Waterloo for the Uninitiated - June 18th 1815



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    There are infinitely better accounts of Waterloo than the one I am going to give - but this is the 'Weight-watchers' version - a quick run down to put the battle in perspective for people that have no idea what it was all about.

    There are four major points to remember - First it was of short duration, Second it was fought over a very small area, Third it marked the end of twenty-five years warfare, and proved the final overthrow of Napoleon Bonaparte and finally because it was the bloodiest exchange that had been witnessed to date. One in four of the soldiers died on that small field, the carnage was incredible. This was a battle of Napoleon's French forces against two allied forces:
    1 - the Anglo-Dutch led by Wellington and;
    2 - the Prussians led by Blucher.

    You can also read first hand accounts from some veterans of the Battle.

    So with that in mind - What actually happened?
    Napoleon got sick of his exile on Elba less than a year after his first abdication. With some 1,200 men he landed in the South of France on 1 March 1815 and advanced on Paris. Louis XVIII the French King placed there by the allies, realised that he had no support, and escaped out the back to Brussels as Napoleon marched into the city in triumph on March 20th.

    Napoleon's return to France wasn't universally well received. The Austrians, Dutch, Prussians and English were horrified, after all Napoleon had caused havoc in Europe for over two decades, they mobilised immediately.

    With the King of France gone Napoleon had the upper-hand, he recalled all undischarged troops and mobilised the National Guard. He managed to assemble an army of some 124,000 men, but many poorly-equipped. With the threat of the four European powers massing and invading Napoleon knew he must act fast. His plan was to march on Brussels, defeating the first Allied armies before the others could attack. Then, in a position of considerable strength, he could sue for peace on his own terms. That would give him time to amass a considerably greater army by the end of the summer - he hoped to have about 600,000 men capable of taking the field.

    Napoleon knew had to act to retain his power this time. Russia, Prussia, Austria and Britain would not sit by to watch him encroach on them all over again. Napoleon had two advantages, the French army, were mobilised even if they were poorly armed - and secondly he had time on his side if he acted fast.

    The allies planned to mass their armies on his border and take him together. Already Britain and Prussia were gathering in Belgium and the low countries. Napoleon knew he could take on each army in turn, but not both of them together. He could not afford to wait. The highly unpopular army conscription policy had been dropped under Louis, and Napoleon realised that he couldn't bring it back without losing his French support.

    Napoleon's plan was to hit the Prussian and British armies separately and defeat them individually before they had a chance to link up. Together they would be too much for his forces. He realised though that if he could hit one army first, it would most likely retreat along the lines of its communication and supplies. The Prussians would head back east to the Rhineland, the British, west to Ghent and the coast. If he hit them and separated them, he might delay the Austrian and Russian armies and sue for peace, and more time.

    So Napoleon moved fast mobilising his army with such secrecy and swiftness that they were over the border into Belgium on the 15th of June. Wellington found out about Napoleon's invasion just before attending the Duchess of Richmond's ball on that night, but chose to continue as normal, to prevent panic. That night from around 11pm the call to arms was sounded, and by the early hours of the 16th of June the entire army was on the march south from Brussels towards The French Border.

    The Anglo-Dutch army was commanded by the Duke of Wellington, with the young and incompetent Prince of Orange nominally second-in-command. The Prince's appointment was political - his father after all was King of the Netherlands.

    The core of the Anglo-Allied army was the British contingent, which contained some Peninsular veterans, but also many 'young' battalions and half-trained recruits. In addition, there were some battalions of the magnificent King's German Legion, a 'foreign corps' composed basically of Hanoverians.

    The Netherlands detachment was a different matter; many of the Belgian troops had fought under Napoleon, and loyalties were mixed; not only were they likely to be fighting their old friends, but they were residents of the country - it was not in their interest to be fighting AGAINST the winning side.

    So to strengthen these marginal troops Wellington organised the units under his command so that recruits and units of dubious quality were brigaded with seasoned troops, in such a way that no brigade or division would be untrustworthy, each containing some dependable troops; it also helped to prevent mass desertion. Hence his name for it - 'an infamous army'.

    The second Allied army, to work in conjunction with Wellington, was Prussian, under the command of Field-Marshal Blucher To assist him, his capable Chief of Staff, Gneisenau who for some reason distrusted Wellington.

    Napoleon attacked first, crossing the frontier on 11 June, and engaging the Prussian skirmishers almost at once. Despite this Wellington even attended the Duchess of Richmond's ball in Brussels that night, in order not to panic the citizens by appearing preoccupied with the French attack; many of the Anglo-Dutch staff also attended the ball, giving Wellington a good opportunity to issue his orders. When the ball finally broke up, it was because a message arrived to say Napoleon had occupied Charleroi. Wellington set his army in motion immediately, so quickly that some of the British officers had no time to change from their ball dress.

    Napoleon's tactics was to split Wellington's Anglo-Dutch forces from and Blucher's Prussian Army before they could link up; he chose to fall upon Wellington first, then turn upon Blucher. Napoleon therefore detached 24,000 troops under Marshal Ney to hold back the Anglo-Dutch army which was gathering at Quatre Bras, while he dealt with Blucher and his Prussians at Ligny; he intended Ney to assist him once the Anglo-Dutch forces retired. He attacked the Prussians at about 3 p.m. on I6 June.

    The Prussian centre was destroyed and Blucher almost killed, they were forced to withdraw to Wavre. Napoleon had won a considerable victory, with the loss of some 12,000 men; the Prussians had lost about 16,000, and another 8,000 deserted during the night.

    Meanwhile at Quatre Bras, Ney had attacked the Dutch led by the Prince of Orange; Wellington arrived at about 3 p.m. to find many of the Netherlands units already retiring in disorder. Elements of Wellington's army were arriving throughout the action, but less than half were present even at the close.

    It was here that The Prince of Orange made his first of three fatal mistakes. He resented Picton's {one of the English commanders] interference, and ordered four battalions into line in direct contradiction of Picton's orders these were suicidal tactics if French cavalry were in the area. They were; the 69th Foot was ridden down and ceased to exist as an operational unit for the day. Two others The 33rd and 73rd Foot behaved poorly, breaking before the French hit them. Only the 30th Foot formed square and retired in good order. Wellington rallied three of the smashed battalions, but the position was desperate.

    Support arrived in the nick of time and Wellington then took the initiative and ordered a general attack. The French commander, Ney broke off the action with perhaps 4,500 casualties; the Allies lost slightly more, including 2,275 British; however, many of the Allied 'losses' were the result of Netherlands deserters being returned as 'missing'.

    The lanes around the area were very confusing and many of the troops set out to where they were supposed to be going but got lost trying to get there which was the reason for the delay. One first hand account from one of these troops reports seeing the first casualties of Quatre Bras coming towards him while he was still trying to lead his troops there. It was disgusting and disheartening as he realised they were deserting. There would be one injured man with eight to ten comrades pretending to help him to safety.

    So that was the action leading up to the Waterloo. On the I7th of June, both Allied armies withdrew, the Prussians to Wavre, and Wellington eight miles to their west in a small hamlet, Mont Sainte-Jean, on a ridge just south of the village of Waterloo. This position had been mapped [prophetically it seems] on the Duke's instruction in 1814. On the 15 June he told the Duke of Richmond that the ridge was the place he intended to engage Napoleon. Defensively it was an ideal position. The ridge had a slight Śreverse slope' behind which his troops could shelter, immune from enemy fire. At the rear of the position was a wooded area which would have provided shelter if the army were forced to retreat. Hedges of considerable size protected part of the British front, and the position was made stronger by the possession of three fortified points, the chateau, farm and woods of Hougoumont, the farm of La Haye Sainte, and the villages of Papelotte, La Haye and Frischermont

    The Anglo-Dutch army encamped there on the gently rolling fields on the night of the 17th of June 1815 - the Prussians were eight miles to their east at Wavre and planning to come over to assist them on the morning of the 18th for the battle against the French. Napoleon planned to send a force led by Grouchy to prevent this happening. For some reason Grouchy never achieved this wondering too far away to be any use to anyone during the next day's battle

    That night it rained, it was miserable and there was little shelter for any of the Anglo-Dutch on the rolling fields of Waterloo. Behind them to the north was the Allied defensive line running east west along the ridge and marked by three buildings, In the west was Hougoumont, in the centre La Haie Sainte and in the east village of Papelotte.

    The relative positions of Wellington at Waterloo and Blucher at Wavre are important to note. Blucher had promised to support Wellington at Waterloo a mere eight miles away. But the rain during the night and the fact that to get there they had to use farm tracks that were little better than quagmires, they took almost all day on the 18th of June to get there dragging their artillery wagons and so on. And arrived too late to be of any real use - but unencumbered by Grouchy who was still marching around looking for them.

    The early hours at Waterloo of 18 June were spent in cleaning weapons, checking ammunition, and Hougoumont, La Haie Sainte and Papelotte were fortified, a barricade going up on the Genappe road which lead directly to Napoleon's headquarters, just south of La Haie Sainte. Napoleon had almost 74,000 men drawn up before the Anglo-Allied position, numerically outnumbering Wellington who had about 58,000.

    If you want to read an excellent and fascinating account of Waterloo as described by people who were there read David Howarth's "A Near Run Thing." It is well worth it. His description of the morning of the 18th and later events is chilling. Already the crop in the field had been flattened by troops who had bedded down there during the night without shelter in the pouring rain. Fires were being lit as dawn arrived and the mist started to lift. Troops began to check their weapons. Instead of clearing them in the correct manner they were discharging them, and quite soon their was a smell of gun powder in the air and the repeated noise of firing from thousands of troops preparing for action.

    They had a long time to wait. A long chilling time. They first had to listen to the French being rallied somewhere behind the hill, shouts of Vive l'Empereur floated back towards them.

    In brief some of the major action during the Battle of Waterloo
    It was not until almost midday that they battle began with a French attack on Hougoumont. Hougoumont was the western most outpost of Wellington's line and so important to keep to prevent his army being outflanked. More importantly it contributed to the Allies success on the day as large numbers of French troops were expended to take it - unsuccessfully; Wellington used only about 3,500 men to hold the position, who kept over 14,000 French occupied throughout the day. As many as 10,000 fell in the fight for the position, three-quarters of them French.

    A battery of eighty guns began to fire on the Allied position. A division of Netherlanders broke and fled as first French attack began. The Allied artillery opened on the advancing troops, who were now attacking the Germans in La Haie Sainte which was the fortified farm in the centre of Wellington's line. The Prince of Orange made his second mistake when he ordered the Luneburg Battalion to counter-attack the French infantry, moving them forward in line; they were overrun by Cuirassiers [French cavalry] and destroyed.

    The counter attack by Allied cavalry almost resulted in their own complete destruction when they drove off this first attack but carried on right to the French lines and were decimated.

    The French artillery opened up again, preluding an attack by cavalry. An incredible attack: the first charge was made by 5,000 horsemen on a front of only 700 yards, allowing no space for manoeuvre. A first hand account talks about them being so close at times he thought his horse was lifted from the ground. The French were shot down in hundreds but kept coming in waves. The Allied cavalry counter-charged but the Netherlanders refused to move instead leaving the field en masse and arriving in Brussels with the news that Napoleon had won.

    At 4.30 p.m. Wellington heard a cannonade from the south-east, indicating that some of Blucher's Prussians had finally arrived and were in action, though not as yet actively supporting him. The final French cavalry attack came at about 5:30 p.m., delivered at a walk because of the exhausted condition of the horses. It was the heaviest attack, and suffered the heaviest slaughter; the whole French line gave way, and did not return. Another attack, combining infantry, cavalry and artillery, hit the Allied line behind Hougoumont; it was driven off.

    First hand accounts of the day talk of being ridden over constantly by cavalry on both sides, there was so little room, so few places for the soldiers to manoeuvre. The field was a mass of mud, blood and bodies. The air was hung with a pall of black from gunpowder discharge, it was hard to see in the distance and it irritated the eyes until they were red and running. And everywhere was incredible noise. The gunshot, artillery, shouts of the fighting, moans of the dying, screams from the horses. The only thing heard over the top of it was the drumming and the bugling which was the only way to tell troops en-masse what they were expected to do.

    One account of these final cavalry charges tells it blackly humorously. Apparently towards the end everyone was so tired, the cavalry and the men in the squares merely stood and stared impotently at each other.

    Meanwhile a massive French attack surged around La Haie Sainte - the centre of the Allied line. The French had smashed down the door, inside the garrisoned troops had run out of ammunition and a desperate hand-to-hand fight ensued. Seeing the situation, the Prince of Orange decided to lend a hand. He formed two battalions which were caught by a body of French cavalry; one was ridden down and destroyed the other managed to form square in time. For the third time in as many days, the young prince had sacrificed a battalion to no purpose

    It was useless anyway - the Farm was lost and of the original 678 men who had been garrisoned at La Haie Sainte only 42 managed to escape alive. Now the centre of the allied line was completely exposed to French attack. And the situation was desperate all across the line commanders were calling for reinforcements - men were so thinly spread that the issue hung severely in the balance. There were none to call on.

    Wellington rallied his reserves, the Bruswickers, himself and Vivian's cavalry formed in support. It was touch and go but they succeeded in pushing the French back and in the process gaining some of the artillery they left behind. The Prince of Orange had meanwhile ordered yet another unlucky battalion into line, but they broke and retreated before they could be overrun by French cavalry. Luckily he was knocked from his horse by a musket-ball, and carried from the field, wounded. It was then that the Allied cause had a turn around. Blucher and his Prussians came up on the left. This meant that Vandeleur's cavalry brigade was now free to strengthen the centre - they arrived literally in the nick of time.

    Napoleon's position was now desperate. The Allied line remained intact, though Wellington's force had shrunk to perhaps 35,000 many Netherlanders having deserted. The cavalry of Vivian and Vandeleur, formed in line behind the front, prevented any mass desertion by the more questionable elements of Wellington's force.

    Napoleon now gambled his last reserve, the infantry of the Imperial Guard, which had never once been vanquished. Accordingly, he sent forward two attacks against the Allied line. But were met with stout resistance The French, in column, could not reply effectively; hundreds died where they stood before the remainder broke and fled leaving half its strength dead on the ridge.

    That was the end. An incredulous cry of 'La Garde Recule' echoed along the French line, and the entire army began to disintegrate. Wellington ordered a general advance of the whole line, shouting to Colonel Colborne of the 52nd, 'Go on, go on! They won't stand. Don't give them a chance to rally'. Vivian and Vandeleur's light cavalry charged and the French retreat became a rout as panic set in.

    A final horror awaited the French as retreated in panic. When they reached the village of Genappe the baggage and carts which had been left in the streets there now blocked their hasty retreat. Hysteria set in as they pressed in and started trying to hack their way past their own comrades killing one another in an attempt to escape. It was not until much later a few realised that they could escape by going round the village and fording the stream which was both shallow and narrow.

    In figures, the Anglo-Allied force had lost almost a quarter of their force about I5,000, the Prussians 7,000, and the French between 25,000 and 30,000. As one officer was to remark, it was usual after a battle to go to neighbouring units and ask 'Who's dead?', but in this case they asked 'Who's alive?' . . . the ditches around Hougoumont were choked with bodies, and huge piles of corpses marked the area where the French cavalry had been cut down, and one could see the position of the 27th's square by the dead, still lying in that formation. Worse than that was the condition of the wounded, many of whom lay three days before being treated. Parties of Belgian scavengers toured the field, murdering and robbing the wounded; looters from both Allied armies scoured the area, stripping the dead and living alike. Over the whole field arose a continuous moan . Those who saw it acknowledged that the most sickening sight of all was in the Hougoumont enclosure, where a barn had been set alight, burning to death the scores of wounded, both French and British, who had been placed there.

    As a final black irony the battle ended at 10pm that night so those troops that did not pursue the French had to sleep the night on that field of carnage.


    References
    Uniforms of Waterloo in colour 16-18 June 1815 - Philip J Haythornthwaite - 1974
    Waterloo, A Near Run Thing - by David Howarth. 1968
    Wellington, A Personal History - by Christopher Hibbert.1997
    Adventures in the Rifle Brigade - by Captain Sir John Kincaid
    The Autobiography of Sir Harry Smith
    Wellington - Sir Charles Paston 1956
    The Thin Red Line - DSV and BK Fosten 1989
    Infantry Uniforms - R & C Wilkinson-Latham - 1969
    Cavalry Uniforms - R & C Wilkinson-Latham - 1969
    Jackets of Green - Arthur Bryant, 1972

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