Return to Waterloo
- Credit: Juulijs - Fotolia
On the bicentenary of the battle that changed Europe, Anthony Lambert examines Wellington’s victory over Napoléon and sees how troops are preparing to do battle once more
“Believe me, nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.” No words better encapsulate the events of 18 June, 1815, than the Duke of Wellington’s. He may have commanded the allied forces in the “nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life”, but he was appalled by slaughter on a scale that anticipated World War I; in fact a higher proportion of British servicemen died in the Napoleonic Wars between 1794 and 1815 than during the later conflict.
The events leading up to the battle began with Napoléon’s escape from exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba in February 1815. After landing at Golfe-Juan between Cannes and Antibes, Napoléon used his charisma, promises and lies to win over entire regiments as he made for Paris. The king, Louis XVIII, fled to Ghent and the Seventh Coalition of Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia assembled its forces to be rid of this ‘enemy of world peace’.
Napoléon’s only hope against such an allied force was to engage each army separately, which dictated an offensive strategy. Only the Prussians and a mixed army of British, Belgian, Dutch and German soldiers were mobilised quickly. Napoléon decided to attack in present-day Belgium, then in the Netherlands, and crossed the border on 15 June. Though Napoléon’s forces defeated the Prussians under Marshal von Blücher at Ligny on the 16th, the majority of the Prussians retreated in good enough order for Blücher to promise Wellington two days later that he would join up with him as soon as possible.
Also on the 16th, Wellington had fought a more inconclusive engagement at Quatre Bras against Marshal Ney, who had succeeded in preventing the two allied armies joining. But Napoléon couldn’t have it both ways: by dividing his forces to prevent the enemy uniting, he diminished the chances of decisive and quick victories. Hearing of the Prussians’ defeat and withdrawal, Wellington had no option but to make a tactical, fighting retreat, aiming for Waterloo. Seasoned by campaigns in India and Iberia, Wellington had reconnoitred the country south of Brussels the previous September and had identified a site south of Waterloo as the best defensive position.
Wellington may have secured the ground he wanted, but other cards were stacked against him. Most of his seasoned Iberian Peninsula soldiers were still in Canada after the war against the United States had ended in December 1814. In the allied army of just under 68,000 men, only 15,000 of the infantry were British and half of those had never been in battle. Even among the troops from Britain, the unit in which Wellington had most confidence was the King’s German Legion made up largely of Hanoverians. Most of the British were labourers or tradesmen, from bakers to watchmakers, and they ranged in age from 16 to over 60, although most were in their twenties. Lieut John Kincaid of the 95th Rifles thought that the polyglot army of British, Dutch, Belgians and Germans was “take us all in all, a very bad army”.
Throughout the night of the 17/18 June, men of each army continued to arrive, drenched by a thunderstorm and rain that did not let up until 9am. Wet, cold, hungry and thirsty, the troops could only sit on the wet ground and wait. All must have known that the first encounter between the two greatest generals of their day would be a titanic contest, and one that could end 23 years of war against revolutionary and Napoléonic France. As Lieut Kincaid remarked, “I had never yet heard of a battle in which everybody was killed, but this seemed likely to be an exception.”
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The soggy ground was to prove an asset to the allied army, and Napoléon recognised that probability by delaying the attack. He wanted the ground to dry out so that his forces could move over the ground freely and quickly. Moreover, his superiority in artillery – the allies had only 156 guns to France’s 252 – would be diminished by soil that absorbed cannon shot rather than helped it to ricochet.
Wellington had risen at 2am, received Blücher’s promise to attack Napoléon’s right flank as soon as he could, mounted his stallion Copenhagen and rode to the crossroads of the Brussels-Charleroi and Ohain to Braine-l’Alleud roads where he established a command post under an elm. The two armies formed a four-kilometre concave arc about 1,300 metres apart, but Wellington had concealed his cavalry and most of his artillery and troops in the lea of the hill along which the Ohain to Braine-l’Alleud road ran in a shallow, hedged trench.
Between the armies were two farmsteads in allied hands which were to play crucial roles in the battle: La Haie-Sainte defended by 360 men of the King’s German Legion; and Hougoumont, larger and grander than La Haie-Sainte with a château and extensive farm buildings. It was defended by detachments of the Coldstream and Scots Guards, charged with defending it at all costs to prevent the French outflanking the right of the allied line.
The danger this represented became apparent at about 11.30am when fighting began here two hours before anywhere else. Although intended by Napoléon as a diversionary attack, it soon developed into a full-scale struggle. Repeated assaults were driven back, but not until the French had penetrated a courtyard through the north gate, left open for supplies and reinforcement; fierce hand-to-hand fighting left only a French drummer boy on his feet and the gates were closed. Though the orchard was overrun once and had to be retaken and French mortars set the buildings alight, Hougoumont never fell, its 2,500 defenders repulsing more than five times that number and immobilising about 8,000.
At 1pm the French artillery opened fire before the first of the three main attacks, with 17,000 men under Ney advancing in three columns. It took little time for mud to slow them as men slipped or even lost their boots to the sucking mud. Despite heavy casualties from artillery and musket fire, the French surrounded La Haie-Sainte and captured the farm of Papelotte on Wellington’s extreme left. The British forces in the lane were hidden by the holly hedge, and as the French columns halted to form lines to penetrate the hedge, 3,000 British muskets fired, followed by a charge of the Scottish infantry and two cavalry forces. The French infantry broke and retreated, but the British cavalry pursued them too close to the French guns and were badly mauled.
Napoléon had read an intercepted message to Wellington about the Prussian advance and sent infantry and cavalry units to counter the move. Papelotte was retaken. Misinterpreting wounded British soldiers heading for Brussels as a retreat, Ney ordered the cavalry to make the second main attack, made up of 12 ranks of 500 abreast but without any infantry support, as tactical wisdom demanded. Behind the allied ridge were infantry squares of three ranks in chequerboard pattern to give covering fire. In front was the artillery so that the gunners could fire at the last moment and retreat within the squares.
Horses cannot be made to charge a hedge of glittering bayonets, and their riders could not see the allied squares until they were almost on top of them. The combination of artillery grapeshot and musket fire whittled their numbers but they charged past the squares to meet Lord Uxbridge’s cavalry, leading to a swirling mass of horses around the infantry squares. Repeated retreats, regrouping and charges were made by the French but the ground between lane and ridge became an impassable mound of dead men and horses.
Repeated requests from the Hanoverian defenders of La Haie-Sainte for ammunition went unanswered and after 6pm the last ball had been fired, as the French overwhelmed the buildings. Just 41 Hanoverians made it to Wellington’s crossroads alive. By this time the Prussians had taken the village of Plancenoit to the east, and Napoléon sent some of the Imperial Guard to retake it, weakening his main forces.
After the failed cavalry attack, there was a lull until about 7.30pm when Napoléon played his final card with an attack by the infantry of the Imperial Guard. Again the concealed allied infantry fired an unexpected volley and charged the French, who were also attacked from the right flank. For the first time in its history, the Guard broke and fled down the slope, some stopping to form squares to block the allied advance and cover the retreat. Napoléon had to abandon his carriage and leave for Paris on a white charger. On 8 July Prussian troops entered Paris and Louis XVIII was restored to the throne. After four days of negotiations at Rochefort, Napoléon surrendered to Captain Frederick Maitland aboard HMS Bellerophon on 15 July.
Initial jubilation in Britain was quickly tempered by dismay at the 23,000 allied casualties. The battlefield was soon the scene of scavenging and looting as dead and dying soldiers were stripped of anything of value, including teeth; in mitigation, the plunderers were often local peasants whose homes and livelihoods had been destroyed by the depredations of the armies. It was four days before the last of the wounded were removed. A macabre form of battlefield tourism followed as people visited the site and bought souvenirs of the battle, as happy to have a blood-stained bayonet as an epaulette.
The name of the battle was chosen by Wellington, who decreed that ‘his’ battles should be named after the place where he had spent the previous night. The finality that the battle bestowed on Napoléon’s ambitions gave rise to the expression that someone ‘has met their Waterloo’. The significance and scale of the battle were reflected in giving the name to London’s busiest railway station and more than 50 places around the world; ironically by far the largest number are in the US. But as Victor Hugo said, “Waterloo was not a battle but a change in the direction of the world.”
VISITING THE BATTLEFIELD
The town of Waterloo is the obvious starting point. Opposite one another beside the main crossroads are the Wellington Museum and the French Baroque-style church of Saint Joseph with imposing rotunda and dome. The museum occupies the inn where Wellington established his headquarters. Besides Wellington’s bedroom and office and the room where his aide-de-camp, Lieut-Col Sir Alexander Gordon, died, the rooms contain memorabilia and pictures of the battle. The church contains many memorials.
Legal protection to the battlefield was given in March 1914, and little harm had been done in the intervening 99 years. The only major change was the creation of the conical Lion Hill monument marking the spot where the Prince of Orange was wounded. This entailed scraping the soil off the surrounding land, making it harder to appreciate the value to the allies of the sunken lane where many French cavalry came to grief. Almost in the middle of Wellington’s line, the Hill was opened in 1826 with a 28-ton lion cast in Liège standing on a plinth at the top of 226 steps. The plinth rests on a solid column within the mound, and the surrounding platform provides an unrivalled view over the battlefield.
Adjacent to the Lion Hill is the Panorama, a rotunda housing a 360-degree painting commissioned in 1912 for the centenary of the battle and painted by Louis-Jules Dumoulin. Measuring 110 metres long and nearly 12 metres high, it portrays a composite view of the forces of the battlefield with foreground mannequins and stage props. Connected to the Panorama by a tunnel is the large new visitor centre opening for the bicentenary, which uses state-of-the-art techniques to tell the story of the battle and its protagonists.
Around the crossroads where Wellington issued orders are the Belgian and Hanoverian monuments, the latter a trapezoidal column erected in 1818 to commemorate La Haie-Sainte’s defenders and mark the site of a sand pit where 4,000 men were buried. Opposite is the Gordon Monument, in memory of Lieut-Col Sir Alexander Gordon.
La Haie-Sainte can be seen from the opposite side of the busy road, but is privately owned. Further along the road towards Charleroi is La Belle Alliance, the inn where Napoléon reviewed his troops before the battle and where in the evening Wellington and Blücher greeted one another on horseback. Just beyond is the monument to Victor Hugo, who described the battlefield in Les Misérables, and opposite that, in the form of a wounded eagle, a memorial to the Imperial Guard of the Grand Armée.
Continuing for two kilometres south towards Charleroi, Le Caillou is the farmhouse where Napoléon spent the night before the battle. It has been restored and contains memorabilia about the Emperor.
But perhaps the most evocative of all the sites is the most isolated, the remains of Hougoumont, which have been restored with British help. Television presenter Peter Snow has described it as being the most moving battlefield site he has visited. The loops cut out of the brickwork for muskets to fire through can still be seen, and trees still line the orchard.
On 18-21 June, the battle is beng re-enacted on the field of combat by more than 5,000 people in period uniform from 350 participating groups, with 300 horses and 100 cannon On the 18th the army bivouacs are ‘opened’, giving an insight into the daily life of the regiments. On the evening of the 19th the French attack is being staged before the allied counter-attack on the evening of the 20th, with more events on the 21st (www.waterloo2015.org).
Taking a leading role in the re-enactment is the Napoleonic Association (www.napoleonicassociation.org). Chairman Martyn Monks, who has been responsible for the registration process for all units attending, said: “There are about 1,900 English-speakers going over, and about 1,300 of those will be on the battlefield. People are coming from Australia, Canada and the US. I have been involved in re-enactments for 21 years and during that time they have become much more professional, based on research and abiding by stricter health and safety requirements.”
Almost all re-enactors provide their own kit. Each ‘regiment’ researches uniforms and equipment, and everyone uses the same supplier, so that there is uniformity of colour and detail. As Mike Haynes, commander of the British Army at the re-enactment, said: “When I started I couldn’t afford a uniform, so I learned some costuming skills, working with fabrics and leather. Some developed these techniques into a cottage industry; a company such as 19th Century Tailoring in Bournemouth can turn out a footguard tunic or a hussar’s pelisse (cloak) made in military-grade wool with silver Russia lace.
“Weapons are mostly reproduction, though some Scandinavians are bringing originals. They too have got much better with more accurate markings.” A replica Brown Bess musket costs about £300, an original £2,500, but an original Baker flintlock rifle could be as much as £14,000.
Individuals even provide the artillery, acquired from specialist companies such as Derbyshire Arms. The gun commander of the Royal Horse Artillery troop at Waterloo is Jerry Spearing, whose six-pounder was made many years ago for the Tower of London. Like most artillery pieces, it is 80 to 90 per cent full size to reduce the weight.
For Mike Haynes, it all started with an interest in history: “Our members are all addicted to stories. Something may make you want to pursue a historical character, or it’s the fiction of Hornblower and Sharpe which captures the imagination. The Napoleonic era is a very colourful period, full of amazing heroes, gallantry, courage and adventure, Boy’s Own stuff. Then one starts to take an interest in a regiment and you get in touch with other people, which is much easier with the internet than the days of library file cards. A friend and I were hooked by the uniforms and weaponry, and all the drama of the period. To stand in a line of fusiliers with muskets blazing away, you get the feel of it, the smell of the gunpowder and the heat of the flash in the pan from the person next to you, and all visibility is gone – you get a real tactile, immersive experience of what you’ve read about.”
For Jerry Spearing, it was having three ancestors in the army at time of the Napoleonic Wars: one at Waterloo in the 12th Light Dragoons and two in the Peninsular War, one of them in the 32nd Cornish Regiment who at 99 became the last survivor of the retreat from Corunna. Besides his artillery piece, Jerry is taking a period forge to Waterloo with historic tools and anvil to demonstrate the skills of a sergeant armourer as part of the living history camp. These include period cooking in camp kitchens, a surgeons’ tent and a period tavern.
Two rocket launchers are planned to accompany Jerry’s artillery. Wellington instructed the rockets be left off the field of battle, wanting them to be used mainly to set urban areas alight. But a Capt Whinyates took them anyway and when an attack by the Scots Greys was repelled, the troop fired up to 100 rockets at the French, putting them into disarray.
Re-enactments also shed light on practicalities. Martyn Monks says it is difficult to march in a straight line and maintain formation, especially when the ground is wet, as it was in 1815. Will it be on the 200th anniversary? “As long as we can get the tents up and take them down in the dry, that will be fine.”
By rail: Direct services run from London to Brussels, and it is then a 25-minute ride to Braine-l’Alleud (tel: 0844 848 4070, www.voyages-sncf.com).
By road: Waterloo is 2hr from the northern ferry ports.
WHERE TO STAY
Martin’s Grand Hotel
Chaussée de Tervuren 198
Tel: (Bel) 2 352 18 15
Modern hotel built around an 1830s brick-vaulted sugar factory, with an impressive restaurant serving haute cuisine. Doubles from €115.
Tel: 01628 825925
The Landmark Trust has created a simple first-floor apartment in the former gardener’s cottage beside the south gates of this walled farmyard, a key battle location. Furnishings evoke the Napoleonic era and the apartment overlooks sweet chestnut trees standing in 1815. Sleeps four, from £482 for four nights.
WHERE TO EAT
Chaussée de Tervuren 178
Tel: (Bel) 2 354 86 43
Excellent Italian restaurant close to Martin’s Hotel. Menu €50.
Route du Lion 252-254
Tel: (Bel) 2 385 19 12
An 1815 Waterloo Pass (€13.50) covers the Wellington Museum, the Lion’s Mound and Le Caillou.
Musée de l’Armée, Les Invalides, Paris: The location of Napoléon’s tomb and one of his 19 surviving bicorne cocked hats, one of which sold for £1.2 million at auction in 2014 (www.musee-armee.fr).
Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and of Military History, Brussels: Visit a gallery devoted to Napoléon and his time (www.klm-mra.be).
Apsley House, London: The London town house of the Dukes of Wellington includes two exhibitions exploring the life of Wellington and the story of the battle, including his sword, handwritten orders from the field and a pair of original Wellington boots. The Wellington Arch stands opposite (www.english-heritage.org.uk).
Stratfield Saye, Hampshire: The house was acquired by the Duke of Wellington with the £600,000 given him by Parliament. His horse Copenhagen is buried under a Turkey oak in the grounds (www.stratfield-saye.co.uk).
Plas Newydd House, Gwynedd: The cavalry museum features the artificial leg made for the 1st Marquess of Anglesey to replace the one lost at Waterloo, a spyglass owned by Napoléon and Denis Dighton’s vast painting of the battle (www.nationaltrust.org.uk).
WATERLOO IN FICTION
The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal
Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
Sharpe’s Waterloo by Bernard Cornwell