Let Battle commence.
Those Terrible Greys.
18 June 1815. Dawn to 3pm.
The morning dawned, grey and overcast. Sometime before first light heaven had ceased to weep for the harvest that would soon be taken up. Behind the ridge of Mont St Jean the trumpeters of the Union Brigade pressed the mouthpiece’s to their lips and blew the first notes of reville, the lonely sound mingling with the orchestra of drums and bugles sounding across the position. Cold damp and clammy, the Greys were awoken to the usual barks of their sergeants, “Turn out!” Corporal Dickson of F troop, was awoken by trooper MacGee, who shook him and shouted “Damn your eyes boys it’s the bugle!”. Watering parade was next, dragoons squelched through the clay and matted crops to see to the horses before getting breakfast. The smoke of hissing cooking fires, built back up from wet wood, creating a cloud over the position, and spicing the cool morning air that smelled of wet earth and crops.
Stirabout was not a meal calculated to inspire comfort, boiled water and oats, has an unappetising look, but it set the men up well enough. Sergeant William Clarke had been unable to speak with his brother the day before, and now took the opportunity to see him, and share a tot and a handshake, just in case. Having done this the familiar notes of boot and saddle was heard and the process of preparing the horses and men for the day began. Lt Hamilton was not at all impressed by the appearance of the dragoons, everyone looked miserable, covered head to foot in mud and black coal dust from the roads, and their white crossbelts stained pink from the die of their red coats. What state the horses were in can only be guessed at, despite the protection of cloaks and waterdecks, it is likely they were only grey from the neck up, and probably required a stiff brushing down when they had dried off. As soon as the regiment was saddled and morning parade was finished up, Colonel Hamilton was given the “Parade State” that showed the Greys could field a compliment of over 400 sabres. Out in front Corporal Dickson was one of the men acting as vedette, sitting astride his grey mare Rattler on the Ohain Road, foragers had also been sent out to procure what they could for the day. General Ponsonby had sent for Lt Hamilton again that morning and this pleased him, in his experience staff officers had more of a chance of getting out of an action alive due to the need to be always on the move. As the day brightened, few men could be at all sure that a battle was to be fought yet at the same time with each passing hour, the likelihood that the rumour mill was accurate and that they would stand, strengthened. Dickson sitting astride his horse, carbine in hand, on the crest of the ridge was able to see the comings and goings, he heard the rattle of the French drums sound from across the valley, and saw German troops parting the crops on the way to La Haye Sainte. Presently the blue coated Dutch infantry of Biljandt’s brigade struck off from the crossroads and march smartly past onto the exposed face of the ridge and foreign artillery troop gallop past soon after. The sight of feather bonnets and red coats coming off the road heralded the arrival of Picton’s Brigades. The 92nd marched past their countrymen, chanting Scot’s Wae Hae, and news was passed back and forth between the Scotsmen on the road as they went, it was old news, the Gordon’s had been mauled badly at Quatre Bras as well, losing their commanding officer to the French, and they were keen for another rub to settle the score. All indicators pointed to troops being disposed for battle, but veterans like Hamilton were not so sure, the Duke had a habit of being unpredictable and particular about when, where and how he gave battle, at that moment they were still as likely to be acting as the rearguard again as charging for Paris.
Arriving at General Ponsonby’s headquarters he joined the brigade staff on an inspection of the outposts. Riding along the sunken road that ran across the top of the rise, bordered by straggling deciduous hedges of holly, dotted by Elm and beech trees sprouting from their midst on the high banks. Riding along they passed knots of officers scrutinising the landscape with telescopes. In one such group they found the the duke of Richmond and his 15 year old son Lord March, an ADC to General Maitland but excused duty due to a terrible hunting accident in April, standing with a group of officers scanning the left flank for the prussians. They paused to pass the time of day, and at first one thought they had seen a Prussian picket. However it was deemed not to be so and all were dispirited. The principle understanding was that battle would not be given unless the Prussians were on the field to begin with. Hamilton was one of those officers who remembered Napoleon “Trooping the line” and the cheers of the French army carrying over from the opposite ridge, which further doused their spirits.
Lord Uxbridge was next to appear, making a tour of the outposts for himself. The earl at this time certainly knew the army was to stand, in anticipation of the Prussian’s arriving on their left. As he passed Richmond he commented prophetically “We shall have sharp work today”.
The Greys now stood by their horses in the rear and waited, watching the infantry and guns deploy. There was no distinct sound to be heard, apart from now and again a crackle of skirmish fire, and the odd cannon shot perhaps testing its range. At some point in the morning there had been a cacophony of shots as the outposts cleared their muskets, but otherwise nothing out of the ordinary. At 11 O’clock, Uxbridge ordered up his brigades into their positions. Ponsonby, wearing his cocked hat and fur trimmed cloak rode ahead and sent back ADC’s to guide the Union to their places.
Formed in the prescribed open ranks for mounting, the Greys stepped up and rose into their saddles. Sitting mid saddle, head up shoulders back, small of back hollow, sword arm down, bridle arm held at the stomach, fingers closed tight on the reins, legs stretched, knees a little bent, heels down. The same magnificent line of tall men in red coats and black bearskins on white horses, it didn’t matter that the horses were stained and damp, nor that their crossbelts were discoloured from their coats, or that their uniforms were caked in drying mud and their bearskins mostly covered with oilskins, they were still the Greys. Most of all it didn’t matter a jot to Colonel Hamilton that neither he nor his regiment had not seen action since the French Revolution nor won a battle honour since the War of Austrian Succession, but that the regiment had been in action, and that every dragoon behind him knew it and took pride in its history and traditions. Whether it was two years or two hundred years ago the regiment had last charged an enemy, that queer, pugnacious self assurance that every soldier of the old army felt for his regimental number and name would ensure the Greys would not disgrace themselves today. When an old regiment like the 2nd Dragoons went into battle it carried with it the memory of every other dragoon that had ever worn the thistle badge on his cap, or carried the initials RNBD on their equipment. The Greys formed a closed column of half squadrons and marched forwards from the farm, taking post on ground to the brigade’s left. The foragers and picquets were called in bringing back some oats bread and gin.
The position was as follows. From the left of the main Brussels road that they had marched up on the 17th was a line of infantry standing and lying down behind the hedge lined road that lead across the ridge top.
Five brigades of infantry were deployed in a vague checkerboard formation along the ridge line. In the front line was the Dutch and Hanoverian Brigades of Bijlandt and Best. Behind them, covering the intervals were Kempt’s and Pack’s British Brigades and on the left Vinke’s Hanoverian’s.
On the other side of the Brussels road stood the Household Brigade, and the Union Brigade formed up in line of columns behind Picton’s infantry while the light dragoons and Hussars of Vivian’s and Vandeleur’s took post to the left behind more allied infantry ranged above the hamlets of Papelotte, Frichermont and La Haie garrisoned by Saxe Weimar’s brigade. In front Kempt’s position was the small farm they had passed during the night. La Haie Sante, which had been garrisoned by Kings German Legion Riflemen and Hanoverian light infantry. Several batteries of artillery stood before the infantry just behind the hedge. Which rather begs the question of how high the hedge was. No artilleryman would logically position his gun behind an obstacle that would obstruct his view, or that he would have to fire through. The only answer is that either the gunners hacked it down on both sides to make a clean field of fire, or it might indicate that the famous hedge which Corporal Dickson called straggling, was no higher than the a man’s waist and indeed there were certainly gaps in it. What made it a proper obstacle was the fairly steep banks that it sat upon. Most marked at the crossroads and becoming shallower as it went along. The ground was of a clay like consistency matted with sodden trampled crops, fairly firm at the top of the ridge, but in the valley in front and at the foot behind it was a quagmire.
As the Grey’s moved up the first shots were fired. From the silence of the field a shattering series of cannon shots sounded from the right flank, the noise grew in volume and intensity. The sound slowly crept along the French front, out of sight to the men sheltering behind the reverse slope of Mont St Jean ridge. In half an hour it had reached them, and had become a deafening general bombardment and the air buzzed and shrieked with the sound of flying iron. This continued for another hour, the discomforting experience that all soldiers feel at having to sit under artillery fire, powerless, was also felt today by the artillery that had strict orders not to engage the enemy batteries. Now and again messengers galloped across the road, one certainly to summon the Dutch of Bijlant’s brigade, formerly deployed on the forward slope in full view of the enemy. The dense formations of Dutch militiamen came over the crest and into cover, stuffed into a relatively narrow space between the British. This movement had unforeseen consequences as it removed the theoretical two lines of infantry into one, now the nearest reserve was Lambert’s brigade at Mont St Jean, and the French would be able to engage the entire line at once.
Just after midday a sudden flurry of animation amongst the redcoats lying down behind the hedge under their bright, limp, colours, portended first inkling of trouble. They arose from the wet ground to a cacophony of orders calling “Prepare to load. With ball shot load!” And with a rattle of ramrods they primed and loaded, “Battalion will fix, bayonets, Fix. Bayonets!” Another metallic rattle and the long spear points glittered on the end of their musket barrels and they sank back down.
The weight of projectiles falling around the Greys was now becoming alarming. General Ponsonby, gave his compliments and requested Hamilton to retire so as to be out of the line of fire.
With a simple evolution the Grey’s marched to their rear, which served both the purpose of temporarily removing them from the danger zone and made them more readily available in their intended role as reserve. They had no sooner fallen back and faced front again, the cries of “Halt, Dress!” having rang out and subsided, than the French gunners raised their sights with the uncanny perception of the gifted artillerist, who switches his ranges when engaged in indirect fire, and resumed dropping shells around the Greys. Lieutenant Wyndham observed a party of highlanders making their way down the hill, descending near a patch of brushwood on the Grey’s left, they were carrying a wounded officer in a blanket, but suddenly a shell dropped to the earth nearby and exploded, killing them all. Artillery Horse teams, drawn back down the ridge behind their guns were also becoming increasingly scared and spooked by the projectiles. Paymaster Crawford watched a whizzing cannonball gracefully arc over the ridge and bounce with a “whump” on the soft ground, bounding through the waiting Grey’s severely wounding 3 men and horses, doubtless the Farrier was called forward to administer the merciful blows to prevent flailing hooves from braking neighbouring legs. General Ponsonby, had ridden over to them as they had redeployed, and watching the rain of iron with his benevolent gaze observed to the men, “Greys they have found us out again” and rode off, telling Lt Hamilton to move forwards so as to be more under the crest, some 50 yards from the hedge.
The regiment reformed it’s divisions with intervals of two horse lengths between squadrons and moved forwards, taking ground to the left. As they advanced through the bombardment the Divisional Columns of Count D’Erlon’s I Corps were trudging their way up the slope.
Mont St Jean was a subtle ridge, but in wet slippery conditions, a line three deep under artillery and Skirmisher fire would have hard work to arrive at the top in any order. Ahead of the muddy blue masses a cordon of French skirmishers was pushing the light companies back, snagging on the left flank when they came into the stinging range of Colonel Baring’s riflemen and those of the 95th positioned in a sandpit on the roadside, these particular green jackets, called “Grasshoppers” by Napoleon’s Spanish veterans were ejected as the main trunk of the force moved up the hill and outflanked them.
Along the reverse slope, the allied skirmishers came running in, breathless, and Picton’s brigades got the order to move up to the crest to meet the enemy. As yet nothing was different, this was exactly the way it would have happened in Spain. From a vantage point on the ridge, the foul mouthed Welsh firebrand Sir Thomas, dressed in a battered top hat and frock coat, an umbrella tucked away somewhere, watched as the old dynamics were replayed itself again. There was a difference though, a large one.
The French usually attacked in regimental columns, each of their multiple battalions marching in close order with a front of at least four companies and reserve battalion in support. Today D’Erlon’s Divisional columns had a frontage of one entire battalion in line, three ranks deep, with the others stacked behind it like the rungs of a ladder, immediately giving it increased firepower. The allied infantry now lining up behind the hedges were formed four ranks deep, instead of the usual two, and most had suffered heavy losses at Quatre Bras. On the centre right of I Corps was the division of General Marcognet. Having passed through the maze of caisson’s that filled up the space behind the 80 gun massed battery drawn up on the low spur before Mont St Jean, his battalions had reformed and begun a nightmare march through the tall, wet crops. The bobbing shako’s and bouncing knapsacks of the Tirrailleurs parted narrow lanes through the fields ahead. Soon the rapid rain on glass sound of skirmisher fire began. As they got to the muddy bottom the lead battalion, the men of the 1st/45th Ligne, marched with creditable order through the shoe sucking mud that came up to the shin and knee and into the scything rain of bursting shrapnel shells and flying round shot. Whole parcels and files of men dropped, only to be replaced by men from the rear and flanks. The officers and NCO’s bellowing “Serrez le ranks, en avant”. The drums began to beat the thrilling rhythm of the “Pas de Charge” as they met the long shallow incline of the ridge and the pace increased. It soon brought them into canister range of the allied guns which belted them with shotgun blasts of musket balls that wiped whole sections away. Despite these the gashes the artillery made the drums kept beating, the officers kept leading, hats on swords showing the ultimate in leadership in being the first into action and the first to fall. Flanking guides keeping the lines die straight, the long rows of desynchronised but perfectly timed stepping legs, swinging arms and black shakos roofed with a serrated glistening fence-top of fixed bayonets marched into the teeth of the iron hail without a check to the exultant cries of “Vive l’Emrereur!”.
The Greys came up under the ridge and halted in a shallow dip as the gunners manning the two gun batteries, obeyed orders and abandoned their pieces in the face of the enemy and Picton’s boys broke through the hedges and poured a volley into the heads of the advancing columns to the wild skirl of the pipes. More men fell into the soft Belgian earth, the Eagles marched over them into the smoke cloud and halted. Without need to deploy a crashing battalion volley ripped back in reply immediately it became clear the old line vs column scenario would not play out in the same way and a vicious stabbing firefight flickered and licked across the edges of Ohain Road. The allied volleys failed to halt the French, indeed they were forced back, in the centre the redcoats slowly began stepping backwards, and came spilling back through the hedges, to be reformed on the other side. Bijlandt’s brigade didn’t stop running, however and went in disorganised mass to the rear.
A wall of glistening French steel came down to the engage as the British colours floated backwards. The Eagles went forward chasing them, the Parisian conscripts of the 45th could not be restrained from leaping the hedges and breaking through, slipping down the roadside bank yelling “Victoire, victoire!”. Picton had ordered Kempt’s brigade forwards amidst a scatter of shots as the lead French infantry began to cross the road with a “Charge, charge, hurrah!” The sight of his ridiculous attire and excited face heartened the ragged line of redcoats, who cheered and went forwards. However he now saw that the French had held their ground and had checked the advance. He turned to Uxbridge’s Aide de Camp, Horace Seymour of the 60th, and was ordering him to rally the highlanders, when a shot struck his temple and he fell, quite dead.
Pack’s brigade was in dire straights. The 92nd were rallied and desperately ordered to charge the head of Marcognet’s Division as “All had given way”. The Gordon’s, were loaded once more and cheered on by Sir Dennis, lowered their bayonets and charged back to the hedge blazing away with a ragged volley into the advancing 45th. It was a brave show, but the return fire was too much. Their ensign was shot dead and the bright yellow regimental colour fell as the highlanders fell back again. A brave sergeant of the 92nd dashed to save the colours, but could not pull it from the fingers of its dead bearer, his last impulse never to relinquish the regiment’s pride had cemented his hands in an instant vice like rictus. With no other course left to him the sergeant picked the man up and carried both corpse and colour to safety.
This time the situation was now truly dire, with the counterattack blunted nothing was stopping Marcognet from pushing across the road and outflanking the rest of the Division. Before they could do that they needed to pause to reform. Officers of the 45th bawled themselves hoarse to get their men back in line, pushing and shoving and not being too gentle about it. Advanced hotbloods, possibly skirmishers reforming the divisional screen had rushed out some ten yards from the hedge, met a hot fire from the stragglers of the 5th Division, who were interestingly to be found contesting ground rather than surrendering it. Swiss born Lieutenant Jaques Martin, was a graduate of the military academy and veteran of 1813 and 14, however he admitted himself that he was not a naturally brave man, and felt terribly exposed, even behind some of the larger soldiers. He shouting to be heard over the din of musketry, doing his duty despite his fear of death, he pushed a soldier back into line only to have him fall dead to a sabre cut a moment later, looking up he saw that the British cavalry were everywhere, slaughtering them. The French infantry were now in the position Picton’s men had been in at Quatre Bras, caught in line without cavalry support. Or rather their cavalry support, detached from them by having to ride around La Haie Sainte, was at that moment being scattered by the Houshold Brigade. He rushed back into the crowd, saved by the crush of men that the Greys had to cut through, and threw himself down on the ground.
Lord Uxbridge had been on the right flank when the first French attack got in motion. He had ridden to where the guns had started to be on the spot should his cavalry be needed, having given discretionary orders to his brigade commanders on the left. As it was there was nothing for him to do over the other side of the field but offer his Horse Artillery batteries to General Frazer, so he waited over there to watch the unfolding drama at Hougoumont. Uxbridge came riding back over to the left at the decisive moment. Minutes before a Hanoverian Light Battalion had been decimated by the French Cuirassiers after the Prince of Orange sent them down to reinforce beleaguered La Haie Sainte. At once he felt the pulse of the battle, he could tell from the sound of the action ahead, partly shrouded in smoke that things must be bad, getting closer he confirmed it. Lord Edward Somerset commanded the Household Brigade. He immediately ordered him to form line and prepare to form line and charge and galloped down behind Picton’s Division to tell Ponsonby the same, then raced back to Somerset.
Ponsonby went to each of his Colonels, arriving at Hamilton’s new position in the roughly in line with the rest of the brigade. Already the Greys had suffered several casualties. A principal casualty of this time was Major (Bvt Lt Colonel) Hankin, who had suffered a contusion after his horse fell on him as they crossed a drainage ditch, altering the chain of command before a blow had been struck. He had ridden to Captain Poole and informed him that he now commanded the right squadron as Major Hankin was taken to the rear. Captain Cheney becoming second in command at a stroke. As yet no enemy could be discerned through the smoke, but there was no doubt there was action to his front. It was principally advised in the Regulations for the Field Exercise of Cavalry that brigades should attack in columns so that the rear squadrons could wheel out and attack the flanks of the enemy, also that regiments clear obstacles in column and extend once they had passed. However Uxbridge had only two brigades to attack four Divisions, he needed a wide front for maximum effect, and no time for niceties of field drill, each regiment would have to cross the road in line and then be act against one or more divisions by itself.
Soon after this an ADC came galloping up to Ponsonby, Lord Uxbridge’s compliments, the Union Brigade was to advance. The brigade bugler sounded the advance, walk march. By word of mouth the regiments got in motion, “The Greys will draw swords. Draw swords!” On the word draw, four hundred right hands reached around left forearms and grasped the hilts of their sabres, drawing them out with a collective rasp over the bridle arm and bringing them to the carry over the right knee. “Greys advance, at the walk. Forwards. March!” At a couple of hundred yards from the hedge they wheeled into line. “Form line on the 1st division. March!” The divisions swung out by half squadrons and marched out until each cleared the one in front, which because they were moving formed an oblique line to the left, which slanted back, serried to the left, and hurried to close, creating a less than regular line as there was no time for any calls of “Halt. Dress.”, and it was now impossible for them to take up a reserve position. An inevitable collision was about to occur, as the French had been marching up one side of the hill, the British had been ascending the opposite, and they were moments away from the crash.
The gunfire was louder now, clouds of smoke began to dim vision, there would be no way to gauge were the enemy was and no time to get up to a gallop when the order to attack came, but they would be at least all closed up when they met the enemy. “Take Close order, March!,” On the move commanders repeated order in a series of rough volleys. The rear rank pressed their horses one half length from the front each man bringing his horse in until his boot just touched his neighbour, officers moved out a horse length from their squadrons and troops. Hamilton moving out two lengths before the centre. Farriers and QM turned their horses to the rear to create the serrifile, this time there was no halt called, only “On the centre. Dress!” Which did little good as a moving front requires a little time to execute dressing on the move. Hamilton watched over his right shoulder for the signal.
General Ponsonby was not riding his chestnut charger that day. It had gone missing with his groom during the night and was now astride a bay hack. He and De Lacey Evans were on the crest to ascertain when to order the charge, an exposed position given the tenuous hold the allies had on the hedges. Seeing the French on top of them Ponsonby was about to order the attack, when a cannonball came shrieking past with the characteristic slipstream in tow, the displaced air caused his unsteady horse to shy and his cloak, loosely draped over his shoulders, slipped to the ground and he dismounted to fetch it back. He barked to Evans to get the brigade forwards. All later agreed that had this order come as much as 5 minutes later, all would have been lost and time was of the essence, Evans stood in his stirrups and raised his hat to the sky.
Colonel Hamilton saw the waving hat, and probably heard the Inniskilling’s trumpeters sound the advance, he turned in the saddle shouting “Now Scots Greys, Charge!”
Less than 50 yards from the hedge the regiment accelerated to a trot. They met the retreating Gordon’s, with pipe major Cameron was playing, “Auld Johnny Cope”, who passed around their flanks and wheeled up so that the cavalry could ride through their intervals. “Scotland Forever!” Cried the Greys encouragingly as the passed, reassuring them that this would not be another Quatre Bras, and the cry was echoed back “Hurrah. Scotland Forever!”. Some of the 92nd’s stragglers were still in action and eagerly went back with the Greys, if it happened at all, it was now that some tagged onto a stirrup as the RNBD advanced.
On the left flank in F troop under Captain (Bvt Major) Vernor, Cornet Kinchant was riding into his first regimental charge. As the trumpet calls reached them and they pressed forward to hedge now rising to an uneven canter, through the cheering the Highlanders, it was time to make real all that bravado and all those grand thoughts of glory and honour. A brief thought for his home fireside in his father’s parish or Letitia as he saw that the NCO’s had the line dressed properly. Behind him was the solid, stern face of his cover man the steady Sergeant Ewart, and near him also in the second line was Corporal Dickson.
Riding with Captain (Bvt. Major) Poole’s Troop in the centre was Sergeant Johnston, all thoughts of Courts Martial put behind him. Young Cornet Clape likewise in his first action, he like many others with nothing but regimental pride to keep him in his place. Not least Lt Colonel Hamilton. A smattering of shots peppered them from the hedge were the French light infantry had taken up firing positions. Lt Wyndham remembered the shock as the bullets cracked past him and struck their swords as they went up, and saw several men shot from their saddles. In the senior squadron a brother officer, frightened by seeing them fall blurted to Captain Chaney with as much coolness as possible “How many minutes have we yet to live Cheney?”
Perhaps irritated to be asked such a question when he had more pressing things to worry about,Cheney shot back a cold remark full of dark wit and callous indifference, perhaps the mark of a line officer in action. “Two or three at the very utmost, most probably not one”.
Suddenly they were at the first hedge and through it, The Duke of Richmond’s encouraging cry of “Now’s your chance!” Ringing in their ears, they likley had no pace now, some now were walking other barging ahead cutting at the French light Infantry using it as cover. No sooner had they got through than they were amongst a sea of milling foot soldiers. It was the most ingloriously glorious, sanguinary charge as just over 400 men rode right into a disorganised line of infantry at near walking pace, and there was nothing to do but start cutting. Tightening rein as they descended the bank, and urging their horses on into the dissolving ranks of French foot soldiers they were met by a panicked volley. A number of Greys tumbled from their horses, but because of the slow speed and close proximity not a horse swerved but stomped on, crushing those bowled over beneath them, biting, barging and kicking probably doing more damage than the sabre. Nevertheless their riders had ample opportunity put to use all that sword drill they had been taught at home. Their sabres were rising and falling like the glistening blades of a watermill and with as much regularity, beating away at anything that moved, even the young drummers, like manic threshers. They walked and cantered their horses amongst the 45th and hewing their way through them and scattering the rest. Casualties were not one sided however. A trumpeter may well have grasped hold of the French Eagle standard in the first moments of contact, but both man and horse immediately shot dead and the flag rushed to the rear. Corporal Dickson saw Lt Trotter fall and a few slips & falls as the horses came down the bank, Wyndham received a slight wound too. As the enemy gave way to panic and the 1st battalion disintegrated and fled, Sergeant Ewart, whose expert swordsmanship stood him in good stead during the first collision, had overtaken Kinchant and passed, his officer. He ridden up the other bank with the others, pursuing the defeated enemy onto the other side of the hedge. He caught and duelled a French officer, who he artfully disarmed, the Frenchman’s pleas for mercy,were just noises to Ewart whose blood was up. He was about the deliver the killing blow when Kinchant rode up behind him and heard the Frenchman plead for mercy. He called to Ewart to take him prisoner. Ewart had the highest respect for his young officer, and was very fond of him, hearing his words he reluctantly staid his blow and turned around to follow the other dragoons, leaving Kinchant to take his man. As he rode off he was horrified to hear a shot crack from behind him. He wheeling around in time to see the French officer pointing a smoking pistol at Charles Kinchant who was slowly falling backwards over his horse. He dropped lifeless to the ground, his youthful ardour and dreams of glory amounting to one gallant act of mercy and his own length of Belgian earth. Ewart boiled. Riding back, the normally reserved Ewart exacted a ruthless revenge, he ignored the officer’s supplications, replying for him to ask mercy of God, for he would meet only the devil from him, and with a single stroke cut off his head. It had been Ewart’s duty to protect Kinchant, and he never forgave himself for letting his young officer down, certainly some Frenchmen certainly feigned death and turned to fire at the cavalry once they had passed, accounting for many Greys, though the bayonets of the following Gordon’s dealt with them. This however was a needless end for a brave young officer, a needless end highlighting the pointless nature of war.
The brunt of the fighting had fallen to 3rd Squadron who hit the column directly on its front, while the other two fell on or about the left flanks. The Greys pushed on to the front and lapped down the sides of the column as fast as they could, spreading panic and terror through its ranks, forcing one battalion onto the next like falling dominoes. The 2nd battalion 45th were marginally more prepared. They did not try to form square, instead they chose to shoot and met the dragoons with a hurried volley but then instantly broke and dispersed like a herd of sheep. As the Greys put the French to flight. The 92nd arrived at the crest, following in their wake and as they advanced they encountered large masses of surrendering French stragglers, some badly wounded, begging for protection from the sabres of the cavalry, one officer calling out for protection in English. Some of the highlanders were not so charitable however, indeed the French were shocked at the cold manner in which dragoon and private dealt with them. Men of the 42nd Highlanders bayonetted surrendering Frenchmen who had dropped their arms and crossbelts, with the cry “Where’s Macara?”. None of these Frenchmen understood that they were dying because of the cruelty of Piré’s lancers who murdered the 42nd’s colonel at Quatre Bras.
Halfway down the hill the Greys had routed the entire Division, which was now a running mob of fugitives desperate to escape. Riding after them Ewart spied a conspicuous group of men withdrawing under a tricolour flag topped by a bronze eagle. Alone Ewart rode amongst them, breaking them up and attacking the colour bearer. Things for Ewart might have ended as ignominiously as Cornet Kinchant, had not Corporal Dickson and another man been nearby, the regiment by this time was losing all formation in the pursuit, and seeing him practically surrounded rode to his assistance. They arrived on the scene just as Ewart parried a stab at his groin, with a “Right protect” and “Cut VI” to the head. As the eagle fell into Ewart’s hand, Dickson and the other man arrived, the corporal thwarting a bayonet thrust against his sergeant’s back and his companion downing two more. Ewart rapped the cloth around his bridle arm, letting the pole drag along the ground, briefly thanked Dickson and continued after the regiment.
The Greys had routed the first brigade of the division, and now came upon the second, headed by the the 25th Ligne. This regiment had the best chance of resisting the charge, now flooding down the slope in a ragged disordered line. The greys came upon this regiment, and accordingly found it in square, a bristling box of bayonets, with the aptly named Veteran, Colonel Carré in the centre. A volley burst from the ranks, causing their heaviest casualties yet amongst the dragoons. Lt Wyndham received a ball to the foot and had to return to the ridge, but the wave of fugitives that piled past and towards this bastion of safety followed by the Greys panicked the 25th who no sooner had fired, were struck by the 3rd Squadron of the Royals who had been delayed at the crest and left behind somewhat. They executed a left wheel at some speed, passing the rear of the Inneskillings and hit the 25th obliquely, crumpling it like a cardboard box, the rest of the brigade joined the rout.
Fired by this unexpected success and feeling the invincible power all cavalry feel when faced with the backs of an enemy, the Greys and perhaps some of the Royals began charging at anything, sure that they would overturn them. In this spirit a clump of Greys spied a marching column some hundred yards behind their present position, 300 yards down the slope and broke off to attack it. This was the left flank brigade of Durutte’s Division under General Pegot, the other half of which was now assailing the 4 hamlets held by Saxe Weimer’s brigade. It had passed the small clusters of buildings and was pressing on up the slope trailing the other three columns. No sooner did the call of “Cavalry to the left!” break out than the column halted. Durutte had seen the disaster and was on the scene, at the word the still lines of muddy blue braced. The rear ranks closed and the flanks, and rear faced outwards forming a brigade square in less than two minutes. The heavies struck this formation like a wave upon an embankment and those left after the first volley sheered off in search of easier targets. While Durutte’s men became a focus for stragglers to run to as they fell back.
While this was happening the heavy cavalry’s fate was already being sealed. Napoleon is famous at the battle for his relative docility to unfolding events. Not so at first though. At just after 2, from La Belle Alliance he saw the redcoats spill over the ridge top and disperse his First Corps in some style. Prominent amongst the memories of all onlookers from Durutte to Napoleon himself was those terrible greys, who stood out quite plainly as they came out of the smoke clouded crest and reached the bottom of the slope. “Qu’ils sont terrible ces chevaux gris.” the emperor said to his aghast retinue, before snapping them out of their dilatory state barking “Il faut nous dépêcher, nous dépêcher!”. The emperor’s keen eye for the dynamics of a battlefield took in everything in an instant. He saw the black horses of Milhaud’s Cuirassier’s waiting behind the Grande Batterie. He saw the main clumps of rallying British cavalry suddenly strike out from the bottom of he hill and join the ragged lines now riding for the guns. To the extreme right he saw the lance pennants of Jacquinot’s light cavalry fluttering, already moving up. He spurred his horse the short distance from the Inn to General Milhaud and ordered him to attack. However he may have arrived to find them already in motion, for Marshal Ney had also reacted quickly. Ney had been in the centre just behind La Haie Sainte watching the attack progress. General Desales, artillery commander of I Corps, had just imperiously told chef d’esquadron Waudre who was worried about the enemy cavalry, that the Emperor had a perfectly good telescope and needed no advice from him. Just before the charge, he had ridden to Ney to inform him that he was about to advance his 50 guns closer to the ridge as he had been ordered before the attack. He was explaining his intention to advance battery by battery, when Ney exclaimed “Look they are charging you!”, and immediately rode back to fetch the Cuirassiers.
Sources used in this series.
British Cavalryman 1792 – 1815: Phillip J Haythornwaite
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.
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.