Commentary Explorer Results
Commentary for Volume 2, Chapter 4: Waterloo
Night of 17 June:
Where at Waterloo did Wellington spend the night of the 17 June? Stanhope’s Notes of Conversations has this:
I put some questions to Lord Fitzroy, next whom I sat, on the Waterloo campaign and the Duke’s personal movements. He told me that the Duke slept at Waterloo on the 17th as well a the 18th … At Waterloo it was the inn; but the apartment in which the Duke slept, and Gordon died, was upon the ground-floor, so the one shown as such, and which is, I remember, on the first-floor, cannot be the right one. How difficult, then, even at the places where great deeds were done and even only twenty years afterwards, to get at truth by tradition’. (7 November 1840 Stanhope Notes of Conversations p 250-1).
Against this, for what its worth, Dr Hume refers to going upstairs to inform Wellington of Gordon’s death – although as this comes via Pitt-Lennox’s Three Years with the Duke it might be unwise to rest too much weight on such a detail (see Gordon At Wellington’s Right Hand p 405).
Croker visited the battlefield in July and records ‘It was in this little inn that the Duke of Wellington had his quarters. On the morning of the battle the poor landlady was weeping and bewailing her danger, but the Duke, she said, encouraged her, and said, slapping her on the shoulders, “C’est moi qui répond de tout, personne ne souffrira aujourd’hui des Français excepté les soldats.” (Croker Croker Papers vol 1 p 74 27 July 1815).
Lady Shelley visited Waterloo on 18 September 1815 with the Duke of Richmond and noted ‘the small, but clean, uberge where the Duke of Wellington slept on the night preceding and on the night of the battle. It still bears the sign of his quartier general’. (Diary of Lady Shelley vol 1 p 167-8).
Uxbridge asks what he should do if Wellington is incapacitated:
The story that Uxbridge approached Wellington on the night before Waterloo asking what his plans were, so that he, Uxbridge, could carry them out if Wellington was killed or wounded, is well known; but it cannot be traced any further back than a gossipy, unreliable secondary source, Sir William Fraser’s Words on Wellington: the Duke – Waterloo – the Ball first published in 1889 which tells it with much circumstantial detail (p 1-2. See also Anglesey One-Leg p 132-3 which gives the story some credibility by repeating it, but which only cites Fraser as its source). There is no reason to believe that the story, as told by Fraser, is well founded.
The only hint of confirmation of the tale in a primary source comes from Lady Shelley’s diary – a story told to her by Wellington in Paris; but by this account the event took place during the battle, late in the day (just before Uxbridge was wounded) and Wellington told him to order a retreat: which in itself is hard to believe (Lady Shelley’s Diary vol 1 p 103).
While the story is amusing it should be regarded as a red herring, and certainly not used as evidence for Wellington’s character, his relations with Uxbridge, or his command style.
Wellington’s ride to see Blücher on the night of 17 June:
This is undoubtedly a myth. The evidence for it (mostly secondhand and hearsay) is usefully collected together in Diary of Lady Shelley vol 1 p 97n-98n.
Blücher’s letter to Müffling:
According to Hofschröer (1815 vol 2 p 30-31) this letter reached Wellington at 2am. That would be a remarkably rapid journey over difficult country at night; and Fitzroy Somerset refers to a Prussian officer arriving when Wellington was on horseback after 6am (Owen (ed) Waterloo Papers p 11). That is plausible, but Somerset is not entirely accurate over such details, while Wellington’s 3am letters display great confidence in Prussian support; so much so that we must presume that Wellington had received some definite assurance, and the midnight letter is the most obvious explanation. Here again though, we are pushing the evidence to the limit of what it will bear and perhaps beyond.
Longford Wellington. The Years of the Sword p 443-44 makes too much of the question, responding to some criticism of Houssaye’s (1815 Waterloo p 154-6), but they are both too confident in their assumption that we know all there is to be known about communications between the allied armies. All that it is safe to say is that by the early hours of the 18th Wellington was confident of Prussian support (indeed he had been pretty confident the previous evening). We know that this confidence was justified by the event. It seems perverse to claim that it was founded on insufficient evidence or was unduly sanguine.
Most of the references to Wellington riding Copenhagen appear to come from much later, recording Wellington’s conversation, however there is no reason to doubt them. See:
– Parker, W. M. ‘A Visit to the Duke of Wellington’ [James Hall] Blackwood’s Magazine vol 256 no
1546 August 1944 p 81.
– Georgiana, Lady de Ros ‘Personal Recollections of the Great Duke of Wellington’ Murray’s Magazine
Jan & Feb (?) 1889 p 46-7 (She says he ‘was a most unpleasant horse to ride’).
– Rogers Tabletalk of Samuel Rogers p 246.
However Bess Caton wrote home on 5 March 1817: ‘The Duke of Wellington is all kindness and attention to us. I have just returned from riding with him – he mounted me on his fine horse Copenhagen which he rode during all the battle of Waterloo.’ (Quoted in Wake Sisters of Fortune p 124).
In 1852, shortly before he died, Wellington told Croker that, ‘He was not named from my having ridden him at Copenhagen; his dam was a blood mare, which Tom Grosvenor had in the expedition to Copenhagen, and he called her foal by that name, so that he must have been foaled after . Grosvenor sold him to Charles Stewart, now Londonderry, of whom, when he left the Peninsula, I bought him and rode him throughout the rest of the war, and mounted no other horse at Waterloo.’ (Memorandum by Croker of his last conversation with Wellington, 4 September 1852, Croker Papers vol 3 p 274).
Strength of Armies:
Bowden’s contention (Armies at Waerloo p 227) is that Siborne based his calculation of British and KGL strength from the ‘total rank and file’ column of the morning state printed in WD VIII p 392-3 which gives a very misleading idea of the total strength of the troops actually present. A quick check seems to show that this is correct, but Bowden’s own figures have been criticized, and it is a question that reveals fresh layers of complication whenever it is probed more deeply.
In this context it is worth considering Lt Col. A. K. Clark Kennedy’s comment to Siborne in 1839:
With regard to the strength of the Brigade in the field on the 18th of June, I have never calculated it at more than 950, or at the utmost 1,000 swords. The numbers mentioned in the Duke’s despatches, or course, include not only the Officers, but men, General Officers’ Orderlies, hospital or Surgeons’ Orderly, camp kettle men, Farriers, Trumpeters, & c., and they may be safely set down as 120 or 130 at least in the three Corps, but they were probably a good many more. (Siborne Waterloo Letters p 77-78).
And this was supported by Sir De Lacy Evans: ‘As to Colonel Gurwood’s account of 1,123 sabres, I dare say it is all very right as a Return, but the 1,123 sabres were not on the field according to my humble recollection and belief’ (ibid p 64).
Memory, the confusion of battle, and the passage of time:
In 1835 Sir Hew Ross replied to Siborne’s queries in a passage not printed in Waterloo Letters:
I am sorry to have detained the enclosed plan of the field of Waterloo so long. I did so in the expectation that I should be able to give satisfactory answers to the several questions contained in your letter respecting the formations and movements of the enemy that came under my immediate observation in the course of that battle, but I regret to say I find it quite impossible to do so in a manner to satisfy myself; as at this distant period, and after much consideration, I feel that I cannot separate what I may fairly charge to my memory from the impressions left on it by what I have since heard and read of that eventful day; added to which I have never been on the ground since the day of the action. Under these circumstances, I cannot reconcile myself to giving an opinion upon questions of such importance without being quite sure that I am accurate. (Ross Memoir of Sir Hew Dalrymple Ross p 67).
And at 11pm of the day of the battle Sir Augustus Frazer wrote that, ‘All now with me is confused recollection of scenes yet passing before me in idea: the noise, the groans of the dying, and all the horrid realities of the field are yet before me.’ (Frazer Letters p 548).
Sir John Colborne, by then Lord Seaton, raised a separate difficulty in 1843:
We were all so intent in performing our own parts, that we are disposed to imagine that the Brigade or Corps with which we were engaged played a most distinguished part, and attribute more importance to the movements under our own immediate observation that they deserved. I am persuaded that none but mounted Officers can give a correct account of the Battle and very few of those had an opportunity of seeing much beyond the limited space which they traversed. (Siborne Waterloo Letters p 281).
It is hard not to read this as an attempt to distance himself from the claims made by Gawler (and, later, Leeke) for the role of the 52nd in the battle, but it has a wider application.
Deployment of Wellington’s Army:
Much of the account given in the text is based on Shaw Kennedy’s detailed description in his Notes on the Battle of Waterloo p 98-102 where it is illustrated by an interesting sketch map said to have been made on the morning of 19 June. Kennedy also claims – much less plausibly – that this arrangement was all his idea and that he solved Alten’s difficulties, but that is by the way. Alten’s report, if taken literally, states that Wellington, or the Prince of Orange, dictated the formation in ‘two lines of contiguous columns’. But it would probably be unwise to rest an argument on this exact wording. Alten’s report, quoted in the paragraph confirms the accuracy of the formation in general terms (Alten’s report is in WSD vol 10 p 534-5).
One caveat: Kennedy remarks in passing (p 102) that: ‘These arrangements were only in preparation; the division remained deployed in two lines, its proper order of battle, but ready to form in oblongs when such formation might be required: while merely under the continued severe cannonade, the division lay down in line’. However Alten contradicts this, suggesting that they were in column for the outset, although Kennedy’s version is more detailed and more plausible.
The picture for the rest of the army is less clear.
Four deep line at Waterloo:
It is curious that the adoption of four deep line has not attracted more discussion, for it runs counter to many favoured theories about the secret of British tactical success in the Peninsula, where the thin two deep line is extolled because every musket counted.
We do not know for certain that Wellington gave any order about it, but there are references to its use from the left of the army at the beginning of the battle (Siborne Waterloo Letters p 383 the 92nd’s role in repulsing D’Erlon’s attack) to the right at the ‘Crisis’ (ibid p 35 among others including Leeke History of Lord Seaton’s Regiment at the Battle of Waterloo vol 1 p 73-75) that show that it was indeed employed. And it seems inconceivable that it could have been used so widely without some direction from the top.
It was an innovation: there are a handful of examples of previous use in the Peninsula, but only on a small scale and usually in difficult terrain or assaulting a redoubt. This is contrary W. H. James Campaign of 1815 p 298 who claims: ‘The four deep formation of the infantry at Waterloo during the latter portion of the battle is by some thought to have been on innovation introduced by Wellington. This is not the case. It was an ordinary drill manoeuvre, and had been constantly used in Spain’. Now it certainly must have been part of the drill, or the troops could not have employed it; but James is simply not correct to state that it was ‘constantly’ used in Spain – as is shown by the fact that the only source that he can cite to support his claim is Marbot! (Marbot was a very colourful and entertaining but unreliable French memoirist – hardly a reliable source for technical details of British infantry tactics). A meticulous study of the subject by Howie Muir could find only three examples from the whole of the Peninsular War, and in one of these three cases it was proposed but not adopted (unpublished essay on the subject).
Colborne, writing well after the battle, says ‘The Duke of Wellington had some time previously ordered the formation of four deep. Sir John Colborne, thinking such a formation in the ordinary manner (i.e. with intervals between the files) inexpedient, did not comply with the order … [but later, after being formed in square] Sir John Colborne, as the safest way of complying with the order, placed the left wing of the regiment in rear of the right wing, closed up’. (Moore Smith Life of Colborne p 412).
The whole topic is explored in much greater detail in an unpublished essay by Howie Muir.
Possibility of Wellington retreating through the Forest of Soignes:
According to Horsburgh (Waterloo: A Narrative and a Criticism p 279) it was Napoleon who first made the criticism that Wellington was fighting with a (virtually) impossible Forest (or at least a defile) in his rear; and that Wellington responded by indicating that in the event of defeat he would retreat upon Hal.
There is an amusing, but not very helpful, exchange of letters on the subject in Bruce’s Life of William Napier vol 1 p 389-94 where Napier defends Wellington and argues (not very plausibly) that the forest was little impediment to movement and would have helped to cover a retreat!
Scott (Paul’s Letters to his Kinsfolk p 100) claims that Wellington said that he could retreat into the Forest if he was forced to i.e. that it would help cover the army and could be defended.
The criticism probably has more validity if Wellington had been forced to retreat on the morning of the 18th, before there was any fighting, if he had learnt that the Prussians could not, or would not, come to his aid. In that circumstance an attempt to retreat through the forest would almost certainly have gone badly, and Wellington may well instead have attempted to withdraw more to the west, towards Hal (and it is interesting that the deployment of his army was biased in the direction). Such a movement would not have been easy, but it is impossible to say more without knowing considerably more than we do about the details of the roads and other terrain and other circumstances on the day.
Wellington on the morning of 18 June:
The main source for his movements is Fitzroy Somerset’s memorandum in Owen (ed) Waterloo Papers. Kincaid (Adventures p 163) says that the Duke, as well as other ‘bigwigs’ of the army claimed a cup of tea from the big kettle the 95th kept on the boil near La Haye Sainte. Harry Smith gives an elaborate – complete with dialogue – account of his reporting the arrival of Lambert’s brigade (of which he was brigade major) to Wellington and receiving his orders, (Autobiography p 268-9). It is quite plausible, if a bit jolly, but it is a very late source.
Who commanded the defence of Hougoumont?:
Popular accounts tend to stress the role of Col James Macdonnell of the Coldstream Guards, with various anecdotes of Wellington’s faith in him, and his personal strength and success in driving out the few French who actually forced the gate of Hougoumont (e.g. Howarth Day of Battle p 72-4, 79-80; Longford Wellington The Years of the Sword p 450, 459). Yet it seems that for much of the day the garrison was commanded by Colonel Hepburn whose detailed narrative of his proceedings is printed in Maurice’s History of the Scots Guards vol 2 p 34-5 – see also his letter to Siborne in Waterloo Letters p 266-7.
The Defence of Hougoumont:
Private William Pritchard of the 3rd Guards gives a sense of the confusion and stress of the defence in a letter home written on 12 July
I suppose that you have heard of A Battle that has Been Fought by this. I asure [sic] you it was A Bloody one and any Person that were in it neaver could expect to come out of it Alive seeing them Comarades fall on each side of them at such A Tremendous Rate I for my own Part thought of nothing But Fighting and Gaining the victory and it Pleas’d the all mighty to grant my Request and keep me from being Injured thanks be to him … in the Morning about 8 o’clock we saw the French on A Hill in Front we were on one hill and they on another [As] they advanc’d our Cannon Play’d on them they [advanced] towards A wood by A Farm house as soon as the General saw there intentions the Brigade of Guards were sent there immediately we came into the wood when it began very sharp in less than 3 Hours we could hardly go along for Dead Bodies we Charg’d them and Drove them But in less than an ½ Hour we were forced to retreat into an apple orchard where [we] remained in Breast works some small time [until] being reinforced by A small Party of German legions we again Charg’d them and drove them and afterwards kep our Position. (Quoted in Uffindell National Army Museum Book of Wellington’s Armies p 294-6).
The French Grand Battery:
Houssaye 1815: Waterloo p 189-90 says 80 guns. But Gomm (Letters and Journals p 358) says only twenty or thirty, and Dyneley (Letters p 65) says forty. The most plausible explanation is that the battery initially consisted of no more than about forty guns when it was primarily to the east of the chaussée bombarding Picton’s division and other troops on the allied left, but that it was reinforced to eighty guns when it was extended west of the chaussée after the failure of D’Erlon’s attack.
It is interesting that even 80 guns, the highest number mentioned with any plausibility, is only one third of the total in Napoleon’s army. It is not clear where most of the remaining guns were or what role, if any, they played.
The Cuirassiers supporting D’Erlon’s attack:
Houssaye (1815 Waterloo p 194, 197) says that these were Travers’ brigade of Watier’s division of Milhaud’s corps, about 400 strong; that they advanced to the west of La Haye Sainte and cut down a Havnoverian battalion in their advance, before being broken by Somerset’s charge. There is a suggestion that they advanced a bit later than the infantry and overtook them. British accounts seem to accept this identification.
There is some debate over whether any cuirassiers advanced to the east of La Haye Sainte; the consensus seems to be against it. This adds to the problems with Mark Urban’s account of the flight of some of the 95th: he says that they were unnerved by witnessing the destruction of the Hanoverian battalion (but surely La Haye Sainte was in the way?) and when attacked by cuirassiers. It is not clear whether this occurred as part of D’Erlon’s attack or the cavalry charges.
The Swiss Officer’s Account:
Antony Brett-James The Hundred Days p 114-116 quotes a French account which is clearly based on the same text but differently translated and with other variations and identifies the author as Captain Duthilt. Urban Rifles p 268-9 also draws on Duthilt. Curiously Les Mémoires du Capitaine Duthilt publiés pa Camille Lévi (La Société dunquerquoise pour l’Encouragement des Lettres, des Sciences et des Arts) was only published in Lille in 1909, whereas the extract describing Waterloo appeared in the United Service Magazine for 1878, suggesting that some part of Duthilt’s memoirs were published in France well before its appearance in book form and probably circa 1877 or 1878.
Bijlandt’s brigade of Perponcher’s division was deployed on the allied left at Waterloo, probably somewhat in advance of Picton’s division. It withdrew, probably in some disorder, in the face D’Erlon’s advance, although the contempt which marks many British accounts of the incident is unwarranted. The brigade suffered 145 officers and men killed, 626 wounded and 621 missing: a total of 1,392 casualties in the three days 16-18 June from 3,452 officers at men at the outset of the campaign or 40 per cent of its strength. Admittedly this figure is inflated by the number of men reported missing, some of whom would have been men who fled from the field of Waterloo; but others would have been casualties who fell at Quatre Bras and who were unaccounted for because their position had been occupied by the French (and if they were still alive they were taken prisoner). (Casualty figures from Siborne History of the War in France and Belgium third edition p 576; strength from Bowden Armies at Waterloo p 238).
- H. James The Campaign of 1815 p 232-3 gives slightly different figures from those given above and draws a very different conclusion from them, arguing that the high proportion of missing and slightly wounded shows that the fighting value of the troops was low, especially compared to the British infantry of Picton’s division which admitted to only 19 men missing.
Some clarity can be found by concentrating solely on the number of officers and men killed – a figure which is relatively unambiguous, although it is likely that the 145 recorded for Bijlandt’s brigade is somewhat understated as some men killed at Quatre Bras would have been listed as missing. Picton’s British troops at Waterloo lost 137 officers and men killed, but this came on top of 195 killed at Quatre Bras, making a total of 332 from a somewhat stronger force. The comparison suggests that Bijlandt’s brigade did not suffer as heavily as Picton’s British troops, but equally that it performed creditably especially as three of its five battalions were militia.
The defeat of D’Erlon’s attack: two accounts from officers of the 32rd:
An officer of the 32nd, writing home a few weeks later, gives a similar story to Gomm, but does not claim quite so much:
Our lines were formed behind a hedge, with two companies of the 95th extended in front, to annoy the enemy’s approach … [the French] advanced up in the most gallant style, to cries of ‘Vive l’Empereur!’ while a most tremendous cannonade was opened to cover their approach. They arrived at the very hedge behind which we were, the muskets were almost muzzle to muzzle, and a French mounted officer had seized the colours of the 32nd Regiment, when poor Picton ordered the charge of our brigade, commanded by Sir James Kempt. When the French saw us rushing through the hedge, and heard the tremendous huzza which we gave, they turned; but, instead of running, they walked off in close columns with the greatest steadiness. (Quoted in Swiney Historical Records of the 32nd p 125-6).
Major Felix Calvert writing four days after the battle says that: ‘At about twelve, however, they made their first grand attack on our centre, where our division was posted, and advanced with the greatest gallantry to the very muzzles of our guns. We succeeded, however, in repelling them with that never-failing weapon, the bayonet. They came so close to us that a French officer actually seized hold of our colours, but three or four balls and as many bayonets in his body made him repent his audacity’.
More interesting is what follows: ‘They made afterwards desperate attempts (I cannot tell how many) and were as often repulsed. Towards the evening, however, we had lost so many men, that I began to fear that we should lose the day, when … [they suddenly gave way.]’ Significantly this was the regiment in Kempt’s brigade nearest La Haye Sainte. (Calvert An Irish Beauty under the Regency p 252-55).
D’Erlon’s attack from the French perspective:
It is worth quoting the Swiss officer at rather greater length:
The English infantry, which had hitherto been concealed in a hollow road, spring up and open a murderous fire on us at a few yards distance. Nothing daunted we drive them back with the bayonet, and continue our advance through the gaps in a quick-set hedge which had partially concealed their guns, and with loud shouts of triumph we reach the plateau. But these efforts had disordered our formation, our ranks become mixed and before we could recover ourselves we are charged with the bayonet by fresh foes. The struggle recommences, and a terrible melée ensues.
In our fearful state of confusion, our officers did their utmost to establish some sort of order among the companies. As I was pushing one of our men into his proper place in the ranks he suddenly sank under a sword cut, turning briskly round I saw the English Dragoons riding into our column, in every direction cutting our men down right and left. Although it is difficult, if not impossible, for the best Cavalry in the world to break a well formed Infantry square which defends itself with steadiness and courage, still when Infantry are broken and in confusion, resistance on their part is hopeless and Cavalry can mow them down with comparative impunity. Such was now our sad case. In vain did our poor fellows try and defend themselves with their bayonets, they had not a chance against these dragoons mounted as they were on powerful horses. The few shots this hapless and bewildered crowd could fire proved as dangerous to our own men as to the Cavalry. We were totally defenseless before those terrible dragoons, who in their fury cut down every one they could reach, even to our poor drummer boys. It was then we lost our eagle, and then death stared me in the face, for my best and dearest friends were falling fast around me, and though still mechanically brandishing my sword I every instant expected to share their fate. (French ‘A French Infantry Officer’s Account of Waterloo’ p 461).
Was Pack’s brigade broken?:
Some British accounts suggest that Pack’s brigade, far from repulsing Marcognet, was giving way and that the situation was only saved by the charge of the Union brigade. Fortescue accepts this: ‘Pack’s brigade, though not past rallying, was certainly not standing firm’ (History of the British Army vol 10 p 364). However this is entirely based on the testimony of the cavalry officers given to Siborne at least twenty years later. It may be true: but the evidence is inconclusive – we have very little contemporary testimony from Pack’s brigade (1st, 42nd, 44th, 92nd). The Swiss officer of the 45th and Houssaye (1815 Waterloo p 196-7) suggest rather that the combat was undecided when the cavalry intervened – a compromise which satisfies both sides, although that does not make it necessarily true.
On the other hand Kempt was insistent that his brigade repulsed the French infantry with little or no assistance from the cavalry (Siborne Waterloo Letters p 346-7). Indeed in his report written on the 19th he claims that both brigades had broken the French facing them before the cavalry intervened, however this may need to be treated with caution (WSD vol 10 p 535-7).
Against this see the contemporary letters of Captain Clark of the Royals in Clark-Kennedy Attack of the Colour p 117-119 which do not suggest that the infantry of Kempt’s brigade had already vanquished the French.
James Hope of the 92nd published his Letters as early as 1819. They were clearly not written within days of the battle – although they purport to be – but they are a relatively early source, if one written for publication. They give no hint of wavering in the 92nd though he does say that the regiment was brought forward when the Royals (3/1st) and 2/44th were forced back (Hope Iberian and Waterloo Campaign p 252).
On the other hand there is the genuinely contemporary and dispassionate evidence of Ingilby’s diary which strongly implies that the allied infantry has been driven back before the cavalry charged (Lt W. B. Ingilby ‘Diary of Lieutenant Ingilby, R. A. in the Peninsular War and during the Waterloo Campaign’ edited by Major E. A. Lambert Minutes of the Proceedings of the Royal Artillery Institution vol 20 1893 p 319-20). The difficulty with this is the doubt that Ingilby, whose battery was attached to Vivian’s brigade, could really well tell what was happening, and the possibility that the troops he saw give way were in the skirmish line, not the main line.
In 1818 Palmerston records Wellington as saying: ‘At Waterloo a column of French was firing across the road at one of our regiments, the 42nd or 43rd. Our people could not get at them to charge them, because they would have been disordered by crossing the road. It was a nervous moment. One of the two forces must go about in a few minutes – it was impossible to say which it might be. I saw about two hundred men of the 74th, who seemed to have had more than they liked of it. I formed them myself about twenty yards from the flash of the French column, and ordered them to fire; and in a few minutes the French column turned about.’ (Palmerston Selections from Private Journals of Tours in France in 1815 and 1818 (London, Bentley, 1871) p 53-54). The 74th were not at Waterloo; but this may well have been a simple slip of the pen by Palmerston and the 79th (or some other regiment) intended.
The Charge of the Union Brigade:
Lieutenant Archibald Hamilton, ADC to William Ponsonby who commanded the brigade wrote:
The cannonade now greatly increased and under cover of the smoke from their cannon and our own the French advanced. The General observing what was about to take place, immediately sent me down to bring up the Brigade with all speed. I did so. The General met us just before we reached the summit of the hill. Our three regiments of Dragoons were not quite in line, the ____ [Royal] Dragoons on the right and some yards in advance, so the General placing himself in front of them they charged a little before the others did. The French gave us only a partial volley, being in some disorder, having no idea of our Brigade being so near at hand; we accordingly went right through them – not a horse as is usually the case went around from the fire – and the enemy threw down their arms. The other regiments coming up, we again charged, the General riding along the whole line to the left of the Brigade, so that we saw the whole three regiments charge – the result the same – the enemy throwing down their arms and begging their lives. In the conflict two eagles were taken. We ought to have stopped and reformed the Brigade, but our men still went on. The General however had collected about thirty of his men, when Colonel ____ came past us at full gallop with about twenty of his men, in a second all those we had collected set off in the same direction. In the hopes of stopping them we followed, and passed between the columns of French infantry when the Red Polish Lancers closed in behind us. (Letter or diary of Lt Archibald James Hamilton printed as ‘The Union Brigade at Waterloo’ ed by G. Tylden J.S.A.H.R. vol 24 Spring 1946 p 46-7).
The Charge of the Household Brigade:
At the same time the Household Brigade under Lord Edward Somerset charged the French cuirassiers who were covering D’Erlon’s western flank and caught them at a disadvantage as they endeavoured to cross the sunken road near the crest of the rise above La Haye Sainte. Captain William Elton of the 1st Dragoon Guards described the resulting melee in a letter written on 15 July:
The Enemy stood very well till we came within 20 yards: They had every appearance of being picked men, extremely large & well mounted, which I believe was the case as they were Cuirassiers of the Imperial Guard. Our men setting up a general shout, many of them went about immediately. Those who could escape lost no time, the others were blocked up in a corner, a large fence on one side & a broad ravine on the other: These were all killed by our people, but their cuirass secured them to such an degree that not one blow told out of five. Lord Uxbridge had a turn with one of their Officers & tho’ two of our men charged him & gave him plenty of cuts & thrusts on both sides, the man escaped into the Lane where he was killed by the others. Lord E. Somerset who charged us crossed the ravine& was followed by all of us whose horses could leap in such slippery ground [.] Many Dragoons lost their lives in falling in, others went round [.] The lane leading from the Duke of Wellingtons position into the plain was quite choked up with Cuirassiers & our men mixed & engaged with each other [.] at length it was tolerably well cleared and Lord Edward having heard that the quarter part of the K. D. G[uards] were broke & gone away without order into the Enemys lines ordered me to rally & halt as many as possible, which was done but too late, as on one seemed to know what was to become of the right Squadrons & other broken troops & the ground in the plain where they had so far advanced was covered with immense columns of the enemy. (Quoted in Uffindell National Army Museum Book of Wellington’s Armies p 297).
Horrors of the Battlefield:
A cavalryman on the left flank, well away from the worst of the fighting, recalled:
Nor was it the least disagreeable attendant on our position, that we stood exactly on such a spot as enabled us to behold the last struggles of the wounded, whose strength sufficed only to carry them only a few yards to the rear. There was a long sort of ditch, or drain, some way behind us, towards which these poor fellows betook themselves by scores; and ere three hours had passed, it was absolutely choked up with the bodies of those who lay down there only that they might die. Then, again, the wounded horses, of which multitudes wandered all over the field, troubled us. (Gleig Light Dragoon p 156).
Harry Smith’s comments are interesting:
No one but those who have witnessed the awful scene, knows the horrors of a field of battle – the piles of the dead, the groans of the dying, the agony of those dreadfully wounded, to whom frequently no assistance can be rendered at the moment; some still in perfect possession of their intellect, game to the last, regarding their recovery as more than probable, while the clammy perspiration of death has already pounced upon its victim; others, again, perfectly sensible of their dissolution, breathing into your keeping the feelings and expressions of their last moments – messages to father, mother, wife or dearest relatives. … Often I have myself, tired and exhausted in such scenes, almost regretted the life I have adopted, in which one never knows at any moment how near or distant one’s own turn may be. In such dejection you sink into a profound sleep, and you stand up next morning in fresh spirits. Your country’s calls, your excitement, honour and glory, again impel, and undauntedly and cheerfully you expose that life which the night before you fancied was of value …
I had been over many a field of battle, with the exception of one spot at New Orleans, and the breach at Badajos, I had never seen anything to be compared with what I saw. At Waterloo the whole field from right to left was a mass of dead bodies. In one spot, to the right of La Haye Sainte, the French Cuirassiers were literally piled on each other; many soldiers not wounded lying under their horses; others, fearfully wounded, occasionally with their horses struggling upon their wounded bodies. The sight was sickening …’ (Autobiography of Sir Harry Smith p 274-5).
Veterans compared to inexperienced troops under fire:
Years later Samuel Rogers recorded Wellington as saying:
‘Many of my troops were new; but the new fight well, though they manoeuvre ill, better perhaps than many whom have fought and bled.
‘And the way in which some of our ensigns and lieutenants braved danger – the boys jut come from school – it exceeds all belief’. (Tabletalk of Samuel Rogers p 242).
Basil Jackson in his Notes and Reminiscences of a Staff Officer p 31 writes
I must not stop now to discuss the question, whether young or old officers are best in the junior grades, but will hazard an opinion that, for battle, the headlong dash of the English lad of twenty is better than the calculating coolness of riper years. And even as regards soldiers, I may cite the opinion of an experienced officer who served throughout the Peninsula campaigns, and that of Waterloo – Fullarton, of the Rifles, he said, “Give me young soldiers, old ones are apt to become too cunning”.
Even if this is not completed accepted, it is a useful corrective to the assumption that the more experience the better.
When did La Haye Sainte fall?
The conventional view puts this about 6:30pm after the cavalry charges, or at least at their very end. That makes for a convenient narrative but it is difficult to reconcile with Kempt’s statement that he asked Lambert to retake the farm, but that Lambert was unable to make the attempt ‘all the infantry in this part of the position being formed in square, and the enemy’s cavalry around them’. (Kempt’s Report to Wellington 19 June 1815 WSD vol 10 p 535-7).
It is worth noting that Wellington told Croker that it fell ‘about 2 o’clock’, and blamed it on the neglect of the officer commanding (Wellington to [J. W. Croker] Paris 17 August 1815 WD VIII p 244-5). This has always been dismissed and Baring’s account of his defense of the post has been accepted at face value. Probably this is correct – the casualty figures certainly seem to support it. However there is an outside chance that the defense was less prolonged, and even less heroic, than had been thought.
For what it is worth – which may not be very much – Kincaid says that the farm was taken between 3 and 4 o’clock (Adventures p 168); and James Mill says that the French made an attack at 3 o’clock which drove the allies from La Haye Sainte (Mill to his father, Brussels, July 1815 ‘Service in Ireland, the Peninsula, New Orleans and at Waterloo’ United Service Magazine September 1870 p 79). James Hope also puts it between two and three o’clock (Hope Iberian and Waterloo Campaign p 250-1), while Ross Lewin, writing later, says it fell ‘a little before 3 p.m.’ (With the 32nd p 275). And finally Walter Scott, visiting the battlefield in August 1815, was told that the farm was ‘early taken, and long held, by the French’. (Letters of Sir Walter Scott vol 4 p 80).
None of this is conclusive, but the accumulation of evidence is suggestive, and an earlier time for its fall – even as late as 4pm – makes more sense of the fate of the 27th and the attrition in the allied centre.
Wellington’s elm tree:
This is scarcely mentioned in any of the first hand accounts written soon after the battle, and George Cathcart in 1835 told Siborne: ‘What is odd, I forgot the far-famed tree altogether; it would only be a small one’. (Waterloo Letters p 33). (Fitzroy Somerset in Waterloo Papers p 12 makes a passing allusion to ‘the Tree’).
Houssaye (1815 Waterloo p 194, 413) gives its location according to Craan’s map – and fate – sold off as mementoes by ‘an enterprising British entrepreneur’.
By 1817 (or possibly even 1815) the Elm, still standing, was one of the highlights and focal points for British vistors taken on tours of the battlefield – see Gentleman’s Magazine 1817 p 221 reviewing Tour through various parts of the Netherlands and Germany in 1815.
The French cavalry charges:
According to French accounts Ney initially ordered forward only a single brigade of cuirassiers, but was so annoyed by the obstruction and objections of the cavalry commanders that he extended his demand to all eight regiments of Milhaud’s corps, and that they were then joined, without orders from Ney, by the lancers and chasseurs of the Imperial Guard. (Houssaye 1815 Waterloo p 203). This seems rather unlikely and has more than a hint of officers protecting their reputations after the event, but there was always a tendency for supporting units to get pulled into combat, as can be seen from the struggle at Hougoumont.
The Strain in the Centre:
Charles Alten, whose division was equally affected, gives a similar picture to Kempt: ‘The enemy, every moment, advanced nearer to us, and continually brought up fresh troops. His artillery played on our squares at a distance of 150 paces; with canister shot; not a single battalion yielded; the dead were thrust aside, and the ranks immediately closed’. (Alten’s report in Burrell Official Bulletins p 24).
James Mill, an officer in the 40th which was in the same brigade as the 1/27th, wrote home from Brussels a few weeks later while recovering from a wound:
A very tremendous cannonade was commenced soon after this by the French on our lines, and uninterruptedly continued. We lay down in square to escape as far as possible its destructive effects. Half the 27th Inniskillings were mowed down in a similar position without having the power or opportunity to return a shot. At one time the officer commanding the 27th Regiment, when there was a temporary cessation of fire from artillery that appeared grouped about and covered at all advantageous points the surface of the ground, rode up to our major, and announced the fact of having barely an officer left to command each company. Major Browne offered to lend him some from the 40th. This, however, was at once imperatively declined. The sergeants of the regiment liked to command the companies (so he said), and he would be loth to deprive them of the honour. (Mill to his father, Brussels, July 1815 ‘Service in Ireland, the Peninsula, New Orleans and at Waterloo’ United Service Magazine September 1870 p 70. Of the 21 officers with the regiment that morning only six were not returned or killed or wounded: Siborne History of the War in France and Belgium third edition p 564.).
There are many references to some unnamed subordinate asking to withdraw his troops out of the line for a little and Wellington refusing. This goes back at least to Paul’s Letters to his Kinfolk (by Sir Walter Scott p 100) and there is an odd part of Alten’s first report that Kielmansegge had actually withdrawn his brigade – a statement that Alten went on to correct on 22 June (WSD vol 10 p 534-5, 559-60).
Thomas Morris has a passage that may be an echo of this: ‘the Duke of Wellington riding by, again addressed our general with, “Well Halket [sic], how do you get on?” The general replied, “My lord, we are dreadfully cut up; can you not relieve us for a little while?” “Impossible,” said the Duke. “Very well, my lord”, said the general; “we’ll stand till the last man falls!”’ (Morris The Napoleonic Wars p 79).
Wellington’s exposure to enemy fire:
Twenty years later George Cathcart, one of his ADCs recalled that ‘the Duke had been looking on at the attack on La Haye Sainte at that moment of intense interest, when the ammunition began to fail the defenders, and no means of getting either reinforcements or ammunition to them for want of any postern was discovered, the Duke, who was much vexed, had remained till the Enemy’s tirailleurs had actually shown themselves round the side of the house, and then had to retire by that gap into the hollow road and up again on the other side’. (Siborne Waterloo Letters p 33).
The very fact that he survived unscathed suggests that Wellington was not reckless and Lady Shelley reports a conversation in Paris:
I firmly believe, that if anything happened to me at Waterloo the battle was lost. I told Lord Uxbridge so – an odd thing to say to the second in command, was it not? But I’ll tell you how it happened. We were riding together into rather too hot a fire. I stopped him, and said: “I must not go there, for, should anything happen to me, the battle is lost!” Uxbridge said “By the way, should anything happen to you, what is best to be done?” I gave him my instructions for a retreat – as a legacy! Soon after a ball hit him. It must have passed over me, or my horse! (Lady Shelley’s Diary vol 1 p 103).
The details are probably not exactly right, but the implication about Wellington’s discretion probably is. On the other hand we know that the Duke’s red box containing some of his most important papers was lost during the battle. The orderly who carried it was killed, and Lt Col Canning took it and when he was killed his horse, with the box, was lost. It was recovered about ten days later. (Frazer Letters p 572, 582).
Wellington later told Croker, ‘I certainly did not draw my sword’, and this probably applies to the whole day, although the immediate context was the charge of the Union and Household brigades (Wellington to Croker, n.d. Croker Papers vol 3 p 282).
The Defeat of Napoleon’s Old Guard:
There is a memorandum by Digby Mackworth, one of Hill’s ADCs, which purports to have been written at eleven o’clock on the night of 18 June although its style suggests a rather later date of composition. Whether it is an accurate description of what actually happened, or an attempt to find fitting language for what ought to have happened, may be doubted, but it is worth reading:
The cannonade continued without intermission; and about six o’clock we saw heavy columns of infantry supported by dragoons returning for a fresh attack. It was evident it would be a desperate, and we thought probably decisive, one. Every one felt how much depended on this terrible moment. A black mass of the Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard with music playing and the great Napoleon at their head, came rolling onward from the farm at La Belle Alliance. With rapid pace they descended. Those spaces in our lines which death had opened and left vacant, were covered with bodies of cavalry. The point at which the enemy aimed was now evident; it was an angle formed by a brigade of Guards, and the light brigade of Lord Hill’s corps [i.e. Adam’s brigade]. Lord Hill was there in person. The French moved on with arms sloped, au pas de charge. They began to ascend the hill. In a few seconds they were within a hundred paces of us, and as yet not a shot had been fired. The awful moment was now at hand. A peal of ten thousand thunders burst at once on their devoted heads. The storm swept them down as a whirlwind rushes over the ripe corn; they paused; their advance ceased; they commenced firing from the heads of the columns, and attempted to extend their front; but death had already caused too much confusion among them; they crowded instinctively behind each other to avoid a fire which was intolerably dreadful. Still they stood firm – la garde meurt, et ne se rend pas. For half an hour this horrible butchery continued. At last, seeing all their efforts vain, all their courage useless, deserted by the Emperor who was already flown, unsupported by their comrades who were already beaten, the hitherto Invincible Old Guard gave way, and fled in every direction. One spontaneous and almost painfully animated ‘hurrah!’ bust from the victorious ranks of England. The line at once advanced, generals, officers, soldiers, all partaking in one common enthusiasm. (Printed in Sidney Life of Hill pp. 308-10).
‘Up Guards and at them’:
Wellington’s remark had already appeared in a number of British newspapers by October 1815, although it is not clear whether these accounts drew on Batty’s letter or some other source. (Foster Wellington and Waterloo p 81). Leeke, writing half-a-century later and needing to discredit the story claims that, ‘It was a piece of gossip picked up in the camp by Sir Walter Scott on his visit to Paris, first appearing in his Paul’s Letters to his Kinfolk, and from thence gravely adopted by Alison as historical fact’. (History of Lord Seaton’s Regiment at the Battle of Waterloo vol 1 p 83). However it clearly pre-dates Scott’s publication, although he did give it wider currency. Curiously the quote is not repeated in Batty’s own book An Historical Sketch of the Campaign of 1815.
It may be quite genuine, although it seems unlikely. Lord Saltoun’s response to Siborne’s query strikes a sensible note: ‘Your last point is whether the Duke made use of the words “Up, Guards, and at them”. I did not hear him, nor do I know any person that did. It is a matter of no sort of importance, has become current with the world as the cheering speech of a great man to his troops, and is certainly not worth a controversy about. If you have got it I should let it stand’. (Siborne Waterloo Letters p 248).
The Times published a story in 1841 that an unnamed sculptor, chatting to the Duke during a sitting, asked him about the story and Wellington ‘laughed very good humouredly …[and said] “Ah! the old story. People will invent words for me. Poets will write, and painters will paint, and I suppose we must give them some license, but really I don’t know what I said. I saw that the moment for action was come, and I gave the command for attack. I suppose the words were brief and homely enough, for they ran through the ranks and were obeyed on the instant. I never saw sharper work. But as to the exact words I used at such a moment, I am sure I don’t recollect them, and I very much doubt whether any one else can.”’ (The Times 15 October 1841). And in 1852 Wellington replied to a letter from Croker, ‘What I must have said and possibly did say was, Stand up, Guards! and then gave the commanding officers the order to attack.’ (Wellington to Croker n.d. [but replying to Croker’s letter of 14 March 1852] Croker Papers vol 3 p 282-3).
Wellington’s other famous remarks:
Walter Scott’s account of the battle in Paul’s Letters to his Kinfolk was an early (January 1816: Edgar Johnson’s Walter Scott vol 1 p 512) and very widely read account which popularized and preserved for later generations many ideas, including ‘Up, Guards, and at them’.
On p 98-99 Scott attributes a number of other phrases to Wellington including ‘“That’s good practice” [of the French artillery fire] “I think they fire better than in Spain.”’
“Stand fast, 95th – we must not be beat – what will they say in England?”
“Never mind, we’ll win this battle yet”
‘To another regiment, then closely engaged, he used a common sporting expression; “Hard pounding this, gentleman,; let’s see who will pound longest.”’ John Malcolm’s journal (in Kaye’s Life of Malcolm vol 2 p 101) also quotes Wellington in Paris saying ‘“it was hard pounding on both sides, and we pounded the hardest.”’
Scott also gave wide currency to ‘nothing, excepting a battle lost, can be half so melancholy as a battle won’ (p 100).
Wellington orders a General Advance:
Harry Smith gives a nice glimpse of this: ‘At this moment I saw the Duke, with only one Staff officer remaining, galloping furiously to the left. I rode on to meet him. “Who commands here?” “Generals Kempt and Lambert, my lord.” “Desire them to get into a column of companies of Battalions, and move on immediately.” I said, “In which direction, my lord?” “Right ahead, to be sure.” I never saw his Grace so animated’. (Autobiography of Sir Harry Smith p 272).
Allied Losses on 18 June 1815:
The figure for Prussian casualties is surprisingly high: 7,000 killed, wounded and missing, especially as Oman’s figures for French officer casualties do not really support the idea of fighting around Plancenoit being exceptionally bloody.
There are also some strange and irritating discrepancies between the figures given in Siborne’s text and those in his appendices, which are complicated by differences between editions and his habit of not including officers in his totals.
Return of British and KGL wounded:
The return of the fate of British wounded cited in the text lists 7,687 British and KGL wounded (excluding officers) which is significantly more than the total British and KGL listed as wounded or missing at Waterloo (6,744 or 6,544) in Siborne’s text or appendices. The difference can be made up with casualties from Quatre Bras (where Siborne lists over 2,000 British wounded), and possibly some troops of other nationalities admitted to British hospitals, but it does seem to account for almost all of British and KGL wounded in the campaign.
Wellington’s letter to Sir Charles Flint:
On the day after the battle Wellington wrote to Sir Charles Flint (the permanent head of the Irish Office – see Gash Mr Secretary Peel p 116):
Poor Canning had my small dispatch box in our battle yesterday, and when he was killed it was lost. I shall be very much obliged to you if you will send me another of the same size as the last, with the same lock and key and leather cover &c., as soon as possible. Let it have in it a small silver or thick glass inkstand with one of Bramah’s patent penholders and one of his pens. What do you think of the total defeat of Buonaparte by the British Army? Never was there in the annals of the world so desperate or so hard-fought an action, or such a defeat. It was really the battle of the giants. My heart is broken by the terrible loss I have sustained of my old friends and companions and my poor soldiers. I shall not be satisfied with the battle, however glorious, if it does not of itself put an end to Buonaparte. (Wellington to Sir Charles Flint, 19 June 1815 The Times 18 June 1815 p 9. Extracts of this letter were published at least as early as 1815 in the compilation volume The Battle of Waterloo … by a Near Observer published by Charles Booth, but it does not appear in the main sequences of his correspondence.)
Wellington’s reaction on the evening of the battle:
In September 1836 Lady Salisbury asked Wellington about his feelings on the evening of the battle and recorded the conversation in her diary:
I asked him what were his sensations when he felt that the day was won at Waterloo. Me ‘I suppose you must have felt secure of the victory when the Guards withstood the famous charge that was made upon them, and what was your feeling at that moment? Did it not surpass all that one can imagine?’ Duke ‘It is very singular, but I have no recollection of any feeling of satisfaction. At the time you mention, I was by no means secure of the victory, nor till long afterwards. But I have no recollection of any sensation of delight, such as you describe, throughout the day. You can probably recollect all the moments of great happiness which have occurred to you in your life – Well, I can recollect nothing of that sort on that day – if I experienced it. My thoughts were so entirely occupied with what was to be done to improve the victory, to replace the officers that were lost, to put everything in proper order, that I had not leisure for another idea. I remember our supper that night very well – and then I went to bed, and was called about three o’clock in the morning by Hume to go and see poor Gordon, but he was dead before I got there. Then I came back and had a cup of tea and some toast, wrote my dispatch – and then I rode into Brussels and got there about six in the morning.’ (Lady Salisbury’s diary, 29 September 1836 Gascoyne Heiress p 214).
Bravest or most deserving soldier in the British Army at Waterloo:
A month after the battle a clergyman, the Rev. John Norcross of Framlington, Suffolk, wrote to Wellington, expressing his desire to give an annuity of £10 ‘to any one of my brave countrymen who fought under your Grace’s banners in that late tremendous but glorious conflict’. Wellington welcomed the proposal praising ‘the patriotic spirit which has induced you to make this sacrifice’ and attributing to this spirit ‘the advantages we have acquired in the field’. After making enquiries he nominated Lance Sergeant Graham of the Coldstream Guards to be the recipient of the award. (Rev. John Norcross to Wellington, 19 July 1815, WSD vol 11 p 35; Wellington to Norcross, 31 July and 24 August 1815 WD VIII p 222 and 249).
When Norcross died years later he left a bequest of £500 to go to the bravest soldier who had served at Waterloo, and his executors asked Wellington to nominate the recipient. Wellington replied that ‘The success of the battle of Waterloo … turned upon the closing of the gates of Hougoumont. These gates were closed in the most courageous manner, at the very nick of time, by the effort of Sir James Macdonnel. I cannot help thinking, therefore, that Sir James is the man to whom you should give the £500.’ Macdonnel, on being approached, said ‘I cannot claim all the merit due to the closing of the gates of Hougoumont; for Serjeant John Graham, who saw with me the importance of the step, rushed forward, and together we shut the gates. What I should therefore propose is, that the serjeant and myself divide the legacy between us.’ The executors accepted this proposal and the legacy was accordingly divided. The brave serjeant died on 23 April 1845. ‘Near Observer’ Circumstantial Account of the Battle of Waterloo … by a near observer 11th edition, 1852 p 86).
According to the DNB (entry for James Graham, 1791-1845), two soldiers were given annuities: Lance Sergeant James Graham who assisted Lt-Col. Macdonell in closing the gates of Hougoumont, and Private Joseph Lester, 3rd Foot Guards. The annuities were only paid for two years before ceasing when the Rev. Norcross went bankrupt in 1817. Graham remained in the Guards, and took part in the arrest of the Cato Street conspirators. He left the army in 1830 and was granted a pension of 9d per day and in 1841 was admitted as an in-pensioner to the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, Dublin. He died there on 28 April 1845.
The DNB makes no mention of the story of a bequest, let alone of even half of £500, and it seems likely that the story of the bequest is a garbled version of the story of the annuity.
 This was a mistake commonly made by British soldiers, but there were no cuirassiers in the Imperial Guard.
© Rory Muir