Thursday, June 18, 2015

Roar of 400 cannon

It is the bicentenary today of the famous Battle of Waterloo, Napoléon Bonaparte’s final defeat, which brought to an end over 20 years of warring between France and other countries. It was fought a few miles south of Brussels between, on the one side, Napoleon’s army, consisting of around 72,000 troops, and, on the other, an Anglo-allied grouping of 68,000 British, Dutch, Belgian and German forces, led by the Duke of Wellington, alongside a Prussian army, 45,000 strong, under the command of Gebhard von Blücher.

Many original sources survive to tell the story of the Napoleonic Wars in general and of the Battle of Waterloo in particular - official reports, letters, memoirs. Many of these are listed on the excellent Napoleon Series website. However, it seems, where so-called diaries or journals have been published they have, sometimes, been embellished at a later date. Two of the (four) sample diarists below, for example, include a large number of statistics in their account for 18 June even though these cannot have been known until some time later.

William Gavin (71st Highland Regiment)
18 June 1815
‘The sun rose beautifully. The artillery of both armies had commenced the work of death. The men were ordered to dry their clothes and accoutrements and put their firelocks in order, and the writer was sent with a party to a farm house, to seize on all the cattle that could be found about it. This was soon performed. Cows, bullocks, pigs, sheep and fowls were put into requisition and brought to camp. Butchers set to work, fires made by pulling down houses for the wood, camp kettles hung on, and everything in a fair way for cooking, when the word ‘fall in’ put everything to the route. Men accoutring, cannon roaring, bugles sounding and drums beating, which put a stop, to our cooking for that day. Our Brigade were ordered to advance to the brow of a hill and lie down in column. A brigade of the enemy’s artillery got our range and annoyed us very much. One shot made an avenue from the first company to the tenth, which killed and wounded sixty men. During this period, not being attached to any company, I rode down the line to the left, to where Sir Thomas Picton was stationed, and came up just as he received his mortal wound. About two o’clock a squadron of the enemy’s cavalry charged down on us, when the General ordered us to form square, which was instantly performed, and soon repulsed them. We were several times attacked in our advance by the enemy’s cavalry. At one time we had only the front of the square formed when a squadron charged us, but we soon had it complete, with Lord Wellington in the centre. In the confusion my hat fell off, and on recovering it put it on front part to the back, and wore it like this for the remainder of the day, not knowing it was so. In this charge Ensign Todd was killed, also Lieutenant Elwes mortally wounded. Lieutenant Lawe, who acted as adjutant to the left wing, and was mounted, was hit by a cannon ball, which passed through the calf of his right leg, through the horse’s body, and wounded his left leg.

The enemy began to retreat about seven in the evening. We followed them to Nivelles and took a great number of cannon. The road was actually blocked up with cannon and wagons deserted by the French.

We bivouacked this night outside the village, up to our knees in mud.

Our loss during the day was: 3 officers killed, 7 wounded; 24 rank and file killed, 160 wounded; 3 missing - loss of 71st at Waterloo.’

Source: The Campaign Diary of William Gavin of the 71st Highland Regiment - 1806-1815
(originally published in 1921, and more recently by Ken Trotman in 2013)


Captain James Naylor (1st King’s Dragoon Guards)
18 June 1815
‘We continued our retreat until we took position in front of Waterloo for the night, where we bivouacked during an incessant rain and without any refreshment or forage. Before daybreak we were on the alert but remained inactive till 11 o’clock when we formed in column of Squadrons. At 12 a general cannonade commenced by which we experienced some loss. We deployed and (I think) about 2 o’clock a charge was made by the Heavy Brigades through a line of the enemy supported by a line of Cuirassiers and a reserve of Lancers. Our attack was most completely successful, but our men were too sanguine in the pursuit of the fugitive Cuirassiers and at the moment our horses were blown we were attacked by a multitude of Lancers who did us considerable injury. Our attack was made under a very [heavy] fire of Artillery and Musketry. It was some time before we could collect our men. Turner with about thirty men joined the Brigade, he was wounded soon after by a cannon shot in the arm and I took the command of the King’s Dragoon Guards. A short time after Colonel Lygon’s horse being wounded he left the field and I remained (under Lord Edward Somerset) in command of the Brigade which at this time did not consist of more than a hundred men. About 7 o’clock I received a wound which compelled me to retire to Brussels where I met Macauly. I slept at the Hotel Grand Mirror.’

Source: 1st Queen’s Dragoon Guards


Daniel John Edgecombe (Commissariat Department of the Army)
18 June 1815
‘[. . .] By this time the field of battle at all points had assumed a horrid aspect, the hills and ravines in every direction (but particularly the slopes of the hills along the front of our position) were so covered with the mangled corpses of friends and foes, that neither man nor horse could in some places pass without treading upon them. Those of the wounded who could not crawl from the groaning field, were in perpetual danger of being struck by the showers of shot firing over them, or trodden to death by the charging squadrons. The cries of these poor fellows were lost amid the clashing of arms, and roar of 400 pieces of cannon which spread death in every direction, and absolutely shook the ground: in some quarters the shots flew so thick that many of them must have struck each other before they reached the ground. The defeat which Buonaparte had just sustained had so deranged his plans as to cause a temporary suspension from these murderous attacks, during which however preparations were obviously making for a renewal of them, and the cannonade was continued without intermission. Not more than half an hour had elapsed before another terrible struggle commenced; the enemy’s infantry advancing in solid columns with their flanks protected by a large force of cuirassiers and lancers and an immense artillery, once more attacked the whole extent of our line, but after some terrific charges both of cavalry and infantry they were again sent reeling back upon their reserves. This dreadful work of destruction had now continued for the space of six hours, and on a space of ground not exceeding two miles in length, were heaped the bodies of more than twenty thousand victims: the loss of human life was, as usual, no consideration with Buonaparte, who knowing that his all was at stake had sent upwards of seventy thousand men into action at once, a force calculated to overwhelm all resistance: but every acre of ground was to be covered with slain before it was yielded, and then disputed for again. [. . .]’

Source: Journal of An Officer in the Commissariat Department of the Army comprising a Narrative of the Campaigns Under His Grace the Duke of Wellington (over 30 pages written on/about 18 June 1815)


William Tomkinson (16th Light Dragoons)
18 June 1815
‘[. . .] At about half-past eleven they began an attack on Hougoumont with the advance of their corps under Jerome Buonaparte, whilst their light troops attacked and carried Papellotte on our left, which was not intended to be held. The attack on Hougoumont was very sharp. The wood in front of the chateau was carried by the enemy after considerable loss, and more than a common resistance on our part, from light troops holding a wood in front of a position. The enemy proceeded to attack the chateau and garden, in which they failed, and retired unsuccessful. The defence, as well as the attack, was gallant.

We (11th, 12th, and 16th Light Dragoons) moved from our bivouac about eleven, and were stationed on the left of the line, below the hill occupied by the infantry; the 6th brigade of cavalry was stationed further on our left, the 2nd brigade on our right, near the Charleroi road, possibly half-way to that point from the situation we occupied. The 1st brigade was immediately on the other side that road, with its left on it, the 3rd brigade a little further to the right, and the 5th brigade on the right again of the 3rd. We moved to the ground assigned for our brigade, and all being quiet on our front, dismounted.

We had not been long on our ground before the cannonade opened and became general along the whole line. Colonel Ponsonby, myself, and some others (my brother Henry was of this party) rode out in front to see what was going on, and standing together near a hedge, attracted a few of the enemy’s round shot. The enemy’s fire was directed against our whole line, and we lost a few horses in the brigade whilst dismounted. Having for some time remained in this position during the attack on Hougoumont on the right, we were ordered to mount, and moved in front of the position to check the enemy’s cavalry in pursuit of the 2nd brigade of cavalry, which had charged in advance of the position, and was on its return to our line. It appeared that the enemy, with the 2nd and 3rd Divisions of their 1st corps, under Count d’Erlon, had moved to the attack of the left centre of our position. They advanced in good order, coming close up to our line; at this moment they were attacked by the 5th Division with the bayonet, under Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Picton, and driven back on their support in confusion. To repulse this attack, the 2nd brigade of cavalry moved to the charge; they went out of the position, charged, and completely upset everything opposed to them. It consisted of 1st (Royals) Dragoons, 2nd Dragoons (Scottish Greys), 6th Dragoons (Inniskillings). It was one of the finest charges ever seen. [. . .]’

Source: The Diary of a Cavalry Officer in the Peninsular and Waterloo Campaigns 1809-1815 (over 30 pages written on/about 18 June 1815, inc. maps and tables of figures)

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