Sunday, 21 August 2011

The Crossroads - west side: the KGL 1st Light Battalion

This account is best read standing at the Elm Tree crossroads, immediately to the west of the main road to Brussels (closest to the Lion Mound) and on the south side (closest to La Haie Sainte).  The infantry here were German troops, the 2nd Brigade King’s German Legion.  There were four battalions, three of whom were on the ridge where you stand and fourth was the main garrison of the La Haie Sainte farm in front of you.

By the main road, where the houses are now, stood the 2nd Light but when they were sent to La Haie Sainte, the 1st Light Battalion was moved from further along the line (next to the Hannoverians).  Their left (eastern) flank was 10 paces from the main road and their forward rank stood 10 paces north of the hollow way, as the road towards the Lion Mound was referred to at this point.  Don’t forget how much earth was moved to form the Lion Mound, so the other side of the road behind you (to the north) would have been much higher, similar to the embankments you can still see on the main road running down to La Haie Sainte.

The 1st Light wore green uniforms, similar to those the 95th Foot of the British Army (The Rifles), as they were also light troops, trained to move more swiftly and flexibly than the line battalions of infantry.  The accounts of their actions talk about the 6 companies as independent units, as opposed to the line battalions who tended to work as one body[1].

How did their experience differ from the Hannoverians?  One factor would have been the steepness of the embankments at this point.  The surviving embankment leading up to the Hannoverian monument on the main road has twenty steps up, so you can tell what an effective barrier this would have been against cavalry attack from the front and from the left (east).  Troops standing here would thus have had less of a problem with the massed French cavalry attacks in the afternoon.  However, this was more than compensated for by the proximity of La Haie Sainte, a focus of French attacks and fire.

As the battle began, the battalion sent forward two of its companies to act as skirmishers.  They had several jobs – they were advanced guards for the main army to give early warning of attacks, when an attack occurred they were to fall back but try to slow it up (for example by shooting the officers), and they were also to occupy the French skirmishers (called tirailleurs) from sniping at the main Allied infantry.  To do this they scattered themselves in small groups down the slope to the right (west) of La Haie Sainte.  We know the battalion had 519 men so that means there were about 80 to a company.

At this time the other four companies were stationed behind the hollow way but they suffered from the artillery bombardment with a captain and 10-12 men killed so they took shelter in the road in front of them.

As d’Erlon’s infantry formed up to attack, a French cavalry unit advanced from beyond La Haie Sainte to clear the way.  This was the worst situation for the skirmishers as the best defence for foot-soldiers was to get into a square with comrades, bayonets pointing outwards, but they were too few in number and too scattered to manage this.  The best they could do was to run for cover, in this case most probably back to where you are standing.  (La Haie Sainte was not a good choice because more doors and windows would have been boarded up against French attacks.)  Imagine trying to run up a slope through a muddy field towards safety, straining to hear hoof-beats behind you …

D’Erlon’s infantry attack mainly took place on the other side of the main road (east) but the nearest column, Bourgeois’ brigade, would have been very close to the main road[2].  The Germans saw the opportunity to attack the flank of the French, but the Duke of Wellington had recently returned to his command post from the west (direction of the Lion Mound) and made them wait for between 30 seconds and a minute, calling, “Not yet, I will tell you when it is your time!”  The Germans would have been anxious because apart from wishing to help stop the attack there were practical difficulties in that to do so they had to go down one embankment, cross the main road, up another embankment and cross several hundred paces of ground.  Wellington waved his hat and shouted, “Now go my lads, hurrah!” and the men ran.  Frederick von Scriba, commanding one of the companies, describes arriving as the French column had almost passed them (this action took place to your left, across the main road).  They started firing into the side and rear from 30 to 35 paces range, seemingly at the same time as Kempt’s brigade fired into the front of the column to stop it and as the whole became disorganised, the Germans followed it, still firing as fast as they could reload.

It is possible the Germans crossed in two groups: while von Scriba’s company fired into the French as described above, Harry Leonhart who was a captain says his men took part in Kempt’s bayonet charge of the French column but starting from some way behind the British.

Then the Allied heavy cavalry arrived and encircled the French.  There was not much more the Germans could do and they would have been mindful their section of the front was left unguarded.  As they started to re-cross the main road they could see French cavalry advancing up it coming from La Haie Sainte but more Allied cavalry arrived to drive them off.  Kristofe Heise, a captian, had been wounded to the left of the main road and was being helped back but the French cavalry approached he had to be left at the foot of the embankment, while his helper scrambled 10 feet above him to see safety.  He estimated he was there for 5 minutes, possibly 10, when Allied cavalry arrived to drive the French back.

The Germans returned to their position, and some time later the Allied cavalry retired past them: von Gilsa saw that every one of them was covered with blood from top to bottom. 

As the French attack died away it is likely that skirmishers were sent out again and around this time two companies were sent forward to reinforce La Haie Sainte.

There are fewer accounts of the battalion during the rest of the day.  At some point the Germans crossed the main road again to the east (your left), seemingly anxious that they could see no defenders but they found the 32nd Foot behind the hedges so they returned. 

Later, the four remaining companies (the ones not in La Haie Sainte) moved across the hollow road to a small rise in the direction of La Haie Sainte to give the defenders there some supporting fire.  Helpful as this was it would have made them a target for French artillery, skirmishers, and cavalry; while we do not hear of a cavalry attack upon them at this point, 4 companies of (by now) maybe 60 men each would have been close to the minimum to form an effective square.

The crisis for the battalion was when La Haie Sainte fell: they retreated to their original position at the crossroads.  The artillery fire became more severe and better aimed as the French guns could be advanced.  William Buhse, an ensign, said, “The attacks of the enemy cavalry and infantry became so severe and followed each other so very quickly that our losses were very large and the battalion melted away.” 

The survivors occupied a house on the main road, a little way to the rear of the crossroads in the direction of Mont St Jean and Brussels, and stayed there until the French were in retreat.

[1] Although a line battalion usually had a light company as well.
[2] Note that controversy has surrounded this episode with some dispute about whether KGL troops did cross the main road.  Having read their accounts I feel absolutely certain that they did and have summarised what they described.  As one of the former KGL officers implied in a letter, to disbelieve the account of one group of officers (the KGL) because another group of officers (cavalry and British infantry) say they did not see them is quite insulting.

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