of the Treaty of Fontainebleau, independent rule of tiny Elba. However, it was believed that the Allies were planning to violate these terms and exile him to a small island in the South Atlantic. Therefore Napoleon abrogated the treaty and returned to France; where he was quickly joined by veterans of his campaigns (including Marshal of France Michel Ney; who had been dispatched with forces by King Louis (Bourbon) XVIII to arrest the returned exile). The monarchial government fled Paris, and Napoleon was returned to power as Emperor of France.
Though he attempted in a flurry of correspondence to assure the Allied Powers of his peaceful intentions, the Allies prepared to invade France and once again drag the “Ogre” from his throne.
Showing a level of energy and organizational genius reminiscent of his earlier years, Napoleon quickly raised an army of veterans (many of which had spent the latter part of his campaigns imprisoned by the allies, and recently returned); and struck first before the Allied armies that still ringed France could move. He targeted those nearest to Paris, the Anglo-Dutch and Prussian armies in Belgium. He knew that the British and Prussian armies were widely dispersed, and might be defeated in detail. Further, that the British at least were of dubious quality; as much of Wellington’s Peninsular War veterans had been sent to America for the (disastrous) New Orleans Campaign.
The combined British, Dutch and Hanoverian forces in Belgium numbered some 93,000, scattered in bivouacs across the northwestern part of the country. They were of mixed quality, but most were inexperienced and unreliable (particularly the Dutch troops, under the Prince of Orange). They were commanded by the redoubtable “Iron Duke”, Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington. Wellington had been enormously successful in defeating some of Napoleon’s best Marshals in Spain. But he had never crossed swords on the battlefield with the master. Napoleon had scant respect for Wellington, who he disparagingly called “the Sepoy general”; a reference to Wellington’s early career commanding British forces in India. Wellington for his part had the utmost respect for Napoleon as a commander: “His presence on the (battle) field made the difference of forty thousand men.”
The Prussians, in eastern Belgium, were commanded by crusty old Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, an old foe who Napoleon had faced during the campaigns of 1813-1814. He was a dogged, aggressive, and determined (if an unimaginative) commander. Blücher had a deep and abiding hatred for Napoleon and the French; due to the humiliation Napoleon had inflicted upon his nation in 1806. On the approach to Waterloo, he commanded his men to take ”No prisoners! Show no pity! I will shoot any man I see with pity in him.” His forces in Belgium numbered 116,000, and were headquarted about Namur.
Napoleon’s Armee du Nord, numbering 128,000 men, was qualitatively the best army he had commanded since the debacle in Russia in 1812. Many of them were veterans of the victorious campaigns of Marengo, Ulm, Austerlitz, Jena and Auerstedt; some perhaps even remembered battling at the foot of the Pyramids! Thousands of these had spent the last few years in garrisons throughout the empire, in Spain, or as prisoners of the Allies; and having missed the bloody defeats of recent years, remembered only Napoleon’s invincible days of old. They were well rested, and ready to reclaim the lost glories of their youth. The cavalry, in particular, had benefited from the brief peace of 1814, and were more numerous and better mounted than any Napoleon had at his disposal in the terrible campaigns of 1813-1814.
But though his troops were first-rate, and the Emperor seemed at the start of the campaign to have regained the vigor of his earlier years, many of the advantages once enjoyed by French arms were no more.
For one thing, the wildly successful methods of warfare employed by the French armies of the Revolution and the early Napoleonic campaigns had been studied and learned by the enemies of France. Now Prussian infantry lines were as well screened by swarms of loose-ordered skirmishers as were the French. All European armies by 1815 employed heavy cavalry in the shock-role once again (something that had declined in Europe prior to Napoleon). And Wellington at least had learned to avoid French concentrated cannonade by deploying his main force on the reverse slopes behind a ridge line. (Wellington would say of Waterloo that the French, who practiced attacking in columns screened by skirmishers, that “They came on in the same old fashion; and we defeated them in the same old fashion!”)
Another factor weighing against Napoleon was the quality of his commanders. Many of his best were not present with the Armee du Nord. Marshal Masséna was retired; Lannes dead; Davout remained behind in Paris, organizing the rebuilding of Napoleon’s future armies; and Suchet was posted at Lyons, in command of the troops guarding the Alpine frontier. In their place were lesser subordinates, men of proven courage but lacking in initiative and judgment.
Murat, his legendary cavalry commander and former King of Naples, had offered his services and been refused (Napoleon was furious with him for his mishandling of the Neapolitan War and the loss of his Kingdom). His skill and boldness (particularly in the pursuit of a broken enemy) would be distinctly lacking in his replacement, Grouchy; whose tentative and plodding pursuit of Blucher following Ligny would never had occurred had Murat, instead, been in his customary place as commander of the Reserve Cavalry Corps.
The greatest loss was that of Marshal Berthier, Napoleon’s amazingly able Chief of Staff. He was the man who, throughout all of Napoleon’s campaigns, had turned the Emperor’s often disjointed and nearly incomprehensible exclamations into coherent written orders and directives to Corps and Division commanders. He was the man who insured that the various Corps of Napoleon’s Grande Armée could operate on a wide front in well-coordinated fashion. Following Napoleon’s abdication in 1814, Berthier had retired to private life; making his peace with the Bourbons and concentrating on his hobbies of falconry and sculpture. Just weeks before the Waterloo Campaign, he had fallen from an upstairs window in Bamberg, and died.
Wither Berthier was the victim of suicide or murder (by an extreme monarchist group?) is unknown. But his presence would be sorely missed in the coming campaign. He was replaced as Chief of Staff by Marshal Nicolas Soult. Though an able commander, Soult had nothing of Berthier’s genius for staff work. Much of the confusion and mistakes made in the coming campaign can be laid at Soult’s feet. (In The Fall of Napoleon: The Final Betrayal author David Hamilton-Williams postulates that Soult was part of a conspiracy to undermine Napoleon in the 1815 campaign and ensure his downfall. Thus his “mistakes” in staff work were deliberate sabotage of Napoleon’s plans.) (1)
Whether or not there was a secret plot to betray Napoleon amongst those in his inner circle can never be known for certainty; short of new and convincing documentation coming to light. However, by choosing the likes of Ney, Soult, and Grouchy as his top subordinates in place of Murat, Davout, and Suchet (the latter two, in particular, intrepid commanders who were quite capable commanders in their own right) shows that at the least the Emperor was not interested in men who could exercise independent judgment. It was a decision that would come back to bite him in the coming campaign.
But the most marked disadvantage facing the French on this, Napoleon’s last campaign, was the failing health of the Emperor, himself. Though not quite 46, he had gained weight during his forced retirement to Elba; and was showing other signs of aging.
Historians are in disagreement as to wither or not Napoleon was suffering from a debilitating illness at this point of his life; and, if he was, what it could have been. Everything from hemorrhoids to dropsy have been suggested. He certainly was erratic in his energy levels; at times as sharp and lively as when he was the young General Bonaparte, the man who dazzled Europe with the rapidity and decisiveness of his maneuvers. But at other, crucial moments his energy and powers of decision flagged; most notably in the late afternoon at Waterloo, when he had to turn over command to Ney (with disastrous result) while he took a nap. Napoleon was aging prematurely, and was no longer the wizard of the battlefield who had defeated foemen from the Pyrenees to the Pyramids.
By 1815, Napoleon was no longer the young firebrand
This said, Napoleon began the Waterloo Campaign displaying all of the brilliance of old. Moving rapidly north, he captured the crossroad river crossing of Charleroi; in position to split the allies and to engage and destroy each separately. This was one of his favorite tactics when faced with a coalition of armies: to strike at the joint between them, divide them, and then defeat each in detail before they could come to each other’s aid. At Charleroi, he was in a perfect position to do just this very thing to the Anglo-Dutch and Prussian forces in Belgium.
PRELIMINARY SHOTS AT LIGNY AND QUATRE BRAS
Wellington had expected the French to cross the frontier further west, at Mons; and disposed of his forces to cover such a move. When informed at 3pm on June 15 that Napoleon’s army had instead crossed the border and taken Charleroi that morning, he exclaimed: “He (Napoleon) has humbugged me!” Examining a map, he ordered his army to immediately break camp and move that night; to concentrate the next day at a crossroads village of Quatre Bras. He added, “But we shall not stop him there; and if so, I must fight him here,” tapping a place on the map north of Quatre Bras: Waterloo.
The next day, 16th June, Napoleon marched against the Prussians with 68,000; meaning to crush the Prussians before Wellington’s army could assemble. Meanwhile he detached his right wing of 18,000 men (including 2,000 cavalry and 32 guns) and supported by d’Erlon’s First Corps (another nearly 20,000 men) under Marshal Ney to engage the British forces as they arrived at the crossroad village of Quatre Bras. Ney’s orders were to smash the Wellington’s forces as they arrived in dribs-and-drabs; and to then turn east and envelope the right flank of the Prussians at Ligny, sealing their fate. To these instructions the Emperor added the warning, “The fate of the Empire is in your hands.”
At the village of Ligny, Napoleon inflicted a sharp defeat on Blücher, hammering his 84,000 men all day. The Prussians suffered 20,000 dead or wounded, and lost 20 guns (as compared to a loss of only 6,000 French). Blücher himself was nearly killed or captured, when he was pinned under his horse and his position overrun by French cavalry. (History would have taken a very different turn had Blücher been killed or captured at Ligny!) It was only by the force of his indomitable presence that Blücher held his army together at all (as it was, another 8-10,000 Prussians deserted during the retreat), withdrawing toward the northeast.
Blücher’s close-call at Ligny
To the west, however, Ney failed to defeat Wellington’s forces as they arrived piecemeal at Quatre Bras; despite having a numerical advantage throughout most of the day (Wellington’s army suffered from atrocious staff work, and his dispersed forces had a great deal of trouble assembling in a timely fashion at Quatre Bras). Confusion as regards to the mission and disposition of d’Erlon’s I Corps, which marched back-and-forth between the two battlefields without ever engaging in either of the two battles; contributed to neither Napoleon or Ney having sufficient forces at their disposal to achieve a decisive result. The arrival of these 19,000 men and 44 guns at either Ligny or Quatre Bras could certainly have overwhelmed the already strained Allied resources; ending the campaign for all intent and purpose on the 16th.
The Black Watch (42nd Royal Highland Regiment) was severely mauled at Quatre Bras by French lancers of the 2nd Cavalry Div (Piré division); who used the tall wheat to surprise the highlanders before they could complete the forming of a defensive square.
Instead, the allies escaped destruction and throughout the evening of the 16th and all day on the 17th of June, fell back northward along parallel lines.
THE STAGE IS SET NEAR WATERLOO
Napoleon decided that Blücher, so badly mauled at Ligny, was the lesser of the two threats (Napoleon stated to his staff that Blücher ”couldn’t possibly fight another battle for at least two days”); and decided to personally lead the bulk of his army in pursuit of Wellington’s retreating forces. He detached Marshal Grouchy, with two infantry and one cavalry corps (approx. 30,000 men) to pursue Blücher and “keep a sword in his back”, preventing him regrouping and coming to Wellington’s assistance. As stated earlier, in this task Grouchy proved singularly inept.
Despite the drubbing he took at Ligny, Blücher was far from daunted. He maintained communication with his British ally; promising to come to his assistance at Waterloo on the 18th. During the long march on the 17th to avoid Grouchy, Blücher harangued his troops:
“My children! I have promised my brother Wellington that tomorrow I will be at his side! Don’t disappoint me!”
They would not.
Constant, drenching rain on the afternoon and evening of the 17th turned the roads into a morass of mud; slowing French pursuit. French heavy guns, the Emperor’s battle-winners, had a particularly difficult time on roads turned to sucking mud. This contributed to the Allies putting time and distance between themselves and the pursuing French forces.
On the 18th of June, 1815, Wellington’s forces were deployed and ready along a east/west ridge south of Waterloo, in front of Mont-Saint-Jean. It is one of the ironies of the battle that it is remembered by different names depending on whose version one relies. While Wellington dubbed it Waterloo, Blücher suggested that the battle should be remembered as la Belle Alliance (where Napoleon had his headquarters throughout the battle), and Napoleon referred to it as the Battle of Mont-Saint-Jean.
“The Iron Duke” had picked his position well. His line was anchored on his right by the fortified farmhouse of Hougoumont; on the forward slope of the ridge and surrounded by a pine orchard. In the center the British held another walled farmhouse compound, La Haye Sainte; which straddled the main north-south road. On the allied left were hedgerows around the hamlets of Papelotte and La Haye, also garrisoned by Wellington’s forces. Along the crest of the ridge ran a deep sunken lane, which along with the reverse slope allowed Wellington to conceal his strength, with the exception of his skirmishers and artillery deployed on the crest.
Initial deployment of forces, Waterloo, June 18
Massed around the village of La Belle Alliance, Napoleon deployed across the valley from Wellington’s forces. At a glance, he could see that the terrain was broken and difficult on Wellington’s left; and the center and right of the Allied position was defended by fortified strong points. Maneuver was called for, perhaps around Hougoumont to the west. Napoleon in fact began the battle with a faint in just this direction. Wellington, concerned against such an obvious eventuality, had posted 17,000 badly needed troops at Hal to the west.
Another option was to attack to the east, and drive a wedge between Wellington and any possible Prussian reinforcements coming from the east. However, even if fortified and garrisoned Papelotte and La Haye could be taken or turned, the Woods of Ohain and the Forest of Soignes further protected Wellington’s left flank; making exploitation in that direction difficult. Napoleon seems to have ruled out this approach.
Instead, having begun the campaign with such strategic flair, Napoleon could now think of nothing more imaginative than a frontal attack against Wellington’s very strong position.
This entailed first taking one or both of the strong-points defending the forward slopes of Wellington’s position, Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte. As long as Wellington’s forces held these, any French attack against the ridge beyond would be funneled between them; subject to a withering flanking fire.
Napoleon began his last battle with an assault on Hougoumont.
The exact time that Waterloo began, with the attack on Hougoumont, is disputed. Most accounts say it began about 11:30am. However, according to Wellington’s dispatches , “at about ten o’clock (Napoleon) commenced a furious attack upon our post at Hougoumont”. It is curious that there is no certainty as to when so important a battle actually began. But considering how punctilious Wellington was in all matters, I am prone to take his word for it that the assault on Hougoumont commenced at 10am.
This stronghold was held by a battalion of the 2nd Nassau Regiment, detachments of riflemen from the Hanoverian Brigade, and assorted companies of the British Guards regiments. The Guards were among the last to arrive at the Waterloo battlefield; and Wellington had placed them behind that part of the ridge warded Hougoumont. They would have the crucial task of holding his right flank at all costs.
Hougoumont consisted of a walled farmhouse, attendant outbuildings, and garden; surrounded by orchards (defended by two light companies of the 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the First Regiment of Foot Guards; who after the events of this day were re-designated at the Grenadier Guards).
It has been asserted that Napoleon meant to draw troops from Wellington’s right into a bloody defense of the farmhouse, thinning Wellington’s reserves. However, to take so strong a place Napoleon committed his entire left wing, consisting of nearly all of Reille’s II Corps (which included the 6th Division, under Napoleon’s brother Jerome), and supported by Kellerman’s Corps of cavalry. All day the battle would rage, and it can be argued that it had the reverse effect; tying up some 14,000 French troops, and most of the horse artillery of Kellerman’s Cavalry Corps (which would have consequences later in the battle).
Likewise, Wellington was forced to commit 12,000 troops and several much needed batteries of artillery from his hard-pressed center to his right flank; in order to keep open the approaches to Hougoumont from the north. The struggle for the farmhouse became a battle-within-a-battle; sucking resources from both sides away from the main effort to take or hold the ridge.
An initial French assault by the 6th Division cleared the Guards from the orchard; but was beaten back by heavy British artillery fire. A second assault gained more ground, causing a breach in the south wall of the compound; but the French were unable to exploit it.
A third attack, by the 1st Legere (Light) regiment, swung around the north side.
Here, an axe-wielding Sous-Lieutenant named Legros, managed to break through the north gate. A desperate fight ensued before a party of Guards fought through the melee to shut the gate, trapping Legros and about 30 other soldiers inside. All but a drummer boy were killed, and Hougoumont held.
Reinforcement by the Coldstream Guards soon drove the French from the north side, keeping the supply lines open. The battle would continue all day at Hougoumont, but Legros’ attack was the “high water line” of the French assault.
Wellington declared afterwards that “the success of the battle turned upon the closing of the gates at Hougoumont”.
THE ADVANCE OF D’ERLON’S CORPS, AND THE CHARGE OF THE UNION BRIGADE
While the battle for Hougoumont was underway on the western flank of the field, the 80 heavy guns of Napoleon’s Grande Batterie were pounding Wellington’s center. Though the bulk of the Allied forces were drawn up on the reverse slope of the ridge, beyond the line-of-sight of the French gunners, much of the 12 pound shot hurled over the crest to land among the allied formations. The Allied infantry had to lay down in the grass to present a smaller target; and cavalry regiments of the Wellington’s Union Brigade, waiting far in the rear in the third line, found it necessary to move to their left to avoid casualties.
Just after 1pm, Napoleon began his main attack against the center-left of Wellington’s line. This was delivered by Jean-Baptiste Drouet, comte d’Erlon’s nearly 20,000 strong First (I) Corps. Having essentially missed the fighting on the 16th at Ligny and Quatre Bras, d’Erlon’s men were relatively fresh. It would fall upon them to make the first attempt to drive Wellington off of his ridge; to push Wellington’s left back toward Mont-Saint-Jean and drive a wedge between them and the coming Prussians.
Facing d’Erlon’s 20,000 were approximately 6,000 mixed English, Dutch, and Hanoverian regiments. The fist line consisted of Bylandt’s 1st Brigade of the Second Netherlands Division. These Dutch troops were mostly militia; and had already seen hard fighting at Quatre Bras. The bombardment from the grande batterie had taken its toll on this formation, and they were stretched thin to cover the necessary ground east of La Haye Sainte. The Dutch were backed up by a second line of British and Hanoverian troops under Sir Thomas Picton. Like the Dutch, these had been heavily involved in the fighting at the crossroads on June 16th. Outnumbered by d’Erlon’s fresh troops, this section of the Allied like would soon have all it could handle.
On d’Erlon left, the French 2nd Division under Donzelot, supported by Cuirassiers pushed forward around La Haye Sainte. While one brigade masked and assaulted the farmhouse, the other two brigades pushed past on either flank. The Prince of Orange, Wellington’s second-in-command and commander of the troops in this section of the line ordered a battalion of Hanoverian infantry to relieve the now isolated La Haye Sainte. But these were attacked and shattered by French Cuirassiers, covering Donzelot’s left.
The other three divisions of d’Erlon’s Corp moved forward up the ridge, formed not in the customary 9-deep columns but instead in 3-deep battalion lines. D’Erlon had fought Wellington in Spain. He knew that the English had stopped French column-assault by close range musket fire. His plan seems to have been to rely on musketry instead of the bayonet to break the Anglo-Dutch defenders. As the advancing French lines fired volleys into Bylandt’s brigade, D’Erlon’s expectations seemed to have been justified; for whole files of the defending Dutchmen went down. As gaping holes appeared in their lines, the militiamen broke and fell back on their reserves.
General Thomas Picton commanded the reserve 5th Division. Picton was a highly-decorated veteran of the Peninsula War, known for his courage and irascible temperament. His baggage had not arrived in Brussels in time for the campaign; and so he commanded his division that day wearing civilian clothing and a top-hat!
Seeing the first line falling back before d’Erlon’s blue-coated infantry, Picton now ordered his brigades to counter-attack. The British (and Scots), who were lying in low ground behind the ridge-crest, stood now and fired upon the French. Exchanging volleys at close range, Picton’s outnumbered men got the worse of the exchange. The British and Hanoverians were also forced to fallback. Picton himself was struck in the temple by a musket ball, and fell dead. He was the most senior officer killed on that sanguine day.
The situation was now nearly desperate. At this crucial moment, Wellington turned to his cavalry commander (and Brother-in-Law) Lord Henry Paget, the Earl of Uxbridge, and ordered his two brigades of heavy cavalry to charge d’Erlon’s approaching infantry.
To throw against the advancing French, Uxbridge had two superbly mounted and equipped brigades of heavy (shock) cavalry. The 1st Brigade, also known as the Household Brigade, representing the British monarch’s personal mounted guard regiments, was composed of the 1st and 2nd Life Guards, the Royal Horse Guards (the Blues), and the 1st (King’s) Dragoon Guards. These were the senior cavalry regiments in the British army. The 2nd Brigade was known as the Union Brigade, as it was composed of a regiment from each of the three parts of the United Kingdom: England, Scotland, and Ireland. These were the 1st Royal Dragoons, the 2nd Dragoons (‘Scots Greys’); and the 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons.
The British cavalry, while better mounted than any in Europe and possessing terrific individual weapon’s skills, were inexperienced and undisciplined. Wellington had little confidence in their ability to rally after a charge, or to maneuver to any advantage. While squadron-to-squadron the British could best any two of the French, their indiscipline was their undoing in larger cavalry battles:
“I considered our ( British ) cavalry so inferior to the French from the want of order, that although I considered one squadron a match for two French, I didn’t like to see four British opposed to four French, and as the numbers increased and order, of course, became more necessary I was the more unwilling to risk our men without having a superiority in numbers”.
In massed formation, the British cavalry were a one trick pony: capable of delivering only one all-out charge, and little else. However, with the masses of blue and red shakos of d’Erlon’s fusiliers nearing the crest of the ridge, it was perhaps just the trick that was needed!
The Napoleonic battlefield was much like a game of “rock-paper-scissors”. Whereas in that childhood game “rock” beats “scissors”, “scissors” beats “paper”, and “paper” in turn beat “rock”; similarly, on the Napoleonic battlefield the fire of an infantry line-formation decimated square, square was necessary to foil cavalry charge, while cavalry charge shattered line. On a higher level artillery beat infantry, cavalry beat artillery, and infantry (at least when in square) bested cavalry.
When charged by cavalry, musket-armed infantry had but one expedient: to halt and form square. This formation, of three or four tightly packed ranks, presented the horsemen with a hedgehog of glittering bayonet blades. The first and second rank knelt, their musket’s butt braced in the ground, their bayonets at the horse’s chest level. The third rank (and fourth if available), standing, would fire at point blank range over the their comrade’s head.
But to go from a spread-out firing line to a tightly packed square took even the best battalions time to prepare. Perhaps only minutes, but in battle minutes can be in short supply. If unable to form square in time, infantry would be run down and slaughtered by their nemesis, the galloping horsemen.
Now, into the advancing lines of French infantry Uxbridge hurled his squadrons in mass!
To the west of La Haye Sainte the Household Brigade smashed into the Cuirassiers warding the left of Donzelot’s Division; driving them off in disorder. Continueing down the slope, they likewise destroyed that part of Donzelot’s infantry who stood in their way.
To the east of the farmhouse, where the mass of d’Erlon’s Corps were advancing, the Union Brigade struck like a hurricane. With no warning the riders came flooding over the crest of the ridge, into the astonished and unprepared French battalions. In seconds, d’Erlon’s divisions were shattered, fleeing down the way they had come! A senior British cavalry officer present described the scene:
“….the enemy fled as a flock of sheep across the valley; quite at the mercy of the Dragoons.”
The charge of the Scot’s Greys (pictured) and the Union Brigade shattered d’Erlon’s Corps
At a stoke, Wellington (and Uxbridge) had turned the tables on the French, as D’Erlon’s hitherto successful attack was repulsed, and his entire Corps reduced to refugees running for their lives.
Capture of the Eagle of the 45th Reg Line by the Scots Greys
However, the indiscipline of the British horsemen and the very success of their charge now worked to their detriment. As officers frantically called for them to reform, the British horsemen galloped on in a killing frenzy; pursuing and sabering d’Erlon’s fleeing soldiers.
“(the officers) exhorted themselves to the utmost to reform the men; but the helplessness of the enemy suffered too great a temptation to the Dragoons… The Dragoons were in the same disorder, cutting up remnants of the dispersed enemy.”
The Scots Greys, particularly, over-extended themselves; charging across the valley. At some point, James Hamilton, the commander of the Greys redirected their charge now against Napoleon’s Grande Batterie, on the opposite slopes of the valley and in the center of the French position. Many of the gunners were sabered or run off, at least temporarily silencing the punishing barrage of Wellington’s position.
However, this was a “bridge too far”.
Napoleon, watching from nearby Belle Alliance, ordered a counter attack from the flank by regiments of lancers waiting in reserve. Wheeling into the flank of the disordered British horsemen, the lancers fell upon them and exacted a bloody revenge!
“If only we could have formed a hundred men we could have made a respectable retreat and saved many. But we could effect no formation and were as helpless against their (the lancers) attack as their infantry had been against ours.”
On now-blown horses, the British tried fleeing back to their lines or to either flank of the lancers. But many were overtaken and killed or captured. Among the dead was Sir William Ponsonby, commander of the Union Brigade; speared by a lancer while attempting to flee across the muddy field on a spent horse.
By the middle of the afternoon, both combatants had returned to their respective places on either side of the valley; leaving the slopes littered with masses of dead and wounded, men and horses alike. While d’Erlon’s Corp had been shattered (and would only return as a few reassembled brigades later in the day) Wellington’s cavalry was a nearly spent force.
THE PRUSSIANS APPEAR AND NEY’S GAMBLE
1. Hamilton-Williams, David: The Fall of Napoleon: The Final Betrayal. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 1994
2. Wellesley, Arthur: Wellington’s Dispatches; 9 June 1815