Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Left Flank

The Prince of Orange at the battle of Waterloo

The Left Flank is the least well know of all the positions on the Waterloo battlefield. This may be because no British or KGL infantry fought in this area. Wellington was not personally involved in this area. The cavalry brigades of Vivian and Vandeleur were stationed behind the area in support, but were not called upon to fight here.

Throughout the battle the area was held by a brigade of Perponchers Dutch-Belgian division under the command of Saxe Weimar.

PLHS - the Left Flank at Waterloo

The Left Flank of the allied Waterloo position consists of a collection of farms, villages and hamlets by the name of Papelotte, La Haye (not to be confused with the farm of La Haye Sainte) and Smohain. Because of their initials they are sometimes known as PLHS.

Papelotte (centre) with La Haye on its right. On the far right is the hamlet of Smohain.

The Dutch-Belgians occupied the buildings of Papellote, La Haye and Smohain. A mixed French force approached and occupied Frischermont, but were prevented from advancing any further. There was prolonged skirmishing fighting during the morning.

The sunken road south of Papelotte (left). La Haye is on the right

During d'Erlons attack his right hand division, commanded by Durette, was directed towards this area. However he soon fell behind the other three divisions due to the broken ground. Before he could reach PLHS the rest of d'Erlons command were in rout, pursued by the Union and Household cavalry brigades. Durette wisely withdrew.

In the foreground La Haye, in the background Papelotte

The next serious fighting was during the late afternoon. About 6pm, as Ziethen's Prussians began to appear, Durutte send forward several battalions. He wanted to take and hold PLHS to secure the French right flank. The French captured some of the isolated farms, but the Dutch-Belgians held the main PLHS area.

Smohain is on the left, the brook can be seen above the hamlet

The most serious damage to the Dutch-Belgians was done by the Prussians - not the French. Ziethen approached on the road beside the Smohain brook. He saw the farms of Papelotte and La Haye still in possession of troops who appeared to be French because of their uniforms. The Prussians attacked immediately, and Saxe Weimar thought they were Grouchy's men. Their barricades were not properly placed to resist an attack from the north east and they were eventually forced back. When the mistake was discovered they reoccupied PLHS, but were unable to take any part in the final attack on the French.

Smohain brook

I was not sure whether to include PLHS in my record of our 1971 visit. We did visit the area, but only to drive around in the car. We found it to be a very confusing area, and one which were had not come sufficiently prepared to explore. However I did have these interesting photographs and map, and it seemed a shame not to include them.

So I hope that you will accept this final part of our Waterloo battlefield walk as our own Waterloo Post Script.

Monday, May 18, 2009


Of all the buildings and locations on and around the battlefield of Waterloo, none were better known to Jan and I than Hougoumont. I had read so many stories about the heroic defence, seen so many drawings and photographs, that I felt I knew it well - even though I had never been there before. So to actually walk in the grounds of Hougoumont was an experience we were not to forget.

But before we recall the visit itself, lets just remind ourselves where Hougoumont is, and why it was so important. These two aerial photographs help us to do so. The one above was taken from 14 in the plan. You will see that this was the direction of the French attack. You can also see how close the farm is to the Lion monument, which marks Wellingtons right flank. Hougoumont is not as close to the allied positions, but it does protect his right flank. And of course because it is slightly further from the allied line, it was more difficult to support, reinforce and resupply.

The second aerial photograph gives an even better impression of the farm and garden. The "covered way" is a sunken road which gave some shelter to reinforcements or resupply vehicles moving to the farm. As this road was nearest to the allied line, it was commanded by the allied artillery and dangerous for the French to approach.

Although the farm was surrounded by the French during the battle, not a single Frenchman managed to enter either the farm complex or the garden and survive - except as a prisoner.

This is the view of Hougoumont which most of the attacking lines of French infantry would have seen. However at the time of the battle there would have had to pass through an extensive woods to reach this point.

I have a large poster of this famous painting in my wargames room, of the hand to hand fighting for possession of the woods to the south of the farm.

In preparation for our visit to Hougoumont we had read Jac Wellers "Wellington at Waterloo", in which he confirms that visitors are welcome in the courtyard, the ruins of the chapel, the garden and through the passage to the south beneath the first floor of the farmers house. Given that this is a working farm, I think this is very generous of the resident farmer.

It was quite an experience to stand in front of the very door which played such an important part in the battle. We sat by the wall and read an extract from our second reference book David Howarth's "Waterloo, A Near Run Thing". This is a collection of first hand accounts of various events of the battle. Unfortunately I no longer have my copy, so I can't quote from it. However I clearly remember reading about an English skirmisher who was so involved in the fighting in the woods that he failed to realise that his colleagues had withdrawn inside the farm. When he reached the gate, he found it locked. He recounts how a French skirmisher took careful aim at him, fired, but missed. We read this account right by the door he found locked on the wrong side on that memorable day

As we sat there, the farmer came out on his tractor. He gave us a friendly nod and went on his way. So we felt quite encouraged to fully explore the farm and gardens.

Another famous painting of the fighting for the southern gate. For me this one captures what it must have been like to come forwards and batter against this door time and time again.

We walked around the outside of the garden wall. Its much higher than I had imagined, and it was interesting to read that the defenders built wooden platforms so that they could fire over the wall at the attacking French. They also knocked loop holes in the wall, which could still be seen. We paused to read an account of how the French grasped hold of the muskets and tried to pull them through the loop holes.

We walked around the farm to the northern gate, or rather to the gap in the wall where the northern gate would once have stood. This was the scene of another famous episode of the battle. The garrison had left this gate closed and barred, but not barricaded, so that they could receive reinforcements and ammunition from the ridge.

"A giant French leiutenant seized an axe from one of his pioneers and weakened the bar where it was exposed between the doors. He then led a charge which crushed the doors inward breaking the bar. In an instant, many French rushed into the courtyard. But (Colonel) Macdonnel himself and several officers and men closed the gates by main strength, replaced the bar and killed or incapacitated every enemy soldier inside, probably helped by musket fire from the surrounding buildings".

Wellington was later to say that Colonel Macdonnel (commander of the garrison) was the bravest man at Waterloo, and that his action in closing the gate was the most important single action contributing to winning the battle.

To sit in the courtyard entrance and read this account was thrilling indeed.

This photographs was taken from the north gate looking across the courtyard towards the chapel and the south gate. This was the scene of another epic action. "The buildings were set on fire by French howitzer shells, but resistance continued unabated, since a large part of the actual fortfied area was in the open behind bare walls."

Wellington sent a note pencilled on goatskin to Macdonell which read:

"I see that the fire has communicated from the hay stack to the roof of the chateau. 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 will have fallen in occupy the ruined walls inside of the garden, particularly if it should be possible for the enemy to pass through the embers to the inside of the house".

Only a few days earlier we had seen this very message, handwritten in pencil by the great man himself, in the Wellington HQ museum in the village of Waterloo.

The chapel was amongst the buildings which caught fire. It was being used to shelter wounded soldiers, both French and English. Many perished as they were unable to drag themselves out of the building. There is a wooden cross on the wall of which only the feet are burned, the rest survived.

A very sad place to stand and consider how terrible it must have been to perish in such a dreadful way. I recall reading about a guardsman who was fighting in the nearby farm. His brother had been injured earlier, and placed in the chapel. When he saw that the chapel was on fire he asked, and received, permission to leave his post and move his brother out of the chapel. As soon as he had done so he returned to his post in the farm.

This photograph was taken from the top of the garden wall and is number 23 in the diagram above. Area A is where the French infantry tried to pull the muskets through the loop holes. B is the farmers house. C the chapel. This garden was the scene of some of the most determined fighting of the whole battle. The defenders fired over the wall, and through the loopholes, and bayonet any Frenchman brave enough to try to climb of the wall.

Corner of the south and east garden wall. The bricked-up loopholes show clearly in the right foreground section. Further to the left are some stone lined loopholes, still open, made when the wall was built.

Our second, well thumbed, guide to the battle. Jac Weller is great for a general overview of the battle, and the sequence of events. But David Howarth really brings it all to life with the actual words of men who took part in the battle. My favourite memory of visiting Waterloo is of sitting in the garden, eating a picnic lunch and reading from "Waterloo, A Near Run Thing".

Jan is standing near a monument to the French who died at Hougoumont. Srange place to put it. There were many casualties in the general area, but I believe no French soldier entered the garden, except possibly as a prisoner.

There are also two graves in the garden covered by stone slabs. One is where Captain Blackman of the Coldstreamers was buried on the day after the battle. The second is Sergeant Major Edward Cotton of the 7th Hussars. He died at Waterloo in 1849, a wealthy man after many years as a professional battlefield guide.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

La Haye Sainte

We were very excited about finally exploring one of the two most famous buildings of this, or any other, battle. We didn't need Jac Weller's "Wellington at Waterloo" to check what had happened here. Like everyone else we were well aware of the heroic defence by the Kings German Legion. Of the hand to hand fighting at the east/west passage of the south barn. Of the French pursuit through the house when the defenders ran out of ammunition. As we stood at the cross roads looking down at the familiar outline of La Haye Sainte we were filled with excitement.

From the cross roads we searched to the left of La Haye Sainte for the famous sandpit which was held by the riflemen of the 95th for most of the battle. We were to be disappointed, for it had been removed to make way for an electric railway from Brussels to Plancenoit.

We walked down the Charleroi road and inspected the buildings from the road. It looked exactly the same as it had in all of those paintings I had seen, including one of French infantry trying to storm the gate and walls.

From this excellent aerial photograph you can easily see why the farm was so important to the allied defence. I believe that the sandpit must have been somewhere near the monument on the right hand side of the road near the cross roads. However this was not so obvious at ground level. The group of buildings north west of the cross roads are new. You can see how close to the vital cross roads the farm is. And when you consider that French artillery was placed in the kitchen gardens towards the end of the battle you realise how close Wellington came to losing his centre and with it the battle.

A marks Napoleons command post, which we had visited earlier. It was much more difficult to make it out from the cross roads, and what had appeared a high hill when we stood there looked quite flat from the cross roads. B marks the area of the sandput. The monuments are (left) the Hannoverian (KGL) and (right) to Gordon. Strange that there is no monument to the 95th rifles.
It is easy to imagine d'Erlons corps attack, and the subsequent charge of the union and household cavalry brigades on the left. Also the massed French cavalry charges, and the final advance of the Imperial Guard on the right.

Another excellent demonstration of how strategic the farm was during the battle. And also a clear view of how much the Lion monument has changed the whole battlefield.

You can see from this old print that the farm and its complex of buuildings has changed little since the battle.

A very unusual photo of the farm from the west. This is number 28 in the diagram above. The right hand door on the right hand barn is the one which was used for firewood on the night before the battle. You can see why it would have been so difficult for the French to gain entry on this side, other than by the open doorway.

We entered the farm yard by the gap in the wall above. This is 30 in the diagram. It also features in the painting shown at the top of this page. We sat here and read Chapter X of "Wellington at Waterloo", titled the loss of La Haye Sainte. The defence of this farm must be one of the most heroic in the history of the British army, for of course the KGL was part of the British army. This building was often surrounded by the French during the battle, but the garrison held even when they ran out of ammunition. Jac Weller describes how "...cartridges for the rifles had been called for at least three times but none had arrived. Baring (the garrison commander) refused to surrender, even after they fired their last rounds. But the French soon realised their advantage and began climbing over roofs and walls, knowing that the Germans cound not shoot them. Frenchmen took deliberate aim and killed man after man like sitting ducks".

It was a very strange feeling to stand in the very gateway which had withstood wave after wave of French attacks. You can see how difficult it would have been for infantrymen to hack their way through this massive door.

This is the east-west passage where "...seventeen Frenchmen were killed here in hand to hand fighting, their bodies being used by the defenders to reinforce their barricade". It is 31 in the diagram above.

Jan stands at the same door way in July 1971.

This is the north side of La Haye Sainte farm house. Shown as 33 in the diagram above. This is where the french artillery were placed towards the end of the battle. However their crews were shot by 1/95th Rifles from south of the Ohain road.

The same farm house from the south side. This is where "...shortly after 6pm the defenders were driven through the courtyard and into the farmhouse. They did not have a single round of ammunition, but held the doorway for several minutes with bayonets only. The French could take any liberties now, they climbed on a cart and fired at a range of under 10 yards. Baring led the retreat through the small doorway. Only a few made ti, for the French took the house by sorom. A pitiful remmant, Baring and 42 men (of the original 376), managed to get through to the garden. The British riflemen shot any French who pursued".

We approached the farm house, but someone inside knocked on the window and quite understandably did not want us to impose any further. We left the farm yard and sat opposite reliving the exploits of those brave men and their daring deeds.

By far our most emotional and rewarding day yet. Even better was to come the following day when we visited Hougoumont.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Lion

We were on the seventh day of our visit before we finally went to the Lion Monument and adjacent visitors centre. This was deliberate, as we wanted to save the best for last. However our first impression was this was not by any means the best!

This fine aerial photographs shows the location of the Lion Monument, and it also shows clearly the damage building it has done to the battlefield. This was one of the most important parts of the whole battlefield, and the tons of earth removed to build the monument has changed the lie of the land beyond recognition. You will probably be aware that this monstrosity was constructed to celebrate the part played in the battle by the Prince of Orange, and the fact that he received a minor wound during the battle. This may not immediately strike you as the most important event of the many which occurred on that fateful day in June 1815. However when you consider that his dad was the King of the Netherlands you begin to understand why it was done. The single good thing to come of it, is that it can be seen from any part of the battlefield, and makes orientation very easy.

It was another warm and sunny day when we arrived. Yet our first impression of this long awaited visit was that it was quite depressing. The whole area, and in particular the buildings, were very much past their best. Clearly not much money had been spent on the area in recent years, and it was beginning to show. Our second impression was that it was a shrine to Napoleon, with very little reference to Wellington. If the battle of Waterloo, and the winner, were not so well known by every Englishman, it would be easy to come away from Waterloo thinking that Napoleon must have won!

Our first visit was to the imposing, if somewhat faded, museum and film show. The most impressive part of the museum was this excellent Grenadier of the Old Guard. Jan looks quite impressed, and indeed impressive in her fancy straw hat. The rest of the museum, including this diorama of Napoleons marshals poring over a map, was less impressive.

Least impressive of all, indeed downright disappointing, was the film show. We were delighted to see that Waterloo was on show. We had recently seen it, but were more than happy to repeat the performance, and at Waterloo itself. Imagine our disappointment when we sat down in the tiny cinema and discovered it was a silent, black and white version which, in 1971, must have been at least 30 or 40 years old. It was similar to one of those Charlie Chaplain films which always feature a car race. I would not have been surprised if he had appeared in the middle of the most unconvincing battle scenes I have ever seen. Now it might well be that this was actually a well known classic, and that I am showing my ignorance. However we were bitterly disappointed to find that it was not the wonderful, colourful movie with Rod Steiger as Napoleon and Christopher Plummer as Wellington.

I am pleased to be able to confirm, and you will be happy to learn, that this was the last of the disappointments of this day. Our next visit was to the fantastic Waterloo Panorama in the circular building which stands beside the Lion.

As we entered the dark circular room we were blown away by the scale of the panorama. The whole wall is covered by a life sized painting depicting the massed French cavalry charge. The foreground is littered with battle debris, such as broken artillery wheels, muskets etc. The room is filled with the sound of battle from the surround sound system. It may not be too impressive by modern standards, but we had never seen anything like it before. And it is by far the most impressive recreation of a Napoleonic battlefield that I have ever seen. We spent at least an hour walking around the room soaking up the sights and sounds.

Emerging into the bright midday sunshine, we climbed the 226 tall steps to the top of the Lion Monument. It was well worth the effort. It may have done massive damage to the battlefield, but the view from the top is quite breath taking. You are immediately orientated when you see Hougoumont to the right and La Haye Sainte to the left. We opened our well thumbed copy of Jac Wellers "Wellington at Waterloo" and I read aloud to Jan from Chapter IX The French Cavalry Attacks. We were so engrossed that it took some time to realise that we were surrounded by a small group of visitors who obviously found my account more interesting than the pre-recorded machines which tell the story of the battle in many languages.

We were in no hurry to leave our matchless view point, and we had come prepared with a picnic lunch. Having orientated ourselves, and read an excellent description of the cavalry charges and studied the ground over which it took place. We then turned to our second battlefield companion, the excellent "Waterloo, A Near Run Thing" by David Howarth. This book contains the first hand accounts of a number of soldiers who took part in the actual battle. Unfortunately I no longer have my copy, it disappeared over the years. So I cannot quote from it now. But I do remember how exciting it was to read the actual words of participants in the battle while looking at the ground they were describing.

It was late afternoon when we came back down the 226 steps to return to the car. This had been the least energetic day so far, and we had not really done any battlefield walking. However we felt we had really explored the area through "Wellington at Waterloo" and "A Near Run Thing". We had an excellent grasp of the battle, the battlefield and personal accounts of different participants. We were ready for tomorrows excursion. In the photo below you can see a clue to the location of our next visit.