Waterloo: The First 6 Hours.

So it Begins.

Dighton's painting of the fighting at Hougoumont. The Guards however should be deployed to the left of the South Gate in the background.
Dighton’s painting of the fighting at Hougoumont. The Guards however should be deployed to the left of the South Gate in the background.
Lt Col. James Macdonnell, 2nd (Coldstream) Guards, in the uniform of the 78th Foot.

General Reille received Napoleon’s amended attack order just after 11 signed my Marshal Ney. He would use Prince Jerome’s Division to attack Hougoumont, with Foy’s Division in reserve and use General Bachelu to support D’Erlon when the main attack went forwards. The honour of leading the attack would go to the 1st Brigade commanded by Baron Bauduin,his men were concealed by the low ground and sunken lanes that lay between the edge of the woods and the French position. The division was covered by a long line of skirmishers, composed of at least three battalions of infantry in open order. The attack was preceded by a short bombardment of the Hougoumont sector by 5 batteries of artillery, and then the struggle for the Chateau got underway. The 3rd battalion of the 1e Léger rose to their feet and moved sharply against the woods. Acting as skirmishers they darted this way and that, letting off a cacophony of discordant shots as they went. Waiting in the woods were 5 companies of Hanoverian, Nassau and Brunswick light infantry, who returned their selective fire with their own. Soon a popping spluttering firefight developed along the fringe of the trees. Behind them the rest of the brigade had gone to ground in a sunken lane to avoid the torrent of allied artillery fire that had fallen on them, from the 4 batteries above and to the left of Hougoumont. The French were excellent skirmishers, perhaps the finest in Europe generally, and it did not take long for them to force back the enemy from the edge of the tree’s and agin a toehold. The first line of 3 allied companies pulled back deeper into the wood, were their reserves were and attempted to hold there.
As soon as Bauduin saw his skirmishers vanish into the trees, he drew his sword and ordered the advance. The 1st brigade now exposed itself and doubled across the hollow ground between the lane and the wood. As soon as the dark French masses were perceived moving over the green fields, the artillery opened fire again causing more casualties but now the French could escape it into the wood. The 2nd battalion moved into the trees and engaged the enemy to the left of the 3rd battalion, while the 1st remained in the hollow as a reserve. The German light infantry now retreated from the wood.
Wellington had expected the battle to begin here, and now observed the Brunswick Jäger’s retreating from the complex to Merbe Braine, while the Hanoverian and Nassau companies fell back into the sunken lane that bordered the northern side of the complex. The wood had most certainly been lost and the French would now try to storm the buildings. Anticipating the need for a counterattack he called for a battery of Howitzers to come forward, and moved up 4 companies of the Foot Guards and a detachment of Hanoverians towards Hougoumont,
Meanwhile in the woods, Bauduin was dead, killed by a musket ball shortly after entering the trees. Command of the 1st Brigade now devolved to Colonel Cubiéres of the 1e Léger, who pressed the enemy back to within 30 yards of the walls. There he was met by a shattering fusillade from the Nassau troops lining the loopholes and firing steps of the garden wall and the chateau’s South gate. The French, emerging from the woods in thick bunches were easy targets.
Lt. Colonel James Macdonnell was by most standards a heroic looking man. Tall and fair, with boyish ready for anything features and blond hair, his handsome head sat readily upon a pair of broad shoulders and a courageous heart beat within an equally broad chest. Sitting upon his horse in the lane that ran along the west wall, he saw the French falling in heaps and he knew they would fall back if pushed. He turned back to his little command, two light companies of the Scots and Coldstream Guards, deployed in sub Divisions down the lane, bordered by a row of chestnut and poplar trees, and ordered the first two half companies to fix bayonets.

Nassau Light infantry falling back to the garden walls of Hougoumont. By Papandrecht.
Nassau Light infantry falling back to the garden walls of Hougoumont. By Papandrecht.

Already galled by the fire from the garrison the French were now driven back into the woods by Macdonnell’s attack, lead by Dashwood of the Scot Guards. Once back within their natural fortress however, the French let off a disorganised but effective volley at the redcoats, who quickly retreated, dragging a wounded Dashwood behind them. Without orders Ensign Standen waiting in the kitchen garden at the end of the lane, raised his hat and waved his sword urging the reserves to follow him forwards. This counterattack stalled, as Tiralleurs that had worked around to the trees on their right opened fire on them. Meanwhile the French had been feeling for a flank on the other side of the buildings and were now pushing into the orchard. Suddenly a curtain of spherical case shot, (shrapnel) began to arc over the woods. Bvt Maj Bull, the scientifically bearded commander of the Royal Horse Artillery’s Howitzer troop, had changed his ground and ridden up handsomely upon Wellington’s order. The Duke had explained what he wished and with great celerity and professionalism Bull had deployed for action.
With the gutting spray’s of Shrapnel’s godless invention arcing up from the ridge and bursting overhead. Alexander Fraser, Lord Saltoun, stormed the orchard with the light companies of the 2nd and 3rd battalions 1st Guards. While this was happening Cubiéres must now have brought up the 1/1e thus committing the entire regiment, and pushed against Macdonnell. Sending a detachment to work around their rear he led the 1e directly against the lane. As he did this Jerome committed the 1st Brigade’s second wave, the two battalions of the 3e Ligne moved into the woods and engaged the walls and orchard which allowed the 1e to shift against the west.
Macdonnell now found himself engaged by increasing numbers of enemy troops to his front and flank. For a short time Guards fought on tenaciously, but the position could not be sustained and Macdonnell ordered them to retreat back down the lane towards the north gate before it was too late. Cubiéres saw the British begin the fall back and urged his men on. A running fight developed down the west wall, which due to the inner garrison being preoccupied with the front of the chateau, this area was not well defended. Cubiéres was now leading the advance in true French style from the front waving his sword and hat. He must have outstripped his men for he was suddenly in plain sight of the British muskets. Reality and legend are hard to untie here. For a sergeant of the Scots Guards named Fraser is credited with unhorsing him during the fusillade as the Guards snapped off a parting salutation to the oncoming enemy. In truth a musket ball might well have knocked Cubiéres from his horse, and French sources suggest that British officers were calling out not to kill him. Cubiéres was forever grateful to Fraser for sparing his life. So perhaps the sergeant had stepped forwards to finish him off or take him prisoner, but heeded an officer’s call and instead grabbed the Frenchman’s horse as a consolation.

Macdonnell and Graham struggle to close the gates against the oncoming French. By Gibbs.
Macdonnell and Graham struggle to close the gates against the oncoming French. By Gibbs.

Either way what happened next has gone on to become one of the most celebrated moments of the battle. The Guards raced inside the north gate, an old and flimsy wooden affair between the northwest corner and Stable block. As the doors were being shut, the vanguard of the 1e Léger arrived and burst in. Some of the Guards retreated to cover in the buildings, and the majority of the incursion got no further than the chapel before they were caught in a hail of musketry and bayoneted to a man. As they fought for their lives, Macdonnell grabbed a large Irishman, Corporal James Graham, and together they put their shoulders to the doors as the main body of the 1e began to arrived outside. As the daring Frenchmen violently breathed their last amid the stabbing bayonets and clubbed muskets of the garrison, more shoulders added their weight to the struggle. The enemy tried to force their way inside but by an extreme effort the prising hands of the French were denied an opening and the gates were closed and rapidly barricaded with extraneous farm equipment. Macdonnell’s feat had saved the garrison, but it was a desperate move that had also locked out many of his stragglers, and left them to shift for themselves as best they could to avoid the masses of French troops now surging around the walls.
These troops had sought to establish themselves at the north wall. A chain of skirmishers advanced up the ridge and began firing on the allied batteries. Whatever happened Hougoumont could not be allowed to be taken, or contained, so troops could be moved around around it. The North Gate also had to be cleared to allow communication and supplies to get to the garrison. Shortly after 1:15 three companies of the Guards descended the ridge and drove in the enemy skirmishers. Lead by Mackinnon of the Coldstream, they charged the enemy, lining the hedges outside of the gate, who withdrew in the face of the attack. Shortly before this Jerome had committed his 2nd Brigade under General Soye which swept through the forest and into the grass field in front of the Orchard.
Increasingly the diversion was becoming a concerted effort to take Hougoumont. It had not taken long for Napoleon’s plans to go wrong.

The Grande Batterie.
As the attack on Hougoumont began to increase in ferocity, at around 1:00pm, Napoleon ordered a bombardment of Wellington’s left flank. His initial intention had been to draw Wellington’s attention, and in that he had been entirely successful, the Duke and his staff were positioned above Hougoumont, their eyes locked on the struggle unfolding below them, intent upon the measured feeding of reserves. The emperor could not know as he ordered the “Grande Batterie” to open fire how wrong things would soon go. The Batterie was ranged across a small knoll 600 yards from La Haie Sainte, and had been enlarged from 54 to 80 guns in the course of the morning. It had taken since 11 to form up, however it was not “Grande” in the sense of this being an unusual size, but simply as it was a massed battery drawn up very close to the enemy.
Allied witnesses remembered the slow crawl of gunfire across the enemy line from the right. From Hougoumont, to La Haye Sainte and across the left. Similarly the men of the French army recalled how the sound of gunfire had increased in volume from their left. When the bombardment became general, the smoke quickly obscured visibility. The rain of solid iron and shells lasted 45 minutes, concentrated against the allied left centre. It was loud, noisy and terrifying but whatever results it had, they were largely to do with luck. With Wellington’s infantry mostly lying down and out of sight behind the ridge, and the cavalry dismounted in the dead ground, the indirect fire of the French could only do so much. Nevertheless battalions like the 71st (Glasgow Highland) Light Infantry suffered an estimated 60 casualties without being able to fire a shot in defence, they were positioned on the right behind Hougoumont, facing a lesser weight of artillery. The concentrated effect of the 80 guns of the massed battery positioned on the knoll against the left flank did therefore take its toll. Within minutes of the commencement of the bombardment General Bijlandt’s Netherland’s Brigade, which, due to the curve of the hill had been acting as a hinge and connector with the 4 hamlets, had been withdrawn behind the crest, and now virtually no suitable targets presented themselves. However even firing blind, so much iron was falling in the rear of this small sector that General Ponsonby’s reserve regiment, the Grey’s, were moved forwards so as to be under the lip of the ridge.

The Prisoner and the Prussians

Napoleon learns of the Prussian advance, by Hillingford.
Napoleon learns of the Prussian advance, by Hillingford.

While all of this was going on over to the east Marbot had deployed a strong screen of Vedettes and Skirmishers out towards St Lambert. What then happened is obscure and the opposing sides disagree, the Prussians make no mention of Marbot, who claims he discovered the Prussians and then single handedly held them off. What is certain is that there was a skirmish, a rough and tumble affair of spluttering musketry and a wild and confused tangle of horses and flashing sabres, the result of which was a bedraggled Prussian Hussar standing before Marbot, who listened as the man defiantly informed him that a full Korps under General von Bülow, was at St Lambert. Indeed as he listened Marshal Blücher had arrived there and was conversing with General Bülow about how to proceed, at 1:30 they had received a detailed message from Wellington instructing them how he wished them to act. Blücher seemed accepting of this, and sent forward two staff officers, von Pfuel and Nostitz to scout the enemy positions and report on how the army could be deployed. From their report the Prussian attack on Plancenoit would materialise.
Having bagged his prisoner Marbot’s packed him off to headquarters as fast as possible. The engagement had already begun by the time the prisoner was brought to Napoleon at Rossome. The rising tempo of musketry was drifting along the front from Hougoumont, the woods of which were steaming with musket smoke. Hearing the news and casting his eye back towards the Prussian masses in the distance, he maintained the arrogant and unruffled confidence that had been displayed at Le Caillou. Turning to Marshal Soult he calculated that “This morning we had ninety chances in our favour. Even now we have sixty chances and only forty against us” did he believe it? If we take his actions at face value, perhaps, but more importantly he needed his generals to believe it. His bravado here is little different to Wellington’s attitude in Brussels before the campaign started. Napoleon knew his army was a nest of suspicions and any sign of weakness would be fatal. He had just dictated another letter to Marshal Grouchy, which Soult worded in his usually vague manner, conveying neither urgency or reason, and added a post script with the new intelligence. Napoleon then detailed two cavalry divisions to the right flank to keep watch.

The Attack on Mont St Jean.
At 1:45 p.m Marshal Ney was ordered to launch the killer stroke, the Marshal rode to I Corps, and his presence there drew cheers from the men, fooling some on the ridge into thinking it was Napoleon himself. He ordered Comte D’Erlon to attack the allied ridge to his front and seize the hamlet and crossroads of Mont St Jean. 4 Divisions of D’Erlon’s I Corps now moved through the logjam of ammunition caissons behind the Grande Batterie and deployed in columns of Division before the guns. This was an antiquated formation designed to get ill disciplined troops incapable of complex manoeuvres into battle. The battery ceased fire for some minutes as they passed through. At the resumption of the cannonade 4 Infantry Divisions, supported by a Cuirassier Brigade on the left descended the gentle slope into the muddy bottom. The thick chain of skirmishers ran forwards, through the soaking crops, and the drumming noise of light infantry fire soon blended into the barrage. The French marched slowly, and in excellent order through a storm of allied artillery projectiles to ascend the opposite slope, and their skirmishers pushed the allied screen back before them.
Though their numbers and deep formations at first looked impressive the attack was in fact fragile at its core. To begin with it had little support behind it, those who say General Lobau’s Corps was intended to support D’Erlon forget that this force had yet to arrive fully on the field. Then there was the problem of the objective. The Comte only had a sketchy idea as to where Mont St Jean was and he did not know it but the enemy was actually in almost equal in numbers to the actual amount of troops that would eventually make contact. D’Erlon further would not have the benefit of a distracted enemy, for though Wellington himself was not on hand, no troops of the left flank had been detached to protect Hougoumont, and Reille’s supporting division would dematerialise under intense artillery fire, and swing against the chateau. Wellington’s use of forward breakwaters, and the wide front on which D’Erlon advanced meant that one division would fail to reach the ridge entirely, and one division would engage the enemy with only one brigade. Luckily those two and a half divisions that would reach the ridge, did against a narrow front otherwise the attack would have been repulsed much less dramatically.
On the left Charlet’s Brigade of General Quiot’s Division immediately detached itself to attack La Haye Sainte and drove Major Baring’s men inside. The 1er Sappers cleared the barricade over the chaussée while the other half of the division, Bourgeois’ Brigade, moved onwards outflanking the 1/95th Rifles and pushing them out of a small sand pit on the right of the road. An attempt was made to storm the open doorway on the west side of the farm, the door itself having been thoughtlessly burnt for firewood the night before, but the biting rifle fire of the defenders drove them back. On D’Erlon’s right flank General Durutte had to detach a brigade to at first observe and then engage the 4 hamlets held by Saxe Weimar’s and Perponcher’s Divisions. Notwithstanding the disparity in numbers the French made excellent use of their skirmishers and, at one point the Orange Nassau regiment began to run out of ammunition. Drummer May ran back to General Best’s Brigade on the ridge, who had the same British muskets as they had. He filled up his knapsack and raced back and forth three times in total, taking a spent ball on the hip as he did. Having done enough to win the highest medal for gallantry available, had they been invented yet, he was ordered by Saxe Weimar to return to his battalion.
Back at the main attack General Bourgeois moved up past the sand pit, cutting communications with the farm, prompting the Prince of Orange to advance the Lüneberg Light Battalion to reestablish contact. Coming down the slope in line to engage the infantry attacking the walls, the Lünebergers failed to see Travers’ cuirassier brigade advancing under cover of a small undulation. Travers saw them and instantly ordered the charge. The Hanoverians were unable to form square in time and were broken and destroyed as a fighting force. As French Sabres made short work of the Prince’s reinforcements, Bourgeois had gained the crest and crossed the road, driving back the 95th and the gunners of of Rogers and Bijeveldt’s batteries who as per orders abandoned their pieces. Because the Duke’s orders didn’t counteract the artilleryman’s instinct to deny his gun to the enemy, this movement resulted in the only instance of a gun being spiked during the entire battle, as a sergeant of Rogers’ battery desperately hammered a nail into the touch hole before legging it for safety.
Kempt’s Brigade now advanced to engage the French, led by Sir Thomas Picton, shouting “Charge, charge hurrah!” Dressed in his top hat and civilian frock coat, he had been mistaken that morning for a beggarly spectator by captain Mercer of the RHA. Soon after they engaged he watched with anguish as Kempt’s men were held by the fire of the French column and indeed began to start stepping back. Picton was standing next to Lord Uxbridge’s Aide de Camp Sir Horace Seymour, “The strongest man in the British army”, as he turned to say something he was now shot in the head and he fell. A moment later the destructive French fire hit Seymour’s Horse and brought him down too, the sight that greeted him when he arose would have made anyone forgive Wellington’s harsh comments about the lower ranks of his army. As he recovered his feet Seymour observed a British soldier rifling Sir Thomas’ pockets. Horace chased the man away, saving Picton’s purse and glasses but Sir Thomas was beyond help. He called Captain Tyler, the General’s aide de camp, who seeing the hopelessness of the wound remembered how after surviving Quatre Bras, Picton had wondered if he might not survive after all. How apt that he should die in battle, but how shameful that he had not been gone a minute before his long service was forgotten, and his body dishonoured by one of his own men.

Sir Thomas Picton's body is looted by a soldier during D'Erlon's attack. Patrice Courcelle.
Sir Thomas Picton’s body is looted by a soldier during D’Erlon’s attack. Patrice Courcelle.

Picton was dead, but few people knew about it in the confusion. More seriously, to the left of Kempt’s brigade, there was a hole, held by a single battalion of the 7th Belgian infantry, and streaming from it were the rest Bijlandt’s Netherland’s brigade, who General Perponcher was attempting to rally. Cresting the ridge was the 17e ligne of General Donzelot’s Division. The Netherlanders having retired from the forward slope had been squeezed into columns occupying a narrow front fit only for two battalions in line, and after returning fire as long as possible they went to the “right about” except for the 7th, who nevertheless did retire in the face of overwhelming odds. This event alone might have spelled disaster as Donzelot could now move straight between Kempt’s and Pack’s Brigades.
It is clear that a domino effect was now occurring, this was attack en echelon a succession of hammer blows striking pressure points along the line. General Pack realised that all to his right was giving way and yet another monstrous French column was lumbering up against his front. Pack was a fair haired, soppy looking man with a high forehead, small full lips, and large sleepy eyes, quite unlike the masterly dark looks of General Kempt, but a general of great experience nonetheless.
Mounted at the centre of his brigade he rode to the Gordon Highlander’s and called out that all

Sir Denis Pack.
Sir Denis Pack.

had given way around them and that they “Must charge this column!” The 92nd and 42nd duly obliged and rushed up to the hedge. They delivered a volley over the road into the opposing belt of green, galling the head of General Marcognet’s division then appearing. Unlike many other encounters of line vs column, the British were in 4 ranks deep and understrength after their mauling at Quatre Bras. Whereas the French of I Corps were fresh troops, and deployed by Divisions, thus every battalion was in line three deep and D’Erlons men were at full campaign strength, so the regiments like the “Boys of Paris” the 45e ligne, were able to return fire smartly without having to bring up their rear companies into line as they would have on other occasions in Spain and Portugal. The weight of fire and their impetus carried the road for Marcognet, his men cheered exultantly and their skirmishers slipped and jumped down onto the roadside to rush up the opposing bank and fire into the withdrawing Scots. In the old western movies this is usually when the cavalry arrives in the nick of time, it just so happened that this is exactly what was about to occur.

The Charge of the British cavalry.

Lord Uxbridge, like Wellington had been out on the right flank, he had been checking his outposts. When he had left he had seen orderly columns of Picton’s infantry waiting behind the crest, supported by his heavy cavalry. The brigades of Sir William Ponsonby and Lord Edward Somerset. He now came riding up to Lord Edward, looking suitably heroic, gloriously attired as a Colonel General of the 7th Hussars, deep blue and gold from head to foot. Looking down at La Haie Sainte he saw Travers Cuirassiers riding up the hill, and French infantry swarming around the farm buildings, the Hanoverian infantry around him was now in square, having seen the destruction of the Lunebergers. At once he had Somerset form line and prepare to charge and flew away toward the great cloud of smoke that had enveloped Picton’s division. The Household Brigade, primarily made up of Life and Dragoon Guards, mounted and formed line. Uxbridge raced across the front straight to General Ponsonby and told him also to prepare to advance. Union brigade mounted and prepared to attack. Observing the dire situation he then galloped back toward the crossroads, leaving His Aide de Camp, De Lacy Evens to watch for his signal. Judging his moment to perfection Uxbridge set his heavies in motion, Ponsonby had dismounted to pick up his cloak, there was a relay of waving hats, and Evans therefore seeing the signal uncovered his head and waved on the Union brigade. Uxbridge put himself at the head of Somerset’s brigade and drew his sword.

Kennedy and Styles of the Royals take the eagle of the 105e during the charge of the Union Brigade.
Kennedy and Styles of the Royals take the eagle of the 105e during the charge of the Union Brigade.

Shouts of “Victoire! Victoire!” Were coming from the road, the officers were attempting to restore order before pushing on when the red dragoons struck. Bugle calls were followed by a great cheer and out from the smoke rode the 1st Royal Dragoons of Ponsonby’s brigade “To Paris!” Cried an exultant officer, and for those first few minutes it really seemed like they might make it. The Royals were on the right of the brigade, riding up the side of the road directly at the single brigade of Quiot’s Division headed by the 105e ligne, now indeed withdrawing from the ridge. Having managed achieve a modest canter the dragoons in their classical Grecian helmets cut through the front ranks and turned the column into a mass of fugitives. A cry arose from Captain Clarke Kennedy “Left shoulders forward, attack the colour!” Pressing his horse through the fugitives he cut down the colour guard and clenched his fist around the bright tricolour and gold embroidered cloth but it began to slip from his grasp. Suddenly another hand steadied the pole, Kennedy looked up to see the face of Corporal Styles shouting back at him that he should take the colour to the rear. Kennedy assented but reminded him “The colour is mine!”
Donzelot’s Division had so far met only token resistance on the road, and indeed had just crossed it when the Royals threw back Quiot’s men, now suddenly they too were assailed by the British cavalry. With an Irish whoop the 6th Inneskilling dragoons rammed into them and lapped down their flanks, and in a minute or less the regular lines dissolved into a mob of running fugitives, pursued and herded like sheep by the Inneskilling’s. Marcognet’s men had no clue what was happening on their left, for all they knew the battle was still going well over there, it was as they were reforming in the road bottom that the 2nd Royal North British Dragoons (Scots Greys) struck them, shouting “Scotland forever!” to encourage the Gordon’s who had begun to fall back. A ragged volley was fired off from the French skirmish line, and the bullets smacked off the Scots’ sabres and emptied some saddles, the Grey’s where not dissuaded however, despite having to negotiate not only the soft ground but the hedge and road bank. Meeting the front ranks of French infnstry they cleaved their way through the 1/45e ligne and walked over them. Immediately the Gordon’s came back to the attack as the 45e were thrown back into the 2/45e. The Greys hewed through them and enveloped their disintegrating flanks. Panic spread down the column, and regiment by regiment it fell into total confusion.
Here another gilded bird was seen trying to fly away, Sergeant Charles Ewart, a man of great height, strength and skill at arms rode for it, cut down three men and lifted it triumphantly from the dying grasp of its guard.

Sgt Charles Ewart captures the eagle of the 45e Ligne. Dighton.
Sgt Charles Ewart captures the eagle of the 45e Ligne. Dighton.

Across the road the Household brigade approached Travers’ Cuirassiers and charged, the French met the attack at the halt, and the Life Guards, Kings Dragoon Guards and Blues broke upon them with great energy. The sound of the fighting as the British Sabres hit the steel breastplates sounding like an army of demented tinkers from the infernal realms. After a dint of duelling in which some British cavalrymen came to bone jarring conclusion that the French were not wearing silver waistcoats, the Cuirassiers were overturned and chased down past La Haye Saint.

The Cavalry Melee.
Napoleon had been unable to see anything until his grand attack came to grief. Impossibly one brigade of heavy cavalry had just routed three and a half divisions of infantry. A mob of fugitives were now streaming down the face of the hill, that was crested with smoke and spitting rockets, as Captain Whinyates galloped his rocket troop forwards in the interval between the two brigades and opened fire. More red coated cavalry had beaten the Cuirassiers on the left, but now he saw that not content with defeating D’Erlon, the British, having reached the “valley”, were riding for the guns of the “Grande Batterie”. It had been outlined to Napoleon that the British infantry were excellent, but he may not have been told that their cavalry had some quirks that tended to mar their performance now and again. Cavalry warfare was in part based on the assumption that at some point the leading squadron would be forced to retreat or at least halt to reform, thus reserves were vital to the continual momentum of a charge, and the commander who could handle his supports the best usually won. Thus even if a French regiment was broken after a successful charge, or sensibly stopped its attack to reform, it would be sure to have reserves behind it to gallop on or naysay the advantage of the counterattack. The British had very few General officers that understood cavalry warfare as a science and not a fox hunt. Uxbridge should have been one of them, yet he had made the cardinal error of joining the first line of attack and so preventing him from commanding his reserves. As it was Ponsonby’s brigade had charged without a reserve, due to the Scots Greys having to change ground twice to get out of the way of enemy artillery fire. Now some hair brained officers bellowed for their men to charge the guns, anyone that had begun to rally, now raced as fast as they could on tiring horses towards the French artillery.

The death of General Ponsonby. Here the Lancers close in and Brigade Major Reignold's of the Grey's attempts to hold them off. A scene typical of many during the French counterattack. Mariusz Kozik
The death of General Ponsonby. Here the Lancers close in and Brigade Major Reignold’s of the Grey’s attempts to hold them off. A scene typical of many during the French counterattack. Mariusz Kozik

It isn’t clear who organised the French response, Napoleon wrote that he did, but Marshal Ney seems to have ridden over from La Haie Sainte to call up the Cuirassiers, while D’Erlon seems to have summoned General Jacquinot’s Division who was already moving in anyway. In any event someone quickly got the cavalry moving. Two brigades of Cuirassiers were immediately set in motion at an easy pace, so as to catch the British when they were farthest from help. Jacquinot’s light division swung around the Grande Batterie’s right flank to envelope them and cut their retreat, a vice was closing and the British were too busy cutting down gunners to notice. At some point during the melee amongst the guns, the British started to realise they were rather too far away from their friends and indeed much too close to the enemy. In dribs and drabs, and then in large mixed up bunches the dragoons and guards began to make a disordered retreat back to the ridge. Too late. A once a wave of lancers and Chasseurs swept across the muddy field cutting their retreat, picking off stragglers and breaking up groups with devastating effectiveness. The Cuirassiers smashed into the milling swarm of riders aswim amongst the abandoned gun line and caused terrible casualties. A harrowing chase now ensued as the British cavalry attempted to get to safety on blown horses through the churned up morass of the sodden fields. Up on the ridge the two light cavalry brigades of Vivian and Vandeleur stayed immobile, until General De Ghingy’s Dutch brigade moved and seeing this Vandeleur eventually moved in as well. The charge of the light cavalry saved the remnants of the heavies yet, carried away with themselves some, failed to rally and were dreadfully cut up by the superior French forces in the valley. Lt Colonel Fredrick Ponsonby, of the 12th Light Dragoons (2nd cousin to the General commanding the union brigade who was by now dead) led his men too far and was disabled in both arms. He was cut from the saddle and lay on the ground until he was discovered by a French lancer. The lancers were prowling around murdering wounded soldiers, the Frenchman seeing life, viciously stabbed Ponsonby in the back who promptly blacked out expecting to experience death. Instead he opened his eyes to find a French skirmisher quietly looting him, after pointing out his purse Ponsonby was left alone, soon after came an officer and some men, all track of time was lost to him. The officer, dressed in a greatcoat, offered him a drink and propped his head up on a knapsack, but was under orders to ignore the wounded. He left promising that if the French won he would be looked after, then came another skirmisher, who serenely loaded and fired his musket over his body, seeing the British officer was alive he chatted to him in a by and by sort of way, and then after what seemed a long time, he got up and said goodbye telling him that the French were about to retire so he should be picked up soon.

Wellington arrived on the scene from Hougoumont uncharacteristically late. Had he been on the spot it is probable that the defence of the chemin d’Ohain might well have been more effective, as it was he pulled up at the crossroads near an elm tree, in the wake of Uxbridge’s charge. His staff officers now began congratulating him on his victory, for surely after this reverse Napoleon would not dare continue to attack. Wellington had a feeling the game was not yet up and told them so. When Uxbridge arrived and rode up to the Duke, the staff likewise congratulated him, the Duke only commented that he hoped Uxbridge was satisfied. It was sometime after 2.00 p.m. A lull now commenced, except around the three breakwaters, more troops were being committed to the struggle at Hougoumont, another attack, lead by Ney washed against La Haye Sainte and Durutte continued to operate against the 4 Hamlets, his was the only division of I Corps that had been able to form square and beat off the wild charge. In the rear of the French right all was confusion. Any officers worthy of the name exerted every energy to stem the frightened streams of men still running from the beaten British cavalry. Major Dupuy of Marbot’s 7e Hussards, took a platoon of cavalry amongst the runaways and saw a man clutching a furled eagle standard. Jacquinot had managed to save one of these from the British, still two had been lost and Dupuy told the man to give it to him, then he thought again, a thought worthy of motion picture. “I do not wish to dishonour you sir” he said “Unfurl your flag and carry it forwards…” he pointed back towards the front. The man was made of fine stuff, the gilded emblem of the empire was promptly raised and he resolutely marched back the way it had come, the eagle bearer bellowing “Vive L’Empreur!” Repeatedly. The soldiers around him, heard the call and saw the eagle and stopped running. Dupuy thought perhaps 3,000 men were rallied in this way. It took the better part of the hour for the Grande Batterie to be put back into commission, drafts of stupid infantrymen, who knew as much about the science of artillery as the reason why the sky was blue, were thrown at the guns and brusquely given simple tasks to perform. At 3.00 p.m. They were deemed ready to resume firing, and they did so. Wellington moved up General Lambert’s brigade to plug the gap left by Bijlandt, and the command of the 5th Division devolved upon Sir James Kempt, the remnants of the heavy cavalry rallied in a small depression near the field hospital of the farm of Mont St Jean.

The First French Cavalry Attack.

The Famous painting by Philippoteaux shows the drama of the principle event of Waterloo. As the Cuirassiers test the nerve of the British/allied infantry.
The Famous painting by Philippoteaux shows the drama of the principle event of Waterloo. As the Cuirassiers test the nerve of the British/allied infantry.

At 3.30 p.m. A curious thing happened. Officers in the more advanced portion of the attack on La Haye Sainte observed some kind of movement on the enemy ridge. What this was is hard to discover, since we are lead to believe the allied infantry were out of sight on the reverse slope, however Captain Fortuné de Brack of the 2e Garde Lancers, believed it to be the enemy withdrawing. He called out loudly what he had seen and urged an attack, officers nearby closed up on him so that he could point it out, the officers having advanced, the right hand file of the regiment mistakenly believed that they should also advance, this triggered a general forward movement to dress ranks by the entire regiment. The unfortunate consequence being that in order for the adjacent regiments to keep in line, they had to move forward a little two, and so on and so on, until by the time this ripple reached the left flank, the movement had become not one of steps but of multiple horse lengths and the Dragoons and Grenadiers a Cheval of the Garde, thought the order had been given to advance.
If this is to be accepted as how the great charges of the French cavalry occurred, it must be assumed that Ney too saw a retrograde movement of the enemy on the ridge, and allowed it to occur so as to perhaps test out the strength of the position. The old accepted version is that Ney was at Le Haie Sainte, resuming the attack on the farm with the rallied elements of I Coprs. The farm had been reinforced and the attack failed, however from this advanced position he observed the same retrograde movement that Captain Brack mystically saw, and ordered up a brigade of Milhaud’s Cuirassiers to probe for a weakness, this triggered a general attack, much as like happened above.
Whatever the truth at least things are more straightforward on the receiving end. Wellington was well aware that Napoleon had more cavalry than he did, and at some point had been expecting some sort of large demonstration, indeed Napoleon had intended to launch a huge cavalry attack in the wake of D’Erlons attack. Wellington had not expected such an attack so soon though, nor one against his unshaken right. Yet seeing what was happening he ordered his infantry to form square, and await the attack, the infantry already in quarter distance columns or in four deep lines formed square in a matter of minutes.
The allied gunners along the ridge were now presented with a highly disciplined target of over 5,000 men moving en echelon from the right, slowly across open ground in parade order. The Duke’s batteries belched iron, flame and smoke, scoring deep gashes in the dense formations of horses and men, shells burst and sprayed iron and shrapnel over their heads, as they rose to a laboured canter, battery commanders anticipated the range of the next discharge and switched ammunition to double round case shot. The galling shotgun blasts of the guns brought down whole files of animals in a tangle of kicking hooves, then they ran, unscrewing a wheel of each gun and taking it with them, along with the most necessary equipment the Dutch and British gunners sprinted for dear life to the nearest infantry square. That was the signal, and the order rose out from the checkerboard of battalions “Prepare to receive cavalry!”. The front ranks knelt and presented their bayonets, forming a steel hedge that only a desperately injured horse would ever charge into. As the heads of the French cavalry appeared on the horizon the order went out “Present!” The rear ranks levelled their muskets as one, at 500 yards the officer’s swords came down “Fire!”. More horses fell, more broken bones, more death “Reload!” Came the orders and the French cavalry came steaming down the reverse slope and began to ride around them as if on parade, now and then massing and charging particular squares repeatedly, hoping to unnerve the infantry so badly that they broke. Though impressive displays of horsemanship and courage, they ultimately achieved little. This was largely thanks to the Earl of Uxbridge, who waited for the decisive moment when the French were so disordered that they could not offer resistance, and then launched his own cavalry. The allies bundled them off the ridge every time, whereupon the blue coated gunners would reemerge from the squares, reassemble their guns and open fire into their backs, similarly the French artillery would once more bombard them. This was the pattern for the next four hours, as Ney hurled an eventual 10,000 cavalry and 40 guns against 13,000 prepared infantry, 7,000 cavalry and 70 guns positioned along a 1,500 metre front.
More than anything else the image of the determined infantry square, surrounded by milling horsemen is the prevailing image of the Battle of Waterloo.
At 4.00 p.m. As increasing numbers of his precious cavalry rode to their doom, Napoleon is supposed to have said “That premature movement may have fatal effect on the fortunes of the day. It is too early by an hour” This must mean that he intended to take Le Haie Sainte and batter a hole through the allied centre with his cavalry. Soult agreed “He had compromised us, as he did at Jena” he said, but it should be noted that neither did a thing to stop it and at Jena his audacity, though compromising had helped gain a great victory, indeed Napoleon seems to have encouraged it. At this time he received a message from Grouchy, dated 11.00am. He was at Wavre, there was a Prussian corps to his front, which he intended to attack. Above the roar of his own batteries, off to the east, where the spire of Plancenoit could be seen, to the right rear of the French position, could Napoleon hear the thump of the Prussian guns?

The Battle for Plancenoit Begins.

Wellington had hoped to have the Prussians arrive much earlier than they did. The Duke and many other officers would therefore remain ignorant of the fact that they had been in action much longer than they thought, and this misunderstanding, due to the ground, smoke and noise more than anything else lent to the later bitter recriminations as to “Who won Waterloo”. As it was it would take until 7 for them to concentrate enough force to make their presence felt
Advance elements of Bülow’s Korps neared the battlefield between 2 and 3:00, and began to concentrate in the woods while Blücher surveyed the scene from the high ground between the Lasne and Smohain. The Prussians had been working through the woods of the Bois de Paris towards Plancenoit since 3.00 pm, having been sighted around 1, however it takes a good hour for a full Korps to deploy for battle. Skirmishing had been going on for an hour already, as the French cavalry attempted to contain the enemy advance.
The reports of his staff officers and thunderous roar of artillery made him eager to press the attack, and rightly deciding that the quicker his guns came into action the better, ordered Bülow to attack before the other Korps’ arrived. At 4.00 pm Bülow had deployed 2 infantry brigades, with his guns astride the road and his flank anchored at Frichermont. He moved his infantry out of the woods with his cavalry screening them. Blücher went back to hurry Pirch and Ziethen, and an affair of cavalry occurred in which General Domon pushed the Prussians back, but was checked by the fire of Bülow’s batteries. Cavalry alone could not hold back an entire Korps, and Ney received a message that a large number of Prussians were in the woods on the right. It would take another hour for General Lobau to get his divisions in place, and the French cavalry therefore fought like hero’s for an hour, slowly being pushed back to Plancenoit, where the the Prussian matter would be decided once and for all, and there was nothing the French and Prussians liked better than to butcher each other in small built up spaces.


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.

Leave a Comment