WELLINGTON HAD CHOSEN his ground well. As he looked southwards from his vantage point under an elm tree at the crossroads of the Ohain road towards the French army on the morning of the battle he would have seen two buildings, each of which was to play a key role in the coming events. To his centre-right in an advanced position were the château and outbuildings of Hougoumont, well protected with walls, ditches, hedges and surrounded by a wood, which the Duke had invested with his best troops of all, the British Foot Guards (along with some Nassauers, Hanoverians and Lüneburgers), with orders to hold the place come what might. That they succeeded in this, despite heavy and repeated attacks by the French infantry, was one of the keys to Wellington’s victory at Waterloo.
Over to his centre-left was La Haye Sainte, another well-defended farmhouse with stables, a barn and a piggery, all enclosed by high walls, which Wellington filled with the King’s German Legion, the émigré unit loyal to King George III which had demonstrated its first-class fighting abilities during the Peninsular War. The possession of these two strongholds, with their high brick walls, would prove invaluable in disrupting the French line of advance, because, as one historian put it, ‘no enemy could pass without being assailed in flank by musketry’.1
The two armies — separated by a shallow valley — were only a thousand yards or so apart as they cooked their breakfasts on the morning of the battle (Hougoumont was much closer, only 400 yards from the enemy front line). In the distance, behind the French lines, Wellington could make out the red-tiled, whitewalled farmhouse of La Belle Alliance, the appositely named inn that was to play a romantic role in the battle’s epilogue. On his far left were three more walled and well-defended buildings, the farms of Papelotte and La Haye and the château of Frischermont.
Howell Rees Gronow, a Welsh Old Etonian ensign who was on duty with the 1st Regiment of Foot Guards at St James’s Palace when the Waterloo campaign began, skipped his guard duty there hoping to see action at Waterloo and to return before anyone noticed he was missing. On the morning of the battle, he recalled:
We had not proceeded a quarter of a mile when we heard the trampling of horses’ feet, and on looking round perceived a large cavalcade of officers coming at full speed. In a moment we recognised the Duke himself at their head … The entire staff of the army was close at hand … They all seemed as gay and unconcerned as if they were riding to meet the hounds in some quiet English county.2
They had good reason to be confident, if not quite ‘gay and unconcerned’, because the topography across which Wellington had chosen to receive Napoleon’s attacks could hardly have been better suited for infantry, complete with folds and dips in the ground that could shelter defenders against the artillery bombardment of a far larger force of cannon — Napoleon had 246 to Wellington’s 157. Sergeant-Major Edward Cotton of the 7th Hussars discoursed upon ‘the principal advantages’of Wellington’s position, which had much to recommend it besides the two defensible buildings, including factors that — due to the lie of the ground — would not have been visible to Napoleon:
The juncture of the two high-roads immediately in rear of our centre, from which branched off the paved road to Brussels, our main line of communication … added to the facility of communication, and enabled us to move ammunition, guns, troops, the wounded, etc, to or from any part of our main front line, as circumstances demanded … the continuous ridge from flank to flank towards which no hostile force could advance undiscovered, within range of our artillery upon the crest. Behind this ridge our troops could manoeuvre, or lie concealed from the enemy’s view, while they were in great measure protected from the fire of the hostile batteries … Our extreme left was strong by nature. The buildings, hollow-ways, enclosures, trees and brushwood, along the valley from Papelotte to Ohain, thickly peopled with light infantry, would have kept a strong force long at bay … Our extreme right was secured by numerous patches of brushwood, trees and ravines, and further protected by hamlets.3
Two other vital aspects to the battlefield need to be borne in mind: the corn that grew up to chest, and in some fields shoulder, height and which could hide bodies of troops and slow down advances; and the glutinous mud which also retarded movement.
The rain had cleared by about nine o’clock on the morning of Sunday the eighteenth, but the ground was still very muddy from the previous day and night’s downpours. Dennis Wheeler, a climatologist at the University of Sunderland, has recently recreated a weather map of the low-pressure ridge that moved over the battlefield for about forty-eight hours before the fighting began, and has described the rain as ‘apocalyptic’.
When Napoleon was informed by General Drouot, Adjutant-General of the Imperial Guard, that the artillery needed firmer ground before it could be properly deployed, he made his next major error. Since he had no idea that the Prussians were back on the offensive, and were even then marching towards him from Wavre, he believed that time was on his side, rather than its being a precious but fast-diminishing commodity.
So when at the breakfast conference Jérôme Bonaparte had said that the waiter serving him the previous day had overheard Wellington saying that the Prussians would arrive in front of the Forest of Soignes, Napoleon merely scoffed at his youngest brother, dismissing the information out of hand. Shakespeare would easily have recognised the role that hubris and arrogance played in Napoleon’s downfall.
To haul a twelve-pounder cannon — so called because of the weight of shot it fired, nearly a stone of lead per round — up a slope, in mud, was no mean undertaking; and Napoleon’s Grand Battery at Waterloo constituted sixty guns and twenty howitzers. Yet the demands of Drouot and the artillery experts that the ground be allowed to dry first — which sounded only sensible to someone who had learnt his military trade as a gunner — meant that Napoleon squandered his chance for an early assault on the Anglo-Allied army before the Prussians arrived on the scene.
The late start was not entirely the Emperor’s fault. His army took far longer to assemble than was originally envisaged, coming up from their sodden sleeping areas and bivouacs sometimes miles from the battlefield. Many troops had been dispersed to forage for food and shelter in the downpour, and the mud delayed the forming up of units on the battlefield. Of course, had Napoleon had an inkling of the proximity of the Prussians, none of this would have been allowed to preclude a dawn attack.
Another effect of the heavy rainfall of the night of 17–18 June that worked against Napoleon was the way that it softened the ground, to the extent that cannonballs tended to plough into the mud, rather than bounce along hardened ground. A cannonball fired at sun-baked ground might bounce as many as five or six times, leaving death and carnage in its wake, while one that merely buried itself after its initial impact had only a fraction of that lethal capacity. Tests undertaken by the Royal Artillery in 2003 proved how diminished were Napoleon’s batteries’ effectiveness by the downpour the night before the battle.
While Napoleon could hardly have ordained good weather, he did make serious blunders of his own for which he must take ultimate blame. Instead of ordering Grouchy to return to the scene as soon as possible, at 10 a.m. on 17 June Napoleon had sent him orders to march on Wavre and engage the Prussians, orders which could only have the effect of forcing them closer towards junction with Wellington. Several of Napoleon’s written orders during the campaign were unclear or contradictory — his handwriting was, moreover, akin to the meanderings of an intoxicated spider — but these instructions were particularly strategically inept.
At only three miles wide by one and a half deep, Waterloo was a very small battlefield by Napoleonic standards, especially for a total of over 180,000 men to fight in. Napoleon’s tactical options were therefore severely limited, since Wellington had effectively closed down large areas of the battlefield to him. The huge flanking movements that Napoleon often favoured were effectively blocked off, to the east by the well-defended farm buildings of the hamlets of Papelotte, La Haye and Frischermont and to the west by the village of Braine l’Alleud. Napoleon therefore decided upon a frontal assault with a couple of mild diversions, which was hardly an inspired tactic, but was perhaps all that was open to him given the terrain.
Since the horrifically expensive battle of Borodino outside Moscow in 1812 Napoleon had inured himself to the terrible losses inherent in frontal assaults, and the French death toll at Waterloo showed that he had not altered his thinking during his brief exile on Elba. Put at its most basic, his plan was simply to break the enemy’s centre, gain possession of the slopes of Mont St Jean and thus split Wellington’s army in half while controlling the all-important road to Brussels. He reckoned without the steadiness under attack of the British infantry that Wellington had largely deployed in the centre, perhaps because he had never personally fought against the British since he captured Toulon from the Royal Navy nearly two decades previously.
Napoleon’s supposed ill-health has frequently been used by historians — more often than not, French historians — to explain away the Emperor’s comparative lack of imagination in his plan for the battle. He has been diagnosed (by historians rather than by contemporary doctors) as suffering from a disease called acromegaly, a disorder of the pituitary gland, which induces a combination of torpor and over-confidence.4 Inflammation of the bladder and urinary tract has also been attributed to him, and he certainly had suffered from it in the past, but he had been in generally good health — though overweight — on Elba. According to his brother Jérôme and his surgeon Baron Larrey, Napoleon suffered from haemorrhoids the night after Ligny, which Larrey and the Emperor’s valet Louis Marchand attended to with warm, clean, wet flannels. They were obviously successful in this, because the Emperor spent several hours in the saddle on 17 and 18 June, something that would have been quite impossible otherwise.
He was certainly in the saddle when at about 9 a.m., in order to enthuse his men and perhaps to try to intimidate the enemy, as well as to kill time while the ground hardened, Napoleon rode along the whole of the front line. It also allowed him to inspect the enemy’s position for the third time since midnight. The bands played, the soldiers cried ‘Vive l’Empereur!’, and the spectacle was undoubtedly an imposing one as the Man of Destiny, as he occasionally referred to himself, showed himself to his troops and they to him.
It is a curious fact about the battle of Waterloo that no one is absolutely certain when it actually began. Historians dispute the exact timing, because the men whose lives were at stake did not bother to synchronise or check their watches for our benefit, having more pressing things to do. No historian denies, however, that the first phase began with a massive bombardment from the Grand Battery and an attack by General Reille’s corps upon Hougoumont.*
Just as the Grand Battery was opening up, at around 11.30 a.m., a corporal from the 2nd Silesian Hussars, a Prussian cavalry regiment, was captured in the Bois de Paris by French cavalry. He quickly divulged the vital information that his unit was merely the advance guard for Blücher’s army, which was making its way towards the battlefield. Nor was this the first indication that the French had of what was afoot: as early as 9.30 a.m. the Prussian Graf von Schwerin had been killed by a shot from a French horse artillery battery.
Eleven-thirty in the morning was thus the point at which Napoleon, who had scarcely by then even initiated it, ought to have broken off the engagement and retreated to fight on ground of his own rather than Wellington’s choosing. Perhaps considering the information might be faulty, or that he would have plenty of time later to review his options, or most likely in the belief that he could defeat Wellington before Blücher arrived, Napoleon decided to press on with the attack on Hougoumont. (Many of the most sophisticated of the modern war-gaming techniques played on the battle regularly demonstrate that it was nigh-impossible for Napoleon to have won Waterloo without first capturing Hougoumont, because its continued possession by Wellington stymies the French ‘player’ from executing any imaginative moves against the Anglo-Allied right or centre-right.)
Hougoumont was situated some 500 yards in front of Wellington’s line along the crest of the ridge, meaning that it could disrupt any general French advance. Reille’s assault at roughly 11.30 a.m. was only intended as a diversion, with the hope that Wellington would have to weaken his line by sending in reserves to reinforce the heavily-pressed farmhouse. Not only did this not happen, but the very reverse became the case: it was the French who steadily poured more and more troops into the effort to take Hougoumont, which continued throughout the day. A serious attempt to take the farmhouse would have required heavy artillery fire against the gate and walls, which for some reason was not employed. Napoleon never rode over towards Hougoumont during the course of the battle; had he done so he would immediately have spotted the vast numbers of Jérôme’s troops that were being committed to the struggle to capture the château. The generally stationary position he adopted, in great contrast to Wellington’s highly peripatetic approach to command, worked against the Emperor.
The siege was only finally raised when the rest of the French army had been repulsed from the slopes of Mont St Jean, and the defence by a collection of Coldstream Guards, 3rd Foot (later Scots) Guards, 900 Nassauers, a Brunswick battalion and two companies of the 1st (later Grenadier) Guards was heroic. It is estimated that the 2,600 Anglo-Allied troops at Hougoumont occupied the attentions of 12,700 Frenchmen for much of this vital ‘battle within a battle’.
At one point a detachment of thirty French troops from the 1st Light Infantry managed to enter the farmhouse, led by a huge Frenchman nicknamed ‘I’Enforceur who was armed with an axe, but Lieutenant-Colonel James Macdonnell, along with nine others including Corporals James and Joseph Graham of the Coldstream Guards, managed to close the gate again and the Frenchmen were all massacred save for a fourteen-year-old drummer boy. When many years later a bequest was made in a vicar’s will ‘to the bravest man in the British army at Waterloo’, Wellington — who was asked to nominate the beneficiary — stated that ‘the success of the battle turned upon closing the gates at Hougoumont’, and so Corporal James Graham, by then a sergeant, was tracked down with the help of Macdonnell and awarded the money.
Cotton recorded how some time after the gates had been closed, Graham had
asked permission to fall out for a few minutes, a request which surprised Colonel Macdonnell, and induced him to inquire the motive. Graham replied that his brother was lying in the buildings wounded, and, as the flames were then fast extending, he wished to remove him to a place of safety. The request was granted, and Graham, having rescued his brother from the fate which menaced him, speedily returned to his post.5
(James Graham died an inmate of the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, in 1845.)
If the gates had been forced open for long enough there can be little doubt that all those caught inside the perimeter would have been killed. Of all the emotionally moving places on today’s battlefield — at least for a Briton — Hougoumont is the most powerfully evocative, with its wall plaques, gravestones, chapel and the loopholes in the walls through which the Guards wreaked such havoc on the French attacking through the adjacent wood. Byron etched his name on the walls when he visited the following year. (When visiting it is important to remember that the walls of the farmhouse were higher in 1815 than they are today.)
Hougoumont’s defenders were aided by Wellington’s order to Captain Robert Bull to fire howitzers at the wood from which the French, having taken it expensively from the Nassau and Hanoverian infantry, were beginning to emerge. The slaughter outside the walls as the French tried unsuccessfully to scale them was appalling. Later in the day howitzers were deployed by the French, which set fire to the château itself and to other outbuildings, but the Guards continued defending the walled garden and were never dislodged from it. Many are the tales of valour from Hougoumont, on both sides, and the story of its defence is not unlike that of Rorke’s Drift in the Zulu War.
A message that Wellington sent Macdonnell during the assault illustrates the desperation of the situation once the French howitzers had done their job:
I can see that the fire has communicated from the hay stack to the roof of the chateau. You must however still keep your men in those parts to which the fire does not reach. Take care that no men are lost by the falling in of the roof, or floors: after they will have fallen in occupy the ruined walls inside of the garden; particularly if it should be possible for the enemy to pass through the embers in the inside of the house.6
The fighting at Hougoumont sucked in more and more French troops throughout the day. ‘No troops but the British could have held Hougoumont, and only the best of them at that,’ was Wellington’s encomium to the defenders. After the battle, in the hearing of Ensign Gronow, Major-General Peregrine Maitland told Lord Saltoun, whose 1st Foot Guards had held the orchard of Hougoumont: ‘Your defence saved the army: nothing could be more gallant. Every man of you deserves promotion.’ Saltoun replied that it had been ‘touch and go — a matter of life and death — for all within the walls had sworn that they would never surrender’. Saltoun’s adjutant added, ‘Our officers were determined never to yield, and the men were resolved to stand by them to the last.’7
The attacks on Hougoumont continued at various levels of intensity for over eight hours, but at about 1.30 p.m. a second phase of the battle opened up when, after a bombardment by the French artillery, General d’Erlon was given his second opportunity to affect the course of the campaign.
* The practice of dividing Waterloo into five distinct but overlapping phases was begun by Sir James Shaw Kennedy, who took part in the battle, has been followed by later historians such as Captain A.F. Becke, Sir John Keegan, Elizabeth Longford and Ian Fletcher, and is still easily the best way of making sense of it.