The main impediment to the enemy’s advance upon the allied centre having been removed by the evacuation of la Haye Sainte, a large body of cuirassiers moved down into the valley between that farm and Hougoumont, where, almost entirely sheltered from the fire of the opposing batteries, they could readily take advantage of any disorder that might occur in the allied line; some horse-artillery were also brought up to the rise of the ground behind la Haye Sainte, and now Napoleon made furious efforts to establish himself in the centre of the British position. His cavalry made repeated charges, while column after column of infantry pressed forward to feed the attack. On the right centre the guards were assailed by the cuirassiers of Kellermann, who, under cover of a tremendous cannonade, repeatedly penetrated between the squares, but were as often driven back; the Brunswickers also, who had been moved down to Hougoumont, received the horsemen with admirable steadiness, and on all points Napoleon’s powerful efforts were baffled, and the ground was covered with his slain.
But not without immense losses to the brave troops which made this effective resistance, and the fight fell heavily upon the German legion and Hanoverian battalions of the third division: The fifth line battalion of the legion stood in square, behind the hollow road which has been before mentioned, and a column of French infantry having debouched from la Haye Sainte upon this point, sir Charles Alten sent colonel Ompteda directions to deploy, if possible, the fifth battalion, and attack the column. Ompteda represented that such a movement could not be made without a useless sacrifice of men, more particularly as a body of the enemy’s cavalry lay in wait on the other side of the ravine. At this moment the prince of Orange rode up and ordered colonel Ompteda to deploy; on the same representations being made to his royal highness, he impatiently repeated the order, upon which Ompteda instantly mounted his horse, gave the fatal word of command, and led forward the battalion. His gallant men jumped cheerfully over the ravine in their front, and fell upon the French column with a loud hurrah! - the column gave way, and fled - but just at the same moment, the enemy’s horsemen rushing from their ambuscade, came thundering down upon the flank and rear of the German battalion! The consequence may be imagined; the battalion was literally ridden over, and the slaughter was tremendous. The brave colonel Ompteda, an officer as distinguished for personal courage, as for all the higher qualities of a soldier and a man, was killed; the adjutant Schuck also fell; captain Sander, lieutenants von Berger, Klingsöhr, Walther were all wounded, and about one hundred and thirty serjeants and soldiers were struck down; in short, lieutenant-colonel von Linsingen and about eighteen men were all of the battalion that remained together after this fatal charge.
Encouraged by this success the French cuirassiers advanced upon the centre of the position; but the German riflemen from the hollow road, saluted them with a volley which checked their progress, and they wheeled about. Sir Frederick Arentschild now led forward the third hussars of the legion, and dashed after the cuirassiers, but these quickly made front, and a furious combat ensued between the contending regiments.
This was continued for nearly a quarter of an hour, with little advantage on either side, when some squadrons of the enemy’s lancers appearing in rear of the hussars, they were obliged to withdraw, having their numbers reduced to forty files, and with the loss of their leader, the brave captain von Kerssenbruch.
An interesting incident occurred on this occasion: a corporal of the third hussars had been surrounded, and carried away by the enemy’s cavalry, but having had the adroitness to make his escape, was returning to his regiment, when he met a cuirassier who was similarly circumstanced with regard to the hussars. The corporal, although bleeding from a wound, instantly attacked the cuirassier, who was not less bold in meeting his opponent, and a single combat took place in sight of both regiments, neither of which attempted to interfere. The hussar was suffering much from loss of blood, but his activity gave him the advantage over his opponent; he gained the cuirassier’s left side, gave him a cut in the face, and with a second blow, brought him to the ground. He then rode quietly to his regiment, which received him with well merited cheers.
The two squares formed by count Kielmansegg’s brigade were terribly mutilated by this attempt of the enemy to break in this part of the allied line; for one flank of the right square, formed by the field-battalions Bremen and Verden, was swept away, the square being reduced to the form of a triangle, and the left square, consisting of the field-battalions Grubenhagen and Duke of York, fell back nearly broken. The commanding officers, also, of both these squares, had been struck down - the ammunition had begun to fail - sir Charles Alten, sir Colin Halkett, and the prince of Orange had been all wounded, and of the brigadiers of the third division, count Kielmansegge alone was left to rally and re-organize the shattered remnants of the division. This, the gallant officer executed with great bravery and firmness, and the troops being, as far as it was possible, provided with ammunition, he resolutely led them back to their place in the position.
The light battalions of the legion had also been forced back; a third horse had been killed under major Baring, and falling upon him, nearly deprived him of the use of his leg; he managed, however, to creep to a farm-house, where he was assisted on another horse, and although almost distracted with the pain of his wound, sought the remnant of his brave battalion. But they had been obliged to leave the field from the want of ammunition!
The right wing of the fifth division was now thrown back, and the landwehr battalions Giffhorn and Hameln from colonel von Vincke’s Hanoverian brigade, were brought up from the left, and placed on the high road in rear of the centre.
The allied army at this eventful period of the day, was reduced to about thirty-four thousand men,
"Our loss had been severe, perhaps not less than ten thousand killed and wounded. Our ranks were further thinned by the numbers of men who carried off the wounded, part of whom never returned to the field. The number of Belgian and Hanoverian troops, many of whom were young levies, that crowded to the rear, was very considerable, besides the number of our own dismounted dragoons, together with a proportion of our infantry, some of whom, as will always be found in the best armies, were glad to escape from the field. These thronged the road leading to Brussels in a manner that none but an eye-witness could have believed, so that, perhaps, the actual force under the duke of Wellington at this time (half-past six) did not amount to more than thirty-four thousand men." - Pringle’s Remarks
Muffling makes a still further reduction: "It may be calculated," says he "that up to this time (half-past six o’clock) the army of the duke of Wellington had already lost more than eighteen thousand men in killed and wounded; that, as is the case in all battles, particularly where young troops are engaged, as many more were occupied with the transport of the wounded, and finally, that several thousand young, or badly commanded troops, had left the field; hence it follows that the duke of Wellington at this period of the day, had but some thirty thousand disposable men."
But although thus thinned in numbers, and somewhat forced back from their position, they still maintained a firm countenance; the right wing had as yet been but little engaged; the duke of Wellington shewed no anxiety as to the result; and no doubt could be entertained that the arrival of the Prussians would speedily turn the scale of victory in favour of the British chief.
The Prussians had been expected at one o’clock, but delayed by a fire which broke out at Wavres, and the difficulties of the road in the defiles of St. Lambert, it was past five o’clock before the fire of Bulow’s corps was observed from the allied position, and about half-past six when the first Prussian corps came into communication with the allied extreme left near Ohain.
Meantime intelligence reached Blucher that his third army-corps under general Thielmann had been attacked at Wavres by a considerable force of the enemy, who were already disputing the possession of the town; but the marshal did not allow himself to be distracted by this intelligence, and seeing that in his front only was the day to be decided, he continue his march, and directed the third corps to remain on the Dyle, and maintain themselves as well as they could.
Napoleon sent his sixth corps, and two regiments of cavalry against the Prussian advance, and now seeing the powerful diversion which had been commenced by Blucher, and the desperate situation of his army, he resolved on making a last effort against the British centre with the infantry of the imperial guard.
These troops had hitherto been held in reserve, and almost out of the reach of fire, and they were now moved down to the bottom of the declivity of Belle Alliance, and formed under Napoleon’s own eye into two columns of attack. As a means of encouragement Buonaparte imposed upon them the fiction that the Prussians whom they saw on the right were the troops of Grouchy, and, standing on one side of the road as the dauntless soldiers passed in review before him, he is reported to have said, pointing to the direction of their march, "That is the road to Brussels."
It was about seven o’clock when the French guards were thus brought into action. They consisted of six battalions of the grenadiers of the old guard, which advanced in contiguous columns of companies led by the distinguished Ney, while eight battalions of the chasseurs of the guard formed another attack on their left. Supported by a heavy cannonade, these intrepid soldiers ascended to the British position; Ney’s horse was killed under him as he advanced, but the gallant veteran marched on foot at the head of the columns, leading the attack in a manner worthy of the reputation of so distinguished a soldier. General Maitland’s brigade of British guards was wheeled up in four deep to meet this attack. These troops waited the near approach of the enemy with firmness, and then commenced a fire upon the heads of the columns which never ceased for a moment. Notwithstanding the loss and severe check which they suffered from this fire, the French still advanced, and, arriving within about fifty yards of the British line, attempted to deploy. But the fire of the guards closed around them; they staggered, gave way; the attempt to deploy was in vain, and a confusion arose in their ranks which was not to be allayed.
Napoleon watched intently the progress of his chosen soldiers, and on seeing the attacking columns stagger, and become confused, his face became pale as that of a corpse; he muttered to himself "they are mingled together," and then saying to his attendants "all is lost for the present," he rode away from the field.
Wellington's Order to Attack
The English guards now charged and broke the disordered columns in their front; but the chasseur battalions from the enemy’s left, threatened the right flank of general Maitland’s brigade, and he, therefore, changed front, and prepared to meet the attack. Meantime the allied right wing, which had been brought forward by the duke of Wellington during the contest in the centre, came to the assistance of the guards. The British brigade of the second division, under general Adam, attacked the chasseurs on their left flank, while Maitland charged them in front, and thus placed between two fires, the French guard soon fell into disorder, which was quickly communicated to the troops in their rear. Meantime the Prussians after meeting with some check at Frischemont had begun to operate with considerable effect; Bulow’s artillery was heard in rear of the enemy’s right; the French sixth corps, as well as the young guard had become warmly engaged with the Prussian advance, and now Wellington seeing that the long wished-for-moment had arrived for the allies to become the assailants, gave orders for the whole army to advance.
The cavalry brigades of sir Hussey Vivian and sir Ormsby Vandeleur, which had previously been moved to the rear of the right centre, formed along the crest of the position, and charged down upon the retiring masses; general Adam'’ brigade closely followed by that of general Maitland, pressed after the discomfited guard; colonel du Plat’s brigade of the German legion, and colonel Halkett’s Hanoverian brigade drove before them the troops in their front; and soon the whole allied army from its different positions, pressed forward on the great road leading to Genappe.
Four battalions of he old guard still bravely held their ground, and formed squares near Belle Alliance to check the pursuit, but they also were eventually carried away in the overwhelming confusion which prevailed; the village of Planchenoit, in the enemy’s rear, which had been long obstinately defended, was now carried by storm by the Prussian troops, and the retreat became a flight; the panic spread through every part of the enemy’s ranks - the entire army became a mass of confusion - whole columns threw down their arms and fled, and the cannon, ammunition, with the entire materiél of this once brilliant army fell into the hands of the victorious allies.
Wellington’s unequalled soldiers were joined on the heights of Planchenoit by the advance of Bulow’s corps, and prince Blucher, meeting the duke at Belle Alliance, undertook to follow the enemy "with his last horse and man" throughout the night.
The German legion and part of the Hanoverian brigade of the second division, as well as major Sympher’s horse-battery of German artillery were conspicuously engaged during the advance of the right wing. These brigades had stood in column without being employed, during the early part of the day, but when, about four o’clock, the enemy’s cavalry, passing through the intervals of the squares, penetrated to the second line, their front was changed, and they were moved in the direction of Hougoumont. The second line battalion being at the head of the column, was enabled to give timely protection to the artillerymen of a battery which had been attacked by the French cuirassiers, while the skirmishers of the brigade, who stood on the right flank, poured upon the horsemen a volley, which instantly drove them back. A new line of French cavalry afterwards appeared in front, driving the allied squadrons before them, but Sympher, quickly unlimbering his guns, fired with such effect through the intervals of the column, that the horsemen fled.
At this time also, about seven o’clock, the first and third line battalions, formed in one square, beat off a powerful charge of the enemy’s cavalry, as did the fourth battalion, which formed another square.
The second line battalion pressed on towards Hougoumont, from the garden of which a hot fire was poured upon them, but rushing forward they threw themselves into the ditch by which the place was surrounded, and then, aided by the skirmishers of the brigade, charged into the garden, and progressively drove the enemy before them in the direction of Belle Alliance; the remaining battalions advanced in a line of four deep on the left of the farm, and a large battery of the enemy’s artillery was deserted by the gunners as they approached.
The first brigade of the legion suffered a severe loss in these movements: colonel du Plat, who commanded the brigade was killed; his brigade major, captain Wiegmann, of the second light battalion, also fell; captain von Saffe, Charles von Holle, and ensign Lücken, of the first line, as well as captains Tilee, of the second, Diedel of the third, and ensign Cronhelm of the fourth battalion were killed; major George Chüden, brevet major Leue, and captain George Heise of the fourth, as well as lieutenants Jeinsen and Leschen of the third line were mortally wounded; major von Robertson, captain von Schlutter, lieutenants Müller, von Einem, Henry Wilding and adjutant Schnatt of the first; captain Purgold, lieutenants von der Decken and Fischer of the second; major Boden of the third, and lieutenants de la Farque and Hartwig of the fourth line battalion were severely wounded; several other officers of the brigade were slightly wounded, and the casualties among the non-commissioned officers and men of these battalions alone, amounts to nearly five hundred.
The battalion Salzgitter of Halkett’s brigade, made a gallant charge with the bayonet in the wood of Hougoumont on the right of the legion battalion, while the battalion Osnabrück, leaving the farm on its right, advanced under the immediate guidance of colonel Halkett, and attacked and broke a square of the enemy’s imperial guard. This square formed part of the brigade of general Cambronne, who was captured by colonel Halkett with a degree of chivalrous daring that has seldom been exhibited in modern warfare.
Colonel Hugh Halkett captures General Cambronne
Colonel Halkett’s brigade consisted of new raised troops, the greater part of whom were then, for the first time, in presence of an enemy, and they became exposed to a destructive fire from the brigade of general Cambronne, which formed the extreme left of the French final attack. Halkett pushed forward his skirmishers to meet the enemy’s advance; Cambronne’s horse was shot under him, and Halkett, seeing the French general in front, cheering on his men, thought that a good opportunity was thus afforded him for inspiring his young soldiers with confidence, and dashing forward alone, towards the French general, he threatened to cut him down. But Cambronne dropped his sword, and surrendered himself to the gallant colonel, who proceeded with his prize to the British lines. Halkett’s horse now received a ball, and fell, and on disengaging himself from the animal, he found, to his dismay, that the French general was coolly walking back to his own troops! By great exertion, however, he brought the horse again upon his legs; overtook his prisoner, and thrusting his hand into the general’s aiguilette, dragged him off at a canter to the allied lines. (and yet, it was, this very brigade of the French guard, with general Cambronne at its head that figured in the poetic fiction about "La garde meurt mais ne se rende pas." The above anecdote is given on the authority of an eye witness.)
The second dragoons of the German legion made a brilliant charge upon the enemy’s cavalry during the allied advance: This regiment it will be remembered, had been detached from sir William Dörnberg’s brigade, in the early part of the day, for the purpose of watching a body of the enemy’s cavalry which shewed itself in the neighbourhood of Braine la leud; but these withdrawing about half-past six, the regiment returned to the field, and soon after received orders to charge a large body of the enemy’s cuirassiers and chasseurs, which stood in a most favourable position behind a ditch.
The French received the charge with a carbine fire from their rear ranks, and then went about, followed by the Germans. The superior numbers of the enemy, however, enabled them to wheel round upon the flanks and rear of their pursuers, who were thus thrown into disorder, and lieutenant-colonel de Jonquiéres and Meydell were both wounded. At this critical moment major Friederichs, on whom the command of the regiment devolved, rallied round him a few of the dispersed men, and made front to the enemy; the rest of the scattered horsemen soon placed themselves on his flanks, and led by the gallant officer, again advanced upon their opponents whom they put to flight, capturing a gun and making many prisoners; they also retook those of the regiment who had been made prisoners in the first charge.
For his distinguished conduct on this occasion major Friederichs received the special thanks of the duke of Wellington, as well as of sir William Dörnberg, who commanded the brigade.
Captain von Bülow, and cornet Drangmeister were killed in these attacks, and captain von Harling, lieutenant Ritter, and cornet Lorentz were severely wounded.
The loss of the German artillery, although effectively engaged throughout the day, was not considerable: lieutenant von Schultzen was killed, and captain Braun, lieutenant Erythropel, major Sympher and lieutenant Lewis Heise were wounded, the two first severely.
The reader will, perhaps, be interested in learning how the day closed with the gallant major Baring, whom we left in search of the remnant of his brave battalion: after riding about for some time in an almost distracted state of mind, smarting from the pain of his wound, and vainly seeking some trace of his men, he was accidentally informed that they had been obliged to leave the field, from the want of ammunition; soon afterwards the cry of "Victory"; met his ear - the allied line advanced - Baring, having now no men to command, joined the first hussars of the legion, and, with them, followed the enemy in the final pursuit by the cavalry brigade of sir Hussey Vivian.
The halt having taken place, he again sought his battalion, and anxiously enquired after the missing officers and men. The invariable reply was "killed"; "wounded"; out of three hundred and seventy veteran soldiers with which he had commenced the battle, a mere handful remained effective. Depressed by feeling of bitter regret for the loss of his brave companions, and exhausted from the pain of his wound, he lay down to rest upon some straw which the men had collected for his use; on waking the next morning he found himself lying between a dead man and a dead horse! (This distinguished officer has since been raised to the dignity of baron in his own country, and now commands the garrison of Hanover with the rank of major-general. The gallant Krauchenberg, also, who holds so conspicuous a place in the first volume of this history, has been similarly ennobled and promoted.)
© 2003 Michael-Andreas Tänzer