From early morning on 18 June, the 95th’s camp kettles were boiling away outside Barnard’s billet. The house was just behind a crossroads on the Mont Saint Jean ridge. As it was one of the pivotal points of the battlefield, the riflemen found themselves serving up hot, sweet tea to every variety of commander from Wellington downwards, as they came to study the ground.
The paved road from Brussels to Genappe extended away downhill to their front. About two hundred yards from the top of the ridge, on the right of the road, was the walled farm of La Haye Sainte. This had been turned into a strongpoint and was occupied by light troops of the German Legion. On the left of the road, halfway between the ridge top and that farm, was an area which had been excavated for gravel, known as the sandpit. It was here that Captain Leach was initially posted with two companies, ready to go forward and skirmish. Just to his rear was another company, which could join them. The 1st/95th’s formed reserve, its other three companies, would be posted on the road running from east to west on top of the ridge, behind some hedges. Barnard and his second-in-command, Major Alexander Cameron, would be here too.
Wellington and Napoleon had of course brought vast armies to this field and the 95th’s position represented but a stitch or two on the tapestry of deployments. Several artillery batteries were placed on the ridge just in front of Barnard and the 95th’s reserve. Picton’s infantry battalions were mostly behind them, in an area invisible to the French. Off to the Rifles’ right was an infantry division under Karl von Alten, the Light Division’s old Peninsular chief. Way off, further to the right and outside their view, was the chateau of Hougomont which would be defended by the Guards Division.
As for Napoleon, he chose a ridge about five hundred yards in front of Leach’s position to site his main concentration of artillery. This wall of eighty guns would be able to hurl a weight of shot at the British centre and left quite unlike anything they had experienced in the Peninsula. During the morning, ‘we perceived our adversaries bringing into position, on the heights opposite, gun after gun’, Leach wrote, ‘intended particularly to salute our division, the farm of La Haye Sainte and the left of Baron Alten’s division.’ Wellington had ensured that by placing them on the reverse slope of the ridge, much of his infantry would be untouched by that battery, but the 95th and German Legion around Haye Sainte would not have that luxury.
While the French were hauling up caissons full of ammunition and yet more cannon, the 95th distributed cartridges and sent its transport to the rear. Simmons and a party under him went to cut down trees to help build up a barricade on the main road south, near Haye Sainte. This would stop enemy cavalry and horse artillery using this route to rush up to the British position.
At about 1 p.m. the French guns opened the ball, the very first shot from the grand battery taking off a rifleman’s head, and scattering its contents about. The eighty guns thundered away for most of that hour, the riflemen lying down in the sandpit or on the ridge, as the shot ripped through the air just above them.
This firing had little effect on Wellington’s concealed infantry, and as the familiar drumming and ‘Vive l’Empereur’s of an infantry attack replaced the cacophony of the guns, the three forward companies of the 95th extended out and began skirmishing with their covering voltigeurs. The firing checked this screen, but General d’Erlon’s columns kept advancing, marching through their light troops, who were still engaged in their private struggle with the 95th.
Captain Duthilt marched forward in the main part of d’Erlon’s column. He was a grizzled veteran of twenty-two years who had fought in the first revolutionary campaigns. He looked up towards the ridge, and a little to his left at La Haye Sainte. He was worried by the strength of the defences, the cloying mud, the unusual formation in which they were delivering their attack, and by the fact that the usual cheering and egging on of the conscripts had begun too soon in their progress forwards. ‘This rush and enthusiasm were becoming disastrous,’ according to Duthilt, ‘in that the soldier still had a long march to make before meeting the enemy, and was soon tired out by the difficulty of manoeuvring on this heavy churned-up soil, which ripped off gaiter straps and even claimed shoes … there was soon some disorder in the ranks, above all as soon as the head of the column came within range of enemy fire.’ Riflemen, German legionnaires, light companies from Picton’s division and cannon all poured death into the head of d’Erlon’s corps.
The French, falling into confusion, were still moving forward – at this point, confronted with several thousand infantry, Leach had little choice but to fall back up the slope to his supports on the ridge. Stopping every now and then to turn and fire, the riflemen made their way up and were soon behind the hedge.
The engagement had become hot, and raged across the front. Major Cameron was hit in the neck by one shot, being carried to the rear. Picton too fell, his wound being mortal.
It was at this moment, at around 2 p. m., that the riflemen looking down to their right saw French cuirassiers cantering up to a Hanoverian militia battalion, which was making its way to reinforce the defenders of Haye Sainte. Catching them unawares, the French cavalry rode down the whole lot. The armoured horsemen set about the infantry with their long sabres, bringing pathetic cries for mercy from the lacerated Germans. No quarter was given, though, and the few bloodied survivors fled back up the slope.
The French were soon coming onto the ridge. It was at this moment that the 1st Battalion of the 95th faced the final crisis, and one of the most severe, of all its years’ fighting under Wellington. Seeing the cuirassiers cantering up the slope towards them, and hearing the cries of the sergeant majors who were getting their men into square, many of the riflemen panicked. They had seen what had happened to the 42nd at Quatre Bras and they had witnessed the riding down of the Germans moments before. The power of heavy cavalry en masse was not something that even the Peninsular veterans had really seen before. Dozens of them started running.
Rallying the steady men around them, the 95th’s officers were able to withstand the cuirassiers. Having arrived on top of the ridge, faced with red-coated walls bristling with bayonets, the French heavies were unable to make any serious impression. Those riflemen who had fled, meanwhile, were running into the woods at the rear of Wellington’s position.
A general charge of British cavalry now swept forward, inflicting the same treatment on the leading battalions of d’Erlon’s corps as the Germans had suffered not an hour before. The riflemen stood or lay flinching, hoping desperately that they would not be trampled as the Life Guards came thundering past them and down onto the French. With the leading battalions already disordered by their long and trying march towards the ridge, the French were at the mercy of the British horse. In a few moments, two eagles were taken and thousands of enemy infantry were sent streaming back towards their own lines. Captain Duthilt joined in the rout: ‘The brigade started retreating, dissolving, ridden through everywhere by this cavalry, and the ground was clogged with dead and wounded.’ The old veteran was captured by a British trooper, but his luck soon changed. Some of the British cavalry, enthused by their success, rode down as far as the French battery, where they were duly overwhelmed by a French counter-attack. Duthilt and hundreds of other prisoners from the wrecks of d’Erlon’s column were freed.
Once the French cavalry pulled back from the ridge, Leach once more led the three Rifle companies, now somewhat depleted, back to the sandpit and the left of La Haye Sainte. The Rifles then enjoyed a period of comparative calm, while Napoleon prosecuted a huge attack between La Haye Sainte and Hougomont. This the 1st/95th could hear but not see.
By about 4 p. m., pressure was building again in front of La Haye Sainte. The French battery had regained its organisation after the driving off of the British horse, and was lofting dozens of shot at the defenders of the walled farm. Many shells also struck the 27th, the Inniskillings, who had remained in square, close to the crossroads on the ridge top. Fear of further cavalry attack prevented them abandoning the formation, but increased the effect of the roundshot that ploughed through its ranks. In front of the sandpit, French skirmishers too were coming forward again.
Simmons, firing with his men at this new swarm of voltigeurs, was felled by a blow to his midriff. He bit the dust and struggled for breath. Blood was pouring out of a wound to his belly. Probing with his fingers, Simmons could feel that a couple of his ribs had been smashed by the ball going in. He had seen enough wounds in his campaigns to know that a ball smashing through the trunk made the outcome most doubtful for him. Four riflemen carried him back up behind the ridge to a little house that was being used as a dressing station.
Finding himself surrounded by dying men, fighting for breath, Simmons was struggling not to lose hope. Then, to his surprise and delight, Sergeant Fairfoot appeared. Having heard his old friend was seriously wounded, with his own right arm still strapped up from its wound of the day before, Fairfoot came to rescue Simmons. ‘Oh lift me up, I am suffocating!’ cried Simmons in agony. Fairfoot struggled to prop up the lieutenant. Six years they had campaigned together, fighting against the odds from that dark night in Barba del Puerco to Tarbes. Tears began streaming down Fairfoot’s cheeks, cutting tracks through the grime of battle. He was not ready to see his old friend die like this.
At last an assistant surgeon began poking around Simmons’s insides in what passed for an operation. Fairfoot propped him up, all the time, as the sawbones prodded and pushed with his infernal instruments and Simmons gritted his teeth against the pain. At last the ball was extracted. Moments later a British cavalry officer ran into the surgery and shouted the alarm. The French were attacking again and would be upon them in moments!
Fairfoot helped Simmons, wincing with agony, blood pouring down his side, to his feet. The sergeant spied a French prisoner on a horse and pulled him off it without ceremony. Fairfoot and another tried to help Simmons up, but he passed out and the two men could not manage the dead weight.
The alarms at the aid post had been occasioned by the renewal of a heavy French infantry attack at about 6 p.m. Leach, who was now in charge of the battalion, both Barnard and Cameron having fallen wounded, could do little but watch in horror as the German Legion abandoned La Haye Sainte. After resisting heroically for six hours, the legionnaires had run out of ammunition and taken heavy casualties. They were forced to quit the buildings with dozens of their men strewn about the courtyard, shattered timbers and tiles spread crazily across them.
With the French now in possession of the shattered farm, balls began whistling into the sandpit from its exposed flank, killing several riflemen. A further French infantry attack was also making its way up the ridge to Leach’s left. Having both flanks turned, he had no choice but to abandon the position again, taking his survivors back to their supports on the ridge.
Behind them, Fairfoot, desperately agitated, had at last found a cavalry horse for Simmons and was taking him further to the rear. The immediate crisis was over, but neither of them had any great faith that Simmons would survive his wound.
With the light beginning to fail on the field of Waterloo, the tide at last turned. The French capture of La Haye Sainte did not prove decisive. Instead the defeat of the Imperial Guard in the centre, and the arrival of the Prussians on Wellington’s left, settled the matter. In that first contest, Colonel John Colborne had covered himself with glory, leading his 52nd forward to complete the Guard’s discomfiture. The struggle was over, as was Bonaparte’s gamble to regain power.
With his second abdication, the French imperial dream was buried, and Europe began its ‘long peace’ of almost forty years. The hopes of individual veterans for some tranquillity and relief from the dangers of campaigning were now answered. But the inevitable contraction of the Army posed its own risks to the 95th.
In the days after this epic struggle, church bells rang in England and Wellington wrote a weary victory dispatch. Scattered across the Belgian countryside on smelly mattresses, Barnard, Cameron and Simmons all made their recovery. The short campaign, the Hundred Days, would soon be over. It had not passed well for the 1st/95th.
Barnard had been deeply shocked by what had happened on the ridge. Three days after the battle, he wrote to Cameron:
I regret to say that a great number of our men went to the rear without cause after the appearance of the Cuirassiers, there were no less than 100 absentees after the fight and this vexes me very much as it is the first time such a thing has ever happened in the regiment. Kincaid says very few if any quitted the corps after the charge of the cavalry. Many of those that went to the rear were men that I little expected to have heard of in that situation.
It may be deduced from the fact that many of these men were evidently veterans that the incidents involving Corporal Pitt at Dover and Sergeant Underwood at Quatre Bras were in some sense portents. There were too many in the battalion who had fought more than they felt anyone could reasonably be expected to fight and resented being wrenched from what they thought would be a peaceful life back in England. For that reason, the short Belgian campaign had proven the severest moral test of the battalion.
Simmons, Fairfoot and Leach had all come through. Their devotion to one another and their ability to resign themselves to whatever fate the battlefield held for them had allowed them to end their campaigns with heads held high.
The losses of the 1st/95th in the battle were not great – amounting to around 21 men killed and 124 injured. The 27th, by way of contrast, suffered 478 casualties (of whom 105 were slain) – well over half of the men who came into action. They had been close to the 95th (actually slightly further from the French), standing in square, with enemy cannon balls ploughing great lanes through their ranks. With its open fields, reserves of French heavy cavalry and artillery, Waterloo had not been a good place for the 95th to demonstrate the superiority of rifle power over mass or bayonets. Many thousands of Green Jackets would have been needed for that. However, the comparatively slight losses at least showed yet again that troops who fought in this way were far less vulnerable, even when standing under the fire of Napoleon’s huge battery for an entire day.
It seems that Wellington and other British generals were unaware that a significant proportion of Barnard’s battalion had fled. This was to become an unmentionable subject in the regiment, which had long shown sensitivity about its reputation. Had the Duke ever become aware of it, he would probably have been philosophical, given the Rifles’ previous service. He was, after all, the general who said that all soldiers ran away sometimes, it was just a matter of how quickly they came back.
With Napoleon’s second abdication, the campaigns of the 1st Battalion of the 95th came to an end. The months after Waterloo saw the battalion reconstitute itself. For a couple of days after the great battle, those skulkers who had fled at the sight of Boney’s cuirassiers returned to the abuse and scorn of their messmates. The journey of the sick and wounded was often a longer one. Corporal Costello, Lieutenant Gairdner and Sergeant Fairfoot, wounded at Quatre Bras, all returned after a brief recuperation. George Simmons took longer, as befitted a man drilled in the guts at Waterloo.
They were all back in the ranks before the battalion left Paris in the bitter cold of that December of 1815. It was not the happy idyll of Castel Sarrazin and the previous summer. Instead there was plenty of grumbling. Certain reports of Waterloo in the newspapers highlighted the role of the Scottish regiments in Picton’s division. This nettled some officers like Leach, who felt that those from north of the Tweed were always making great claims for their own valour and ignoring those of others.
The award of a Waterloo medal caused some other latent tensions to break into the open. Peninsular men were livid that their own long sufferings had not yet been recognised with any badge or distinction, whereas dozens of Johnny Newcomes could wear the Waterloo medal. Some of the old soldiers taunted the younger men, calling them ‘recruits’ long after the battle, ripping off their Waterloo medals.
Wellington tried to repay some of his debt to the 95th by insisting that they be taken out of the ‘line’: from 1816 they would no longer be part of the sequence of numbered infantry regiments, but were known instead as the Rifle Brigade. This distinction honoured the riflemen, but also saved their skills for the Army. In times of peace there would soon be disbandments, and there was evident agreement in Horse Guards that the 95th Rifles must be saved from the fate of two regiments previously given that number: one was broken up at the end of the American wars, along with many other higher-numbered corps.
The 5th Battalion of the 60th, the mercenary corps that predated the Rifles and also served in the Peninsula, did not escape the disbandments. With its passing, it might be said that the Army finally abandoned the eighteenth-century notion that the rifleman was a born woodsman, best recruited from Germany or Switzerland. Britain and Ireland would henceforth be quite capable of furnishing the raw material for its rifle corps.
Even the formation of the Rifle Brigade, however, did not completely protect it: the 3rd Battalion was wound up a couple of years later. This event helped to ensure that George Simmons, who had written to his parents in 1810 that a man could get his company in five years in the Rifles, did not achieve that goal until nineteen years after he entered the regiment – despite all the suffering that attended his service.
In the meantime, the 1st Battalion returned home in November 1818, losing many veterans before being sent first to Scotland and then Ireland to protect the ministry from the anger of the mob. Although these were simply the exigencies of the service, none of the old sweats could pretend that keeping rioting Celts in check was a particularly pleasing occupation.
Ned Costello was among those invalided out of the regiment – aged thirty-one, he was awarded the miserly sum of sixpence a day. He later married, but finding the money insufficient to keep him, he ended up volunteering to fight in a British Legion which took part in the Spanish civil war in 1835. Costello’s previous services qualified him for the rank of lieutenant in this mercenary force, and he returned to England in 1836. A year and a half later, Costello’s difficulties in maintaining his wife and seven children finally came to an end with his appointment as a Yeoman warder at the Tower of London.
Many of the private soldiers who had served with Costello were a good deal less fortunate. Several succumbed to drink, becoming penniless drifters, begging beside the roads. Tom Plunket, the man who killed the French general during the Corunna campaign and was held up by his colonel as a ‘pattern for the battalion’, was sighted years later selling matches on the streets of London. In his case, the best efforts of that old commanding officer to obtain him a good pension failed to save the old soldier from alcoholism.
George Baller was another veteran of O’Hare’s company whose fate gives some insight into the pitiful circumstances into which many of the old 95th men fell. Baller was one of the hard core of the regiment, having been given the skulker Esau Jackson’s stripes outside the walls of Badajoz in 1812. He was invalided out in 1816, while the regiment was still in France, aged just twenty-eight. Baller had attained the status of colour sergeant but could not carry on due to the severity of his five wounds. One month after his discharge Baller was awarded a pension of ninepence per day by the board at Chelsea. Once married, Baller found himself too sick to work, with a pension too small to provide for his children. He ended up making a desperate appeal to the Chelsea board for more money in 1819. Baller’s exact fate is unknown, but it is clear that despite the most exemplary record, and testimonials from Andrew Barnard, he lived what remained of his life in grinding poverty and great physical pain.
As the years of the 95th’s great Peninsular fights receded, so those who were still fit and serving in the regiment found themselves living, as they had before the war, according to the petty routines of a peacetime army. For an officer like Jonathan Leach, who personified the ‘wild sportsman’ of those campaigning days, this was all too much. ‘I feel no particular penchant for passing the remainder of my days in marching off guards, going grand rounds and visiting rounds and performing other dull, monotonous and uninteresting duties of the kind, on which great stress is laid, and to which vast importance is attached, in various stiff-starched garrisons,’ he wrote. Leach resigned from the Army with the rank of lieutenant colonel to pursue other business.
Those with less wealth did not have this option. While serving on in the Rifle Brigade, Robert Fairfoot committed himself to raising a family, his wife Catherine bearing four children between 1817 and 1823. He named his son Joseph George Fairfoot, thus commemorating his father and his closest friend. Fairfoot eventually joined Simmons in the commissioned class, being made quartermaster in 1825. He had been a model soldier and was long overdue his reward. Andrew Barnard, writing to recommend the promotion, stated, ‘I cannot give a stronger proof of his merit than the anxiety that all the officers who command the Battalion to which he belongs feel for him.’
Simmons was destined to raise a family too, although he did not marry until 1836, by which time he had reached the ripe old age of fifty. The poorer officer’s life was not conducive to romance, involving as it did periods of unaccompanied service which might go on for years at a time. Several, including John Kincaid, never married.
In the years after Waterloo, the admiration for the 95th that permeated the old Peninsular Army spread pretty much throughout the service. In line regiments, an officer who survived the Peninsula might have considered himself lucky to have participated in a couple of general engagements and a lesser affair or two. The average soldier in any of the usual regiments simply did not have a turn at the centre of the action any more often than that. Even George Simmons’s brother Maud, of the 34th Foot, was in just four major actions, despite serving throughout the war. The Light Division, though, was usually first on the field and last off, as its men boasted. This meant that many years later, when a general-service medal was finally awarded for the Iberian campaigns, the metal clasps across its ribbon numbered two or maybe three for the average veteran, but twelve for Leach and eight for Simmons. Had Fairfoot lived long enough to get the wretched thing, his medal would have had nine.
The odyssey of the Rifles was therefore one of immense hardship and tough fighting, even by the harsh standards of the rest of Wellington’s Army. This left a passionate bond between its men. Simmons wrote to his parents, while recuperating after Waterloo, that he owed his life to Fairfoot, who ‘if I can do him a service may always command me; his character as a soldier stands with the first in the regiment’. The experience of campaigning with the 95th was so intense that it burned through the distinctions of rank and status that constrained so much of nineteenth-century society.
The great treasure of the Rifles’ experiences was hoarded by the British military caste for some time. It was inevitable, though, that the wider public would eventually come to learn the soldiers’ story, and that the 95th would become a legend.