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.

No comments:

Post a Comment