The rest of the Battle.
The Squares of Mont St Jean.
Allied soldiers formed in the checkerboard of irregular shaped squares 100 paces behind the crest of Mont St Jean Ridge, flinched and ducked as French shells came whizzing overhead. The enemy cavalry had withdrawn again, for what seemed the umpteenth time, leaving the muddy and trampled crops littered with the corpses of their horses. Now the French guns were firing again, and causing havoc in the squares, so the men prayed for the return of the enemy cavalry. After the usual interval, they peered expectantly through the shifting smoke clouds to see a dim, yet “Overwhelming, long moving line” form across the shallow valley that separated them from the enemy. Presently it began to glitter “like a stormy wave of the sea when it catches the sunlight” and faintly, behind the crash of their own artillery, trumpets could be heard sounding the advance.
The entire reserve cavalry were now committed to the attack on the ridge, this included the Cuirassier Divisions of General Milhaud’s Corps, and the Garde lancers, grenadiers Chasseurs and Carabiniers. Riding through the torrent of iron that was jetting from the allied ridge, carving gruesome lanes through the disciplined ranks of trotting horses, was the pride of the French cavalry. Suddenly they were only twenty yards away “The word of command, prepare to receive cavalry, had been given, every man in the front rank knelt, and a wall bristling with steel held together by steady hands, presented itself to the infuriated Cuirassiers”. The French were greeted in the usual manner, they rode, and often walked their horses around the squares attempting to scare the enemy into breaking ranks, lancers harrying the corners and by times hurling their weapons into the thick packed infantry, while the Chasseurs, dragoons, hussars and Cuirassiers leant out and full stretch, hazarding the stabbing bayonets to get a kill. Pistols were discharged, as were carbines, but the squares remained immobile and once more the allied cavalry came in the inevitably successful charge and swept the French off the hill, leaving yet more bodies behind as a monument to their courage, and the rain of iron resumed from the French batteries. The squares were now “perfect hospitals” in which it was impossible to move without treading on a comrade.
What Marshal Ney was thinking at this moment is impossible to say, most likely something like “It worked for Murat” for while the first attack may well have been an accident, he seems to have taken the reverse personally, pulling increasing numbers of cavalry from the right flank, losing horse after horse to enemy fire and smashing his sword in fury over an allied gun. Murat had broken the Russian centre at Eylau in 1807 with the reserve cavalry, however Murat’s charge had been launched out of a snowstorm, it was unexpected and achieved the massive force of a pile driver. Increasingly Waterloo was becoming a replay of Borodino in 1812.
Rather as a second thought, sometime between 5.00 pm and 5.30 , Ney had called up infantry support, and the uncommitted elements of Reille’s Corps, had moved out skirting Hougoumont wood and marching up the slope. It should be noted that French skirmishers had already been moving closer and closer to the allied line, and French cavalry skirmishers were taking pot shots and wheeling out of sight behind the ridge. Immediately the dark mass came under the concentrated fire of the allied guns checking it, General Adam’s and Du Plat’s infantry was ordered onto the forward slope, formed four deep the redcoats checked the attack in 10 minutes, and forced the French to retire. Seeing the French recoil from the ridge the battered British heavy cavalry brigades, now acting as a single brigade, were sent down, however they collided with each other as they charged and the French, now formed in square, and halted them with musketry, then rallied elements of their own mounted arm arrived. The French infantry withdrew and the Cuirassiers held the British in place with pistol fire, until Uxbridge ordered them back.
The waves of massed cavalry kept sweeping up the ridge for the next hour, but Ney was no longer leading them, the powder stained marshal rode to where I Corps had rallied gathered up as many as possible, mostly from Durutte’s Division, for a renewed attack. Meanwhile flames had erupted from the roof of the Hougoumont, Napoleon had ordered that howitzers be trained on the roofs, and the blaze caused great consternation to the defenders, who had already nearly ran out of ammunition. They had been saved by a corporal of the Royal Wagon Train who galloped a wagon into the courtyard via the North Gate. Wellington saw the black smoke boiling from the rooftop, and that it had spread to most of the inner habitations, he quickly wrote out a clear and instructive order on his hide notepad. Macdonnell was to keep his men in the house as long as possible, making sure to evacuate it slowly as the fire consumed the different levels. The fire gutted the inside of the complex, stopping miraculously at the foot of a crucifix hanging over the door of the chapel, however the walls held and the French made no headway
The Fall of La Haye Sainte.
At 6.00 pm Major Baring’s men in La Haye Saint, were running of ammunition. Repeated requests had gone out for rifle and musket rounds, but apart from those that their reinforcements brought in, their pleas got no further and Orange and those yet above the farm were either wounded or too preoccupied to help. Ammunition wagons were theoretically stationed in massed parks for brigade use, and battalions had boxes serried behind them, but nothing was done to resupply Baring. The French were determined and getting increasingly imaginative, probably inspired by the blaze at Hougoumont, the barn at La Haye Sainte was set alight, however the Nassau troops inside had brought their large camp kettles and put it out.
Despite spirited resistance by 6:30 they could not hold the walls any longer. The French realised they were not being shot at and massed for a final assault on the open western doorway. Now a renewed attack broke through the barricade and at several places along the south side, they penetrated through the orchard and into the courtyard. Baring gave the order to abandon the position and the men retreated into the house on the north side. After a frenzied running fight through the exit points, 42 desperate men, of a brave company of 400, bolted out through the kitchen garden, leaving their unevacuated wounded behind to the scant mercy of the French who bayonetted anyone they found alive in the rooms.
Wellington sent orders for the farm to be retaken. The Prince of Orange was in command of the centre and selected Baron Opteda’s brigade for service. Opteda was Brevet Colonel of the 3rd Line Battalion KGL and was promptly ordered to advance in line and retake the farm. Opteda had already pointed out that it would be safer to advance in square, but the Prince was adamant, resignedly the brave man led his doomed battalion down the slope into the sights of the waiting Cuirassiers.
The men on the ridge top watched in horror as once more a Hanoverian battalion was charged, ridden down and annihilated by the French heavy cavalry and any chance of recapturing La Haye Sainte evaporated for the foreseeable future. Now Ney pushed his skirmish line right up to the crest, the skirmishers came up in “Grande Bandes” 100 paces from the enemy, and were a menace to the tight packed formations, he massed what infantry he had around the farm behind the artillery just below the crossroads who oped fire on the allied squares with canister from 300 yards, the defence of the ridge now depended on Uxbridge being able to continually clear the French cavalry attacks, and Wellington’s personal presence at the scene.
Sir Harry Smith later wrote that he didn’t believe there was a crisis at the battle of Waterloo, the entire battle had been a crisis. And it is true, this was just the latest of the hurdles Wellington’s army had to face, and the Duke, looking pale and thoughtful rode amongst his squares during the lulls between attacks calling out encouragement’s “Stand fast!” He said “We must not be beat, what shall they say of this back in England?” Every now and again a soldier would hear their sergeant murmur for them to look sharp as old Nosey was there, one can imagine every back straightening.
Comte Lobau had been given orders to march his corps to the right flank not long after arriving on the field. At 4:30 Ney instructed him to act against the enemy then engaged by the Cavalry divisions of Subervie and Domon. VI Corps took about an hour to march over to the area between Smohain and Plancenoit and deploy. At 5.00 pm, after an hour of fighting Bülow was making headway, and the French cavalry were quickly retiring before him, but now as he advanced out of the Bois de Paris, he was confronted by the sight of tiered blocks of infantry and guns marching across the fields towards him, and darting lines of skirmishers immediately letting off shots at him. Lobau timed his attack to catch the Prussians as they debauched from the woods. As Domon’s and Subervie’s cavalry pulled back, the appearance of his infantry checked the enemy and prevented them from continuing on a direct course. Bulow therefore did what all competent General’s do. Extend the line and search for a flank. He found it at Plancenoit. The village was the largest populated centre in the area, a fairly typical warren of rural streets and lanes with the tall spire of an impressive church rising from its northern side. Bulow therefore upped the ante and directed his precious reserves to Plancenoit and forced the Lobau to retire or risk being outflanked. The French redeployed quickly and in good order, and moved into position behind Plancenoit, placing a strong garrison in the village. The depleted elements of Durutte’s Division of I Corps continued to engage the hamlets around Smohain, having more or less gained supremacy at Frichermont, supported by Domon and Subervie.
Bulow ordered up his guns to the road that lead to Plancenoit. They took ground to the front of his infantry not far from the woods and opened fire. The violence of this bombardment was felt across the French right flank, 13. Schwere Batterie’s shots even bounding and exploding on the high road. Under cover of this Bulow deployed for an attack, at this moment he had only two brigades in position, with the others marching up from the rear. Three columns of General Hiller’s infantry formed up before the French light infantry who were waiting, crouched low behind the stone walls of the town as the Prussian shots continued to scream in. On the right was 2 battalions of IR.15 in the centre 2 battalions of 1.Schlesisches LIR and on the left 2 of 2.Schlesisches LIR. The order came to the waiting ranks to advance, the skirmishers jogged forward through the sea of tall grass and standing rye, shots began to crackle like a dry fire and spread, snapping and popping along the front. Soon the French artillery were goring the deep formations with roundshot and shells. They marched on, past their retiring skirmishers into musket range. On the left flank officers of the 4 battalions of the 1e Tirailleurs & Voltiguers manning the defences, were watching from the houses and the walls, as their skirmishers came in clearing the field of fire, and revealing the stolid banks of marching men approaching. Now there was a flurry of movement and a cacophony of clear shouted orders above the din of gunfire. Suddenly the French jumped up and the walls and windows were roofed and filled with muskets. “Feur!” A vast explosion of smoke burst from the edge of Plancenoit. Scores of men dropped in unison and writhed with violent convulsions, the confusion as the Prussian’s pushed on, stepping over the fallen, was terrible. Closing ranks on the move they reached the outskirts of the town, the French withdrew before them and they pushed up the narrow road toward the lengthening spire of the church. Having to constrict their column to enter the town, IR.15 was suddenly met with a determined bayonet charge launched from the graveyard and they broke and retreated. On the French right however the 2.Schlesisches LIR crossed the small stream south of the village and drove back a battalion of the 1e Tiralleurs with weight of numbers and swept North to outflank the front defences, while the 1.Schlesiches LIR advanced through the centre with fixed bayonets. The French counterattack stalled as their right flank was turned and they withdrew through the cemetery to the other edge of the town and prepared to go down fighting.
The battle on the extreme right now polarised on who could rest control to the village and hold it.
They died where they stood.
While the Prussians and French murdered each other in the streets of Plancenoit, back on the ridge Wellington was moving troops to his centre. “Well Halkett how do you get on” he asked entering one of his squares, the General replied grimly “My Lord we are dreadfully cut up. Can you not relieve us for but a little while?”
“Impossible.” replied the Duke, he rode on to the next square “Hard pounding gentlemen, let’s see who pounds the longest!” He called to the troops, but when General Lambert called for reinforcements he replied that he had no reinforcements to give and that every man was to stand and die on the ground he now occupied. “They fire better than they used to I think” His words are telling, as the hail of iron ate away at his troops, it wasn’t the physical peril his centre was in that worried him, it was the time, it was now getting on towards 6:30, and as yet, he had not heard a word from the Prussians, and without them all he could do is stand his ground until nightfall. As the afternoon wore on he was heard to murmur “Night or the Prussians must come”. This famous phrase is hard to understand, as most agree he had heard the Prussian guns at Smohain and Plancenoit, yet with all the gunfire now filling the air and the smoke hiding much of the terrain it is hard to see how he could have known they were there at all except by reports from Müffling.
The Hanoverians of Kielmansagge’s brigade were wavering, close range artillery and skirmisher fire had reduced their squares to triangles. Soon the Hanoverians were out of ammunition entirely, and Wellington needed to find troops to relieve them. Uxbridge moved up the British heavy cavalry to stand there with drawn swords to steady them. To their right the British regiments of Halkett’s brigade were also suffering badly, the General had not been understating the critical nature of his situation, his regiments slowly diminished in size, and had to amalgamate into double squares. The 33rd and 69th wavering and falling back at one point, only to be coaxed back into line by some level headed officers, Wellington never minded troops running away so long as they came back again. Which was more than could be said for the Hanoverian Hussars of the Duke of Cumberland’s regiment, which refused a summons to charge and galloped all the way back to Brussels. All in all a definite retrograde of all troops west or astride the Brussels road had taken place and it was only through superhuman effort that they were kept in line.
Orders had gone back to General Chassé’s Division positioned on the extreme right rear at Braine L’Alleude to reinforce the centre, but it would take time. Sir John Lambert’s brigade was melting too, but as per Wellington’s orders his men were dying on the ground they occupied. The 27th Inneskilling regiment, with that peculiar pride born of rivalry found in the British army, were determined not to break until others did, and they stood until there were more wounded than living, being fired upon from less that 300 yards by the “Grande Bandes” and horse artillery batteries, which Ney had rushed up to La Haye Sante. Their dead lay in square at the feet of the living.
It wasn’t just the rank and file that were suffering, Wellington’s staff was becoming increasingly thin on the ground. Since Le Haie Sainte had fallen, Sir William Howe De Lancey, the Prince of Orange, Sir Fitzroy Somerset and Alexander Gordon along with several other aides de camp had fallen wounded. It soon became apparent to him that the French had found their range on his staff, and observed to his officers “We are somewhat thick on the ground” and had them disperse.
At Napoleon’s command post things looked grim on the right, no one dared look Napoleon in the eye or say an unsolicited word. Lobau was losing his grip on Plancenoit. Napoleon rode to a vantage point and observed the situation, a division would do to push the Prussians back and recapture the village. He turned to his emergency troops, the Young Garde, commanded by General Duhesme. The entire division was ordered up from its positions on the high road and directed to the right flank, where they deployed with Lobau’s reserve. General Barrois’ 1st Division was then ordered to assault the buildings. 4,000 men in 8 battalions, made up of the 1e and 3e Tiralleur’s and Voltiguers advanced at the pas de charge and entered the western side of Plancenoit, passing through the beleaguered French bastions, they met the enemy in the streets and halted them. The Landwer infantry were then gradually pressed back until they were expelled from the village. Having retaken the corpse strewn streets and pushed the Prussians out the other side, the Garde dug in to await the renewed assault. The Prussians tried a hair trigger counterattack, which surged up to the cemetery and spilled over its walls, temporarily pushing the enemy back, but the Young Garde were not to be denied and came back to the attack and with musket butt and bayonet bludgeoned their way through.
Not long after the Young Garde marched to the rescue Colonel Héyèmes came riding up to Napoleon and asked in Ney’s name for reinforcements. Héyèmes was Ney’s chief of staff, in paintings he is the chap always riding behind Ney in the brilliant red uniform, he had seen long service in the past and had been aide de camp to the price de la Moskowa since 1812.
Here he had caught Napoleon at a bad time, the emperor replied angrily to his request “Troops! Where am I to get them, does he expect me to make them?” It was clear that Napoleon had been distracted from his principle objective, to break through at Mont St Jean, increasingly the French were now fighting two battles. Napoleon was fighting the Prussians and Ney was fighting the allies, but critically it was the Emperor that controlled the reserves.
The Colonel rode back to Le Haye Sainte empty handed and the news would drive Ney to distraction, meanwhile Wellington was remaining as calm as possible, rushing troops up to his centre from all available quarters. He could read a battle as well as he could read the ground, his instinct told him that a large attack would come at his centre before the hour was out, one of his orders ran “I shall order the Brunswick troops to this spot, and other troops besides… You go and get all the German troops of the division to the spot that you can, and all the guns you can find”, however no attack came.
General Chassé’s Division was arriving in the rear of the allied position, and now Wellington personally brought up a brigade of Brunswick infantry to relieve Kielmansagge. As this occurred the increasing numbers of General Ziethen’s Korps appearing around Smohain allowed Uxbridge to pull the light cavalry from the left flank, and now freed up badly needed reserves. Müffling had been hard at work trying to divert Ziethen to the left. Now Durutte’s division and the remnants of I Corps were becoming outnumbered, fresh Prussian cavalry were beginning to dominate the empty ground between Plancenoit and Smohain forcing Domon and Subervie to move quickly in order to halt them,
In the centre of Wellington’s line the Hussars arrived. These gloriously attired riders came up behind the shattered heavy brigades and took their place, firming up the centre, the long line of soldierly blue and dazzling braid, swords drawn, were an encouraging sight to all.
One More Hour.
Bulow had been repulsed but now at last had his entire Korps present and now launched an overwhelming attack against Plancenoit, two divisions now crashed against the village and surged through the streets. The Young Garde and VI Corps had no choice but to fall back or risk being overrun.
For Napoleon the news came that once more Lobau had lost Plancenoit, the bodies were high in the streets by now and the artillery was rumbling loudly from where it should not be firing, Prussian projectiles were once more landing around him. The emperor was aware that bullets were flying so close that they were making poor M. Decoster flinch, and as he ducked spent bullets, Napoleon who knew the minimal danger advised him “Now my friend do not be so restless. A musket shot may kill you just as well from behind as from the front, and it will make a much worse wound”. This was poor comfort given that General Dezavoux had been decapitated by a round shot while reporting on the state of the Grande Batterie.
With only the Middle and Old Garde Divisions left, Napoleon gambled again, he needed more time. He decided that General Morand would be the man to it back from him. Napoleon rode to the 1/2e Grenadiers a piéd, and the 1/2e Chasseurs of the Old Garde and told them to save their bullets and with the bayonet retake Plancenoit.
Stained, bruised, wounded and exhausted the troops of Duhesme and Lobau were being rallied behind Plancenoit. In the wrecked village the Prussians had taken up defensive positions and were awaiting orders and support, when they heard the cheering from the French lines. Then through the smoke came the column. Coming straight for them at the double quick in column of companies, it seemed suicide, but this was the Garde. Supported by the invigorated troops under Duhesme and Lobau these two battalions marched resolutely at Plancenoit, not bothering to raise their muskets to their shoulders, nor halt to fire, but with bayonets fixed gave a yell and charged straight into the village.
The Prussians saw them coming but to the many untested recruits, some still reeling from their first taste battle, the sight of the most famous infantry in Europe coming straight at them was too much. As soon as the Garde got amongst them, they naturally assumed the entire Corps was coming too. When the Grenadiers appeared behind the Chasseurs there was no stopping the panic. In 30 minutes all of Plancenoit had been retaken, the stained bayonets of the Garde drove the enemy out of the village and even beyond their own supporting artillery. The impetuous leapfrog from the village halted when elements of General Pirch’s cavalry appeared to cover the infantry. Bulow had been a hairs breadth away from disaster, his entire Korps was retiring back into the woods and his guns were nearly overrun. Salvation had come however and he was now aware that the enemy were not in strength and that fresh troops were now moving up behind him. Pirch had been delayed by the late start at Wavre, and the sudden appearance of Grouchy which had meant that half his Korps had to fall back in the face of the French vanguard. The bad roads through the Lasne defile delayed him further but he was finally there. As the Old Garde fell back to the village, at 8:00 pm Bulow and General Pirch began to prepare for the final attack.
The Emperor had bought his hour of grace, and he used it to try and salvage the day. At 7, while Plancenoit was being retaken, Imperial aide the Comte de la Bedoyere galloped across the right yelling that Grouchy had arrived. Ney sent Colonel Lavasseur to spread the word to the left. He rode across the Grande Batterie calling out “La Garde au feu! Voila Grouchy! Vive l’Empereur!”. The rumour was being spread that Ziethen’s guns were Grouchy’s, a dangerous ploy to an army riven with suspicions of treachery. However as the Prussians arrived they had accidentally opened fire on the Netherland’s troops defending the 4 hamlets, so there was something to the idea that the allies had been attacked from behind. Ominously however Lavasseur stopped as a salvo of gunfire rippled from the direction Grouchy was supposed to be appearing from, and Ney forbade him to investigate. The riders galloped to the front of the much reduced and exhausted regiments of I Corps and called out again, the troops arriving behind the allied left were French, Grouchy had arrived and the Garde were going to advance. The ruse worked and along the line hoarse voices roared their tired approbation “Vive l’Empereur!”. General Pégot’s brigade of Durutte’s Division was at La Haye Sainte, and he immediately launched his two regiments towards Halkett’s brigade. On the right the remnants of I Corps moved back towards the British 5th Division. The British infantry of Halkett’s brigade were in a bad way, formed in double battalion squares they had almost broken under the intense fire of Ney’s troops in the centre. Seeing the advancing infantry Halkett rode to his steadiest battalions, the 30th and 73rd, and formed them into line as the Frnech reached the crest, the steady volleys of the British infantry forced them to fall back. Pegot finding no weakness in the centre which he had thought to be crumbling, marched his troops across the road to join the renewed attack on the right, by which time it was 8.00 pm and the final act was about to begin.
The attack of the Imperial Garde.
Two French deserters loudly proclaiming their Royalist loyalties came riding up the slope and called out that Napoleon was coming. At 7:30 To the beat of the drums and the renewed violence of the cannonade the Garde was fanning out to bolster the line. 4 battalions of the 3e and 4e Chasseurs were now stationed to the west of the high road. The 2/3e Grenadiers marched in square into position 300 paces from the orchard at Hougoumont, which Reille was determined to take. Having propped things up, Napoleon had rode with his staff and escort at the head of 4 battalions of Chasseurs and halted beside La Haye Sainte, behind them the 3e and 4e Grenadiers were still marching up, but Napoleon was impatient for the attack to begin. All along the line the French were attacking again, just at Pegot had, sure of victory this time.
Napoleon was dissuaded from leading the attack himself and he turned to Marshal Ney. The Marshal had lost his hat, his uniform was unbuttoned under his sash, and he was stained and smeared with powder and mud. From the blackened face the two blue eyes showed the strain, and his famous red hair was wild and mussed. Napoleon ordered him to take the Chasseurs of the Garde and advance, the Grenadiers would move up on their right when they were deployed.
Formed in two columns of grand divisions they marched en echelon from the right over the devastation left by the cavalry charges. The 3e on the right and the 4e on the left, in the intervals were the Garde Horse artillery, connecting what was a very strung out force. Squadrons of Cuirassiers trotted on the flanks. Immediately 7 allied batteries opened up on them, a slow and deliberate fire for they were almost out of ammunition, the officers closed the gaps and the Chasseurs pushed on and up the muddy slope, grim with human and equine gore.
Wellington was ready with all he had. Uxbridge was now bringing over Vivian’s and Vandeleur’s light cavalry, General Chassé’s Netherland’s brigade had arrived and was marching to the front. Lining the chemin d’Ohain Road from the cross roads to the ridge above Hougoumont was the Brunswick and Hanoverians, and the British under Colin Halkett and Maitland’s with Adam’s Brigade withdrawn from the forward slope behind the crest on the right. As the range decreased the guns ranged along the roadside fired and recoiled again, blasting the Garde with double canister yet on and on came the Garde, unstoppable, proud and magnificent. The allied infantry, in line four ranks deep, awaited them on the other side of the hill. On the right Adam’s light infantry and Maitland’s Guards were lying down. Wellington rode along the ridge to were the lip of the chemin d’Ohain formed a parapet, which the 3rd battalion 1st Foot Guards were sheltering behind, and watched.
What follows is hotly debated on many counts, and most likely the full truth will remain obscured by perspective. I favour the most recent research by John Franklin, mixed with elements of Adkin. Franklin has asserted that the 3e Chasseurs struck first, their close artillery support firing on the allied line from the intervals between the battalions. There is a theory based on first hand accounts that the Garde advanced in squares, at least one was in square beside Hougoumont, but the 4e Chasseurs cannot have been for reasons you will see.
Silently Wellington waited until the last possible moment and then turned and cried “Now Maitland, now’s your time!” And perhaps followed it up by adding “Stand up Guards!” The Guards had been lying down in the trampled crops behind the crest of the ridge, some were actually asleep, when the 3e were less than 50 yards away they stood.
Up they came, a startling line of red rising from the ground, burgundy colours outlined against the dark powder stained clouds of smoke, the French front ranks faltered, officers bellowed “Deployez en ligne!” and the rear companies began doubling to the front, too late. The order was clear from the British line “Battalion will prepare to fire by rank, front rank present, fire!”, The Chasseurs were stopped in their tracks, as volley after volley was pumped into them from close range. The 3e’s return fire was disorganised, and they had no choice but to find a way off that cursed ridge before it became their grave. With a cheer the Guards stumbled forwards with lowered bayonets, yet all was not lost, for suddenly up came the 4e Chasseurs on their flank. Their order lost by their charge the Foot Guards recoiled in confusion.
Colonel Colborne commanded the 52nd (Oxfordshire) Light infantry, part of Adam’s brigade on the right flank. He was one of Wellington’s best battalion commanders, many of whom were now dead and wounded. He saw that the flank of the enemy was vulnerable to enfilade, and the confusion of the Guards. At his word, the 52nd doubled his frontage by reducing his depth to the traditional two lines that had brought victory in Spain and ordered the advance, wheeling out to come onto the enemy flank, the 52nd swung like an opening door.
The flank commanders of the French saw the daring movement and essentially the column refused their left. The effect of this was to create a miniature firing line down the side of the column, which proved quite effective. Lord Hill had seen the 52nd move and had placed himself before the 71st (Glasgow Highland) Light infantry and the 2/95th. He lead them down to come up on Colborne’s right, but as he did his horse was hit five times in succession and he fell so heavily that it seemed to onlookers that he must be dead.
Though sustaining heavy losses from the Chasseur’s the 52nd weathered their volleys and now halting at point blank range returned the compliment with interest. After firing the 52nd gave a cheer and charged, which ended the matter. Lord Hill who had only been stunned, remounting he galloped up to the ridge leaving Adam to continue the advance, he found the 13th Light Dragoons already advancing and called out “Drive them back 13th” and pointed at the 4e Chasseurs, and away they went to turn retreat into rout.
Ney had sent the Chassuers on their path to death and glory and then lead the two battalions of the Grenadiers a piéd forward to their right rear. the Chasseurs were likely just nearing the ridge when suddenly the Grenadiers came under a sudden and sustained hail of artillery fire. This was Krahmer’s Belgian Horse Artillery Battery, who was unloading the benefit of its full shot lockers into them. In quick succession Comte Friant was wounded, and Ney’s fifth horse killed pinning him to the ground. Staggering forwards against the iron hail their resolution caused consternation amongst the British and Hanoverians. Then came Detmer’s brigade of Chassé’s Division, sweeping around the left of Halkett’s brigade. The Garde, were falling like corn under a scythe as they deployed. Detmer wasted no time in pressing his advantage and his brigade charged with fixed bayonets. Over the lip of the ridge rushed the Dutch, the 35th Jägers running ahead firing as they went. The Old Garde stumbled and began to retreat.
It is likely that Uxbridge had now brought up his cavalry, and announced his presence to the Duke and Wellington ordered him to charge. As he was about to ride off to lead the charge a piece of canister shot came flying over Copenhagen’s head and shattered the Earl’s left leg. Staggered by the shock and feeling a wave of paralysis sweep over him Uxbridge swayed, his ADCs Colonel Cathcart (his AQMG) and Captain Seymour were just behind him. I have got it at last!” Gasped Uxbridge in a narrative given only 3 years after the battle, The Duke here replied not with sangfroid as in the more famous rendition but with shock and concern “No? Have you, by God?” Wellington who then saw it was true, and took hold of the wounded cavalier to prevent him falling while Seymour organised his evacuation.
Wellington, now accompanied by a sole Sardinian officer was now riding down behind the rallying Guards to his only fully formed battalion, the 52nd “Go on Colborne they won’t stand!” He cried, it was vital that the infantry keep up the pressure, now engaged in front and flank the Chasseurs retreated in disorder before Colborne’s lowered bayonets. “La Garde Recule!” Was the horrified cry that spread through the ranks of the French army. It was true as well. The Garde was reeling back down the hill, now pursued by the allied infantry and cavalry. The devastated French horsemen now tried to shield the infantry supporting Cuirassiers now rode up and charged the 10th Hussars. Vivian rode to the head of his reserve, “18th you will follow me!”
“Aye to Hell if you’ll lead us sir Hussay!” An Irish voice roared back and with a blast of trumpets and a cheer they charged after him through the eerie half light and clashed with a body of Chasseurs a Cheval. The Sabres of the light cavalry saw too it that the Garde made it to the bottom of the ridge.
Last act at Plancenoit.
At the same time as the Garde went into action General Bulow and General Pirch were massing for the final attack on the French right, which would fulfil Blücher’s plan to cut the main road south and envelope the French army. Spearheaded by 3 brigades of II Korps and 2 fresh artillery batteries, the Prussian attack rolled once more into the streets of Ligny. The French were pushed back into the grim redoubt of the cemetery where the Garde dug in their heels and halted the enemy advance. General Hiller was not to be denied this time though and ordered a mass attack by riflemen over a wide front. Four platoons rushed the environs of the church, and on all other points the French were pushed out of the village. General Duhesme had been mortally wounded at some stage in the action and had been carried to the rear. Lobau’s shattered corps pulled back as best the could, the Garde being at last turned out of their morbid fortress of gravestones and dead men. General Pelet attempted to rally the survivors for a final effort but the Prussian were now at last present in overwhelming numbers, and there was choice but to retreat. Plancenoit had been lost.
“All is lost, save yourselves!”
“Tout est perdu! Sauve qui peut!” It was the cry that meant all was lost. The French line troops had no sooner heard that the Garde was in retreat when Prussian batteries began to enfilade them, and dark masses could be discerned moving under the clouds of smoke to cut their retreat. Ziethen had broken through at Smohain and the Uhlans and Dragoons of Roeder’s cavalry were now riding across the churned brown fields, through the widening angle towards La Belle Aloiance. Pirch and Bulow were bringing up artillery and rolling Lobau backwards threatening the main road. “Treson!” Was the word, for surely they had been betrayed, the Prussians were in their rear, it was over. In a frighteningly short time the entire French right flank collapsed into a giant mob of fugitives trying to escape the swinging door shutting behind them.
Wellington was at last able to order the advance he had been envisaging all day. Standing in his stirrups he raised his hat in the air and shouted “The entire line will advance!”.
“Is that wise my lord” asked one of his few staff. The Duke was no so low on Aides de a Camp that he was using diplomatic attaches, such as the Spanish ambassador to the Netherlands, Don Alava, and random civilians to pass messages.
“In for a penny in for a pound” he replied flippantly and he rode along his line, telling every officer and man he came across to go forwards, a cheer raced ahead of him along the road, “No cheering men, but forward and complete your victory!” The release of energy must have been bone jarring so as to be almost hysterical. Unleashed from their ordeal on the back of Mont St Jean ridge the entire allied army spilled over and into the forbidden forward slope.
Yet the Armée du Nord died hard, four squares of the Imperial Garde held fast and repulsed the cavalry attacks, killing the colonel of the 10th Hussars. The honour of breaking the last of the Garde fell therefore to Sir Hugh Halkett’s Hanoverian brigade. General Camberonne was in front of his troops, he refused to surrender and turned to encourage his men. As if angered by the response of a petulant child, Halkett daringly spurred his horse forwards and laid hold of Camberonne’s epaulette and dragged him back as his Prisoner. Not long after he was errantly dragged away the Garde disintegrated in ghastly torrents of musketry and artillery.
Wellington rode forwards to direct his most advanced troops, Adam’s, now gaining the French ridge. From Hougoumont the garrison sallied out and drove Reille’s divisions back. On the right Lobau collected what troops he still had left to try and hold Blücher back as long as possible. The French bullets nevertheless still stung, and as they cracked around Wellington’s head he was begged to retire, so as to not fall at the last moment, he fatalistically replied that his life wasn’t worth anything now victory was won.
When Napoleon saw the Garde break and his right flank cave in he realised the game was up. Decoster heard him say “A present il est fini. Sauvons-nous” the Emperor rode to the squares of the Garde, who were at that time still stolidly withdrawing towards the centre, step by step amidst the sea of fleeing men, but he left them before they disintegrated, at Rosomme he took in his coach away from his last battlefield, and crossed the frontier a few days later.
Ney seems to have lost all regard for life at this point, knowing death awaited him if he was captured, and in a haze of despair fuelled madness tried desperately to rally the fleeing fugitives and brought forward some of the last formed battalions. Somehow having found a sixth horse he found Comte D’Erlon with a square of line infantry. “If they catch us now you and I will be hanged!” He cried as if to say goodbye then waving his broken sword he rode away to lead a doomed counterattack towards the allies shouting “Come and see how a Marshal of France Dies!” D’Erlon just turned away with the futility of it all.
General Bülow was surprised to find a refined white coated Sardinian officer urgently informing him that his guns were firing on Wellington’s troops. Looking to his right he probably saw 13. Shwere battery firing away at dim figures in the smoke. Wellington’s sole aide for half an hour had been the Count De Sales. And when the Prussian artillery had begun to hit Halkett’s troops, he had sent him over to find the Prussian batteries and inform them they needed to raise their sights. It was closing on 10.00 pm, darkness was now tightening its grip over the field. All of a sudden cheering could be heard from the Prussian troops trying the break Lobau. Papa Blücher was riding forwards. All through the day he had been riding along his columns. The men were often ankle deep in mud and exhausted. He told them “I promised the English we would come up, and we must come up!” To their pleads for rest, he pleaded back for them not to make him break his promise to Wellington. They had not let Papa Blücher down. The Marshal rode up to the Inn of La Belle Alliance, a British battalion was there, one of Adam’s, and their band struck up God Save the King, as the Duke of Wellington, accompanied by a handful of riders stopped outside. At last the two allied commanders joined hands, and the two separate victories melded into a decisive coalition victory. Blücher embraced the Duke emphatically and seized his shoulders, as he spoke the old hero’s body shook and Wellington shook with it “Meine leiber kamerade!” Blücher exclaimed brimming with martial pride and fierce emotion “Quelle affaire!”
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.
Wellington’s Right Hand: Joanna Hill.
A Desperate Combat, the French defence of Plancenoit: Stephen Millar (PDF)