THE THIRD PHASE of the battle started at 3.30 p.m., as soon as d’Erlon’s bedraggled corps had stopped running and were formed back into something approaching order. Ney personally took charge of the regiments that seemed the least demoralised by their experience at the hands of the British cavalry, and led them up towards La Haye Sainte in a bid to capture the farmhouse whose possession had become as much of a talisman and a strategic necessity as was that of Hougoumont. Yet despite his best efforts, ‘the bravest of the brave’ initially failed to take the key point in Wellington’s centre.
Meanwhile the Grand Battery and the rest of the French artillery continued pounding the Anglo-Allied lines, if anything harder than before, and despite Wellington’s orders to his infantry to lie down, the cannonading caused heavy losses in the ranks. Next came a massive cavalry attack on the Anglo-Allied centre; like d’Erlon’s infantry assault it was statistically one of the largest battle movements of the Napoleonic Wars.
There are a number of explanations for why the main French cavalry charge at Waterloo commenced when it did, largely unsupported by infantry as it should have been. Some historians argue that Ney mistook through his telescope the sight of some stragglers from the enemy lines who were moving back from the cannonading, as well as groups of soldiers carrying wounded comrades back to the field-hospitals, for a general withdrawal that he believed he could punish.1 Others think that his poor performance at Quatre Bras and on the following day rankled with him to the extent that he was desperate to be seen to deliver the battle-winning stroke. Still others believe that Wellington’s order to some regiments to withdraw a few paces was misinterpreted by the French.
There is certainly no written evidence to suggest that Napoleon commanded Ney to order the heavy cavalry to attack, and the Emperor later explicitly denied having done so. Ney himself was executed by firing squad that December, and his motivation was never established either. Yet in 2003 a book by the distinguished Napoleonic Wars historian Digby Smith, entitled Charge!: Great Cavalry Charges of the Napoleonic Wars, presented a fascinating new theory and fresh evidence about how and why the charge took place when it did, one that rings true considering the febrile mood of a cavalry regiment awaiting the order to charge. It also explains why the cuirassiers commenced their massive endeavour without the crucial infantry support that would have been so helpful.
In this explanation, based on a cock-up rather than the French historians’ favoured conspiracy theories, a key figure is Captain Fortune Brack of the 2nd Guard Lancers, a relatively junior figure in a light cavalry regiment that had taken part in the destruction of Ponsonby’s Union Brigade. Twenty years after the battle, Captain Brack wrote a letter to a friend (see APPENRDIX II) in which he admitted personal responsibility for the disaster of Ney’s premature charge. It seems that Brack, over-excited by the success against the Union Brigade, had mistaken movement on the Anglo-Allied lines for a retreat, and loudly called for an attack.
Officers around him then pushed forward to see for themselves, whereupon, as he put it: ‘The right hand file of our regimental line followed them.’ This movement was automatically copied along the regiment, merely in order ‘to restore the alignment’, but once the adjacent regiment — the Chasseurs-à-Cheval of the Guard — had also copied it, even though it was ‘of only a few paces at the right’, further down the line of horses it ‘became more marked’, so that by the time that it reached the dragoons and the Grenadiers-à-Cheval — who were impatiently awaiting the command to charge from Ney — they believed that the order had actually been given. As Brack explained: ‘They set off — and we followed!’2
This explanation certainly takes into account the psychology of a cavalry regiment on the verge of a charge. Excitement, expectation, pumping adrenalin, keenness not to be seen as hanging back, a culture of élan and esprit de corps that prizes action over contemplation, all might have played their part. Above all it is not impossible to imagine a situation in which horses start to move forward to restore an alignment, in the process encouraging the belief that the order to charge had been given.
Whatever the true explanation — and it might even have been that Ney did not think infantry support necessary — General le Comte Milhaud’s IV Cavalry Corps set off on their doomed charge towards the Anglo-Allied infantry, with Ney at their head. Seeing Milhaud’s cuirassiers attack, the cavalry general Charles Lefebvre-Desnoëttes followed on without direct orders; by the time the force crossed over to the west side of the Charleroi—Brussels road it numbered forty-three squadrons of heavy cavalry, comprising about 5,000 men and horses.
It must have been an astonishing sight. As Shaw Kennedy, who watched the deployment take place, readily admitted:
The formation and advance of that magnificent and highly disciplined cavalry had, as a spectacle, a very grand effect. These splendid horsemen were enthusiastic in the cause of Napoleon — full of confidence in him and in themselves — thirsting to avenge the reverses which had been suffered by the French armies — led by most experienced and able cavalry commanders — and they submitted to a rigid discipline. Their advance to the attack was splendid and interesting in the extreme.3
Yet despite the formidable size of Ney’s formation, Napoleon had apparently still not seen it, and therefore did nothing to prevent its deployment. Wellington had seen it however, and considered it premature, and his infantry had plenty of time to take the necessary defensive steps. Since Ney had to charge between Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte, avoiding both as far as possible to escape their enfilading fire, he could not ride on as broad a front as he would have liked. When he reached the Anglo-Allied lines he found they had altered shape. They had ‘formed square’.
Horses will refuse to charge straight at a body of men who are pointing bayonets at them. This is the equine fact underlying the thinking behind the defensive formation known as ‘the square’. That, and the sense of safety that the men inside squares could take from the knowledge that their backs were protected by their comrades. Hollow or solid, squares were actually often rectangular or even triangular in shape, and at Waterloo several of the thirteen or fourteen were actually oblong, but the generic title still holds.
Squares were not utterly unbreakable by cavalry, but in the Napoleonic Wars there were only a few occasions when they had not proved impregnable. At the battle of Garcia Hernandez in July 1812 during the Peninsular War, two French squares were broken by the 1st and 2nd Dragoons of the King’s erman Legion on a single day. The wounded horse of a trooper named Post in the latter regiment reared up and then rolled, kicking and bucking, onto the wall of Frenchmen in the front rank of the square, opening a momentary gap. This was suddenly filled with dragoons, who broke into the square.
If a square gives security because everyone’s back is covered, the moment enemy cavalry get inside it the exact opposite is the case: it becomes a death-trap for infantrymen because every back is left undefended to the horsemen’s sabre thrusts. The square adopted by a battalion of the French 76th Regiment of the Line at Garcia Hernandez simply collapsed, with most men surrendering, many being killed and only fifty escaping. Nor did it end there. Soon afterwards a second French square, formed by the other battalion of the 76th, also broke because its cohesion was wrecked by refugees from other parts of the battlefield trying to flood into it, just as the German dragoons fell upon it.4
Fortunately at Waterloo the Anglo-Allied squares had plenty of time to form up before Milhaud’s cuirassiers appeared. Shaw Kennedy remarked of the attack:
We had no idea that it would be made upon our line … as yet unshaken by any previous attack by infantry. The moment that it was observed that the movement of the great masses of the French heavy cavalry were directed towards his division, [Major-]General [Charles von] Alten passed the order to form oblongs, into which formation the division rapidly passed; the Guards formed squares on the right of the 3rd Division; the two divisions thus filling up the space between the Charleroi and Nivelles roads; the artillery stood in front of the infantry on the front slope of the position, so that its fire might be effectual against the attacking force.
It was indeed murderously effective, as was the entire deployment, because it allowed many muskets to be brought to bear on the cavalry, without the troops being in too much danger themselves. Squares were highly vulnerable to coordinated attack from cannon and infantry, because the square becomes a solid target of men unable to move because of the presence of cavalry. Yet Ney had launched his assault without the close support of infantry, and only six of the eleven batteries in support were the manoeuvrable horse-battery kind, further indication that the charge might have started accidentally and only been acquiesced in once it had begun. Napoleon is also quoted, whether accurately or not, as saying: ‘This attack has taken place an hour too soon, but we must stand by what has already been done.’5 Consequently the Emperor ordered General Kellermann to support Ney with his four brigades of cuirassiers and carabiniers, and also Guyot’s heavy cavalry of the Guard, totalling thirty-seven squadrons to add to the forty-three already committed.
Private Charles O’Neil recorded how the British squares were ‘not quite solid, but several files deep, and arranged like the squares of a chess-board; so that, if any of the enemy’s cavalry should push between the divisions, they could be attacked in the rear, as well as in the front’.6 This formation also had the advantage that the fewest number of stray shots from one square that missed the French cavalry would strike infantrymen in a nearby square. Armed with muskets whose fire was only 5 per cent accurate much beyond ten yards, this was no small advantage in an age that suffered greatly from ‘friendly-fire’ incidents.
The experience of being attacked by the French cavalry was something Ensign Gronow, who was serving with the 1st Foot Guards, would never forget. In his superb Reminiscences, he recalled being in the same square as Wellington as the enemy cavalry descended:
You perceived at a distance what appeared to be an overwhelming, long moving line, which, ever-advancing, glittered like a stormy wave of the sea when it catches the sunlight. On came the mounted host until they got near enough, whilst the very earth seemed to vibrate under their thundering tramp. One might suppose that nothing could have resisted the shock of this terrible moving mass … In an almost incredibly short period they were within twenty yards of us, shouting ‘Vive l’Empereur!’ The word of command, ‘Prepare to receive cavalry,’ had been given, every man in the front rank knelt, and a wall bristling with steel, held together by steady hands, presented itself to the infuriated cuirassiers … Our Commander-in-chief, as far as I could judge, appeared perfectly composed; but looked very thoughtful and pale.7
Although eighty squadrons of heavy cavalry were now ranged against the Anglo-Allied squares, Napoleon refused to send in the Imperial Guard infantry, which he always preferred to keep back until the last moment, when they had so often in the past decided battles in his favour. There was even a joke among the French line infantry that the reason the Imperial Guard were nicknamed ‘the Immortals’ was because they were committed so late in the day. Not only were the heavy cavalry not supported by infantry, they were not followed up by any more than six batteries of horse artillery. In the opinion of Captain Becke: ‘Had guns been galloped up in the wake of the cavalry, and commenced a case-shot attack of the squares … then nothing could have saved the centre of Wellington’s line from being torn to pieces and breached.’8
The fact that this was not done was partly down to Napoleon, partly to Ney’s over-hasty attack, but was also the result of having France’s best artillerymen absent. Drouot had been taken off artillery duty to command the Guard that day, and General Desvaux, who was in command of the Guard Artillery, was killed early on in the battle, while standing close to Napoleon. (His proximity to the Emperor ought to banish the suspicions of some that Napoleon deliberately stayed entirely out of danger’s way during the battle.)
The eighty squadrons comprised 10,000 horsemen, and they swiftly renewed their attack on the squares. The fighting on the plateau has been described as ‘an hour of pandemonium and confused, chaotic mêlée’, as every one of the squares was charged time and again. The squares took severe casualties from the horse artillery when they could find space to fire, and from mounted carabiniers and sharpshooters on foot who got close and fired their carbines at virtually point-blank range, but they also exacted a high price from the French cavalry that tried and failed to break through their close-knit ranks, bristling as they were with bayonets. Ensign Gronow recorded how he ‘shall never forget the strange noises our bullets made against the breastplates of Kellermann’s and Milhaud’s cuirassiers … who attacked us with great fury’. (Although they could turn sword thrusts, breastplates were not bulletproof at short range.)
For two hours, roughly between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m., wave after wave of French heavy cavalry crashed against Wellington’s infantry, but not a single square broke. Wellington himself spent the whole of the battle of Waterloo riding on his horse Copenhagen to wherever the situation was most fraught — except for Hougoumont, where he might have been trapped and unable to oversee the rest of the battle. He rode many miles that day, backwards and forwards down the line giving orders, directing batteries, looking for gaps to fill and opportunities to exploit.
It is an indication of how close Wellington came to mortal danger during the course of the battle that almost all his staff suffered death or injury. Fitzroy Somerset’s left arm was actually touching Wellington’s right arm when it was hit by a sharpshooter. (It later had to be amputated. ‘Hallo!’ Somerset cried to the surgeon, ‘don’t carry away that arm till I’ve taken off my ring.’It had been given him by Wellington’s niece Emily on their wedding day.) On two occasions the Duke ran so short of aides de camp to carry messages that he had to rely on civilians, a young Swiss on one occasion and a London commercial traveller on another.9
During one of Ney’s attacks, Wellington entered the square formed by the 73rd Regiment, part of the 3rd Division. Also inside were gunners whose cannon were in French hands outside the square, but which the French had fortuitously (and negligently) neither spiked nor towed away. As the cavalry attacks receded, these men simply ran out of the squares and resumed firing at the French, only to run back into them when the cuirassiers returned.
Not everyone followed Wellington’s orders; the gallant Captain Mercer of the horse artillery disobeyed him and resolved not to command his troops to sprint into a nearby square of Brunswickers for protection. He feared that the sight of his men running might demoralise the unsteady Brunswickers, whose square he thought looked like breaking anyhow, so he ordered his men to stand firm by the guns come what may. He fired case-shot into the cavalry at only a hundred yards’ range, exacting terrible carnage, and at the last moment the cavalry turned and bolted back. This was most fortunate for Mercer and his troops, since gunners caught beside their cannon by cavalry faced almost certain death.
It was during this period that Wellington was reported to have asked General Halkett, ‘Well, Halkett, how do you get on?’, only to receive the reply, ‘My Lord, we are dreadfully cut up. Can you not relieve us for a little while?’’ Impossible,’ said the Duke. ‘Very well, my Lord,’ answered the General stoically, ‘we’ll stand until the last man falls.’10 Nor was this mere bravado, for Gronow records how:
During the battle our squares presented a shocking sight. Inside we were nearly suffocated by the smoke and smell from burnt cartridges. It was impossible to move a yard without treading upon a wounded comrade, or upon the bodies of the dead; and the loud groans of the wounded and dying were most appalling. At four o’clock our square was a perfect hospital, being full of dead, dying and mutilated soldiers.11
They had two more hours of such hell to go before the cavalry attacks — some counted fourteen in all — ceased. There was some vigorous countercharging by British cavalry in protection of the squares, which inflicted significant losses on the French, albeit at a high cost.
If any part of the Anglo-Allied line, such as the Brunswickers, had indeed broken and fled the field during that part of the battle of Waterloo, it is easy to envisage a general collapse. The psychology of troops under unimaginable pressure and peril makes a fascinating study, and when panic grips a unit it can spread with astonishing speed throughout an army. At the battle of Marengo fifteen years earlier, for example, Napoleon’s Armée de Réserve was hard-pressed, indeed retreating before the Austrians. His vigorous counterattack, spearheaded by Desaix, Marmont and Kellermann, suddenly created a sense of panic in the enemy after only half an hour, with the result that Marengo is considered almost as great a Napoleonic victory as Austerlitz.
Ney, now personally taking command of the last cavalry reserve of the French army, a brigade of mounted carabiniers, led one of the last charges of that part of the engagement, but this had no more success than the previous ones. Several French generals had been killed, horses were blown, casualties were tremendous, and the survivors were exhausted. On occasion the cavalry ‘charges’ had hardly taken place even at a trot, more like a fast walk. The last of these have been described as ‘death-rides’as opposed to serious attempts to sweep the Anglo-Allied infantry off the plateau.
It is impossible to underrate the courage of the French cavalrymen who took part in these attacks, to which Gronow, as well as many others, paid honourable tribute:
The charge of the French cavalry was gallantly executed, but our well-directed fire brought men and horses down, and ere long the utmost confusion arose in their ranks. The officers were exceedingly brave, and by their gestures and fearless bearing did all in their power to encourage their men to form again and renew their attack.12
What Gronow meant by ‘well-directed fire’ was the order to aim low, shooting at the horses rather than their riders, ‘so that … the ground was strewed with the fallen horses and their riders, which impeded the advance of those behind them and broke the shock of the charge’. For all the tactical sense this made, Gronow did not hide the fact that ‘It was pitiable to witness the agony of the poor horses, which really seemed conscious of the dangers which confronted them: we often saw a poor wounded animal raise its head, as if looking for its rider to afford him aid.’
One myth, propagated by the great French author Victor Hugo, still occasionally appears in Waterloo historiography, and needs to be dispelled. Just as when one visits Waterloo today, the way that the battle is presented might allow one to miss the fact that Napoleon lost, so the more chauvinistic French accounts sometimes claim that there was a chemin creux d’Ohain (‘hollow way of Ohain’), or even a ‘Ravine of Death’, down which Ney’s cavalrymen fell head-first to their and their horses’ deaths. (This myth is given credence in the visually superb but historically flawed 1973 movie Waterloo, which starred Rod Steiger as Napoleon and Christopher Plummer as Wellington.)
In fact the hollow way, the Ohain road, was no ravine, merely an ordinary country lane slightly sunk below the level of the rest of the ground. Captain Becke in 1914 estimated that:
At its deepest part, along Wellington’s battle-line, it was merely an easy in-and-out jump, complicated by neither hedge nor ditch, either on the taking off, or on the landing side. Such an obstacle, crossed under fire, might have overturned a few French cuirassiers as they essayed to scramble across it, it might even have loosened, or even disordered the formation of the advancing squadrons; but it could never have led to a disaster of any importance or magnitude.13
British cavalry brigades, such as Lord Edward Somerset’s, managed to negotiate this so-called ‘Ravine of Death’ without ill-effect, and Shaw Kennedy, who was just above La Haye Sainte, recorded how ‘the ground between them and us [the 3rd Division] presented no natural obstacles whatever’.14 Nor were Ney, Milhaud, Dubois or any of the other generals who led the charge subsequently criticised for launching an attack into an impassable hollow or ravine. In his report to Soult, Milhaud made no mention of the ravine, and we ought to accept it as, in Thomas Carlyle’s words, ‘the largest … piece of blague manufactured for some centuries by any man or nation’. In fact the legend of the chemin creux was simply created out of wounded Bonapartist pride, like so many other ex post factoexplanations for the defeat, ranging from Bourmont’s treachery, via the weather, to imperial haemorrhoids. (There is a memorial at Waterloo to Hugo, who argued that Napoleon had been defeated by God, not by the Duke of Wellington.)
By 6.30 p.m. the cavalry charges had ceased. The number of French cavalry losses has not been established. Ney’s error had been to try to squeeze 10,000 cavalrymen with forty horse artillery guns into a narrow space of 1,100 yards to attack over 13,000 infantry in squares who were protected by 7,000 horsemen and seventy-five guns and howitzers. With the very difficult nature of the terrain, sucking large numbers of French cavalry into its folds and dips, in truth there was no need for an Act of God.
During Ney’s cavalry assaults on the British squares, across to the east, the Prussians were advancing in force, and by 5.30 p.m. von Bülow’s front two brigades (the 15th and 16th) were heavily engaged in trying to capture the château of Frischermont from General Lobau, whom Napoleon had ordered to hold up the Prussians for as long as possible while he tried to break Wellington’s line. Von Gneisenau adopted a manoeuvre for arriving on the battlefield that passed the rear corps to the east through the others, which rested by the roadside. This meant that although the advance was slightly slowed when they did hit the battlefield there were no gaps in the Prussian line.
Von Bülow’s entire corps numbered around 30,000 men against 10,000 under Lobau’s command (of whom only 7,000 were infantry), but Lobau was a tough and resourceful general who had proved himself redoubtable in rearguard actions before, notably at the battle of Essling. His infantrymen were the 5th Line Regiment, the same men who were sent to arrest Napoleon near Grenoble when he returned from Elba, but who had acclaimed him instead.
Sheer weight of numbers began to tell, however, as brigade after brigade issued forth out of the Bois de Paris, and Lobau was forced out of Frischermont and back to the village of Plancenoit. Later he was forced out of that too, and his force was particularly vulnerable once it was out in the open, particularly to von Bülow’s plentiful infantry, cavalry and artillery. Seeing the danger of being cut off from his line of retreat, Napoleon ordered Duhesme to recapture Plancenoit with the Young Guard Division, which he managed to do by about 6.45 p.m.
The arrival of the Prussians on the battlefield in large numbers emboldened and encouraged Wellington’s army as much as it demoralised Napoleon’s. When at 4.30 p.m. two Prussian aides de camp passed in front of the British line in search of Wellington they were heartily cheered on their way by the Anglo-Allied soldiers. Fourteen thousand of Napoleon’s reserve had to be drawn off to try to contain the Prussians, severely limiting his options and weakening his assault in the centre. As the two Prussian corps of von Pirch and von Zieten marched in from the east at about 6.30 p.m., Wellington at last saw the prospect of winning the upper hand.
Zieten’s arrival on Wellington’s left flank permitted a useful realignment when the 4th Brigade, commanded by Major-General Sir John Vandeleur (the 11th, 12th and 16th Light Dragoons), and the 6th Brigade under Major-General Sir Hussey Vivian (the 1st Hussars KGL, 10th and 18th Hussars), plus Sir Robert Gardiner’s Horse Artillery Group, moved from the far left of the Anglo-Allied line to the centre, on von Müffling’s advice. Looking through his telescope from his vantage point at Papelotte the Prussian liaison officer had seen both Zieten’s proximity to Wellington’s left and an ominous massing of the French infantry reserve around La Belle Alliance, presaging another huge assault on the Anglo-Allied centre and right-centre.
Vandeleur, Vivian and Gardiner arrived just in time. Captain (later Colonel) Tomkinson of the 16th Light Dragoons recalled how: ‘In passing along the line it appeared to have been much cut up, and the troops, which in part held their position, were but few, and had suffered greatly. From marching under the shelter of the hill we could not distinctly see: yet I conceived from all I could learn that many points in the position were but feebly guarded.’15 Some historians believe that without the moral and material support that Wellington was afforded by this strengthening of his centre, the fourth phase of the battle might have gone badly awry.
Meanwhile, over at Wavre, seven miles to the east of the slopes of Mont St Jean, Lieutenant-General von Thielmann was finding himself hard-pressed by Grouchy’s much larger force. He sent Gneisenau a warning of defeat if he was not sent reinforcements. ‘Let Thielmann defend himself as best he can,’ was Gneisenau’s typically blunt answer to the aide de camp who brought the message. ‘It matters little if he is crushed at Wavre, so long as we gain the victory here.’ Not only was Grouchy’s help far too little far too late, but the Prussian high command was clear-headed enough not to allow it to draw men away from the crucial area of decision — at Waterloo.
For it was there, sometime between 6 and 6.30 p.m., that the French at last won their first concrete success, when, having completely run out of ammunition, Major Georg Baring’s force finally had to evacuate the farmhouse of La Haye Sainte.