In his memoir "Captain of the 95th (Rifles): An Officer of Wellington's Sharpshooters During the Peninsular, South of France and Waterloo Campaigns of the Napoleonic Wars", Captain (later Lieutenant-Colonel) Jonathan Leach gives personal impressions of almost the whole of the Peninsular War and subsequent battles in which he was involved.
Many people forget that Waterloo was actually the final, climactic battle in a multi-day clash of armies from several nations. Col. Leach describes it over the course of almost a week, culminating in the fateful day itself, which he ended in command of his battalion after two preceding Commanding Officers had become casualties. He includes some pungent remarks about "armchair generals" who opined about what they think happened (or should have happened), versus the experience of those who were there from start to finish.
CAMPAIGN OF 1815 IN FLANDERS.
As the war with America still continued, the 1st and 2d battalions of our corps were under orders for embarkation, early in the spring of 1815, for the Western World, whither a considerable part of our 3d battalion had already been sent, and formed a part of the expedition against New Orleans. Napoleon’s sudden flight from Elba, and his subsequent occupation of the throne of France, altered our destination; and by the end of April both our battalions were in Flanders. From Ostend we were conveyed without delay, in large boats by the canal, to Ghent, where we remained ten days, and thence proceeded to Brussels. There we were stationed in capital quarters for some weeks, until ordered out of them to take part in that battle which decided the fate of Europe.
During our stay in Brussels the 5th Division of the army was formed there, and consisted of the following regiments: — The 3d battalion of the 1st Royals, 28th, 32d, 42d Highlanders, 2d battalion 44th, 79th and 92d Highlanders, and 1st battalion 95th Rifle Corps. The 2d battalion of our corps, and two companies of the 3d battalion, were appointed to Sir Henry Clinton’s Division. Sir James Kempt and Sir Dennis Pack each commanded a brigade in the 5th Division, which had for its chief Sir Thomas Picton. He did not arrive at Brussels from England until the 15th of June, on which day there were various rumours in circulation as to the movements of the French army.
It was known that Napoleon had driven back the Prussian outposts, and it followed, as a matter of course, that affairs would, in all probability, be speedily brought to a crisis.
Soon after dark on the evening of the 15th the drums beat to arms, and the bugles sounded to assemble the division; but as the soldiers were billeted in every part of the city, the night was drawing to a close and morning beginning to dawn, by the time the whole of the troops were collected and formed. We then advanced by the road through the forest of Soignie, and halted near the village of Waterloo, where the troops of the Duke of Brunswick (which had been cantoned for some time in the vicinity of Brussels), joined us.
No one who has campaigned need be told, that a multiplicity of rumours, reports, speculations, and calculations, most of them vague, contradictory, and unfounded, are the forerunners of the advance of an army. “The enemy is in position at such a point with so many thousand men, his front covered by a deep and impassable river,” declares one; “the troops stationed at such a point must inevitably be overpowered and annihilated before assistance can arrive,” says a second; “we shall have a brush with their advanced guard in less than an hour,” declares a third; and so on: every man conjuring up something wherewith to throw a light, not only on the intended operations and movements of his own army, but, moreover, on those of the enemy. The pundits on the present occasion were by no means few; but the heads of the many which had been thus racked and tormented with conjectures, were ere long to be otherwise employed.
BATTLE OF QUATRE BRAS.
Our division and the Brunswick troops, after a halt of an hour or two near Waterloo, were directed to advance; and we arrived at Quatre Bras about two hours after mid-day. Long before we reached this point, which consists of a few houses at the junction of four roads, we were aware that something not of an amicable nature was in progress between the Belgian troops under the Prince of Orange and the French under Marshal Ney, as a number of wounded Belgians were proceeding towards Brussels, and an occasional cannonade was, moreover, heard in our front. The troops under the Prince of Orange had been driven back on Quatre Bras, after some resistance.
We found the Prince in possession of Quatre Bras, occupying also a wood on his right, and a farm-house in his front, as his advanced posts. The French were moving on in great force towards Quatre Bras, and to a wood on the left of the road, at the moment of the arrival of our division. The Duke of Wellington instantly directed our battalion to occupy and to defend this wood; and we kept possession of it throughout the day, in spite of the many attempts made by the enemy to dispossess us of it, who kept us constantly engaged until night.
The remainder of our division, during this period, were engaged on our right in a fierce and desperate struggle against some heavy bodies of infantry and cavalry. The approach of the latter force obliged the different regiments to form squares, which resisted, with the greatest steadiness and gallantry, the repeated attempts to charge and break them, and strewed the field with cuirassiers and horses. Neither the charges of their numerous and daring cavalry, nor the incessant fire of musketry, supported by a powerful artillery, enabled the French to gain one foot of ground, although, at the most moderate calculation, they outnumbered the British in the proportion of two to one. The Duke of Brunswick fell early in the action, whilst setting a glorious example to his troops, which were chiefly new levies.
The only cavalry which we had in the field were those belonging to the Duke of Brunswick, which were drawn up on the road towards the right of our division; and by their giving way, at the approach of the cuirassiers, the consequences would have been serious, had not the French cavalry received at that moment a destructive volley from a regiment of infantry (I think the 92d), which sent back those who escaped the fire fully as fast as they had advanced.
Several hours had been spent in this unequal contest; and although we were aware that reinforcements were marching from different points to our assistance, it was not until late in the afternoon that the head of Baron Charles Alten’s division was seen approaching; and a welcome sight it was. Supported by this division, which was ushered into the field by a cannonade from the enemy, we drove back their light troops, with whom we continued engaged until night.
The post occupied by our battalion having been given over to General Alten’s troops, we were ordered to rejoin our own division, which were lying down by their arms on the ground where they had been engaged throughout the day. Other troops of infantry reached Quatre Bras during the afternoon and evening of the 16th; and in the course of the night the whole, or the greatest part, of the cavalry joined us.
It will easily be credited, that, not having had one moment’s sleep on the night of the 15th, and the whole of the 16th having been spent in marching and in engagements with the enemy, very little time was requisite to invoke the sleepy god, as about eleven at night we lay down by our arms for that purpose. But our slumbers were not destined to be of long duration; as we were suddenly broad awake and standing to our arms in consequence of the pickets of both armies blazing away at each other, from some unknown cause, which kept us on the alert until day dawned.
Whilst we were employed on the 16th at Quatre Bras, in the manner which I have attempted to describe, the Prussian army, under Marshal Blucher, was furiously attacked by the French under Napoleon in person, at the village of Ligny, some miles to our left. The tremendous and unceasing fire of artillery, and the constant roll of musketry, announced that a deadly conflict was going forward, which did not terminate until after dark. We were in anxious suspense as to the result of this battle; nor was the disheartening fact known to us until the morning of the 17th, that the Prussians had been completely defeated, and obliged to fall back from Ligny with a heavy loss.
The man of candour will not deny, be he ever so determined a fire-eater, that the news of this disastrous defeat of our allies was calculated to throw a damp on the prospects of the campaign; and notwithstanding I have heard some few individuals since declare that they never entertained the smallest doubt of our success, I never believed them. Nothing is more easy than to prognosticate occurrences which have already taken place. This may be a bull, but it is nevertheless a system which I have seen adopted by individuals from both sides of the Irish channel.
It is now time to notice the retrograde movement which the British army was obliged to make from Quatre Bras to the position at Waterloo on the 17th June, in consequence of the defeat, and subsequent retreat of the Prussians from Ligny, on the night of the 16th. Before I make the attempt, a word or two on another point may not be altogether amiss.
I have often been heartily tired of, and out of all patience with, the one engrossing question, ever uppermost, and ready to be let fly at any one who happened to have served with the Waterloo army, either by non-combatants, or by those who have never given themselves the trouble to investigate the real position of affairs at that period, — “Pray, sir, was not the Duke of Wellington taken quite by surprise, whilst he was at the Duchess of Richmond’s ball at Brussels, by the sudden irruption of Bonaparte’s army into Flanders?” Now, as every officer stationed in Brussels with Sir T. Picton’s division knew, I presume, on the 15th of June, that the French army was in motion on the frontiers of Flanders, and that Prince Blucher’s advanced posts had been engaged, it is utterly impossible but that those facts should have been known to the Duke of Wellington long before we could possibly have been informed of them.
I conclude, that those fire-side and feather-bed tacticians would have had the Duke of Wellington, the moment he heard of the affairs which had taken place at the Prussian outposts, mount his horse, draw his sword, and give the word of command himself to the troops in Brussels, to fix bayonets, shoulder arms, and march. I have never, however, distinctly understood to what particular point, or on which of the different roads by which Bonaparte had the option of penetrating into Flanders, these savans deemed it judicious that the duke should have ordered a concentration of his army, before he had obtained certain intelligence of the enemy’s intentions. A very small share of intellect is necessary to comprehend that the British commander was obliged to canton the different divisions of his army along an extensive frontier, not only with a view of watching the roads by which his adversary might advance, but, moreover, for the purpose of more easily supplying them with provisions, particularly his cavalry and artillery. It would consequently have been a specimen of generalship not very creditable to him, had he directed his army to assemble at any one particular point as long as a doubt existed of the movements of his opponent, or whilst his intentions remained unfathomed.
It is doubtless a pleasant and edifying occupation, while sitting by an English fire-side, to criticise and calumniate that commander, who, in spite of his being “taken by surprise,” contrived to gain the most splendid and decisive victory ever achieved by the British army or any other. Leaving those critics to rub their shins by a coal fire, and to finish half a dozen of port (on the qualities of which I should infinitely prefer their opinion than on the campaign of 1815 in Flanders), I must return to Quatre Bras.
The retreat of the Prussians from Ligny having rendered a corresponding movement on our part necessary, the Duke of Wellington put. his army in motion about ten o’clock on the morning of the 17th, towards the position at Waterloo.
Our battalion, which was the last of the infantry that left the field at Quatre Bras, retired with the cavalry, who covered the retreat of the army. Tremendous rain commenced falling before we reached Genappe, where we were ordered to take such shelter as the houses on each side of the street at the entrance of the town afforded. Some shots which we heard exchanged between the advanced cavalry of the two armies, obliged us instantly to leave the hovels in which we had taken momentary refuge from the storm; and, as the cavalry very soon afterwards entered Genappe, we retired through the town with them. Our cavalry having formed on the most favourable ground beyond Genappe, became engaged with the Lancers and other corps of the French cavalry as they debouched from the town; and notwithstanding some loss was sustained on our side, and the enemy pressed and rather roughly handled the rear-guard, the household brigade, by their resolute and gallant conduct, soon retrieved matters, and drove back the French cavalry in such style, as made them keep at a much more respectable distance during the remainder of the day. The march from Genappe to Waterloo was little better than a mud-bath, owing to the deluge of rain which continued to fall.
About two of three hours before dark we reached that position which has been rendered so memorable for the sanguinary contest which took place on it the following day. The French occupied a ridge of heights opposite to us, and kept up an occasional cannonade until dark.
The two preceding days and nights having been spent in marching, fighting, and without sleep, the floods of rain that descended the whole night of the 17th, which we passed on the position lying down by our arms, did not disturb our repose. For myself, at least, I can answer, that I never in my whole life slept more soundly, although thoroughly drenched to the skin before I lay down on the ground, which was like a snipe-marsh.
Our men lost no time after daylight appeared, on the morning of the 18th, in drying and cleaning their arms, and preparing for the battle which it was clear must inevitably take place.
So many detailed accounts of the battle of Waterloo have been already written by all sorts and descriptions of persons, civil and military, that it would be presumptuous in a regimental officer, who was necessarily tied to one spot with his regiment during the whole of the action, to endeavour to throw a light on a subject already so frequently discussed. I would fain, however, touch on some of the different occurrences which took place during the momentous struggle on the 18th of June, and more particularly such as happened between our division and that portion of the French army which was repeatedly sent to dislodge us from the ground on which we were posted.
Sir T. Picton’s division was formed in two lines, with its right resting on the road leading from Brussels to Genappe, and extending its left along a ridge where there was a thorn hedge, which afforded little or no protection against musketry. The troops of the first line were stationed there.
Immediately in front of the extreme right of the position of our division was a hillock, and in its front and at its base was an excavation close by the road, from which sand had been taken; and this was occupied by two companies of our battalion, of which I had the command, supported by the remainder of it on the ridge above.
The farm-house of La Haye Sainte, about a quarter of a musket-shot distant, in front of the hillock, and on the other side of the road, was occupied by one of the light battalions of the German Legion belonging to Baron Alten’s division. Several pieces of artillery were planted on the right near the road, and others further to the left. The only troops on the left of our division were some foreign battalions, which formed the extreme left of the Duke of Wellington’s position, and they were supported, I believe, by some regiments of British cavalry. With the exception of Sir C. Colville’s division, which was detached at a distance of some miles from the right of the position, to watch the enemy in another quarter, the remainder of the infantry, British, Hanoverian, Brunswickers, &c. &c, were formed on the right of the Genappe road, having the chateau of Hugomont in front of the right, which was defended by the British Guards. The mass of our cavalry were, I believe, in rear of the centre, and in reserve. There may undoubtedly be some inaccuracies in the rough sketch which I have attempted to draw; but I believe the general outline is not very incorrect.
On a ridge of hills higher than those on which our army stood, and immediately opposite to it, was the French position. The ground rose gradually towards each of the positions of the hostile armies from a broad and open valley, which might be termed neutral ground. Being entirely free from wood, with the exception of some trees near Hugomont, and having neither ditches, rocks, walls, nor enclosures, the field was particularly adapted for the operations of cavalry; and, moreover, the approach to each position being exposed, the effects of artillery could not fail to be severely felt by both parties.
BATTLE OF WATERLOO.
As I did not happen to consult my watch, I shall not be positive as to the exact moment at which the battle commenced; but I should say, that between ten and eleven o’clock our attention was first attracted by a heavy cannonade on the right of the army, followed by an exceedingly sharp fire of light troops, which proved to be the commencement of a desperate attack, made by a large force under Jerome Bonaparte, on the chateau of Hugomont. As it was impossible for us to see what was going on at that point, there being some higher ground between us and Hugomont, I shall not attempt to describe the many desperate and impetuous attacks made by the enemy, hour after hour, on this chateau, in each of which they perished in heaps by the fire of its undaunted defenders; whom neither the unremitting fire of shot and shells, from the numerous French batteries, nor the swarms of infantry which assailed it again and again, could dislodge from this important post.
As yet all was quiet in the immediate front of our division. But after a calm comes a storm. We perceived our adversaries bringing into position, on the heights opposite, gun after gun; and ere much time had elapsed, there were, at a moderate computation, fifty pieces of artillery in battery, staring us in the face, and intended particularly to salute our division, the farm of La Haye Sainte, and the left of Baron Aiten’s division. The enemy’s columns were not as yet visible, being covered by some undulations of ground near the summit of their position. In an instant this numerous and powerful artillery opened on us, battering at the same moment the farm-house of La Haye Sainte. Under cover of this cannonade several large columns of infantry, supported by heavy bodies of cavalry, and preceded by a multitude of light infantry, descended at a trot into the plain, with shouts and cries of “Vive l’Empereur!” some of them throwing up their caps in the air, and advancing to the attack with such confidence and impetuosity, as if the bare possibility of our being able to withstand the shock was out of the question, fighting as they were under the immediate eye of their Emperor. But Napoleon was destined, in a few minutes after the commencement of this hubbub, to see his Imperial Legions recoil in the greatest confusion, with a dreadful carnage, and with a great loss in prisoners.
The fire of our two companies posted in the excavation near the road, and from the remainder of the battalion on the hillock, as also that from the windows and loop-holes, by the Germans, in La Haye Sainte, had already inflicted a severe loss on the enemy. In spite of it they pressed boldly and resolutely on, until met by our first line, which delivered such a fire, when they approached the thorn hedge, as shattered their ranks and threw them into disorder; and this was increased by the cheers, and an attempt of our line to close with them. At this instant the household brigade of cavalry coming up to our support, rushed gallantly amongst their infantry and the cavalry which were endeavouring to retrieve matters for them, and drove them back, man and horse, in terrible confusion and dismay, and with immense loss. It was, I think, about this time also that the brigade consisting of the Royals, Scotch Greys, and Enniskillen Dragoons, made so brilliant a charge, and took two eagles and seventeen hundred prisoners.
Accounts are various and contradictory as to the time and place of Sir T. Picton’s death. I believe there are many living witnesses who will agree with me in the declaration, that immediately after we had repulsed the French in their first attack, and, as Sir T. Picton rode forward to the crest of the position, amongst some of our skirmishers, to look at the retreating enemy, an unlucky straggling musket-shot put a period to his existence, and thereby deprived the army of one of its most gallant, experienced, and talented generals. His loss has been universally admitted and sincerely regretted. The command of the division now devolved on Sir James Kempt; an officer in whose brigade our battalion had served the last two campaigns in the Peninsular war, and whose zeal, gallantry, and abilities are so well known and acknowledged, that any panegyric of mine might appear fulsome and superfluous.
The roar of cannon and musketry continued without intermission on the right; and although the lesson which the enemy had lately been taught by our division and the heavy cavalry, made them delay a considerable time before they renewed their attack on us in regular form, they kept up a constant and well-directed cannonade from which we sustained a heavy loss, without the power of immediately retaliating, except from some pieces of artillery which the French batteries vastly outnumbered. After having endured for a length of time, and with a tolerable degree of patience, this eternal pounding of shot and shells, strong symptoms appeared of a second and equally formidable attack being about to commence on our division and on the farm-house of La Haye Sainte. The second edition of “Vive l’Empereur!” “En avant, mes enfants!” and other stimulating cries, burst forth as their masses of infantry and of cavalry again advanced in the most imposing and intrepid style, under cover of a terrible cannonade and of their light troops. The 4th, 40th, and 27th regiments, which had arrived on the field from Brussels, under Sir John Lambert’s command, (I believe after the battle had commenced,) were sent to support us.
Nothing could exceed the determined bravery with which the Germans defended the farmhouse of La Haye Sainte; but in the desperate attack which was now made on it, having expended the whole of their ammunition, and there being no means of supplying them with more, they were driven out, and the house was instantly filled with the enemy’s infantry. For several hours afterwards they kept up a dreadful fire from loop-holes and windows in the upper part of it, whereby they raked the hillock so as to render it untenable by our battalion. They were also enabled to establish on the knoll, and along the crest of the hill, a strong line of infantry, which knelt down, exposing only their heads and shoulders to our fire.
Thus the closest and most protracted contest with musketry perhaps on record, was continued for several hours; during which we were several times supplied with fresh ammunition. The artillerymen were swept from the guns which were within reach of the house and the hillock. The possession of La Haye Sainte by the French occasioned a vast loss to our division, which was so diminished in numbers, that all our reserves of infantry were brought up into our first, and now only line, as were also the 4th and 40th regiments.
Sir Andrew Barnard received a wound early in the action, and the command of our battalion then devolved on Lieutenant-Colonel Cameron. That officer was likewise severely wounded some time afterwards, and the command of the battalion fell to my lot during the remainder of the day.
The 27th regiment had its good qualities of steadiness, patience under fire, and valour, put more severely to the test than, perhaps, any corps in the field. It was formed in a hollow square, a short distance in rear of the right of our division, with one of its faces looking into the road, as a protection to it against any attempt which the enemy’s cavalry might make by charging up that road. This brave old regiment was almost annihilated in square, by the terrible fire of musketry kept up on it from the knoll, whilst it was impossible for them to pull a trigger during the whole time, as they would thereby have been as likely to kill friends as foes. Those who may chance to visit the field of Waterloo, cannot fail to find on the spot which I have mentioned, near the road, and at a short distance from the thorn hedge, a small square of a darker colour than the ground immediately about it, marking the grave of this gallant Irish regiment.
Every kind of exertion was made by the French officers, during this blaze of musketry, to induce their men to advance from the crest of the ridge and from the hillock, to charge us; and although, by the daring and animating example shewn by many of them, they at times prevailed on a certain portion of their men to advance a few yards; the fire which we sent amongst them was such, that they were glad to get back under cover of the knoll; such of them, at least, as were not disabled. In this manner continued the contest on our part of the line hour after hour, without any appearance of its being decided as long as any one remained alive on either side.
The arrival of the Prussians had been long expected; but the only intimation we had of their approach was the smoke of a distant cannon occasionally seen far on the left. About seven o’clock in the evening a party of their Lancers arrived on the field to announce the approach of their army. It was about this time that the last and desperate attack was made by Napoleon with his guard, to annihilate us before the Prussians should arrive to our assistance. That this grand effort entirely failed, and that his Imperial Guard was driven back in irretrievable confusion and with immense slaughter, carrying with it over the field, like the receding waves of the sea, every thing on its surface, is universally known.
The Prussians were now commencing an attack on the extreme right of the French, which the Duke of Wellington being aware of, and witnessing the immense loss which they had suffered in their last attack, as also their indescribable confusion, ordered a general advance of his whole army, to put the finishing stroke to the work of this bloody day. The lines moved forward rapidly and in fine order, loudly cheering; and the time only which was required for us to reach the enemy’s position, sufficed to complete this most hardly contested, sanguinary, and important of battles.
Having principally touched on what took place on the left of the army under my own eye, it remains only to add, that the right and centre were exposed throughout the day to a constant and tremendous fire of artillery, to a murderous discharge of musketry, and desperate charges of cavalry; all of which combined proved insufficient to drive them from their position, or to break a single square, although the brave cuirassiers of the French fell in heaps in their strenuous and repeated attempts to do so.
Those amongst us who had witnessed in the Peninsula many well-contested actions, were agreed on one point, that we had never before seen such determination displayed by the French as on this day. Fighting under the eye of Napoleon, and feeling what a great and important stake they contested for, will account for their extraordinary perseverance and valour, and for the vast efforts which they made for victory.
The loss sustained by the army was such as might have been expected in so long and closely contested a battle. There was a sorry reckoning amongst the officers and soldiers of our battalion, as well as of our 2d and 3d battalions, which were in Sir H. Clinton’s division.
Marshal Blucher having put his army on the enemy’s track, with strict orders that not a moment’s respite should be allowed them on their retreat, the Duke of Wellington’s army bivouacked for the night on the ground which had been the French position during the battle. Here, amidst heaps of dead and dying, men and horses, captured artillery, ammunition waggons, &c. &c. &c. huddled together in one confused mass, we spent the night.
Soon after daybreak, the following morning, I mounted my horse for the purpose of glancing my eye over the field of battle. It was not the first of the kind on which I had looked; but the frightful carnage of men and horses lying in so comparatively small a compass, the thousands of the wounded of the two armies which had not yet been removed, together with their groans and lamentations, produced such an impression on the mind, as every writer who has attempted to bring it home to the conception of those who were not eye-witnesses of the bloody scene which this huge charnel-house presented, has failed to effect. I relinquish it, therefore, as a hopeless undertaking; and turn willingly from this scene (which in cold blood will not bear inspection) towards the French metropolis, on the road to which our army was put in motion about nine or ten o’clock on the morning of the 19th.
There you have it: an account of what may be the greatest battle in European history, by a participant who started the fight in command of two companies, and ended it in command of his entire battalion. There were plus-or-minus 70,000 casualties, killed, wounded, taken prisoner or missing, of whom more than half were French. I don't know whether another battle in history could claim a casualty total like that: some do, but they were fought at times when a precise casualty count was either difficult (due to conditions) or speculative (because no accurate records were kept; we're limited to unreliable, unverifiable accounts).
Speaking as a combat veteran, I'm glad I wasn't there. My odds of surviving the Battle of Waterloo would have been rather too low for my liking.