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THE BATTLE OF WATERLOO: PART 2 -a damn close-run thing

The Battle of Waterloo features in my first book, 'Amy, The Story of a Coram Foundling'. Amy's boyfriend, Freddy Ponsonby, takes part in the battle and is severely wounded after a cavalry charge by his regiment, the 23rd Light Dragoons.

The Duke of Wellington was attending a ball given by the Duchess of Richmond on the night of 15th June 1815, when he was brought a message from the Dutch commander, the Prince of Orange, that Napoleon had crossed the Belgium border at Charleroi. He sat down and ate supper before giving orders in the early hours of the 16th June that the British army should move out of Brussels and meet Napoleon's army.

Wellington at the Duchess of Richmond's ball being given the news of Napoleon's advance into Belgium
Wellington at the Duchess of Richmond's ball, being given the news of Napoleon's advance into Belgium

Later that day, the French under the command of Marshal Grouchy, successfully held off the Prussians at the Battle of Ligny, but he allowed the rear-guard to escape in good order after misinterpreting an order from Napoleon to chase the Prussians down after the battle. Grouchy thought he meant chase them away, which he did, but they reformed and were able to join the battle the following day at Waterloo. Napoleon later said that he had meant chase down and destroy the rest of the Prussian army, and Grouchy's actions would have a devastating effect on the outcome of the battle.

Napoleon at Waterloo
Napoleon at Waterloo

Napoleon then sent the left-flank of his army, under the command of Marshal Ney and his brother, Jerome Bonaparte, to the important strategic crossroads of Quatre Bras, where they engaged in battle with a combined British, Dutch, and Brunswick force under the command of the Prince of Orange. The French lost the battle, but they successfully held off the Allied army from relieving the Prussians at Ligny, which led to their defeat.

The 28th Regiment of Foot in an infantry square at Quatre Bras
The 28th Regiment of Foot in an infantry square at Quatre Bras

After the Battle of Quatre Bras, Wellington withdrew the Allied army north and took up a position at Mont-Saint-Jean, just to the south of the village of Waterloo, where he prepared to meet the pursuing French on the evening of 17th June.

Napoleon's army was 69,000 strong, with 48,000 infantry, 14,000 cavalry, 7000 artillery, and 250 guns. Many were veterans of his previous campaigns and were fiercely loyal to him.

Wellington's army was made up of seasoned fighting men and veterans from the Peninsular Wars, and his British troops consisted of 67,000 men: 50,000 infantry, 11,000 cavalry, and 6000 artillery with 150 guns. There was also further 37,000 men made up of Dutch, Belgium, Hanoverian, and Brunswick troops.

Wellington formed his army in battle order, then garrisoned the manor house of La Haye Sainte, and the farmhouse of Hougoumont with troops, as Napoleon drew up his forces. On the right-flank was Marshal d'Erlon's formidable infantry made up of 16,000 seasoned and battle hardened men, supported by 1,500 cavalry, and on the left-flank was Marshal Reille's 13,000 strong infantry also supported by 1,500 cavalry. The centre contained 13,000 of Napoleon's own personal bodyguard, the elite Imperial Guard.

The Imperial Guard at Waterloo
The Imperial Guard at Waterloo

At 6:00am on 18th June, Wellington wrote to Blucher and asked him to regroup his army and head for Waterloo, and Napoleon, who had heard rumours that the Prussians were regrouping, dismissed them, thinking that Grouchy would take care of them before they arrived at the main battle.

It had rained heavily the night before, which bogged down the cavalry and made it difficult for both armies to get their artillery into place. At 11:00am, Napoleon gave his first order: d'Erlon was to attack the village of Mont-Saint-Jean on the right, with Reille on the left, and Jerome Bonaparte's division was to attack Hougoumont, as 80 guns of the Grande Batterie opened fire on Wellington's centre.

A fierce battle raged all day for control of the farmhouse of Hougoumont, which was being held by four British Guards companies. It was repeatedly attacked by the French, and at one point the main gate was smashed open and French troops entered the courtyard, but the farmhouse was relieved by the Coldstream Guards and the Scots Guards, who repelled the French attack. Disgusted by the delay, Napoleon personally ordered the bombardment of Hougoumont, and it was completely destroyed apart from the chapel. But, it was still held by the Guards, who despite repeated attacks by Reille's cavalry, managed to successfully hold it all day, until they were relieved by the 71st Highlanders, who arrived with bagpipes blaring.

The fierce fighting around Hougoumont
The fierce fighting around Hougoumont

At 13:15, Napoleon spotted the re-formed Prussian rear-guard advancing, and sent a message to Grouchy to pursue them, but he had just defeated the remains of the Prussian main army at the Battle of Wavre, and was too far away from Waterloo. By the time he received the message it was too late, and he didn't reach the main battlefield until 20:00 that evening.

Napoleon then sent in the first wave of infantry, with d'Erlon attacking the manor house of La Haye Sainte, which was being held by the British King's German Legion. A battalion of Hanoverians was sent to relieve it but it was destroyed by a company of Cuirassiers.

D'Erlon's infantry then advanced, and there were repeated attacks and counter-attacks from both sides resulting in the British line being driven back and starting to fail. Lord Uxbridge, who was in overall command of the cavalry, then sent in the Heavy Brigade, and they were, at first, successful, capturing two French regimental Eagles, but they had charged too far and their horses were too blown. Sir William Ponsonby, commander of the Royal Scots Greys, was killed after a French counter-attack by Cuirassiers which also destroyed the remaining Heavy Brigade.

 The charge of the Scots Greys
The charge of the Scots Greys

D'Erlon's infantry was sent in, but it took heavy casualties and eventually fell back, prompting Napoleon to send in Lobau's Corp to hold the right-flank. At 16:00, Marshal Ney then spotted what he thought to be a British retreat, but it was only casualties being removed to the rear. He then ordered a cavalry charge consisted of 9000 men in 67 squadrons, but Wellington ordered the infantry to form into squares, protecting the artillery at the same time.

The charge, which was personally led by Ney, was met with walls of British musket fire and bayonets, as the concealed artillery guns opened fire from behind the infantry squares and the French suffered heavy casualties, halting the charge.

By this time, d'Erlon's infantry had reformed and they stormed La Haye Sainte, which they took from the defending King's German Legion after their ammunition ran out. Ney then ordered the Grande Batterie to open fire on Wellington's centre, the infantry squares took heavy losses and the British line started to crumble.

The Dutch tried repeatedly to retake La Haye Sainte, but they were repelled each time by the French who destroyed whole battalions of the Dutch in the process. Then units of tirailleur fired on Wellington and his staff causing many to be killed or injured. Lord Uxbridge lost a leg when it was blown off by a cannon ball, prompting the famous stiff-upper-lip exchange when Uxbridge remarked: "By God, sir, I've lost a leg.", to which Wellington casually replied, "By God, sir, so you have!". It looked desperate for Wellington, though, and he repeatedly sent messages to Blucher for relief.

In the late afternoon, the Prussian IV Corps under Bulow had arrived and were attempting the take the village of Plancenoit which was being held by Lobau's infantry. The Prussian 1st Corp under Zieten now arrived, and they were on their way to support Bulow when Zieten received an urgent plea from Wellington for reinforcements.

The arrival of the Prussians on the battlefield caused shock and consternation amongst the French troops, and their morale started to fail. Napoleon had expected to see Grouchy arrive triumphant after defeating the Prussians, but instead he watched in horror as the French line started to fail and was pushed back.

Napoleon then sent in his reserve, the undefeated Imperial Guard led by Ney, but as they advanced, the Dutch commander Chassé attacked with his fresh brigade and drove the first line of the Guard back, as a result they suffered heavy casualties, causing the rest to turn around and retreat. A battalion of French Chasseurs were defeated by the British Foot Guards, and the last of the Imperial Guard fled, causing panic amongst the French lines.

The Dutch Chassé's charge towards the Imperial Guard
The Dutch Chassé's charge towards the Imperial Guard

The last three reserve French Guard battalions were sent in, but they were charged by the British light cavalry who asked whether they wanted to surrender, but they replied: "La Garde meurt, elle ne se rend pas!" (the Guard dies, it doesn't surrender.)

The French army then fell into disarray and started to retreat, as Lobau lost Plancenoit to the Prussians, and Napoleon was left protected only by his personal bodyguard which was attacked by both the British and the Prussians. Seeing that he had lost the battle, he fled to Paris to decide his next move.

Lord Hill asking the Imperial Guard to surrender
Lord Hill asking the Imperial Guard to surrender

Napoleon consulted with his advisors, and his brother Lucien tried to convince him to keep on fighting, but he eventually abdicated again on 24th June 1815. He tried to leave France for North America but the Royal Navy had blockaded all French ports, and he surrendered to Captain Frederick Maitland of HMS Bellerophon on 15th July.

In the aftermath of the battle, the dead and wounded totalled 17,000 British, 7000 Prussians, and the French had lost around 26,000 casualties. The coalition forces then occupied Paris, where the Treaty of Paris was signed on 20th November 1815, ending all hostilities. The Bourbon monarchy was then restored under Louis XVIII, brother of the guillotined Louis XVI.

 The morning after the battle
The morning after the battle

Napoleon was exiled to the South Atlantic island of St Helena, and he died there of stomach cancer in 1821.


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