At 2 pm Wellington’s position on the ridge was in danger of being rolled-up. The advance of D’Erlon’s Corps had broken the brigades of his first line, east of La Haye Sainte; and the men of Picton’s Division in the second line found themselves hard pressed, their commander shot dead in the furious fighting. As the situation grew desperate, Wellington turned to his cavalry commander, Lord Uxbridge.
Lord Henry Paget, the Earl of Uxbridge, now 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.
Whereas decades of warfare had decimated the horse population on the continent, the British cavalry had been very little used in their campaign against Napoleon in Spain. Thus British cavalry rode perhaps the finest horses in Europe at this time. The British cavalry also possessed terrific individual weapon’s skills, swordsmanship the equal of any. However, in contrast to the veteran British infantry, they were largely inexperienced and possessed of an over-abundance of aristocratic arrogance. While acknowledging their virtues, Wellington had little confidence in their ability to rally after a charge, or to maneuver to any advantage. The Duke expressed his misgivings prior to the battle:
“Our officers of cavalry have acquired a trick of galloping at everything. They never consider the situation, never think of maneuvering before an enemy, and never keep back or provide a reserve… I consider our (British) cavalry so inferior to the French from want of order, that although I consider one squadron a match for two French, I didn’t like to see four British opposed to four French, for as the numbers increased and order 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 cresting 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. This had been the fate of several British regiment two days earlier at Quatre Bras.
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, left-most of D’Erlon’s Corps; driving them off in disorder. Lord Edward Somerset, commanding the Household Brigade, recorded the experience thus:
“The blows of the sabres on the cuirasses sounded like braziers at work.”
Continuing down the slope, they likewise destroyed that part of Donzelot’s infantry who stood in their way.
The three dragoon regiments of the Union Brigade, to the east of La Haye Sainte, simultaneously surged over the crest of the ridge and came flooding down into the astonished and unprepared French battalions. In seconds, d’Erlon’s fresh divisions were shattered and sent 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 shattered and his entire Corps reduced to refugees running for their lives.
Capture of the Eagle of the 45th Regiment of 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 and charging across the valley. At some point Lt. Colonel 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.
Scots Greys overrun the Grande Batterie
However, this was a “bridge too far”.
Napoleon, watching from nearby Belle Alliance, ordered a counter-attack by the cuirassier brigades of Farine and Travers, and by Jaquinot’s two Chevau-léger (lancer) regiments of the I Corps’ 1st Light Cavalry Division, waiting in reserve behind the right wing. 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 the Grey’s commander, Col Hamilton, his arm nearly severed by a lance and shot through the face. Worse, the commander of the Union Brigade, Sir William Ponsonby, was also speared by a lancer while attempting to flee across the muddy field on a spent horse.
From the film, “Waterloo” (1970), depicting the charge of the Scots Greys of the Union Brigade; and the death of General Ponsonby. The film inaccurately gives the Greys sabres instead of the strait sword used by heavy cavalry; and portrays the Polish Lancers of the Guard as conducting the French counter-attack; when in fact it was by the green-uniformed Chevau-légers (below) of Jaquinot’s 1st Cavalry Division.
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. D’Erlon’s Corp had been shattered, and its under-strength divisions would not be prepared to fight again till much later in the day. Wellington’s heavy cavalry was a nearly spent force and had taken severe casualties. Though they would continue to support the British infantry throughout the day, by the battle’s end both Brigades together could muster but a single squadron!
But it had been money well spent: Napoleon’s battle plan was in a shambles, and much time had been lost to the Emperor in his bid to smash Wellington before Blücher could arrive. Uxbridge has been much criticized for joining in the charge himself, rather than organizing a reserve. The Earl later expressed these regrets himself: “I committed a great mistake”
However mishandled, Uxbridge’s charge had saved the army from defeat.
While Napoleon was busy preparing the counter-attack against the British cavalry, a messenger arrived and was kept waiting an hour. He brought news already 4 hours old from Marshal Grouchy: He had failed to keep apace with the Prussians, and Blücher was marching fast to fall upon the Emperor’s eastern flank!