The morning of Waterloo.
The day dawned fresh and cool after the rain which had stopped some time after first light, only fitful showers reimagined and passed across the sky as a farewell gesture from the storm. The sultry heat of the past three days had broken and clouds were still thick in the sky. Slats of sunlight shone down on the scene below.
In the daylight the battlefield unfolded itself to the eye. On either side of the main Brussels Chaussée were wide expanses of open fields bordered by ditches and hedges, the crops were ready to harvest and stood as tall as a man. To the east was the Bois de Paris, and to the north, hidden by Mont St Jean ridge, was the Bois de Soignes. The ridge rose distinctively but undramatically up from a valley formed by the rival height of Trimontiau, where advance elements of the French army had spent the night.
Regiments were coming awake and going through their practised routines as if nothing of moment was about to occur. Breakfast was put on the boil, equipment checked and cleaned, picquet’s posted, foragers sent out, drums and bugle calls sounding for the morning parade, parade state given and recorded, and half rations of alcohol were administered. Meanwhile the senior officers waited for orders. Though the procedure was slightly different in each army, military life has a pattern that most soldiers recognise.
Many had awoken with premonitions of death, wills were hurriedly written after stand too. Soon slips of paper were being passed around. They all said similar things, give this to my loved ones if I don’t make it, and I’ll do the same for you. In the ranks of the British contingent everything was muddy, cold and wet, they had not been issued greatcoats, instead the government had given them blankets which could be made into tents. Needless to say this had not worked. General Picton was walking the front line, irritating officers who thought the man with he loud voice and the shabby civilian clothes was a ghoulish tourist come to see the killing, he was in a fairly good mood though. Having started the campaign with a feeling of doom, he had escaped death Quatre Bras with a few broken bones. That morning he felt that he might now survive after all.
Wellington had been up early between 2 and 3 am, for the third night running he had had precious little sleep. Before leaving Waterloo he had written letters to prominent people and personal friends in Brussels, providing for the possibility of defeat. Then he had breakfasted on bread and hard boiled eggs, some of which he pocketed to eat at Mont St Jean, and left Waterloo around 6. On the way out he met his landlady who was in tears with fear of what would become of her. He slapped her on the back and told her “I answer of everything, no French person shall suffer today except the soldiers.” Certain confirmation of Prussian assistance had come early that morning, and so he knew a battle would be fought. On the way he and the staff took some sweetened tea from a bivouac of the 95th Rifles by the roadside, where perhaps the some of the eggs were eaten too. As he arrived the rain was drizzly and came and went, and as it did the Duke put on and took off his cloak as he disliked getting wet. He sent messages out from a small hide notebook he kept in his saddle holster with his map, pieced together like a jigsaw by the Royal Engineers, and his telescope. His only weapon was the Mameluke sword that dangled from his belt, a weapon he had rarely unsheathed, and despite what some suggest, his choice in this pattern of sword may have as much to do with the fact that General’s were allowed to wear it as a badge of rank, as his own preferences for them. Battalions and guns were on the move, marching into position, however many were already on or near their posts since the cannonading the night before, nevertheless the Duke would spend the next five hours arranging his army just so.
Breakfast at Le Caillou.
Napoleon had not slept particularly well and had been up since before 3, which is first light in Belgium. A dispatch was awaiting him at Le Caillou from Grouchy. It reported that he was at Gembloux, that the enemy was still retreating towards Wavre, but warned that he thought that they intended to try and unite with Wellington. Napoleon did not give this much credence, he had been more anxious lest Wellington get away again. At around 7 a staff officer detailed to observe the enemy informed him that Wellington was retreating. He was out in the saddle and amongst I Corps outposts without losing a moment, orders had gone ahead of him to General D’Erlon who met him, and told him that Wellington was merely repositioning troops, both dismounted to get a better look at the enemy picquets. Upon seeing D’Erlon was right he ordered that the men be allowed to cook their soup and then prepare for action. Complaints as to the sodden nature of the ground gave him food for thought, he had more guns than Wellington, and more cavalry, both of which required solid footing to be effective. After conversing with Soult, D’Erlon and General Drouot and against Ney’s advice, he decided to delay the attack, which he had optimistically wished to be ready by 6. He issued new general orders from his headquarters, for commanders to be ready by 9, then had breakfast which was served at Le Caillou on Imperial plate sometime between 7 & 8, and he was joined by a host of his senior commanders and staff. Many were on their guard for Napoleon was in an unpredictable mood, last night during dinner, the Emperor had heard someone talking of the Battle to come from his adjoining room and had burst in on them and immediately begins acting like a cartoon of a dictator, saying theatrical things like “A battle! Gentlemen! Are you sure you know what a battle is? Between a battle won and a battle lost, there are empires, kingdoms, the world—or nothing.” A real show was in store.
After breakfast was cleared maps, which proved inadequate to the task, made by Ferrai and Capitaine were spread out and strategy discussed. Soult began and said that due to the wide dispersion of the army, their deployment would not be complete before 1. Napoleon was doubtless somewhat comforted that his decision to delay his attack was backed up by forces he could not control, and mentally set aside this time as the latest point by which he would attack The emperor predicted that he had ninety chances in his favour and not ten against him. Marshal Ney now arrived after touring his outposts, he feared Wellington was preparing to retreat, “Without doubt sire” he said referring to Napoleon’s earlier reference to their chances “Provided Wellington be simple enough to wait for you. But I must inform you that his retreat is decided, and that if you do not hasten to attack, the enemy is about to escape you”
This struck a nerve and Napoleon told him “You have seen wrong. Wellington has thrown the dice and they are in our favour”. Soult cautioned Napoleon that the British infantry were the devil to fight, and that he should send for Grouchy to make sure of success, Napoleon dismissed his warning and all but called them cowards. There is a tone of caricature in his next words that has never died.
“Because you have been beaten by Wellington, you consider him a great general. And now I will tell you that he is a bad general and the English are bad troops, and that this affair is nothing more serious than eating one’s breakfast!”
“I earnestly hope so sire” replied Soult who knew better. General Reille then arrived with two of his division commanders, the emperor’s brother Jerome and Maximilian Foy. Reille was put on the spot by Napoleon and when he answered that the British under Wellington could only be defeated by manoeuvre he was met by similar incredulity. Jerome had some interesting information given to him by the landlord of the Roi de Espagne, Wellington was making his stand and expecting Blücher to arrive in the course of the day. Napoleon told him that this was nonsense, did he not know a junction between the two was impossible for 2 days? Outside General D’Erlon spoke to Reille, they should try to convince the emperor to listen, Reille was not in the mood and replied that Napoleon wouldn’t listen anyway.
Much of this is taken to explain Napoleon’s overconfidence. Though it seems contrary to good form to chide senior officers so forcefully, Napoleon may well have been trying to galvanise men who had suffered many times at Wellington’s hands. Was he not the greater General? Why fear Wellington when he was there. Reille and Soult had not meant to sound frightened or cautious, but Napoleon took it that way and he was heartily sick of Peninsular Generals moaning about Wellington and the British.
Was Napoleon just being overconfident? Or was he actually trying to inspire them. Clayton writes that he was half joking. Maybe so but he had certainly chosen the wrong audience if that is the case. He had proved by his return that he was still capable of the impossible, at Ligny he had proved he could still win battles against the odds, as he looked around the table perhaps he was asking them to prove to him why they were there.
Across the waving sea of glistening crops Wellington was riding his lines, and characteristically keeping everyone in the dark about what he was thinking. Nevertheless he was in good spirits and cheered many a quaking heart by his unchanged demeanour and genial good humour. Ensign Gronow who saw the glittering cavalcade pass by thought them as “Gay and unconcerned as if they were riding to meet the hounds in some quiet English county”, Lord Edward Somerset thought them “Riding for pleasure” and the sight of him put heart into them all.
Those 3 hours lost by the French of the day before now stretched into six. His army reached along the reverse slope of the ridge from Frichermont in the east to his centre at Mont St Jean and his right on Braine l’Alleud. 4 Divisions of Infantry held his front, with 4 more in reserve and the Cavalry. General Picton would command the left, the Prince of Orange the centre and Lord Hill the right with Wellington in overall command.
On the forward slope on his right or western flank was the red edifice of the Chateau Hougoumont, a sprawling walled provincial retreat of interconnecting living and work buildings, enclosed by thick woods, an ornamental garden and an orchard. It was abandoned save for the gardener and his daughter, and was now occupied by companies of British, Nassau, Hanoverian and Brunswick light infantry. Climbing the ridge by the road out of the North gate and turning right on the Ohain road would take a rider right across the front of the army, to the crossroads above La Haie Sainte were the east west “Chemin de Ohain” is joined by the north south running Brussels chaussée. Here the road became sunken and its verges rose on either side so the hedges that lined it reached higher than a man’s head, but became shallower and less marked the further you went from the junction. The walled farm of La Haie Sainte was a compact
whitewashed affair built around a cobbled central courtyard. A vegetable garden was planted inside hedges to its northern side and an orchard stood to the south. It’s buildings were occupied by Riflemen and Light troops of the Kings German Legion under Major Baring. Riding still further along the Chemin de Ohain the steepness of the bank decline: though remained sunken underneath its sometimes straggling hedges, eventually a point is reached that overlooks a cluster of hamlets, this was the end of the line, the left or Eastern flank. Saxe Weimar’s men were down in the boggy ground amongst the buildings holding Papelotte, La Haie, Smohain and Frischermont. The Cavalry deployed to the rear of the infantry. Guns were ranged along the roadside behind the hedge line, the artillery had strict orders not to engage the enemy artillery and to abandon their pieces if threatened by the enemy rather than drive them away. Due to the effectiveness of the enemy cavalry Wellington’s men were deployed 4 deep and to begin with were formed in columns.
Depending who you believe Wellington had deployed either 67-68 or 72,000 men and over 156 guns, he actually had more men, but he had detached 17,000 men to watch his right flank at Hal, this detachment was commanded by he teenage Prince Frederick of Orange, it was also to protect the road from Mons to Ghent where Louis XIV was residing and resolved to stay until forced to leave by circumstances. In looks it was admittedly a predominantly red coated army, with British and Hanoverian troops both wearing the same colour, and badge, bearing King George’s royal cypher, while the other half was largely in blue and fighting for King William of Orange, a name in itself with great resonance to the British. The small Brunswick contingent independent, and deprived of two princes in 10 years, they were unique in the middle. All of the Hanoverians, the Dutch, the Belgians and some of the Nassau Usingen contingent were using British muskets and equipment. The majority spoke German, the others Dutch and English, many officers could speak French as it was the lingua Franca of international affairs. At this stage it was not clear how many men Blücher could put into the field nor at what time precisely, only that he was coming with at least one Korps and Gniesenau had promised two, hence the Duke was preparing to stand as long as it took for Blücher to get there. It was a time trial race and the allied army was the finish line. Wellington was depending on them as he would if they were one of his own divisions, a risky thing to do with an ally and had been expecting them to arrive by midday but so far none were to be seen.
Napoleon’s front line when it eventually materialised would describe a shallow crescent comprising 9 divisions, a strong front of infantry, interspersed with artillery backed and flanked by massed squadrons of cavalry. The Garde would be in reserve at Rossome but had only begun their march to the field at 9. The ground either side of the chaussée was flat without a reverse slope, and he had about 73-77,000 men (though some say 68) deploying over it with over 200 guns. The hinge was la belle alliance, a small red roofed inn at a lesser crossroad 700 yards south of La Haie Sainte, the village of Plancenoit, deep behind Napoleon’s right was at this stage ignored. On the left flank was Reille’s Corps and on the right D’Erlon’s, General Lobau was still moving up into position in the centre, as indeed was the Garde. Concealment was not Napoleon’s main concern, a diversion against Hougoumont, followed by a grand artillery bombardment would begin the fighting, peremptory to a full frontal assault by I Corps against Wellington’s left flank. It would sever communications with Blücher and open the road to Brussels. It was a simple plan, and fairly straightforward, neither commander was doing anything spectacular in their first meeting, though Wellington was expecting Napoleon to try and turn his flank. The Duke had given orders that if attacked commanders were to hold their ground as long as possible, this indeed was his plan in general and he personally instructed officers of this intention. Napoleon had no idea of the Duke’s deployment and despite the knowing advice of Foy “Sire… Wellington never shows his troops without just reason”, he was still worried that he would find only a few cavalry brigades on the other side of the ridge. An attack in force would draw a reaction one way or another, and allow him to gain the initiative, once he gained control of the battle, his innate sense of timing would doubtless give him the opportunity to break the allied army at its junction point.
Napoleon left Le Caillou at 9 and mounted one of his many grey horses, either Desiree or Marengo, and set out for the front. He had dictated a letter to Grouchy, and had ordered a well cooked shoulder of mutton for dinner. The cavalcade trotted up the high road leaving the household staff, he was accompanied by a miserable looking local peasant named Jean Baptiste Decoster who had been taken from his home, at dawn that morning in response to a request to get a guide to augment Napoleon’s poor maps, he was sitting on a horse, leashed to a Chasseur and looking extremely sorry for himself. Napoleon did not look well either, and indeed he was not. Jerome later saying he was suffering from piles and a fever brought on by the rain. His face had a waxy pallor and his mood reflected his discomfort, already he had offended most of his senior commanders, by criticising their efforts in Spain, he had been jabbing at Ney for most of the campaign and no one wished to make direct eye contact with him. This was missed by the troops still marching into position either side of La Belle Alliance. Each time he passed a battalion, squadron or battery, cheers of “Vive l’Empereur!” rose into the air, the successive noise was picked up by each unit he passed, and it was a tonic for the ailing Emperor. By the time he reached the front of the army to tour the outposts, helmets and shako’s were waving on top of swords and bayonets. However there were some in I Corps that could not muster enough enthusiasm for much more than a salute, they had not eaten the night before, they were cold and damp and filthy with mud, having just eaten a half cooked breakfast that ordinarily would have ruined their appetite, Napoleon might well have been worshiped by the lower ranks but it was hard to be devout when a man felt so miserable. The emperor rode his lines, acknowledging the cheers but also undertaking another reconnaissance of the ground, he sent out General Haxo of the Garde Engineers to survey whether the allies had built any fortifications.
In the allied army those that were able to see over the reverse slope, watched the columns marching over the horizon and move into position. Officers with telescopes clustered in groups on the chemin de Ohain and scanned the masses of infantry and cavalry trudging to their designations. Many new to war felt the cold fingers of fear playing on their spines. Not helped when Napoleon appeared and the cheering started.
Some were less in awe then others, veteran troops from Spain were dismissive of the show and remarked complacently that Boney seemed to want to frighten them away, and an artillery officer begged permission from the Duke to open fire on the Imperial Suite. Wellington forbade him, as a matter of good form as much as it would be a contravention of his orders about his gunners engaging the enemy first. Some on the other hand didn’t hear or see it, and were thus unaware of what was about to happen.
Napoleon now returned back down the road. The Brussels highway was specked with coaching Inn’s and hospitable farmsteads, he stopped at Rossome, halfway to Le Caillou. Hay was quickly spread on a small knoll and a table and chair brought for him to sit on, and there he sat, with his elbows on his knees and his face in his hands as the troops filed past, still cheering, to deploy. Here he dictated a letter to Soult which would be carried in his name to Grouchy. It was a fatal communique and practically ensured then and there that the Marshal would fail to arrive in time,
“Marshal – The Emperor has received your last report dated from Gembloux… The Emperor instructs me to tell you that at this moment His Majesty is going to attack the English army, which has taken up a position at Mont St Jean, near the forest of Soignes; consequently his Majesty desires that you head for Wavre…”
Soult’s wording makes it clear that Napoleon still thought Blücher was retiring east, and it warned him that a Prussian Corps might be there, which Grouchy would take to be a rearguard, and indeed it would be. The message requested quick movement and quick response, but the distance between Wavre and Mont St Jean would mean that the quickest a messenger could reach either side would be a matter of hours.
After collecting himself Napoleon returned to his maps, and doubtless Decoster was involved in a good few question and answer sessions in the next quarter of an hour. Having seemingly decided on a course of action Napoleon dictated his latest set of general orders, they call for an advance by D’Erlon and the Reille against the front of the ridge. A regiment of Hussards were dispatched to watch the right flank.
Colonel Baron Antoine Marbot commanded the 7e Hussards, a deeply Bonapartist regiment,
and one gloriously attired in rich green pelisse’ and gold braid. As part of Jacquinot’s 1st Cavalry Division of I Corps, they were positioned on the right flank, behind the infantry, waiting for orders. The message reached Marbot at 10 that he was to move into the woods of the Bois de Paris and make a reconnaissance from Frichermknt to St Lambert. He turned to his chef d’escadron Major Victor Dupuis and gave the order. The 7e accompanied by a battalion of light infantry, wheeled out of the line and out towards the woods, a cavalcade of nodding black braided shako’s and bobbing pelisse’s, the sound of hooves on wet ground mingling with the jangle of horse furniture as they rode away.
Wellington had toured his line and seen that all was in order. He and his large staff were conspicuous as they rode along the ridge. He particularly paid attention to Hougoumont, visiting it twice and seconding pioneers from La Haye Sainte to fortify it. The Duke seemed in hunting form, when General Müffling opined that he thought Hougoumont indefensible, Wellington who had just been talking to a reassuringly large Lt. Colonel of the Coldstream Guards, who he depended on to defend the place. Wellington pointed at him and told Müffling “You do not know Macdonnell”, shortly after he remarked with thigh slapping resolve “Now Bonaparte will see how a General of Sepoys can defend a position”. This illustrates how much Wellington knew about Napoleon, that he knew of the Emperor’s dismissive description of him, from years ago. Nevertheless Wellington might have felt more secure had he some of his old battle hardened native regiments under his command,
During his tour some jumpy Nassauers took some shots at him as he passed the wood, the mortified officer was forgiven, but as the Duke rode away he turned to General Vincent, the Austrian attaché “Do you see those fellows…?” he said “It is with these that I must win the Battle”, later he pondered how different things might have been had they been better shots. There is another story of a French skirmisher who for a moment had the Duke in hi sights but mistook him for someone unimportant and let him go, therefore it seems that fate was already at work at Hougoumnt.
Despite his faith is Macdonnell Wellington detailed the rest of the 1/2 Nassau regiment into the complex, when the men arrived Macdonnell moved his two companies into the lane that ran up the west wall, and another Guards officer, Lord Saltoun of the 1st Guards, pulled his two companies out entirely. Wellington met him on the ridge and bade him to stay there until he got further orders, recognising a Peninsular veteran by the way he had his men sit down when they halted.
Napoleon had mounted once more and ridden forward to La Belle Alliance, the army was now almost fully deployed, save for VI Corps and part of I. He now had second thoughts about how the attack should commence and amended his previous instructions to Marshal Ney, who was increasingly becoming his operational commander. Ney scribbled a note in pencil over Soult’s previous orders which were timed at 11, and sent out orders to Reille, who was now to attack first, and cause a diversion against Hougoumont prior to the main thrust.
The Prussians begin to March.
The men of IV Korps had been marching for the better part of three days, and in all that time they had barely fired a round. They had been awoken at 4 on the 18th, and marched from their bivouac at Dion Le Mont and marched through Wavre, where the army had assembled on the night of the 17th. No sooner had the vanguard passed through, having been already delayed by troops from General Pirch’s Korps, then the main body was halted when a barn on the Main Street caught fire. Three battalions of IR.14 was ordered to put it out before it spread and endangered the ammunition park. By the time it was extinguished two hours had passed and because Gniesenau refused to allow either IV, I or II Korps to move before it was out it was 10 before the last of Bülow’s men left Wavre. One by one the other Korps followed, these delays would mean that a proportion of General Ziethen’s Korps and one brigade of Pirch’s Korps would not arrive at all. By a coincidence advanced cavalry patrols had made contact with Captain Taylor of the British 10th Hussars at roughly the same time, and Wellington was informed of the Prussian approach and Müffling was sent out to gather information. Bülow had very precise orders about how to achieve his goal. First he was to keep his force concentrated, which explained why Gniesenau had refused to let anyone advance while the fire blocked the road. This was also to be sure that he did not commit himself if Napoleon was not actually attacking. A letter to Müffling the night before had been sent hot on the heel’s of Blücher’s and had requested assurances that Wellington would indeed stand on the 18th. Gneisenau did not learn to trust easily and therefore his advance was a cautious one.
General Bülow probably had a working knowledge of the country he was marching through, and knew he had a hard slog ahead of him. He had been in Belgium since 1814, where he had been supporting General Graham’s disappointing campaign before the end of the war. His record was proud in 1813 he had defeated Ney at Dennewitz. These troops pressed on through the singe track knee deep muddy paths before them, which retarded their progress significantly, and the labours of the artillery was slowing them down to about a kilometre an hour. Nevertheless he was able to reach Chapelle St Lambert with his main force at 12.30, though the rearguard would not
arrive until 3. Blücher had awoken at dawn at Wavre’s marketplace Inn, and had waved off his surgeon’s attempt to rub him with ointment. The Marshal had had enough doses “If I must go into eternity, it makes no difference to me whether I go anointed or un-anointed. And if things go well today we’ll all be washing and bathing in Paris!” Having chased the doctor away he wrote to Müffling proclaiming that despite his pain and age he would lead his men against the French right, and if the Duke was not attacked he advised that they both attack tomorrow. He ate a late breakfast with his staff and read a dispatch from the Austrian General Schwartzenberg setting the date for the invasion of France, then donning his cloak and distinctive forage cap, he mounted his horse and rode out to join his army at about 11:30.
At St Lambert Bülow had decided to call a halt on the high ground to close up, and prepared to issue further orders for his cavalry and light infantry to descend into the defile ahead where the land dipped to carry the swollen Lasne brook, which would lead to the distant woods of the Bois de Paris, there was a distant thump, which to a practiced ear was the muffled roar of gunfire echoing over a long distance. The Battle of Waterloo had begun.
Gleig’s Story of the Battle of Waterloo.
Waterloo: the Birth of Modern Europe: Geoffrey Wooton
Waterloo: Napoleon’s Last Gamble: Andrew Roberts
Waterloo Companion: Mark Adkin.
The Battle: Allessandro Barbero.
Waterloo New Perspectives: David Hamilton Williams.
Waterloo 1815 (3) Mont St Jean and Wavre.
Who’s who at Waterloo: Christopher Summerville.
Waterloo: Christopher Hibbert
A near run thing: David Howarth.
Waterloo: Tim Clayton.
Wellington, the Years of the Sword: Elizabeth Longford.
Your Most Obedient Servant: James Thornton.