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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, he began his career as a young officer of artillery. He first made his mark in 1794 as the commander of the artillery during the Siege of Toulon. The following year he saved the Republican government (The Directory) from a Parisian mob, by unleashing artillery fire into the crowd (the “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 his own army, 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 in Italy again in 1800 at the Battle of Marengo, his popularity and political 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, which resulted in the destruction of the Grande Armee, Napoleon faced a determined coalition of hostile nations; financed by the wealth of the British Empire and determined upon his overthrow. In the battles of 1813-1814, he was continually beaten and forced to retreat; ultimately to the very outskirts of Paris. Despite a brilliant defensive campaign by the now-aging Emperor, the will amongst his Marshals to continue the struggle eroded away; and one-by-one they surrendered to the Allied armies invading France. Napoleon was forced to abdicate. In 1814, according to the terms of the Treaty of Fontainebleau, he was granted a genteel exile upon the Island of Elba, near Corsica, the place of his birth. After his departure, the Bourbon monarchy was restored, backed by allied armies that ringed the country.
In February of 1815, in response to growing national disaffection with the Bourbon government and the arrogance of the returning expatriate aristocracy, as well as a belief that the Allies were planning to violate the treaty and exile him to a small island in the South Atlantic; Napoleon returned from exile. Marshal of France Michel Ney was dispatched with forces to arrest the exile. Instead, he and the veteran he commanded rallied around their former master; and the Bourbon’s once again fled France. Returning to Paris, Napoleon was once again firmly in place as Emperor of the French.
Immediately the Allied Powers prepared to invade France. For the next 100 days, Napoleon’s fortunes and the map of Europe lay in the balance, as events hastened toward the climatic battle of the Napoleonic Wars. Though he attempted, in a flurry of diplomatic correspondence, to assure the Allies of his peaceful intentions; their armies were massed along the border, preparing to invade France and 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 as POWs in England, and were but recently returned). He decided to strike first, before the Allied armies could move. He targeted first those nearest to Paris, the Anglo-Dutch and Prussian armies in Belgium. He knew that the British and Prussians were widely dispersed, and could 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.
OPPOSING FORCES AND COMMANDERS
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 himself. 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 perceived 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 headquartered 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 the French 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, and they were even better at it than the French from whom they had copied it. 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 concentrated French cannonade by deploying his main force on the reverse slopes of 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. 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 have 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 ensured that the various Corps of Napoleon’s Grande Arméecould 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. His death was proclaimed a suicide; but many to this day suspect foul play.
Wither Berthier was the victim of suicide or murder (by the extreme monarchists) 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 actually 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 and 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.
By 1815, Napoleon was no longer the young firebrand who dazzled Europe with his furious energy
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 foeman from the Pyrenees to the Pyramids.
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.
However, the Duke spent the evening of the 15th at the fashionable Duchess of Richmond’s Ball in that lady’s townhouse in Brussels. Nearly every general and senior officer in his army was also present. Though the Prince of Orange and other officers were ordered throughout the afternoon and evening to see to their commands, this delay in action contributed to a ghastly confusion the following day.
Due to the abysmal state of staff-work in Wellington’s army (poor even by the inadequate standard of the day), and the late hour in which the orders went out (carried by a wholly inadequate corps of staff officers, having to carry them galloping through the dark of night, over unfamiliar country roads, to unit headquarters scattered over a hundred square miles); the next day would witness utter chaos on the roads. Setting out from their bivouacs and marching along roads little better than farm lanes, many units soon found themselves utterly lost in the darkness. Morning light found 90,000 men and beasts clogging the two narrow dirt lanes leading to Quatre Bras; the worst congestion occurring on the Nivelles east-west road; from which 60,000 of Wellington’s troops were attempting to march. Units became intermixed and interfered with each other’s movement.
The experience of one officer is illustrative of the confusion amongst Wellington’s scattered regiments in the pre-dawn darkness of the 16th June, as they scrambled to respond to the late-night movement orders. At the village of Soignies, southwest of Nivelles, the 30th (Cambridgeshire) Regiment of Foot had departed in the night, marching east. In their haste none noticed that the regiment’s Light Company, detached on picket duty two miles away, had been left behind. The first inkling that company’s commander had that his regiment had gotten movement orders was when he returned to headquarters at dawn to see to his company’s breakfast; only to find the place deserted of its former British occupants! The officer, Ensign (later Major) Neville Macready, recounted the incident later:
I ran into the house and asked, “Where are the troops?” “They marched at 2 this morning”, was the cilling reply from a local. “By what road?” “Towards Braine le Compte”……
Throughout fighting on the 16th of June, the location and arrival time of Wellington’s formations was a matter of wild speculation, beyond his control; severely hampering his ability to come to the aid of his Prussian ally or even to hold onto the crossroads at Quatre Bras against Ney’s advancing forces.</p>
The next day, 16th June, Napoleon marched against the Prussians with 68,000; meaning to crush Blücher before Wellington’s army could assemble. Meanwhile he detached his right wing of 18,000 men (including 2,000 cavalry and 32 guns), under Marshal Ney to engage the Anglo-Dutch forces as they arrived at Quatre Bras; with d’Erlon’s 1st Corps (nearly 20,000 men) in support. Ney’s orders were to smash 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.”
On June 16th, at the village of Ligny, Napoleon inflicted a sharp defeat on Marshal Blücher’s Prussian army. All day, the French had hammered the Prussians, who 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. It was only the force of his indomitable presence (and the skillful staff work of his Chief of Staff, Marshal Von Gneisenau) that held the Prussians together. Beaten but not defeated, Blücher and his army escaped toward the northeast.
(This is Part 4 of a series. It is recommended that you start with Part 1.)
Blücher’s close-call at Ligny: Pinned under his horse, he was helpless on the ground as his position was overrun by French cavalry. The passing French failed to notice him, and the Marshal recovered. But history would have taken a very different turn had Blücher been killed or captured that day at Ligny!
To the west, Napoleon’s subordinate, Marshal Michel Ney failed to defeat the Duke of Wellington’s Anglo-Dutch 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 1st Corps, which marched back-and-forth between the two battlefields without ever engaging in either of the battles of the 16th; 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 that first day of fighting. (For the battles at Quatre Bras and Ligny, go to Part 2 and 3.)
The Black Watch (42nd Royal Highland Regiment) was severely mauled at Quatre Bras by French lancers of the 2nd Cavalry Div (Piré division); who, charging out of the tall wheat, surprised the highlanders before they could complete the forming of a defensive square.
The allies had escaped destruction on the 16th. But as morning on the 17th of June, 1815, both armies were still in deadly danger of annihilation.
the allies withdraw
That morning, Wellington was still in ignorance of the outcome at Ligny. His army woke to a ad-hoc breakfast, the kitchen wagons having not arrived at Quatre Bras from the various regimental depots. The soldiers ate what they carried in their knapsacks, or resorted to cooking hunks of horse flesh cut from the carcasses of the many dead animals littering the field. Meanwhile, thousands of wounded still lay where they had fallen the day before; and litter parties were organized and sent to scour the field for survivors.
Wellington had spent the night a few miles north, in an inn at Genappe; where he and his staff had enjoyed a late supper after the battle. At 11 PM their sleep was disturbed by the clatter of thousands of hooves, the jingle of steel scabbards, and the rumble of artillery carriages. The British and German Legion cavalry were finally arriving, and passed on south towards the battlefield. Wellington awoke at dawn, and dressed in his customary blue frock coat and matching cloak, rode with his staff to join his army.
At Quatre Bras he had some 46,000; only about a half of his army. The rest were scattered along roads to the west. The Duke had no knowledge yet of what had happened the day before at Ligny; or word from Blücher of his intentions. If the Prussians had triumphed, they would be expecting him to advance on their western flank. However, Ney still sat before him to the south; with as many men at hand as he had himself. If the Prussians were defeated, the Duke would be in a very precarious position: an army to his front (Ney’s), and Napoleon perhaps bearing down at that very moment with an even larger army to fall upon his left flank. Worse, the true nightmare scenario, another French corps could be crossing the border at Mons, where Wellington had all along expected them; and marching north role up his scattered detachments and cut off Wellington’s communications with the ports along the coast.
Before 7 AM, Colonel Sir Alexander Gordon and a detachment of hussars were sent east, to find Blücher and ascertain his plans. Meanwhile, the Duke drafted orders for his army to retreat; just in case.
At the village of Tilly Gordon found the commander of the Prussian First Corps, General von Zieten. What he learned was both gratifying and deeply disturbing. Blücher had lost the battle, and his army was scattered. However, the Prussians were not broken; and their army was reassembling to the north at Wavre.
This meant that Napoleon might indeed be preparing to turn west upon the Anglo-Dutch at Quatre Bras. Galvanized, Gordon galloped hard to return this information to Wellington. At 10 AM Gordon pulled up on a lathered horse beside Wellington and his staff; where he delivered to the astonished Duke his news.
Wellington now showed his true genius: if Napoleon had “humbugged him” in the first days of the campaign, he now redeemed himself. That very hour his army was rapidly (and in orderly fashion) withdrawing on every road north towards a pre-arranged rally point: Mont-Saint-Jean. Here a year earlier, while reconnoitering Belgium and inspecting British troop placements, he had mentally selected this piece of terrain as a splendid place from which to defend the approaches to Brussels.
Withdrawal, though, in the face of the enemy is not without peril. It is, perhaps, the most difficult and dangerous operation a general and an can undertake. Wellington’s problem was that the single road would not support the entire army marching at once. As each brigade, one-at-a-time, formed march column and set out north (infantry on either side, the road itself left to artillery caissons and supply wagons) the force left at Quatre Bras grew ever smaller and more vulnerable to attack. An attack, from Ney to the south or Napoleon from the east, that could come at any moment.
But as brigade after brigade left the field, in the end leaving only the British cavalry under the redoubtable Lord Uxbridge to form the rearguard of the withdrawal; no attack materialized. Finally, the last of the infantry regiments departed, Uxbridge and the massed heavy cavalry of the Household and the Union Brigades, screened by the 7th Hussars and the 23rd Light Dragoons began their withdraw, the army’s rearguard; just as French forces began to press upon the crossroads.
For all that late morning and into early afternoon, as Wellington masterfully extracted his army from the lion’s mouth, the French sat idle. Why?
Once again, as would be seen throughout the campaign, French staff work had broken down. For all his long career, Napoleon had at his side Marshal Berthier, his extremely capable Chief of Staff. Berthier turned Napoleon’s curt commands and turned these into coherent orders to the appropriate formations and commanders. He had at his service an extensive and competent corps of aid-de-camps and gallopers. Detailed (legible) orders to wide-flung detachments were always sent by multiple riders along several different routs; to ensure delivery.
In 1815 Napoleon was without Berthier’s invaluable services. The Marshal had inexplicably thrown himself (or been thrown) from a window in Bamberg two weeks earlier. For this campaign Napoleon had to rely upon the inexperienced Marshal Soult for his Chief of Staff.
Soult was a officer who’d served with much distinction in Napoleon’s wars. He was not of the first-tier of commanders (a place occupied by Davout, Murat, Massena, and the now-dead Lannes), but was a competent corps commander. However, in the role of Chief of Staff he was deeply out of his depth.
Either because of incompetence or deliberate sabotage (see Part One) he was once again guilt of not facilitating orders and communications between Napoleon and his detached subordinate, Marshal Ney.
After waiting most of the morning for cavalry patrols to inform him as to the location and movements of the Prussians, Napoleon decided that Blücher’s badly mauled army was in full retreat; and commented to his staff that Blücher “couldn’t possibly fight another battle for at least two days”. Wellington, however, was still sitting at Quatre Bras; inviting defeat in detail. Napoleon therefore decided to personally lead the bulk of his army against Wellington’s forces. To facilitate the destruction of the Anglo-Dutch forces, he sent orders for Ney to press a fresh attack on the crossroads, to pin Wellington in place while he marched upon the Duke’s exposed left flank.
However, no such clear or strongly-worded order was sent by Soult. Instead, belatedly, at Noon Ney was informed that the Emperor wished him to follow his orders of the previous day; and that Napoleon would be coming from the east to join him. In other words, Ney was to capture the crossroads. Unaware that Wellington was already withdrawing his army, Ney was unwilling to attack where he had met so little success the day before until he heard the sound of Napoleon’s guns, heralding the Emperor’s attack on Wellington’s flank.
Meanwhile, Napoleon had 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 his army or coming to Wellington’s assistance.
In this task the plodding Grouchy proved singularly inept.
Throughout the morning and early afternoon of the 17th, both Napoleon and Ney expected the other to attack first. By the time the confusion was cleared up, Wellington had extricated his army and was well upon his way.
MARCH TO WATERLOO
When Napoleon arrived at Quatre Bras and found that Ney had allowed Wellington’s army to withdraw unmolested, the incredulous emperor exclaimed, “You have ruined France”! Exhibiting a furious energy conspicuously missing in the last 15 hours, he hurriedly arranged for his army to assemble and pursue. He himself set-off with a force of the Guard Cavalry in pursuit of the retreating Anglo-Dutch column. Only by catching and bringing Wellington’s army to battle could he hope to stop the Duke from escaping, or taking up a position on ground of his choosing.
Unfortunately for Napoleon, even the elements turned against him. With a clap of thunder, black clouds overhead released a torrent of rain. A constant drenching, punctuated by thunder, began and would continue all afternoon and evening; turning the roads into a morass. This thunderstorm would prove Wellington’s salvation; badly slowing the French pursuit. The 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.
However, it was a close pursuit nevertheless. Napoleon himself, mounted on a quick and nimble Arab, personally commanded the advance force of the Imperial Guard light cavalry and horse artillery. An officer of the Guard Artillery described the scene thus:
“(The pursuit)… resembled a steeple-chase rather than the pursuit of an enemy in retreat… Six pieces of the Horse Artillery of the Guard, supported by the Headquarters Squadrons (the Chasseurs à Cheval de la Garde Impériale, the 1st Polish Light Cavalry Regiment of the Imperial Guard and 2nd Lancer Regiment of the Guard Lancers), marched at the head, and vomited forth canister upon the masses of enemy (British) cavalry as often… as they attempted to retard our pursuit. The Emperor, mounted on a small and very active Arab horse, galloped a the head of he column; he was constantly near the pieces, exceiting the gunners by his presence a by his words, more than once in the midst of the shells and bullets which the enemy’s artillery showered upon us.”
Clearly, as he saw his chances of destroying Wellington’s army on the march disappearing down the rain-drenched road, Napoleon in desperation reverted to the young officer of artillery who’d once saved the government of France by dispersing a revolutionary mob with a “whiff of grape”!
In their escape from certain destruction, the Anglo-Dutch army owed much to Lord Uxbridge for his handling of the rearguard action. With cavalry squadrons and horse artillery, he fended off every attempt by over-eager French cavalry to engage and fix the Allied army in place; allowing the Emperor’s main force to catch-up. At Genappe pursuing French lancers caught up with Uxbridge’s rearguards. Charging down the narrow streets of the village, the 2nd Regiment “Red Lancers” scattered the hussars with their longer lances. As they cleared the village, Uxbridge countered them with a charge of the British Life Guards regiment of the Household Cavalry Brigade. The impact of these “heavies” shattered the lancers, sending them scattering in every direction. A sharp smack on the snout kept the enemy from sniffing under the skirts of the retreating British!
Meanwhile, many miles to the east and on the other side of the Dyle River, the Prussians were marching to their assembly at Wavre; where the Brussels-Namur road crossed the river.
While Gneisenau was for abandoning Wellington (who he believed had failed them by not coming to their aid at Ligny), the bellicose Blücher was far from daunted: “We’ve had a blow and must straighten out the dent”. He was prepared to cooperated on the following day with his British ally; sending a messenger to Wellington and promising to come to his assistance 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.
Grouchy for his part was following at a snail’s pace. That entire day he never came within 6 miles of the Prussian rearguards.
Darkness put an end to any chance for bringing the Allies to battle on the roads the 17th. Instead, all armies trudged on through that rainy night. By 6:30 that evening, the first of Wellington’s retreating forces arrived at the position the Duke had designated. As the evening wore on, Wellington and his staff would direct new arrivals to the positions they would bivouac in and begin the battle from the following day.
THE ARMIES DEPLOY
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 refers. 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 must 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 by 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 as 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, and supported by Kellerman’s Corps of cavalry. All day the battle for the farmhouse 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 serious 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 (commanded by Jerome Bonaparte, the Emperor’s younger brother) 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”.
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 lbs shot hurled over the crest to land among the allied formations. The Allied infantry 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 1st (I) Corps. Having essentially missed the fighting on the 16th at Ligny and Quatre Bras, d’Erlon’s men were fresh. It would fall upon them to make the first attempt to drive Wellington off of his ridge; to push the Anglo-Dutch 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 men of various mixed English, Dutch, and Hanoverian regiments. The fist line consisted of Bylandt’s 1st Brigade of the 2nd 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 a bloody 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 line would soon have all it could handle.
The left-most of d’Erlon divisions, 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 of this division pushed past on either flank. The William Prince of Orange, Wellington’s second-in-command and in-charge of 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. Ironically, all along the line the Anglo-Dutch regiments were deployed in columns of four, instead of Wellington’s usual practice of deploying in a two-deep line. The rough-handling they had received from massed French cavalry at Quatre Bras two days earlier; and the close-support the cuirassiers were providing the attacking French infantry had convinced the Allies to deploy deeper that day; the quicker to form square if the need arose. In essence, the two opponents had transposed their usual practice that day: the French in line dominating with musketry, the British and their allies in deeper columns.
As the advancing French divisions 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. The 95 Rifles, holding the gravel pit to the northeast of La Haye Sainte, was driven back by masses of French skirmishers; as the Dutch and Brunswick battalions to its left gave ground. The farm complex of La Haye Sainte, center-piece of Wellington’s line was defended by the Light Battalion of the King’s German Legion. As the first British line was pressed back to the east, La Haye Sainte was assaulted by elements of Quiot’s First Division. The complex was difficult to hold, as no engineers had been available to aid the Germans in preparing it for defense the night and morning before; the Legion’s Pioneer Battalion having been sent to prepare the defenses at Hougoumont. As D’Erlon’s brigades advanced up the ridge, their position became increasingly difficult.
Lt. General Thomas Picton commanded the reserve 5th Division. Picton was also a 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.
As some 4,000 French infantry gained a position atop the plateau, pushing steadily forward, Napoleon was jubilant. His plan was coming to fruition, and it looked as though Wellington’s left was about to break; the polyglot collection of British, Scot, Irish, Dutch, Belgian and German regiments dissolving before his eyes. He ordered Milhaud and Kellerman’s cavalry divisions to prepare to move up behind d’Erlon’s advancing infantry to exploit the breach.
The situation was now nearly desperate: Wellington’s line was in risk of being rolled up from left-t0-right. 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 reserve brigades of heavy cavalry to charge d’Erlon’s approaching infantry.
Uxbridge had two superbly mounted and equipped brigades of heavy (shock) cavalry to throw against the advancing French. 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-devil-may-care 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 beats “rock”; on the Napoleonic battlefield the fire of infantry in 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 massed squadrons!
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. Continuing down the slope, they likewise destroyed that part of Donzelot’s infantry who stood in their way.
formation by massed, charging cavalry. The Union Brigade, to the east of La Haye Sainte, came flooding over the crest of the ridge and down into the astonished and unprepared French battalions. In seconds, d’Erlon’s divisions were shattered, and fleeing back 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.”
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.
Death of Ponsonby
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 its understrength divisions would not be prepared to fight again till much later in the day) and Wellington’s heavy cavalry was a nearly spent force.
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
3. Hamilton-Williams, David: Waterloo: New Perspectives ; The Great Battle Reappraised. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 1994; p. 186