Battle of Waterloo
Napoleonic art prints of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, published by Cranston Fine Arts, the military print company.
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WATERLOO, 18 June 1815
On February 26th 1815, barely ten months after the end of the Peninsular War, Napoleon sailed from Elba to bring about the end of his brief period of exile. It was the beginning of the final, momentous chapter of the Napoleonic Wars that would culminate in the great battle of Waterloo and Napoleon's final downfall. The campaign was also to result in a head to head between the two great commanders of the age, Wellington and Napoleon, two men who had yet to face each other in battle.
Napoleon landed in France on March 1st and entered Paris on March 20th. He immediately set to work raising an army, the so-called Army of the North which, by the time of the Waterloo campaign consisted of 125,000 men. Facing Napoleon were the armies of the Seventh Coalition - it had declared Napoleon `an enemy and disturber of the world' - which numbered as many as 800,000 men. But of the various armies opposed to him it would be the Anglo-Dutch army, under Wellington, and Marshal Blucher's Army of the Lower Rhine that would be the object of Napoleon's thrust in June 1815.
Wellington's Anglo-Dutch army was a marked contrast to that which had triumphed in the Peninsula, that particular army having been dispersed and scattered around the world, mainly to America, and only a handful of his Peninsular regiments would be present with him at Waterloo. Many of these were already in Holland having served with Sir Thomas Graham's force which had taken part in the campaign against Bergen-op-Zoom in 1813 and 1814. In fact, only 34,000 of the 100,000 troops under Wellington were British, the rest being Germans, Hanoverians and Brunswickers, all good troops, and a large contingent of Nassauers, Dutch and Belgians. It was, as Wellington was moved to write, `an infamous army, very weak and ill-equipped.' His staff was very inexperienced, although he did have several `old heads' from the Peninsula, such as Hill, Picton, Alten, Kempt, Pack and Somerset. He also had the services of the Earl of Uxbridge as commander of the Allied cavalry. Uxbridge had eloped with the latter's sister-in-law early on in the Peninsular campaign and following the Corunna campaign of 1808-09 saw no further service. As a result of this the British cavalry in the Peninsula was deprived of the only real cavalry commander the British Army possessed. Nevertheless, old differences having been settled, Uxbridge was to lead the cavalry with distinction during the Waterloo campaign.
On June 15th 1815 Napoleon's army crossed the Sambre, catching Wellington, who was dancing the night away with his officers at the now-famous ball, given by the Duchess of Richmond, by surprise. His army had concentrated to the south of Brussels with Blucher's Prussians on its left. Napoleon's plan was to drive a wedge between the two and fight each army separately. It was vital, therefore, to prevent co-operation between the two and on June 16th the two battles designed to ensure this were fought. At Ligny, Napoleon himself attacked Blucher and gave him a severe mauling while Ney, with about 42,000 men, attacked Wellington at the crossroads at Quatre Bras. The end result of a day of hard, confused fighting was that Blucher, having been forced to retreat north, in turn forced Wellington to withdraw in the same direction, marching parallel with the Prussians and keeping in close contact with them throughout.
By the evening of June 17th Wellington had drawn his army up along a ridge barring the road to Brussels, just south of the village of Mont St Jean. The position was a good one and afforded Wellington a `reverse slope', upon which the majority of his troops were deployed, out of sight of the French. On Wellington's left flank were the farms of Papelotte and La Haye and the village of Frischermont. The centre was protected by the farm of La Haye Sainte, and the right wing by the chateau of Hougoumont, a particularly strong position held by the light companies of the Foot Guards. Both of these latter two positions lay a good distance in front of the main Allied position on the ridge. Wellington's troops numbered 68,000 including 12,000 cavalry. He had 156 guns with him also. A further 17,000 Allied troops were left at Hal, a few miles away to the west, in order to protect his right flank against any outflanking manoeuvre Napoleon might attempt in order to cut him off from his base at Antwerp. Napoleon's army numbered 72,000 including 16,000 cavalry. With 256 guns at his disposal he outnumbered Wellington by nearly 100.
Wellington's decision to fight was based on assurances given him by Blucher that the Prussians, rather than retreat away from him, would march west in order to fall upon the French right flank. In order to prevent such a move Napoleon sent Marshal Grouchy with 30,000 men to pursue the Prussians and keep them from coming to Wellington's assistance The absence of these 30,000 troops would be a significant factor in the outcome of the battle.
The battle of Waterloo began at some time between 11.30 and noon on Sunday, June 18th, with an assault by Jerome Bonaparte's division upon the chateau of Hougoumont, held by the light companies of the Foot Guards. The attack was intended to be merely a feint, the intention being to draw troops away from the Allied centre which was to be the real target for Napoleon. Jerome, however, threw more and more men into the attack until the fight for Hougoumont became almost a battle within a battle, the Guards hanging on grimly throughout the day in the face on intense French pressure. The most dangerous moment for the defenders of Hougoumont came at around 12.30 when Jerome's men forced open the north gates of the chateau and were only forced out after a desperate piece of defending led by Lieutenant Colonel James Macdonnell, of the Coldstream Guards. The chateau would remain in British hands for the rest of the day, even as flames burnt most of it to the ground following French artillery bombardment.
At about 1.30pm the second phase of the battle began when Napoleon launched D'Erlon's corps against the Allied centre and left. The attack was preceded by a massive artillery bombardment from 80 guns of Napoleon's `grand battery'. The attack demonstrated that the French had learned little from the Peninsular War as they came on in bulky, unwieldy columns. `They came on in the old style and were driven off in the old style,' Wellington remarked later, although at first D'Erlon was successful. Indeed, Bylandt's Belgian brigade was broken and the steady volleys from both Pack's and Kempt's brigades could not halt the columns. The French reached the top of the ridge only to be met by Picton's division which burst through some hedges and unleashed a terrific volley into the massed ranks of muddy, blue-jacketed Frenchmen. The attack came shuddering to a halt in the face of a withering fire from Picton's men, most of whom were veterans of the Peninsula. Tragically, Picton was killed at the moment of triumph, for he fell dead from his horse with a musket ball in his forehead. He died cheering his men on, cursing them as usual as he had done so often in Spain and Portugal. It is perhaps fitting that Picton, the veteran of so many of Wellington's great victories in the Peninsula, should meet his end at the greatest triumph of them all.
While Picton's men stepped over his dead body to press home their attack, Uxbridge chose the moment to launch his cavalry against the disorganised Frenchmen. D'Erlon's commanders tried desperately to reorganise their men but were suddenly swept away by an avalanche, formed of Uxbridge's Union Brigade, consisting of the 1st (Royals), 2nd (Scots Greys) and the 6th (Enniskilling) Dragoons. The Scots Greys had seen no active service since 1795 but made up this absence with a vengeance as they smashed into the shocked ranks of terrified Frenchmen who surrendered in their thousands. During the charge Sergeant Ewart, of the Greys, captured the eagle of the French 45th Ligne Regiment, whilst on the brigade's right the Household Brigade charged, delivering an equally devastating attack against D'Erlon's battered columns. During its attack the Household Brigade also took an eagle. Unfortunately, the triumphant cavalrymen, the Union Brigade in particular, became carried away with their success and charged on despite the sounding of the recall. The Scots Greys charged right up to Napoleon's guns, slaughtering the gunners and spiking many guns but their horses were soon blown and the Scotsmen suffered a severe mauling following a counter-attack by enemy cavalry, during which Major General Sir William Ponsonby, the brigade commander, was killed. Nevertheless, the attack had completely smashed D'Erlon's corps, some 3,000 Frenchmen being killed or wounded, while a further 3,000 were herded over the ridge towards Brussels as prisoners.
At about 4pm Wellington ordered the Allied line to pull back a short distance in the face the continuous heavy French artillery bombardment. This order was perceived by Marshal Ney to be a withdrawal upon which he ordered a massive cavalry attack by up to 10,000 French cavalry who cantered up - charging was almost impossible over the muddy ground - time and time again to engulf the Allied infantry squares which stood steady on the reverse slope of the ridge. These attacks continued for about two hours and yet achieved nothing, mainly due to the fact that the cavalry were unsupported by artillery. In fact, the infantry squares welcomed the attacks as they gave then some release from the tortuous artillery bombardment that rained down upon them throughout the day and as long as the squares held firm there was little danger.
Even as Napoleon's cavalry thundered up the ridge of Mont St Jean the Emperor looked eastward in dismay as dark columns of troops began to appear on his right flank. They were Blucher's Prussians. Napoleon despatched his Young Guard and Middle Guard to the village of Plancenoit where bitter fighting raged as both French and Prussians fought to the death. The village changed hands several times before Blucher's men finally held on to the place.
In the centre of Wellington's position, meanwhile, a crisis had occurred with Ney's capture of the farmhouse of La Haye Sainte. The defenders, the 2nd King's German Legion Light Battalion, had put up a magnificent resistance all day but when their ammunition finally ran out they were forced to abandon the place. Major Baring, the commanding officer, and barely forty men made it back to the main Allied position. The fall of La Haye Sainte enabled the French gunners to bring their pieces to within just a few hundred yards of the centre of Wellington's line which reeled under the weight of this new onslaught and even Wellington's seasoned British troops found it difficult to remember anything worse happening to them in the Peninsula. The climax of the battle had finally arrived.
The effect that the fall of the farmhouse had on the Allied line was not lost on Napoleon who realised that now was the time to launch his Imperial Guard into the attack. It was now or never, for if he could not defeat Wellington before the Prussians made their presence felt then the consequences for him and his empire would be catastrophic.
Napoleon duly turned to his Imperial Guard, those faithful warriors who had been kicking at his heels for years as together they had marched to glory after glory. The Imperial Guard had yet to taste defeat and it was with great confidence that seven battalions of the Guard, supported by guns, set out across the muddy fields, churned up by the earlier cavalry attacks. It is somewhat surprising that the Guard took this route as it would, possibly, have been easier to march directly up the Brussels road and smash through Wellington's centre. However, Napoleon's veterans turned off the main road and headed for that part of the ridge held by Maitland's Brigade of Guards. It is perhaps fitting that the decisive chapter of the final, great battle of the Napoleonic Wars should come down to a clash between the finest troops that both Napoleon and Wellington could offer, the Imperial Guard and the 1st Foot Guards.
The Imperial Guard advanced across the muddy ground in squares, the Guard not wanting to taste what D'Erlon's troops had tasted earlier in the day. From ground level, of course, these dense squares gave the appearance of being columns and thus gave rise to the endless arguments as to just exactly what was the Imperial Guard's formation. As the French approached the ridge they separated into two, one body of troops heading for the 30th and 73rd Regiments and the other heading straight towards Maitland's Foot Guards. The attack was in many ways a repetition of so many of the French infantry attacks in the Peninsula. To the Imperial Guard the ridge looked deserted but just before it, lying in the corn, were two battalion's of the 1st Foot Guards and just at the moment when the French saw victory within their grasp Wellington shouted, `Up Guards, Make Ready, Fire!' All at once the Imperial Guard saw its path blocked by a long red barrier which seemed to spring up from the ground itself. The French hardly had time to gather their wits about them before a series of devastating volleys tore them to shreds, sending them reeling and staggering backwards. The Foot Guards advanced to press home their attack, many of them `firing from the hip', so close was the range. As the Imperial Guard began to fall back Sir John Colborne's 52nd Light Infantry wheeled round to pour more musketry into its shocked ranks, the enfilade fire of the Peninsular veterans finally breaking the Frenchmen's resolve and sending them streaming away to the rear.
We'd like to thank Ian Fletcher, renowned military author on the Peninsula and Waterloo, for his contribution ot our website.
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