(This is Part 5 of a series. It is recommended that you start with Part 1.)
While he had begun the campaign with a masterful stroke at the junction between the Allied forces, Napoleon had failed to defeat either Wellington or Blücher’s army. Now, at Waterloo, he was preparing to break Wellington’s center with a massive assault by his one fresh force, D’Erlon’s Corps. But first he needed to mask or take the fortified farmhouse of Hougoumont on Wellington’s right.
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 10 am.
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.
(Throughout that grueling day, Wellington was extraordinarily careful that his right not be turned. A successful French attack here risked cutting Wellington off from his line of retreat to the northwest; where lay Brussels and, beyond, the coastal ports. To prevent this, he stationed his best infantry (the Guards) behind Hougoumont; at further detached another much-needed 17,000 troops to Hal, to the northwest. Throughout the long day, even after it was certain Napoleon had no intention of attempting such a maneuver, Wellington refused to recall this final flank guard from Hal.)
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….
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