- The position of the French attack.
- Charge of the Scots Grey, and British Heavy Cavalry Brigade.
- Lady Elizabeth Butler “Charge of the Scots Greys.”
- French chaos, and the grand battery overrun.
- We shall match them with our lancers: French counter charge.
- The day grinds on.
- The greatest blunder & the greatest bravery
- The fall of La Hay Sainte, last throw of the dice and the Imperial Guard
- The advance, the Prussians, and the last stand of the Guard
- Night falls.
- Reflections & post script.
Finally we come to the end of the battle of Waterloo
At the end of our last full episode, the battle was hanging in the balance. The French had attacked Hougoumont, hammered the allied line with the grand battery, seen the ominous signs of the arrival of the Prussians, and had started the great assault with General D’Erlon’s corp. This attack had fallen on the weak point of the allied line and seemed posed to break through.
At roughly 14:18 the Dutch Belgian troops had broken under immense French pressure. A 250 yard gap opened in the Allied line. In desperation, Lt General Sir Thomas Picton waved his umbrella to signal the advance and his Scots moved to plug the gap. 3,000 troops poured a staggering volley into the attackers.
As the French struggled to reform after the struggle over the ridge and through the hedge & sunken lane it appeared only a thin line of mostly Scotsmen were left to hold the allies together. Picton yelled at the Scots to charge and they did. The Highlanders advanced with the bayonet into the teeth of the enemy despite being desperately outnumbered. Picton himself was shot dead, a grievous loss to the troops. But there was a hope for the allies…..the cavalry was literally on the way.
The charge of the heavy brigade.
The French could feel the victory in the palm of their hand. If they could just but close the fist. But now, unknown to them, the Allied counter attack was coming. The British cavalry under the Earl of Uxbridge had been carefully hidden behind the ridge. Two Brigades of British Heavy Cavalry made up of regiments from England, Ireland, and Scotland prepared to charge the French through the smoke. The 1st Brigade, known as the Household Brigade, commanded by Major-General Lord Edward Somerset, consisted mostly of guards regiments: the 1st and 2nd Life Guards, the Royal Horse Guards (the Blues), and the 1st (King’s) Dragoon Guards. The 2nd Brigade, also known as the Union Brigade, commanded by Major-General Sir William Ponsonby, and was so called as it consisted of an English, the 1st (The Royals); a Scottish, 2nd (‘Scots Greys’); and an Irish, 6th (Inniskilling); regiment of heavy dragoons. The Earl of Uxbridge had been carefully drilling them ready for the battle.
The charge was devastating and made with exquisite timing. Most of the cavalry officers were death or glory types who lived by the maxim that a cavalry officer who wasn’t dead by 30 was a failure. Captain Verner of the 7th Hussars wrote in his diary that [QUOTE] There is no part of action more disagreeable than looking on[END QUOTE]. It wasn’t just the men that suffered in the charge. The poor horses too could be killed by unfortunate shots, and even the horses that lived might be spooked by gunfire in civilian life as much as any veteran soldier could be. Captain Verner’s horse lived with him for another 20 years but remained forever skittish at the sound of gunfire.
Whatever their feelings of the men and officers of the cavalry, they were hugely outnumbered but they were also thirsting to unleash a glorious charge. Even the Earl of Uxbridge was swept up in the excitement. Instead of staying back to control and organise he would be in at the death as the popular Victorian cavalry saying went.
It is absolutely true that the British cavalry were often wild, undisciplined and persistently unwilling to leave reserves or to stop a charge and reform. Wellington certainly considered them vastly inferior to the French in terms of discipline or organisation and felt that the problem got worse the more of them there were.
Still this was their great moment. The charge was devastating and made with exquisite timing. They swept aside the surprised force of French cavalry who had supported the assault, and slammed into the French just as the attackers were forming up after gaining the ridge. British officers, often expert riders and steeple chasers well used to jumping dangerous hedges during long fox hunts were in their element, cheerfully calling the orders to charge.
Now the French were wrong footed. They were trying to reform after their almost successful attack to push it to a conclusion, but now to their shock Frenchmen were falling dead with sabre cuts, and the British Heavies crashed into them. These big men on big horses could weigh up to half a tonne and were easily capable of riding a man down and crushing him, before laying into his fellows with vicious sabre cuts. These weren’t the prime and proper gentlemen followed by silent but disciplined yeoman as is sometimes portrayed in art work of the period. These were violent men in a violent age. For example Corporal John Shaw of the Life Guard Cavalry. He was a big, tough man. A cockney street fighter turned prize fighter who had floored an English bareknuckle boxing championship contender in a brutal one sided 30 minute bout. He had been picked by the Colonel of the Life Guard Cavalry because the colonel wanted just such tough, hard men to fight for him. Before Waterloo he had looted the supply wagons for an immense amount of drink, but no one would dare cross him. He was described as swaying by the time he climbed into the saddle. He would be much admired for his furious fighting, and the Victorians would whitewash his personality to fit the clean cut stoic lower class yeoman image they preferred. The reality was that he was a violent drunk who killed a lot of Frenchmen in a drunken rage before being cut down because the drink slowed his wits.
To face the charge of the Scots Greys was especially nasty, and behind them came the Highlanders to support their countrymen. The moment is immortalised in the extremely famous painting, Charge of the Greys by Lady Elizabeth Butler. On the podcast website in the art section is a copy of the Charge of the Greys. Just go to the main menu, select Artwork and her name.
If you can, open it up now and have a look at it. I will do a full episode on Lady Butler. She is a important painter of the Victorian period and frankly I don’t think I’ve emphasised enough yet just how important art work was to Victorian culture. Much more than it is today, although that is probably a reflection of the insipid talentless non-sense that often passes for modern art. Anyway, on the podcast website in the art section is a copy of the Charge of the Greys.
Right so hopefully you are looking at the painting. If you were a middle class late Victorian, you would almost certainly have either seen this painting, or at least a print of it, or know of it from illustrations especially if you or you husband moved in military circles. It was carefully designed. Lady Butler loved painting military scenes. She was very talented at capturing a feeling on the canvass. This painting gives you the feeling that the charge is flying towards you out of the canvass. It bursts with life. It captures the unstoppable quality of the charge. There are no enemies, and everyone is displaying the appropriate heroism and excitement, with a dashing square jawed officer right there front and centre. That might seem naive to us in our much more cynical age, but this painting was a cornerstone myth of Waterloo for the Victorians. It has graced book covers and articles about Waterloo. There is little in the way of smoke or confusion, the ground is too level and dry, some of the horses are in anatomically impossible positions, and there’s no drunken Corporal Shaw but as art it shows how some Victorians wanted to see their ancestors. This is a full bore celebration of the actions of the Scots Greys. The Scots and English in this myth are indivisibly British.
Also don’t forget that Waterloo was a major battle that had entered national myth, but it was before the age of battlefield photography. Paintings and illustrations offered the Victorians a way to see the battles or distant countries.
The reality of the charge was grim. The French gains were lost. Often stuck in large columns or out of formation in the open, they were unable to form squares to repel the cavalry. Really the French attack had actually been made with too many men in one formation. It was at this point Ney should have had a reserve of infantry, cavalry and horse artillery ready to support the attack and protect his troops from the allied counter attack. He should also have at least seized the farm of La Haye Sainte in a combined arms attack to support the main assault.
Now though the French had to suffer the consequences. They were ridden down, pushed back into the valley and butchered. Corporal Shaw was seen to spilt the head of a French cavalryman in half with a single blow. He was eventually overpowered somewhere in the valley bottom, lashing out at his enemies. It is thought that he eventually bled to death overnight near La Hay Sainte.
For Sergeant Ewart, the charge was one of revenge. He was extremely attached to his new officer, Cornet Kinchant. Against the sergeants better judgement, Kinchant had taken a French officer prisoner. The officer had begged for his life to be spared. The prisoner waited till Kinchant was distracted, then shot him in the back with a concealed pistol. A violation of the accepted rules of war at the time. An enraged Ewart listened to the officer’s second attempt to surrender. Then he told him to “ask mercy from god for the devil a bit of it will you get from my hands” before cutting him down. Kinchants death affected the sergeant for years to come, but for now he was out for more payback. He joined the frenzy of the charge. He was determined to take vengeance and he plunged into the enemy. The fight was brutal as he struggle against soldiers of the 45 Regiment. They had battle honours stretching across Napoleon’s finest victories and fought hard. Sergeant Ewart was almost stabbed in the groin. In return he cut down the bearer of the Eagle of the 45 Reg. A lance was thrown at him like a spear, but with lightning reflexes he parried it with his sword. He killed two more enemy whilst under fire, then he swept up the Eagle. He and the greys had achieved what few soldiers in history could claim. They had taken one of the Emperors own eagles in battle. It was returned to Edinburgh Castle and displayed with honours, but for Ewart he was always clear he had done it for revenge not glory.
Again this touches on an interesting psychological trait that we see in history with soldiers. The importance of the personal, the comrades who matter more than the abstract glory or rewards. We can also see how the events of battles would become the inspirational legends of regiments and armies in the future.
This personal fury was sweeping through the British cavalry. If you have only ever considered the British as polite or reserved, even in war time you might find the reality is much more complicated. Like anyone a British soldier could easily give into the emotions of war. It was not only stressful, but filled with fear and adrenaline. The stoic discipline of the British could sometimes shift into an unexpected battle fury that was terrible to behold. The Connaught Rangers, the Black Watch, and many other regiments could all claim to be as fine a set of disciplined soldiers as a general could wish, yet when their blood was up they could turn into savage close quarter fighters in a way that utterly shocked their enemies.
Now the fury of the Heavy cavalry including the Scots Greys was seeking an outlet. Even their senior officers were swept up in the madness. Shouts ran out for them to charge the Grand Battery on the French hill. This was madness indeed. The senior officers should have been sounding the recall, to reform and rest and be useful to Wellington later. But now Wellington’s worst fears about indiscipline were to be realised. Charge, charge. The sound swept up and down the line. A British colonel, with both his hands blown off, took his horses reins between his teeth and led his men up the slope into the Grand Battery. Terrified French gunners were by now blasting away indiscriminately at the mass of men and horses in the valley, uncaring if they hit friends or foes in their desperation to protect themselves.
As Napoleon watched the cavalry overrun his guns he was heard to exclaim in amazed horror;
[QUOTE] “Those terrible Greys, how they fight” [END QUOTE]
Somehow the Greys broke through the battery and the first and second lines. Killing was brutal and relentless. A mad bloodlust seemed to have seized them, but they had badly over reached. The momentum of the charge was fading. Veteran French Lancers and Cuirassiers who had stayed in reserves could see the tired and disorganised British cavalry were ready to be taken. They made disciplined moves to get between the British and their way back to the safety of the Allied lines. Then they sprang the trap. The damage these counter charging lancers did was calculated and devastating. It was so devastating that it caused the British to readopt the lance into many cavalry regiments after the war. Cavalrymen who fell from their mounts were usually dispatched by vengeful French infantry. The battle was becoming intensely personal now. The British began a desperate fighting retreat, during which many frantic combats took place and Corporal Shaw probably received his death blow.
The British Heavies made their fighting retreat. They somehow struggled back to the ridge. They had saved the Allied line from cracking and shattered General D’Erlon’s corp, but they had suffered dreadfully for it. The Heavies were reduced to below 50% effective strength. The French had lost around 4,000 men from D’Erlons corp and would take hours to rally and reform. The Grand Battery had also suffered with 7 heavy guns knocked out of action. With Hougoumont sucking 13,000 French troops into doomed attacks, Napoleon was running short on infantry and was basically back where he started at 11:30. All the deaths so far were for nothing.
Not that Hougoumont showed any signs of stopping. The French belated brought up some cannon to assist them. Probably they probably should have brought up two heavy guns early in the morning. The cannon set fire to the buildings. Wellington sent a message ordering his men to hold on even if the whole place burned down around them. When their ammunition began to run short, desperate resupply missions were made under heavy fire. Allied Riflemen targeted enemy officers to heighten confusion, and then if possible looted the rich corpses.
Napoleon changed his focus. He now understood that La Hay Sainte was the key to attacking Wellington’s centre. He ordered Marshal Ney to take it. The marshal selected 7000 men and another brutal battle within a battle was soon raging around the smaller farm. Again ammo was running short. The riflemen defending the farm fought with tenacity, picking up rifles from dead comrades to fire more quickly. They were repeatedly attack and the buildings set on fire. Wellington ordered his some of his reserves forward, including the fighting Irish Iniskillens.
Above them, on the French ridge, around 16:15, Marshal Ney was about to reach a fateful decision. He seems to have come to the conclusion that after their serious losses, the Allies were starting to retreat. He decided that it was time to really break them. It was time for the French cavalry to conduct a massed charge on an epic scale. He ordered a massed attack by virtually the entire French cavalry against the Allied centre where D’Erlon and his men had attacked. Worse, a misunderstood conversation meant that the Imperial Guard reserve cavalry were also added to the charge.
Napoleon was horrified and helpless. He couldn’t recall them in time. The charge once launched could not be stopped. Thousands of men and horses swarmed across the valley. Onlookers were awestruck. Ensign Gronow 1st Foot Guards recalled
[QUOTE]Not a man present who survived could have forgotten in after life the awful grandeur of that charge. You perceived at a distance what appeared to be an overwhelming, long moving line, which ever advancing, glittered like a storming wave of the sea when it catches the sunlight. [END QUOTE]
Officers responded quickly. Squares were formed and gunners began blasting away frantically. Wellington had established a forward gun line and men like Captain Mercer deployed their horse artillery smoothly and opened up on the oncoming mass.
[QUOTE] The effect was terrible. Nearly the whole leading rank fell at once; and the round shot penetrating the column carried confusion throughout its extent. The discharge of every gun was followed by a fall of men and horses like that of grass before the mowers scythe. [END QUOTE]
Doesn’t that remind you a little bit of the first world war. As the French wave approached the earth itself seemed to shake. The allied gunners had to abandon their guns and seek cover with the infantry or hiding under their gun carriages as the horsemen swept past. Yet as the cavalry crested over the ridge, seemingly overrunning the enemy, they saw a terrible sight. 22-25 squares of steady, unbroken allied infantry in a chequerboard formation. Ready to repel them. The French cavalry couldn’t know it, but they were about to be part of an epic military disaster.
We’ve already gone into a ton of depth about Waterloo so far. I’ve discussed Ney’s state of mind in launching the charge, and I don’t think you need to know about every single wave of attacks the cavalry went through or I’ll have to do another two episodes. So in summary, the French cavalry made a series of death or glory attacks on the various British and Allied squares. Napoleon couldn’t stop the carnage, he had to send in more cavalry to support it. But they were helpless. Men were shot from saddles. Horses killed, maimed or terribly injured. The French couldn’t force their way into the squares unless the first wild rush sent the horses barrelling into the squares before they realised the danger. This was certain death for rider and mount unless the opposition panicked. Wellington had planned for this by placing his steady British infantry squares at the front. Still the French inflicted heavy casualties. Horses won’t force themselves onto sharp obstacles so most French cavalry diverted around the squares, flowing like water round rocks. As they did they were shot down. Any Allied soldier not safely in square was hacked down. By 17:00 over 9,000 French cavalry were facing over 22,000 well formed infantry supported by the final reserve British Heavy cavalry. It was pointless and doomed. Still, it was not all going the Allies way. Men in square were easy targets for the artillery and hundreds of allied soldiers were mown down. In the centre near La Hay Sainte, the Irishmen of the Inniskillings were dreadfully exposed to over 32 French guns. They were repeatedly charged by desperate French cavalry and then hammered by the guns for nearly three hours. I cannot conceive of the horror of this moment for the Inniskillings. WW1 has accounts like the Somme where men knew they were charging a hopeless position and almost certain death, but to have to stand in a square in a bright red uniform on a sunny day whilst cannons blast at you for three hours seems almost infinity worse. Napoleon certainly constantly seemed to believe that the British were about to break. That nothing and no one could take this punishment. He was far more focused on countering the approaching Prussians. Yet the British did stand. Casualties could be up to 2/3 of a regiment, but they wouldn’t break.
The battle was becoming a haze of fog and a almost meaningless noise of guns and muskets and screams. Marshal Ney led at least 6 cavalry charges in person. Gradually some French guns were moved up to support the cavalry, increasing the British and Dutch casualties. The pressure was biting hard on Wellington who was anxiously looking at his watch and preying for the Prussians to arrive. The Allies might not break, but they might be wiped out by the endless artillery pounding.
The Prussians were approaching Napoleon’s right through the village of Placenoitt. They drove out the French defenders and were poised to begin to fall onto Napoleon’s flank and rear. By 18:00 Napoleon was getting desperate. He sent 4,750 of his elite young guard on a near suicide mission to retake the village and hold off the Prussian army. They were under the command of the capable and brutal General Duhesme, and were eager for glory, and the promotion it would bring to the infamous Old Guard. Within 30 minutes they had retaken the village in hand to hand combat with the Prussians. The fighting would continue to rage and they were soon re-enforced by some of the Old Guard themselves. The Prussians vented their fury by immediately killing the wounded or prisoners by hanging or cutting their throats. The French responded in kind.
Meanwhile the pounding continued. Poor Sergeant Lawrence of the 40th who we met last episode had been in square near the Inniskillings so he too was stuck under heavy artillery fire. Then he received dreadful news. He was next in line to pick up the regimental colours after the latest standard bearer died. He did so without enthusiasm, knowing he was now target number one for the enemy gunners. By 1830, the critical La Hay Sainte had fallen to the French. The isolated Irishmen were almost alone and dead.
In the intense pressure the Cumberland 7th Hussars decided the battle was lost and began to retreat to Brussels. Allied regiments of Dutch and Belgiums were losing men to desertion at an alarming rate despite the heroics of various individual regiments. The road to Brussels was crammed with deserters, fugitives and wounded men.
Despite everything there was now a real danger that the Allied army would finally crumple under the immense pressure. A blundered attempt to retake La Hay Sainte resulted in yet another battalion being annihilated by French cavalry. The Irish Inniskillings had lost all their officers, and taken over 463 casualties out of the original force of 698 men.
At 19:30 the critical farms of La Hay Sainte and Plaicenoitt were in French hands. Wellington had only a handful of cavalry left in reserve. He was like an exhausted boxer on the ropes. The Allied line was in real crisis. Some British battalions were down to around 100 men out of their starting figures of around 700. Ammunition was critically short in some places. Now came Napoleon’s last big decision. Call off the battle and prepare a managed retreat or risk everything in one last gamble. Perhaps one last attack by the Imperial Guard would win the day. The Allies had been under fire for 9 hours, and Napoleon was at his heart always a gambler. He would stake everything on one last throw of the dice.
As the Prussians began another assault on Placenoitt and some Prussian regiments finally arrived on Wellingtons furthest left, Napoleon prepared to launch the Imperial Guard at Wellingtons almost broken centre. He loved the Guards, his Grumblers and they loved him. Everyone else was expected to address Napoleon with full pomp and title but not the Guard – they were allowed the simple Mon Empereur. Yet this was a cruel way to treat the Guard. Napoleon was gambling their lives probably pointlessly. They were only sent in to seal a final victory or cover the army from decisive defeat. Now with only limited support the out numbered guard were being sent to achieve what D’Erlon couldn’t but they were to do it with half the numbers and the battlefield now flooding with Prussians.
The advance was indeed a magnificent sight. Formed up in disciplined squares, arms shouldered and immaculate uniforms gleaming in the sun, this was perhaps as close as history got to the fantasy ideal presented in computer games and films. Wellington knew the advance of the Guard was a sign of utter desperation. Worse, as they advanced Napoleon told them a lie, that Grouchy had arrived with reinforcements. Cheers greeted the news and great cries went up. The outcome of Waterloo had already been essentially decided when the Allies weathered the crisis of the massed cavalry and the onslaught on their centre at 18:00. The Guard were an hour too late to swing the balance. And yet, oh and yet everyone knew that this was the Imperial Guard. They had never really known defeat, so if anyone could perform a miracle it would be them. If they broke the thin British and Dutch lines then perhaps the shaken Allied line would disintegrate in panic, leaving nothing for the Prussians to rescue. Yet even now confusion reigned. It is not cleared who exactly bungled the orders but rather than delivering a hammer blow at a few critical points, the Guard came up in an uncoordinated attacks, falling on the enemy in distinct waves. This meant that they were actually fighting outnumbered 10-1. It was hopeless. As intimidating as the Guard were, they noticed the almost silence from the British line. Marshal Buguead recalled
[QUOTE] When about 1,000 yards from the English line our soldiers got agitated and exchanged their thoughts; they hurried their march which began to get disorderly. The silent English, with ordered arms, looked in their impassive stillness, like a long red wall – an imposing spectacle, which never failed to impress the young soldiers. [END QUOTE]
The British held their fire till the enemy were barely 40 paces away and then as the saying goes, they unleashed hell on the them. French and British Horse Artillery added to the smoke and noise. One awestruck onlooker described the sight as like watching a violent storm filled with thunder and lightning breaking out on the ridge. In such circumstances, the odds suddenly seemed not to matter. Despite horrific losses, the Guard were causing a ripple of chaos. Some brave Dutch Belgium gunners dragged a couple of guns onto the Guard’s flank and blasted them forcing the French Guard Grenadiers back, but a British bayonet counter charge was driven off and almost unbelievably the chaos it caused in Humbts Brigade almost broke them. Some Dutch and Brunswick regiments were on the verge of disintergrating. If the Guard had their cavalry support with them, perhaps this really would have cracked Wellington after all, but Ney had killed them with his earlier blundering. Still the line held, pulled itself together and the first wave was beaten off. The next wave finally arrived with very limited cavalry support. It was quickly shattered by massed volleys from concealed British troops of Halkats and Maitlands Brigades, followed by a swift bayonet charge as the British took the fighting hand to hand. 300 Frenchmen were killed in the first minute alone. As that wave was finally beaten off, a last wave appeared to attack Wellingtons left centre. The Duke had no more cards to play, Humbts brigade was still in disorder after the attacks, Halkats and Maitlands Brigades were likewise trying to reform from their bayonet charges, the Dutch Begliums were almost ready to bolt at the slightest new pressure and there was no cavalry reserve. If the next wave succeeded, the Guard really would have achieved the miracle and done the unthinkable, and broken Wellington. If that had happened the Allied army would certainly have fallen apart.
In this most desperate moment, the army was about to be saved by Lt Colonel Sir John Colbourne was commanding the 52nd. It was relatively fresh and he spotted the crisis point. Without orders, he seized the initiative and ordered the advance. The 52nd Reg alone were going to try to stop the last of the Imperial Guard alone in a daring flanking attack. Not only that but Colbourne had his men move with an almost intimidating parade ground perfection into a novel formation. Skirmishers out, then cheers and volleys. Somehow he got the battalion to reload and volley fire on the move before forming up four ranks deep instead of the usual two.
If you are not quite sure why this is so incredible, well perhaps you’ve seen on TV the Queen having the Colour Trooped in front of her. All those neat soldiers in red ranks, moving like clockwork toys. Now imagine them doing in a haze of smoke with cannon and muskets all around, as they died by the dozen and even somehow managing to reload a musket down the barrel, which is normally done when stationary, whilst on the march. But still perfectly moving in complex patterns. This was the perfection of the British military system of the early C19th century. When military theorists and reformers suggested improvements or changes or novel tactics, traditionalists would point to moments like this at Waterloo where the most perfect discipline and careful ranks turned the tide from a defeat to victory. The Guard was blasted away, and a cry went up. A cry unheard in the entire of Napoleon’s career. “La Garde Recule” The Guard is retreating. This was a thunderbolt to the French army. It had never happened. It couldn’t happen. Yet it did. Now the Guard were in retreat, and a heroic Dutch Belgium unit arrived on its flank to seal the deal.
Defeat was about to turn into a French disaster though. The Prussians were viciously attacking Placenoitt. This, Napoleon’s lies about Grouchy and now the retreat of the invincible Guard would turn this defeat into one of France’s greatest military disasters until the Franco Prussian Wars or Verdun in WW1. By 20:00 Prussian pressure took Placenoitt and the French survivors were ceasing to rally. The real possibility now became a certainty. The French army was actually going to scatter and break up to disappear into the countryside and cease to be a fighting force. A small section of the Guard was held back by the French HQ near La Belle Alliance, and Napoleon hoped to rally at least a fighting force behind them. It was too late. Wellington had ended up swept forward with the 52nd and after giving fulsome praise by his standards to Colbourne, he waved his hat and ordered a general advance. This was uncharacteristically risk as the French might well rally and counter attack what was a haphazard and reckless general advance. Still as the Duke said [QUOTE] Oh damn it, in for a penny, in for a pound. [END QUOTE] I suppose he was human after all.
Most of the French retreated except for a square of the old Guard. They were invited to surrender. Myth says that General Cambrone replied, “The Guard dies but it does not surrender.” He didn’t. He was called on to surrender and just said “Merde” In isolated spots, elements of the Old Guard held discipline and formation to cover the panic but most French troops who were in full flight.
Napoleon’s career was now basically over. The great victory of Waterloo rested in the hands of Wellington and Blucher. Over the next 200 years, hundreds of accounts would be written about Waterloo, who won, who did what, was it really a French defeat or a moment of bad luck, was it Marshal Ney’s fault or Napoleon’s, or Marshal Grouchy’s was it really the Prussians or was British steadiness the key? Was Wellington better than Napoleon? Was this a sign that the British were somehow superior to the French. These questions still rage to this day in books, magazines and documentaries.
For the Allied troops, the long day was ending. Many troops in Hougoumont just slumped down in the ruined buildings and tried to gather their wits or find food. The brave Irish of the Inniskillings could finally move from their position in square. Only 218 of the original 698 men were still alive.
All across the field junior officers had to step up to more senior rolls to fill the gaps created. Some had craved the opportunity for advancement, but it often came at the price of a friends death. Soldiers have to take care of themselves. Just because the battle was over, the responsibilities didn’t end. Men had to be gathered, food organised, places to sleep found, wounded to be treated. Many a wife was left a widow and I could spend hours listing the letters to wives expressing heartbreaking loss.
What about some of the people we’ve met? Sergeant Lawrence or Private Rose the former slave? What about Marshal Ney or Captain Mercier of the British Horse Artillery?
As is inevitable with history, we have much more information about the famous Marshal Ney than we do about many others. I’ll cover him in a wrap up when we cover the Congress of Vienna and the peace settlements. I feel that we have probably done nearly as much about the Napoleonic period as we need to for a grounding. We’ve still got a few key things to cover, including the medical episode, the Congress of Vienna, the Peterloo massacre in Britain and perhaps a quick canter through some bits and pieces. Once those are done, it means that the ground work for the podcast has been well and truly laid. We will finally be able to turn to one of the stars of the new age; Victoria herself.
What I’ve tried to do in these episodes is to lay out as much as I can the events of the battle without a national spin or gloss. I’ve tried especially to get you to see the real human face of battle. The excitement, the fear, the pain, the death, the horror and even some of the joys. I’ve also tried to emphasise that this battle had a long lasting impact into the Victorian period, including on the art work, the veteran soldiers who would now go out into the world to carve an Empire, and the institutional impact on the British army. The political consequences in France and across Europe would be immense.
I’d like to end by quickly finishing up with a post script about Sergeant Lawrence. He was clearly a brave soldier and a good NCO. He was a bit of a joker, and kept a trained chicken in his backpack to amuse the men. For him at least the story has a happy ending. The good sergeant arrived in Paris with the occupying Allied troops.
Outside the barrack gate was a market stall, owned by a gardener from St Germain-en-Laye and run by his daughter, Clotilde Clairet. Romance blossomed and Clotilde became an army wife
In winter of 1817 the couple were stationed in Glasgow when Lawrence received news that his father was very ill. Getting leave of absence, the couple made a six-week round trip to visit Lawrence’s family.
The arrival of Lawrence and a foreign wife caused uproar in the tiny village of Bryant’s Piddle. Both his elderly parents were overcome with emotion at the sight of a son they had never expected to see again. There were celebrations for several days and a stream of visitors.
By 1821, Lawrence’s service of 17 years and 7 months was over. Because his knee still carried a slug shot from Badajoz, he was given a pension for life of 9d a day. This was a far cry from the skinny, abused apprentice who had run away to join the army aged only 14. He was now a respected veteran standing 6’1” who had seen service in South America, North America, Spain, Belgium and France, a holder of the Silver Medal with no less than 10 clasps and he had born the colours at Waterloo. Few soldiers could claim the same.
Lawrence and his wife ran a prosperous public house in Studland near my home town of Poole in Dorset.
Clotilde’s died on 26 September 1853, and in his old age, Sgt Lawrence finally dictated his autobiography. The result is a fascinating window to the past and to one man’s life on the march. The Sgt died on 11 Nov 1869 and was given a funeral with full military honours. You will note that he survived well into the Victorian era and must have been bemused by some of the changes.
I hope you also remember me mentioning Pvt George Rose in episode 006. He was born as a slave in Jamaica but escaped in 1809. He somehow made it to London. He joined the 73rd Foot. He served in Ireland where he became a Methodist, then later in German and the Netherlands in 1813-1814. I said he was known to have been in the thick of combat at Quatre Bras, but today would be a new level of hell for the former slave turned soldier – all of his hopes and ambitions rested on surviving the day without being maimed or otherwise incapacited from service. Well, Pvt. Rose had a very hard day at Waterloo. He was with the 73rd. They suffered the 2nd highest rate of casualties during the day and had to hold off 11 French cavalry charges. Pvt. Rose was hit in the arm by gunshot and badly wounded. Despite this, he survived, although his arm was permanently weakened. He was part of the occupation of Paris and then transferred to the 42nd The Black Watch in 1817 when the 73rd disbanded he was sent on overseas campaigns in Ireland, Gibraltar, Corfu and Malta, getting promoted to corporal and then sergeant. By the time he was honourably discharged on medical grounds in 1837 he was probably the most senior black NCO in the British army, and he was considered a model soldier who was much admired. He was given a generous pension too. He was a devout methodist by then, and could read and write, unlike a lot of British soldiers. Years later in 1849 he returned to Jamaica as a missionary, and remained there until his death in 1873.
I wanted to finish this episode talking about Sgt Lawrence and Sgt Rose as you know I like to remind you that the past is people. Complex, and with all the amazing variety that is the hallmark of the human race. Each of the people involved in Waterloo has their own life that was lived in a unique way and I’ve selected those two different people as examples of how the reality was much complex and multifaceted than the simple “red vs blue” coats images that most people have of this period of history. We might not know their individual stories, but they were as real as you and I.
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