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The Battle of Waterloo

War: Napoleonic Wars

Date: 18th June 1815

Royal Scots Greys at the Battle of Waterloo
"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
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 Hussars
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 Dragoons
16th Light Dragoons later the 16th/5th Lancers and now the Queen’s Royal Lancers
18th Light Dragoons later the 13th/18th King’s Royal Hussars and now the Light Dragoons
Royal Artillery
Royal Engineers
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 Regiment
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 Lancashire Regiment
32nd Foot later the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry and now the Light Infantry
33rd Foot the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment
40th Foot later the South Lancashire Regiment and now the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment
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 Jackets

The British Cavalry charge at the battle of waterloo
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.

The Emperor Napoloen at Waterloo
The Emperor Napoleon at Waterloo
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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 Grande Armée.

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 Waterloo

Napoleon resolved to attack the British, Prussian, Belgian and Dutch armies before the other powers could come to their assistance. He marched into Belgium.


Vivien Hussey’s British Hussar Brigade attacking French infantry at the Battle of Waterloo
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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.

Battle of Waterloo : Order of Battle at the Outset of the Battle
Battle of Waterloo 18th June 1815 : Order of Battle at the Outset of the Battle
Map 1 of 3 by John Fawkes. To purchase a giclee print of this map click here.

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 Alliance Farm.

During most of the battle the Germans occupied La Haye Sante and the French used La Belle Alliance as a headquarters.

French Cuirassiers attacking a Highland square
French Cuirassiers attacking a Highland square
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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
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"
"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 and left.


Marshall Ney's massed cavalry attack on the Allied line during the Battle of Waterloo


French Cuirassiers fight it out with a Highland Regiment by John Atkinson
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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 suffered heavily.

Ney's massed cavalry attack on the Allied line
Above and Below : Ney's massed cavalry attack on the Allied line at the Battle of Waterloo

Ney's massed cavalry attack on the Allied line

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 overwhelmed.

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 of Waterloo

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 German Legion).

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 experience.


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 Reille’s corps.

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.


French Cuirassiers, during Ney's cavalry attack, tumbling
into the sunken road that ran along the allied position
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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.

Battle of Waterloo : 4pm Ney's Great Cavalry Attack
Battle of Waterloo 18th June 1815 : 4pm Ney's Great Cavalry Attack
Map 2 of 3 by John Fawkes. To purchase a giclee print of this map click here.

At around 5.30pm Ney launched the final cavalry assault. There were too many regiments, fresh mingled with exhausted. The attack failed yet again.

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 position.


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.

Battle of Waterloo : 7.30pm The Attack of the Guard
Battle of Waterloo 18th June 1815 : 7.30pm The Attack of the Guard
Map 3 of 3 by John Fawkes. To purchase a giclee print of this map click here.

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 Old Guard Advance
The Old Guard Advance

The last of the French Guard regiments, the 4th Chasseurs came up in support as the British Guards withdrew back over the ridge.

 Sir 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”.

Battle of Waterloo
The end of the Battle of Waterloo. Wellington waves his hat for the final advance.
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The Duke of Wellington at the end of the Battle of Waterloo by Robert Hillingford
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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 Line Will Advance

The Battle of Waterloo : Hougoumont Chateau

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.

British defending Hougoumont
The British guards defending Hougoumont

The British 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.

Burying the casualties after the battle of waterloo
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 buildings.

The Chateau of Hougoumont
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 Guards.

Closing the gates at Hougoumont
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
The Light Companies of the 2nd and 3rd foot
guards hold the Chateau of Hougoumont

The two 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

La Haye Sante Farm

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 Haye Sante
The King's German Legion under Major Baring fighting to defend La Haye Sante

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 Brigade.

The farm of La Haye Sante
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

Casualties:
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 guns lost.


The Prussian Army fights through the village of Plancenoit
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Follow-up:
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”.

Wellington and Blucher after the Battle of Waterloo
Wellington and Blucher meet after the Battle of Waterloo
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The Battle of Waterloo and The Royal Scots Greys and Sergeant Charles Ewart:

  • 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 it.”
  • 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.
  • Waterloo Medal issued to British Troops at the BattleIn 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 years.
  • 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 the battle.
Thanks to Historik Orders of Greenwich, Conn, USA.

Umbrellas at Waterloo:

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”.

The 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 but unmilitary.”

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.