Continue the Waterloo campaign with the Scots Greys.
Keeping up Appearances.
Major General Sir William Ponsonby had the face of country squire rather than a battle hardened officer who had served for four years in Spain. He had nothing of Uxbridge’s classical hawk like bone structure and though he was noble in profile, the Heavy Dragoon lacked the boyish air of self confidence the Hussar naturally carried. On the 9 May he rode along the entire front of his “Union Brigade” at their first field day, casting his contented but somewhat melancholy gaze across the lines of English, Irish and Scottish dragoons, taking the salutes of the officers with a nod of his head or the touch of his peak. The long ranks of dark mounts & shining, classically inspired helmets of the Royals & Inneskillings, was broken only by the tall bearskins and pale horseflesh of the RNBD. Sir William had commanded the 5th Dragoon Guards in Spain, and a Cavalry brigade at Vitoria, the effect of long acquaintance with the Iberian sun (The medal all of Wellington’s long serving veterans carried in lieu of an actual metal disk) had yet to leave his skin.
That night the mess of the Greys would have buzzed once more with the flattery of a General, Sir William had commented that he found the regiment the best body of men and horses he ever saw.
A long stretch of parades now awaited the Greys. In which officers not on duty could day trip to Brussels or Ghent for social events, hack into the countryside, or arrange hunting trips to enjoy the lengthening daylight. Everyone otherwise not employed was free to enjoy their ease, the only troubles being providing rations and fodder. Sergeant Johnston took to walking out into the green, flat countryside to relax. The fields were full of growing crops, promising a good harvest, and the air was filled with sunlight and birdsong. In a fertile fruit orchard strung with lights, a 1/4 of a mile from the village, the NCO’s of the Greys gathered on the evening of the 13th. Tables had been laid out with local fare and copious amounts of drink to toast the future, and the arrival of the 2nd Squadron from England. The party went on into the night with many finding it hard to find their billets afterwards due to the numerous health’s given to the King, the Prince Regent, the Duke of Wellington, and the army, with many others condemning the French and Bonaparte to confusion.
Despite the warlike tone of the jovial gathering many veterans may have thought this to be an odd kind of war.
On 22 May Uxbridge reviewed the regiment for the fourth time, and subsequently the Prince of Orange and a Prussian General were to come and review them too. The Greys had caused a stir in the army, they were considered by many to be the finest dragoon regiment in the Low Countries and they had became the showpieces of the cavalry division. This was an honour usually given to the light cavalry, or Household troops. The Greys were being trotted out whenever important generals wished to see the British dragoons.
The highlight of the “Phoney War” came for the whole cavalry division on 29 May, when the entire corps of some 11,000 men and horses formed up on the lush meadows of the Sheldelbeke for a grand review. It was attended by the Duke of Wellington, the Earl of Uxbridge, the Prince of Orange and Field Marshal Blucher. The Duke seemed pleased by the appearance of the division, full of glittering hussars and artillerymen, dashing light dragoons, and a galaxy of splendid heavy cavalry out of which the Greys remained conspicuous due to their distinctive mounts.
Many noted that Blucher was quite transported by the sight of the British artillery and cavalry horses, commenting they were the best he ever saw, and that Captain Mercer’s horse artillery animals were fit for a field marshal.
The RNBD was formed in open order and stood in close column of squadrons. After the initial inspection they broke into open columns of half squadrons and passed before the Duke in review. After watching them pass, a line was formed and the Duke had the cavalry execute various evolutions which eventually brought them back to their original position, much to the enjoyment of the watching spectators who had come by horse and carriage from Brussels and Ghent to see the martial elegance of the cavalry displayed in all it’s glory.
After being dismissed the brigades filed off by regiments and watered their horses, before marching back to their quarters, having done a splendid job of illustrating the ideal and romance of war.
Cornet Kinchant was still among those who strained at the leash to fulfil that ideal. He exuded the fighting spirit and regimental pride one would expect to find in a novel by Thackeray or Heyer. Despite this he was not all parades and wenching.
Although being a confirmed rake, he had not taken on a “Piece” in town to keep him warm at night when on leave, and he envied his brother officers that had done so. Suddenly being bereft of a regular female companion he began to miss the less exotic, Letitia he had left behind in London. On top of this the horse he bought in London had turned out to be a bad purchase, and his other mount was still too small for a number one charger. He was to send for another in England. Such bothersome trifles of course never kept him occupied for long, his head was full of dreams of danger, privation and death, all glossed with a patina of glory, and he expected to write home next on his way to Paris.
On the 9 June, Ponsonby held another Brigade field day, after which he proclaimed that he felt very fortunate to command such a fine corps, and that he felt sure, victory would be theirs whenever and wherever they met the enemy.
The March to Quatre Bras.
16 June 1815.
The thrilling urgency of trumpets sounding “Assembly” in the pre dawn dark brought the officers and men of the Greys stumbling from their billets in and around Denderhouten. Bleary eyed and dishevelled, Lieutenant Archibald Hamilton pulled his clothes from the washtub in his farmhouse, dressed and went outside, no one knew what had happened to cause this alarm but they reacted quickly. Sergeant Johnston was out of his straw bed directly as he registered the trumpet’s urgent call, as was Corporal Dickson. The deep Glaswegian bark and growl of the NCO’s bellowing “Turn out! Turn out!”, mingled with the brassy voice of the trumpets.
Watering parade was a salutary affair, if observed at all, and soon the call changed to “boot and saddle”. There was a general movement of dark figures in watering caps towards the horse lines.
Lieutenant Hamilton was used to night alarms and sudden starts. As he made his way to Squadron HQ to wait on orders his groom would already be tacking up for him. Despite the Greys’ long absence from the field they had a sprinkling of veterans in their ranks that had either served in the Low Countries under the Duke of York, or had transferred into the regiment after the Peninsular War. Hamilton was one of the 4 officers that had fought under Wellington before, having seen action with the 4th Dragoons in Spain under General Ponsonby from 1812 until 1814. Another veteran was Captain Charles Lewins Barnard, who had seen extensive service in Spain from 1810 to 13, mostly in the infantry; with the 38th Foot and had been wounded during the siege of Badajoz. Even longer serving was Captain Thomas Charles Fenton who had been in Spain with the Hamilton’s old regiment, the 4th, and seen action from Talavera to Toulouse. Lt, Thomas Trotter was another Peninsular officer from the 3rd Dragoons that had been at Toulouse. Veterans abounded in the sergeant’s mess as well, one of the oldest serving NCO’s was a man from F troop, whose voice could now be heard bawling out the sleepy dragoons, for not paying attention. A tall, strong, quietly modest man from Kilmarnock, with a broad rustic face and dark hair, who had fought in the Low Countries under York. He was also a noted swordsman, the best in the regiment, who gave lessons in his spare time. His name was Charles Ewart.
Sergeants of the line had a practiced eye for spotting irregularities in dress, and before the regiment could march, the NCO’s like Ewart & Johnston made piercing inspections of their troops and when satisfied reported to the Troop Sergeant Major.
Most of the equipment used by the Greys had the date 1796 in common. It had been a landmark year in the British cavalry for the introduction of new pattern kit that would see them through to 1815.
Bridles, Heavy Cavalry pattern, made up of a double bit, curb and snaffle. The curb bit had two sidebars with brass bosses bearing the regimental insignia, and the snaffle or “bridoon bit” was often fitted with a quick release T bar, a steel rod running through the cheek pieces. Halters or head collars were fitted to the nearside of the saddle or bound around the halter neck strap. The bridles were to be fitted flat to the head with a finger’s space between strap and skin. The greatest niceties were observed when fitting the bridle in the mouth with the bridoon placed in the corners of the mouth just so, an inch above the lower tusk or two above the lower tooth for mares, and to be sure that no wrinkling of the skin should occur at the corner of the mouth.
The 1796 universal pattern Heavy Cavalry saddle was placed a palms breadth from the play of the shoulders, over a blanket folded nine times. It was built over a conventional wooden tree with sideboards and front and rear arches. Two points led down from the front arch below the sideboards for lateral stability and ended in slots where the “Breastplate” straps were fitted. Officers saddles had sideboard “Fans” that allowed their valise’s to be strapped on. A dragoon’s kit rode squarely on the horses back. A distinctive brass beading on the cantle prevented wear, and also attached were numerous D’s for strapping on equipment. The tubular valise, marked with the regimental initials RNBD sat behind the cantle and a pistol holster (or two if an officer’s personal item) was strapped to on the nearside of the front arch, above which was secured a rolled cloak. To prevent the chafing of the reins a leather guard, or flounce, encircled the cloak above the peak of the front arch, and the carbine boot was secured to the front offside. Keeping the saddle in place over the cloth was the breastplate, surcingle, girth and crupper. Extra equipment carried on the saddle was the Waterdeck, a large waterproof that went over the saddle when the dragoon was not on it that was wrapped around the valise, also on the horse were the new D pattern mess tins introduced in 1814, the corn sack and forage net.
The dragoons standing next to their mounts were dressed in marching order. With 30 rounds .71 ball cartridge ammunition slung over their left shoulder in a cartridge box hanging from a strap that the 1796 dragoon pattern carbine could be clipped on to. The box sat high between the shoulder blades and when needed was swivelled down under the right arm for loading. A haversack for rations and other necessaries and a blue wooden canteen, marked with the soldiers’s regiment and troop, stamped with the ubiquitous BO cypher of the Board of Ordinance, were slung over the right shoulder, and rested tight under the right arm. Around the waist was buckled the thick Heavy Cavalry belt with the distinctive rectangular buckle. From this belt was hung the 1796 pattern straight bladed Heavy Cavalry Sabre, which the regiments of the Union Brigade had modified so that it’s hatchet tip was ground down into a spear point, to encourage the thrust. Not a natural adaption given the manual’s dependence on 6 precise cuts as the basis of its fencing. From the belt dangled the Sabretache, essentially a large plaque shaped leather (and often highly decorated) pocket for messages. They also carried the 1796 pattern dragoon pistol in their holsters, made by Knock of London, which used the same ammunition as the carbine. Having seen that all were present and correct the NCO’s reported it so and the Greys prepared to march.
After a tedious wait an order came that the brigade would assemble at Ninove, 2.5 miles from Denderhouten. The RNBD mounted and then wheeled by three’s into column, Colonel Hamilton lead them out into the lightening countryside, to the sound of bridle chains, curb bits and the collective sound of over 444 sets of shod hooves.
After joining the brigade at Ninove they marched 11.4 miles directly south down the road to Enghien, a snaking trail of around 1,000 red coated dragoons threading their way through the countryside. By now word would be spreading through the ranks that Napoleon had crossed the border. As the brigade rode through Enghien, the sun was bright and hot overhead, and a suffocating dust cloud rose around them as they marched. Leaving the town behind they turned south east to travel the 24.8 miles towards Nivelles, and as the Greys passed out of the houses a sudden throb of thunder was heard in the distance, veterans cocked their heads and felt the prickle of danger play on their spine as they recognised the the cushioned sound of distant gunfire in the warm air.
With every mile the reason they were there seemed to become more and more real, but also strangely farther away, they were slowed by many delays, no one was sure where they were going and the maps were awful. A battle was being fought somewhere up ahead, the pounding of the guns grew louder with every hour they marched but remained out of sight. They arrived at Nivelles well after midday, already aching and sore but now not only the deep voice of artillery could be heard but the angry crackle of musketry. As dusk fell they had nearly completed the last leg of the march, following a straight road from Nivelles, 6.8 miles to a crossroads called Les Quatre Bras. First in dribs and drabs then in carts and wheelbarrows and mutually supporting groups, wounded and stragglers began to appear. Sergeant Johnston saw a woman walking through the gloom on deadened legs bemoaning her husband and two sons, feared lost. He heard the awful moans and plaintive cries from darkened hedgerows, wounded men calling for help, men, dying men, calling for their mothers. He asked a wounded sergeant of the 79th (Cameron) Highlanders what had happened. The highlander replied with a grim story of hard fighting, and a victory, but of great loss. Blaming the untried Brunswick Hussars for not covering the 42nd Highlanders who suffered badly at the hands of the enemy lancers and cuirassiers, he was sure the British cavalry would never have left them so isolated, but alas they had not been there. Johnston understood the subtle barb, and the slightly resentful way the Cameron had looked at him and rode on.
Darkness hid the carnage of the field of Quatre Bras from innocent eyes, by the time the union brigade arrived the firing had stopped, and the battle was over, with not an enemy in sight.
The Greys were directed to bivouac in a clover field behind the crossroads. The town had been looted, and offered no succour to a hungry belly, after staking out the horses, which could only be persuaded to take a little green clover after the exhausting march of about 53 miles, the dragoons were able to talk to some of the troops that had taken part in the action. All spoke of the terrible destruction caused by the French cavalry due to the lack of support given by their Dutch and Brunswick allies. The theme was that the cavalry had let them down. By all accounts the Greys had missed a right royal scrap, which was expected to resume the next day.
They lay down by their horses heads, wrapped tightly in their cloaks. Blessed with that undefinable quality that allows soldiers to relate emotion specifically to the task at hand, in this case sleeping, none seemed to mind the fact that the dead still covered the field, or the sounds that rose from it through the night.
A Pretty Review of Cavalry.
17th June 1815.
The Union brigade stood dismounted in line of columns behind the Vandeleur’s and Ormsby’s Brigades and to the left of the Household brigade. Amongst the tall crops they listened quietly to the rattle-bang-pop of skirmishers and watched the infantry march past them down the main road to Brussels. The sound of thousands of hobnailed boots scraping on the cobbles was a peculiarly martial one, a sound of the parade ground.
On a low ridge to the right rear of the little village of Quatre Bras, were some troops of the Royal Horse artillery which were covering the fields that had been fought over the day before, their limbers and horse teams trailed down the low gradient behind them. The arachnid legged trestle’s of the 2nd Rocket Troop were especially distinctive amongst the gleaming bronze guns.
The Earl of Uxbridge sat on his horse next to the Duke of Wellington, their staff gathered a respectable distance to their rear. Horse tails swishing, heads bowing now and again to the grass. Every now and then a telescope was raised to the eye and point, then return to silently scrutinising the enemy on the heights beyond the crossroads.
The infantry skirmishers came doubling in and formed in columns to march away, muskets & rifles at the trail. The cavalry had the rearguard now, and Lord Uxbridge was the best man in the army to conduct it. He himself had not seen action since he had kept the French off Sir John Moore’s back in 1809. Gossip mongers and rumours said that he would have been a natural choice for command in Spain but he had eloped with the Duke of Wellington’s sister. Wellington was supposed to have commented wittily upon hearing that he was to have Uxbridge as his cavalry commander, “I’ll have to be careful he don’t run away with me!” It was common knowledge that the Duke was dissatisfied with his staff, and he would have preferred Sir Stapleton Cotton, but there was not a cavalryman in the army that was not pleased to have Uxbridge in command that day.
“Well there’s the last of the Infantry gone” said Wellington as they marched out of sight, and the first French cavalry began to appear “And I don’t care now”. The cavalry watched the commander ride off, and so the old saying ran true, the work of cavalry goes largely unobserved. Clustered before the Union Brigade was General Ponsonby’s staff, Colonel Hamilton and the other colonels with Brigade Major Reignolds of the Greys sat astride next to him with De Lacey Evans his ADC. Each of Ponsonby’s regiments had provided orderlies, and the Greys had sent Lieutenant Hamilton. Sir William had specifically asked for him, he being the only man he knew in the RNBD from Spain. As the rattle of skirmish fire began anew the tin pot strategists in the ranks discussed the rumour that the army was pulling back to Brussels while their horses bent for the ground and rubbed their freshly fitted bridle bits against arms and shoulders. The light cavalry had been busy that morning, a troop of hussars had come in that morning with Alexander Gordon. The Prussians had been licked to the east & the Duke could not sustain the position.
It was getting towards 10:30 when things started to happen, the French army began to move and their cavalry engaged the Hussars at Quatre Bras. Uxbridge having given the infantry a good breathing space, now ordered the cavalry to begin to retire. Voices of command were raised. “Prepare to mount” the trumpet began to sound the call “Mount!”.
As the brigade rose into their saddles clouds were gathering overhead, the sky had turned a damp white colour out of the early morning brilliance, and bruised banks of cloud now built in the distance. The artillery opened fire, the crash of recoiling guns and the crazed fizzing of rockets startling the more docile horses and men. Uxbridge was personally on the scene, at first a picture of tranquility sitting on the grass with his telescope, now as alive and animated as could be.
The retreat got off to bumpy start due to the artillery not having a clear idea of which brigade to attach itself too. They were ordered to give one round from each gun and change ground.
The Union brigade was in reserve and went trotting to right about as the first specks of rain began pattering down from the sky. They were to be mostly spectators, holding themselves in readiness to charge should the opportunity admit. After an ungainly hurry, the guns came galloping away, just in time to avoid capture, the Hussars covered them and had a mad scaramouccia to break off contact. Nevertheless after extracting themselves from the crossroads the cavalry began an organised retreat, that was exemplary in its order and coolness. The brigades and regiments fronting and retiring alternately, preventing the French from getting an opportunity to charge, as they went the heavens opened and a downpour like none had ever seen fell on them, this indeed was work for the sabre and lance. The cloaks strapped below the cantle’s of the saddles were probably broken out as soon as was practical, but given the circumstances this might not have been until they reached the main army. The cloaks not only covered the rider but the horses back as well, but with the French advancing it might have been risky to don them. Much of the fields they rode through soon began to resemble Asian paddies and in places the horses were wading up to their knees in water and mud. 3.1 miles up the road was the town of Genappes. A typical huddle of Belgian houses that bestrode the main road. To pass through meant a disruption to the ordered routine of the retreat so far and offered a good chance for the French. The heavies and guns filed through the street first and emerged on the other side unscathed, behind were the Light Dragoons and Hussars, who now had to hot foot it through the town with their French counterparts, including lancers, snapping at their heels as soon as they turned about. Uxbridge halted the 7th Hussars, his own regiment, and ordered them to charge the enemy as they came out of the town. This they did, however the confined space brought them to a stalemate and the Hussars withdrew. Uxbridge now ordered the 23rd Light Dragoons to charge, they however felt unequal to the task, or at least did not respond in a timely manner, the Earl had no time for ditherers at that moment and raced down to the 2nd Life Guards and immediately ordered them to attack “The Life Guards shall have this honour!” he proclaimed.
The ensuing melee, full of wet steel and sparking horseshoes, overturned the French cavalry that had halted to reform after driving the 7th back. By the time the French returned to the charge Uxbridge had his men on the other side of the town, and pulled the Life Guards back. As they retired the French emerged in their wake to be hit by artillery fire and solid fronts of well ordered horses and men. That checked their pursuit and allowed the retreat to continue without more incident, with much filing to the right and the artillery unlimbering to fire whenever the opportunity presented itself.
Cornet Clape was a 16 year old “Newcome” in the Greys. The fronting and retiring through the wet rye fields was his first taste of action and where he first heard the “Grand Whizz of a ball in flight”, Kinchant too and all the untested men would doubtless notice this. Despite their fair share of skirmishing the Greys would not be closely engaged nor suffer the loss of a man, during the day.
As Uxbridge said later, all in all it had been a pretty review of cavalry. Though equally Captain Mercer’s comment of it being a fox hunt serves just as well.
With oilskins over bearskins and cloaks over their uniforms the Greys marched up the Brussels road, passing places that would soon become part of the legend that was unfolding, but at the time they were of the utmost insignificance except for food, shelter or plunder. Le Caillou and Rossome, a small coaching inn with white walls and a red tiled roof called La Belle Alliance and a typical walled farmhouse called La Haie Sainte. Thunder was rumbling, and the torrent of water hammering down from the darkening heavens had already soaked their red cloaks through by the time the sodden dragoons reached another whitewashed farmhouse. It was tucked behind the lip of a hedge lined ridge beyond a set of deeply sunken crossroads just on the verge of the forest of Soignes. It was surrounded by a pitiful collection of cottages forming the hamlet and farm of Mont St Jean. Behind them the artillery, ranged along the Ohain suddenly road roared to life and banged away into the night, the splutter of musketry from the right indicated the French might try to force to position, and the allied army therefore took post for action and slept close on the ground they would fight on the next day.
Napoleon had decided to test their position and had moved his Cuirassiers forwards, tricking the gunners into opening fire and revealing not only their positions, but Wellington’s intention to spend the night there. The Duke would be furious when he heard and would be strict in his orders for the conduct of the artillery the next morning.
The Greys were directed to a field of trodden barley 300 yards from the farm. Waterdecks might well have been utilised once the horses were staked out, each tied together by looping the reins over each other’s heads. Some hay was procured from the farm, and from there they also obtained wood for fires, which hard as they were to light, were harder to keep going.
The Greys had been without proper rations for two days and so they plundered the farm, from which they purloined ploughs farrows doors, corn fanniers and gates to keep the bonfires alight for cooking. On the menu, was anything that they could find on the hoof within their radius. They managed to secure some pigs and chickens which were devoured unceremoniously, and with little niceties regarding cooking. Cornet Clape devoured a half cooked kidney with as much relish as if it had been roast beef.
At Sergeant Johnston’s bonfire there was a demonstration of Celtic solidarity as fellow dragoons from the 6th Inneskilling’s and privates from the nearby Highland regiments came over to share the fire. The Scots brought some canteens of gin which went the rounds, and while they hugged the fire, chewing half cooked meat and drinking their warm gin, the cavalry heard more stories of Quatre Bras. The Highlanders were indeed glad to have British cavalry behind them now, for none of the 42nd were too pleased with being left exposed to the the French lancers, who had killed most of their senior officers and ravaged the regiment badly. Still they hoped the next day they might show the enemy some “British play”.
Though many hoped for action the next day, it was obvious to some out on the right that the French were massing in strength across the shallow valley, there was no guarantee of anything more than another day of fronting, skirmishing and retiring for the next 24 hours.
As on the night of the 16th the Greys, wrapped in their now waterlogged cloaks, lay down beside their horses, or leant on them, to pass a most uncomfortable night, amidst drumming rain, rumbling thunder and vivid flashes of lightning that often disturbed the horses, causing a discontented sleep, full of alarms and stomping hooves.
Sources used in this series.
British Cavalryman 1792 – 1815: Phillip J Haythornthwaite
British Cavalry Equipments 1800 – 1941: Mike Chappell
Wellington’s Heavy Cavalry: Bryan Fosten
Waterloo Myth and Reality: Gareth Glover
History of the Second Dragoons (Scot’s Greys): Edward Almack
Norfolk Annals: Charles Mackie
Scum of the Earth: Colin Brown
Royal Scots Greys: Charles Grant
Peninsular War Roll Call.
The Battle: Alessandro Barbero
Waterloo new perspectives: David Hamilton Williams
Wellington’s Regiment’s: Ian Castle
A Near Run Thing: Ian Castle
The Waterloo Companion: Mark Adkin
One Leg: Marquis of Anglesey
Radical General: Edward M Spiers
With Napoleon at Waterloo: Edward Bruce Lowe
Who was who at Waterloo: Christopher Summerville
Waterloo Archive: The British Sources, vol 1
Waterloo Archive: The British Sources, vol 3
Waterloo Archive: The British Sources, vol 4
Waterloo Letters: Gareth Glover
Waterloo Letters: Maj-Gen H.T. Siborne
The Waterloo Campaign: William Siborne
The Battle of Waterloo, a series of accounts by a near observer, 1815.
Instructions and Regulations for the formations and movements of the cavalry. 1799-1800.
With deepest thanks to:
Napoleonic Wars Forum Members: JF42, jasonubych, Jonathan Hopkins, StudentOf1812, Andrew W Fields. For their ever generous assistance and helpful, friendly input.
And to the Scots Military Research Group on Twitter.
This series as a whole is dedicated to the memory of the Officers and men of the old Royal Scots Greys who served in 1815, many of whose stories I have come to know so well and have tried to tell here, and to the men of their descendant Regiment, the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards who carry on their fine traditions today.