MUCH OF THE ART of warfare in the Napoleonic era depended not on the technology of weaponry, which had altered very little since the wars of Marlborough, but upon the skilled interaction of the three main military elements of the day: cavalry, infantry and artillery. When these were deployed in a coordinated way, complementing and supporting each other in attack and anchoring each other in defence, they could be a formidable, indeed campaign-winning juggernaut. Yet time and again in the battle of Waterloo the French strategists, by which must principally be meant Napoleon, his chief of staff Marshal Soult and his battlefield commander Marshal Ney, failed to employ the three arms to their best advantage.
Each of the three arms had its own strengths and weaknesses in terms of manoeuvrability, firepower and offensive potential. A regiment of infantry that had formed itself into a square was almost impregnable to a conventional cavalry charge, but highly vulnerable to an artillery bombardment or the volleying of another infantry unit formed in line, while cavalry charging cannon could do so in a quarter of the time that infantry could, with consequently fewer losses. Artillery meanwhile employed different kinds of shot for different tasks. The key in a fastchanging battle was to deploy each arm in such a way as to play to its strengths and to support the achievements of the other two. This simply did not happen much on the French side at Waterloo, but was a crucial factor in Wellington’s flexible defence.
Napoleon hoped that after half an hour of cannonading his Grand Battery would have so weakened the Anglo-Allied left-centre that a frontal assault by d’Erlon’s corps marching in column would be able to punch a hole in Wellington’s line. Yet because, in part, of Wellington’s technique of deploying his men behind the crest of the slopes, sometimes even lying down, the death toll amongst the Anglo-Allied infantry was nothing like what it had been for the more visible Prussian troops at Ligny.
A nine-or twelve-pound cannonball fired at high velocity was a terrifying thing: the momentum created by its speed and weight made it capable of ploughing through massed ranks of men, tightly packed together as they were according to the tactics of the day. Several are the stories of men putting out a foot to halt what they thought was a slowly rolling, spent cannonball only to discover that it still had the ability to smash through bone and flesh. Even after a ball had bounced several times, each time roughly half the distance of the last, depending on how hard the ground was, it was still a lethal weapon. Yet unlike howitzers, cannonballs needed a straight trajectory, and with many of Wellington’s men hidden, the Grand Battery was denied one.
When, however, as happened to the 27th (Inniskilling) Regiment, the French artillery could directly pound an Anglo-Allied unit, the result was utter carnage. John Kincaid, one of the officers of the 95th Regiment stationed nearby in what, because it had been used to extract gravel, was called ‘the Sandpit’, wrote of how ‘The Twenty-Seventh regiment were lying literally dead, in square, a few yards behind us. I had never yet heard of a battle in which everybody was killed; but this seems likely to be an exception, as all were going by turns.’
By 1.30 p.m. Napoleon knew for certain that the black-clad troops who were emerging in ever greater numbers from the woods on the east of the battlefield were not, as he had initially hoped, Grouchy’s corps come to win the day by staving in Wellington’s left flank, but rather von Bülow’s Prussians intent on doing the same thing to his own right flank. Since he did not know how many Prussians would be emanating from that theatre of operations, and presumably hoped that Grouchy had bottled up a large proportion of Blücher’s force, he sent off only part of his cavalry reserve — under Generals Domon, Subervie and Lobau — to observe the situation.
It was now clear that time was no longer on his side, so at 1.30 p.m. the Emperor launched what he hoped would be an invincible infantry assault, as large an attack as any of the Napoleonic Wars. D’Erlon’s corps numbered around 16,000 men, over a quarter of Napoleon’s entire army at Waterloo; a tremendous force to launch at the centre-left of the Anglo-Allied line. Had it broken through there can be little doubt that Napoleon would have won the day, since with the forest at his back Wellington would have had no room to manoeuvre his army together as a single unit again. Halting and reversing the mass of men as they marched towards Wellington’s line, their drums beating and flags flying, was therefore of the utmost importance.
The uneven ground which the corps had to traverse, about 1,300 yards of it, moreover in places allowed some cover to the French troops. To walk the ground of d’Erlon’s advance today takes some fifteen to twenty minutes, even without the six-foot-high corn and the mud underfoot that slowed his troops then. In 1815 it must have taken just as long, if not longer, an excruciating time to advance under cannon-fire.
There is still much debate among historians as to the exact formation that d’Erlon chose for his four divisions to press home the attack. It has given rise to the accusation that the French commanders, by choosing a column rather than a line formation, were myopic and clumsy. This cannot necessarily be levelled at Napoleon himself, who could not be expected to have attended to such a detail in person, so much as at Ney as the battlefield commander and d’Erlon as the corps commander, and possibly also the four divisional commanders — Donzelot, Quiot, Marcognet and Durutte. D’Erlon’s corps was protected by cavalry on both its flanks, but the problem would come from the centre.
It appears from the account we have from one of the captains who took part in the assault, a veteran named Duthilt, that the divisions attacked not in single columns but divisional columns formed up in battalions of three ranks each with 130 or so men in each, eight groups of three ranks each per division. A new and unfamiliar formation, it would doubtless have been greatly distorted during the march forward, but it was probably better in terms of firepower than the formations so often turned back in the Peninsular War, in which d’Erlon, Ney, Soult and several of the divisional commanders had all fought. Yet it is not by any means certain that this was in fact the formation adopted.
Eighty years ago, the historian Captain A.F. Becke put forward the intriguing theory that an order was garbled from ‘colonne de battalion par divisions’ into ‘colonne de division par battailon’, and that this perhaps accounted for what happened; but since the mass column had been used in the battles of Friedland and Wagram it is possible that d’Erlon actually intended to attack in old-fashioned column. Certainly, the tactics of the Napoleonic Wars altered very little during their course. Whatever the formation ultimately chosen, however, it was disastrous. British infantry had been formed in line to fight advancing French columns for six years in the Peninsula, and they had rarely lost. ‘Napoleon did not manoeuvre at all,’said Wellington after Waterloo. ‘He just moved forward in the old style, in columns, and was driven off in the old style.’1
D’Erlon managed some initial successes: Durutte succeeded in capturing the hamlet of Papelotte, and Donzelot diverted a brigade of his division to try to seize La Haye Sainte from the King’s German Legion, taking its garden and orchard. A German infantry battalion that was sent to support Major Georg Baring in that very isolated position was badly cut up by a cuirassiers brigade on d’Erlon’s left flank. If Donzelot had been supported by enough artillery to blow a breach in the wall of La Haye Sainte, or to set the place on fire, it might have been disastrous for Wellington’s centre at that still early stage of the battle, but this basic act of forethought had not been carried out, as with so many others in the area of inter-arm communication on the French side.
One of the Frenchmen marching towards the British lines in d’Erlon’s corps was Captain Duthilt, who had fought since the Revolutionary Wars and therefore had twenty-two years’ experience of leading men in battle. He was concerned about several factors in the attack, massive though it was. The strength of Wellington’s defences, the muddiness underfoot, the strange formation chosen for the corps by the generals, and the way in which the men’s zealotry had been built up too early, all left him worried.2 ‘This rush and enthusiasm were becoming too disastrous,’ the veteran recorded in his memoirs, admittedly with hindsight, ‘in that the soldier still had a long march to make 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.’3
D’Erlon’s men must be given credit for reaching the very crest of the slope on the Anglo-Allied left-centre, despite the heavy and accurate fire they were soaking up as they marched up the low ridge. To make matters worse for them there was a thick, six-foot-high hedge at the top, but in places they passed both that and the sunken road behind. When they reached von Bijlandt’s Dutch-Belgian brigade it broke and ran, fleeing past Major-General Sir Thomas Picton’s 5th Division. Although the brigade has occasionally been excoriated for cowardice, it ought to be recalled that it had been badly mauled at Quatre Bras, was therefore severely under-strength, had already withstood ninety minutes’ cannonading at short range, and above all was not made up of men whose hearts were in the fight politically, ideologically or racially. If d’Erlon had been capable of consolidating his position on the crest of the ridge he could have turned Wellington’s flank. A crisis of the battle was at hand.
D’Erlon also had the satisfaction of forcing some companies of the 95th Rifle Brigade — whose firepower was far more accurate over far longer distances owing to its employment of Baker rifles rather than muskets — out of the Sandpit to join the rest of their battalion behind the Wavre road. (It is an interesting fact of the Napoleonic Wars that other than the rifling of gun-barrels — which was in its infancy and which had the disadvantage of making reloading slower — there had been hardly any technological advance in firearms since the campaigns of Marlborough. The Brown Bess musket had been introduced in 1745, and a grognard of the Wars of Spanish Succession would have been perfectly at home working the muskets of 1815.) The fleeing Dutch and Belgians of von Bijlandt’s brigade fortunately had no effect on the morale of Picton’s 5th Division as it prepared to meet the onslaught of d’Erlon’s corps. The 5th was composed of the brigades of Major-General Sir James Kempt and Major-General Sir Denis Pack and Colonel von Vincke’s Hanoverian brigade. Of the 5,170 men who had marched out of Brussels with it two days earlier, no fewer than 1,569 had been lost at Quatre Bras. The remaining 3,600 — supported by two Hanoverian brigades to their left with a total of 5,000 men — faced a far larger number of Frenchmen. Yet this did not prevent General Picton, after his troops had fired a murderous volley at about one hundred yards’ range, from ordering a bayonet charge.
Picton himself was killed almost immediately afterwards, shot through the right temple with the words ‘Charge! Charge! Hurrah!’on his lips, as the brigades of Donzelot and Quiot clashed with Kempt’s, Marcognet’s with Pack’s, and Durutte attempted to deal with the Hanoverians.4 (It was only after Picton’s body was laid out at Brussels the day after the battle that it was discovered that he had received a severe contusion at Quatre Bras on 16 June that he had kept secret.)
‘Ninety-second, everything has given way on your right and left and you must charge this column!’ cried Pack. With cheers the 92nd Regiment — which had been reduced to only 220 men — responded to the call. The fixing of the bayonet is the work of a moment, and as one British officer recalled, ‘When the Scots Greys charged past the flanks of the 92nd, both regiments cheered, and joined in the heart-touching cry of “Scotland forever!’” For it was at this key psychological moment, when d’Erlon’s advance had seemed to lose its momentum, that Lord Uxbridge ordered a mass cavalry attack upon it.
Uxbridge had had a difficult relationship with Wellington ever since he had run away with Wellington’s sister-in-law (whom he did at least subsequently marry). Wellington nevertheless appreciated his abilities and appointed him to command the cavalry in the Waterloo campaign, albeit with the joke to another officer: ‘I’ll take good care he doesn’t run away with me!’5 Uxbridge had served with distinction under Sir John Moore in the Peninsula, but had to give up the command of the cavalry when Wellington arrived there. This was to be the first time the two men had served together since the scandal. Apart from Wellington’s refusal to discuss his plans for the battle with his second-in-command, merely letting drop a few semi-sarcastic remarks, they got on well enough.
Wellington had been harsh about the cavalry arm in the Peninsula, once accusing it of ‘galloping at everything’ without proper thought to the consequences, and the charge of the Union and Household Brigades at Waterloo also gave him opportunity for criticism. At the moment of the initial attack on d’Erlon, however, Uxbridge’s action met with superb success as it charged through gaps in the hedge and around it to fall upon the French infantry.
The French cavalry protecting d’Erlon’s corps on its left flank were swept away by the Household Brigade. Now, totally exposed and caught by surprise, d’Erlon’s corps reeled from the combined onslaught of Picton’s division, Major-General Sir William Ponsonby’s Union Brigade (Royals, Scots Greys and Inniskillings dragoons) and, after their attack on the French cuirassiers, Lord Edward Somerset’s Household Brigade (1st and 2nd Life Guards and Royal Horse Guards). Uxbridge himself took the head of Somerset’s force. Within minutes d’Erlon’s men had broken and run back down the slope, utterly demoralised and leaving 2,000 prisoners behind them. Two eagle’ standards were captured, even though they were prized so highly in the French army as to have attained almost mythical status. Sergeant Charles Ewart of the 2nd North British Dragoons (‘Scots Greys’) captured the eagle of the 45th Line Regiment (Marcognet’s division), and Captain Alexander Clark-Kennedy of the Royal Dragoons took that of the 105th (Quiot’s division). (A third, that of the 55th Regiment, was also taken, but was recaptured soon afterwards.)
Sergeant Ewart later recalled how he captured the coveted French standard:
I took the Eagle from the enemy: he and I had a hard contest for it; he thrust for my groin — I parried it off, and I cut him through the head: after which I was attacked by one of their Lancers, who threw his lance at me, but missed the mark by throwing it off with my sword by my right side; then I cut him from the chin upwards, which cut went through his teeth. Next I was attacked by a foot soldier, who, after firing at me, charged me with his bayonet; but he very soon lost the combat, for I parried it, and cut him down through the head; so that finished the combat for the Eagle.6
This was the point at which the British cavalry ought to have stopped, regrouped and returned to their posts. For many, however, this was their first battle experience, and instead, exhilarated by their success over d’Erlon’s corps, they disastrously charged onwards. In a sense, therefore, Uxbridge did indeed ‘run away’ with Wellington, or at least with a good proportion of his cavalry arm. Although they had some success in cutting down some gunners of the Grand Battery, Ponsonby’s Union Brigade went far beyond the point that the rest of the Anglo-Allied army was able to protect them. Despite Ponsonby and his staff’s efforts they could not halt their troops. It was said that one officer was heard to cry out ‘To Paris!’as he charged by.
French retribution was swift and merciless; spotting their opportunity, Jacquinot’s lancers and Farine’s cuirassiers attacked from both right and left and exacted a terrible toll on the British cavalry, killing or wounding one-third of their number. Ponsonby himself paid for his inability to rein back his over-enthusiastic troopers with his life, killed by a French lancer after he had surrendered.
Although Somerset’s Household Brigade also went on too far after dispersing d’Erlon’s corps, it reined in long before Ponsonby had done. The cavalry retreat was covered by Major-General Sir John Vandeleur’s 4th Cavalry Brigade and Ghigny’s Belgian and Dutch Light Dragoons, who managed to repulse bodies of French lancers that were chasing troopers of the Scots Greys back to the British lines. Of the 2,500 cavalry who had charged, over a thousand did not return.
Captain Tomkinson of the 16th Light Dragoons recorded the destruction in his Diary of a Cavalry Officer·.
Towards the close of the evening the whole brigade did not form above one squadron … There was one squadron of the 1st Dragoon Guards in which not above one or two returned. They rode completely into the enemy’s reserve, and were killed. The enemy, I suspect, did not spare a single prisoner who fell into their hands. It is impossible to suppose a whole squadron killed without one man surrendering.7
Although the aftermath had been disastrous — the Union Brigade’s remaining strength meant that it could not contribute further as a functioning unit — nonetheless d’Erlon had been completely and demoralisingly repulsed, and had lost a quarter of his men, with around 2,000 captured. Napoleon’s original plan of how to achieve victory had been foiled. With the struggle continuing over Hougoumont, and La Haye Sainte still in Major Baring’s hands, if only just, Napoleon had not so far managed to impose his will upon any section of the battlefield. Meanwhile the Prussians were arriving in ever-increasing numbers from the east, directed to the vital points by Wellington’s Prussian liaison officer, the redoubtable Baron Philipp von Müffling.
Nor had Picton’s 5th Division succumbed to the same hubristic temptation as the cavalry. After their bayonet charge they obeyed orders to return to their line on the crest of the slope on the Anglo-Allied centre-left, thereby closing any gaps that Napoleon might have exploited if they had — maddened by blood-lust — followed d’Erlon’s corps to the bottom of the slope and beyond. Three companies of the 95th returned to the Sandpit. Even the success of Durutte was reversed when Prince Bernhard’s troops retook the farm of Papelotte.
At this point in the battle, soon after 3 p.m., there seems to have been a relative lull in the hostilities — except at the hard-pressed farmhouses — while both armies drew breath. Wellington used this short respite to bring General Sir John Lambert’s 10th Brigade into the line where the von Bijlandt brigade had been, as Kempt took over from Picton as commander of the 5th Division.
Wellington certainly needed every moment; he had expected the Prussians to begin arriving at noon, but it was not really until after 4 p.m. that they could be deployed in large enough numbers to aid him significantly. Thankfully though, by that time the sound of Blücher’s cannon could be clearly heard in the east.
Meanwhile Napoleon finally received a reply from Grouchy, which had been sent from Walhain on the Gembloux—Wavre road at 11 a.m. This stated that he was heading for Wavre, but was still some way off. The story goes that he was eating strawberries with some of his senior commanders at a farm on the road when the roar of the Grand Battery’s guns was heard a few miles to the west. His subordinates, especially General Gérard, implored him to give up the Prussian chase and march immediately towards the sound of the guns, which could only mean that Napoleon was engaging the Anglo-Allied army.
Fearing the consequences of directly contravening the Emperor’s verbal and written orders, Grouchy overruled them and insisted upon continuing the march on to Wavre. An officer with more initiative or imagination — Kellermann, say, or Pajol — would almost certainly have behaved differently, but Napoleon had given Grouchy his marshal’s baton in the knowledge that he was not of that particular stamp. Grouchy’s message made it clear to Napoleon that he would not be appearing on the battlefield that day, just as the charge of the Heavy and Union Brigades had dispersed any lingering suspicions he might have had that Wellington was merely fighting a rearguard action while he withdrew his main force through the Forest of Soignes.
With the Prussians starting to arrive in force from about 4.30 p.m. onwards, this was the time when the French could have — indeed should have — ended their attacks and gone onto the defensive. By withdrawing to a safe distance to await Grouchy’s arrival the next day, Napoleon might have salvaged his throne, at least for a little while longer. Yet he was a gambler; his career had seen him escape from tough spots time and again, often merely by upping the stakes.
Napoleon had been imprisoned during the Revolution, outnumbered in Italy, stranded in Egypt, assaulted during the Brumaire coup, plotted against by Talleyrand and Fouché, opposed by no fewer than seven European coalitions, humiliated in Russia, forced to abdicate, and exiled to Elba. Yet he had come back from every reverse.
D’Erlon’s corps was now beginning to regroup, and infantrymen were replacing the killed and wounded gunners of the Grand Battery. Quiot’s troops were trying to force their way into La Haye Sainte. It was hardly surprising, therefore, that at 4 p.m. on Sunday, 18 June 1815, when forced to decide between retreating and trying once again to break Wellington’s line before the Prussians could alter the course of the battle, Napoleon Bonaparte ordered Marshal Ney to do whatever it took to capture the walled farm that lay at the heart of the battlefield.