On the night of the 17th of June, the Duke of Wellington waited to hear if Blücher would agree to march and join him at Mont St Jean.
Decisions in the night.
Lord Uxbridge rode into the village of Waterloo, some miles in the rear of the army’s encampment at Mont St Jean, after dark, wet and tired from his exertions with the rearguard. Colonel Campbell of the Duke’s household staff had been instructed to bring Wellington’s baggage and necessaries to the village that morning. Each house along the small front street was occupied by a general officer. Their names were scrawled above their doors in running chalk and light could be seen in the windows. The rain was still falling in unimaginable quantity, and thunder boomed from the sky, lit every so often with the broad flash of sheet lightning.
Finding the door marked, “His Grace the Duke of Wellington” he made his way inside and after removing his shako he announced himself, he deposited what must have amounted to half the quantity of the channel from his uniform to the floor and took his ease by the fire.
The atmosphere was much as it had been in Brussels on the 15th, only without the party veneer to hide it, things were tense and the fate of the campaign was riding on the next few hours till dawn. De Lancey had ridden ahead from Genappes to Mont St Jean. Wellington had filed the place away in his mind the year before on a tour of the Netherlands. At that time he had not yet wound down from his six years campaigning in Portugal and Spain, and his practiced eye for a naturally strong defensive position was still seeing the military possibilities of countryside, rather than it’s natural beauty. He had identified the three square miles of ridges, woods and habitations, perhaps without really thinking about it, commenting on its possibilities at the time but not dreaming he would ever actually have to fight on it. When Napoleon escaped and he went to Belgium the Mont St Jean position was his favoured choice of ground if he had to defend Belgium from the southeast. As it was he had actually intended to draw the army up in the positions now held by Napoleon’s advance guard. De Lancey, riding out, had arrived on the low ridge along from the inn at La Belle Alliance, identified the succeeding ridge to the north, directly in front of the hamlet of Mont St Jean as a better position, being not so easily flanked and took it upon himself to prepare to billet the army there. The Duke had no intention of entrenching his troops, except to garrison some of the local buildings. Throwing up earthworks would firstly decry his intention to stand and possibly force Napoleon to turn his right. He was most displeased that his artillery had fired as Napoleon arrived and his position was thus given away.
When Wellington arrived he approved the ground and rode on to the inn at Waterloo. Now all depended on Blücher, and just how badly he had been beaten the day before. A message had been sent out to the Prussians and inform the Field Marshal that the Duke would stand the next day if supported by only one Corps.
Wellington did and did not need to fight Napoleon the next day, and deciding to investigate the possibility is somewhat remarkable. During the last three years of the war before Napoleon’s first abdication, the allied General’s, excluding Wellington, had agreed on a set course of action when opposing the Emperor. It was the lesson of Russia, if Napoleon advanced, you retreat and burn all behind you until you link up with an allied army and then with superior numbers, strike.
The situation on the night of the 17th did not in any way resemble a favourable circumstance, all was even, and given the superhuman qualities the European commanders gave Napoleon, the scale probably tipped in favour of the French. Wellington was wary of Napoleon as a commander, and the power of his army as opposed to his own, therefore he was happy to alter the accepted formula slightly to defeat the emperor, as quickly as possible.
Before even considering giving battle most other commanders would have waited until a union with the Prussians had actually been achieved, which with luck might have happened in the next 24-48 hours. However Wellington may have been influenced by the performance of his army at Quatre Bras. While his infantry had performed excellently, the underlying fact was that his earlier doubts about its fighting potential seemed to have been confirmed. His British 2nd Battalions and those that had not been in Spain were a liability, his allies were not communicating well with the British, and because most of the Dutch Belgians had been driven from the field in the first hour and a half of fighting, he, like many may have mistakenly thought them to be cowards. As it was the triple language barrier and lack of experience serving alongside each other had caused further trust issues and regrettable, friendly fire incidents. His cavalry had performed well on the 17th but Uxbridge had been deuced slow in getting them on the road the day before, if both armies kept retreating they would have to abandon Brussels to link up behind it and give Napoleon a triumphal entry into a European Capitol.
Wellington had no confidence in the ability of his as yet still unfamiliar army, and many of its commanders, to conduct a campaign of manoeuvre against the master of speed and flexibility, who had only just missed total victory on the 16th by some quirks of fate. Far from being an unnecessary battle as some have argued, a battle had to be fought and fought quickly for the allies to have a decent chance of success. As much as Napoleon wanted a decisive action, the longer he advanced without defeat, the less likely his enemies in France would be able to undermine him. By July he would have 100,000 more men in arms, thousands more guns and ammunition and more horses for his already formidable cavalry, and despite staving off defeat on the 16th and 17th the allies were in retreat and there is an old saying about defeats. All in all Wellington decided that he could at worst, manage to hold Napoleon for 24 hours, or until the Prussians arrived.
But would Blücher march? General Müffling was certain he would and it was largely due to his constant assurances that he was prepared to wait through the night for a reply.
There can be no doubt that as of the night of the 17th the French army had, despite rather embarrassing setbacks, due to poor staff appointments outperformed the allies. As yet due to the rapid advance on the frontier they had kept the enemy separated, at this rate a decisive victory over one of them was a high possibility. Things had not gone to plan but he had suffered no dramatic reverse worthy of notice. Napoleon was still convinced of his own superiority, despite certain worrying indications to the contrary and thus to him, Wellington’s decision to stop before the forest seemed to assure him of victory.
Long night’s journey into day.
A sodden night spent in the open awaited the majority of the armies. For the allies, apart from some of the Guards and King’s Germans who took shelter in the chateau Hougoumont and the farm La Haie Sainte, billets were soaking fields along the back of Mont St Jean ridge. Initial skirmishing at Hougoumont fizzed out as the French advanced skirmishers discovered the buildings were occupied, and the cannonading that had so angered Wellington ceased before midnight. Supplies were scant as the baggage train had not arrived after being rerouted and was clogging the roads to the north. The farm and hamlet of Mont St Jean were therefore thoroughly looted by parties unknown, although it is certain that heavy cavalrymen of the British Union Brigade, pilfered some food on the hoof and whatever combustible material they could find after arriving. The same happened on the forward slope at La Haie Sainte were anything wooden was fair game, including a strategic door. This fuel was gathered up into large bonfires which were devilishly hard to light in the pouring rain and harder to keep alive until the storm waned, food was therefore cooked rapidly and no one was particular about it, even officers making do with pieces of half cooked offal and liking it. Sleep in such conditions with the downpour, lighting and the thunder was hard. The cavalry wrapped themselves in their blankets and slept at the heads of their picketed horses, or stayed on their feet, draped their cloaks half over the saddle, clinging to their stirrups in case they dozed and fell over. Horses often disturbed their much needed slumber by taking fright at the lighting and threatening to advance over their riders. Men billeted by the main road found sleep further interrupted by the constant passage of wagons, refugees and troops,.
Whatever umbrellas could be found were at a premium, Sir Thomas Picton was indeed wise to have brought his, despite Wellington’s strictures about officers using them in the face of the enemy Captain Mercer of the Horse Artillery was able to shelter under the awning of a friend’s “Parapluie”. Tents were scarce and those that were there were communally shared by brother officers, they leaked intolerably. Meanwhile some of the Highlanders of the 5th Division found their kilts, when pinned up by bayonets, were useful in keeping off the rain. Veterans smeared mud across their blankets to stop the rain soaking their blankets. A cold wind blew up during the night, that was dark as pitch so a wife could not identify her husband causing a burst of laughter to break out amongst the 1/95th. The only way to keep warm was to smoke, Mercer did so as did Sergeant Wheeler of the 51st who guiltily wrote to his parents that it had saved his life.
The French in many ways had it worse, as after a certain time they were forbidden to light fires. And so ate cold rations and with much less natural cover as woods and outbuildings beyond the village of Plancenoit, were most billets would have been reserved for officers, they slept in the mud. Looting was so bad, even amongst the Imperial Guard that the commander of the Gendarmes tendered his resignation that very night. Officers of I Corps found that their own baggage had been looted during a panic the pervious day, and most of the men and horses were covered in a black oily mud, made of coal residue left over from carts transporting the mineral from nearby mines. Many units were lost and had to halt and make the best of it, others didn’t know where their commanders were and did likewise, some had no clue where they were going.
The Prussians similarly made the best of things amongst the woods and hamlets around Wavre, and doubtless their stories are similar. Of sleeping in the mud, or being unable to, and perhaps squinting up into the grey darting downpour, mouthing aloud, like Captain Cotter, the line from Henry V, “Will it never be day?”
Of course veterans were too proud to show discomfort, while their green comrades moaned. No this is nothing to what was had in Spain, the wags crowed, and chided them not to worry as many of the Duke’s most famous victories were preceded by extraordinary rains, like the one before Salamanca in 1812, now that was rain, the lighting had even caused the heavy cavalry horses to stampede. The newcomes grumbled and shut up, resenting the smug Spanish veterans and probably cursing the Duke of Wellington’s reputation for victory, in bringing on the downpour.
Napoleon was up, unable to sleep. He left his headquarters and returned to the front to check that the allies were still there. The ridge line was lit by campfires and returned to his headquarters predicting victory the next morning. While Wellington waited tensely for Blücher to respond to his messages. During the night at Waterloo Uxbridge had unwisely decided to ask Wellington what he intended for the next day, the famous scene set in the candlelight of Wellington’s headquarters was most likely prompted by the Earl’s concern about fighting without the Prussians present form the get go.
Uxbridge, not knowing how Wellington did things, and failing to see his mood, asked him who would be second in command if the worst happened. Many think that because Uxbridge asked this meant he was the de facto man, however Wellington never appointed second in commands, he famously stated he didn’t know of such a rank, and in reality the Prince of Orange and Lord Hill would actually be ahead of him in seniority for the post not Uxbridge. Wellington, did not explode, worse he replied with caustic tranquility, “Who will attack the first tomorrow, I or Bonaparte” he asked innocently.
“Bonaparte” was the naive answer, falling into the trap.
“Well, Bonaparte has not given me any idea of his projects” said the Duke, his manner becoming clipped, “Amd as my plans will depend on his, how can you expect me to tell you what mine are?” Uxbridge must have looked humbled and began to formulate a reply, and the Duke relented. He stood and placed a hand on the cavalryman’s cold shoulder saying in a moderating tone.
“There is one thing certain, Uxbridge, that is, that whatever happens, you and I will do our duty”. Uxbridge could take some small comfort in that he was not alone in his concern. Picton too was displeased with having to surrender his hard fought ground at Quatre Bras, he confided that in his opinion the Mont St Jean position was one of the worst ever chosen. Picton’s opinion as a strategist was not highly sought, he was better at holding ground than choosing it himself, his bad mood was doubtless exacerbated by the fact he had two broken ribs during the battle of Quatre Bras, and his skin was black and swollen under his clothes.
The between 10 and 12 the much awaited news arrived, Blücher would march, and Duke went to bed at 11 or 12, Alte Vortwards would march to Mont St Jean. The arrival of the news that Wellington was in position to fight and was asking for assistance had provoked a session amongst the Prussian General staff. The shoe was now on the other foot and the cautious and mistrustful Gneisenau was apparently inclined to let Wellington stew, as they had at Ligny. The danger of marching to Mont St Jean with Grouchy behind them might be disastrous of Wellington lost the battle before they arrived. Blücher was not nicknamed old forwards for nothing, this was an unmissable opportunity to crush Napoleon after only 3 days campaigning and finish him once and for all, he had retreated before the Corsican upstart far too many times to want to keep up the tradition. Dazed he might have been but his force of personality carried the day and though Gneisenau could have overruled him, I doubt he’d had gotten anywhere, he inevitably bowed and alerted General Bülow, that he was to march at dawn for Mont St Jean. Waiting outside was the now one handed Colonel Hardinge, anxiously awaiting the decision. That morning Blücher had embraced him as his dear friend and humbly offered the apologetic words “I stink a bit”, due to his bruises being massaged with a pungent rub of gin and rhubarb flavoured with garlic, not to mention the alcohol he had drank, he was now summoned to the field marshal who declared triumphantly, pointing to a draft of his general orders, “Gneisenau has given in! We are going to join the Duke.”
Wellington, The years of the sword: Elizabeth Longford.
Waterloo, New Perspectives: David Hamilton Williams.
The Battle: Alessandro Barbero.
One Leg: Marquis of Anglesey.
The Waterloo Campaign: Napoleon Bonaparte.
Letters of Private Wheeler 1809 -28.
Journal of the Waterloo Campaign: Cavalie Mercer.