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Napoleonic Europe

The Battle of Waterloo, 1815

Compiled by Peter Kessler, 1 April 1999

 

 

At Mont Saint Jean, just before the village of Waterloo, the Namur Road is the crossroads behind La Haye Sainte going East-West and cutting through the North-South Brussels Road which comes down from Waterloo, past La Haye Sainte and La Belle Alliance.

Map of the Battle of Waterloo
General dispositions of the Allied and French Imperial armies on 18 June 1815

In Depth


On a very damp and soggy morning on 18th June 1815, after a tremendous rain storm the previous day, Lieutenant Kincaid of the 3/95th Rifles, part of Adams’ Division were situated 100 yards behind the farmhouse and a little to the left of Wellington's centre. The battalion stood with their right resting on the Brussels Road, and their left extending behind a broken hedge, which ran along the ridge towards the left. Immediately on their front, and divided from La Haye Sainte only by the great road, stood a small knoll, with a sand-hole in its farthest side, which the Rifles occupied as an advance post. The remainder of Adams’ Division, and Picton’s, formed up on its left, was formed in two lines; the first, consisting chiefly of light troops, behind the hedge, in continuation from the left of their battalion reserve, and the second, about one hundred yards in its rear. The guns were placed in the intervals between the brigades, two pieces were on the roadway on their right, and a rocket brigade in the centre.

The road had been cut through the rising ground, and was about twenty or thirty feet deep where the 95th’s right rested, and which, to an extent, separated them from all the troops beyond. The division under General Alten occupied the ground next to the 5th, on the right.

The first action of the day was seen at Hougoumont, upon which descended the French left wing led by Prince Jerome Bonaparte with Divisions of Guilleminot, Foy, Bachelu, Byng, most of Rielle's Corps (totalling approximately 43,000 men), and some of Kellermann's cuirassiers. The chateau was ably defended by four companies of British Guards and a detachment of Belgians (and they were later reinforced by nothing more than four extra Guards companies and a battalion of Brunswickers. The attack, which was intended as a feint to draw Wellington's men from the centre in preparation for D'Erlon's massed infantry attack, grew persistent and obstinate, and drew into its madness more and more good infantry, and after all that it still failed.

Soon after, Marshal Ney fell upon the Allied left, quickly securing and occupying the small farmhouse of Papelotte. Wellington deliberately kept that arm of his force weakened in the hope that the Prussians would arrive before the whole affair ended in defeat, because the French, despite their early mistakes in the conduct of the battle, were still a formidable fighting force to oppose with a mixed bag of troops such as the Iron Duke had under his command.

From the moment the Rifles has taken up position on the knoll near the crossroads they had busied themselves in collecting branches of trees and other things, for the purpose of making an abatis to block up the road between the knoll and the farmhouse. It soon looked, and was, formidable enough to break the charge of the French cavalry, although the act of a troop of British light dragoons riding though it from the wrong side caused it to need rebuilding.

The space in front of Picton's division started to fill up with Frenchmen. The main body seemed to consist of about ten thousand infantry. A smaller body of infantry and one of cavalry moved on their right; and, on their left, another huge column of infantry, and a formidable body of cuirassiers, while beyond them it seemed one moving mass.

D'Erlon's great infantry attack was defeated by the stubbornness of Picton's slender lines, and by the sudden and overwhelming onfall of the Life Guards, Inniskillings and Scots Greys. Skirmishers in the form of the Rifles took their toll on the French centre, before falling back from their knoll to the main lines, and the whole force, once the French showed their heads over the knoll, delivered such a volley of fire that the advancing French wavered and hung back a little, until cheered on by their officers out in front, they boldly advanced to the opposite side of the hedge and began to deploy. The 5th Division's front line, in the meantime, was getting so thinned that Picton found it necessary to bring up his second, but fell in the act of doing it. The command of the division at that critical moment fell upon Sir James Kempt, who was galloping along the line, animating the men to steadiness. The line was then charged by French Cuirassiers, who were themselves blocked by a force of Life Guards. Hundreds of the infantry threw themselves down, pretending to be dead, while the cavalry galloped over them, and then got up and carried on as before.

Wellington had given orders that the troops were on no account to leave their positions to follow up any temporary advantages. By this time a great many of the Dutch and Belgians had already quit the field, assured of defeat. To reinforce the badly damaged 5th Division, Wellington sent Sir John Lambert to their support with the 6th Division, and they soon stood prepared for another struggle.

By two or three o'clock things were tolerably quiet on the centre left of the British front, except for the noise of a thundering cannonade from the French, who by this time were making every well-aimed shot count. An occasional gun beyond the plain, far to the left, marked the slow approach of the Prussians. On the right the roar of cannon and musketry had been incessant from the time of its commencement.

For most of the day, Quiot's Brigade had been throwing itself against the King's German Legion housed in La Haye Sainte. By three or four o'clock the Germans had expended all their ammunition and fled from the post, leaving it open to the French. The Rifles on the crossroads were then involved in heavy fighting as the French took possession of the farmhouse, and as it flanked the knoll upon which they were based, they had to fall back once more to the main lines.

The loss of La Haye Sainte afforded the enemy an establishment within the Allied position. They immediately brought up two guns on the British side of it and began serving out some close-quarter grape shot; but they were so near that their artillerymen were wiped out by the British 95th before they could fire a second round.

By this time, Napoleon had sent elements of the Middle Guard to attack the British centre right, and they had been repulsed by the regular volleys of the battered British and German troops.

Eventually a cheer from the British ranks commenced from the far right - it was Wellington's long wished-for orders to advance. This movement carried the British clear of the all-enveloping pall of smoke that had hung over them since midday, and they were able to see the battlefield in its entirety. The French were flying in one confused mass. British lines were to be seen in close pursuit, and in good order, as far as the eye could reach to the right, while the plain to the left was filled with Prussians. The French made one last attempt at a stand on the rising ground to the right of La Belle Alliance; but a charge from General Adams' Brigade again threw them into a state of confusion. Artillery, baggage, and everything belonging to them fell into the hands of the British and Prussians. After pursuing them until dark the British halted about two miles beyond the field of battle, leaving the Prussians to follow up the victory.

 

 

     
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