Battle of Waterloo, 18th June 1815

Quatre Bras, Ligny, Waterloo

Lion's Mound or Butte de Lion, just south of Mont Sainte-Jean

The Lion’s Mound was built using soil from the battlefield including a key ridge which Wellington used to conceal his troops from the enemy. It marks the spot where the Prince of Orange was hit by a musket ball and fell from his horse during the battle. Wellington was not best pleased by the mound but it provides an excellent view of the battlefield. The visitor centre and rotunda with its 1912 fresco of the battle are at its foot.

Napoleon Bonaparte landed in France on 28thFebruary 1815 after escaping from Elba and raised the men of the Grande Armée again to begin his adventure of the Hundred Days. The restored King Louis XVIII fled France but when Napoleon tried to establish a new constitution he failed. He also found the Allies were in no mood for compromise let alone recognizing him as emperor. The nations attending the Congress of Vienna, attempting to resolve issues arising from 22 years of European turmoil, declared Napoleon an outlaw and formed the Seventh Coalition. Britain, Russia, Austria and Prussia each agreed to field an army to ensure regime change so for him the path was set and once more he committed France to war.

 

Allied forces assembled 435,000 men on the central and upper Rhine regions and the Riviera, Generalfeldmarschall Prince Blücher at Liège with 117,000 Prussians and the Duke of Wellington in Brussels with an Anglo-Dutch force of 110,000 men. Napoleon, still confident in his abilities as a commander-in-chief, decided on a pre-emptive strike. It was a gamble but if successful the political advantages would be enormous.

 

Napoleon moved fast and with a strong army of the Guard, cavalry and five corps, all seasoned French veterans, they reached Beaumont on the 12th June. By the 15th they were between the two Allied armies and Napoleon’s intention was to attack one or the other first. Wellington had assumed Napoleon would try to cut his lines of communication to the channel ports whereas he was now in a position to destroy both armies piecemeal. Wellington was attending the Duchess of Richmond’s ball in Brussels when he received news of Napoleon’s advance towards Quatre Bras and realized the implications.

Quatre Bras

There is little to see at this busy cross roads apart from the rolling terrain towards the French approaches, the south and west. There is an impressive memorial to the Duke of Brunswick, Friedrich Wilhelm and a simpler monument to the Belgians of that time.

Quatre Bras - memorials to Duke of Brunswick and troops of Southern Netherlands, Belgica Regia

On the afternoon of 15th June Napoleon sent his field commander, Marshal Ney, and Marshal Grouchy with the cavalry reserve forward to take the important junction of the Namur-Nivelles and Charleroi-Brussels roads at Quatre Bras. They stopped overnight whilst en route having over-estimated the strength of its defence. When Napoleon heard this at 0200 hours on 16th June he decided he would go for Blücher at Ligny rather than pressing on to attack Wellington. Ney was given orders to support this attack but he delayed again and attacked Quatre Bras at 1400 hours. By this time the hard pressed Dutch brigade defending it had been reinforced with the arrival of General Picton’s division at 1500 hours and some fierce fighting ensued. When further reinforcements came at 1630 with the Duke of Brunswick and his Black Brunswickers Ney called up General Kellerman’s cavalry corps. They were deployed without infantry support and were no match for formed squares and artillery. Wellington counter-attacked and lost ground was recovered by 2100 hours. The French had lost all their gains and 4,000 men. Ney had been beaten albeit with fewer casualties than the 4,800 which the Allies suffered.

Museum at Ligny

There is also little to see at Ligny apart from a small museum to "Napoleon's last victory".

With the delay at Quatre Bras Napoleon now turned his attention to attacking Blücher at Ligny. His plan was to use Grouchy on his right whilst he attacked with his main force in the centre. Ney was to sweep in from the left on to Blücher’s right when he had finished mopping up at Quatre Bras. The orders issued by Marshal Soult did not indicate that Ligny was the priority operation and Ney remained pre-occupied with Quatre Bras. The attack started at about 1430 hours and went well for the French. The Prussian infantry was hit hard but when Ney failed to appear Napoleon called up the reserve corps under General d’Erlon. This corps was diverted from advancing on Quatre Bras but arrived at Ligny on the French flank rather than the Prussian flank about 1800 hours. Operations were delayed for an hour to sort out the muddle. When Napoleon next sent orders to d’Erlon to attack the Prussian flank he found Ney had redirected the corps back to Quatre Bras. An unsuccessful Prussian counter-attack came at 1830 hours and the Guard retaliated with an attack in heavy rain which pushed the Prussians back. A further Prussian counter-attack with cavalry was attempted at 2000 hours which was also beaten off. As the battle ended in darkness the Prussian wings withdrew and Napoleon did not pursue them. Prussian losses were 16,000 with 9,000 deserters whilst the French had 12,000 casualties. It was an inadequate conclusion for the French and it was to be Napoleon’s last victory. Rather significantly, instead of withdrawing eastwards on his line of communications Blücher withdrew towards Brussels which was to enable him to link up with Wellington’s army.

Le Caillou, Napoleon's last headquarters where he spent the night before the battle

On 17th June dawn broke about 0500 hours but Napoleon issued no orders until midday. Of various options he chose to send Grouchy with 33,000 men after Blücher whilst he attacked Wellington at Quatre Bras with 69,000. With no early attack coming in Wellington made a tactical withdrawal to the positions at Mont St Jean at noon and as a result of Ney’s lethargy and a very heavy rainstorm he recovered his troops by 1830 hours. A furious Napoleon stirred Ney into action by 1400 hours but they were too late and hampered by the muddy going they failed to engage the Allied rearguard. In the meantime Blücher regrouped at Wavre where he received a message from Wellington that evening saying he was confident of holding his position if he could be reinforced by two Prussian corps. Grouchy only managed to move 6 miles and stopped for the night at Gembloux, some 12 miles south of the Prussians. Rather than driving the Allied armies apart Napoleon had pushed them closer together and so he moved forward.

Map by GSi

The battlefield lies south of Brussels and Waterloo and just south of Mont St Jean astride the Charleroi-Brussels road. It is no more than 3 miles in depth and 4 miles in width. Wellington in the north deployed his 68,000 troops about 1 mile south of Mont St Jean on a front of 2½ miles along a low ridge either side of the bisecting main road. The position was known to him having recce’d it in 1814 and he knew that Quatre Bras was not suitable for the defensive battle he had in mind. He was able to use a sunken lane behind the ridge to conceal his troops in dead ground whilst his front centre was reinforced forward with light infantry of the KGL at the farm and riflemen of the 95th at the sandpit at La Haye Sainte. His right flank extended towards Braine l’Alleud via the Château Hougomont which was reached by a covered sunken lane known as the “hollow way”. His left flank extended along the ridge level with Papelotte. Wellington’s tactical headquarters was near a distinctive bushy topped elm tree where the ridge crossed the road to Brussels. His army included several German, Dutch and Belgian units which were less experienced as his Peninsular Army.

Battlefield from the Allied right wing looking towards La Belle Alliance farm

Napoleon was based about two miles south of Mont Sainte-Jean at the farmhouse at Belle Alliance and became aware of

Grouchy’s position at 2300 hours. It took until 0400 hours on the 18th before he received a message confirming Blücher’s position but he then took until 1000 hours before ordering Grouchy to stop pursuing the Prussians and to block the route between Wavre and Waterloo. Grouchy failed to do this, he set off late, ignored the sound of gunfire from Mont St Jean and consequently took no part in the battle.

La Belle Alliance alongside the busy N5 which bisects the battlefield

In the south Napoleon deployed 72,000 troops along the line of another low ridge nearly 2 miles south of Mont Sainte- Jean between Frichermont in the east and south of Hougomont in the west. He could not see Wellington’s positions and deployed his troops evenly either side of the Brussels road. The French army comprised seasoned veterans, strong but weak in command. Soult was Chief of Staff, Ney was the battle commander and Grouchy commanded the right wing.

Napoleon's view of the battlefield (except for the Mound) from his tactical headquarters

Napoleon’s plan was for a frontal assault and turning Wellington’s left flank to prevent the Prussians reinforcing him. The battle started with artillery exchanges about 1130 hours and followed by General Reilly’s infantry corps advancing against Hougomont as a preliminary attack before Ney’s main central attack with d’Erlon’s corps. The chateau and farm were defended by the Coldstream and Scots Guards and bitter fighting took place all day. Despite the French occupying the surrounding woods, breaking in and buildings catching fire the place was held and it has retained its place in history. Wellington sent some reinforcements to hold his right flank and a large number of French troops were tied down in their attempt to take the chateau.

The North Gate, Hougomont Farm

The farm used to be open for unescorted visitors to wander around but until recently it was derelict and closed. It is being re-opened with a visitors' centre for the bicentenary commemorations.

 

The photographs show the North Gate as it was and then as it was prior to recent restoration through the outer fence. The centre whitewashed building is the chapel.

The South Gate

The site was robbed at the end of 2010 or early in 2011 by thieves who stole the crucifix from the chapel. This symbol survived the fire when the flames mysteriously extinguished themselves after burning Christ's feet.

At 1330 hours Napoleon's 80 guns opened fire in the centre. Wellington's forward troops took casualties but he ordered his main body of troops to lie down on the reverse slope and they were unharmed as the roundshot passed overhead. Napoleon left Ney to conduct operations in the centre and he sent d'Erlon's corps to attack Wellington's left centre at about 1400 hours. At approximately the same time as the French guns started firing the first Prussians under Baron Bülow were sighted approaching around Plancenoit and Napoleon sent General Lobau's corps and two brigades to block them.

 

Ney and d’Erlon’s attack comprised 18,000 infantrymen unsupported by cavalry and suffered serious problems as the closely packed French columns were too crowded to deploy into line as they approached between La Haie Sainte and Papelotte. One brigade peeled off to attack La Haie Sainte where another bitter battle took place similar to that at Hougomont. As the main body advanced its ranks were devastated firstly with grapeshot from the British artillery and then by musket fire from General Picton’s 5th Division. A British cavalry counter-attack by 2,500 men under General Lord Uxbridge then drove the remainder of d’Erlon’s corps back. The attack on La Haie Sainte was repulsed but the cavalry overran and reached the French guns where a flank attack on them by French lancers caused severe casualties.

La Haie Sainte

The farm is just forward of the ridge at Mont Sainte-Jean by the N5 below the cross roads where Wellington had his tactical HQ.

The next phase came about 1500 hours when Napoleon was becoming pre-occupied with the mounting Prussian threat. He ordered fresh attacks on Hougomont and La Haie Sainte to try and gain a victory before Blücher’s force arrived. Ney then launched all the French cavalry in a charge to the ridge at Mont Sainte-Jean but without infantry in support. The British infantry squares destroyed this attack and were reinforced with Wellington’s reserves. Ney renewed his attack with cuirassiers and the French Guard’s heavy squadrons but they too were unsuccessful and withdrew with great difficulty.

 

At 1600 hours Napoleon made La Haie Sainte a priority as he was receiving reports that Grouchy was heavily engaged with the Prussians at Wavre and General Lobau’s corps was engaged with Bülow’s corps at Plancenoit. Grouchy reported that he would be unable to take part in the Waterloo battle and Lobau, outnumbered three to one, held up Bülow for over two hours but used a large number of troops to do it.

The Kings German Legion memorial at Mont Sainte-Jean

The Prussian memorial at Plancenoit

At La Haie Sainte the fighting was intense and the farm fell shortly after 1800 hours. The KGL had fewer than 50 men left from their original 900. French artillery was brought up and pounded the Allied centre so much so that Wellington personally saw to its reinforcement by leading the Brunswickers into battle.

Looking east towards the Prussian's northern approach by General Zeithen's corps

As Blücher’s men approached in the south near Plancenoit General Zeiten’s corps was approaching in the north but believing the main battle was almost lost he swung south towards the battle at Plancenoit to join Blücher. Fortunately he was persuaded otherwise and swung back to join Wellington’s line on the left, the news spreading fast as the gaps were closed.

 

The French were led to believe it was Grouchy’s corps returning to reinforce them. After previously denying Ney any reinforcements Napoleon now gave him five battalions of the Imperial Guard. Ney, unhorsed for the fifth time, led them forward on foot westwards between La Haie Sainte and Hougomont. Despite coming under fire from the guns at Hougomont the attack was initially successful with intense fighting against the forward troops on the ridge. A Belgian counter-attack forced one French battalion back but they had almost gained the crest of the ridge when Wellington ordered the Grenadier Guards, who were lying concealed behind it, to get up and attack. Their powerful volleys and advance with bayonets drove the French Guard back but they rallied and faced the British troops again.

 

At this stage the 52nd Foot attacked from the flank with more volleys and a bayonet charge. Confusion followed and the French Guard broke and began to retreat on the run. When the remaining French troops saw the Guard’s rout their morale collapsed and it was the end of Grande Armée. Wellington rode forward and waved his hat, it was the signal to advance and cheers rang out as the Allies did so.

A rather sad memorial to the Grande Armée stands near La Belle Alliance where the last French square allegedly stood in a vain attempt to stop the Allied advance.

The museum in the building used for Wellington's HQ in Waterloo is worth visiting

The battlefield from the Mound

Afterword

 

The photographs in this section were taken over two periods in 1999 and Spring 2012.

 

References are:

Chandler, David (1998), A Guide to the Battlefields of Europe, Wordsworth.

Howarth, David (1968), A Near Run Thing, Collins.

McLynn, Frank (1998), Napoleon, Pimlico