Military history

PRIVATE WHEELER

The Letters of Private Wheeler

Private Wheeler, like Sergeant Lawrence, was a humble but literate man who decided to go for a soldier in the unusual circumstances of the Napoleonic Wars. By 1815 he was a veteran of the Peninsular War and his regiment, the 51st (later the I st Battalion, King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry), had been posted to Wellington’s army stationed in Belgium in the aftermath of Napoleon’s abdication as Emperor to the French in 1814, and his exile to Elba. When Napoleon escaped from Elba and collected a new French army to challenge the powers that had defeated him — Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia - Wheeler’s regiment was among those marshalled by Wellington to oppose Napoleon’s advance out of France into the Low Countries. At the Battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815, the 5 1st held the extreme right of the line.

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The morning of the 18th June broke upon us and found us drenched with rain, benumbed and shaking with the cold. We stood to our arms and moved to a fresh spot to get out of the mud. You [his parentsi often blamed me for smoking when I was at home last year but I must tell you if I had not had a good stock of tobacco this night I must have given up the Ghost. Near the place we moved to were some houses, these we soon gutted and what by the help of doors, windows, shutters and furniture, we soon made some good fires. About 8 o’clock our brigade went into position on the right of the line, on high ground that commanded the farm of Hougumont. The Regiment was commanded by Lt. Col. Rice, Colonel Mitchel haying the command of the brigade. Major Keyt commanded the light troops in advance, consisting of Capt. Phelps’ Company 51st, The Light Companys of the 23rd and 14th Regt.

About 9 o’clock three field pieces were discharged from our position and Capt. McRoss’ company was ordered down to reinforce the advance, who were warmly engaged. A quarter of an hour had not elapsed, before four more of our companys were ordered to the front, the company I belong to was one. We soon saw what was up. Our advance was nearly surrounded by a large body of the enemy’s Lancers. Fortunately the 15 th Huzzars was at hand and rendered assistance. Our appearance altered the state of affairs and ere we could make them a present of three rounds each, the Lancers were glad to get off. We were now exposed to a heavy fire of grape, and was obliged to push across a large space of fallow ground to cover ourselves from their fire. Here we found a deep cross road that ran across our front, on the opposite side of this road the rye was as high as our heads. We remained here some time, then retired back to the ground we had advanced from, the 15 th Huzzars were in column on our left.

I shall here endeavour to describe to you how matters stood where we were. On the hill behind us were posted some 20 or 30 guns blazing away over our heads at the enemy. The enemy on their side with a battery of much the same force were returning the compliment, grape and shells were dropping about like hail, this was develish annoying. As we could not see the enemy, altho they were giving us a pretty good sprinkling of musketry, our buglers sounded to lie down. At this moment a man near me was struck and as I was rising to render assistance I was struck by a spent ball on the inside of my right knee, exactly on the place I was hit at Lezaca. Like that it was a glance and did no harm, only for the moment cause a smart pain. A shell now fell into the column of the 15 th Huzzars and bursted. I saw a sword and scabbard fly out from the column. It was now time to shift our ground to a place of shelter, the Huzzars moved to the left and we advanced again to the cross road under a sharp shower of shells. One of the shells pitched on the breast of a man some little distance on my right, he was knocked to atoms.

We gained the cross road and was then under good shelter, this was my position the remainder of the day. This road was opposite the Observatory where it is said the Emperor with his staff were posted. On our left a main road ran direct into the enemys lines, on this road was an arch that crossed the deep road we were in. I was ordered to go to this place with a message to Lt. Colonel Keyt. I now found our left communicated with about 300 of the Brunswick Lt. Infantry, and saw that the bridge was blocked up with trees. A little to the front and to the left stood the farm house of Hougomont, on which the enemy was pouring a destructive fire of shot, shell and musketry. The house was soon on fire and the Battle increased with double fury. Never was a place more fiercely assaulted, nor better defended, it will be a lasting honor and glory to the troops who defended it. So fierce was the combat that a spectator would imagine a mouse could not live near the spot, but the Guards, who had the honor to be posted there not only kept possession but repulsed the enemy in every attack. The slaughter was dreadful, but I must speak of this when I come to the close of the action.

I was ordered with two men to post ourselves behind a rock or large stone, well studed with brambles. This was somewhat to our right and in advance. About an hour after we were posted we saw an officer of [French] Huzzars sneaking down to get a peep at our position. One of my men was what we term a dead shot, when he was within point blank distance. I asked him if he could make sure of him. His reply was ‘To be sure I can, but let him come nearer if he will, at all events his death warrant is signed and in my hands, if he should turn back.’ By this time he had without perceiving us come up near to us. When Chipping fired, down he fell and in a minute we had his body with the horse in our possession behind the rock.

P.S. I omitted to say that Captain John Ross’ company had a very narrow escape of being made prisoners at the commencement.

No. 75. Camp Cato plains, 23rd June 1815.

I have finished one letter this morning. I shall get on with this in continuation of the last. We had a rich booty, forty double Napoleons and had just time to strip the lace of the clothing of the dead Huzzar when we were called in to join the skirmishers. The battle was now raging with double fury. We could see most of the charges made by the cavalry of both armies. I never before witnessed such large masses of cavalry opposed together, such a length of time.

I am at a loss which to admire most, the cool intrepid courage of our squares, exposed as they often were to a destructive fire from the French Artillery and at the same time or in less than a minute surrounded on all sides by the enemy’s Heavy Cavalry, who would ride up to the very muzzles of our men’s firelocks and cut at them in the squares. But this was of no use, not a single square could they brake, but was always put to the rout, by the steady fire of our troopes. In one of those charges made by the enemy a great many over charged themselves and could not get back without exposing themselves to the deadly fire of the infantry. Not choosing to return by the way they came they took a circuitous rout and came down the road on our left. There were nearly one hundred of them, all Cuirassiers. Down they rode full gallop, the trees thrown across the bridge on our left stopped them. We saw them coming and was prepared, we opened our fire, the work was done in an instant. By the time we had loaded and the smoke had cleared away, one and only one, solitary individual was seen running over the brow in our front. One other was saved by Capt. Jno. Ross from being put to death by some of the Brunswickers.

I went to see what effect our fire had, and never before beheld such a sight in as short a space, as about an hundred men and horses could be huddled together, there they lay. Those who were shot dead were fortunate for the wounded horses in their struggles by plunging and kicking soon finished what we had began. In examining the men we could not find one that would be like to recover, and as we had other business to attend to we were obliged to leave them to their fate.

Either the noise of our fire or the man who escaped informed the enemy of our lurking place, for we were soon informed by a Fedet [vedette — mounted sentry or scout] that the enemy were marching down on us with Cavalry, Artillery and Infantry. Hougomont had been in flames some time and the tremendous fire of guns and Howitzers on the place seemed to increase. The news brought by the Fedet caused us to move and form square. In a short time we were obliged to shift more to our left to get out of the range of some cannon the enemy opened on us.

Lord Hill now paid us a visit and asked for water, he was very much fatigued. While his Lordship was drinking out of one of our men’s wooden canteens an eight pounder picked out four of our men. We were then ordered to shift our ground a little further. The enemy did not make their appearance.

We remained here until dusk when we discovered a large column of cavalry coming down on us from our rear. Their commander saw we were ready to receive them, rode down to us. When we found they were Prussians, they passed us to the front and we followed. At this time the enemy were in full retreat, we marched into an orchard belonging to the farm where we halted for the night. This place was full of dead and wounded Frenchmen. I went to the farm house, what a sight. Inside the yard the Guards lay in heaps, many who had been wounded inside or near the building were roasted, some who had endeavoured to crawl out from the fire lay dead with their legs burnt to a cinder. It was now certain the enemy was off in good earnest.

I managed to make up a supper, wrapped myself in my blanket and slept very comfortably until daylight, then marched to Nivelle[s]. Our loss is but trifling considering the heavy fire we were under, but we have to thank the deep road and the field of Rye for it. Killed i bugler and 8 rank and file, wounded Captain Beardsley, Lieutenant Tyndale, 1 Serjeant and 34 rank and file.

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