Whew! What a week that was at Waterloo!
As Assistant Quartermaster General to British 2nd Brigade (one of 6 allied brigades) I spent the first two days organising the various company officers into providing strength returns for their rations and gunpowder and creating a guard duty roster that was acceptable to all.
We had 23 re-enactment units in the brigade ranging from 4 to 42 people from 6 countries, and about 240 muskets. It was like herding cats most of the time. Our brigade camp occupied most of the old formal garden at Hougoumont.
Brigadier General Parker began to pull this group together during drill sessions on Wednesday and Thursday. Most were already using the same drill book and the manoeuvering of the brigade began to work like clockwork. Our strength was approximately that of a half-battalion in the British Army at Waterloo, and we split it into two wings, each with a Major commanding it.
Friday evening we marched by a circuitous route around the Butte du Lion and through the courtyard at La Haie Sainte to the battlefield east of the Charleroi road. We were to fight just south of the centre point of Wellington’s ridge. The field on our side was of groin-high barley with deep tractor ruts hidden beneath. Scale (to ground area) representations of Hougoumont, La Haie Sainte and the Plancenoit cemetery had been built, and the topography of the ground was just as the original.
We took our place – almost an hour late because a heavy gun had collapsed a ramp en route – in the centre of the Allied line and looked at the French on the other ridge. Memories of the film “Zulu” came to mind.
The guns began to fire. We had 48 cannon and the French I believe almost as many. After a 15 minute cannonade imcluding RHA rockets that were spectacular but fell amongst our own skirmishers around La Haie Sainte, the valley was swathed in smoke. We started to wonder if the 60,000 spectators would get their €50 money’s worth. During the cannonade the French put in an attack on Hougoumont, but were beaten back.
Then the French columns began to advance, slowly, steadily, massively. We advanced a short way to meet them. A couple of brigade volleys, rippling out from the centre with a satisfying “crrrrrump!” added to the smoke, so much so that the Brigade Commander had to wait well over half a minute to decide if it was safe to advance or to fire again, because the French had disappeared from view.
The Allied heavy cavalry scattered the French infantry to our front and a general cavalry engagement began. At one point we were ordered into square against our own light cavalry returning to the lines. Wellington’s point about headgear was clearly demonstrated.
Then we had to form square for real because the enemy cuirassiers and dragoons appeared on our right flank. The first time we made it. On the second occasion they came out of the smoke and here is the result:
Failing to form square in time
The back wall of the square had a gap about 12 men wide which was closed just in time by staff officers and a quick-witted corporal of the Buffs who called some of his chaps to help. He was mentioned in dispatches and publicly embarrassed next morning.
We discerned a lot of musket flashes through the dense smoke to our left as the Prussians arrived. Dusk was now upon us. The Imperial Guard began to move. We poured out volley after volley and from the back of the brigade I never saw the Guard arrive at our lines. I did see them retreat and we charged after them as well as we could through the barley.
Next day we resolved that the brigade square was a hopeless concept and practiced forming two battalion squares, which left a nice killing ground between them and also gave the cavalry more options.
On Saturday morning the British Army Commander was indisposed and so my Brigadier as 2ic was invited to a public lunch with the “Duke of Wellington”, the “Prince of Orange”, “Field Marshal Blucher” and their staff officers. About a minute before he left he was advised he must bring his ADC and as the nearest uniformed officer I was nominated. I grabbed my bicorne and best gloves and off we went for a sumptuous meal, cooked on site and served impeccably, and with a different wine for each course. I thought “For safety reasons the men cannot drink before battle, but those making the decisions do so publicly”.
(I am behind the tent pole to the right)
And so back to camp where just before forming for the march to battle I was grabbed by Reuters TV for an interview, a snippet of which is included here
Reuters TV clip
The second day’s battle was even better than the first. We arrived first on the field and spent about an hour watching the French form up. The Duke arrived and in a prepared time-wasting scam was double-bluffed by one of the Enniskillens who was carrying a small fluffy pink pig in his haversack in place of the valuables the Duke expected to find.
I was better able to follow the story of the battle in this day’s action and it culminated in the massacre of the Old Guard in square. Shortly before that I witnessed a little re-enactment incident. Half a dozen Imperial Guard Grenadiers, contrary to the script, pushed through our line. One ran straight up to the “Duke of Wellington” (Alan Larsen) who was sitting on his horse behind us, shook his hand and with a huge grin returned to his unit. That’s his Waterloo tale.
Back to camp by just before midnight and nobody wanted it to end. The singing around the camp fires started. At 3 am there was still a general muted conversation going on and some were still talking at dawn.
I doubt that I will experience anything like it again. As the historian Dan Snow put it on his Twitter feed (@theHistoryGuy) “This is what time travel looks like”. Facebook and YouTube are full of photographs and clips, and I can recommend Thomason-Photography.net for action shots.
My thanks to all the 6000 participants of both sides who contributed to a fantastic display.