A Certain Day in June - Waterloo
- Categorized in: October 2011
It may sound strange to you but sometimes I wonder about Gilgamesh.
Who or what is Gilgamesh? The Babylonian hero to precede all heroes, about whom most people, including myself, know very little. Yet his name and some of his doings have been handed down over millennia by now. Indeed his name and the thread that connects story-telling as far back as human written records began, looks set to continue to be woven into the fabric of human culture until the crack of doomsday. You can even go to a restaurant named after him in London, though I have less confidence that this will last so long.
Then there’s Beowulf, and Leonidas, and Siegfried, and Helen of Troy, and Theseus and any number of names that literally will live forever, if forever means as long as there’s someone around to tell a story, and someone else to listen.
Can there be any doubt that Napoleon and Wellington will join them in the roll call of “greatness”, whatever it is that this word really means?
Waterloo is a strange sort of a name, at least for an Englishman. It has all the linguistic connotations of a drainage system, and yet the pleasant double-“O” with which it ends means once heard it is hard to forget. It is also enjoyable to say.
Waterloo. Waterloo. Woah, woah, woah, woah, Waterloo.
It is no surprise really that they had to make a song about it, and very fitting that the song itself should be known from a contest that exemplifies the friendly and essentially peaceful relations that now exist between the competing nation states of Europe. But this peace has come at a great cost – not least the annual sacrifice each year to the great god of European harmony, when artistic value is butchered on the altar of the Eurovision song contest in the name of inclusion and letting everyone have a go.
Waterloo too was undoubtedly one of the hefty bills to pay along the way.
But such is the privilege of truly glorious or cataclysmic events in human history, that centuries later they may be turned into something kitsch or banal or naff. Where the coarse red tunic of a Coldstream Guard may be slowly transformed into shiny pink nylon flares, or the ponderous silver cuirasse of a French heavy dragoon may slowly morph into a gleaming suit of purple sequins and platform shoes, or the death cries of a kilted Highlander may evolve into precise Nordic harmonies about a lover’s tiff.
Gilgamesh has become a restaurant. Leonidas an antique store. Wellington a boot. Even Jesus has been reduced to a plastic dashboard figure. So why shouldn’t Waterloo become a song?
But what was it really?
If the Battle of Waterloo is the most written about battle in history it is probably because there are a million different ways of telling what happened. No single account I have ever read seems to reveal the whole story and I don’t intend to attempt that feat.
But if you do have an interest and need a place to start, you could do far worse than begin with the description of the battle by Victor Hugo in his novel Les Misérables. His appreciation for both the historic and the poetic, as well as the providential, creates a vivid narrative that is hard to forget. I found I got a better understanding of all that occurred from this single account, than any other source, whether historical or fictional, that I’ve read.
However, if you are interested in a layperson’s view of how the battle was fought, and won and lost, then by all means keep reading. I will do my best to keep it interesting for you, though I warn you it is long. Even by my standards.
So why was everyone there, that day in mid-June 1815, in the first place?
Napoleon had been run out of Paris the year before, in April 1814. Threatened by the advance of the armies of several European nations closing in on the French capital, his own generals had pressured him, for the sake of France, to accept the terms of the invading armies and abdicate as Emperor of France.
This he did. He was duly packed off in exile to the little Mediterranean Island of Elba, and replaced by the fat king Louis XVIII on the throne of France. The bourgeois revolution that had slaughtered its king yet somehow birthed an Emperor was now dead. The monarchy restored, la Grande Armée was humiliated, the nobility could return, and people could go back to hating the King and his powdered entourage just as they had before the mess had all started.
Three cheers for the Coalition of Nations, which had caged the “beast” and which now, at the Congress of Vienna, set about redrawing the map of Europe as they saw fit.
Except that, being an inveterate fiddler, Napoleon couldn’t just sit there on his island twiddling his thumbs while his enemies carved up his empire.
As he himself said, “Death is nothing, but to live defeated and inglorious is to die daily.”
He loved France too much not to be involved in running her just as he thought best. And he was pretty sure no one, not even corpulent King Louis anointed by God, could do it better than he.
So off he sets from his island retreat with a small band of loyal soldiers.
Landing on the south coast of the French mainland on March 1, 1815, barely 9 months after he’d been cast away, Napoleon began a long march towards Paris, gambling his entire stake on the fact that loyalty to his sheer persona would be enough to draw the French army to his side once more. That and the general popular dissatisfaction in the French people with their malleable King and their humiliation at the Congress of Vienna. He had little else to go on, but it turned out to be more than enough.
As he moved north, following the road still marked today as the Route Napoléon, more and more troops went over to him, including Marshal Ney (with 6,000 men), the impetuous red-headed general who had promised the King he would bring Napoleon back to Paris in an iron cage.
However, even before Napoleon reached Paris, the nations of Britain, Russia, Austria and Prussia at the Congress of Vienna had declared Napoleon an outlaw and pledged to mobilize 150,000 men each to crush the upstart.
The 7th Coalition against Napoleon was thus formed.
However, realising his best strategy was to destroy the Coalition armies before they mobilized as an effective force against France, Napoleon seized the initiative.
While Wellington was still organising his inexperienced army of British, Dutch and Belgians south of Brussels, and before he had properly linked up with the Prussian Army under Marshal Blucher which was further east, Napoleon took his Armée du Nord and crossed the frontier into Belgium at the city of Charleroi.
The Duke of Wellington
His plan was to drive a wedge between the Anglo-Dutch army and the Prussians, and destroy each separately. And rather like Hitler’s attack at the Battle of the Bulge, Napoleon’s enemies were completely surprised.
Most of the Duke of Wellington’s high command and officers were dancing the evening away at the Duchess of Richmond’s ball in Brussels on the evening of June 15, 1815, when news reached the Duke that Napoleon had moved against him.
In fact, Napoleon had divided his force in two, with his left wing under the command of Marshal Ney sent against Wellington’s force due south of Brussels, and the right wing under Marshal Grouchy engaging the Prussians further east. Napoleon himself commanded the reserve, but all three parts were close enough to support one another if needed.
So on June 16 two battles were fought some way south of Brussels. Ney attacked the Anglo-Dutch army at the crossroads of Quatre Bras, where many of the British Officers fought still wearing their ballroom attire; Grouchy attacked the Prussians at the village of Ligny a little further east. Wellington stood his ground, and by the end of the day had managed to hold the crossroads. But the Prussians were defeated and withdrew to the north.
With the Prussians’ withdrawal, albeit in reasonable order, Wellington’s left flank was exposed. This meant that despite having held onto the crossroads, he too was obliged to withdraw to the north.
Napoleon then set out with Ney in pursuit of the British, and despatched 33,000 men under Grouchy to go after the Prussians, and make sure that they couldn’t link up with Wellington. So long as he could keep them apart, Napoleon was sure he could destroy each army in its turn.
The following day, on June 17, there was little contact between the opposing forces. A small cavalry skirmish between French and English dragoons around the village of Genappes was all.
Wellington said that “The hardest thing of all for a soldier is to retreat.”
Nevertheless, despite withdrawing northwards, Wellington knew exactly where he was headed. The previous year he had identified an area of ground just south of the little village of Mont-St-Jean, itself south of the bigger town of Waterloo which lies about 15km south of central Brussels. He had kept this potential field of battle in mind because of its geographical features that might prove advantageous to his forces, should they ever need it to make a stand.
Well, now they did.
To describe the layout of the battlefield of Waterloo, Victor Hugo writes that it is best envisaged in the shape of an enormous “A” formed by three roads. At the northern apex of the “A” is situated the village of Mont-St-Jean. Running due south from the apex, the Brussels-Charleroi road forms the right hand down-stroke of the “A”. This road cuts the battlefield almost exactly in half. The left hand down-stroke runs in a southwesterly direction from the village, towards the town of Nivelles and frames the western side of the battle. The horizontal cross-stroke of the “A” is formed by a narrow sunken road, running east-west which cuts across the two down-strokes and extends off to the east. This sunken road, which the English called the “hollow way”, runs along the crest of the ridge of a definite escarpment. On the south side of this ridge, the land falls away quite sharply. On the north side, the land falls too, but on a gentler slope. It was along this road that Wellington chose to position the forward lines of his Anglo-Dutch army. However, most of his forces he positioned on the reverse slope behind the ridge, and out of sight of Napoleon and the French forces positioned to the south.
This was to prove considerably to Wellington’s advantage since Napoleon’s artillery was effectively firing blind for much of the battle.
To complete the picture of the battlefield, there were three key positions that proved significant and served to frame the conflict. The western end of Wellington’s line was positioned in the large old country house called Hougoumont. The house and its yard were enclosed by a wall, interrupted only by a gate on the north side and another on its south side.
Lying just in front of the very centre of Wellington’s position was the smaller farmyard of La Haye Sainte, situated on the downward slope of the ridge. Possession of this farmhouse was to influence the flow of the battle very significantly.
On the extreme eastern end of the battlefield, and the left wing of the English lines was the little hamlet of Papelotte.
Both Hougoumont and Papelotte were fortified and garrisoned by Wellington prior to the battle, and as such anchored his two flanks securely. From one end to the other was a distance of not more than 2 miles.
If the hand of Providence began to make itself felt before a shot had even been fired, it was through the torrential rain, typical of summer storms in Belgium, that had begun to fall on the evening of June 17. The downpour continued well into the night, soaking the battlefield, and making it a miserable night for the forces on both sides, as they contemplated what might befall them the following day.
Napoleon had at his disposal 69,000 men, of which 48,000 were infantry, 14,000 cavalry, and 7,000 artillery with 250 guns – his Grande Batterie. Almost all of these troops were volunteers, in the renewed service of their Emperor, and also veterans of at least one campaign. However, the 30,000 men under Grouchy who had been despatched to harass the Prussians were effectively a wasted force, since they were never engaged in the battle, and by the time they could have been the following day, the game was already up and the French Army decimated.
On the other side, Wellington was in command of 67,000 troops: 50,000 infantry, 11,000 cavalry, and 6,000 artillery with 150 guns. Of these 25,000 were British, with 6,000 native Germans making up the King’s German Legion, 17,000 Dutch, 11,000 Hanoverians, 6,000 Brunswickers and 3,000 Nassauers (these last three were small duchies and principalities in what is now Germany). In contrast to Napoleon’s veterans, only 7,000 of Wellington’s British troops had fought before. (Most of his veterans from the Peninsula Wars had been sent to America to fight in the war of 1812.) The soldiers from the other Coalition nations were also mostly inexperienced, and some of dubious loyalty having previously served under the flag of France.
Wellington had also left 17,000 additional troops 8 miles to the west in the town of Halle, to defend his lines of communication with the sea in the event of a need to withdraw. In effect, this was a wasted force too which, had he lost the battle of Waterloo, would have been a serious mistake by the Duke. As it was, he needed every man he could get.
The Prussian Army, which started the day some distance from the battlefield, in the end managed to engage just under 50,000 men on the field of battle by the time the day reached its bloody conclusion.
Marshal Blucher, commander of the Prussian Army
Wellington had risen in the early hours of the morning of June 18, and immediately dispatched a message to Blucher about 8 miles to the east, telling him that he would make a stand against the French Army that day and in that position if Blucher could promise to reach him with at least one corps in support (about 20,000 men). Blucher replied at first light that he would get to him with three.
Meanwhile, Napoleon was waiting. Waiting, waiting. The rain continued to fall until nearly dawn. With the ground this wet, beginning his attack too soon would bog down his troops in a quagmire of their own making. Churning up the wet ground would make any kind of manoeuvres difficult, particularly for his cavalry and artillery.
So he had to wait, hoping that the morning sun would dry out the ground between his lines and Wellington’s quickly.
In fact, it was 1130 before the first shot was fired. Had there been no rain, had the two armies awoken to dry ground, allowing an attack several hours earlier in the day, it is likely that Napoleon could have exhausted Wellington’s forces before the vital arrival of the Prussians from the east brought relief. And this probably would have meant the difference between victory and defeat.
As it was the two armies stood. It was nearly noon and not a man had yet fallen: the British regiments of foot in their red tunics and white braid, the black plumes and silver helmets of Dutch carabiniers, the dark blues of the light dragoons, the mottled grey of the Scotch horses, the dark green of the Rifle Brigade, the black uniforms of the Brunswickers, the green and red patchwork of Highland kilts. Facing them across the low valley, the white aprons of the Old Imperial Guard, the long blue trousers of the line infantry, the plumed cockades of the Marshals of France, Ney and Soult, Kellerman, the red collars and golden epaulettes of the artillerymen, the white and red pennants fluttering in the morning air above the white shakoes of the Polish Lancers, the sun breaking through the clouds to glint off the shining steel cuirasses of the squadrons of Kellerman’s cavalry. All these stood. Not a drop of blood yet spilled.
And then, Napoleon opened the battle.
Napoleon’s first move was to launch a diversionary attack on his left against the large house of Hougoumont. Not being able to see Wellington’s deployment of troops on the other side of the ridge, Napoleon had centred his own lines around the roadside inn of La Belle Alliance, which still stands beside the Brussels-Charleroi road. With his opening move, his plan was to draw Wellington’s reserve into the fight for Hougoumont, before making his main attack straight at the British centre.
In the event, quite the reverse happened. The British Guards regiments and the Nassau regiment that garrisoned Hougoumont held out for the whole day, and sucked more and more French troops into the struggle for its possession. What was supposed to be a way of tying up the British troops, actually ended up committing a big portion of the troops on Napoleon’s left wing. But Wellington equally committed nearly 12,000 troops to its defence. This was the foothold on his right wing, which was crucial to the integrity of his whole line of defence. If Hougoumont was lost, then his entire right flank and centre would be badly exposed.
Hougoumont was hard fought for all day. The defending troops managed to keep the French attackers outside the perimeter wall, until a massive French sub-lieutenant named Legros, wielding an axe, managed to break through the gates in the northern wall. With the perimeter breached, French infantry began pouring into the farmyard, and desperate hand-to-hand fighting ensued. At this point, Lieutenant-Colonel McDonnell of the Coldstream Guards (the commanding officer of the Hougoumont garrison), together with several other officers and the burly Corporal Graham, almost miraculously managed to close the northern gate against the incoming tide of invading French. With the doors closed, the few dozen Frenchmen now cut off in the farmyard were finished off one by one, all except a little drummer boy.
Wellington later said that “the success of the battle turned upon the closing of the gates at Hougoumont".
While this opening skirmish got underway, Napoleon turned his attention to the centre of Wellington’s line. The scourge of armies across Europe for the last 20 years had been Napoleon’s artillery. He himself had risen through the ranks to become France’s foremost general as an artilleryman, and his reliance on his artillery pieces for winning battles never wavered.
Victor Hugo describes Napoleon as directing his Grand Batterie of 80 guns as if he were a man wielding a single pistol. He would concentrate the entire firepower of all these pieces in one spot and decimate it. Reducing standing troops to a wretched melée of bloody gore, through the intensity of this concentration.
He now directed all his guns on the British centre. Effective as this tactic had proved on many previous occasions, on this day there was a difference. Because Wellington had chosen his position so well, he was able to place most of his infantry troops immediately behind the ridge, on the reverse side of the slope. He ordered them to lie down on the ground while the barrage continued. This meant on the one hand the French artillerymen were unable to see their targets, and on the other a great deal of the decimating fire from the Grande Batterie went over the heads of the British troops. Although pretty terrible casualties were still sustained, the British had to lay down and take it, but were nevertheless ready to meet the French infantry when they were ordered forward by Napoleon.
At around 1pm, Napoleon ordered his grand frontal assault. Moving forward, under the direction of General D’Erlon, were about 14,000 French line infantry, with the heavy Cuirassier cavalry in support.
They steadily climbed the slope towards the ridge pushing back the British and Dutch skirmishers deployed on the forward slope ahead of the main Anglo-Dutch lines as they went. The attack swept forward like a rising tide around the isolated rock of the farmhouse of La Haye Sainte before Wellington’s centre. Still the King’s German Legion, who were garrisoning the farm, continued to hold out.
Although weakened by the musket fire from the Anglo-Dutch lines, D’Erlon’s main assault came on against Wellington’s left wing, puncturing through the Dutch infantry brigade that met it, and threatening to break through the British and Hanoverian infantry regiments in reserve.
But at this precarious point, Lord Uxbridge, in command of the British cavalry forces, launched his two brigades of heavy cavalry against the French attack, a strength of some 2,000 men and horses.
Now was the time of the short-lived glorious chaos of the British cavalry charge at Waterloo.
Wellington was pretty low in his opinion of his own cavalry’s common sense of the battlefield. He said:
“Our officers of cavalry have acquired a trick of galloping at everything. They never consider the situation, never think of manoeuvring before an enemy, and never keep back or provide a reserve.”
Now was no different. On the other hand, no one could fault their courage or sense of rising to the occasion. If they did get carried away, at least it was in the right direction.
As the Anglo-Dutch line was buckling under the French attack, the British Household Brigade, made up of the 1st and 2nd Life Guards, the Royal Horse Guards and the King’s Dragoon Guards, went forward on the right. From the crest of the ridge, they charged downhill, breaking up the body of French heavy cavalry that was swamping La Haye Sainte and decimating a brigade of line infantry on the left of the French assault.
But on they continued, failing to respond to the bugles sounding the “recall”, and galloped on down into the valley where they were shot up badly by another French brigade that had formed itself into a square, a formation usually impenetrable to cavalry attack.
To their left, the Union Brigade, so named because it comprised the Royal Dragoons (English), the “Scots Greys” (Scottish...from Scotland), and the Inniskillings (Irish), were similarly inflamed with a kind of red mist. Through the ranks of British infantry they swept, when, it was said, a number of the 92nd Gordon Highlanders caught hold of the stirrups of their mounted countrymen, the Scots Greys, as they poured over the ridge and bore down on the advancing French troops.
They charged at the right of the French attack, and broke up at least two French line infantry brigades, capturing two regimental eagles in the process. But in the heated frenzy of battle, once more all three regiments ignored the sound for the “recall” and charged right across the valley, and up the other slope into the ranks of the French Artillery.
Napoleon himself said, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Here is a painting of something like what the French saw bearing down on them now.
In the exuberance of their charge, the Union Brigade’s aim was to capture the French guns, but in fact by then their horses were “blown” – exhausted from the cloying mud as they galloped across the valley bottom - and they didn’t have the equipment to carry off the guns anyway. Nevertheless, they managed to disable several of Napoleon’s cannon. But they were now fearfully exposed.
Napoleon ordered two brigades of cuirassiers and two of Polish Lancers to attack the over-extended British cavalry from their flank. This they did with devastating effect, cutting up the Union brigade very badly and inflicting heavy casualties, including killing its commander Major-General Ponsonby and the commanding officer of the Scots Greys, Colonel Hamilton.
A "Cuirassier" - the cuirasse is the metal body armour
Although the French cavalry chased them back across the valley, with many getting bogged down and slaughtered on exhausted horses stuck in the thick mud on the valley floor and upward slope, the cuirassiers and lancers were thrown back by another counter-charge from the supporting British and Dutch light dragoon cavalry.
At this point, despite the casualties sustained by both the Anglo-Dutch infantry lines and cavalry brigades, Napoleon’s grand frontal assault had failed.
And quite apart from committing over 20,000 men to a failed assault, many of which now lay dead or wounded, and at least 3,000 had been taken prisoner, Napoleon had now lost a good deal of time. It was now approaching 3pm.
At 1pm, Napoleon and his generals had first caught sight of the first Prussian forces, some 4 miles off approaching the battlefield from the east. He had immediately dispatched a message to Marshal Grouchy to return with his 30,000 troops to the field of battle, to engage the Prussians when they arrived on the scene. This is where the technology of his day failed him.
Grouchy was 8 miles away and didn’t receive this message until 6pm, nearly two hours after the first Prussians had already arrived at the battle. Throughout the afternoon, Grouchy had resisted the pleas of his subordinates, in particular General Gérard, to “march to the sound of the guns”. He was determined to continue to follow Napoleon’s orders to harass the Prussians to his front, knowing that Marshal Ney had received a severe reprimand from the Emperor for not following his precise orders two days before. He wasn’t going to make the same mistake.
But Grouchy’s dogged avowal to continue on in his pursuit of the Prussians, even as many of them were slipping round him to reach the beleaguered forces of Wellington, is yet another of the many knife-edges of the day, which could have turned the battle in Napoleon’s favour.
Even as Napoleon’s and Wellington’s force were locked in combat, Grouchy had in fact engaged the Prussians at the little town Wavre. But with 30,000 men, his engagement was hardly vigorous. The Prussian Army consisted of four Corps of troops. Blucher managed to hold off Grouchy’s force with just one corps, the III Corps under General Thielmann, south of the centre of Wavre. Meanwhile his three other corps did indeed march to the sound of the guns, from east to west over the bridge at Wavre, away from Grouchy and towards Waterloo.
Grouchy had let them get away.
After the failure of the D’Erlon’s grand frontal assault, Napoleon had to think again. His left was still held up at Hougoumont, Wellington’s centre had held – just – and now his right was threatened by the approaching Prussian troops.
He ordered the buildings of Hougoumont set on fire. Incendiary shells hit their target and the house was destroyed – all except the chapel. But this didn’t alter the flow of the battle there, and the Guards continued to hold on.
In the centre, Napoleon ordered Ney to take La Haye Sainte at any cost. Possession of the farmhouse held the key to the battle, as fas as Napoleon was concerned. So the beleaguered stronghold ahead of the British lines once more came under a furious assault, but its King’s German Legion garrison continued to hold.
Then the Prussian IV Corps, under General von Bulow began to arrive on the French right flank. Victor Hugo recounts that the Prussians had been assisted by a young cowherd, who knew the back country roads and had guided them carefully through them, to come up in the right place, through the “Paris” woods, east of Napoleon’s position.
Having got lost among the little back lanes of that area myself, as I approached the battlefield from that direction, despite an abundance of signposts, I can easily vouch that the presence of a reliable local guide was no small advantage to the Prussians. Especially since, with the rainstorm, the roads were now in a terrible condition.
Von Bulow’s IV Corps hadn’t been involved in the fighting two days earlier. As such they were at least battle-fresh and free from casualties, though they had been marching for two days. Very soon after arriving and deploying on the field of battle, around 4.30pm, they launched an attack on the little village of Plancenoit, which lay on Napoleon’s right and slightly to his rear. To counter this, he had to commit a large portion of his infantry reserve, General Lobau’s infantry corps, with cavalry in support, some 14,000 troops in all, to withstand this new threat.
von Bulow's Prussians attack the village of Plancenoit
Now, Napoleon had only his beloved Imperial Guard left in reserve.
Yet to him this didn’t matter.
Victor Hugo, a master of reading the historical moment, imagines a glimpse into the mind of Napoleon at this point:
“Napoleon was accustomed to gaze steadily at war; he never added up the heart-rending details, figure by figure; figures mattered little to him, provided that they furnished the total, victory; he was not alarmed if the beginnings did go astray, since he thought himself the master and the possessor at the end; he knew how to wait, supposing himself to be out of the question, and he treated destiny as his equal: he seemed to say to fate, Thou wilt not dare.”
The Grande Batterie had all the while been taking an increasingly heavy toll on the British and Dutch and Belgian troops lying down in the corn behind the ridge.
Meanwhile, as Ney was organizing the renewed infantry assault on La Haye Sainte, he had noticed Wellington moving some of his troops back to the rear just before 4pm. Ney interpreted this as the beginning of the crumbling of Wellington’s centre and a general retreat.
Marshal Ney - who led the French cavalry attack from the front
Seizing the initiative in an effort to exploit any possible weakening of Wellington’s defence, and without real consultation with Napoleon whose focus was now on the growing Prussian threat to his right, Ney ordered a cavalry charge up the slope on the west side of La Haye Sainte against Wellington’s centre-right.
After the failure of D’Erlon’s attack, Ney had very few infantry reserves left at his disposal. His left was snarled up at Hougoumont, and to his right, the infantry reserve was being deployed to meet the Prussian threat. So Ney ordered the assault with cavalry unsupported by infantry.
This almost guaranteed that the awesome episode that followed would be, in many ways, a tragic, if glorious, and ultimately futile effort.
In the initial assault, he sent forward the reserve cavalry corps of cuirassiers – “giant men, on colossal horses” as Hugo describes them – and the light cavalry of the Imperial Guard, some 4,800 in number. When these were repulsed, he committed Kellerman’s heavy cavalry corps and General Guyot’s heavy cavalry of the Guard. A total of 9,000 cavalry in 67 squadrons.
No cavalry charge in history, before or since, has ever taken place on this scale.
Standing on the remains of the ridge, where the Brussels-Charleroi road passes over the top from one slope to the other as it proceeds into the little village of Mont-St-Jean, you can look south and west, across the sugar beet fields that stand there now, to the trees and chimneys where Hougoumont still sits, with its bullet holes and memories, and listen.
And give your imagination the full rein that these French cavalrymen gave their horses as the bugles split the air. Can you feel the steady rumble under your feet? The growing thunder of 20,000 hooves pounding the dirt, the gleaming breasts of these solumn beasts, transformed from sleek-skinned stable animals into raging fiends, slick with sweat and froth, boiling like an oncoming flood, that seems ready to break and carry all before it.
The roar of 5,000 voices, teeth bared and swords gripped tightly in their fists swinging above their heads, the afternoon sun beginning its slow fall to the west, shining off the hard metal of their comrades' body armour, the heavy silk of the regimental Eagles snapping in the wind and the rush of air as the wave rolled ever upward to the crest. Cries of “Vive L’Empereur”, a lustful wildness consuming every eye, of man and beast, the fearful tension of waiting melting away into hunger for glory and English blood.
And on they charged like an avenging hurricane.
Wellington had said, “The whole of war consists in getting at what is on the other side of the hill.”
Had Ney been able to see through the hill up which he was leading his troops to the dead ground on the other side, he would have known that in fact Wellington was not retreating. Instead when he saw the advance of the French cavalry begin, he made ready his forces, forming them into regimental squares. These formations, if well managed, were effectively impenetrable to cavalry attack, yet they could bring to bear a storm of firepower against any cavalry force that attempted it.
As Hugo described it, as the French cavalry began to sweep over the ridge, the “whirlwind was about to meet the volcano”. Two violent forces of natures, realized by the immovable Anglo-Dutch squares and the terrifying incoming waves of French cavalry, were about to meet in a bloody embrace.
The French horses swept up and over the ridge. Yet Victor Hugo, in his description, makes much of the fact that hundreds and hundreds of heavy cavalry went down in a bloody tangle of horses and humans in the “hollow way” – the sunken road, even before they went over the hill to take on “the volcano”. So deep were the embankments of this section of the road, and too wide to leap over, that the whole of one wing of the French cavalry charge tipped headlong into this wide ditch as if it had been an abyss. This drop had been invisible from the French lines, and came as a considerable shock to the charging troops. Its effect was to destroy the momentum of the first charge a good deal.
Nevertheless, the main body of the force went up and over the ridge, overrunning the British artillery positions. While most of the artillerymen withdrew into the safety of the squares, their guns were left undefended. Ordinarily in this situation, cavalrymen are equipped with long six-inch iron nails, which they can drive into the ignition hole of each gun, “spiking” it, and rendering it completely useless for the rest of the battle.
Wellington rallies his squares
For some reason, which remains unexplained, the French did not do this, though they had ample opportunity to do so. This was yet another of the knife-edges of this cataclysmic struggle, for had the British lost most of their artillery at this point in the battle, the final outcome may well have gone Napoleon’s way.
For all its terror and ferocity, the French cavalry assault of the English squares, being unsupported by infantry, failed. Wellington called it, “Smoke without fire”. Napoleon was apoplectic with rage at Ney for committing so basic a mistake - cavalray going forward without infantry. But the fact was, at that point, Ney had little infantry reserve left to commit.
"The whirlwind meets the volcano"
However, despite the failure of the cavalry assault, the Anglo-Dutch concentration of their forces into squares made them far easier targets for artillery fire. And under this, the infantry suffered brutally.
Wellington was heard to say, “Hard pounding, gentlemen. Let’s see who pounds the longest.” For all his hardiness, he knew his centre was being badly weakened.
The situation was made worse when La Haye Sainte fell. The King’s German Legion, who had held out all afternoon had run out of ammunition and had to yield up the farmhouse to the French around 6pm. Soon afterwards, artillery pieces were brought up which began to pulverize the English positions just over the crest of the ridge.
This effectively destroyed one regiment, the 27th (Inniskilling) Regiment, which lay “dead in square” - this without having had the satisfaction of firing scarcely a shot – and left others in tatters. Several regiments having to join together to maintain the integrity of the square formations.
At this point, the situation looked very grim for Wellington. In fact so bad that one Hanoverian cavalry regiment, the Cumberland Hussars, fled the battlefield and spread alarm all the way to Brussels, claiming all was lost for the Coalition armies.
As the Duke prayed around that time, “Give me night or give me Blücher”.
In fact, meanwhile, on the eastern side of the battlefield, more and more Prussians had indeed been arriving. In a line from the far left wing of the Anglo-Dutch line at Papelotte, all the way south and west to the little village of Plancenoit which was in the rear of Napoleon’s position, the Prussians were engaging the French. Napoleon threw in General Lobau’s corps to defend Plancenoit, which changed hands five times during the course of the late afternoon.
Despite the precarious situation along the English line, the French were slowly being squeezed.
By the early evening, the French forces were being bent, even buckled, into the shape of a horseshoe, with Hougoumont at the extreme left end, Papelotte in the centre, and Plancenoit on the right. The English and Dutch had barely moved all day. They had stood against everything the French had thrown against them, and still held. They were the anvil. Immovable, resilient, hard-pressed, but still there.
The Prussians were the hammer. The French, now the horseshoe, pressed harder and harder by the Prussians against the anvil of the English, had nowhere to go.
There was only one chance left. Napoleon had to break Wellington’s forces before the Prussians collapsed his right side.
With La Haye Sainte now in his possession, and with the Prussian threat in Plancenoit stabilized for the moment, Napoleon called forward the Imperial Guard, the last of his reserve, for the final decisive assault. The time was 7.30pm.
The Imperial Guard were the pride of La Grande Armée, the scourge of Europe and the finest fighting troops in the world. Comprised of the Old Guard, who had fought with Napoleon since his earliest campaigns more than 15 years before, the Middle Guard, veterans from the 1805 to 1809 campaigns, and the Young Guard, the pick of the fresh volunteers and recruits into the army, the Imperial Guard was always held in reserve, and deployed very carefully by Napoleon. They had never been defeated. Usually he used them to deliver the coup de grace to an enemy on the brink of collapse. And this was his intention now.
In fact, much of the Young Guard had already been thrown into the fight with the Prussians for Plancenoit (suffering 96% casualties by the end of the day). So it was the Middle Guard which led the assault on Wellington’s centre, past the west side of La Haye Sainte which protected their flank. The Old Guard followed in reserve for the second wave of the assault.
As their bands played through the thunder of the cannon, the grizzled faces of these veterans under their tall bearskin hats moved forward in row after row, down into the belly of the valley, and up the same ground that their mounted comrades had ridden in fury just a couple of hours before. The Middle Guardsmen, about 3,000 of them, divided into three forces as they approached the Anglo-Dutch lines. They punctured through the British, Brunswick and Nassau troops, which formed the first line of defence and marched on. Even through another Dutch division as British artillery poured fire into their flank, the Guardsmen pressed on. Onward, until a full Dutch brigade was thrown against them. Finally, outnumbered and running out of momentum, they faltered, and then, as never before, they broke.
The second prong of the Guards’ attack came against some 1,500 British Foot Guards under General Maitland. These troops were lying down to protect themselves from the artillery fire. As the Guardsmen approached, Wellington is said to have cried, “Up Guards and at them again!” at which, the Foot Guards rose from the ground and poured devastating volleys into the Frenchmen. Like the first prong, these Chasseurs faltered again, and the British charged with bayonets. The French then broke.
They were pursued by the British down the hill, who were then met by the third and final prong of the Guards attack. The British Guards fell back under their fire, but the 52nd Light Infantry regiment then wheeled round so they were facing the flank of the French column and decimated it with cross-fire volleys before charging into them.
The final prong of the Imperial Guards’ attack broke.
This was the beginning of the disintegration of the remaining French forces into a general rout. The word quickly spread, the Imperial Guard had been beaten. The unthinkable was now upon the French: the beloved elite of the French Army was in flight. Their will and their strength had failed them, and they were now falling back. Surely the hand of Providence was set against them.
Napoleon once declared that: “A leader is a dealer in hope.” For the French, their last hope was now gone.
Wellington now stood up in his stirrups and ordered a general advance after the fleeing French troops. Finally released from their tortuous position under enemy artillery fire on the ridge, the British Army practically ran after the broken Guard down the hill. La Haye Sainte was retaken around 8pm.
Meanwhile, the Prussians were breaking through in the woods around Plancenoit. The Old Guard who had been held in reserve formed a last stand just south of La Haye Sainte. Surrounded by the advancing British, and invited to surrender, their answer was proud, "La Garde meurt, elle ne se rend pas!" ("The Guard dies, it does not surrender!")
Another version has it that General Cambronne, standing with the Old Guard, simply cried out, “Merde!” (“Shit!”) (He denied making either of these responses, it should be said.)
Whatever be the truth, the last stand of the Old Guard was decimated, though Cambronne himself was taken prisoner. (He later married the Scottish girl who tended his wounds in captivity.)
But now the French left, centre and right had all failed, and the disintegration of the Armée du Nord was complete.
Everyone who could, save for small pockets of Old Guard stalwarts who stood their ground, took flight to the south, desperate to escape back over the border into France if they could.
“Sauve qui peut!” was the cry, and “Sauvons nos aigles!” as the French sought to save their lives and the honour of their scattered regiments if they could.
Marshal Blucher released his cavalry with the utmost ruthlessness, telling them to take no prisoners, show no mercy. They decimated the fleeing Frenchmen, only drawing up their pursuit at around 10pm at the village of Genappe, 7km to the south of the inn of La Belle Alliance, which had been Napoleon’s vantage position throughout the day.
Napoleon himself had to be practically dragged from the battlefield as his army crumbled around him. He escaped with his life, but not to fight another day. There would be none for him. Instead, he was to sit caged and impotent on a rock in the south Atlantic, dying his “daily death”, defeated and inglorious, until his bodily death caught up with him 6 years later.
On the other hand, at 9pm, the Duke of Wellington and Field Marshal Blucher met and shook hands under cover of darkness at the inn of La Belle Alliance, congratulating each other on their combined victory. Truly, none could have claimed victory without the other. Dutch, English, Scottish, Irish, Belgians, Prussians, Brunswickers, Hanoverians and Nassauers. All had been needed to shatter the pedastal on which Napoleon had stood, and pull him down. Une Belle Alliance indeed.
Wellington and Blucher meet on the field of battle
Figures differ slightly, but around 69,000 Frenchmen had stood before the ridge of Mont-St-Jean at 11.30am that morning. By 10pm 48,000 were dead, wounded or missing.
Of the 68,000 Allied forces under Wellington, 17,000 were casualties; Blucher’s 50,000 Prussians sustained 7,000 casualties.
Truly the French had been crushed between the British anvil and the Prussian hammer.
But the aftermath of the battlefield was gruesome. A mangle of carcasses, the detritus of battle, horse and human flesh, wounded, sick and dying men. Even several days after the battle, eye-witnesses said the sight was sickening, and the condition of the wounded deplorable.
Wellington wrote of the sight: “My heart is broken by the terrible loss I have sustained in my old friends and companions and my poor soldiers. Believe me, nothing except a battle lost can be half as melancholy as a battle won.”
As for Grouchy, the great absentee of Waterloo, he and his 33,000 men gained a hollow victory over the Prussian rearguard of Thielmann’s Corps at Wavre the following day, and made it back to France. But at what cost? How badly had those 33,000 been needed in the decisive struggle between Napoleon and Wellington. History would not forgive Grouchy his doggedness.
Marshal Ney, the red-headed hero of so many of Napoleon’s campaigns, had had five horses shot from under him during the day. Yet the glorious death that he was seeking had evaded him. In its place, he was to be tried for treason before King Louis XVIII, and sentenced to an ignominious death by firing squad. Yet in spite of his disgrace, it is said that he was allowed to give his own execution squad the command to fire.
Napoleon abdicated a second time on June 24, 1815 a week after his defeat. Although it seems he tried to escape to America, he finally surrendered to a British captain on the ship HMS Bellerophon on July 15. He was exiled to the island of St Helena in the South Atlantic, where he remained until his death in 1821.
King Louis XVIII was restored to the throne of France, and the First French Empire had come to an end.
Victor Hugo describes the hubris of Napoleon like this: ‘he treated destiny as his equal: he seemed to say to fate, Thou wilt not dare.’
And yet in response, “A mysterious frown becomes perceptible in the depths of the heavens.”
Hugo’s view was that it was nothing less than the hand of Providence that crushed Napoleon – that cast him down. “How the Mighty have Fallen!” might be a prophetic word for Napoleon without a doubt.
Was it the rain? Or the closing of the gates at Hougoumont? Or Grouchy’s absence? Or the Prussians’ determined march? Or the little cowherd guide through the woods? Or the failure to spike Wellington’s guns? Or the carnage of the “hollow way”? Or the faltering will of the Old Guard? Or Ney’s impetuosity?
Was it the genius of Wellington who simply pinned himself to his ridge all day? Or his iron nerve? Was it the granite-like resilience of the raw-recruit Redcoats – the “scum of the earth” as their commander had called them?
Well surely it was all these things and no doubt more.
But what does it matter? What can a man do, even a man as great as Napoleon, if Providence says “No”.
And what other destiny could await a man who says things like this:
“I love power. But it is as an artist that I love it. I love it as a musician loves his violin, to draw out its sounds and chords and harmonies.”
“Power is my mistress. I have worked too hard at her conquest to allow anyone to take her away from me.”
Which brings me to my tuppence.
If Napoleon’s name will ring down through history, standing as tall surely as any man whom humanity has thrown onto the stage of human action, then this I find an interesting thought of his on which to end:
“I know men and I tell you that Jesus Christ is no mere man. Between Him and every other person in the world there is no possible term of comparison. Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and I have founded empires. But on what did we rest the creation of our genius? Upon force. Jesus Christ founded His empire upon love; and at this hour millions of men would die for Him.”
If Napoleon had to meet his Waterloo to find this out, then perhaps he did not leave with empty hands.
Be that as it may, on a lighter note, let’s give the last word to the victor, His Grace the Duke of Wellington, after all:
The Duke once met a little boy, crying by the road. "Come now, that's no way for a young gentleman to behave. What's the matter?" he asked.
"I have to go away to school tomorrow," sobbed the child, "and I'm worried about my pet toad. There's no-one else to care for it and I sharn't know how it is."
Keen to ease the little chap's discomfort, the Duke promised to attend to the matter personally.
After the boy had been at school for just over a week, he received a note: "Field Marshal the Duke of Wellington presents his compliments to Master ---- and has the pleasure to inform him that his toad is quite well."
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