At the beginning of 1815 life in England was just beginning to return to normal after nearly 28 years of unrelenting war against Napoleon Bonaparte and everyone was looking forward to a period of peace. Then on 26 February 1815 Napoleon escaped from Elba, landed in the South of France and was soon back in Paris as Emperor once more, with most of the country supporting him.
The Allies (Britain, Prussia, Russia and Austria) began assembling an Allied Army under the supreme command of the Duke of Wellington to deal with Boney once and for all, but it was a slow process, for the troops had, as usual, been disbanded as soon as possible after the end of hostilities. The 1st Battalion of the Regiment was in London, but the 2nd Battalion was sent in May to join Wellington’s army in Belgium as part of 2nd Guards Brigade, commanded by Major General Sir John Byng of the Third Guards. The brigade was in 1st Division, commanded by Major General Sir George Cooke of the First Guards, together with 1st Guards Brigade.
On 15 June 1815 Napoleon suddenly launched a ‘blitzkrieg’ across the frontier at Charleroi and advanced rapidly in a two-pronged attack towards Brussels, where Wellington had his headquarters. The Duke was taken completely by surprise and exclaimed “Napoleon has humbugged me, by God. He has stolen 36 hours march on me.” He was at that stage uncertain as to where Napoleon’s main blow would fall, but he deployed his troops during the night of the 15th and awaited developments.
16 June 1815
The next day, the 16th, Napoleon attacked and defeated the Prussian army at Ligny. The Prussian commander, Marshal Blücher, retreated to Wavre in order to be able to support Wellington, as he had promised to do. Napoleon at the same time ordered Marshal Ney to capture the important crossroads at Quatre Bras on the main route to Brussels. Quatre Bras was defended by only 8,000 Dutch and Belgian troops, and they were attacked on the morning of the 16th by some 20,000 French. Somehow they managed to hold their ground until the afternoon when the British reinforcements sent by Wellington began to arrive. By the evening the Allies outnumbered the French and Quatre Bras was secure.
Among the British troops sent to Quatre Bras were the two Guards Brigades. 2nd Battalion Coldstream Guards had been encamped at Enghien and orders were received at 0130 on the 16th to move immediately with all speed to Braine le Comte. The Battalion set off at 0430 and when it arrived was promptly told to hurry on to Quatre Bras.
It was a flaming hot June day, but by marching non-stop for thirteen hours, the men covered twenty-six miles and finally reached Quatre Bras at about 1700. The battle was still on and they were thrown straight into the fray. The brunt of the fighting fell on 1st Guards Brigade, who were in the lead; the 2nd Battalion was not heavily engaged. By nightfall the French withdrew and the crisis was over, leaving the exhausted troops to snatch some welcome rest.
The next day Wellington ordered all the troops at Quatre Bras to withdraw to his previously selected defensive position along the ridge at Mont St Jean, some three miles south of the village of Waterloo, where he now had his headquarters. The move was carried out successfully, though there was a sharp rearguard action on the way at Genappe, in which the battalion’s light company was engaged.
Just as the army reached its positions there was a tremendous thunderstorm with torrential rain, so that within minutes everyone was soaked to the skin. There was no shelter, they had received no rations that day and they were exhausted, having marched almost non-stop for the last two days. But thankfully they threw off their packs and tried to get some rest in the waterlogged fields.
2nd Guards Brigade was positioned on the west end of the ridge of Mont St Jean, with 1st Guards Brigade on its left. It formed the right of the Allied line and some 500 yards to its front lay the château and farm of Hougoumont, a key outpost halfway between the British and French lines.
Just as the men were settling down, despite the steady rain, the unwelcome order came at about 1900 that the four light companies of the two Guards Brigades were to move forward immediately and occupy the farm and orchard of Hougoumont.
The light companies had been the last to arrive at Mont St Jean, having been with the rearguard, and they were more exhausted than most. But they now set off into the driving rain with the prospect of a sleepless night ahead.
The 2nd Battalion light company was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Henry Wyndham, and it was given the task of occupying the actual château and farm buildings of Hougoumont. The Third Guards light company occupied the large garden and the area round the farm, while the two light companies of the First Guards held the orchard some 500 yards to the east.
They were only just in time, for soon after they moved into the farm some French cavalry appeared, hoping to seize the position, but they were driven off with a few volleys. The men in the farm buildings may well have thought that they would enjoy a comfortable night under cover, but they were soon disillusioned, for they were put to work fortifying the buildings in every way possible. Loopholes were made in the walls and firesteps constructed; all the entrances were closed, and where possible barricaded. Only the North or Great Gate was deliberately left open, so that reinforcements, supplies and ammunition could reach the farm from the main position behind.
Those in Hougoumont were certainly better off than their comrades on the ridge. Ensign Charles Short, aged only sixteen and a half, described his uncomfortable night:
“We were under arms the whole night expecting the attack and it rained to that degree that the field where we were was halfway up our legs in mud; nobody, of course, could lie down. The ague got hold of some of the men. I with another officer had a blanket and with a little more gin we kept up very well. We had only one fire and you cannot conceive the state we were in. We formed a hollow square and prepared to receive Cavalry twice, but found it was a false alarm both times. Soon after daylight the Commissary sent up with the greatest difficulty some gin, and we found an old cask full of wet rye leaves which we breakfasted upon. Everyone was in high spirits.”
The torrential rain finally eased off as dawn broke on Sunday, 18 June 1815 and everyone ‘stood to’ ready for the expected French attack. It was a miserable, muddy morning, and 72,000 sodden Allied troops faced an equally sodden 68,000 French veterans a mere 1,000 yards away across the valley.
Ten miles to the east, unknown to Napoleon, 60,000 Prussians under the indomitable 73-year-old warrior Marshal Blücher set out at dawn from Wavre to march to support Wellington, as Blücher had promised they would. The crucial question was whether they could arrive in time.
All was set for the Battle of Waterloo.
All the troops in and around Hougoumont, both Coldstream and Third Guards, were under the overall command of Lieutenant Colonel James Macdonell, (pronounced Macdonell) of the 2nd Battalion. He was a large, powerful officer, renowned for his bravery, having been awarded a gold medal (the equivalent of a Victoria Cross) for his distinguished conduct at the Battle of Maida in 1806. He would certainly distinguish himself again at Waterloo.
Soon after dawn Wellington rode down to Hougoumont to make sure that all was well and he ordered up a force of around 1,000 Nassau and Hanoverian troops, whom he sent to occupy the copse just south of Hougoumont – a reinforcement that was very welcome.
Just before 1100 he came down again to see that his orders had been carried out. He was accompanied this time by his Prussian Liaison Officer, General Müffling, and together they had a word with Colonel Macdonell. The Duke stressed the vital importance of holding Hougoumont and told Macdonell that his troops must “defend the post to the last extremity”.
Müffling, who rather fancied himself as a tactician and liked to discuss military matters with the Duke, questioned whether the farm really could be held, seeing how exposed it was and how few men, a mere 1,500 or so, had been allocated to its defence.
“Ah,” replied the Duke. “But you do not know Macdonell.”
Half an hour later, at about 1130, the first shot of the Battle of Waterloo was fired. It was directed against Hougoumont, and from then on until the end of the day a total of seven enemy attacks would be launched against this key position – but it held out.
Napoleon had intended that the assault on Hougoumont should only be a diversion, designed to make Wellington weaken his centre by sending reinforcement to the farm. But the ploy did not work, because the Duke declined to change his plans. Moreover the French commander concerned, Napoleon’s brother Jerome, was determined to show his worth, and so, contrary to orders, went on attacking in the vain hope of capturing it.
The first attack against Hougoumont was made at 1130 by Bauduin’s Brigade and it drove back the Nassauers and Hanoverians holding the copse. But as the French troops emerged from the wood, confident that Hougoumont was now within their grasp, they were stopped in their tracks. Between them and the farm was a thirty-yard strip of open ground, a veritable ‘killing ground’, swept by accurate musket fire from the windows and loopholed walls manned by the Coldstream. Desperately, the French launched one attack after another against the South Gate, but in vain, and throughout the day the gate was never forced.
The Closing of the Gate
The French lost some 1,500 men in this first assault, but they soon attacked again with a second brigade. This time they swept round to the west of the farm, supported by cavalry, and came very close to success, being thwarted only by the famous Closing of the Gate.
The open ground to the west of the farm was held by the light company of the Third Guards who were heavily outnumbered and were forced back to the North Gate, through which they withdrew into the courtyard of the farm. They then attempted to shut the gate behind them against the pursuing French, who were close on their heels. The attackers were led by a giant of a man called Lieutenant Legros, known appropriately as ‘L’Enfonceur’ or ‘The Smasher’. Seizing an axe from one of the pioneers, he swung it against the panels of the gate and forced his way through, followed by between 50 and 100 men.
For a moment it seemed to them that the capture of Hougoumont was in sight. Desperate close-quarter fighting developed on all sides. Some French soldiers reached as far as the château, but they were heavily outnumbered and eventually every single one of them was killed, except for one unarmed drummer boy, who was spared.
But even as this bitter fighting was taking place inside Hougoumont, more of the enemy were trying to force their way in through the gate. Lieutenant Colonel Macdonell was by the Garden Gate and when he became aware of the danger he at once realized that it was vital that the great North Gate be closed.
Shouting to three other Coldstream officers nearby to join him, he rushed towards the gate. As the four of them reached the area of the Draw Well they were joined by two more Coldstreamers4 and four men from the Third Guards. Shoulder to shoulder the group drove back any enemy in their way and fought their way through to the North Gate.
Colonel Macdonell put his shoulder to it, together with Corporal James Graham, who was also of sturdy build. Others joined in, either adding their weight to those at the gate or else hacking and firing at the Frenchmen who were still trying to force their way in.
Very slowly the two heavy panels were pushed together and then held in position until the massive crossbar could be dropped into place. Finally the entrance was barricaded and reinforced with any pieces of timber that could be found.
But the struggle was not yet over. Even while the gate was being secured, some of the enemy tried to scale the walls, and one French Grenadier, standing on the shoulders of a comrade, leaned over the top and took aim at Colonel Wyndham. Fortunately Wyndham saw him out of the corner of his eye; he had no musket himself, but, picking one up, he handed it to Corporal Graham, who managed, just in time, to shoot the Frenchman.
So the Great Gate was closed and was never again forced, but it had been “a near run thing”. The enemy never managed to penetrate into Hougoumont again during the rest of the day and it is not hard to appreciate why Wellington declared later that “The success of the Battle of Waterloo turned on the closing of the gates [at Hougoumont].”
Major General Byng, commanding 2nd Guards Brigade, had been keeping a close watch on the fighting round Hougoumont, and when he saw the mêlée at the North Gate he ordered the remainder of the 2nd Bn Coldstream Guards to move forward and counter-attack the French who had penetrated to the north side of the farm.
The Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Woodford, (a Peninsular War veteran, who would later become a Field Marshal) led three companies down to the North Gate soon after it had been finally closed and, after some stiff fighting, they drove the French back down the lane and then into the wood.
“We found the enemy very near the wall,” he recorded later, “and charged them, upon which they went off, and I took the opportunity of entering the farm by a side door in the lane” (the West Door).
The rest of the battalion (less two companies left on the ridge with the Colours) then moved into the farm. Colonel Woodford was in fact now the senior officer in Hougoumont, but he generously declined to take over command from Colonel Macdonell, who was doing so well, and they fought the battle together for the rest of the day.
The 600 or so additional Coldstreamers were a welcome reinforcement for the hard-pressed light companies inside Hougoumont, and in particular their arrival made it possible for Colonel Macdonell to strengthen the defences along the east wall of the garden and so offer better support to the troops defending the orchard.
So far the fighting had all been around Hougoumont, but at 1300 Napoleon at last launched his main attack, advancing with 18,000 men against Wellington’s centre after a murderous 30-minute bombardment by 80 guns. It was repulsed, largely thanks to the charge by two brigades of British Heavy Cavalry, and Napoleon had to think again, for his whole plan had been frustrated.
There was now a brief lull for the defenders of Hougoumont, but at 1445 a new threat developed when the French brought up a battery of howitzers and began to shell the buildings. They fired ‘carcass projectiles’ (incendiary devices), which soon set fire to many of the roofs of the farm. By 1500 the château, the chapel and the Great Barn were all ablaze. Napoleon no doubt hoped that the fire would drive out the defenders, where his troops had failed, but he would be thwarted yet again.
“The heat and smoke of the conflagration were very difficult to bear,” wrote Colonel Woodford. “Several men were burnt as neither Colonel Macdonell or myself could penetrate to the stables where the wounded had been carried.”
At this moment Corporal James Graham, who had helped to close the gate, approached Colonel Macdonell and asked permission to leave his post in the firing line in the garden. Well aware of Graham’s bravery, the Colonel queried why he wanted to retire at such a critical moment.
“I would not,” replied the Corporal. “Only my brother lies wounded in that building which has just caught fire.”
Permission was promptly given, and his brother, Joseph (who had also been involved in the Closing of the Gate) was removed to safety, whereupon Corporal Graham immediately returned to his post.
There were wounded men from both sides in the burning buildings and many were burnt alive. Most of Hougoumont was now blazing fiercely and there was little that could be done about it. The chapel was ablaze and there are eye-witness accounts of how the flames licked through the wooden door and set fire to the feet of the life-size, wooden statue of Christ on the Cross that hung just above the door. But then they stopped, miraculously it seemed to some, leaving the feet charred and blackened, but the remainder of the body untouched.
The fire had meanwhile been noticed by Wellington, who immediately wrote a message repeating his original orders that Hougoumont must be held at all costs. It was written, as was his custom, in his own hand on a slip of ass’s skin which provided a smooth surface that was largely waterproof and could be wiped clean (an early version of talc!).
“I see that the fire has communicated from the Hay Stack to the Roof of the château. You must however still keep your men in those parts to which the fire does not reach. Take care that no men are lost by the falling-in of the Roof or Floors. After they have both fallen in, occupy the ruined walls inside the Garden; particularly if it should be possible for the enemy to pass through the Embers in the inside of the House.”
What a remarkable example of the Duke’s personal attention to detail!
It was a grim scene indeed inside Hougoumont at this moment. Burning timbers crashed down on the men in their positions and thick, choking smoke billowed everywhere, making their eyes stream as they strained to watch for the next enemy move. Red-hot flying sparks burned their uniforms and started new fires. Through the roar of the flames came cries for help from the wounded and the wild neighing of panic-stricken horses. Enemy shells still crashed into the buildings and the musket fire was incessant. Yet the defenders stayed at their posts and fought on.
Private Matthew Clay of the Third Guards was among them, positioned in the château, and he described the scene:
“I was told off with others under Lieutenant Gough (sic. probably Ensign Gooch) of the Coldstream Guards, and was posted in an upper room. This room was situated higher than the surrounding buildings and we annoyed the enemy’s skirmishers from the window. The enemy noticed this and threw their shells among us and set the building which we were defending on fire. Our officer placed himself at the entrance of the room and would not allow anyone to leave his post until our position became hopeless and too perilous to remain. We fully expected the floor to sink with us every moment, and in our escape several of us were more or less injured.”
So, while Hougoumont blazed and disintegrated round them, the defenders remained at their posts, and not a single Frenchman managed to penetrate into either the buildings or the garden.
But enemy pressure on the approaches to Hougoumont from the north was steadily increasing and it was only with the greatest difficulty that the vital line of communication to the North Gate was kept open by the 2nd Battalion, whose responsibility it was. It was just as well that they were successful in this task, for a new crisis now arose as supplies of ammunition began to run low.
The situation was saved by the heroic action of a Private of the Waggon Train, who was in charge of a tumbril of ammunition on the ridge. An officer on the staff recorded the incident:
“I merely pointed out to him where he was wanted, when he gallantly started his horses and drove straight down to the farm, to the gate of which I saw him arrive. He must have lost his horses as there was severe fire kept on him. I feel convinced that to that man’s service the Guards owe their ammunition.”
The Regimental History states that the tumbril arrived “about one o’clock” and “proved most seasonable”.
Elsewhere the battle was steadily building up to a crisis. At 1600 Ney launched the first of the two great cavalry charges that the French would make that day. Over 4,500 horsemen pounded across the muddy valley and on up the slope where the Allied squares awaited them. Five times they attacked, but they could not break the squares, and five times they were beaten off.
For over an hour the attacks went on with the utmost gallantry and determination; but even when Napoleon threw in a further 5,000 horsemen the ever-dwindling squares stood firm. Finally it was the French who withdrew, with the vital breakthrough still not achieved.
The defence of Hougoumont can be said to have contributed to the defeat of these cavalry attacks. The fact that both Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte were still in Allied hands meant that as the French cavalry advanced they were under fire from both flanks. They were therefore forced to charge on a very restricted front of only 800 yards, thus losing some impetus as well as providing a better target for the Allied artillery. Hougoumont has been described as “a thorn in the side of all the French attacks” and this was certainly true of the two cavalry charges.
But the defenders were not allowed to remain mere spectators for long. Just about the same time as the two cavalry charges, a powerful attack by some three infantry regiments was made against the south-east corner of the orchard. The sector was held by the Third Guards, supported by two battalions of the King’s German Legion (KGL), but they were forced back as far as the Hollow Way, where they rallied. The Commanding Officer of the Third Guards reported:
“But when the attacking troops attempted to pass through the orchard they received so destructive a fire from the Coldstream Guards posted inside the Garden Wall that they were completely staggered, and we meanwhile advanced and regained our post.”
The seventh and final attack on Hougoumont came at about 1830. The gallant KGL had been finally driven out of La Haye Sainte, when their ammunition ran out, and the French now had troops to spare for a final assault on Hougoumont. It again came in against the Third Guards in the orchard, and once more Colonel Hepburn, commanding the Third Guards, declared:
“Again the fire of the Coldstream did us good service. In fact it was this fire that constituted the strength of the post. We once more advanced and resumed our station along the front edge, from whence there was no further effort to dislodge us.”
At 1930 came the climax of the battle. The Prussians were now closing in in growing numbers against Napoleon’s right flank and he had to take one final gamble, whether to withdraw while he could or to make one last desperate bid for victory. He decided to risk all and launched his invincible Imperial Guard against the centre of the Allied line. But it was too late. They were repulsed and withdrew back to the French lines.
“La Garde Recule”
These three words spelt in effect the defeat of France and the Grande Armée was soon in full retreat. But round Hougoumont the bitter fighting continued unabated, with neither side being aware of the fate of the Imperial Guard.
As the Allied line moved forward the weary troops in Hougoumont remained at their posts. Exhausted, they watched in the gathering gloom as the enemy, who for the last nine hours had done their best to kill them, now disappeared into the wood where at dawn that same day it had all started.
After a while the Coldstreamers in Hougoumont were ordered to move back and bivouack for the night in a field just behind the farm, where they joined Nos 7 and 8 Companies. The Third Guards too bivouacked nearby, joining up with their light company who had been with the Coldstream in Hougoumont all day.
At the Roll Call that evening there were many names that went unanswered in both battalions. The losses were not as grim as in some of the regiments on the main position, but they were heavy enough. The 2nd Battalion lost 348 all ranks, while the Third Guards’ casualties were 236. Altogether the 6,000 or so Allied troops who were eventually involved in the defence of Hougoumont suffered around 1,500 casualties against French losses estimated at more than 5,000.
There are varying accounts of the numbers involved on each side in the struggle for Hougoumont. There is little doubt that the French committed 13–15,000 troops to their continuous attacks on the farm and orchard. This represented the major part of three divisions (Jerome, Foy and Bachelu) which might otherwise have been available elsewhere on the battlefield and might well have made a difference to the outcome.
Wellington committed altogether a maximum of 3,500 troops to the actual defence of Hougoumont itself, with perhaps a further 2,500 in support behind the farm. But even on the basis of around 6,000 Allied troops defending Hougoumont against 14,000 French, this was a most satisfactory and economical ratio from Wellington’s point of view. He fed in reinforcements only as essential and yet tied down most of a French corps for the whole day. Nor did he weaken his centre as Napoleon had hoped he would.
That night Wellington wrote in his Despatch:
“It gives me the greatest satisfaction to assure your Lordship that the army has never on any occasion conducted itself better. The Division of Guards … set an example which was followed by all.”
Wellington’s confidante, Thomas Creevy, related later that as the Duke was at work on his Despatch he “praised greatly those Guards who kept the farm against the repeated attacks of the French.” He also commented:
“You may depend upon it that no troops but the British could have held Hougoumont and only the best of them at that.”
Nor had the Duke forgotten that General Müffling had, on the eve of the battle, ventured to question whether Hougoumont was defensible at all. He now could not resist making the brief comment when he next saw him: “You see, the Guards held Hougoumont.”
“The Bravest Man in England”
All ranks who took part in the Battle of Waterloo received in 1816 a silver Waterloo Medal, the first general issue made to the British Army. In addition, they had the letters ‘W.M.’ (Waterloo Man) put after their name in the records; this was perhaps of even greater importance to them since it counted as two years’ extra service.
Officers in the Household Cavalry and the Foot Guards benefited also in that the privilege of ‘double rank’ was extended to include Ensigns, who were now given the rank of Lieutenant.
Corporal James Graham (now a Sergeant) and Sergeant Fraser of the Third Guards were both awarded a special medal for their gallantry at Hougoumont. Sergeant Graham was also nominated by Wellington for an annuity of £10 a year which had been offered by a patriotic citizen, the Reverend John Norcross, Rector of Framlingham in Suffolk, to be given to “one of his brave countrymen who fought in the late tremendous but glorious conflict.”
Unfortunately, after only two years, the Rector went bankrupt and the annuity ceased. But when he died some time later he left £500 to be given to “the bravest man in England”. Wellington was invited to nominate this individual, and he wrote:
“The success of the Battle of Waterloo turned on the closing of the gates at Hougoumont. The gates were closed in the most courageous manner at (sic) the very nick of time by the efforts of Sir J. Macdonell. I cannot help thinking Sir James is the man to whom you should give the £500.”
So it was settled, but the gallant Colonel immediately shared his award with Sergeant Graham, declaring:
“I cannot claim all the merit due to the closing of the gates of Hougoumont, for Sergeant John Graham, who saw the importance of the step, rushed forward and together we shut the gates.”