Waterloo, can, with some justification, lay claim to being the single most significant day’s fight in European history. Other battles were longer, fought over larger areas or by more combatants, but none can be said to have settled a war in a single afternoon, and to have produced by their result the peace that characterized the continent for so long after 1815.
Striking too, about Waterloo, is the triumph of the great Alliance. Wellington’s was not a British army. Even leaving aside the decisive Prussian intervention, ‘the Peer’ led a force that included men from Hanover, Nassau, the Netherlands and Brunswick. Even his ‘British’ army included the King’s German Legion. This was the very essence of the force opposing Napoleon – Europe, together, acting against the man who sought once more to drag his neighbours into war. None of it serves to reduce the part Wellington played. In fact leadership of such a varied coalition demands great skill and tact.
Napoleon’s escape from Elba, the gathering of his veterans as he swept through France, the final great levy to raise one more army, the headlong flight of the Bourbon king and the wild celebrations in the messes of British regiments who had thought themselves condemned to peacetime soldiering: it is the stuff of novels. More compelling still is Napoleon’s desperate gamble – strike North across the border, divide his enemies and beat them separately. He failed, but he so nearly succeeded. Perhaps, in his pomp, he would have done. If he had been well, if he had been better served by his generals, if the weather had held, if his orders had been understood more clearly, if he had not underestimated Wellington…
Wellington. The ‘Sepoy General’ of Napoleon’s taunts. Hero of Assaye and the Peninsula, and yet dismissed by his opponent as a second-rate soldier capable only of little more than defence against crack European troops. And yet it was Wellington who selected the ground at Waterloo. The ridge at Mont St Jean – nothing much to look at, until one stands at the bottom and contemplates an uphill charge through muddy fields. Channeled between Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte, the attacker must climb painfully towards the crest, enfiladed by artillery and giving ample warning of his approach. Reserves sit, unseen, screened safely in the dead ground beyond. And, when he finally closes to fighting range, those terrible rippling volleys are waiting, with wicked seventeen-inch bayonets to follow. Perhaps the wonder at the end is less that Napoleon’s men failed, but that they kept coming at all.
Of course, for much of the battle, the French seemed to hold the upper hand. The eternal triangle of Napoleonic warfare – artillery, infantry and cavalry, was skewed firmly in favour of the attackers. Napoleon possessed some 250 field artillery pieces, some 80 of which were ranged against the Allied lines opposite as a grande batterie. Threatened by French cavalry and forced into squares, they endured some terrible periods as roundshot carried away entire files of men. A counter-charge by the British heavy cavalry scarcely relieved the pain – lacking spikes for the French guns and over-reaching themselves, they wasted their strength just as the French had theirs.
Meanwhile, on the Allied right flank, another grim drama played out – Hougoumont. A strong fortified farmhouse, the place was fringed with woods and perfectly situated to cover the approach of any enemy attempting to roll up the line on the ridge. It seems that the battle actually began here, though it’s hard to be sure. Wellington was under no illusion about the importance of Hougoumont, which was initially defended by a mixed force of Coldstreamers, Hanoverian Jaegers and Nassauers. Skirmishing in the orchard became a desperate fight for the perimeter of the farm itself, and then the celebrated breach, and closure, of the North Gate. To this day, the actions of Lt Col McDonnell and Cpl Graham, both of the Coldstream, are celebrated as the critical moment. If they didn’t win the battle, they certainly staved off the moment in which it might have been lost.
After that, the French poured in attack after futile attack, with the defenders moving from the inferno of the shell-wrecked farmhouse to hastily-carved loopholes, and hand-to-hand fighting at the walls. Key interventions followed – the arrival of the reinforcements from 1st and 3rd Guards (now Grenadier and Scots respectively) and the desperate ride of Driver Brewster to deliver a wagonload of ammunition under a storm of enemy fire. At the very death of the battle, the fight for Hougoumont was still going on – almost a battle within the battle. Even through the high drama of the building’s collapse, with the wounded trapped in the burning rubble, their resolve never faltered. And, up on the ridge, the final agonising charge of the Garde and the dreadful, almost slow motion image, of Maitland’s division standing up from their concealed position, presenting, and pouring their volleys into the French ranks. It was Busaco all over again, and Napoleon had been warned.
There is much, much more to the story of Waterloo than a few brief snapshots. And it wasn’t the only battle in that brief campaign. Wavre, Ligny, Quatre Bras – all played critical parts in the final act, as did the heroic, desperate dash of Blucher to shore up Wellington’s precarious position. All deserve their place in this history, and there is much more yet to discover.