Armies that fought in the Waterloo campaign

Each of the three armies that fought in the Waterloo campaign had their own style of organization, constitution and methods; but although some aspects were distinctive, in the wider sense there was considerable similarity in weaponry, composition and modes of operation. While each army had its own particular tactical system in which its troops were trained, some basic principles were universal, and indeed the extent to which the minutiae of the prescribed regulations were followed in combat varied according to circumstance. The basic discipline and the ability to manoeuvre, form line, column and square, advance and retire, skirmish, charge and rally, was essential to maintain any degree of order and cohesion amid the smoke, noise and confusion of battle; but beyond that it was at times impossible to perform the manoeuvres prescribed in the manuals and practised at field-days. This was recognized by experienced officers, as even the author of one drill-manual stated, concerning a fairly complex manoeuvre: ‘This looks well, and has a good effect on a day of parade; but it is too complicated to be attempted with safety in the presence of an enemy.’ Rowland Hill expressed a similar opinion at Talavera when observing his skirmishers retiring in the regulation manner, following prescribed practice but with insufficient speed: ‘Damn their filing, let them come in anyhow’ was his reaction!

The three days’ combat of 16–18 June 1815 culminated in one of the most renowned battles in history. The significance of Waterloo was not primarily because of its epic nature, but because it brought to an end a state of almost continuous conflict that had scarred Europe for the previous twenty-three years. It also marked the final defeat of the dominant personality of that age, an individual so influential that the entire period now bears his name: Napoleon Bonaparte.

Reactions to the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo were mixed. Many saw its significance as removing the chief cause of conflict; others mourned the passing of a giant. At one end of the scale was the view articulated by a British visitor to Waterloo some eleven years after the battle, who wrote in a visitors’ book that he experienced there ‘an increased feeling of gratitude to God for having delivered mankind, through the instrumentality of his countrymen, from the most detestable tyrant that ever wielded a sceptre’ (to which a French visitor appended the comment, ‘Chein d’Anglais!’). The alternative view was expressed by one who was ruined by the battle: in his exile at St Helena Napoleon was reminded that it was the anniversary of Waterloo. ‘The recollection of it produced a visible impression on the Emperor. “Incomprehensible day!” said he in a tone of sorrow; “Concurrence of unheard of fatalities! Grouchy! Ney! d’Erlon! Was there treachery, or only misfortune? Alas! poor France!” Here he covered his eyes with his hands.’ (He was perhaps partially correct when he added, ‘Singular defeat, by which, notwithstanding the most fatal catastrophe, the glory of the conquered has not suffered, nor the fame of the conqueror been increased: the memory of the one will survive his destruction; the memory of the other will perhaps be buried in his triumph!’)

The Waterloo campaign was also remembered for the epic nature of its combat, which even some hardened campaigners thought unprecedented in their experience. The comments of John Kincaid were typical: ‘I had never yet heard of a battle in which everybody was killed; but this seemed likely to be an exception, as all were going by turns … The field of battle, next morning, presented a frightful scene of carnage; it seemed as if the world had tumbled to pieces, and three-fourths of everything destroyed in the wreck. The ground running parallel to the front where we had stood was so thickly strewed with fallen men and horses, that it was difficult to step clear of their bodies …’ The battle was characterized by extraordinary courage and determination on all sides, a factor remarked upon by those present. A typical expression of this, and of regard for an enemy, was made by Major Horace Churchill, ADC to Rowland Hill, who exclaimed as they watched the French cavalry make repeated charges, ‘By God, these fellows deserve Bonaparte’ as they fought so valorously for him; and, writing six days after the battle, he remarked, ‘I had rather fallen that day as a British infantryman, or as a French cuirassier, than die ten years hence in my bed.’ Frederick Main waring made a comment that might have been echoed by all those who had experienced the three days’ fighting:

‘Waterloo and its glories are remembered but as history. We have, no doubt, many a Wellington yet unborn, but a Napoleon comes not in the lapse of many centuries, and long will it be ere two such armies clash again … Honour, chivalry, bravery, and fidelity, all combined, better or braver troops never went down upon a battlefield than those who perished there!’

Countless histories have covered the events of the Waterloo campaign, and the leading personalities; but fewer have concentrated upon the composition and methods of the armies. Each had its own systems, but the very basics of weapons-handling and the principles of manoeuvre were fairly common to all. It is impossible to provide exact statistics of the strengths of the units engaged in any one of the actions that occurred during the Waterloo campaign. Muster rolls were not often compiled on the very eve of an action, and even where they were, circumstances might render them less than wholly accurate. Even a short period between the recording of a muster and an action would see a number of men absent from the front-line strength of any unit: for example, men detailed to guard the regimental baggage, fallen ill or even temporarily wandered off in search of provisions. An example was provided by the comments of Edward Macready of the British 30th, who claimed that although the ‘morning state’ (muster) of the British army on 18 June indicated his battalion as having 548 rank and file present, no more than 460 were present at Quatre Bras, almost fifty being out of the line as servants and batmen; if correct, when the casualties of 16–17 June were deducted, only about 430 can have been present at Waterloo. Published statistics may be slightly misleading: for example, those quoted by William Siborne in his History of the War in France and Belgium in 1815 (1844 and subsequent editions) are clearly derived from official sources, but in some cases fail to include officers, NCOs and musicians, though these omissions appear not to have been consistent throughout.

Casualty figures are similar: the earliest published statistics were those gathered in the immediate aftermath of the actions and might include some returned as ‘wounded’ whose injuries subsequently proved fatal, and list some as ‘missing’ who might have been dead or wounded, or who had simply become separated from their units and returned subsequently. Such initial statistics, however, even taking into account any unwounded ‘missing’, might be a fair reflection on the state of a unit in the aftermath of an action, for the unwounded ‘missing’ were just as denied to the unit as if they had been casualties, at least until they rejoined.

Casualty statistics, however, represent only one aspect of the consequences of a battle like Waterloo. In mid-July 1815, less than a month after the battle, an English tourist, Charlotte Waldie, visited the battlefield and found ‘a long line of tremendous graves, or rather pits, into which hundreds of dead had been thrown … The effluvia which arose from them, even beneath the open canopy of heaven, was horrible; and the pure west wind of summer, as it passed us, seemed pestiferous, so deadly was the smell that in many places pervaded the field’, while decaying remains protruded from the earth. The whole field ‘was literally covered with soldiers’ caps, shoes, gloves, belts, and scabbards; broken feathers battered into the mud, remnants of tattered scarlet or blue cloth, bits of fur and leather, black stocks and havresacs’; piles of ash from cremations marked places where the dead had been too many to be buried. Items recovered from the field were being sold as tourist souvenirs at La Belle Alliance, but most poignant was a sight that was to become associated, more famously, with other battlefields in Flanders, a century later:

As we passed through the wood of Hougoumont … I was struck with the sight of the scarlet poppy flaunting in full bloom upon some new-made graves, as if in mockery of the dead. In many parts of the field these flowers were growing in profusion: they had probably been protected from injury by the tall and thick corn amongst which they grew, and their slender roots had adhered to the clods of clay which had been carelessly thrown upon the graves. From one of these graves I gathered the little wild blue flower known by the sentimental name of “Forget me not!” which to a romantic imagination might have furnished a fruitful subject for poetic reverie or pensive reflection.

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