Saturday 27 August 2011

Besides the crossroads - the KGL 5th Line and 8th Line

As you walk away from the Lion Mound towards the main road, stay on the right of the road.  The end of the modern buildings by the mound (none of which existed in 1815) marks the limits of the ground held by Kielmansegge’s Hannoverians and from here to the crossroads ahead of you the ground occupied by another German brigade, the 2nd King’s German Legion commanded by Baron Ompteda.  About halfway between the buildings and the modern road would have stood the red-coated infantry of two of his four battalions, first (as you approach) the 5th Line and then the 8th Line.

The Grenadier Company of the 5th Line had been sent to La Haie Sainte on the 17th and the Light Company followed on the 18th, so the battalion was only 256 strong.  The 8th was the larger battalion with 489 men.

Initially, the 8th Line was held behind the crest of the ridge where they had a fairly quiet time of it.  The fall of La Haie Sainte ended the relative quiet of this sector of the front.  As the French infantry advanced, the 8th formed into line to clear them from the position they had taken 40 paces in front (presumably very close to the road on which you are standing).  The French retreated from the Germans but the cuirassiers attacked the right flank of the 8th Line, catching them in line.  The ensign holding one of the battalion’s flags, the colours, was shot three times and the man he passed the flag to, a sergeant, had his hand nearly cut off by a French sword-stroke.  The colours were lost (and only returned several days later by an Allied cavalry soldier).   Order was restored thanks in part to a counter-attack by the survivors of the British heavy cavalry.  They reformed but Christopher Bartram a lieutenant, noticed they only had enough men to form in 2 ranks rather than the usual 4.

Thirty minutes later, the situation was becoming desperate as the French advanced artillery and infantry past La Haie Sainte.  The Prince of Orange, or at least one of his staff officers, ordered Ompteda, the brigade commander to retake the farm with 5th Line.  This was a desperate order: 250 Germans were attacking the farm that ten times as many French had taken hours to capture.  They were also advancing over open ground into the smoke with the risk of cuirassiers, who had already ridden over the Luneberg Field Battalion and part of the 8th Line, possibly in the sight of the soldiers of the 5th Line.  Ompteda put himself at the head of the attack and the troops hurried forward, but the cuirassiers had their third success of the day and caught them in the open.  This time there were no heavy cavalry to come to the rescue of the KGL, only a regiment of their hussars (from whom we shall hear shortly).  The battalion was either cut down by French swords or scattered.

Back behind the roads, the survivors of the 5th and 8th formed squares but the French were able to advance their guns considerably, and Brinckmann tells us the Allied artillery had fallen silent and the gunners had taken cover from the cavalry and could not return to man the cannons as the battle reached its climax.

We have an excellent eyewitness account of the 5th Line’s experiences from Lieutenant Edmund Wheatley, an Englishman serving in the Legion.  Start by facing south past La Haie Sainte to the rising ground beyond around La Belle Alliance, then imagine the cool, damp morning in June 1815:

“… on the opposite heights we could perceive large dark moving masses of something impossible to distinguish individually. Where the edge of the ground bound the horizon, shoals of these gloomy bodies glided down, disjointing then contracting, like fields of animated clods sweeping over the plains, like melted lava from a Volcano, boding ruin and destruction to whatever dared impede its course. It had a fairy look and border’d on the supernatural in appearance. While gazing with all my utmost stretch of vision on the scene, little Gerson struck me on the shoulder saying, ‘That’s a battle, my boy! That’s something like a preparation! You’d better have stopped with Notting at Brussels. I must be off to the Hospital and hope to see you there.’
We shook hands and I walked up and down for some time and felt very uneasy that I had left no letter of remembrance behind me.
I fancied the occupation of all at home. It was about six o’clock[A1] . …
On the opposite ascent stand hundreds of young men like myself whose feelings are probably more acute, whose principles are more upright, whose acquaintance would delight and conversation improve me, yet with all my soul I wished them dead as the earth they tramped on and anticipated their total annihilation. ‘Tis inconceptible how one’s ideas should be diametrically reversed from what is equitable and correct. When I looked at my own comrades I could not conceive why my animosity was diverted from them in preference to the French who are, by far, more commendable characters than these heavy, selfish Germans.
Here stood a swell-faced, ignorant booby, raw from England, staring with haggard and pallid cheek on the swarms of foes over against him. One could perceive the torture of his feelings by the hectic quivering of his muscles, as if fear and cold were contending for the natural colour of the cheek. And this man is one of the mighty warriors shortly to deal out thunder and confusion to the opposers of the British constitution.
Close behind him stalked a dark, swarthy weather-beaten man whose arm had aided in expelling the opposite nation from the Tagus to the Garonne. Frequent flashes from the pan had died his brows with a never-failing black. The horrid preparations before him gave no surprise to his soul. The scene afforded no novelty to his eye. Yet a side glance on turning at his walk’s end bespoke the uppermost thoughts in his mind, [for] the oldest veteran must have been struck by the solemnity of the scene.
About ten o’clock, the order came to clean out the muskets and fresh load them.  Half an allowance of rum was then issued, and we descended into the plain, and took our position in solid Squares.  When this was arranged as per order, we were ordered to remain in our position but, if we like, to lay down, which the battalion did [as well as] the officers in the rere.
I took this opportunity of surveying our situation. It was singular to perceive the shoals of cavalry and artillery suddenly in our rere all arranged in excellent order as if by a magic wand.  The whole of the horse guards stood behind us.  For my part I thought they were at Knightsbridge barracks or prancing on St James’s Street.
A Ball whizzed up in the air. Up we started simultaneously. I looked at my watch. It was just eleven o’clock Sunday (Eliza just in church at Wallingford or at Abington) morning. In five minutes a stunning noise took place and a shocking havock commenced.
One could almost feel the undulation of the air from the multitude of cannon shot.  The first man who fell was five files on my left.  With the utmost distortion of feature he lay on his side and shrivelling up every muscle of body he twirled his elbow round and round in acute agony, then dropped lifeless dying, as it’s called a death of glory, heaving his last breath on the field of fame. Dieu m’engarde!
A black consolidated body was soon seen approaching and we distinguished by sudden flashes of light from the sun’s rays, the iron-cased cavalry of the enemy. Shouts of ‘Stand firm!’ ‘Stand fast!’ were heard from the little squares around and very quickly these gigantic fellows were upon us.
No words can convey the sensation we felt on seeing these heavy-armed bodies advancing at full gallop against us, flourishing their sabres in the air, striking their armour with the handles, the sun gleaming on the steel.  The long horse hair, dishevelled by the wind, bore an appearance confounding the senses to an astonishing disorder.  But we dashed them back as coolly as the sturdy rock repels the ocean’s foam. The sharp-toothed bayonet bit many an adventurous fool, and on all sides we presented our bristly points like the peevish porcupines assailed by clamorous dogs.
The horse Guards then came up and drove them back; and although the sight is shocking ‘tis beautiful to see the Skirmish of cavalry.
The French made repeated attacks of this kind. But we stood firm as the ground we stood on, and two long hours were employed in these successive attacks.
About two o’clock the cavalry ceased annoying and the warfare took a new turn. In order to destroy our squares the enemy filled the air with shells, howitzers and bombs, so that every five or six minutes the whole Battalion lay on its face then sprang up again when the danger was over.
The Prince of Orange gallop’d by, screaming out like a new born infant, ‘Form into line! Form into line!’ and we obeyed.
About this time the battle grew faint and a mutual cannonade with musketry amused us for one and a half hours, during which time I walked up and down chatting and joking with the young officers who had not then smelt powder.
An ammunition cart blew up near us, smashing men and horses[A2] .  I took a calm survey of the field around and felt shocked at the sight of broken armour, lifeless bodies, murdered horses, shattered wheels, caps, helmets, swords, muskets, pistols, still and silent.  Here and there a frightened horse would rush across the plain trampling on the dying and the dead.  Three or four poor wounded animals standing on three legs, the other dangling before [them].  We killed several of these unfortunate beasts and it would have been an equal Charity to have perform’d the same operation on the wriggling, feverish, mortally lacerated soldiers as they rolled on the ground.
About four o’clock the battle was renewed with uncommon ardour. We still stood in line.  The carnage was frightful.  The balls which missed us mowed down the Dutch behind us, and swept away many of the closely embattled cavalry behind them.
I saw a cannon ball take away a colonel of the Nassau regiment so cleanly that the horse never moved from under him. While [I was] busy in keeping the men firm in their ranks, closing up the vacuities as the balls swept off the men, inspecting the fallen to detect deception [or] subterfuge, a regiment of Cuirassiers darted like a thunderbolt amongst us. At the instant a squadron of horse Guards dashed up to our rescue. In the confusion of the moment I made for the Colors to defend them. And we succeeded with infinite difficulty in rallying the men again.
I parried with great good fortune a back stroke from a horseman as he flew by me and Captain [Frederick] Sander had a deep slice from the same fellow on the head the instant after.
The battalion once more formed into a solid square, in which we remained the afternoon.
I felt the ardour of the fight increase very much within me, from the uncommon fury of the engagement.
Just then I fired a slain soldier’s musket until my shoulder was nearly jellied and my mouth was begrimed with gunpowder to such a degree that I champed the gritty composition unknowingly.
Nothing could equal the splendour and terror of the scene.  Charge after charge succeeded in constant succession.  The clashing of swords, the clattering of musketry, the hissing of balls, and shouts and clamours produced a sound, jarring and confounding the senses, as if hell and the Devil were in evil contention.
About this time I saw the Duke of Wellington running from a charge of Cavalry towards the Horse-Guards, waving his hat to beckon them towards the encounter.
All the artillery in our front fell into the French power, the bombardiers skulking under the carriages. But five minutes put them again into our hands and the men creeping out applied the match and sent confusion and dismay into the retreating enemy.
Several times were these charges renewed and as often defeated. Charge met charge and all was pell-mell. The rays of the sun glittered on the clashing swords as the two opposing bodies closed in fearful combat and our balls clattered on the shining breastplates like a hail shower.
As I stood in square I looked down, I recollect, to take a pinch of snuff and thought of the old ballad, which I had seen somewhere, of the aged Nurse who describes the glorious battles of Marlborough to the child. After each relation of valour and victory, the infant [says]
‘Ten thousand slain you say and more?
What did they kill each other for?’
‘Indeed I cannot tell,’ said she,
‘But ‘twas a famous victory.’
The field was now thickened with heaps of bodies and shattered instruments. Carcasses of men and beasts lay promiscuously entwined. Aid-de-Camps scoured across with inconceivable velocity. All was hurry and indefatigable exertion. The small squares on our right[A3]  kept up incessant firings and the fight was as obstinate as at the commencement.
The Duke of Wellington passed us twice, slowly and cooly.
No advantage as yet was discernible on either side. The French cavalry was less annoying. Their brave, repeated assaults had cost them very dear.
About six o’clock a passé-parole ran down the line – not to be disheartened as the Prussians were coming up to our left, which news we received with loud cheers. And on looking left I perceived at some distance a dark swarm moving out of a thick wood. In twenty minutes a fresh cannonading began as if in rere of the French and the battle raged with increasing vehemence.
A French Regiment of Infantry before us opposite the farm house called the holy hedge (La Haye Sainte) advanced considerably just then and poured a destructive fire into our Battalion[A4] .
Colonel Ompteda ordered us instantly into line to charge, with a strong injunction to ‘walk’ forward until he gave the word.  When within sixty yards he cried ‘Charge’, we ran forward huzzaing.  The trumpet sounded and no one but a soldier can describe the thrill one instantly feels in such an awful moment.  At the bugle sound the French stood until we reached them.  I ran by Colonel Ompteda who cried out, ‘That’s right, Wheatley!’
I found myself in contact with a French officer but ere we could decide, he fell by an unknown hand.  I then ran at a drummer, but he leaped over a ditch through a hedge in which he stuck fast.  I heard a cry of ‘The Cavalry! The Cavalry!’  But so eager was I that I did not mind it at that moment, and when on the eve of dragging the Frenchman back (his iron-bound hat having saved him from a cut) I recollect no more.”

Wheatley was taken prisoner but escaped later.

 [A1]While some French could have been deploying at this, most authors believe the main deployment was not until around 10am.
 [A2]This would have been in the Hannoverian lines, as we have already heard.
 [A3]The Hannoverians and, after them, British infantry).
 [A4]La Haie Sainte had fallen to the French.

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.

French cavalry near La Haie Sainte

The classic accounts of the battle hold that the French cavalry attacks were largely ineffective, with no Allied infantry squares broken, and I'm sure this was true on many occasions.  However, as I read more about fighting near to La Haie Sainte I am struck by the number of successes of the cuirassiers in particular  Chronologically, so far as I can tell, they caught the following troops in the open:
(i) the skirmishers of the 1st Light Battalion, KGL, prior to d'Erlon's attack
(ii) the Luneburg Battalion from Kielmansegge's Hannoverian Brigade and elements of the 2nd Light Battalion, KGL at some point during d'Erlon's attack
(iii) the 5th Line Battalion, KGL, led by Ompetda, as it tried to retake La Haie Sainte
(iv) the 8th Line Battalion, KGL, seemingly undertaking a similar manoeuvre
In addition, the 5th Line was also caught trying to move from line to square at an earlier point.

While this may not compare with the mauling given to d'Erlon's corps by the Allied heavy cavalry, it adds up to a brigade of Allied infantry (three battalions and elements of others). 

Friday 19 August 2011

The Lunebergers fate outside La Haie Sainte

In “Behind the Lion” I described the experiences of the Hannoverian infantry of Verden and Bremen battalions.  Kielmansegge’s brigade must have been held in high esteem by Wellington: it was placed in the front rank, close to the centre of the line.  What’s more, when light infantry were needed to defend Hougoumont it was men from this brigade who were sent.

Jacobi, quoted in Glover’s account, gives an interesting summary of the recent history of the Hannoverian troops, pointing out that their morale had been affected by Wellington’s division to break up Alten’s corps of Hannoverian units and to assign them to British divisions.  He says he understands this was necessary to spread inexperienced troops with veterans, but he reports the new commanders were critical of everything the Hannoverians did, could not speak their language, were paid more and had a different lifestyle.  Up until the 26th April 1815, Kielmansegge had commanded the Light Division, consisting of 6 battalions, but this was now designated a brigade; the men were thankful it was assigned to the division to be commanded by Alten himself.

Adkin reports the brigade had a strength of 3,315 men with the battalions ranging in size from 533 to 643 men.  The brigade consisted of three other battalions as well, the Grubenhagen and the Duke of York’s battalions which, on this day were paired in the same way as the Verden and Bremen battalions.  The final battalion, the Luneberg, is reported to have operated on its own.

Early on the morning of the 18th, 100 men in total were detached to Hougoumont from the Grubenhagen and the Luneberg.  In the deployment at 11am, the Grubenhagen and Duke of York’s deployed east of Bremen and Verden battalions, closer to the crossroads, and further back (Adkin, Map 11, page 157).  The Luneberg battalion stood alongside the Verden, on the line of the road from the main road to the Lion Mound, closer to La Haie Sainte.

I have yet to read a personal account of the Grubenhagen and Duke of York battalions; where the soldiers of Verden and Bremen battalions comment it is to say their comrades seemed to have the same experiences.  The only other mention I can find is in the account of Kielmansegge, the brigade commander, who says that the Grubenhagen / Duke of York’s square was taking short-range artillery fire from French guns this was why the Verden / Bremen square advanced to clear them away, as described.   

The Luneberg battalion met a different fate.  As d’Erlon’s attack developed at around 1.30pm, the most westerly column, Charlet’s, attacked La Haie Sainte and the Luneberg were sent as reinforcements. (Adkin says the order was given by Wellington but by Alten on page 369; Jacobi offers two candidates, an adjutant to the Prince of Orange and the Luneberg battalion commander himself).  They advanced in line going down the slope about 200 paces and into the smoke towards the farm buildings.  Carl Jacobi, commanding one of the Luneberg companies, says the French surrounding the part of the farm upon which they were advancing fell back and his men (with others of the battalion) were deployed in the orchard, which was to the south of the farm, closest to the French lines.  He says the rest of the battalion were deployed in the open to combat French skirmishers.  The men in the orchard initially resisted the French, who had re-formed and were advancing, but there being little cover they were driven out to rejoin the rest of the battalion.  Jacobi’s account suggests they arrived just as their comrades were being attacked by French cavalry.  The battalion was scattered and it was every man for himself.  “Nobody among us really knew how they escaped the horses’ hooves or the horsemen’s swords,” he wrote. “There were moments when the senses of hearing a sight had in fact shut down, and not just figuratively.  Only faintly do I remember that I had told some men fleeing next to me to fire on individual horsemen among the pursuers.”  Jacobi reached the safety of the ridge – oddly he says he found refuge behind the squares of the brigade, suggesting the squares did not give him enough space to get inside

The cavalry were Dubois’ brigade, the 1st and 4th Cuirassiers, actually moving quite slowly.  Adkin (page 239) provides a fascinating diagram showing how the cavalry took advantage of a slight dip in the ground and smoke to surprise the Hannoverians.
It’s possible when Jacobi referred to the horse’s hooves, he meant horses rearing up and striking with their forelegs rather than being literally trampled, although that was obviously possible as well.

Jacobi and about 50 survivors gathered at the rear of Mont St Jean, and he marched them back to the ridge, taking casualties along the way from artillery fire.  When they arrived Kielmansegge ordered them to march back to Brussels.

Tuesday 16 August 2011


I didn't want to clutter my text with lots of footnotes - my main aim is to produce something anyone interested could read in 5 minutes standing on a particular spot.  However, my sources so far are as follows:
John Franklin "Waterloo: Hanoverian Correspondence"
Gareth Glover "The Waterloo Archive Volume II: German Sources"
Mark Adkin "The Waterloo Companion"
All are superb and thoroughly recommended.  Franklin and Glover are collections of letters, translated expertly from the German, and arranged by battalions and brigades of the Allied army.  Adkin has maps, pictures, diagrams, explanations and lots more about many different aspects.  If you were going to visit the battlefield and wanted to buy one of them it wold have to be Adkin but be warned, it is A4 format and over 400 pages long so it's not really a handbook.

What this blog is about

What I have really wanted to write is a guide for the battlefield of Waterloo so that anyone could stand at different points on the ridge and read for 5 minutes about what happened on that spot in 1815.  I'm planning to write this as a narrative you could read off a Blackberry, iPad or similar.  Does it say anything profoundly new?  No.  Is it totally accurate?  That's impossible - Wellington famously said that trying tor ecreate the battle afterwards was like trying to recreate an evening of dancing: all the events probably hapened but in an uncertain order.  The most I hope is that this is a little bit different to anything I have read on Waterloo before.  I hope you accept it for what it is and it helps soemone to enjoy their visit.

Behind the Lion

As you stand at the foot of the Lion Mound nearest to the main road, you are on the ground occupied by Kielmansegge’s 1st Hannoverian Brigade.  These German troops had spent the night several hundred yards behind you and to the right; they had nothing to eat and had spent the night standing in the rain, including those with light wounds.  The morning had been spent drying off and cleaning their weapons.  There was little to eat.

Around 11am, as the sun was breaking through, the order came to form up and they moved up to the reverse slope of the plateau.  The ground level would have been higher than it is today by maybe 10-20 feet (about 3 metres) but earth was moved to form the Lion Mound after the battle.  An artillery battery was about 100 paces in front of them.  La Haie Sainte farm is about 500 paces ahead and to your left (south-east), standing on the main road.  The house and gardens are held by more German troops as a forward post against the expected French attacks.

The troops can see the French army deploying and the Allied artillery subjects it to heavy fire.  The fighting starts away to the right at 11.30 as Hougoumont is attacked and the artillery battle in front of you fires at the attacking French troops – it’s about 900 paces away and would take about 15 minutes to walk.

To the immediate right are some Nassauers, more Germans, and then Halkett’s British infantry brigade; behind are the cavalry.  The initial fire from the French guns misses your men in the shelter of the slope but the Nassauers and cavalry are already taking casualties.  The order is to lay down, which helps, but soon the shot and shells are starting to find the range of the brigade and the order comes to move onto the plateau about 1pm – the men stand up and walk forward about 100 paces.

French cavalry are spotted almost immediately and they’re the heavily armoured cuirassiers coming on at a medium-paced trot.  The brigade forms into two squares, each of two battalions, the Bremen and Verden battalions to the west and the Grubenhagen and Duke of York’s nearer the crossroads.

Ideally the infantry would let the cavalry come close, within 50 paces, because the infantry muskets are so inaccurate but some men fire when the cavalry are well over 100 paces away.  Julius von Schkopp, a major in the Verden infantry, is so angry he threatens to shoot any of his men who do not hold their fore until his order.  Nevertheless the cuirassiers are stopped and the English cavalry advance between the Hannoverian squares to counter-attack – this is the English Life Brigade ordered to clear first the cavalry you can see and then to swing to their left and cross the main road where a huge French infantry attack is taking place.  (This is d’Erlon’s corps.)  The cuirassiers put up a fight but soon retreat and the English cavalry disappear into the smoke either side of the farm.  From where you are, the battle taking place a few hundred yards away would have been invisible.

The French artillery fire is now the main concern and the Nassauers 60 paces to your right are taking casualties.  The artillery battery in front of you seems to be the target and the order is to move 20 paces to the right.  Just in time: an ammunition wagon that was in the middle of the western square explodes and while it still causes casualties it could have been far worse if the men had stayed where they were.

Morale is still good, boosted by seeing off the cuirassiers.  The men can take stock and notice there is fierce fighting around La Haie Sainte to the left; on the right Hougoumont is now on fire.  The artillery fire is continuous and the colonel commanding the square, von Langrehr, is hit on the leg by a cannonball, shattering his foot - while he calmly hands over command he bleeds to death soon after.

To reduce the target for the French gunners the brigade deploys into line, but the cuirassiers return and it’s back into square as quickly as possible.  There are 700 of them, deployed in 6 squadrons, one behind the other and they’re coming towards you at a trot.  They stop about 70 paces away.  This would seem like a really weird part of the battle to us – we imagine horsemen speeding towards a square and massed fire to either bring them down, or else the wall of infantry is breached and the square can be destroyed.  In practice, the French cavalry trotted towards the left corner of the square and passed the flank about 6 paces from the line.  The horses got so close that they almost touched the tips of the bayonets, held out like a hedgehogs spikes.  Wilhelm von Tschirschnitz, a lieutenant and therefore armed with a sword, felt he could have reached out and touched them with his sabre.

The French try to get the infantry to fire because a musket, once fired, could take 30 seconds to reload during which the infantryman had only the bayonet to defend himself.  The infantry had little to gain by firing – they couldn’t kill all the French and while the cavalry were by the square the French artillery stopped aiming at them.

The French cavalry are driven off for a second time and while they take losses, they could have been worse: the infantry seem to have fired too high but the cuirass (a body plate of armour) deflects many musket balls.  Muskets were also getting dirty by now and if they were not loaded properly then the gunpowder gave little power to the ball as it left the muzzle.  No wonder Carl Scriba, commanding the flight flank of the western square, saw a brigadier-general leading the cavalry and noticed when the infantry fired he escaped injury by hugging his horse’s neck.  The Allied cavalry eventually charge from behind you but it is only as the French ride away.  Worse, the Allied infantry are Belgian cuirassiers, almost identical to the French in uniform, and some are fired on as they ride back through the Allied lines.  They were slow to counter-attack in the first place and this won’t help!

The men settle down to endure more French artillery fire, and you notice the Nassau troops to your right in retreat as their officers try to stop them.  They bring the soldiers back but this happens several more times during the day.  The Hannoverian soldiers move into line again.  By now it’s around 3pm and cavalry are seen advancing for a third time and the square reforms.  This time the cuirassiers come in much more aggressively but they can’t break into the squares.  They hang around and the order comes for the men to all stand up while still in square and walk towards the cavalry, driving them away.  However, there are French guns close by and they load canister, a can full of musket balls that explode like a massive shotgun.  The Nassauers on the right fall back again and with no cover for the right flank the Hannoverians return to where they started.

There’s more artillery fire to be endured.  A half-battery of Dutch artillery deploys in front but is destroyed by French artillery fire within half an hour; the other Allied battery of guns to your front has stopped firing, maybe they’re all dead or maybe just out of ammunition.  Your men are running out of musket balls as well and a junior officer is sent to find more.  He’s not the only one heading for the rear of the army - every man injured is helped away for treatment by one or two other soldiers and you notice how few of the uninjured men return so a cannon-ball that injures 2 men could take 6, even 8 out of the battle.  The numbers of men left in the square is dwindling.

It’s now past 6pm and the cuirassiers come back for another grand attack, the fourth, then a little later they return for a fifth and final time at about 6.45, but significantly weaker.  It’s just as well; the loss of men means the shape of the western square has become irregular, more like a triangle, then just a mass of men facing outwards.  The western square is starting to resemble the Nassauers: one more determined French attack and it may not stand.

And here comes that attack, a column of French infantry heading for you, but – thank goodness – it veers off to your right, attacking Halkett’s brigade and is driven off.  Now a second column appears and this time it IS the Hannoverians’ turn.  The French are in a square formation, to protect them against cavalry, with artillery in the hollow centre.  Some men volunteer to go forward and act as skirmishers, sniping at the French to try to slow them down.  But there’s little ammunition left after the supply in the wagon exploded earlier, and the Hannoverians begin to go backwards, still in good order, but back to the Allied cavalry line 300 paces behind you.  They rally there and come forward but are met by French canister fire and fall back again, this time in less good order. 

It’s about 8pm and the battalions begin to re-form but the brigade commander, Kielmansegge orders the survivors to retire up the main Brussels road, over your left shoulder, to the farm at Mont St Jean.  There are a lot of men on the road and the officers have a hard job keeping the troops together but once there they re-form and return to their position on the plateau about 9pm, in time only to see the French in retreat in the distance.  About 10pm the Prussians arrive on the scene, greet their fellow Germans and move off after the French half an hour later.

The men move forward from the plateau, and camp for the night amid the dead and wounded about 400 paces to the west of La Haie Sainte.  The next morning they came back to where you are standing to bury the dead Hannoverian officers.