Soldiers have always spent a lot of time waiting. Some of the men in Wellington’s army (the 33rd Regiment) on 18 June 1815 had been in Belgium for months, waiting for the war against the newly returned Napoleon to start. Others had only just arrived – one brigade, fresh off the transport ships bringing them back from America, reached the army on the morning of the battle.
Few of the soldiers on the ridge at Mont St Jean had found any shelter during a night of drenching rain. They were wet and cold, covered with mud, and hungry. The suddenness of the campaign had thrown the supply system into chaos. Wellington gave strict orders not to plunder, but some disobeyed and stole what they could to add to whatever they had left. The rum ration warmed those lucky enough to receive it.
Then they formed up, marched into position and waited for the French to attack. Napoleon’s army was still arriving, and the mud was slowing the French down, so the emperor held a big parade, the bands playing to show his great strength, and the Allies watched and waited. Some of them had come through the brutal fight at Quatre Bras two days ago, where several battalions lost up to half their strength, and some had come through the Peninsular War, but for most this would be their first battle.
Late morning, the French cannon opened the fight. Napoleon had 246 guns, and some were in reserve, but the rest started to pound the Allied position. Most of Wellington’s men were sheltered behind the brow of the ridge, shielded from solid shot and the exploding shells, and at this stage only a few fell. Not even the veterans had ever heard so many cannon firing, and this was the loudest noise they would hear in their lives – people in Kent claimed to have heard the distant thunder.
The first attack came against the Chateau Hougoumont on the Allied right and raged throughout the day, a battle within the battle fought at short range in the enclosed gardens, orchards and the two courtyards of the big farm itself. The men there remembered only their little corner of the action. Twice – perhaps thrice – the French broke in and there were short, brutal struggles with bayonet and musket butt to drive them out. More and more men were sucked into the fight, but the Allies held on to this vital position.
Napoleon’s main assault struck the left of Wellington’s line, held by troops who had suffered heavy losses at Quatre Bras. They were badly outnumbered, and some of the Dutch and Belgians gave way. The redcoats did their best to drive the French infantry back with volleys of musketry and bayonet charges. Then the British heavy cavalry charged, swept away the cuirassiers supporting the French infantry and caught those foot soldiers in no formation to resist. The columns broke, and men were hacked down as they fought or fled, until the British horsemen were scattered and blown, and were themselves hunted down by French cavalry.
The Duke of Wellington with his staff, doffing his hat to another officer as the battle rages around them. Sketch published in The Sunday Times, 21 July 1888. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Historians divide the battle into neat phases, but few of the eyewitnesses remembered it that way. Over time more and more of the Allied infantry and cavalry were drawn forward onto the slope of the ridge facing the French and exposed to their massed artillery. Throughout the late afternoon division after division of the emperor’s elite cavalry were hurled against Wellington’s centre. Most were cuirassiers, big men on big horses, wearing helmets and breast and backplates of polished steel. With them came the cavalry of the Imperial Guard, grenadiers in tall caps and lancers with fluttering pennants on their eight-foot long spears. It was a sight no one ever forgot.
To protect themselves, Wellington’s infantry formed squares – or, strictly speaking, rectangles. The front two ranks knelt down, muskets held at 45 degrees to present a hedge of bayonets to any attacker. The third and fourth ranks loaded and fired over their heads, and in the hollow centre were the officers, non-commissioned officers (NCOs), drummers and the battalion’s precious ‘colours’.
If the men kept in position then the cavalry could not harm them, because no horse would run into a solid wall of soldiers and impale itself on their bayonets. Yet it was hard to stay in place with so many magnificently dressed, ferocious looking horsemen bearing down, and if the infantry panicked and scattered then they would surely be massacred.
None of the squares broke. The horses stopped short of the front rank and would not go on, so the enemy squadrons flowed through the gaps between the squares. Infantry in the third and fourth ranks loaded and fired again and again whenever there was a target. Biting off the top of each cartridge to spit the ball down the muzzle, after a few shots a man’s throat became burnt from the saltpetre in the gunpowder.
In the intervals between the charges, the French cannon opened up and pounded the infantry. The solid shot from a gun would smash through flesh and bone, maiming and killing anyone in its path, so that a single cannonball could carve through all four ranks of the front face, strike at those in the centre and then shatter the men in the rear – or it might graze across or along one of the sides of the formation. Jagged fragments from exploding shells were less spectacular, but just as lethal, as were the musket shots from French infantry skirmishers supporting the cavalry.
The dead were pushed out in front where possible, the wounded dragged into the hollow centre of the square, where they waited, perhaps for hours, to be taken back to the surgeons. The air filled with the dirty smoke of black powder, so that it was often hard to see any distance. The men in the rear face of the square could not see the enemy charges, and had to trust that their comrades would remain steady.
Battle of Waterloo. A dismounted life guardsman fighting a Cuirassiers. (Photo by: GSinclair Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
Wellington’s men clung on, the squares shrinking as men dropped – the Irishmen of the 27th Foot lost two-thirds of their strength, and later their position was marked by corpses still lying in square. Around them were dead horses and dead and wounded cavalry. Men noticed that the first thing a cuirassier did when his horse was killed was to unbuckle his cuirass and leave it.
The two armies bludgeoned away at each other for hours, bleeding slowly to death. Wellington called it ‘hard pounding’, and there was little subtlety about it. Many Allied soldiers saw the Duke, riding around the line, taking shelter in a square when a big charge came. At least half of his staff were killed or wounded around him, but he came through unscathed.
The last attacks were made by the infantry of the Imperial Guard, who launched a succession of hammer blows against the centre of the line. These were confused fights, fought at point blank range where even the inaccurate smoothbore musket was devastating in massed volleys – one man claimed to see the front of a French column physically flung back as men fell.
Wellington’s weary and battered soldiers hurled Napoleon’s elite back, just as the Prussians overwhelmed the French right flank – not that the men on the ridge could see this. The emperor’s army collapsed into retreat, and the Duke waved his hat to signal the advance of the entire line.
There was still fighting, and more men died or were wounded, but the issue was no longer in doubt. As night fell, Wellington’s army halted and let the fresher Prussians lead the pursuit. Around them tens of thousands of men and horses lay dead or maimed. Looters – some soldiers, some camp followers and plenty of locals – soon infested the field in search of plunder.
Dr Adrian Goldsworthy is an ancient historian and novelist, and the author of several works of Napoleonic fiction. To find out more, click here. His new book, Whose Business is to Die (Weidenfeld and Nicolson), is out now.