At 4 pm, with no reserves immediately available but his Imperial Guard, which he was unwilling to commit just yet, Napoleon ordered Marshal Ney to lead his large and formidable cavalry reserve to a massive but unsupported attack on Wellington’s center!
Napoleon had been in a similar situation before, at Eylau in 1807. There, by mid-day he had lost one Corps, Augereau’s; his center was stripped bare with nothing to plug the gap but the Imperial Guard (which he dared not commit). His response then had been to throw in Murat and the massive cavalry reserve against the advancing Russians. In one of history’s greatest charges, they had shattered the first and second Russian line; and then, covered by the Imperial Guard Horse, withdrawn back to safety, the situation restored.
Here, at Waterloo, perhaps Napoleon saw himself in similar circumstances; and resorted to the same response. This task was given to Marshal Michel Ney, who before the Revolution had been a Sergeant Major in a Hussar regiment.
To accomplish the task of shattering Wellington’s center, Ney massed Milhaud’s IV Heavy Cavalry Corps; supported by Gen. Lefebvre-Desnouettes’ Imperial Guard Light Cavalry Division. Together, these numbering some 5,094 superb horsemen. Milhaud’s command was composed of two divisions of cuirassiers, each of two brigades or four regiments of horse: a total of nearly 3,000 of the French cavalry’s much feared “Gros Freres” (Big Brothers). To these should have been attached a dozen guns, 6lb cannon and 5.5″ howitzers; but earlier in the day these had been stripped away to support the attacks on Hougoumont; and not returned.
Lefebvre-Desnouettes’ Guard Light Cavalry Division was composed three of the most celebrated cavalry regiments in Europe: the famed Chasseurs à Cheval, the men responsible for the Emperor’s personal safety when on the road or in the field; the 1st Polish Lancers of the Imperial Guard (1er Régiment des chevaux-légers [polonais] de la Garde Impériale), the famed Polish Lancers; and the 2nd Regiment of Lancers of the Imperial Guard (2e régiment de chevau-légers lanciers de la Garde Impériale), the striking “Red Lancers“. No finer light horsemen existed in Europe (and perhaps the world). Their role was to exploit the breakthrough achieved by their “Big Brothers”, the cuirassiers.
Rank after rank set forth at a walk, then a canter, up the slopes toward the ridgeline and Wellington’s army waiting for them on the Mont-Saint-Jean plateau beyond. What neither Ney nor his master could see beyond the ridge, through the dense smoke that now swirled across the battlefield, was the Anglo-Dutch army, 18,000 infantry (in this sector), fronted by 56 guns and backed-up by as many cavalry as the French now approaching. The infantry was prepared to receive cavalry, deployed in some twenty large, regimental squares. Each square was four ranks of glittering bayonets, a veritable hedgehog of steel-tipped muskets.
As Ney’s massed squadrons neared the crest of the ridge, Allied batteries opened fire; spewing canister at 100 yards. Nearly the entire front rank of Ney’s horsemen went down, including the Marshal himself (one of the many times the dauntless Ney would be unhorsed). The cavalry thundered on, over the bodies of their fallen comrades. The Allied gunners abandoned their guns (as ordered by Wellington), sprinting to the safety of the infantry squares beyond.
The French cavalry, now in full gallop, flooded over the ridge and onto the plateau. Past the Allied batteries, they found themselves facing the impenetrable squares.
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