Chapter 4

D’ERLON’S ATTACK

To his left, Napoleon saw that Hougoumont and its surrounding woodlands were wreathed in smoke and heavy fighting could be heard from that area. Judging that the attack on Hougoumont was well underway, he ordered a concentrated bombardment of the Anglo-Allied centre left at around 1.00pm. A total of forty-eight 12-pound cannon had been assembled for this purpose, which were the great killing machines of the day and known as the ‘Emperor’s Daughters’. They were combined with forty 8-pound cannon and howitzers and formed Napoleon’s Grande Batterie, which he hoped would help punch a hole through the centre of Wellington’s line.

Little could be seen of the Anglo-Allied infantry formations other than the light infantrymen dispersed in skirmish order on the forward slope of the ridge. Therefore, the French were forced to estimate their likely positions and concentrate their fire accordingly. The French artillery intended that their shot would strike along the crest of the ridge and ricochet over into the formations placed out of their line of sight on the reverse slope. When successfully aimed, roundshot would strike down many men standing in serried ranks every time it bounced off the ground.

The roar of the cannonade drowned out sounds of fighting from around Hougoumont and many believed that Wellington’s centre would sustain massive damage. However, the ground was still soft after the previous day’s rain and absorbed some of the impact, with many roundshot only bouncing three or four times before coming to rest. Wellington had ordered the men to sit or lie down, while still maintaining their formations, so they presented less of a target. This precaution, together with the angle of the slope, meant that many projectiles overshot their targets. Even when rounshot hit their targets, they usually only killed one or two men due to these circumstances. Had the men been standing in line of sight, casualties would have been doubled.

However, Bylandt’s Brigade stood directly in this huge battery’s line of sight. Clad in blue uniforms with orange facings, they suffered terrible losses as the gunners were able observe the results of their fire and adjust their aim accordingly. Even when ordered to sit or lie down, roundshot and shells continued to inflict many casualties. Despite the hard pounding the Dutch-Belgians suffered, the cannonade only inflicted slight losses on the troops behind the ridgeline and Napoleon probably overestimated its effect.

As Napoleon and his staff looked on, they detected movement to the north-east around the heights of Chapelle-St Lambert, which was definitely a substantial body of men. At first, they believed it was Grouchy’s command marching to join them, rather than enemy troops, but cavalry scouts soon reported that it was the vanguard of a Prussian corps, which was confirmed when they brought a captured Prussian cavalry officer before the Emperor. Napoleon was concerned but not unduly alarmed by this development, believing that the Prussians were incapable of sending a large force against him after their recent defeat. Nevertheless, he dispatched new orders to Grouchy, stating:

A letter which has just been intercepted states that General Bülow is about to attack our flank. We believe we can see this corps on the heights of St. Lambert; therefore lose not an instant in drawing near to us and joining us; in order to crush Bülow whom you will take in the very act [of concentrating his corps].

Napoleon reading a dispatch during the battle. (Edouard Détaille)

He believed that Grouchy would be able to meet this oncoming threat and prevent the Prussians from intervening or perhaps place his force between them and the rest of the Prussian Army. Napoleon had intended to support I Corps’ attack by sending VI Corps in behind it but the appearance of this enemy vanguard caused him to reconsider. Consequently, he directed Domont’s and Subervie’s cavalry to the north-east and sent 10,000 men from VI Corps after them. By shoring up his right flank in this manner, Napoleon had now committed over half of his reserves.

Napoleon hoped that only a single Prussian corps was approaching his position but realized that time was rapidly slipping away and ordered d’Erlon to begin his attack at about 1.30pm. As his guns had pounded the Anglo-Allied centre left for half an hour, he hoped their line was sufficiently weakened to allow I Corps to punch through.

D’Erlon’s attack.

Wellington had established his command post beneath a solitary elm tree at the side of the Mont St Jean crossroads. Although he would move along the ridge occasionally, he maintained this position for much of the battle as it afforded a good general view of the French ridge from the centre of his own position. This crossroads was to be the focal point of the coming French attack.

GENERAL JEAN-BAPTISTE DROUET (COUNT D’ERLON)

Enlisting in the former Royal Army at the age of 16, Drouet saw extensive campaigning during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, being promoted to brigadier general by 1799. He fought at Zürich, Hohenlinden, Austerlitz, Friedland and Toulouse in addition to serving in numerous campaigns fought during the Peninsular War. He served briefly under the restored monarchy but as an ardent Bonapartist, soon rallied to the Emperor upon his return.

Despite his long service, Drouet’s command skills were held in poor esteem by many within the French Army, some officers insisting on referring to him as Count d’Erlon but never as ‘ the general’ (except to his face). The reasons behind his misdirected march between Quatre Bras and Ligny have never been fully explained and it has been alleged that incompetence on d’Erlon’s part was to blame rather than poor staff work or conflicting orders. Nevertheless, Napoleon entrusted him with the first great infantry attack at Waterloo, having considerable faith in his abilities.

Historians still debate the kind of attack formations d’Erlon selected for this assault. In 2002, Holmes argued that he placed the columns of Quiot, Donzelot and Marcognet with a frontage of one battalion wide and twelve battalions deep in each column. This allowed a larger number of muskets to be fired compared with some columnar formations while still permitting a dense enough formation for shock tactics with the bayonet to be employed. However, the short intervals between these units meant that as many as twenty-four men could be hit by a single roundshot if it struck the column accurately. Interestingly, Durutte disobeyed d’Erlon by using a wider formation for his division on the right flank of the attack and suffered fewer casualties in consequence.

After the 1815 campaign, d’Erlon was condemned to death in his absence and languished in exile until 1825 while running a cafe in Bayreuth. King Charles X issued him a pardon for his support of Napoleon and he was allowed to return to France, eventually being created a Marshal of France in 1843.

THE ADVANCE

D’Erlon’s I Corps advanced in 4 columns containing around 17,000 men in total. Historians are divided over what kind of attack column d’Erlon used for the assault but many believe he chose one of the older styles of formation when it would have been better to have adopted a newer more adaptable version, employing greater intervals between battalions and allowing it to manoeuvre into firing lines more easily. Assuming that he used the colonnes de battalion par division, these huge rectangular formations had a frontage of between 180 and 200 men and a depth of 8 to 9 battalions in about 27 ranks. Moving slowly in order to maintain their ranks, they advanced in echelon and presented an inviting target to artillery.

The French persisted in advancing in attack columns because they were easy formations to maintain on the move, especially over rough ground. A line formation was far more difficult to maintain during an advance and columns were capable of moving at greater speed. The appearance of such a vast body of men was also very intimidating. While musicians within the formation played a martial air, the men would periodically shout ‘Vive l’Empereur!’ and (on many former battlefields) the enemy had dispersed and run before assault columns even came within range. This form of assault was particularly effective when an attack had been prepared by an artillery bombardment and the enemy formations further disrupted by the fire of skirmishers. Columns sometimes advanced to actual contact with the enemy with the bayonet, but it was more common to halt, deploy into line and decide the contest with firepower.

The Grande Batterie ceased fire as the divisions of I Corps marched forward but recommenced once they reached the dead ground before their own ridge, to inflict as much damage as possible on the Anglo-Allied line before the attack went in. When the columns began to climb the opposing ridge, the guns stopped firing again for fear of hitting their own men.

Anglo-Allied batteries opened fire on the advancing columns as they marched into the valley. Although the softness of the ground limited their effect, they enjoyed a clear view of their enemies, at least at first. Roundshot began to rip into the densely packed ranks striking many soldiers down and sergeants yelled at the men to close up as gaps appeared. Yet where farmland on this side of the battlefield undulated, the formations marched through dead ground and the artillery on the opposing ridge could barely discern them, undoubtedly limiting the effect of their gunnery.

The gunners’ visibility was limited even further by the height of the crops at this point in the battle. Tall rye had been planted, growing as high as 6ft, but the crops also hampered the French advance as it had to be trampled down by men in the front ranks. The clinging mud and tall crops slowed the French infantry and it took at least 15–20 minutes to cover the distance to the Anglo-Allied ridge.

Having missed the action at Quatre Bras and Ligny, the men of I Corps were eager to engage the enemy but Captain Duthilt, who took part in the assault, believed that some officers had inspired their men’s fervour too soon:

This rush and enthusiasm were becoming dangerous in that the soldier still had a long march 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 lost shoes … there was soon disorder in the ranks, above all as the head of the column came within range of enemy fire.

Quiot’s Brigade inclined to the left to assault the farmhouse of La Haye Sainte, while the rest of Allix’s Division marched on up the ridge. The skirmishers preceding them soon engaged the KGL companies defending the orchard and rapidly drove them back into the farmhouse itself. This building had not been fortified to the same extent as Hougoumont (where the majority of the pioneers had been sent) but the German soldiers of its garrison laid down a withering fire into the flank of the French attack (over walls and from the windows of the buildings as they climbed the ridge). The French hoped to overwhelm the farmhouse during this attack and sent one battalion around the western side of the farm to capture the garden area, while attacking the farm from the south and east simultaneously. French infantry tried to break down the doors to the houses and barn but could not force their way in (see Chapter 6).

Riflemen of the 95th Foot laid down a heavy fire from the gravel pit, supporting the musketry of Bylandt’s Brigade as the French reached the foot of the ridge. Bourgeois’s Brigade advanced steadily while elements of Donzelot’s Division came up on Bylandt’s right. They had suffered a severe mauling at Quatre Bras and been subjected to a far heavier bombardment than most of the line this day, taking grievous losses. This artillery fire had affected their morale and cohesion and they fired only a few volleys before retreating. The French endured this fire and marched stoically upward. Corporal Canler of the 28th Ligne was among them and recalled that a bullet went straight through his shako as he bent to adjust his gaiter and shoe straps due to the mud. It creased his skull, causing a minor wound but, otherwise, it would have killed him. The 95th also abandoned the gravel pit as the French came up and withdrew to defend the hedges along the Chemin d’Ohain. Bylandt’s troops rushed back in a near rout, causing some disorder to the 28th Foot as they went. Their flight proved unstoppable until well beyond the crossroads where their officers eventually managed to rally them.

Donzelot’s Division had now reached the crest and halted within thirty paces of the Chemin d’Ohain to redeploy. The sunken road and the hedges that lined it broke up their formation and the men bunched instinctively as their officers struggled to get them past these obstacles to reform on the other side. Here they intended to form firing lines and they had practised this vital manoeuvre many times during incessant drilling. Columns were usually divided into three formations, two companies wide, that were three files (or men) deep. The three lines had intervals between them that permitted space to perform such manoeuvres. To form a firing line the two rear ranks would swing outwards at an oblique angle on either side. This would eventually conform to the former front ranks of the column, and the whole formation would make one continuous line. Once in line, all the soldiers would be able to present and fire their muskets, without being obstructed by men who had formerly stood in front of them.

In the meantime, Durutte’s Division advanced on the right of the attack and assaulted the farm of Papelotte, ejecting the light companies of Nassauer troops holding that position.

As La Haye Sainte was under attack from at least three sides, the Prince of Orange ordered the Lüneburg Battalion, from the Hanoverian Brigade, to counter-attack and support its defenders. Approaching from the north-west, these troops halted to fire volleys at the French infantry attacking in the garden area, forcing them to pull back. However, the cavalry squadrons protecting d’Erlon’s flank now came up and fell upon the hapless battalion. Caught in the open with no time to form square as the cuirassiers hurtled into them, the battalion was scattered and cut down almost to a man.

Looking across the land where d’Erlon’s I Corps attacked towards the Lion Mound and La Haye Sainte.

PICTON’S STAND

General Picton now brought up elements of Kempt’s Brigade to fill the gap left by the retreat of Bylandt. The brigades of Generals Pack and Best had been lying prone to avoid the artillery bombardment. Now they were ordered to stand and engage the enemy. Donzelot’s officers did not see them until they stood, and the French tried frantically to complete the difficult manoeuvre of redeploying into line as they emerged from the hedgerows. Attempting this in the face of the enemy was folly as their overconfident advance had brought them too close. The French struggled to form ranks and the British infantry standing in double ranks before them calmly raised their muskets.

The redcoats now delivered a shattering volley at about forty paces, cutting down many of the French in the foremost ranks. Confusion set in among the French and, observing this, Picton ordered a bayonet charge crying: ‘Charge! Charge! Hurrah!’ These were his last words as he was then struck on the forehead by a musket ball and killed instantly. The men rushed forward and, though the French faltered, a savage melee took place. Lieutenant Belcher of the 32nd Regiment was carrying the regimental colours (standards with flags) and came face to face with a French officer:

He suddenly fronted me and seized the staff, I still retaining a grasp of the silk (the colours were nearly new). At the same moment he attempted to draw his sabre, but had not accomplished it when the Covering Colour-Sergeant, named Switzer, thrust his pike into his breast, and the right rank and file of the division, named Lacy, fired into him. He fell dead at my feet. Bevet-Major Toole … called out ‘Save the brave fellow;’ but it was too late.

General Picton who fell leading his division forward at Waterloo. (R A Muller)

Marcognet marched his division past Donzelot’s right considering it unwise to redeploy at this moment. He had begun to pass the hedges and was advancing against a Hanoverian battery when he was confronted by the 92nd Highlanders, who opened fire. In their dense formation, the French could respond only with the muskets of a far narrower frontage than the British line, which was only two ranks in depth and far longer. Realizing they were at a disadvantage, the French began to advance after firing a volley, hoping to decide the issue with the bayonet but now the cavalry intervened. One French officer of the 45th Ligne was trying to inspire his men forward when: ‘I pushed a soldier in front of me, I saw him fall at my feet from a sabre blow. I raised my head. It was the English cavalry who were riding through our ranks and cutting us to pieces.’

MAJOR EDWARD CHENEY

Born in England in 1778, Cheney joined the 2nd Royal North British Dragoons (or Scots Greys) at the most junior officer rank of cornet. He fought in Holland during the Duke of York’s unfortunate 1794 campaign and was severely wounded. Although a captain at Waterloo, he held the brevet (unconfirmed) rank of major and took part in the cavalry charge, which became renowned as his regiment’s most famous exploit and is immortalized by Lady Butler’s dramatic painting ‘Scotland Forever’.

In the furious fighting that ensued, an officer shouted to him: ‘How many minutes have we yet to live, Cheney?’ Seeing the odds stacked against them at that point, Cheney responded grimly: ‘Two or three at the very utmost, most probably not one.’ Although the Scots Greys helped defeat a massive body of infantry (part of d’Erlon’s I Corps) and went on to assault the guns of the Grande Batterie, they suffered greatly in the counter-attack that followed. Cheney had four horses shot from under him and a fifth wounded during the battle. Losses among the officers were so severe that he assumed command of the regiment and was its acting colonel by the end of the day’s fighting.

Colonel Cheney’s statue in Gaddesby village church showing him dismounting from a wounded horse at Waterloo (he had several horses shot from under him during the battle).

One of the friezes at the base of Cheney’s statue showing Sergeant Ewart (of the same regiment) capturing the Eagle of the 45th Ligne at Waterloo.

After the Colonel Cheney’s death in 1845, sculptor Joseph Gott accepted a commission to make a statue of him during the battle. It depicts him at Waterloo dismounting from one of his stricken horses, which has foundered beneath him. It now stands in St Luke’s Church next to his final home of Gaddesby Hall in the village of Gaddesby, Leicestershire. The base of the statue includes a frieze depicting the charge of the Scots Greys and Sergeant Ewart of the regiment in the act of seizing the Eagle standard of the 45th Ligne from a French officer.

THE CHARGE

Although the French were falling back in places, it was a crucial moment as the brigades of Kempt and Pack had only 3,000 men between them opposing roughly 10,000 French at this point. Lord Uxbridge had already been preparing cavalry for a counter-attack and now ordered the Household Brigade to attack cuirassiers, who were beginning to advance on the left flank of d’Erlon’s infantry. The French cavalry were in a poor position, having just fought against infantry sent to reinforce the farm. They had only just reformed and, as they were advancing uphill, were vulnerable. He also ordered the Union Brigade to move forward, directly into the advancing infantry columns. Both brigades were nine squadrons strong.

The Household Brigade, led by Uxbridge in person, charged to the west of the highway straight into the squadrons of cuirassiers around La Haye Sainte. Galloping downhill gave the advantage of speed and impetus and the French cuirassiers were swiftly overthrown. Lieutenant Waymouth of the 2nd Life Guards recalled: ‘A short struggle enabled us to break through them, notwithstanding the great disadvantage arising from our swords, which were [a] full six inches shorter than those of the cuirassiers.’ As the cavalry covering them dispersed and fled, the French infantry attacking the farm were forced to make a rapid withdrawal as the British cavalry turned upon them. Some were cut down but most managed to reach the orchard, where they reformed, protected from the cavalry by hedges and trees.

British Life Guards fighting with French cuirassiers as the Household Brigade advance to repulse d’Erlon’s attack.

The Union Brigade advanced simultaneously, pouring through the gaps between Kempt’s and Pack’s infantry formations. This brigade consisted of three regiments drawn from the nations forming the United Kingdom – 1st (Royal) Dragoons (English), 2nd Royal North British Dragoons (Scottish) and 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons (Irish). The Inniskillings fell upon Donzelot’s Division. Already heavily engaged with the infantry, the French were completely surprised and quickly broke and fled back down the slope. The heavy cavalry rode in among the fugitives cutting down viciously at the running men and many infantrymen threw themselves flat on the ground to escape their swords. Lieutenant Graeme was defending La Haye Sainte and recalled the advance and retreat of the French columns: ‘When close upon us we entered the farm, and closed the gates, and poured a constant fire on their Columns as they passed us … when they were repulsed and broken by the British line, and repassed [sic] us like a flock of sheep, followed by the Life Guards …’.

Bourgeouis’s Brigade was still engaged in a firefight with the 95th but was forced into a precipitous retreat by this unexpected assault. They withdrew along the highway in good order, having rallied by the gravel pit, but the cavalry harried them and, by the time they regained the French ridge, they were in considerable disorder.

An officer and trooper in the 1st Royal Dragoons. (Richard Simkin)

Marcognet’s column was also attacked and, at the sight of their fellow countrymen in the Scots Greys, the men of the 92nd Regiment took up the cry of ‘Scotland Forever!’ and charged into the melee to support them. There was no time to form square to repel the enemy horsemen and Marcognet’s men broke and ran, covering the slope with a mass of fugitives. Captain Duthilt was caught up in the chaos of the rout: ‘The brigade started retreating, dissolving, ridden through everywhere by this cavalry, and the ground was clogged with dead and wounded.’

The infantry followed the cavalry taking hundreds of prisoners but halted before they reached the foot of the slope. Many of the British cavalry later complained that men who had asked for quarter, and received it, subsequently took up their arms again to fire treacherously into their backs as the dragoons advanced. This provoked some harsh reprisals and many Frenchmen were compelled to seek the protection of the British infantry, as the cavalry were so enraged, cutting men down mercilessly. The Eagles of the 45th and 105th Ligne regiments were captured towards the end of the action. The bearers of these standards and their guards had sworn to protect them with their lives and their capture testifies to the savagery of the action and the decimation of the French units.

Sergeant Ewart of the Scots Greys captured the Eagle of the 45th Ligne, while Captain Clark and Corporal Styles of the Royals seized the Eagle of the 105th Ligne. As the infantry fled down the slope, Clark saw the standard being born off in the crowd surrounded by a determined group of officers and men. Gathering a number of dragoons about him he ordered: ‘Right shoulders forward, attack the Colour’, and personally led them in a frenzied assault on its defenders. Clark thrust his sword through the officer holding the standard but failed to grasp it as it fell, crying out: ‘Secure the Colour, secure the Colour, it belongs to me.’ Corporal Styles managed to retrieve it and carried it to the rear.

On the far left of the Allied position, Vandeleur’s cavalry charged Durutte’s Division and inflicted losses. As infantry were also advancing, Durutte soon felt compelled to abandon Papelotte and fell back in some disorder as cavalry harried their withdrawal. A counter charge by French lancers under Colonel Brô allowed Durutte time to reform his brigades. Vandeleur brought up four regiments of British and Dutch dragoons along with Belgian Hussars of Ghigny and, despite the intervention of the lancers, managed to inflict considerable havoc. Nonetheless, Durutte’s command suffered the fewest casualties out of the divisions committed in d’Erlon’s attack. He later attributed this to the manner in which he had advanced and the support he received from the cavalry. Durutte observed that the enemy hussars seemed to fight at a considerable disadvantage against their assailants’ longer weapons, recalling: ‘Never had I seen so well the superiority of the lance over the sabre.’

The Allied counter-attack was extremely successful but substantial numbers of the heavy cavalry became wildly excited and overreached themselves, charging in scattered parties towards the French ridge. On their right flank, musket fire from Bachelu’s Brigade caused many of the cavalry to rein in and retire with Lord Somerset rallying most of his men near La Haye Sainte. Yet a considerable portion of the Union Brigade rushed forward and overran two horse batteries that the French had brought forward to support their attack. Uxbridge commented: ‘After the overthrow of the Cuirassiers I had in vain attempted to stop my people by sounding the Rally, but neither voice nor trumpet availed …’. Uxbridge’s decision to lead the attack in person had been brave but the realization that his main responsibility was to exercise control over the reserves occurred to him too late. During his absence, his subordinates had failed to organize cover for the cavalry’s withdrawal and his hurried attempts to make up for this were only partially successful.

Well satisfied with the results of their charge, the Royals and Inniskillings began to regroup and withdrew back up the ridge. However, Colonel Hamilton of the Scots Greys led his men onwards. Most had not served abroad during the wars until now and officers and men were inexperienced and eager to prove themselves. Having attacked the two horse artillery batteries near the highway, they climbed the opposing ridge to attack the Grande Batterie. They overturned some guns and cut down gunners and drivers. Corporal Dickson recalled the ferocious nature of the struggle as his regiment set upon the gunners: ‘Such slaughtering! We sabred the gunners, lamed the horses, and cut their traces and harness. I can hear the Frenchmen yet crying “Diable” when I struck at them, and the long-drawn hiss through their teeth as my sword went home.’ He added that some of the drivers were only teenagers and, petrified by this onslaught, sat weeping in their saddles too shocked to flee or defend themselves.

The Union Brigade attack French gun batteries at the climax of their charge.

Just how much permanent damage the cavalry inflicted upon the artillery is debatable. Although Uxbridge recorded that many guns were overrun, few were likely to have been spiked or permanently disabled, and were simply put back into action when the gunners they had driven off returned. General Desales, who commanded fifty guns in this part of the field, claimed that the British cavalry did far more damage to morale than anything else, saying that they had great difficulty in recalling some gun teams who fled to the rear. It is unlikely that more than thirty or forty cannon were put out of action and the Grande Batterie was so large that even this loss did not reduce its effectiveness for long, most guns having resumed firing within an hour.

Colonel Martique’s Lancers now assailed the Scots Greys (and other scattered elements of the Union Brigade) in the flank and inflicted great losses. Mounted on tired horses, many of them were easily overmatched in the melee and had difficulty outrunning pursuers on fresh mounts. This devastating assault was then followed by the cuirassiers of General Farine’s Brigade, who pursued the survivors back through the valley as far as the foot of the Allied ridge. General Sir William Ponsonby was among those slain and of the 2,500 men in both brigades, about 1,000 were killed, wounded or captured. Lieutenant Wyndam of the Scots Greys wrote how his regiment had suffered:

Brevet-Major Cheney … brought out of action four or five Officers, and under thirty men. It is a curious circumstance that we lost as many killed (nearly) as wounded … The Lancers did us as much mischief almost as the round shot and shell as they got in our rear. We found men with ten and fifteen wounds, and one man had eighteen …

Uxbridge’s attack.

Indeed, Lieutenant Colonel Sir Frederick Ponsonby of the 12th Light Dragoons was wounded twice before being cut across the head by a sabre, this wound knocking him senseless. When a lancer saw him moving as he recovered consciousness, he stuck his lance into the helpless officer’s back snarling: ‘Tu n’es pas mort, conquin’ (‘You are not dead, you rascal!’), piercing a lung. Although Ponsonby eventually recovered, it is believed that lancers killed many British wounded after the charge, their 9ft (2.7m) long lances enabling them to do this easily from the saddle.

Although sounds of fierce fighting still issued from Hougoumont, a lull descended on the eastern side of the battlefield as the Grande Batterie had ceased firing. The valley and ridge crest were carpeted with dead and wounded, one English officer recalling: ‘The dead were in many spots as thick as the overturned pawns on a chessboard.’ The French attack had been firmly repulsed with d’Erlon’s corps losing at least 5,000 men (around 3,000 of whom were taken prisoner).

Commenting on d’Erlon’s attack (and on his attacks in general at Waterloo), Wellington later remarked dismissively: ‘Napoleon did not manoeuvre at all. He just moved forward in the old style, in columns, and was driven off in the old style.’ This was a crucial point. During the Peninsular War, the British had learned that line formations were superior to assault columns in terms of firepower and columns lacked the psychological power to intimidate steady troops. The staying power of British infantry had become renowned during that war, proving that the British policy of employing a small, yet highly professional army could outmatch a larger force composed largely of conscripts, who often faltered in the face of such assaults.

At 3.00pm, as he surveyed the carnage below him, Wellington had good cause to feel relieved. Although his heavy cavalry had suffered serious losses due to over extending their charge, this sacrifice had helped beat off a serious attack by the French I Corps, which would take considerable time to recover and re-enter the fray. More importantly, the repulse of this major attack had bought Wellington valuable time. His Anglo-Allied Army was still badly outnumbered and he knew that he could not defeat them alone.

Viewpoints

THE GRANDE BATTERIE AND MEMORIAL OF THE 6TH FOOT ARTILLERY

Napoleon had selected a good location for his Grande Batterie on the high ground before and to the east of La Belle Alliance. The appearance of the ridge hereabouts has changed little over the years and the area is still open and given over to farmland. Except for the high crops, the French artillery had an unimpeded view of the opposing ridge crest, though the hedges lining much of the Chemin d’Ohain would have obscured their view in places. However, Napoleon must have wished that his adversary had placed his infantry on the forward slopes as the Prussians had done at Ligny as, with the exception of Bylandt’s Brigade, most lay out of the line of sight for his artillery.

A memorial stone for the 6th Foot Artillery Regiment, which comprised roughly half of the Grande Batterie, has been set about 109yd (100m) to the north of La Belle Alliance on the eastern side of the Brussels highway. Commanded by Colonel Hulot, its forty cannon and howitzers pounded the Allied centre hoping to soften it up for d’Erlon’s attack. They also provided fire at various points during the assault and attempted to cover the retreat. The French language inscription translates: ‘From La Belle Alliance to Papelotte on 18 June 1815 the units of Colonel Hulot’s 6th Foot Artillery Regiment effectively fired in support of the attacks of the French 1st Army Corps’.

NAPOLEON’S SECOND OBSERVATION POINT
(LOCATION MAP REFERENCE 12)

After leaving his initial command post at Rossomme, Napoleon rode forward to La Belle Alliance and established himself and his staff somewhere to the right of the inn. The exact location is open to debate but it is generally agreed that the Trimotiau hillock is likely since it permits a good view of the battlefield from this area. This is signposted along the road leading from La Belle Alliance towards the village of Plancenoit and the Brabant Tourist Authority set up a hedged area and bench with steps leading up to it for easier access on the western side of the road.

The area where Napoleon concentrated his Grande Batterie to enfilade the centre of the Allied line. The Lion Mound is on the left and La Haye Sainte and Wellington’s crossroads can be seen in the centre largely obscured by trees.

It is possible that Napoleon moved along the ridge to view events from various points as the battle raged, although he was nowhere near as mobile as Wellington was in this regard. Indeed, just how long he spent here is also debatable, with historians such as Andrew Uffindell believing that one reason he lost the battle was that he spent too long at his former position at Rossomme (see Chapter 3), being distracted by the threat of Prussian intervention, which was more evident from that vantage point. Yet the Emperor could certainly see the Anglo-Allied front line far better from this forward position.

The Grande Batterie was deployed before and to the right of this position and, having begun his career as an artillery officer, Napoleon must have taken a keen interest in the effect of its fire, hoping it would wreak massive destruction upon the Anglo-Allied centre. Regardless of whether the observation point is in the exact location that Napoleon took up, walking along the ridge in this area reveals just how strong a defensive position Wellington had adopted as his deployment greatly hindered French attempts to observe his positions and reduced their capability to dislodge him.

The Belgian authorities have ensured that good footpaths line the sides of the highway and battlefield tourists can trace its length to view the ground over which I Corps advanced. The land is open but still extensively farmed so be aware that you may be challenged if you walk over it without due consideration for the crops. Walking along the foot of the Allied ridge, one can see that the French faced a long but not overly steep slope to march up before reaching the crest. However, the high crops impeded their march with tall rye being grown for its use in animal fodder, which was far more important in 1815 than today.

ALLIED CENTRE AND LEFT FLANK

Wellington would have seen d’Erlon’s attack developing from the crossroads. When he rode down the Chemin d’Ohain towards the east, it was impossible to miss the massive formations of men as they marched over their own ridge and into the valley. These views are remarkably similar today. However, due to hollows in the land in some places, the view of the Anglo-Allied gunners was probably obscured in some places. Photographs usually fail to represent the nature of this dead ground sufficiently and it is a good reason for walking the area on foot.

The black powder (gunpowder) used at this time generated large amounts of smoke and the gunners’ aim would have been further hampered by their own discharges after repeated firing. Likewise, the smoke generated by the Grande Batterie would have foiled the view of the Allied gunners during the initial stages of the attack as the French infantry began to march over the crest of their own ridge. With these factors in mind, it is interesting to speculate just how effective the artillery of both sides would have been when smoke and geographical features conspired to confuse their aim.

Riflemen of the 95th Foot occupied the gravel pit and a small rise just below Wellington’s crossroads for much of the battle. Although they were forced to abandon the area at least once, they caused the French considerable annoyance from this position. The gravel/sand pit used to lie on the eastern side of the highway between the crossroads and the farm of La Haye Sainte but it was filled in many years ago.

A view of the slope towards the crest of the Allied ridge from a point near the crossroads. The building in the centre is the Fichermont Convent, lying adjacent to the Chemin d’Ohain. It dates from after the battle but marks a point roughly halfway along the Allied deployment on this flank.

PICTON’S MEMORIAL

Today a rest area has been established with picnic tables and benches next to the Monument to the Belgians (see Chapter 6) at the south-east angle of Wellington’s crossroads. General Picton’s memorial is located nearby. It is a stone erected by the Waterloo Committee in 1980 at a point close to where the general is believed to have been killed.

Picton was renowned for his eccentricity and wore civilian dress at the battles of Quatre Bras and Waterloo, including a top hat along with a scruffy old overcoat and an umbrella. At the Battle of Busaco in 1810, he supposedly wore a nightcap while commanding his troops. Ever a stickler for correct uniform, at least among his officers if not the rank-and-file, it is a measure of Wellington’s respect for Picton that he tolerated this. His monument bears the words:

To the gallant memory of Lt General Sir Thomas Picton Commander of the 5th Division and the left wing of the Army at the Battle of Waterloo. Born 1758. Died near this spot in the early afternoon 18th June 1815 leading his men against Count Drouet D’Erlon’s advance. General Picton was said to have suffered two broken ribs at the battle of Quatre-Bras, to have continued fighting with his company, and to have fought and died wearing civilian clothes, because he had not time enough to fetch his uniform upon dashing to rejoin his division.

Picton had been immensely popular as colonel of the 88th Foot and for many years this regiment and its successors commemorated his death by a black stripe within the gold trimmings of their officers’ uniforms.

MEMORIAL TO DURUTTE’S DIVISION

A few metres to the right of the Hanoverian Monument at Wellington’s crossroads (see Chapter 6) stands a small stone dedicated to the memory of Durutte’s Division. The French inscription translates as: ‘At this place on 18 June 1815 the 8th Line infantry regiment of the Durutte Division successfully attacked the 2nd German Legion of Colonel Von Ompteda’. The Napoleon Foundation erected this monument. Of all the divisions committed by d’Erlon during his great attack, this one came closest to success and, although briefly forced into precipitous flight, retired with fewer casualties than its counterparts. Durutte was badly wounded during the latter stages of the battle, being cut about the head and upper body and losing a hand when set upon by Prussian cavalry. His saddle, still stained with his blood, is on display at the Musée de l’Armée in Brussels.

LA HAYE SAINTE (LOCATION MAP REFERENCE 5)

In comparison to Hougoumont, this farmhouse suffered relatively little damage during the battle and its appearance today is similar to that which it presented in 1815. Although the main barn was set alight and damaged, the walls of all the buildings in this complex are strongly constructed of brick or stone and did not require extensive repairs. Today the hedged orchard that stood to the south of the farm is gone but its presence in 1815 probably saved the structure from being fired upon by French artillery. Had the French been able to train guns on its walls, the farm would probably not have weathered so many assaults. Considering how much fighting and bloodshed took place in and around this farmhouse, it is remarkable that La Haye Sainte remains in such good condition.

A considerable portion of Quiot’s Division was employed to assault the farm during d’Erlon’s attack. Although this would have drawn the majority of the defender’s fire, they still recorded firing upon the columns marching up the ridge, at least during the initial stages of the action. The fact that they could fire into the flank of such an assault was one of the main reasons that Wellington chose to occupy the farm in considerable strength. Standing just before the farm at its front gate and further along the garden wall, it is evident that they would have enjoyed a good view of Donzelot’s column as it marched up the slope. Even at a range of 200–300ft (60–91m), the German riflemen would have inflicted considerable losses on this vast formation.

Today La Haye Sainte is an active, working farm. Until recently the walls to the left of the main gate had been knocked down to allow farm vehicles access to the courtyard but these have been reconstructed, probably to prevent the intrusion of battlefield tourists who sometimes attempt to gain entry with almost as much fervour as the French 200 years ago. Although the farmer tolerates photography from the front of the property, it is wise to gain the owner’s permission before proceeding further as offence may be taken. La Haye Sainte is described in greater detail in Chapter 6.

MARCOGNET’S MONUMENT

Walking or driving along the Chemin d’Ohain eastward from the crossroads, one comes across another French monument commemorating Marcognet’s Division which fought so hard to take the ridge around this point and suffered heavy casualties. The French dedication translates: ‘At this place on 18 June 1815 the 21st Line infantry regiment of the Marcognet Division heroically attacked the Anglo-Scottish units forming Major General Pack’s Brigade’. The Napoleon Foundation placed it here.

A monument along the Chemin d’Ohain near Fichermont Convent, commemorating the attack of Marcognet’s Division upon the Allied left flank.

WELLINGTON’S EXTREME LEFT FLANK

The area on the extreme left of the Anglo-Allied Army was held by soldiers of the 2nd Netherlands Brigade under Prince Bernard of Saxe-Weimar. The main defensive points were the village of Smohain (now renamed La Marache), the Chateau of Fichermont and the two farmhouses of Papelotte and La Haye (also spelt as La Haie). The area presents a confusing pattern of minor lanes that are often lined with embankments and/or hedges in places. Victor Hugo referred to this lane as being ‘sunken’ in addition to that on the Allied right flank. The whole area provided ideal defensive ground for infantry, presenting the French under Durutte who tried to take the area with serious problems.

PAPELOTTE FARMHOUSE (LOCATION MAP REFERENCE 6)

The farm of Papelotte lies about 1.2 miles (2km) from the Lion Mound along the narrow Chemin d’Ohain, to the east of Wellington’s crossroads. Six companies of the 3/2 Nassau Battalion defended it under the command of Major Hegmann, who also occupied the nearby farm of La Haye. Durutte’s Division captured the farm during d’Erlon’s attack but only occupied it briefly before falling back. It fell to Durutte once again towards the end of the battle but he was forced out again when attacked by Ziethen’s I Corps arriving from the east. It was around this area that the Prussians first made contact with the left flank of the Anglo-Allied Army.

Papelotte farm, which lay on the extreme left of the Allied position. It was badly damaged during the battle and has seen extensive modification and rebuilding since.

Papelotte was set alight and seriously damaged by fire during the battle, although the shell of most of the main buildings survived. It remained a ruin until 1860 when it was rebuilt along similar lines as before with farmhouse and outbuildings surrounding a courtyard. An impressive tower (known as a belvedere) has been placed over the main entrance but this feature did not exist in 1815. Today the farm is highly active and is used as an equestrian centre and riding school. It is well signposted as private property and visitors should proceed with caution and consideration for its occupants if they wish to view the farm closely.

LA HAYE FARM

The farmstead of La Haye was located about 165yd (150m) east of Papelotte on the edge of the village of Smohain. Constructed 200 years ago, the farm was built from a material called cob (a compact mixture of gravel, clay and straw) and had a thatched roof. Musket balls easily penetrated the walls and the single-storey structure did not provide much protection for the company of Nassau troops who defended it. It burnt down in 1910 and the current buildings bear little resemblance to the farm that stood here in 1815.

SMOHAIN VILLAGE AND FICHERMONT

In La Marache, formerly known as Smohain, none of the village buildings date back to 1815. Proceeding through it will bring you to the site of the Chateau of Frichermont (modern spelling Fichermont). This was a large complex of buildings typical of major farms and manor houses of the area and the owner at the time was the Duke of Beaulieu. It possessed a number of buildings set around a courtyard with a square tower in its centre and smaller round towers at each corner. Woods surrounded Fichermont on three sides and it had a formal garden similar to that of Hougoumont. These strong buildings were ideal to defend and were occupied by four companies of the 1/28th Orange-Nassau Battalion. This marked the furthest point of the Allied left flank making an effective anchor for Wellington’s line. Jacquinot’s cavalry (on the French right wing) was placed just over 328yd (300m) away from Fichermont and reconnoitred its strength at around 10.00am on 18 June. However, they considered the structure too difficult to assault without a substantial force of infantry and, although shots were exchanged, no serious attempts were made to take Fichermont.

Fichermont burned to the ground in 1857 after an accidental fire. Although it was rebuilt later in the century, the subsequent building was demolished in 1960 and the surrounding woods have now reclaimed the site. Today there is little visible evidence of the once extensive chateau. Only a few broken walls can be discerned among the trees and tangled bushes that cover the site and these are not very photogenic. In light of the limited part that Fichermont played at Waterloo, visitors may wish to bypass this location in favour of more relevant sites.

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