The Battle of Waterloo
War: Napoleonic Wars
Date: 18th June 1815
"Scotland for ever!" Lady Butler's iconic picture of the Charge of the Royal Scots Greys, 2nd Dragoons, as part of the Union Brigade at the Battle of Waterloo.
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Place: South of Brussels in Belgium
Combatants: British, Germans, Belgians, Dutch and Prussians
against the French Grande Armée
Generals: The Duke of Wellington, Marshal Blucher and the
Prince of Orange against the Emperor Napoleon
Size of the armies: 23,000 British troops with 44,000 allied
troops and 160 guns against 74,000 French troops and 250 guns.
Winner: The British, Germans, Belgians, Dutch and Prussians
The Duke of Wellington and officers and soldiers of the Allied army at the end of the Battle of Waterloo. Prince William of Orange lies wounded on the stretcher: picture by Jan Willem Pieneman in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam
British Regiments present at the battle:
1st Life Guards now the Life Guards
2nd Life Guards now the Life Guards
Royal Horse Guards now the Blues and Royals
King’s Dragoon Guards now the Queen’s Dragoon Guards
Royal Dragoons now the Blues and Royals
Royal Scots Greys now the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards
6th Inniskilling Dragoons later the 5th Inniskilling Dragoon Guards
and now the Royal Dragoon Guards
7th Hussars later the Queen’s Own Hussars and now the Queen’s Royal
10th Hussars later the Royal Hussars and now the King’s Royal Hussars
11th Hussars later the Royal Hussars and now the King’s Royal Hussars
12th Light Dragoons now the 9th/12th Lancers
13th Light Dragoons later the 13th/18th King’s Royal Hussars and now
the Light Dragoons
15th Light Dragoons later the 15th/19th Hussars and now the Light
16th Light Dragoons later the 16th/5th Lancers and now the Queen’s
18th Light Dragoons later the 13th/18th King’s Royal Hussars and now
the Light Dragoons
1st Foot Guards now the Grenadier Guards
2nd Coldstream Guards
3rd Foot Guards now the Scots Guards
1st Foot now the Royal Scots
4th King’s Own Regiment of Foot now the King’s Own Royal Border
14th Foot later the West Yorkshire Regiment and now the Prince of
Wales’s Own Regiment of Yorkshire
23rd Royal Welch Fusiliers
27th Foot, the Inniskilling Fusiliers and now the Royal Irish Regiment
28th Foot later the Gloucestershire Regiment and now the Royal
Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment
30th Foot later the East Lancashire Regiment and now the Queen’s
32nd Foot later the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry and now the
33rd Foot the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment
40th Foot later the South Lancashire Regiment and now the Queen’s
42nd Highlanders now the Black Watch (the Royal Highland Regiment)
44th Foot later the Essex Regiment and now the Royal Anglian Regiment
51st Light Infantry later the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and
now the Light Infantry
52nd Light Infantry later the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire
Light Infantry and now the Royal Green Jackets
69th Foot later the Welsh Regiment and now the Royal
Regiment of Wales
71st Highland Light Infantry now the Royal Highland Fusiliers
73rd Highlanders the Black Watch
79th Highlanders later the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, then
the Queen’s Own Highlanders and now the Highlanders
92nd Highlanders the Gordon Highlanders and now the Highlanders
95th Rifles later the Rifle Brigade and now the Royal Green
British Cavalry Charge
Background to the battle:
In 1814, twenty five years of war finally came to an end with the
surrender of the Emperor Napoleon and his banishment to the
Mediterranean island of Elba. The European powers began the task of
restoring their continent to normality and peace.
On 1st March 1815 Napoleon escaped from Elba and landed in France.
Nineteen days later he was in Paris and resumed his title as Emperor.
His army rallied to him. The soldiers who had been captured during the
years of fighting had been released enabling Napoleon to reform his
The European allies reassembled their armies and prepared to resume
the war to overthrow the Emperor yet again.
The Emperor Napoleon addresses his Guard during the Battle of
Napoleon resolved to attack the British, Prussian, Belgian and Dutch
armies before the other powers could come to their assistance. He
marched into Belgium.
The Prussians under Marshall Blucher were defeated at Ligny and driven
away to the East. Napoleon sent Marshall Grouchy in pursuit while he
advanced on Wellington’s army.
The first battle was at the cross roads called Quatre Bras. The
British and their allies were forced to withdraw towards Brussels.
Assured by Blucher that he would join him for the conclusive battle,
Wellington on the afternoon of 17th June 1815 halted on the ridge
athwart the Brussels road south of Soignies where he resolved to give
battle to the French.
The Battle of Waterloo : The positions of the armies
The Duke of Wellington took up a position on the Brussels road
where it emerges from the woods of Soignies south of the village of
Waterloo. The road crosses a low ridge and descends into a valley
before rising on the other side to a further ridge. In the valley,
below the first crest, lay La Haye Sante Farm and on the road at the
southern side of the valley, below the second crest, stood La Belle
During most of the battle the Germans occupied La Haye Sante and
the French used La Belle Alliance as a headquarters.
To the North of the first crest the Namur road crossed the Brussels
road. The main British, German, Belgian and Dutch positions lay along
the Namur road, behind the first crest. The French approach to the
battle was up from the country to the South of La Belle Alliance.
King's Dragoon Guards attacking French Dragoons
In the valley to the front of the right wing of the British line
stood Hougoumont Farm, the key to Wellington’s right flank. Held by
the light companies of the Coldstream and Third Guards, there would be
fighting around Hougoumont all day.
"The Battle of Waterloo at 2pm : D'Erlon's infantry attack
past La Haye Sainte"
(this map appears in the best selling book,
The Dangerous Book for Boys by
Gonn Iggulden and Hal Iggulden, in the section
Famous Battles-Part Two)
Lying by the road leading to the centre of Wellington’s position
the capture of La Haye Sante was a crucial goal for the French army.
To the East of the Duke’s army lay Papelotte, another farm that
would be the centre of a ferocious struggle, particularly as the
Prussian Army appeared on the field at the end of the afternoon.
In the Duke’s centre stood the farm of Mont St Jean, used as a
headquarters and hospital.
It rained heavily during the night of 17th June 1815. The French
artillery commanders insisted that the attack did not begin until the
ground had dried out sufficiently for the guns to manoeuvre without
sticking in the mud.
The French attack began at 11am.
The Charge of Ponsonby's Union Brigade
The Battle of Waterloo: The morning and afternoon of the
18th June 1815:
At 11am the French bombardment of Hougoumont Farm, on the extreme
right of the Allied line, began the battle. The British artillery on
the ridge behind the farm replied, cannonading the French infantry
massed for the attack on the far side of the valley.
At midday Prince Jerome ordered the assault on Hougoumont and the
French infantry columns of his division moved forward to begin the day
long struggle around the farm buildings.
At about 1.30pm Marshal Ney brought forward 74 French guns over the
ridge opposite La Haye Sante followed by the 17,000 infantry of
D’Erlon’s corps to begin the attack on the Duke of Wellington’s centre
Marshall Ney's massed cavalry attack on the Allied line during the
Battle of Waterloo
The French cannonade began and was later described by
veterans as the heaviest they had experienced. The Duke ordered his
infantry battalions to move behind the ridge and to lie down. This had
the effect of shielding them from the worst of the cannonade. Only
Bilandt’s Belgian-Dutch Brigade was left on the exposed slope and
Above and Below : Ney's massed cavalry attack
on the Allied line at the Battle of Waterloo
After half an hour the barrage stopped, giving way
to the roar of drums as Ney’s columns advanced to the attack. The
French infantry passed La Haye Sante and marched up to the crest of
the ridge, where Picton’s 5th division was positioned. As part of the
advance a furious assault began on La Haye Sante, held by the King’s
German Legion, which was to continue intermittently for the rest of
the day until the German troops ran out of ammunition and were finally
As the French infantry approached the hedge at the top of the ridge
the line of British infantry stood, fired a volley and charged,
driving back the massed French columns.
The Duke of Wellington watches the French advance during the Battle
Cavalry formations were ordered to charge in support of the infantry
attack; the Household Brigade (1st and 2nd Life Guards and Royal Horse
Guards), the Union Brigade (Royals, Scots Greys and Inniskillings) and
Vivian’s Hussar Brigade (10th and 18th Hussars and 1st Hussars, King’s
It is notoriously difficult to pull up cavalry committed to an
attack and the British regiments did not readily respond to the recall
orders. In particular the Union Brigade continued to attack across the
valley. These regiments charged up to the French gun line on the far
ridge where they were in turn overwhelmed by French cavalry. General
Ponsonby, commanding the Union Brigade was killed. It is of note that
of the three regiments in the Union Brigade two, the Greys and
Inniskillings, had not served in the Peninsula and lacked battle
King's German Legion in action at the Battle of Waterloo
The time was 3pm and there was a lull in the battle, the only
active fighting being the continuing attack on Hougoument at the
western end of the line which had been sucking in more and more of
The battle began slowly swinging in the Allies favour as Blucher’s
Prussian Army arrived on the field in the South-East.
Napoleon ordered Ney to capture La Haye Sante, considering the farm
to be the key to the Allied position. Ney launched this assault with
two battalions he found to hand and during the operation formed the
view that the Allied army was withdrawing. It is likely that the
movements he saw were casualties or prisoners moving to the rear.
It was on this impetuous assumption that Ney launched the massive
cavalry attack on the Allied line. Initially the attacking force was
to be Milhaud’s Cavalry Corps of Cuirassiers.
Before the French could reach the Allied line the infantry formed
squares interlaced with artillery batteries. The French cuirassiers
flowed around the squares but were unable to penetrate them.
During the next three hours some twelve cavalry attacks were made up
to the ridge and back. Napoleon while deprecating the initial attack
as premature felt bound the commit increasing numbers of cavalry to
support the assault.
At around 5.30pm Ney launched the final cavalry assault. There were
too many regiments, fresh mingled with exhausted. The attack failed
Ney now, far too late, launched the sustained infantry assault on La
Haye Sante which was overwhelmed. By now the Prussian assault in the
South East on Plancenoit was seriously threatening the French
Vive L'Empereur :
The French Cavalry Attack
Sure that the Allied line was at breaking point, Ney sent
desperately to the Emperor for more troops to attack. Napoleon was at
this point deploying the Guard to drive the Prussians back from
Plancenoit. Once this had been achieved he resolved to launch the
Guard at the main Allied line. By this time Wellington had reorganised
his forces and the opportunity that Ney had, this time, correctly
identified had passed.
The Guard marched up to La Haye Sante for the attack. There Napoleon
stood aside and left the command to Ney. Ney led the five battalions
up the left hand side of the Brussels road. As they climbed the ridge
they came under fire from a curve of batteries assembled to meet them.
A deserting French cavalry officer had warned of the Guard’s advance.
The Middle Guard threw back the British battalions of Halkett’s
Brigade but were assaulted by the Belgian and Dutch troops of General
Chassé and Colonel Detmers who drove them back down the hill.
The 3rd Regiment of Chasseurs approached the ridge opposite Maitland’s
Brigade of Foot Guards (2nd and 3rd Battalions of the 1st Foot
Guards). Wellington called to the brigade commander “Now Maitland.
Now’s your time”. One authority had him as saying “Up Guards, ready”.
The Foot Guards stood, fired a volley and charged with the bayonet
driving the French Guard back down the hill.
The last of the French Guard regiments, the 4th Chasseurs came up
in support as the British Guards withdrew back over the ridge.
The Old Guard Advance
John Colborne brought the 52nd Foot round to outflank the French
column as it passed his brigade, fired a destructive volley into the
left flank of the Chasseurs and attacked with the bayonet. The whole
of the Guard was driven back down the hill and began a general retreat
to the cry of “La Garde recule”.
Within fifteen minutes Wellington appeared on the skyline and waved
his hat to give the signal for a general attack in pursuit of the
French troops. The British, Belgian, Dutch and German troops poured
forward and the French retreat became a route. Three battalions of the
Old Guard fought to the end to enable the Emperor to escape from the
battlefield as the Allied troops including the Prussians closed in.
General Cambronne is reputed to have answered a call to surrender with
the words “The Guard dies but does not surrender”.
The Line Will Advance
The small chateau of Hougoumont stood before the extreme right of
the Allied position. The Duke of Wellington formed the view that the
chateau was the key to his flank and garrisoned it with the light
companies of the Coldstream and 3rd Foot Guards under Lieutenant
Colonel James MacDonnell of the Coldstream Guards. Nassauers and
guardsmen held the woods to the front of the building.
The British guards defending Hougoumont
troops took over the range of buildings on 17th June and spent the
night fortifying them, building fire steps and loop holing the walls.
All the gates were blocked other than the main gate on the northern
side to provide access.
At 11am on 18th June Prince Jerome’s
division began the battle with his attack on Hougoumont, the French
driving the Nassauers out of the woods and attacking the chateau.
After the battle : Burying the Casualties
The French surged around the buildings and rushed the main gate in the
face of a rush of British guardsmen headed by Colonel MacDonnell to
keep them out. The gate was damaged and there ensued a struggle by the
British to shut the gate and by the French to force it open.
MacDonnell and his party of officers and sergeants forced the gate
shut and Sergeant Graham of the Coldstream put the bar in place. The
few French who had penetrated the farm were hunted through the farm
The Château of Hougoumont
During the rest of the day Hougoumont was subjected to a
sustained attack by Jerome’s troops with assistance from a further
division. The garrison was reinforced with more companies from the two
Foot Guards battalions of Byng’s Guards Brigade, 2nd/2nd and 2nd/3rd
Closing the gates of Hougoumont
When, during the afternoon the supply of ammunition in the
chateau became critically low, Sergeant Fraser of the 3rd Guards
returned to the main line and returned with a wagon of cartridges,
thereby enabling the defence to continue.
By the end of the battle
the chateau had been set ablaze by howitzer fire and the buildings
were heaped with British casualties. The French were unable to capture
Hougoumont and their casualties filled the woods and fields.
The Light Companies of the 2nd and 3rd foot
guards hold the Chateau of Hougoumont
battalions that defended Hougoumont suffered 500 dead and wounded out
of strengths of 2,000.
Some years later an English clergyman
bequeathed £500 to be given to the bravest Briton from the battle. The
selection was referred to the Duke of Wellington who nominated
Lieutenant Colonel McDonnell of the Coldstream Guards for his defence
of Hougoumont. Colonel McDonnell gave half the sum to Sergeant Graham.
Annually the Coldstream Guards celebrate the defence of Hougoumont
with the ceremony of the hanging of the brick.
52nd Attack a French Battery
The farm of La Haye Sante stood on the west side of the main
Brussels road beneath the ridge, two hundred metres in front of the
centre of the Allied position. As the Emperor Napoleon urged on
Marshal Ney, La Haye Sante was the key to the Allied line and had to
be taken at all costs.
The King's German Legion under Major Baring fighting to defend La
The garrison to whom it fell to resist the French attack that began
soon after D’Erlon’s assault was found from the Major Baring’s 2nd
Light Battalion of Colonel Baron Ompteda’s 2nd King’s German Legion
The farm of La Haye Sante
The King’s German Legion had expected only to spend the night in
the farm and did not discover until the morning that they were to hold
it for the battle. By then the main gates had been used on the camp
fires and few preparations could be made to put the farm in a state of
defence in the time left.
The garrison were largely spectators as D’Erlon’s attack swept past
and up the ridge to the main Allied position to be pursued back to
their lines by the British cavalry counter-attack.
La Haye Sante from the Waterloo cross roads
It was then that Ney’s attack on the farm was launched on the
direction of the Emperor. From that moment the King’s German Legion
troops fought for their lives until late in the afternoon, when with
ammunition finished and the farm in flames, the garrison was
annihilated or driven out. 39 of some 360 survived.
La Haye Sante after the Battle of Waterloo
The British, Belgians, Dutch and Germans lost 15,000 casualties or
1 in 4 engaged. The Prussians lost 7,000. The casualties of the French
army are estimated at 25,000 dead and wounded, 8,000 prisoners and 220
Waterloo decisively saw the end of 26 years of fighting between
the European powers and France. The French star was eclipsed and the
German began its ascendancy.
For Britain, Waterloo is not just a battle. It is an institution.
Regimental anecdotes and traditions:
The Royal Dragoons captured the eagle of the French 105th of the
Line in the charge of the Union Brigade and subsequently adopted the
eagle as its badge. It is now worn as an arm badge by the Blues and
Royals, the successor regiment. As with the Greys the regiment was
given the nickname of the “Bird catchers”.
The Battle of Waterloo and The Royal Scots Greys and Sergeant
- After the battle the 1st Foot Guards were given the title “the
Grenadier Guards” to commemorate the regiment’s role in overthrowing
the French Grenadiers of the Old Guard. All ranks were given the
bearskin cap to wear.
- 14th Foot: The 3rd Battalion of the regiment fought at Waterloo. The
battalion had been newly raised and was awaiting disbandment, having
seen no service, when Napoleon escaped from Elba. The battalion
crossed to Belgium and won the battle honour for the regiment. Most of
the soldiers were under 20 years of age.
- The Emperor Napoleon, some years before Waterloo, presented to each
of his marshals a silver snuff box. Marshal Ney’s snuffbox was looted
from his carriage after the battle by a British officer. Some years
later the snuffbox was presented to the officers of the 19th Foot, the
Green Howards, who used it in their mess for formal occasions.
- The 27th Inniskilling Fusiliers, in the course of Ney’s cavalry
attacks was bombarded by a French horse battery. By the end of the
battle the battalion had suffered 478 casualties from a pre-battle
strength of 750. An officer from a nearby battalion, Captain Kincaid,
commented that the 27th seemed to be lying dead in its square.
Kincaid, a veteran of the Peninsular War, said “I had never thought
there would be a battle where everyone was killed. This seemed to be
- The Duke of Wellington spent his early army service as the
lieutenant colonel of the 33rd Foot. After the Duke’s death Queen
Victoria permitted the 33rd to adopt the title “the Duke of
Wellington’s”, a fitting attribution for one of the army’s most
persistently successful regiments of foot.
- 79th Cameron Highlanders: As the French cavalry approached for the
attack the regiment formed square. Piper Mackay marched around the
square playing the pibroch “Peace or War”. The King subsequently
presented Mackay with silver mounted pipes.
- In spite of their presence in the film “Waterloo”, the 88th Foot, Connaught Rangers, were not present at Waterloo. They were on the far
side of the Atlantic fighting the Americans.
- The 95th had three battalions at Waterloo. After the battle the
regiment was given the title of the “Rifle Brigade” in place of its
number, which was reallocated to a newly raised infantry regiment.
In the closing moments of the battle a cannon ball struck the Earl
of Uxbridge as he rode with the Duke of Wellington. The Duke said “By
God you’ve lost your leg.” The Earl said “By God, so I have.” The
remains of the leg were amputated in a house nearby and the owner
buried the leg in his garden where it was a place of interest for some
- Every year after 1815 the Duke of Wellington held a “Waterloo”
banquet for his officers. The banquet is still held.
The Waterloo medal issued to British troops at
Thanks to Historik Orders of Greenwich, Conn, USA.
Captain Mercer of the British Horse Artillery described the
miserable night he and his troop spent on the field of Waterloo
before the battle: “My companion (the troop’s second captain) had an
umbrella, which by the way afforded some merriment to our people on
the march, this we planted against the sloping bank of the hedge,
and seating ourselves under it, he on the one side of the stick, me
on the other side, we lighted cigars and became-comfortable”.
Duke, who was indifferent to the way his officers chose to dress,
drew the line at umbrellas. “At Bayonne, in December 1814,” writes
Captain Gronow of the First Foot Guards, “His Grace, on looking
round, saw, to his surprise, a great many umbrellas, with which the
officers protected themselves from the rain that was then falling.
Arthur Hill came galloping up to us saying, Lord Wellington does not
approve of the use of umbrellas during the enemy’s firing, and will
not allow the “gentlemen’s sons” to make themselves ridiculous in
the eyes of the army.”
Colonel Tynling, a few days afterwards,
received a wigging from Lord Wellington for suffering his officers
to carry umbrellas in the face of the enemy; His Lordship observing,
“The Guards may in uniform, when on duty at St. James’, carry
umbrellas if they please, but in the field it is not only ridiculous
Standing orders for the army in the Peninsula and in the Waterloo
campaign stated categorically “Umbrellas will not be opened in the
presence of the enemy.”
However the surgeon of Captain Mercer’s
troop of Horse Artillery was seen to be sheltering under the
forbidden item during the early part of the Battle of Waterloo.