As the climactic battle of a quarter century of near constant warfare that plagued Europe and spilled out around the world, Waterloo lives up entirely to its billing. Long and bloody, with the outcome hanging in the balance throughout the day, it would take a blog a day for the rest of June to do it justice!
But unfortunately, we don't have the time to do that so instead, we'll look at a few incidents involving the Scots at Waterloo that show how it was, in the words of Wellington himself, “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life”.
First of all, a little background:
The powers of Europe assembled at the Congress of Vienna in 1814 to decide how to settle the continent in peace now that Napoleon Bonaparte was beaten, abdicated, and safely exiled to Elba. Even whilst these talks were ongoing however, Napoleon escaped his Mediterranean captivity, landed in France with his bodyguard of 1000 men and marched on Paris. Every body of troops sent to stop him went over to his side, Louis XVIII fled, and Napoleon was back in power within three weeks of landing.
The Congress of Vienna took a break from bickering about borders to declare Napoleon an outlaw, and to form the Seventh Coalition against him. Austria, Great Britain, Prussia and Russia each pledged 150,000 troops to finally put an end to the threat that Napoleon posed to the peace of Europe.
Hopelessly outnumbered by the armies assembling on France's borders, Napoleon, as was his habit, decided that attack offered him the best chance of success. Of the four armies, the Anglo-Allied* in the north was the weakest. The ongoing war of 1812 meant that most of the Peninsular veterans who had chased Napoleon's troops out of Portugal and Spain, were now fighting in North America. He reasoned that if he could separate the Allied and Prussian armies, the Allied would run for the sea, the Prussians would run east, and the Belgians might even rise up in support of him. Definitely enough of a shock to start discussing peace terms on a more even footing. On the 15th of June 1815, he crossed the border at Charleroi and struck for the junction of the Allied and Prussian armies.
*The army under Wellington is referred to as the Anglo-Allied Army and consisted of Great Britain, The Netherlands, Hanover, Brunswick and Nassau.
Ligny and Quatre Bras
Throwing the bulk of his forces at the Prussians at Ligny on the 16th, Napoleon detached Marshall Ney with 20,000 men to the crossroads of Quatre Bras, through which the Allied would have to pass in order to come to the aid of the Prussians. Three Highland battalions fought at Quatre Bras; the 42nd Black Watch, the 79th Cameron Highlanders, and the 92nd Gordon Highlanders. The tall rye in the surrounding fields made for a confusing battlefield and charge and counter charge pushed back and forth between hedgerows throughout the day. Private Vallance of the Camerons recalled:
“My face, hands, clothes and belts were bespattered with the blood of my killed and wounded companions”, “We were ordered to charge the French – we gave them three hurras and again drove them through the hedges”, “If the French had made a stand against us at the hedge we would have thrown them over the hedges from the points of our bayonets like corn sheaves. Our passion of rage and fury had risen to such a height, that we were like madmen all the time we were engaged.”
The fighting ended with nightfall and the Allied Army in possession of the crossroads. It was of little use now; Napoleon had defeated the Prussians at Ligny that same day and they had fallen back to the north. They were on a line parallel to the one the Allied Army would now take towards Waterloo so as not to lose contact with each other. Before they departed however, Private Vallance and his comrades breakfasted on freshly killed French horses, using the cuirassiers' breastplates as improvised frying pans. Apparently some passing Belgians were upset by the sight:-
“We invited the [Belgians] to partake with us; the men looked horrified and ran after their companions and told them the Scotch Highlanders were cannibals and, not content with killing the French, they were frying them in their iron jackets...”
With the battle of Ligny won, the first part of Napoleon's plan was working. He now sought to turn his attention to the Army under Wellington and repeat the feat in much the same manner. Detaching Marshall Grouchy with 33,000 men to harry the retreating Prussians, Napoleon now took the main body of the army, linked up with Ney and pursued the retreating Allied Army north in the direction of Brussels. However, the Allied victory at Quatre Bras meant that they'd managed to get clean away and adopt a defensive position atop the ridge at Mont-Saint-Jean, 12 miles south of Brussels, and only about three miles south of the village that would give the coming battle it's name – Waterloo.
On the morning of the 18th, the French army deployed on a ridge to the south, somewhat less than a mile away, with a gently sloping valley full of farmed fields between them. The Brussels road bisected the battlefield, running directly from Napoleon's headquarters down into the valley and up the other side, past the fortified farmhouse of La Haye Sainte which marked the centre of Wellington's line. On Wellington's extreme right was another farmhouse – the Chateau of Hougoumont.
Now we turn to the remarkable actions of the Scots at Waterloo.
Closing the gates at Hougoumont
Wanting to convince Wellington that he intended to turn his right flank and cut off his retreat to the sea, Napoleon opened the fighting with an attack on the well defended farm. The 2600 defenders, comprising Scots and Coldstream Guards as well as Hanoverians, were led by Lieutenant Colonel James MacDonnell of Glengarry, son of a Highland chieftain. The attacks directed at the southern wall of the chateau and its large orchard were repulsed, but some of the attacking French worked their way round to the north gate and the axe wielding Sous-Lieutenant Legros broke his way in.
MacDonnell, along with a handful of men, forced their way through the melee that was developing in the courtyard and, pressing, literally against the weight of the French attackers, closed and barred the gates. Those French inside were promptly killed, save for a drummer boy, and the swift action of MacDonnell ensured that Hougoumont remained in Allied hands throughout the day. Faced with initial failure, the French poured more and more troops into repeated attacks on the farm, committing around 14,000 men throughout the day that could have done more good up on the ridge.
As the Duke of Wellington later put it:
“The success of the Battle of Waterloo turned on the closing of the gates [at Hougoumont]. These gates were closed in the most courageous manner at the very nick of time by the efforts of Sir James Macdonnell.”
(Closing the Gates at Hougoumont. Portrayed with the sword on the left is Lt. Col. MacDonnell)
With the attack on Hougoumont raging, it now fell to Marshall D'Erlon's corps to make what was intended to be the main attack of the day on the Allied left. By hitting the left of Wellington's line, and then rolling up his right, Napoleon intended to force the Allied to fall back in the direction of the Channel ports, driving a wedge between the Allied and Prussian armies and leaving the road to Brussels wide open.
At around 1.30pm, the 19,000 men of D'Erlon's corp with supporting cavalry and artillery moved into the valley and up the opposite slope. Facing them were some 6,500 men of the divisions that had already been engaged at Quatre Bras. As they reached the crest, the sheer weight of the French numbers started to tell and it looked as though the Allied infantry might be pushed back off the ridge, but repeated counter attacks and disciplined musketry allowed them to hold doggedly on. The Duke of Wellington, always in the thick of it, intervened himself:
“I saw about two hundred men of the 79th, who seemed to have had more than they liked of it. I formed them myself about twenty yards from the flash of the French column, and ordered them to fire; and, in a few minutes, the French column turned about”.
Sensing the perilousness of the situation on the left, the Allied cavalry commander, the Earl of Uxbridge ordered forward the Union Brigade of heavy cavalry – so called because it contained a Scots, English and Irish regiment. The scene that unfolded is described by Private Vallance of the Camerons:
“Our three regiments of cavalry rushed upon this powerful column, the Scots Greys taking the lead – they seeing their countrymen on both right and left of them, cheering and shouting 'Scotland for Ever'. While the other Scotch regiments returned the ever memorable salute, 'Hurrah, Scotland for Ever'.”
(Scotland Forever! - The Charge of the Scots Greys)
In the space of something like twenty minutes, the Union Brigade swept through D'Erlon's attacking infantry and tumbled it into ruin and confusion. Around 5000 casualties were inflicted and at least 2000 prisoners taken. An impression of the intensity of the fighting is given by Sgt. Ewart of the Scots Greys as he describes the fight in which he captured a French Eagle:
“It was in the first charge I took the eagle from the enemy: he and I had a hard contest for it; he made a thrust at my groin, I parried it off and cut him down through the head. After this a lancer came at me; I threw the lance off by my right side, and cut him through the chin and upward through the teeth. Next, a foot-soldier fired at me and charged me with his bayonet, which I also had the good luck to parry, and then I cut him down through the head; thus ended the contest.”
(Sgt Ewart capturing the Eagle)
Now to the critical events that ended the battle.
Ney's Cavalry attack
With the main infantry attack destroyed, the next large attack was a rash affair conducted by Marshall Ney. Apparently under the impression that the Allied were retreating, he led forward a massed cavalry attack with some 10,000 men aimed at the right of the Allied line along the ridge between La Haye Sainte and Hougoumont. Unsupported by infantry or artillery though, Ney was completely incapable of defeating what he found on the other side of the ridge – Allied infantry arrayed in square formations. Charge after charge was repulsed; the horses unwilling to charge upon the rows of bayonets and all the while the volley fire of the rear ranks whittling down the attackers. Ney himself had five horses shot from under him during this hopeless attempt.
The Imperial Guard
With Hougoumont still tying down a corps on his left, his right flank infantry divisions battered, his cavalry effectively destroyed and the long awaited Prussians appearing from the east to join Wellington as he had hoped to join them at Ligny, Napoleon played his final card. He sent forward his Imperial Guard in the attack. Attacking up the same slopes the cavalry had charged up hours before, the Guards tried vainly to gain the ridge but on every occasion were beaten back by the merciless volleys of the Allied infantry. Seeing the French waver as he so often had before, and sensing victory, Wellington rode to the crest of the ridge, stood up in his stirrups, and waved his Bicorne hat in a signal to advance. With that, the whole Allied line moved forward with bayonets fixed to sweep the French from the field.
La Belle Alliance
In a poetic stroke of fate, Wellington came face to face with the Prussian commander, Blucher, at the site of Napoleon's headquarters – an inn called, fittingly, La Belle Alliance. There they agreed on their plans for the pursuit of the beaten Emperor.
Of course, in a battle defined by crisis after crisis, this blog by no means covers even a quarter of the events of the battle. The timely arrival of the Prussians secured the final allied victory that brought the Napoleonic wars to an end and the Prussian contribution cannot be overstated. But with the Scots playing a prominent role in many of the critical points, it's fair to say they made their mark on history too.