Chapter 9


Napoleon faced a serious dilemma. Previously he had assembled thirty-seven battalions (including those of the Imperial Guard) to deliver what he hoped would be a decisive blow against Wellington’s line. Yet the fight for Plancenoit was steadily absorbing these troops he held in reserve, forcing him to commit twenty-three of these battalions to roust the Prussians out of the village. Even with these reinforcements, the fight there still swayed back and forth. He had to wait until he was sure that his right flank was secure before he could risk sending another attack forward.

The centre of the Anglo-Allied Army now lay under intense fire and, forced to remain in closely packed formations, the infantry suffered terribly. Even though their targets were out of sight, the French artillery had far greater chance of hitting men standing in square or in a line four files deep. Yet Napoleon knew that resources were finite and his guns could not maintain a cannonade on this scale for long. Artillery was also necessary to support the planned attack and exploit a breakthrough if it was successful. Therefore, the French needed to stop firing and conserve their ammunition very soon.

On the other side of the battlefield, Wellington knew that the French could not sustain this massive bombardment much longer. Nevertheless, he asked himself whether his men could withstand another sustained attack having fought all day under heavy fire. Dead and wounded lay piled in heaps on the plateau and behind the Mont St Jean ridge or lay scattered on the slope before it. Morale remained high in the battered infantry squares but they could see the carnage around them and walking wounded staggering back to the aid stations behind. He knew that when the attack came, everything would depend upon whether his infantry remained steadfast.


The threat of further cavalry attacks was still real and most of the Allied infantry remained in formations four-men deep. While they could still present a good number of muskets when firing, this formation made them almost as vulnerable as the square to artillery fire. As cavalry remained in the area, most battalion commanders felt unable to let the men sit or lie down and they had to stand and endure the fire, watching many of their comrades being cut down beside them.

Tirailleurs were also pressing over the ridge to snipe at the line battalions, which also made it difficult to lie prone if they were to fight them off. The French deployed far more skirmishers than ever before at Waterloo and their Allied counterparts were forced back by sheer weight of numbers. Consequently, the line was coming under aimed musket fire and often had to stand to fight the tirailleurs off while a hail of roundshot continued to plummet down upon them. French skirmishers were becoming increasingly bold and, as the Prince of Orange gave orders to Kruse’s Brigade of Nassauer troops, he and his staff came under fire from aimed muskets at close range. Several men and horses were hit and the Prince was struck in the shoulder and forced to quit the field.

Although Wellington’s redeployment had been effective, his line was stretched dangerously thin in places. Halkett’s Brigade had suffered badly at Quatre Bras and sustained even greater losses at Waterloo. The brigades of Kielmansegge and Ompteda had been decimated, leaving a gap in the line that Wellington had struggled to fill, and Lambert’s 10th Brigade had suffered enormous casualties.

In his haste to redeploy, Wellington had personally ridden to ensure that Chassé’s Dutch Belgian Division marched down from the right to bolster his weakened centre. He also ordered Uxbridge to place his cavalry behind the line to prevent it breaking. There had already been nervousness within the ranks and some rearward movement as the men suffered under the heavy bombardment but the sight of the cavalry drawn up behind them discouraged this.

As the Duke regained the area of the crossroads once more, a message from Colonel Fraser of the 52nd Foot reached him. A French cavalry officer had approached this regiment after deserting from Napoleon’s army. He rode up the ridge with one arm raised, signalling surrender. ‘Long live the King!’ he declared when brought before the colonel. ‘That rascal Napoleon will be on you with the Guard before a half-hour.’ Although Wellington already anticipated another major attack, this intelligence confirmed that it was imminent.

As Napoleon swept the Allied line with his spyglass, everything he saw confirmed that he needed to attack. To his left, a huge pillar of smoke boiled into the sky above Hougoumont and the din of the ferocious engagement raging there could be heard clearly from where he stood. Durutte’s Division was contesting the land before Papelotte and La Haye while the ill-advised cavalry attacks must have weakened the Allied centre to some extent. The divisions of Donzelot, Allix and Marcognet were edging forward against the Allied ridge on the right and Wellington must have committed all his reserves by now.

Napoleon’s main worry was the threat posed by the Prussians but, if he attacked swiftly, they might not be able to intervene in time to save their allies. After an exhausting forced march from Wavre, the Prussian infantry must be tired and would take time to concentrate and form for battle. The right flank of this attack would be vulnerable if Plancenoit fell but he felt obliged to take this risk. The appearance of Ziethen’s I Corps was even more worrying but only served to harden the Emperor’s resolve, as he felt he must act before they were fully deployed. Hearing Grouchy’s cannon to the east, he took heart, hoping that this action would occupy a substantial portion of the Prussian Army or even force them to disengage from the fighting at Waterloo.

The Imperial Guard battalions he had held back were fresh and eager to enter the fray. For more than 6 hours, his army had mounted incessant attacks against Wellington’s centre, which had suffered a dreadful pounding from his artillery. Crucially, now that La Haye Sainte was in French hands, the Anglo-Allied centre lay exposed to a direct assault. There was a strong chance that the Imperial Guard could break through. They had never let him down before and one last determined effort might bring success. Yet he had never needed a decisive victory more than he needed one now. If Napoleon was defeated here, Grouchy could also be cut off and his army destroyed in detail, leaving the French frontier open behind them.

Infantry of the Imperial Guard advance into battle. (A Bligny)

Napoleon estimated that there were only 2 hours of daylight left and, during this time, he would have to strike a crushing blow against Wellington’s army. Turning to General Drouot, Napoleon commanded: ‘La Garde au Feu!’ (‘Send up the Guard!’).


As the final preparations for the attack went into motion, Napoleon adopted the dangerous strategy of deceiving his own army, hoping to convince his soldiers that victory lay within their grasp. Ziethen’s I Corps was now clearly visible on their right flank and beginning to engage. He ordered several officers, including Colonel Octave Levavasseur, to spread word that these were actually French troops and Grouchy had finally arrived. Levavasseur recalled that he: ‘set off at a gallop, with my hat raised on the point of my sabre, and rode down the line shouting: ‘Vive l’Empereur! Soldats, voila Grouchy!’ The shout was taken up by a thousand voices. The exaltation of the troops reached fever pitch and they all shouted: ‘En avant! En avant! Vive l’Empereur!’ Looking up on the ridge, they could see firing and smoke from some of the unfortunate clashes between Allied and Prussian troops. This, along with signs of the action being fought by the remnants of d’Erlon’s Corps along the ridge, added credence to the lie. Marshal Ney was not the only senior officer to be appalled by this subterfuge, guessing that it would lead to trouble.

Generals Drouot and Friant led the Guard forward at around 7.00pm. Napoleon and his staff rode before them to a point 600yd (548m) south of La Haye Sainte. Just as it seemed that the Emperor might lead his men into combat personally, he turned aside, his officers begging him to turn back, believing he would be killed. He allowed Ney to take command and lead the Guard forward, which now debouched from the road and formed into attack columns. Ney’s primary objective was to seize the crossroads and the village of Mont St Jean after he had broken through the enemy line.

Although their Emperor appeared magnificently indifferent to the Guard as they marched past him, inwardly he must have been in a state of turmoil as he watched their advance. Everything he had gained so far depended upon the outcome of this engagement. He was committed and there was no turning back. The gravity of this situation was increased by his knowledge that, if the Guard failed, Napoleon’s army was so closely committed that he might not be able to extricate it from the fighting intact.

Now the fighting along the ridgeline intensified, as the Anglo-Allied Army received welcome reinforcements from Ziethen’s Corps and d’Erlon’s hard-pressed divisions began to waver. Yet the sight of the Guard advancing and Napoleon’s presence stiffened their resolve. One veteran, who had fought at Marengo, sat wounded by the highway with both of his legs shattered by a cannon ball. As the Guard marched forward he yelled at them: ‘It is nothing, comrades; forward! And long live the Emperor!’


The Imperial Guard attacked at between 7. 30 and 7.45pm. The attack would be in 2 lines with 8 battalions (averaging 600 men each) of the Middle Guard making the main assault. Three battalions of the Old Guard would form the second line and would remain in support unless the Middle Guard broke through. They would then advance and exploit any gains that the first line had made. The fact that the Emperor was committing his finest infantry, always reserved for a shattering coup de grâce, revealed that decisive action of the battle was about to take place.

Napoleon had sent dispatches to d’Erlon and Reille urging them to redouble their efforts and keep the enemy occupied on either side of the attack, giving it a greater chance of success. Essentially this would be a combined attack in three main sections of the battlefield and not confined to the assault of the Imperial Guard alone. Historian Mark Adkin called it: ‘as near a general advance, spearheaded by the Guard, that the French achieved at Waterloo’.

One battalion of the Old Guard remained at Le Caillou to protect the Emperor’s baggage and act as Napoleon’s bodyguard in the event of a reverse. The 2/3rd Grenadiers were posted at Rossomme as a reserve and a further two battalions of the Old Guard stopped to the east of Hougoumont to protect the left flank of the attack. The five Middle Guard battalions now marched up the declivity between Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte. This was open farmland and the previously high crops here had been trampled down after repeated cavalry assaults on the ridge.

The attack of the Imperial Guard.

Although this became one of the most famous assaults in military history, French accounts of this attack are inconsistent and the formations they adopted to assault the Allied ridge are still hotly debated. Some historians suggest that they advanced in square, while others believe that they formed in massive attack columns. Chandler claimed that they pressed forward in: ‘close column of grand divisions (on a two company frontage) to the beat of their drums interspersed by occasional concerted cries of ‘Vive l’Empereur!’.

Houssaye believed that Ney directed the attack poorly from the outset and, rather than inclining diagonally to the left of La Haye Sainte, should have advanced directly along the highway in one huge column. This was also the area subjected to the heaviest bombardment by the Grande Batterie and the high embankments here would afford some protection from enemy artillery. However, Chandler argued that this would have been difficult as the Guard would have been compelled to divide into different formations to circumnavigate the farmhouse and ran the risk of becoming disordered and intermingled with Quiot’s and Donzelot’s brigades, still heavily engaged on and around the highway. Furthermore, the whole area was strewn with dead horses, broken cannon and the general wreckage of former attacks, which would have impeded their advance.

The Middle Guard actually advanced to the west of La Haye Sainte towards the ridge where brigades under Adam, Maitland and Halkett stood. The Brunswick battalions to the east of the crossroads and directly above La Haye Sainte were under attack by elements of Donzelot’s Brigade by this time. Advancing in echelon in two large columns (according to the most accepted theories about their formations) they would strike the ridge successively. From the crossroads to Hougoumont, the ridge on the Anglo-Allied right sweeps round in a gigantic curve and thus their artillery was deployed in a wide semi-circle with the Imperial Guard marching towards its centre.

Although many Allied cannon on the ridge had been dismounted by French cannon fire, there were still plenty of guns left to be trained against the Guard as they toiled up the slopes. At 200yd (182m), the gunners loaded with double shot (roundshot and canister) and opened fire. The guns deployed at the edge of this semi-circle could fire into the flanks of the attack and terrible gaps were torn in the lines as they fired downwards into the advancing men. Yet the Guard continued to press on with a measured step, calmly closing up the gaps in their line and stepping around those struck down by the cannon fire. Drummers towards the head of the column beat out the pas de charge, helping the Guard keep in step and inspiring them onward. Periodically the marching men gave a deep-throated shout of ‘Vive l’Empereur!’, which carried across the hillside, a war cry that had unsettled French enemies on many former battlefields.

About 3,500 men of the Middle Guard now climbed the ridge. A horse artillery battery under Lieutenant Colonel Duchand of the Old Guard accompanied them. He had divided his guns into four sections and these advanced in the intervals between the battalions. The ridge was steep and the flattened corn was still damp so they must have experienced considerable difficulty doing so but they unlimbered their cannon about 110yd (100m) from the ridge and began to lay down a heavy fire. Captain Mercer’s battery had already suffered casualties that day and his gunners were almost exhausted following hours of serving their guns. This entailed loading heavy roundshot, ramming down charges, sponging out the barrels after each discharge and manhandling the guns back into place after the recoil of each shot propelled the cannon backwards. He recorded how French guns unlimbered about 400yd (365m) from them and began to target his troops:

The rapidity and precision of this fire were quite appalling. Every shot almost took effect and I certainly expected that we should all be annihilated. Our horses and limbers, being a little retired down the [reverse] slope, had hitherto been somewhat under cover from the direct fire in front; but this plunged right amongst them, knocking them down by pairs, and creating horrible confusion …

The crest of the ridge where the Allied troops deployed to meet the attack of the Imperial Guard. The land slopes down sharply to the right of this picture.

No skirmishers had been sent out to prepare the attack as the Guard relied on speed of attack, hoping the shock of their assault would break their enemy’s line and see them carry the ridge. As the majority of Allied skirmishers had been withdrawn to reinforce the main battalions at this point, the Guard did not suffer much from skirmisher fire as they came on. A line of British infantry brigades awaited the Imperial Guard just behind the crest of the ridge with Nassauer and Hanoverian troops deployed to the right of the French attack.


Adam was 34 when he fought at Waterloo as the commander of the 3rd British Brigade in Clinton’s 2nd British Infantry Division. Known for his straightforward approach to soldiering, he was also considered a strict disciplinarian. After serving in Egypt, Sicily and Spain he was trusted with the command of the 52nd, 71st and 2/95th at Waterloo, whose recent experiences during the Peninsular War served him well that day.

It was his brigade, along with Maitland’s, that absorbed the brunt of the final attack of the Imperial Guard – often considered as the climax of the battle. The stoic resistance of his brigade arrested the progress of the second French column and, when the 52nd swung outwards from the main line, giving their fire almost at a right angle into the French flank, it proved decisive.

In the wake of the Imperial Guard’s repulse, Wellington ordered Adam to advance on one of the French batteries still firing at the Anglo-Allied Army as it advanced on all fronts. ‘Adam, you must dislodge those fellows’, the Duke declared. Adam obeyed and was successful in capturing the battery but sustained a severe wound in the last ½ hour of the battle.

Taken to Brussels, Adam received medical treatment and eventually recovered. For his service at Waterloo, Wellington recommended him for a KCB (Knight Commander of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath), one of the most prestigious awards that the Prince Regent could bestow.


Things began well on the right of the attack with the 1/3rd Grenadiers pushing back some Nassauer battalions who fell back in considerable disorder at their approach. However, Sir Colin Halkett’s Hanoverian troops offered stouter resistance and though Halkett himself fell badly injured in the resulting firefight, General Chassé brought up elements of Ditmer’s Dutch-Belgian Brigade to support them on their left. Indeed, Krahmer’s Belgian Battery did great execution against the advancing infantry and Halkett credited them with turning the enemy back as much as the fire of his own infantry. It was at this point that Ney’s fifth horse sank under him as he tried to rally the grenadiers.

Chassé’s Netherlands Division had seen little action for most of the day, being positioned near Braine d’Alleud, and comprised 12 battalions of around 7,000 men. However, most were untested militia and, as they began to advance, many quailed under the fire that Duchand’s Battery laid down against them. Seeing confusion setting in, Chassé pulled his men back behind the hedgerows lining the road in order to reform them under relative shelter from the guns. Both Halkett’s and Chassé’s infantry suffered greatly from Duchand’s cannon and the bombardment only slackened a little when counter fire from Krahmer’s guns was levelled at the French artillery.

The 4th Grenadiers and the 1/3rd Chasseurs crested the ridge at the centre of the French attack. Despite the pounding they had received as they marched up the slopes, Ensign-Lieutenant J P Dirom of the 1st Foot Guards believed they had suffered relatively few losses from artillery fire, emphasizing his belief that the matter was ultimately decided with musketry and bayonet. He saw that: ‘The Imperial Guard advanced in close column with ported arms, the Officers of the leading Divisions in front waving their swords. The French Columns showed no appearance of having suffered on their advance, but seemed regularly formed as if at a field day.’

The batteries of Kuhlmann and Cleeves on this part of the ridge were running low on ammunition, which may explain why the Imperial Guard had suffered so little according to Dirom. Gronow recalled seeing the tall bearskins worn by many of the Guard, appearing above the crest as they advanced, with some trepidation. This would be a clash between the elite troops of both armies and the outcome was far from certain.

Maitland’s Guards Brigade (about 1,400 men) was placed to confront the first column, but as the French advanced they initially saw only a group of mounted officers as the Guards were lying prone in ranks about 60yd (18m) behind the Chemin d’Ohain. Wellington was here with his staff and could not resist giving the order for them to stand as the enemy appeared, crying: ‘Now Maitland, now’s your time!’ Posterity has often credited him with the phrase of ‘Up, Guards, and at them!’ but this is unsupported by contemporary accounts. Lieutenant Captain H W Powell of the 1st Foot Guards recorded what happened next:

They continued to advance till within fifty or sixty paces of our front, when the Brigade were ordered to stand up. Whether it was from the sudden and unexpected appearance of a Corps so near them, which must have seemed as starting out of the ground, or the tremendously heavy fire we threw into them, La Garde, who had never before failed in an attack suddenly stopped.

Most of the Allied brigades on the ridge had remained deployed in four ranks and the Imperial Guard faced a narrower frontage than the usual two-rank firing lines, which had wrought such havoc upon French columns in the past. Nonetheless, while fewer muskets could be fired, the firepower now set against them was concentrated and deadly at such close range. The Guards brigades contained some of the best soldiers under Wellington’s command and they now laid down steady and disciplined volley fire into their attackers. Dirom later wrote that:

When they got within a short distance we were ordered to make ready, present, and fire. The effect of our volley was evidently most deadly. The French Columns appeared staggered, and, if I may use the expression, convulsed. Part seemed inclined to advance, part halted and fired, and others, more particularly towards the centre and rear of the Columns, seemed to be turning round.

The Foot Guards fired several volleys into the Imperial Guard, felling dozens of men. According to some sources, this initial volley shot down 20 per cent of the Guards in this formation. Although this may well be an exaggeration, the redcoats’s fire certainly had a devastating effect at this range. The fact that their enemies were far closer than they had imagined and the determination of their resistance would also have had a ruinous effect on French morale.

Despite this, the Grenadiers and Chasseurs stubbornly returned fire and officers tried to change the formation from column into line to do this more effectively. Accounts vary but they probably completed this manoeuvre, quite a feat in the face of such withering fire. Large numbers of men fell on both sides during this close-range firefight but the British gradually began to gain an edge in the struggle.

With their enemies reeling from the effect of their musketry, the 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the 1st Foot Guards mounted a bayonet charge. Gronow charged with the 3rd Battalion and took part in the fierce engagement that followed:

It appeared that our men, deliberately and with calculation, singled out their victims, for as they came upon the Imperial Guard our line broke and the fighting became irregular. The impetuosity of our men seemed almost to paralyse their enemies; I witnessed several … who were run through the body apparently without any resistance on their parts. I observed a big Welshman by the name of Hughes, who was six feet seven inches in height, run through with his bayonet and knock down with the butt-end of his firelock, I should think a dozen, at least of his opponents.

The Imperial Guard gave ground reluctantly at first but the shock of this savage attack was irresistible and they fled back the way they had come in some disorder. Gronow recorded that they resisted for nearly 10 minutes. This was rare as most infantrymen hesitated to fight at close quarters, knowing what horrific wounds edged weapons inflicted in such a melee. Usually the side who had suffered the worst during the preparatory musketry duel swiftly gave way but the Imperial Guard were stubborn and did not fall back easily.

The British Guardsmen pursued the remnants of the first column cautiously after this hand-to-hand clash. This was fortunate, as Powell remarked: ‘We charged down the hill till we had passed the end of the orchard of Hougoumont, when our right flank became exposed to another heavy Column …’. This was the second column, which was advancing in support of the first. The Guardsmen hurriedly turned and retired back up the slope in the face of this new threat.

The second column advanced closer to Hougoumont and comprised the 4th Chasseurs and 2/3rd Chasseurs. Although surprised by the swift repulse of the first column, these veterans were not easily demoralized and officers shouted at the men retreating down the slope to rally and reform upon their rear. The French had brought up squadrons of cuirassiers and Guard cavalry to cover the assault columns in case cavalry was deployed against them and the sight of these units caused the retreating Guardsmen to halt. Many reformed in ranks and followed in the wake of the second column.

As the second column crested the ridge, they were opposed by Adam’s 3rd Brigade who swiftly laid down a heavy fire against them. Although they had advanced with more caution than the first column, this fire broke the momentum of their advance and the second assault column rapidly halted and attempted to redeploy into a firing line.

As they did so, Colonel Colborne marched the 52nd Foot out, pivoting their line so that it inclined towards the left flank of the column. This enabled the 52nd to fire into the side of the attacking column so that the French received musketry from two angles. Having performed this manoeuvre under fire many times in the Peninsula, the 52nd executed this manoeuvre swiftly so the intensity of their fire denied the French any chance of redeploying on their left. As men marched out from the rear sections of the column, the British shot them down in droves and Guardsmen instinctively shrank back from the fusillade. Blocked by the ranks of the files in front of them, their return fire was sporadic and could not compete with the volume of musketry laid down by the 52nd.

Lieutenant General Baron Delort sat in front of his squadrons of cuirassiers, brought up to support the attack, and recalled seeing the Middle Guard wilting under a hail of musketry and canister as they struggled to maintain their footing on the plateau. Placed to protect the flank against cavalry, and possibly cover a withdrawal, he was frustrated that they could do nothing but watch at this stage.

In the face of this concentrated firepower, the attack stalled and the French began to waver. This time the British did not contest the fight with musketry for so long, swiftly charging their muskets and marching forward with bayonets levelled. Advancing in a menacing silence at first, the redcoats suddenly gave a great cheer just before they charged. Many troops had quailed at such a sight in the past and fled before a clash occurred but these were veterans to a man and confidence and pride made them stubborn. They stood to meet the counter-attack; a violent struggle ensued with bayonets, swords and musket butts but the result was a foregone conclusion after the losses the French had sustained.

The column’s formation broke slowly at first but gathered momentum as more and more men ran from the rear ranks to flee down the slopes. Men at the front went down under the bayonets of the Foot Guards and, as the 52nd charged into their flank, their formations broke up into small knots of men grimly thrusting their muskets back at their attackers. These last groups were soon overwhelmed and the British chased the retreating French down the ridge once more as the Imperial Guard finally fled in disorder.

At first Allied artillery fired canister into the fugitives as they retreated, cutting many down, but the redcoats pursued them so closely that they risked hitting their own men. An artillery officer of Bolton’s Battery conceded: ‘The combatants were so mingled, that we were compelled to cease firing.’ Some of the Guard still had fight left in them and tried to reform at the foot of the ridge but were set upon by the British infantry rushing down the slope and swiftly shot or cut down. The pursuit continued until it was roughly level with Hougoumont again. Knowing that French cavalry remained in the area, Guards officers recalled their men, ordering them to fall back up the slope to reform.


The arrival of the Prussian II Corps under General Pirch finally tipped the balance in the fight for Plancenoit. Men from the 5th Infantry Brigade under Tippelskirch spearheaded a final assault that saw its defenders overwhelmed and finally forced Lobau to abandon the village. By 8.30pm, they were in headlong retreat, though some sources claim that small pockets of French defenders held out until around 9.00pm. Durutte’s Division still contested the area around Papelotte and La Haye but a strong attack by Ziethen’s Corps saw them rapidly give ground and finally forced into retreat. Set upon by Prussian hussars, Durutte received several vicious sword cuts to the head and had his right hand cut off by a sabre blow as he tried to defend himself against numerous assailants. Only the speed of his horse spared him from worse and he was carried away by the retreat. The French right flank had totally collapsed and the Prussians now advanced in strength.

The brigades of Donzelot, Allix and Marcognet had continued to attack and hold the Allied troops in the centre and along the ridge to the east of La Haye Sainte throughout the assault by the Imperial Guard. News rapidly spread that the Guard had been defeated and the despairing cry of ‘La Garde Recule!’ (‘The Guard Recoils’) now went up. At first this was met with disbelief as many had an unshakeable faith in the Guard’s invincibility but the sight of Guardsmen running en masse down the ridge dispelled this illusion, provoking an immediate withdrawal to the foot of the ridge. Already distrustful of their high command, soldiers began to shout ‘Sauve qui peut!’ (‘Save yourself if you can!’). They could see that the right flank had collapsed and Napoleon’s subterfuge was now laid bare. It was clear to the rank-and-file that it was the Prussians who had arrived in force, with Grouchy’s command nowhere to be seen.

Observing that the enemy was in disarray below him, Wellington stood in his stirrups and, waving his bicorne hat above his head, ordered a general advance along the entire line of the Anglo-Allied Army. Lord Uxbridge wondered if the enemy was truly broken at this point and suggested that they only advance as far as the French ridge, but Wellington responded: ‘Oh, damn it! In for a penny, in for a pound is my maxim; and if the troops advance they shall go as far as they can.’

Attacks on Hougoumont ceased abruptly and Reille’s infantry fell back towards the French ridge. The garrison there had been under intense pressure since late morning and were relieved to see their own infantry marching down from the ridge behind them. Macdonnell realized that his men were too exhausted to join in the pursuit and let them enjoy a well-earned respite. Reille’s Corps was close enough to see the retreat of the Imperial Guard in detail and the sight proved too much for them. While officers vainly tried to maintain order, a hasty withdrawal ensued. Panic had set in throughout the army and many dispersed and ran towards the French ridge, some throwing down their arms as they did so. Within 15 minutes of the Guard’s repulse, the Armée du Nord was in full retreat.

Some cavalry squadrons attempted to cover the withdrawal but the total collapse of the army’s front and right flank rendered this a hopeless task. In any case, the French cavalry had suffered terrible losses during the massed charges earlier that day and many felt disinclined to risk their lives for what was clearly a lost cause. As the overwhelming numbers set against them became clear, most cavalry officers turned their squadrons about and retired. Others simply lost control of their squadrons, which dispersed and joined the frantic rush to quit the stricken field.

Anglo-Allied cavalry pressed forward and the infantry advanced steadily down the slopes, as Napoleon’s army disintegrated before them. For a short while, the bulk of the artillery maintained their positions and fired upon the retreating French but some of the horse artillery began to limber up in order to join in the pursuit. The 40th Foot advanced on La Haye Sainte, firmly driving the tirailleurs before them. Their grenadier company, along with that of the 27th Foot, forced their way back into the farmhouse but the French were already in the process of abandoning the farm and they encountered little resistance, easily retaking the position.

French artillery on the La Belle Alliance Ridge still pounded the Anglo-Allied ridge in an effort to cover the retreat and permit an orderly withdrawal. Yet most French units, especially on the right, were totally broken and the retreat soon turned into a rout. The guns continued to fire, sometimes cutting down friend and foe alike as Allied cavalry rode down scattered French infantry in the valley. Captain Stretton of the 40th Foot recorded that their aim was still deadly even as their army broke and fled about them: ‘whilst the Regiment was in open column, a round shot from the Enemy took off the head of a Captain (Fisher) near me, and striking his Company on the left flank, put hors de combat more than twenty-five men. This was the most destructive shot I ever witnessed during a long period of service.’

Although their attack had been repulsed, the three remaining battalions of the Old Guard did not waver. The 1/2nd Grenadiers, 2/1st and 2/2nd Chasseurs formed squares in a line and slowly withdrew as hordes of fugitives sped past them. Two battalions marched across country towards La Belle Alliance while the other retired directly along the highway. Some of the Guards from the shattered assault rallied on the squares and were allowed to enter the ranks but most fleeing infantrymen were abruptly forced out of their path and even fired upon as the officers feared they would disrupt their ranks, leaving them exposed to cavalry.

Enemy cavalry bore down into the retreat and set upon the squares. Yet the Guard presented an unwavering hedge of bayonets to their attackers with the rear ranks calmly shooting over their kneeling comrades to down horses and empty saddles. At this stage in the pursuit, while they continued to harass the Guard, their pursuers concentrated upon easier targets. There were plenty of scattered infantrymen running desperately for the French ridge to the south, who could offer little resistance, many having thrown down their arms.

Wellington moved forward with his staff to observe the troops’ progress and this small group of horsemen was fired upon when they entered the low ground to the south of La Haye Sainte as they watched Vivian’s Cavalry Brigade mounting charges against the French ridge. Uxbridge was struck by a piece of canister, which shattered his right knee, and was ironically one of the final French artillery shots during the battle. ‘Looking down at his maimed leg, he gasped: “By God, sir, I’ve lost my leg!” Wellington momentarily removes the telescope from his eye, considers the mangled limb, and says, “By God, sir, so you have!” and resumes his scrutiny of the victorious field.’

One of Uxbridge’s aides, Captain Thomas Wildman of the 7th Hussars, observed the moment that Vivian’s hussars charged the ridge:

taking two squares of Infantry and a column of Cavalry in their way. Our infantry rushed down also; the Prussians closed in our left. Genl. Vandeleur’s Brigade cut up those who were dispersed, and the rout became general. A panic seized the enemy in every direction, and they fled on all sides deserting their artillery throwing down their arms and each man thinking of his own preservation. Our Cavalry & the Prussians joined in the pursuit, the latter continued it the whole night, giving no quarter.

Count d’Erlon came across a ragged figure as he crossed the Brussels highway in the midst of the fugitives. Bareheaded with his face stained by powder smoke, Marshal Ney had been in the thick of the fighting throughout the day and an epaulette on one shoulder on his uniform had been cut in half by a sabre blow. He shouted and pleaded with the fugitives to stand and fight, brandishing his broken sword, in an attempt to rally them. Recognizing the general as he was carried past by a torrent of panicked men, he shouted: ‘D’Erlon, if we escape this, we shall be hanged!’

With his efforts by the roadside ignored, Ney moved on and tried to stop two battalions from Durutte’s Division who were retiring in relatively good order. Hoping to get them to stop and cover the retreat, he roared: ‘Come and see how a Marshal of France can die!’ Yet even these men could clearly see that the day was lost and marched stoically past, casting their eyes downward rather than meet his accusing gaze.


When he realized that all was lost, Napoleon briefly took refuge in one of the infantry squares of his Old Guard. The frantic efforts of senior French officers to slow the retreat had failed and even the sight of the Emperor failed to rally fleeing men as they ran, terror stricken by the threat of being sabred by enemy cavalry, who were already beginning a pursuit. Knowing that the situation was irretrievable, Napoleon rode back to Rossomme, accompanied by a few officers and some Guard cavalry.

Some believed that Napoleon, when he realized that all was lost, should have chosen to die on the battlefield. Certainly, Prince Jérôme thought this would have been the most honourable course for his brother to choose, as it seemed that a second military comeback was unlikely. It is possible that, when he led the Imperial Guard forward during the final attack, it had been his intention to die at the head of his men. Some have even speculated that this was the case, as he must have known that this assault was doomed to defeat before he had ordered it. Yet this would reveal a remarkable callousness in the Emperor to sacrifice so many in an empty gesture. However, considering that Napoleon valued the army above all things and had proven his willingness on many battlefields to stake all on a final gamble, this seems highly unlikely.

By the time they had regained their own ridge near La Belle Alliance, the ranks of the Imperial Guard had thinned considerably. Thousands of fugitives blocked the main road slowing their withdrawal and British and Dutch-Belgian cavalry were mounting increasingly determined attacks against them, knowing that once these pockets of resistance were crushed they could fall upon the fleeing army and harry it with impunity. Yet they now faced a greater threat as their slow withdrawal had allowed Anglo-Allied infantry to catch up with them. Packed in dense ranks three or four men deep, they made an easy target as British and Prussian infantry levelled their firelocks and fired into them, cutting down dozens of men with each volley. Once they had inflicted enough damage, the cavalry would be able to charge into the disintergrating squares and cut them to pieces.

It soon became clear that the Guard were on the brink of annihilation and a British officer approached the tattered square of the 2/1st Chasseurs under a flag of truce, calling upon them to surrender. From within the square General Cambronne (who was in command) roared a single word in reply: ‘Merde!’ (‘Excrement!’). Immediately after this defiant retort, the firing recommenced. The Guard marched painfully toward the rear, leaving a bloody trail of casualties in their wake.


Pierre Jacque Cambronne came from a poor, working class background and volunteered for military service in 1792 as a private soldier. He rose swiftly through the ranks after fighting in some of the hardest campaigns of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Renowned as a true fighting man, he was ill-educated, hard drinking and led from the front. Such attributes enabled him to gain the respect of his men and the army in general. Although wounded at Ligny, he insisted on retaining command of the 1st Chasseurs à Pied of the Guard at Waterloo, comprising 2 battalions totalling around 1,200 men.

Despite an illustrious military career, he is mostly remembered for his refusal to surrender at Waterloo during the fighting retreat of the Old Guard. This became celebrated in France as ‘le mot de Cambronne’ (‘the word of Cambronne’) but its exact wording has always been disputed. The reply: ‘La Garde meurt et ne se rend pas!’ (‘The Guard dies but never surrenders!’) was considered by many contemporaries to be the fabrication of a French journalist who sought to glorify his cruder assertion of‘Merde!’ Certainly, Wellington, who met Cambronne and knew something of his character, ridiculed the idea that he had made such a grand statement during the chaos of battle.

Initially Cambronne endorsed his single-word retort but when he married into polite and (ironically) English society, he claimed to have used the more poetically fitting phrase. He could in fact have used a combination of both versions but whatever the truth may be, Cambronne did surrender eventually. Yet his gesture of defiance made him a French national hero. Victor Hugo, while admitting that dying with his men would have been a more romantic end, justly acknowledged that: ‘For being willing to die is the same as to die; and it was not the man’s fault if he survived after he was shot.’

In truth, the valiant last stand of Cambronne and the Guard requires no embellishment but the longer version of his shouted defiance was carved on his tombstone when he died in 1842. Nevertheless, it is ironic that history remembers this old campaigner for a phrase he may never have used.

Napoleon flees the battlefield when he realizes that all is lost.

‘No surrender!’ The Old Guard refuse quarter as they fall back, covering their army’s retreat. (Illustrated London News, 1852)

After this incident, the Chasseurs continued to withdraw but Cambronne was hit in the forehead by a spent musket ball, which knocked him unconscious. Left for dead, when he regained his senses, he staggered after the square, which had moved on. Seeing the general, Lieutenant Colonel William Halkett (in Hanoverian service) rode up to him and was about to cut him down with his sword when Cambronne surrendered. Following his captor, Cambronne then tried to escape when Halkett’s horse was shot from under him. Jumping up after his fall, Halkett pursued his prisoner and relayed how: ‘I instantly overtook him, laid hold of him by the aiguillette, and brought him in safely and gave him in charge to a sergeant of the Osnabrückers to deliver to the Duke …’.

The three battalions continued to fall back in good order, pausing only to fire volleys to keep their attackers at bay. Hundreds fell during this short retreat but their sacrifice was covering the army’s retreat and allowing their Emperor to reach safety. Soon they had to adopt smaller triangular formations since they had lost so many men. Finally, these were reduced to shapeless huddles as the proud Guardsmen determindly reloaded and aimed their muskets while their comrades fell about them, defiant to the last. Eventually the battalions broke up entirely but, though some joined the rout, few men were taken prisoner.

When Napoleon reached Rossomme, he found two fresh battalions of the 1st Grenadiers awaiting him there under General Petit. These also formed squares, retired along the main road where they occasionally paused to fend off pursuing cavalry, and gave short shrift to any fugitives who blocked their line of retreat. Now in headlong retreat, the army had degenerated into a mob and Petit later wrote of the horrors he witnessed: ‘The enemy was close at our heels, and, fearing that he might penetrate the squares, we were obliged to fire at the men who were being pursued and who threw themselves wildly at the squares. This was one evil we had to incur in order to avoid a greater one.’

When they reached Le Caillou, other senior officers including Soult, Drouot and Lobau who had ridden there with their staff joined Napoleon. They now combined with the 1/1st Chasseurs and the Emperor abandoned most of his imperial baggage and fell back on Genappe 2 miles (3.2km) to the south, where he hoped to rally the army.

Napoleon quickly realized that the situation at Genappe was hopeless once he arrived on the outskirts of the town. Its streets were in chaos and the highway was blocked with retreating soldiers. With Prussian cavalry falling upon their rear and sabring them unmercifully, the soldiers were disordered and panic-stricken. Although the Dyle was only 10ft wide (3m) at this point, a desperate struggle took place as men fought with each other trying to cross by the narrow bridge spanning the river.

The Guard battalions marched around the eastern side of Genappe, fording the shallow river and circumventing the town to regain the highroad from the south. It took Napoleon’s escort an hour to clear a path for his carriage through the mob. Ultimately, they had to abandon the carriage and Napoleon was given a horse and then rode with his escort back towards the French frontier.

At around 10.00pm that evening, Wellington had a fortuitous meeting with Blücher near La Belle Alliance. According to Wellington, the Prussian commander embraced and kissed him exclaiming: ‘Mein lieber Kamerad!’ and then ‘Quelle affaire!’, which the Duke laconically observed in later years ‘was pretty much all he knew of French’. Aides had already carried messages between them and the Prussians agreed to take up the pursuit as the Anglo-Allied Army was almost spent after such a long fight.

Despite Blücher’s assertion that his men were fresher than Wellington’s, a large portion of his army had fought at Waterloo and all of them had endured a long march from Wavre over difficult terrain. Yet he was determined to pursue the French almost to extinction and dreamed of capturing Napoleon, against whom the Marshal nursed a considerable grudge. Using an interpreter, he indicated the name of the nearby tavern and suggested that ‘La Belle Alliance’ would be a fitting name for the titanic struggle that had just taken place.



When standing in the open fields between Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte, it is still possible to gain an impression of the obstacles faced by the Imperial Guard during their final attack. The steepness of the slope is now somewhat reduced due to the construction of the Lion Mound and modern farming techniques but, looking up at the skyline from the floor of the valley today, it is clear that it would have been a difficult march. Certainly, the teams of Duchand’s Battery would have encountered problems dragging guns and caissons behind them due to the steep declivity along with the impediments left from previous attacks.

At various points from the foot of the ridge or the lane running along its crest, it becomes apparent that Wellington’s troops were deployed in a sweeping curve and the cannon on the ridge could fire into oncoming formations from several angles. Viewing the area from the Lion Mound, this becomes even more evident. Most sources agree that the Middle Guard sustained heavy casualties from artillery fire before they even crested the ridge to match their muskets against the British, Dutch and German battalions awaiting them on the reverse slope.

It is important to remember that artillery was the biggest single killer on Napoleonic battlefields and that, although the Guard was finally halted and repulsed by musket fire and bayonet charges, cannon fire would have played a major role in their defeat.


As long ago as 1815, the French had requested a monument to commemorate the sacrifices made by the French Army at Waterloo. Predictably, the restored Bourbon monarchy refused to honour the army of their greatest enemy who had planned to supplant them. Even after the Revolution of 1848, there was little official enthusiasm for such projects and successive French Governments also proved disinterested. As Waterloo had been a great defeat for France, public subscriptions raised insufficient funds for a suitable monument and it seemed that French plans would come to nothing. Yet the efforts of writers and historians went a long way to changing popular opinion in France and in 1900 Houssaye wrote:

The Comte de Maroy, Gustave Laronnet and myself, have had the idea of erecting a modest memorial to the French soldiers killed on 18 June 1815. We bought a plot of land at the junction between Grande route de Bruxelles and theChemin de Plancenoit. We presented it to the military society of Sabretache. Jerome produced the model of the wounded eagle that will be cast in bronze and will crown the memorial …

Count Albert de Maroy had chosen the location after walking the battlefield, talking extensively with locals, and conferring closely with legal experts. Officially, they planned to pay tribute to the whole Armée de Nord but it was no accident that the site chosen was where the last square of the Imperial Guard was thought to have been wiped out. This is believed to have been the 2nd Battalion of the 3rd Grenadiers of the Guard and the Wounded Eagle Memorial is closely associated with the noble self-sacrifice of the Old Guard, the actions of which are felt to have saved the honour of France during the disastrous retreat.

The Wounded Eagle Monument, which serves as a poignant reminder of the terrible losses that the French army sustained at Waterloo.

Some journalists objected to the location suggesting that Ligny, as the site of Napoleon’s last victory, would be more appropriate. Houssaye responded to this criticism thus: ‘We do not want to commemorate the Battle of Waterloo, which was a defeat, we simply want to honour the French soldiers who died for their country in this battle of giants.’

The Wounded Eagle was unveiled on 28 June 1904 amidst much ceremony. The sun shone, which brought out the crowds, but many had travelled a long way in their eagerness to witness the event. The day began with a Requiem Mass in St Cathérine’s Church, Plancenoit at 9.00am. At 2.00pm, dignitaries began to arrive at the railway station to attend the main opening ceremony. These included General Bruylant, who represented the King of Belgium, and Monsieur Gérard, the French Minister at Brussels.

Hundreds of French and Belgian soldiers came to see the new statue and a detachment of Belgian gendarmes formed a guard of honour around the monument, in full dress uniform, which included bearskin helmets similar to those of the Imperial Guard. Many national and society flags were on open display and 400–500 schoolchildren were brought by their teachers to witness the scene.

Houssaye was immensely pleased to greet so many descendants of men who had fought at Waterloo. These included the grandson of General Durutte and two relatives of Lieutenant General Duhesme of the Young Guard. Baron de Grandmaison, the grandson of Lieutenant General Mouton (Count Lobau) who commanded VI Corps, performed a special honour during the proceedings by respectfully laying his ancestor’s sword at the base of the new monument. Lobau had carried this weapon during the battle.

As many as 50,000 people gathered to see the unveiling and many more watched the ceremony from the Lion Mound and other vantage points, coming down to see the eagle later. An estimated 100,000 people assembled here that day, probably the first time since that battle that so many had visited this spot together. The great French military artist, Edouard Détaille, gave a speech before the unveiling:

It is with deep emotion and a feeling of patriotic piety that we tread upon this soil, this impassive witness of so much heroism, where the combatants of Waterloo rest for eternity … we salute as we pass the remains of all the brave men who rest side by side united in death. But we go straight to our dead, our soldiers, our grenadiers whose whitened bones, still in formation, indicate the location of the last square of the Old Guard and bring them the tender remembrance of the country of France.

As soon as he finished, the tricolour draped over the statue was lowered and the crowd applauded as they saw the statue. Houssaye also spoke in praise of the sculptor (Jean-Léon Gérôme) who had died only months before, shortly after completing this magnificent work. Openly weeping after the ceremony, the historian often commented during his later years that this had been the finest day of his life.

The Wounded Eagle’s stance is certainly dramatic and, visually, it is among the most impressive of all the Waterloo monuments. The bronze eagle clutches a French standard in one talon while the other is poised to fend off attack. The bird’s left wing is raised, revealing it to be rent with sword cuts and shot through by musket balls. It is a splendid depiction of one of most famous symbols of the First Empire. The plinth below the eagle bears a simple but poignant line in French, which translates: ‘To the last Combatants of the Grande Armée on 18 June 1815. The Sabretache. 18 June 1904’. The area taken up by the monument is 10.9yd (10m) square and fenced in with iron railings, decorated with the grenade symbol of the Imperial Guard’s grenadiers and the ‘N’ symbol for Napoleon.

Although the ceremony had been largely a French and Belgian affair, the Society of English Pilgrims of Waterloo laid a wreath of English roses and French violets (their colour being associated with Bonapartism) before the new monument. Their offering symbolized the new friendship that had grown up between the two nations and an accompanying card read: ‘To the immortal memory of the French heroes who died on the battlefield of Waterloo on 18 June 1815’.

The Sabretache Society bore the main cost of the construction but since 1986, the Association pour la Conservation des Monuments Napoléoniens has undertaken its maintenance and repair.


A column dedicated to the memory of Victor Hugo stands around 164yd (150m) south of La Belle Alliance on the eastern side of the main road. This monument must be unique in the history of commemorative structures raised on battlefields throughout the world in that it marks the efforts of an author recording events rather than a participant in the actual battle. Nevertheless, his countrymen were so impressed at what he wrote about Waterloo in works such as Les Misérables, Les Chatiments (The Punishments) and his poetry, that his work has become synonymous with the battle in the hearts of the French.

Victor Hugo wrote about Waterloo and his efforts impressed his countrymen so much that they erected this column to his memory, connecting him forever with the battlefield.

Hugo visited the area in 1861, famously writing much of the Waterloo chapter in Les Misérables at the Hôtel des Colonnes in Mont St Jean. While a literary masterpiece, his work contains many errors and most historians consider it as fiction loosely based on fact as far as the battle itself is concerned. Hugo stirred French passions with his emotive prose and there is no doubt that he considered Napoleon’s downfall as a national tragedy. He also lamented the manner in which the famous soldier was defeated and thought that he had been brought down by lesser men who owed more to chance than skill, writing scathingly: ‘It is not the victory of Europe over France, it is the complete, absolute, shattering, incontestable, final, supreme triumph of mediocrity over genius.’

Hector Fleischman (an historian) and Maurice Dubois (a military painter) raised subscriptions for a Victor Hugo monument in 1911. A huge crowd gathered on 22 September 1912 to see the foundation stone laid and work began but the death of Fleischman and the outbreak of the First World War meant that work halted on the site. Lack of funds and the Second World War further delayed progress and it was not until 1954 that work resumed.

The column is of very strong construction and a bronze medallion depicts the author’s countenance at its base. Extracts from his poems are also carved there, such as: ‘And this plain, alas! Where one dreams today, Fled those, before whom the world had fled!’ The Committee also added the following inscription:

This monument completed by the Victor Hugo Committee, non-profit making association in Brussels, was inaugurated on 24 June 1956. Original promoter Hector Fleischman, Manuel Ley, Jean Verhoeven, architects.

One day will come when there will be
no other battlefield than
markets opening to trade
and minds opening to ideas

Yet the monument remains unfinished, as the architects had always intended to place a statuette of a bronze French cockerel at the summit of the column. Hopefully, this impressive monument will eventually receive that crowning glory.


The monument raised in remembrance of Lieutenant Colonel Sir Alexander Gordon of the 3rd Foot Guards stands at the south-west corner of Wellington’s crossroads. Gordon was one of Wellington’s eight aides-de-camp during the battle and a close friend of the Duke. ADCs were invaluable to a commander, acting as his eyes and ears while conveying orders across the battlefield, in a period when a fast horseman was the only reliable means of communication available. Officially, Wellington was only provided with four aides but, knowing their inestimable value and high mortality rate, he paid for a further four out of his own pocket.

Gordon received a mortal wound almost at the end of the battle while trying to stiffen the resolve of Brunswicker and British troops who were falling back before the Middle Guard’s assault. These troops were at the west of the crossroads and Wellington ordered him to complete this task when he saw the troops here were wavering. As he was trying to steady the square of the 2/30 Foot, his hip was shattered by a roundshot, probably fired from a gun in Duchand’s Battery, felling him from his horse.

The monument to Lieutenant Colonel Gordon of the 3rd Foot Guards who served as one of Wellington’s aides-de-camp at Waterloo. He was struck by a cannon ball and later died at the Duke’s headquarters aged only 29.

Sergeant Major Wood of the 30th Foot saw to it that he was carried back to Wellington’s headquarters in Waterloo where he was treated in the Duke’s own bed, a relic that can be still be seen in the Wellington Museum today. He survived the traumatic amputation of his leg but died suddenly in the night. Only one in three men survived similar operations during this period.

Dr John Hume, who had operated on Gordon, brought news of his death to the Duke the following morning and saw tears spring into the great man’s eyes upon hearing the news. After giving him a further update on the casualty figures for his army, Wellington famously remarked: ‘Well, thank God, I don’t know what it is to lose a battle; but certainly nothing can be more painful than to gain one with the loss of so many of one’s friends.’

Gordon’s memorial is in the form of a fluted column, surrounded by railings at its base and is reached by a stairway built into the cutting. The main road is always busy at this point and it can be dangerous to approach the stairs from across the road. If visitors need to cross, it is better to do so at the crossroads itself and walk down to the monument, although it is more photogenic from this side. The Hanoverian Monument directly opposite is a good place to take photographs as the column stands out starkly against the sky from here, with the Lion Mound in the background.

Gordon came from an old and distinguished Scottish family and his siblings paid for and raised his memorial in 1817. Due to the date of its construction, it is therefore possible to estimate the depth of the road cutting two years before, providing useful information for historians. With embankments this steep, it is easy to understand Houssaye’s point that it would have afforded considerable protection from cannon fire during the Middle Guard’s advance had they marched straight up the road instead of turning to advance obliquely towards the north-west. Yet it is also evident that the width of the highway would have restricted the formation’s width if the Middle Guard had formed a single column as suggested.

The monument is inscribed in English and French, giving details of Gordon’s extensive military career and describing the esteem the Duke held him in at some length. Underneath is a more concise description, which reads: ‘To the memory of the Hon. Sir Alexander Gordon KCB Lt-Col Scots Guards and Aide de Camp to the Duke of Wellington. After serving his country with distinction he was killed at the Battle of Waterloo 18th June 1815’.

Gordon was very unlucky, dying just before the decisive moment of the battle, especially as he had survived hard-fought campaigns in Portugal, Spain and France in recent years. Originally, he was buried in St Gilles Cemetery but was eventually disinterred and transferred to Evere Cemetery in Brussels, where he rests to this day.

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