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Hougoumont, the turning point of the Battle of Waterloo

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Sadurian Mike
634220.  Sat Nov 07, 2009 1:50 am Reply with quote

The Battle of Waterloo (June 18, 1815) was a landmark clash which decided the fate of Europe itself. Napoleon Bonaparte had escaped from his imprisonment on the island of Elba on February 26th 1815, and had immediately rallied the vast majority of the French Army behind him; Europe faced a continuation of the ruinous wars that had drained coffers and manpower since 1799.

The Battle of Waterloo was fought to block Napoleon's entry into Belgium, his former ally, and thus to Brussels and beyond. The coalition led by Lord Wellington (his title had been granted for his part in defeating Napoleon the first time) included Dutch, Belgians, Nassauers, Brunswickers, British, and Hanoverians, with the Prussians marching to reinforce him following their earlier defeat at the Battle of Ligny a couple of days beforehand.

Wellington had had plenty of time to choose his ground and his preferred site was a couple of parallel ridges just south of the small village of Waterloo in southern Belgium.

Two farms dominated the battlefield; La Haye Saint and Hougoumont. Both were substantial affairs, with thick high walls and plenty of outbuildings and attached orchards, and they were quite obviously going to be useful in the forthcoming battle. Wellington planned to use the farms as forward strongpoints to break up and disrupt French attacks across the shallow valley.

Hougoumont was predominantly manned by British Guardsmen (these were the days the Guards were still élite fighting troops), consisting of the light companies of 2nd Battalion, Coldstream Guards, and the 2nd Battalion, Third Guards. The two light companies of the 2nd and 3rd Battalions, First Guards, were positioned in the surrounding orchards and grounds. In addition to the British troops, there were the 1st Battalion of the 2nd Nassau Regiment, with detachments of jägers (riflemen) and landwehr (militia) from the 1st (Hanoverian) Brigade. The farm was in overall command of Lieutenant-Colonel James Macdonnell of the Coldstream Guards.

The quality of the troops garrisoned in the farm gives a hint as to the importance Wellington placed on the outpost. He fully expected that it would draw Napoleon's troops in an attempt to silence it rather than having to attack past it with the garrison firing away at them. These attacks would give Wellington what he needed the most, a breathing space to allow the Prussians to join him. In the event, the Iron Duke was proved quite correct in his assumptions.

Napoleon's aim was almost the reverse of Wellington's, in that he intended his attacks on the the farm to draw the Allied reserves and attention to the right of the battlefield so that the French attacks could then be made on the weakened centre and left. The battle for Hougoumont proved to be a very costly miscalculation.

The attack started either at 10am or about 1130, depending on which account you read (part of the discrepancy may be down to the opposing sides having their watches set at their own local time), with an artillery bombardment and an attack by the French 1st Brigade of the 5th Division which cleared the exposed orchards and grounds but drew the attentions of the British artillery which threw the attack back and killed the 1st Brigade's commander, Maréchal de Camp Bauduin. The artillery then became embroiled in an artillery duel with their opposite numbers (rarely a successful or efficient venture at this stage of warfare) and this allowed the French to redouble their attacks on Hougoumont.

One such attack resulted in a famous encounter which Wellington later described as being the incident on which the entire battle hinged. A small group of French soldiers of the 1st Brigade of the 6th Division managed to break into the farm courtyard. Led by Sous-Lieutenant Legros who was swinging a pioneer's axe, they broke the gate and poured in, with the rest of the 1st Brigade behind them. At that point, Lieutenant Colonels Macdonnell and Wyndham, Ensigns Gooch and Hervey and six other Guardsmen (including Corporal James Graham, described as the "bravest man in the army" in the regimental tribute and awared a special medal for his deeds at Waterloo) charged the French and somehow managed to force the gates shut again, trapping both Legros and around 30 other Frenchmen inside. These were killed to a man except for a disconsolate drummer boy who had bravely entered with the others.

The farm managed to hold out for the remainder of the battle, thanks in part to the successful defence of a sunken approach road through which the Allies managed to slip supplies and ammunition. By the end, when the Prussians arrived and the battle turned, the French had committed 14000 men to its unsuccessful capture and, although they rotated fresh troops throughout the day, the British had never had more than around 3500 troops committed at any time. Casualties were proportionate (1500 Allied to 5000 French) but the distraction had almost certainly cost Napoleon both the battle and the war, thus ending his career.

634585.  Sat Nov 07, 2009 8:23 pm Reply with quote

Byron wrote about the Eve of Waterloo in his long poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage:


by: Lord Byron (1788-1824)

HERE was a sound of revelry by night,
And Belgium's capital had gathered then
Her beauty and her chivalry, and bright
The lamps shone o'er fair women and brave men.
A thousand hearts beat happily; and when
Music arose with its voluptuous swell,
Soft eyes looked love to eyes which spake again,
And all went merry as a marriage bell;
But hush! hark! a deep sound strikes like a rising knell!

Did ye not hear it? -- No; 'twas but the wind,
Or the car rattling o'er the stony street;
On with the dance! let joy be unconfined;
No sleep till morn, when youth and pleasure meet
To chase the glowing hours with flying feet.
But hark! -- that heavy sound breaks in once more,
As if the clouds its echo would repeat;
And nearer, clearer, deadlier than before;
Arm! arm! it is -- it is -- the cannon's opening roar!

Within a windowed niche of that high hall
Sate Brunswick's fated chieftain; he did hear
That sound the first amidst the festival,
And caught its tone with death's prophetic ear;
And when they smiled because he deemed it near,
His heart more truly knew that peal too well
Which stretched his father on a bloody bier,
And roused the vengeance blood alone could quell;
He rushed into the field, and, foremost fighting, fell.

Ah! then and there was hurrying to and fro,
And gathering tears, and tremblings of distress,
And cheeks all pale, which, but an hour ago,
Blushed at the praise of their own loveliness.
And there were sudden partings, such as press
The life from out young hearts, and choking sighs
Which ne'er might be repeated; who would guess
If ever more should meet those mutual eyes,
Since upon night so sweet such awful morn could rise!

And there was mounting in hot haste; the steed,
The mustering squadron, and the clattering car,
Went pouring forward with impetuous speed,
And swiftly forming in the ranks of war;
And the deep thunder, peal on peal afar;
And near, the beat of the alarming drum
Roused up the soldier ere the morning star;
While thronged the citizens with terror dumb,
Or whispering, with white lips -- "The foe! they come! they come!"

He also wrote one about how the field looked after the battle, which I will link but not post as it will make this far too much poetry for most people otherwise:

634592.  Sat Nov 07, 2009 8:58 pm Reply with quote

I'm not sure that the image is going to fit well but there are some better maps of Waterloo available Mike, just in case you haven't seen them.

Way too big to post as an image I'm afraid, the above is the situation at 11.15am and below at 7.45pm

Red - British, Yellow - Dutch, Green - Hannoverians and other Allies, Blue - French
In the second map the Prussians are also marked in Green

The commands of the British and allies are listed here which makes the interpretation a little easier.

I still wonder what Wellington's plan was if Napoleon attacked Braine l'Alleud

Last edited by Celebaelin on Sat Nov 07, 2009 9:13 pm; edited 2 times in total

Sadurian Mike
634596.  Sat Nov 07, 2009 9:07 pm Reply with quote

Thanks Jenny, I hadn't read that before.

The "Brunswick's fated chieftain" reference is to Frederick William the Duke of Brunswick, a QI figure.

A cousin and brother-in-law to Britain's prince regent, George IV, he was the former Duke of Brunswick's fourth son, but when his father died of wounds in 1806 at the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt (between France and Prussia, which included the armies of Brunswick and Saxony, both of which were nominally under French rule), Frederick William inherited the tite because his eldest brother had died childless and his remaining two elder brothers were mentally unstable (as was his uncle by marriage and Britain's king at that time, George III, but his symptoms had only appeared after ascending the throne).

The Brunswick Corps fought all in black to signify their mourning over the "death" of their country (it had been incorporated into French-run Kingdom of Westphalia, not to be confused with the actual area called Westphalia...), and provided highly motivated and well-trained troops for the Peninsula Campaign, Wellington's fight in Spain and Portugal, but sadly had little opportunity to collect replacements as its country was in enemy hands. By the end of the Peninsula Campaign the Corps had been all-but destroyed.

When Napoleon was defeated the first time (1814), Brunswick was restored and the Duke raised new troops. At the Battle of Quatre Bras, the battle immediately before Waterloo where the Allied army was waiting for news of the Prussians but eventually retreated to the Waterloo battlefield, the immensely popular Duke was characteristically in the front of the action and was shot dead, the second Duke of Brunswick in successive generations to be killed in action fighting against Napoleon.

His heir, Charles, was a far less popular and successful figure, and in any case had to spend the first eight years of his inheritance under the regency of our own George IV.

Sadurian Mike
634597.  Sat Nov 07, 2009 9:09 pm Reply with quote

Celebaelin wrote:
I'm not sure that the image is going to fit well but there are some better maps of Waterloo available Mike

Zoinks! Page spread overload!

Thanks Cel, I was tempted to divert in the battle intself, but tried instead to limit myself to the "H" of Hougoumont.

634599.  Sat Nov 07, 2009 9:11 pm Reply with quote

See edit!

Sadurian Mike
634600.  Sat Nov 07, 2009 9:24 pm Reply with quote

Celebaelin wrote:
I still wonder what Wellington's plan was if Napoleon attacked Braine l'Alleud

He did have 18 000 troops covering the coast road, but the road through Waterloo was the best in the area and provided the most direct route to Brussels. Wellington's main concern was to delay Napoleon until the Prussians arrived, but they were going to arrive from the East and any French attack West would have caused all sorts of problems.

I think Wellington relied on Napoleon's over-confidence and desire to defeat the Allied army in the field (having alreadyso he thought, defeated the Prussians), and was prved right.

As he later said about the whole battle, "They came on in the same old way and we defeated them in the same old way" (albeit he was referring the French attack columns).

634609.  Sat Nov 07, 2009 10:29 pm Reply with quote

Napoleon usually marched directly at the enemy artillery and relied on his own artillery superiority and the morale of his men to carry the attack home.

Chasse's 3rd Netherlands Division, isolated at Braine l'Alleud were already weakened

The 2nd Belgian Line Battalion was transferred to the 2nd Brigade/2nd Division in June.

The 10th National Militia Battalion was transferred to the 2nd Brigade/2nd Division in June.

and on paper the road to Mont St. Jean looks quite tempting as well although if you look carefully Brunswick has some artillery, as does Adam. There is however a sheltering hill between those positions and Braine l'Alleud and only Mitchell (who if I read this correctly is protecting the sunken road you mentioned) is in any position to aid Chasse in a defence of the village, which I note is not occupied, rather Lt. General Baron David Chasse and his 3rd Netherlands division are deployed in front of it, seemingly quite isolated. As you point out attacking to the West will also shift the emphasis of the battle further from Blucher's Prussians. I'm betting there was a plan in place and Nosey was inviting this; it looks a little fragile to me if I guess right, I am not, however, The Duke of Wellington.

Clinton's 2nd Division, which presumably would be the jaws of any trap is pretty formidable but the defence of Hougoumont would be compromised.

2nd Division: commanded by Major General Sir Henry Clinton

3rd Brigade: commanded by Major General Adam
1st Battalion 52nd Light Infantry
1st Battalion 71st Highland Light Infantry
2nd Battalion 95th Rifles

1st Brigade, King’s German Legion: commanded by Colonel de Plat
1st Line Battalion, King’s German Legion
2nd Line Battalion, King’s German Legion
3rd Line Battalion, King’s German Legion
4th Line Battalion, King’s German Legion

Add to that the other troops on that flank

3rd Hannover Brigade: commanded by Colonel Halkett
4 Landwehr battalions (Militia)

and what I identified earlier as Brunswick (Lieutenant General Prince Frederich, Duke of Brunswick according to the source, but that would be a bit smelly if he'd been killed at Quatre Bras) it turns out is likely a portion of the Heavy Brigade and some as yet unidentified infantry probably some or all of those under Olferman.

Brunswick Cavalry:
2nd Hussar Regiment
Uhlans (ie Lancers)

and then add the artillery marked on the map and you've got the makings of quite a scrap but where do you fight? Well if the road from Braine l'Alleud to Mont St. Jean is sunken for the most part as it appears then the point where it is no longer providing cover seems the best place and that's about two thirds of the way along it heading for Mont St. Jean; exactly behind Brunswick.

If you needed to beef it up you could involve pretty much all the Dutch cavalry but the available additional infantry is pretty limited - Lamberts 3 Batallions in Mont St. Jean is about the extent of it.

10th Brigade: commanded by Major General Lambert
1st Battalion, 40th Foot
1st Battalion, 27th Foot
1st Battalion, 4th Foot, King’s Own Royal Regiment

Doubtless you've heard this before but Wellington's response to Napoleons conduct of the battle was

Dammit, the man is just a pounder after all.

Last edited by Celebaelin on Sun Nov 08, 2009 2:23 am; edited 5 times in total

634623.  Sun Nov 08, 2009 1:39 am Reply with quote

I’ve learnt a lot about Waterloo by reading Vanity Fair by W.M. Thackeray.

634642.  Sun Nov 08, 2009 5:17 am Reply with quote

Sadurian Mike wrote:
these were the days the Guards were still élite fighting troops

You do realise the corollary to that is that the Guards now are pussies?

That's Mike causing fights in empty houses again.

Was Sharpe being on Wellington's side not the turning point?

Semi etc

Sadurian Mike
634758.  Sun Nov 08, 2009 3:06 pm Reply with quote

soup wrote:
You do realise the corollary to that is that the Guards now are pussies?

That's Mike causing fights in empty houses again.

Jan pointed that out as well. Sadly, though, the Guards have lost their élite status in the latter half of the C20th. The regiments now considered élite in the British Army (SAS notwithstanding) are the Parachute Regiment and RM Commando, with the Royal Ghurka Rifles also being very strong contenders.

That is not to say that the Guards regiments are somehow lacking, and they are still second to none when it comes to display and drill, it is just that they have been overtaken in terms of fighting units.

soup wrote:
Was Sharpe being on Wellington's side not the turning point?

He was on William of Orange's staff during the battle but did manage to rejoin his old regiment, the South Essex, in time to turn them to face the Imperial Guard and help out Maitland's British Guards Brigade.

Oh, he also wounded William of Orange for being such a bad commander that he kept putting troops in danger.

Ion Zone
634771.  Sun Nov 08, 2009 4:18 pm Reply with quote

He was on William of Orange's staff during the battle

Heh, I never realized he was a real person, did they stay close to the history in the TV series?

Sadurian Mike
634772.  Sun Nov 08, 2009 4:20 pm Reply with quote

Sorry to disappoint.

Sharpe is completely fictional; Cornwell "borrows" a lot of real heroes to assign their actions to Sharpe and is otherwise quite accurate in his decriptions of the actions in which he places his characters, but Mr Richard Sharpe Esq. is sadly not real, and neither was his assigned regiment, the South Essex/Prince of Wales Volunteers*.

The description I gave in response to Soup is taken from "Sharpe's Waterloo". Sharpe has somehow managed to be in every major (and most minor) battle of the period, including Trafalgar!

*Although starting in the 95th Rifles**, Sharpe and his small group of riflemen were supposedly cut off from his parent regiment during the 1809 retreat from Spain (the rest of the company were killed by French cavalry). The small group of sharpshooters were initially taken on by Captain (later Major) Hogan of Wellington's staff to aid him in his Intelligence work. From then on, Hogan and his successors manage to keep hold of Sharpe long enough for him to be given command of the light company of the South Essex. Despite moving regiments, Sharpe and his crew always think of themselves as riflemen.

**Later books describe Sharpe's early career as a private soldier and then sergeant in India as a line infantryman in the 33rd Regiment of Foot. His exploits and his eventual saving of Wellington's life (the TV series has this happen in Spain) lead to his promotion to Ensign (the first rung on the ladder of commisioned officers), first in the 74th Regiment (a Scottish regiment) and then a transfer to the newly formed 95th Rifles.

Ion Zone
634791.  Sun Nov 08, 2009 5:18 pm Reply with quote

Awww, pity, my mother would have liked that. :P

634808.  Sun Nov 08, 2009 6:05 pm Reply with quote

Apart from Sharpe, only one (real) person is known to have been present at both Trafalgar and Waterloo (on opposite sides each time): Don Miguel-Ricardo de Alava.


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