At 4 pm, with no reserves immediately available but his Imperial Guard, which he was unwilling to commit at this point, 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. With the Russians advancing on his center 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 the French cavalry had galloped forward in a snowstorm, shattering the first and second Russian line; and then, covered by the Imperial Guard Horse, withdrawn back to safety, the situation restored.
Here, at Waterloo, Napoleon perhaps 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 (and superbly mounted) 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, to deal with the enemy infantry should they form square. But earlier in the day these guns 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 (or perhaps the world). Their role was to exploit the breakthrough achieved by their “Big Brothers”, the cuirassiers.
Officer of the famed Chasseurs a Cheval
The Polish Lancers of the Imperial Guard
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 18,000 infantry (in this sector) of Wellington’s Anglo-Dutch army, 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.
From the 1970 film, “Waterloo”, depicting (erroneously) this portion of the battle.
These were drawn up in checkerboard fashion, with hundreds of yards between each. Into the gaps between rode the great mass of horsemen, like a tide rushing onto shore; swirling around and past the squares, striking at the kneeling or standing wall of men when opportunity allowed.
Though safe from overrun, standing in square was not surety against death: the long lances of the chevaux-légers or the large horse pistols carried by the cavalrymen took a toll. The corners of the square were always particularly vulnerable to attack, and many a English or Dutch soldier manning these points of maximum danger was speared or sabered from his blind-side by a trooper experienced in the best way of dealing with this otherwise wall of death.
As the mass of horsemen pressed forward, pressure from the rear echelons, arriving on the plateau of Mont-Saint-Jean, drove the first waves further on; to where Wellington (who had taken refuge within a square of Brunswickers) had positioned his reserve of Allied cavalry. These (along with the reconstituted survivors of the Household and Union Brigades of British heavy cavalry, who had charged so nobly earlier in the battle) now counter-charged the cuirassiers, sending them back the way they had come. The entire mass of French cavalry withdrew, riding back over the edge of the plateau.
From out of the squares gunners scrambled, to re-crew their guns. (As with the British cavalry earlier in the day, when they had charged across the valley and overrun the Grande Batterie, the French horse failed to spike the guns and render them useless; a gross oversight resulting in their failure to carry the nails necessary to do so.) These now sent canister into the retreating French squadrons, hot iron giving them a warm send-off!
French cuirass, holed by a cannon ball; mute testament to the fate of one of Ney’s troopers that fateful day!
However, the French had only begun.
Ney, remounted, quickly reordered the horsemen for a second charge. While he was doing so, the guns of the Grande Batterie re-commenced their bombardment of the Allied position. Cannon balls and shells, flying high over the ridge crest, landed among the squares, where bouncing balls cut swathes through the dense formation, reducing men to pulp. Shells were even more unnerving: fiercely burning fuses causing the balls to spin on the ground where they landed, before exploding. Landing in or near a square, they could take out a dozen tightly packed men.
As the French charged again up the slope toward the plateau, the Allied gunners greeted them again with canister. After two volleys, the gunners once more took refuge within the nearest friendly square.
Here the 2e régiment de chevau-légers de la Garde impériale (better known as the Red Lancers, they were also nicknamed the crayfish, after their red uniforms), led by the gallant General Pierre de Colbert, assails the square of a Highlander regiment!
Ensign Gronow of the British 1st Foot Guards recounts that second charge against the stolid squares:
“Not a man present who survived could have forgotten in after life the awful grandeur of that charge. You perceived at a distance what appeared to be an overwhelming, long moving line, which, ever advancing, glittered like a stormy wave of the sea when it catches the sunlight. On came the mounted host until they got near enough, whilst the very earth seemed to vibrate beneath their thundering tramp. One might suppose that nothing could have resisted the shock of this terrible moving mass. They were the famous cuirassiers, almost all old soldiers, who had distinguished themselves on most of the battlefields of Europe. In an incredibly short time, they were within twenty yards of us, shouting “Vive l”Empereur”! The word of command, “Prepare to receive cavalry!” had been given, every man in the font ranks knelt, and a wall bristling with steel, held together by steady hands, presented itself to the infuriated cuirassiers.”
Once again the waves of horsemen washed around the unmovable squares of red-coated infantry. Again, they inflicted some damage upon the defenders, though in frustration many riders vented their spleen on the occasional victim found outside of a square’s protection, even those wounded laying helpless on the ground. Ensign Gronow paints a portrait of the carnage among the defenders:
“During the battle our squares presented a shocking sight. Inside we were nearly all suffocated by the smoke and smell of burnt cartridges. It was impossible to move a yard without treading upon a wounded comrade, or upon the bodies of the dead; and the loud groans of the wounded and dying was most appalling. At four o’clock our square was a perfect hospital, being full of dead, dying and mutilated soldiers.”
It should be noted that the majority of the casualties inflicted upon the Allied squares was caused by the dreadful cannonading they received between each fresh cavalry charge; rather than from the sword, lance, or pistols of the horsemen. However, as has been mentioned previously, it was the menacing presence of the French cavalry that forced the British to spend the entire battle in deeper formations than was their want, formations much more vulnerable to artillery bombardment than the usual line-formation they were accustomed to fighting in.
Stripped of their horse artillery batteries Ney’s charges had no way of shattering the squares and opening holes for his horsemen to exploit. Considering how devastating was the bombardment from the distant Grande Batterie upon the British squares, one can only imagine the effectiveness of point-blank fire from horse guns, had they been available as they should.
Ensign Gronow of the Guards illuminates Wellington’s activity during this second charge by Ney’s cavalry; when the Duke took refuge in his square:
“I should observe that just before the (second) charge the Duke (Wellington) entered by one of the angles of the square, accompanied only by one aide-de-camp; all the rest of the staff being either killed or wounded. Our Commander-in-Chief, as far as I could judge, appeared perfectly composed; but looked very thoughtful and pale.”
Pale indeed, for Wellington must have known that his army was being tested to its utmost limits. Many of the squares were comprised of Dutch-Belgians, men whose reliability was in question. Though they held firm all day, it was a source of concern that they would fail. Further, even his British troops, famously steady under fire, were receiving greater punishment than they ever had before. Not once in Spain had Wellington’s army been subjected to such a royal mugging, by a masterful use of combined arms: steady infantry, supported closely by masses of cavalry, and such an expansive amount of heavy artillery.
Once again, the French horse were driven back by a charge of the Allied supporting cavalry, and sent off with a hail of iron from behind by the re-crewed batteries.
Ney now rode back to La Belle Alliance, to Napoleon’s command post. There he found the Emperor busily directing a detachment of his Imperial Guards to reinforce Lobau‘s Corps, now engaged to the east against the Prussian spearhead debauching from the Bois de Paris woods on the French right-rear. The Prussians were threatening to take Plancenoit, behind Napoleon’s right flank, and cut the Charleroi road, his line of retreat. To repel them he had committed Lobau’s Corps, and now sent elements of the Guard to stiffen them. Distracted, he had not perhaps kept a close eye on the progress of Ney’s assaults.
Ney now asked for reinforcements, more horsemen to complete his task and break Wellington with one more titanic charge. Napoleon is recorded by an aide, present at this brief conference, to have been displeased with his Marshal’s handling of the attack; but saw no other option but to accede to Ney’s request:
“There is Ney hazarding the battle that was almost won, but he must be supported now, for that is our only chance.”
In for a penny, in for a pound: with Blücher now threatening his right flank, time was not on the Emperor’s side. He had to break Wellington and break him now!
Ney was given another 5,300 superb cavalry: François Étienne de Kellermann’s III Cavalry Corps, and Claude-Étienne Guyot’s Guard Heavy Cavalry Division. The former was composed of four regiments of cuirassiers and two of dragoons, as well as the two elite regiments of Carabiniers-à-Cheval .
The Carbiniers à Cheval
These latter were the elite of the line cuirassier regiments, sporting brass cuirasses and red-crested brass helmets. The Guard Heavy Cavalry was composed of the Empresses’ Dragoons (Dragons de la Garde impériale), the Gendarmerie d’Elite, and the finest (and most feared) heavy cavalry in Europe: the elite Grenadiers à Cheval de la Garde Impériale. The Grenadiers à Cheval, the senior “Old Guard” cavalry regiment of the Imperial Guard, were looked upon by all other French cavalry with something akin to awe. Their proud nickname in the army was “The Gods”.
The Grenadiers à Cheval: “The Gods”
These now thundered forward, to join what remained of the first wave, Milhaud’s Corps and Guard Light horse. Nearly 9,000 horsemen now advanced in 10 echelons, covering the nine hundred yards between Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte. Ney, mounted now on his third horse, led them thundering once again up the slopes and onto the plateau of death.
While he was preparing this attack, the Grande Batterie had again pummeled the Allied squares around Mont-Saint-Jean. It was something of a relief when the French cavalry crested the ridge, bringing the cannonading to a temporary halt.
Again, as each time before, Allied guns met the advance with canister; and the infantry in their squares raked the horsemen as they flowed past. Far more French died here than British, the riders packed together as tightly as cattle in a pen, making excellent targets. Unable to force their horses to charge home into the hedge of bayonets, the best cavalry in Europe were impotent against an enemy who refused to break. “Never”, wrote an English witness, “did cavalry behave so nobly, or was received by infantry so firmly.”
Too late Ney attempted to support the attacks with infantry and guns, brought up in close support. But the infantry were unable to get past the walls of their own retreating horsemen; and the guns were nearly lost when Allied horsemen, pursing the retreating cuirassiers, attempted to ride them down before they could limber-up and likewise escape.
At 6 pm Ney, covered with mud and black gunpowder smoke, called off further fruitless attacks. Though Wellington’s infantry were near the point of exhaustion, the French cavalry were a spent force. Casualties were nearly 50% in most regiments. “The Gods” had started the day with nearly 800 swords. When the role was called the following day, a mere 462 answered. Overall, the Guard’s Heavy Cavalry Division sustained 47% casualties.
Napoleon had sought to repeat the success of Murat’s charge at Eylau. In this he was sorely disappointed. Some have blamed Ney for failing to support his attack with infantry and artillery. But the fault here lies with Napoleon, who had stripped those guns from the cavalry Corps in the first place, and who had every opportunity to stay Ney’s actions and order infantry into action. The truth was that Napoleon, whose infantry (other than his Guard) was already committed elsewhere, believed that a mass cavalry charge would do the trick; with-or-without support.
But the circumstances at Eylau, eight years earlier, had been quite different. That attack had been launched in a blinding snow storm, which concealed Murat’s charging horsemen until they were upon the advancing lines of Russian infantry. These had thus been taken unawares, without opportunity to form square. Much like d’Erlon’s Corps in the earlier part of the day, the Russians had been overrun while in line formation. Here at Mon-Saint-Jean the Anglo-Dutch infantry had met cavalry in squares, and both man and formation had proven its worth. For the rest of the century, British infantry would “dine-out” on their reputation for steadiness and of their unbreakable squares, a legend established this day at Waterloo against the pride of Europe.
- We have no way of knowing definitively what was in Napoleon’s mind that afternoon. Soon after the battle he began laying the blame on Marshal Ney, a theme picked-up by most later historians. But as explained in the previous chapter, the decision to charge Wellington’s position must lay solely upon the shoulders of the Emperor himself. Why he decided this can only be, at best, informed speculation.
- Though the British Household and Union Brigades of heavy cavalry were largely spent after their early charge, there were many thousands of light horsemen, both British and Allied, waiting in reserve.
- The British had never faced cuirassiers in Spain. The heaviest cavalry they had seen were dragoons, often riding second-rate horses.