With Laye Haye Saint taken and Ney decimating Wellington’s center with close-range cannon fire, Napoleon decided upon a final push. A last roll of the dice, committing his Imperial Guard to breaking Wellington’s decimated center.
Turning to Ney, he ordered him to prepare to lead forward 9 battalions of the Old and Middle Guard against Wellington’s center. These, formed in battalion carré ( massive squares, each side 3 ranks-deep), each battalion echeloned right. Between each battalion were horse-guns of the Imperial guard. Behind and supporting the advance would be the Imperial Guard cavalry.
Napoleon kept the two senior battalions, the 1st and 2nd of the 1st Foot Grenadiers Regiment, in reserve, guarding his person at La Belle Alliance. Ney’s attack force would be supported by every other infantry brigade not actively in combat: the men of Reilly‘s II Corps and D’Erlon‘s I Corps, battered by a long day of bloody fighting, but heartened by the appearance of the Guard advancing. In the past, the advance of the Guard had always been a harbinger of victory, committed when the enemy was near to breaking.
The Guard had never known defeat.
With the regimental bands playing gay Imperial marches and drums beating the pas de charge, the battalion squares marched majestically down into the valley. The Emperor led them himself, mounted on his grey Arabian stallion, Marengo. At 600 yards from the Allied line, he wheeled his horse to a stop, and watched his Guard march past, as though on review. With cries of “Vive le Emperor”, the Guard moved up the slopes toward the plateau where waited Wellington’s infantry. Ney, his 5th horse having been shot from under him, led them forward on foot.
Wellington had not been idle. Pulling off troops from his far left, he’s reinforced his center with these odds-and-sods. (This was only possible because the first Prussian brigade of Ziethen’s I Korps had arrived on the British flank, shoring up the left and allowing this transfer of Brunswick and Dutch regiments to the center.) Every man and gun available to him were massed to face this final onslaught.
As the Guard marched up the slope, they were met with canister; ripping great wholes in their squares. With the iron calm the old veterans closed ranks and continued on; seemingly unstoppable. It was nearly 8 pm, and in the setting sun the bright rays cast the Guards’ shadows high against the clouds of smoke above the battle, giving them the eerie appearance of giants marching relentlessly up the hill.
Overrunning the British batteries along the crest, the Grenadiers were met by Sir Colin Halkett’s 5th Brigade. These were driven back, as were a battalion of Brunswickers. Then, as the 3rd Regiment of Chasseurs approached the ridge opposite Maitland’s Brigade of Foot Guards (2nd and 3rd Battalions of the 1st Foot Guards regiment), Wellington called to the brigade commander, “Now Maitland! Now’s your time”.
The Foot Guards, who had been laying in the tall rye, now stood: 1,500 strong and four ranks deep. At 20 yards they fired a devastating volley into the Chasseurs, and charged with the bayonet; driving the French back. The 4th Chasseurs, coming up in support, rallied the 3rd and both fired a volley into the pursuing Foot Guards; sending them retreating back over the ridge.
At that moment an unsung hero delivered the coup de grâce to the Guard’s assault.
Sir John Colborne, on his own initiative, wheeled his elite 52nd (light) Foot round to outflank the Guards column as it passed his brigade. 500 yards long, his line now fired a destructive volley into the exposed left flank of the Chasseurs. At the same time, a Hanoverian Brigade came around from Hougoumont, and fired into the rear-flank of the stricken Guards. Sir John then ordered an attack into their flank with bayonet.
Halted in front and assaulted in flank, the Guard was driven back down the hill and began a general retreat. The brigades of Reilly and d’Erlon’s Corps, advancing in support on either flank, witnessed this reverse with utter astonishment; and from these the panicked cry of “La Garde recule” echoed across the valley!
NEXT: ZEITHEN BREAKS THROUGH
From the film, “Waterloo” (1970), depicting this portion of the battle. Though picturesque and dramatic, the scene is fraught with historical inaccuracies. Particularly the timing of the arrival of the Prussians: by this point in the battle (7:30-8:00 PM) the Prussians had been attacking the French right for several hours. It also shows the Guard advancing in column, rather than squares.