The Battle of Waterloo and Napoleon's Immortals - The Old Guard

By John Dudek 18 Jun 2015 0

In the early evening of 18 June 1815, across the smoke filled, battle ravaged fields of Waterloo Belgium, some 2,000 scarlet clad veteran British troops of the 1st Foot Guards lay in concealment on the ground along a threatened ridge line in the center of the British line of battle.  They were lying down to protect themselves from the French artillery fire that had been so damaging and prevalent throughout the entire day.  In the late spring heat, the men's red wool tunics were still moist and steamy from the hard rain that fallen throughout the night and into the early morning. The day's bloody battle had raged inconclusively since noon with the initiative swinging back and forth several times between the two embattled armies over which side should ultimately preside over Continental Europe, the Grand Coalition of Allied nations or the French Empire under Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. The British troops laying along the ridge line now heard the ominous sound of approaching drums growing ever louder and for those who got up onto their elbows to see what was approaching them from below, they beheld the grand, sublime spectacle of eight battalions of the elite French Middle Guard and Old Imperial Guard infantry troops deploying and advancing steadily upon their position. It was rumored that the "Old Guard" were invincible and had never before been beaten in battle.  Riding back and forth along the edge of the British held ridgeline, behind his prone troops and astride his big war horse Copenhagen was Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington along with his retinue of staff officers and messenger riders.  As the French Guard Regiments approached to near point blank range, Wellesley shouted to the Foot Guard commander Major General Peregrine Maitland.  "Now Maitland!  Now's your time!"

Maitland in turn shouted to his troops “Up Guards! Up!!"  The two thousand British troops arose with their bayonet fixed Brown Bess 75 caliber muskets resting upon their shoulders.  "MAKE READY!"  Maitland shouted and his NCO's echoed his order to the men up and down the line.  The British brought their muskets up to the vertical while bringing them to full cock.  "PRESENT!" and their muskets were levelled horizontally, pointing at the oncoming French infantry now 40 yards away.  "FIRE!" and two thousand British muskets roared as one, dropping over 300 French infantry in a single volley while nearly concealing the British position atop the ridge in a thick cloud of white gunpowder smoke smelling of rotten eggs.  The French Guard troops were momentarily staggered by the shocking intensity of the British musket volley and the ones that followed, but they professionally closed ranks and continued marching inexorably towards the British ridge line positions.  Maitland now shouted. "CHARGE YOUR BAYONETS!" and the Foot Guards loudly shouted a fearsome "HUZZAH!!" while levelling their bayonet fixed muskets at the Frenchmen.  "At A QUICK MARCH!!” Maitland shouted and his two thousand troops stepped out briskly, marching shoulder to shoulder towards the French Guards whose eyes now for the first time reflected fear as their line began to waver.

In 1814, twenty five years of war on the European continent finally came to an end with the surrender of the Emperor Napoleon and his banishment to the Mediterranean island of Elba. The European powers began the task of restoring their continent to normality and peace. On 1st March 1815 Napoleon escaped from Elba and landed in France.  Thus began the "100 Days" leading up to the Battle of Waterloo.  Within three weeks Napoleon had returned to Paris and he again took up the mantle of Emperor of the French Empire.  However, he desperately needed time to rebuild his once formidable Grande Armee both to legitimize his title to the throne in Paris, and to do battle against the Seventh Coalition who were even then re-assembling their own armies to again bring him down. Meanwhile in France, the old and retired veteran soldiers eagerly flocked once more to Napoleon's standards and his army began to take shape and grow into an impressive size. Knowing full well he would be greatly outnumbered once the Allied armies had fully reformed and marched against him, Napoleon decided to attack them before substantial reinforcements could arrive from all around Europe to tip the balance of power even further against him.  As his army crossed the Belgian border, Napoleon's cavalry fanned out in search of the Allied troop formations.  Learning of the substantial distance separating Marshall Blucher's Prussian Army and the Duke of Wellington's British and Allied Army, Napoleon resolved to attack each in turn at his leisure. Two days before the Battle of Waterloo, the French defeated the Prussians at Ligny and drove them from the field.  However, the Prussians withdrew and retired in good order.  More importantly, Blucher sent word to the Duke of Wellington that he would soon be on the march and available to support him within two days.  Napoleon now turned his attentions toward the Duke of Wellington's Anglo-Allied army and forced them to withdraw towards Brussels, Belgium.  Learning that Blucher and his Prussians were on their way to support him, Wellington decided to do battle nearby and emplaced his men along a ridge across the road to Brussels two miles south of the village of Waterloo. What happened next, to quote Wellington "...was the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life."




The rains of 16-17 June 1815 added to the discomfort of the troops of both sides encamped nearby.  It also turned the fields around Waterloo into an impassable quagmire of mud and postponed the start of the battle until just before noon.  This was done to allow the ground surface to dry, in order for the two armies’ artillery to be able to maneuver freely along with their horses, caissons and limbers.  Wellington chose good ground to do battle against the French while awaiting the arrival of Blucher's Prussians. The road his army encamped along crossed a low ridge and descended into a valley before rising on the other side to a further ridge. In the valley, below the first crest, lay La Haye Sainte Farm and on the road at the southern side of the valley, below the second crest, stood La Belle Alliance Farm. During most of the battle the Germans occupied La Haye Sainte located at the center of Wellington's position, and the French made its capture a crucial goal in its battle plans. To the north of the first crest the Namur road crossed the Brussels road. The main British, German, Belgian and Dutch positions lay along the Namur road, behind the first crest. The French approach to the battle was up from the country to the South of La Belle Alliance. In the valley to the front of the right wing of the British line stood Hougoumont Farm, the key to Wellington’s right flank. Held by the light companies of the Coldstream and Third Guards, there would be fighting around Hougoumont all day.

Just to the east of Wellington's army was yet another farm called Papelotte.  In the series of many micro-battles that took place throughout the long, bloody day yet another hard fought action occurred here.  Wellington had ordered all these thickly walled chateaus and farms to be occupied and held at all cost throughout the coming battle.  This was done in the knowledge that their continued presence would constitute a major thorn in Napoleon's side while causing heavy casualties to any French infantry or cavalry who came with musket range; or worse, tried to assault and take them by storming their walls.

In terms of numbers of troops, Napoleon's army was at a rough parity with the Anglo-Allies in manpower numbers and would remain so until Blucher's 50,000 Prussians arrived to tip the scales decidedly against him.  However in terms of artillery the French held a decided advantage with nearly 2 cannon for every 1 the Allies had on the battlefield. In Napoleon's mind artillery was the true god of war that had never before let him down on the battle-field. While both commanding generals were 43 years of age, Wellington was at the peak of his physical and mental abilities whereas Napoleon was a medical mess, suffering from a number of physical and mental maladies ranging from depression to haemorrhoids, a condition that made it difficult for him to even mount a horse.  He also suffered from cystitis and being susceptible to unexplained fevers.  Lastly he was also suffering the beginnings of a cancerous gastric ulcer that would one day take his life.  Yet through it all he remained devoted to his troops and they to him. Of all the veteran soldiers serving in Napoleon's legions, none were more beloved nor dearer to him than his "Les Grognards" (Old Moaners) the Imperial Guard of long service veteran troops.  Dating back to the Consular Garde during Revolutionary times, Napoleon had set them apart.

Each member of the Old Guard was a highly trained and experienced soldier, a formidable sight on any battlefield. Almost always above average height (1.85 metres (6 ft 1 in)) and being imposingly well-built, a member of the Old Guard was taught to fight unlike any other soldier in the French Army. Any cowardly tendencies or otherwise cautious habits would be thoroughly purged through the help of longer and more intense training, often including advanced bayonet and hand-to-hand combat techniques. The Old Guard earned its fearsome reputation through the many military engagements of the Napoleonic Wars, from the Battle of Ligny, to the Battle of Dresden to the famous, and final, Battle of Waterloo.



Napoleon foresaw special, significant roles for the men of this elite unit.  First it would serve as the model for the entire army, and secondly, on the battlefield it would fight as the ultimate reserve being committed to retrieve a desperate situation or to deliver the final, decisive attack.  In short, they were Napoleon's "beau-ideal" and his best shock troops.  To be posted to such an elite unit was the final, glowing reward for a long military career of exemplary service on the battlefield. As a result, the Guards received higher pay, better rations; they lived in better quarters and were issued flashier uniforms than the average ground pounding infantryman.  Relishing in the limelight of the Emperor's praise and enjoying the better treatment they received engendered a fierce feeling of loyalty unto death towards the "Little Corporal."  A whole mythical ethos began to emerge regarding the Old Guard. Some of the myths were that they were immortal and unbeatable in battle. Of course the Guard did nothing to discourage this as their reputation and stature within the army grew and spread over the years.  Within the Imperial Guard, there were three subdivisions of Guard units: Young, Middle and Old. Upward mobility was eagerly encouraged and strived for by all its members. Of this the 1st Grenadiers and 3rd Chasseurs were regarded as being the most prestigious of all.  During the 1815 campaign Napoleon fielded some 12 Imperial Guard infantry and cavalry regiments at Waterloo and they would be in the thick of the fighting throughout much of the battle.

The Battle of Waterloo began sometime after 11am with the French artillery bombardment of Hougoumont then being held by British troops.  British artillery located on the high ground behind the farm responded, pounding the French infantry who were preparing for an attack.  The day long battle for the possession of Hougoumont began around noon with an unsuccessful French infantry assault on the farm.  Nearly two hours later, French Field Marshal Ney emplaced 74 of his big guns on the ridge above another British held fortified farm La Haye Sainte.  This was done to support the attack on Wellington's center and right flank by D'Erlon's corps of 17,000 infantrymen.  The French opened an intensely heavy and punishing artillery barrage of the British positions that shocked even the most veteran of troops.  Wellington, seeing the severe punishment his men at the center of his line were taking from the shelling, ordered them to lie down behind the ridge line, so as to make a poorer target for the French cannon.  Immediately following the half hour French artillery barrage, their infantry assault went in against Sir Thomas Picton's British 5th division located along the crest of the ridge.  The British troops arose and fired a volley into them. The French line faltered but did not stop pressing home their attack.  Picton was soon killed in the close combat fighting as the French continued their assault upon the Allied position.  The British slowly began withdrawing to the rear and by 2 o’clock Napoleon seemed to be winning the Battle of Waterloo.  At the same time, adjoining French troops began a major assault upon the nearby farm of La Haye Sainte, held by the King's German Legion.  The attacks would continue until the Germans ran out of ammunition and surrendered.  At this critical moment, Wellington’s cavalry commander General Henry Paget, 2nd Earl of Uxbridge, ordered the commitment of two full brigades of cavalry into the fighting to charge the attacking French infantry and take the pressure off the faltering British and Allied infantry.  The massed charge ultimately proved ineffectual.  While they managed to momentarily drive off the French infantry they also ran afoul of massed French artillery fire as well as counterattacking French cavalry who eventually drove the British horsemen off with extremely heavy casualties. Waterloo was unbelievably costly and a veritable slaughter pen for the British cavalry.  By battle's end, the two British cavalry brigades could muster but one combat effective squadron of between 112 and 180 men and horses out of the 13,000 who'd answered the roll early that morning. The remainder were either dead, wounded, taken prisoner, dispersed or left without horses.



By 3pm an odd lull descended upon the battlefield with the exception of the fighting still taking place around the farm of Hougoumont.  At the same time, Blucher's Prussian Army began arriving on the battlefield to reinforce the badly battered British-Allied Army. As the tide of battle slowly began changing in the Allies favour, Napoleon now ordered Field Marshal Ney to take the fortified La Haye Sainte farm, so critical to the Allied defense line.  During the attack, Ney was of the opinion that the Allies were beaten and withdrawing from the battle.  Seeing victory in his grasp, he launched a massive corps sized French cavalry attack upon what he thought were the retreating Allies.  The Allied troops immediately formed defensive squares with their men arrayed in a box formation protected from cavalry attack by their bayonet fixed muskets pointed outwards on all four sides.  These squares proved to be an insurmountable hedgehog of cold steel the cavalrymen could not penetrate even after 12 savage cavalry assaults over the next three hours.




Late in the day, Ney launched a serious infantry attack on the fortified farm of La Haye Sainte which finally surrendered, opening a hole in the center of the British line.  Wellington saw the danger this loss portended and began sending troops to reinforce this threatened sector even as Ney was massing troops for a further attack there.  By the time Ney led the five battalions of largely Imperial Guard troops to assault the British Foot Guard positions in the early evening, the earlier danger had largely passed. Even so the French Middle Guard troops threw back the British battalions of Halkett’s Brigade, but were then assaulted by the Belgian and Dutch troops of General Chassé and Colonel Detmers who drove them back down the hill.  The French 3rd Regiment of Imperial Guard Chasseurs now approached the ridge opposite Maitland’s Brigade of Foot Guards (2nd and 3rd Battalions of the 1st Foot Guards).



With the firing of several volleys of musket fire into the French guardsmen's ranks the two battalions of British Foot Guards ran screaming into their midst with levelled bayonets.  The French reeled from the attack and fell back to the bottom of the hill but reformed there as the last of the French Guard regiments came up to support them.  Together, they prepared to storm and take the top of the hill.  The British Foot Guards seeing another regiment coming into the battle fell back to their former ridgeline positions and prepared to receive the next French attack.  The key, deciding moment in the battle had finally arrived.  The proud and unafraid French Imperial Guard regiments, marching in impeccably perfect lines with their drums playing a stern marching beat again began their assault up the long hill.  Sir John Colborne of the nearby British 52nd Regiment of Foot brought his regiment down so as to outflank the attacking French as they marched by up the hill.  The 52nd fired a massive and crippling volley of musket fire into the left flank of the passing French column before going in against them with the bayonet.  At the same time, the British Foot Guards renewed their bayonet attack, running downhill to again engage the Imperial Guards with cold steel halting the French advance.  Assailed from two directions simultaneously, the French line held momentarily before they broke as a body and fled down the hill in complete disarray.  The shocked French soldiers watching the attack from all around the battlefield agonizingly shouted the never before heard cry of "La Garde recule!" "The Guard is retreating!"  The Duke of Wellington soon appeared atop the ridge, waving his hat victoriously over his head to signal a counterattack from all the Allied forces.  British, German, Belgian and Dutch soldiers arose from their positions and attacked in an avenging body to turn the French Army retreat into a complete rout.  Only three battalions of French Imperial Old Guard maintained their famed unit cohesiveness to safely escort Napoleon from the battlefield, although they paid the ultimate price for their actions; The Prussian cavalry entered the field to slash them to pieces.  As Marshal Ney later wrote:

"There remained to us still four squares of the Old Guard to protect the retreat. These brave grenadiers, the choice of the army, forced successively to retire, yielded ground foot by foot, till, overwhelmed by numbers, they were almost entirely annihilated. From that moment, a retrograde movement was declared, and the army formed nothing but a confused mass. There was not, however, a total rout, nor the cry of sauve qui peut, as has been calumniously stated in the bulletin."



As the Prussian cavalry closed in for the kill, Old Guard General Cambronne is reputed to have answered their call to surrender with the words “The Guard dies but does not surrender”.



The Battle of Waterloo cost Wellington around 15,000 dead or wounded and Blücher lost some 7,000 men. Napoleon's lost between 24,000 to 26,000 men killed or wounded.

Waterloo forevermore crushed the Imperial aspirations of Napoleon Bonaparte while ending 26 years of fighting between the European powers and France. The Bourbon King Louis XVIII mounted the French throne and their nation's influence in Europe fell into a period of lassitude as Germany felt its first stirrings of economic ascendancy as a major power.  Napoleon was again sent into exile, this time to the island of St Helena in December 1815. He died on 5 May 1821 and his last words were, "France, l'armee, tete d'armee, Josephine."  ("France, army, head of the army, Josephine").  The Duke of Wellington went on to a long illustrious political career.  Resigning as Commander and Chief of the British Army, he became England's Prime Minister in 1828.  After a lengthy and highly successful career he retired in 1846.  He died on 14 September 1852 and remains a much revered and respected figure to this day.

For the surviving members of the immortal and redoubtable French Imperial Guard, fate was not kind.  King Louis XVIII ordered their regiments to be abolished in August 1815. By December they were nothing more than a nation's cherished memory.  When Napoleon's body was returned to France in 1840, surviving members of the Old Guard paraded through the streets of Paris in their now threadbare uniforms, providing a guard of honor to their former and much beloved fallen leader.



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