While he had begun the campaign with a masterful stroke at the junction between the Allied forces, Napoleon failed to defeat either Wellington or Blücher’s army on the 16th of June. Now two days later 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 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 11:30 am. 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 the night before, 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; and further detached another much-needed 17,000 troops to garrison 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 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”.
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 slopes of the ridge, beyond the line-of-sight of the French gunners, much of the battery’s 12lbs 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. Even so, the carnage throughout the day was brutal in the extreme. Never in their long years of campaigning had Wellington or his veterans experienced such a cannonading. “A fire so terrible as to strike with awe the oldest veteran on the field“.
Just after 1 pm, 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” (if such can be said of any body of troops after so many days of hard marching). It would fall upon them to make the first attempt to drive Wellington off of his ridge, to push the Anglo-Dutch center-left back toward Mont-Saint-Jean, rupture the line and prepare the way for a cavalry charge by supporting cuirassiers into the gap thus created. Wellington’s line would be rolled-up, and ultimately routed.
Facing d’Erlon’s 20,000 were approximately 6,000 men of various mixed English, Scots, Irish, Dutch, Belgian, 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 United Kingdom 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.
“Chosen Man” of the 42nd Highland Regiment (the “Black Watch”). This regiment was badly mauled by French lancers at Quatre Bras on June 16th, and as part of Picton’s Division at Waterloo would have to face the advance of d’Drlon’s fresh troops.
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.
William Prince of Orange, Wellington’s headstrong and inexperienced second-in-command (whom the British comptemptously nicknamed “Slender Billy.”), who was in-charge of this section of the line ordered a battalion of Hanoverian infantry to relieve the now isolated La Haye Sainte. But as these advanced through the smoke towards the beleaguered farm house, they found themselves charged unexpectedly by French Cuirassiers covering Donzelot’s left. Caught in line, they were bowled-over slaughtered, nearly to a man!
It was this close-coordination between cavalry, infantry, and artillery that caused Wellington’s men such fits at Waterloo.
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 (if not in fact already in square), 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 provided the attacking French infantry had “spooked” the Anglo-Dutch officers, convincing them to deploy their infantry deeper that day than usual, 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 column or squares.
Long after the battle, the phlegmatic Duke of Wellington laconically said of Waterloo: “They came on in the same old way and we defeated them in the same old way.” In point of fact, nothing could be further from the truth: the French tactics were such as Wellington had never seen; and his army responded in ways they had never been forced to resort to before!
As the advancing French divisions fired volleys into Bylandt’s brigade, D’Erlon’s expectations seemed to have been justified as 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, the position of the defenders at La Haye Sainte 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 English and Scots, lying in low ground behind the ridge-crest and behind a hedgerow, stood now and fired upon the French. Exchanging volleys at close range, Picton’s outnumbered men got the worse of the exchange. These too 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-to-right. At this crucial moment, Wellington turned to his cavalry commander (and Brother-in-Law) Lord Henry Paget, the Earl of Uxbridge.
1. Wellesley, Arthur: Wellington’s Dispatches; 9 June 1815