Napoleon addresses the Old Guard as it prepares to attack the Anglo-Allied centre at Waterloo.
“La Garde recule. Sauve qui peut!”
Napoleon did not have much time in which to unleash the Imperial Guard onto the Anglo-Allied line, as von Zieten’s column had already reached the hamlet of Smohain, thereby allowing Wellington to bring troops in from his left flank to protect his centre. Although the Prussians’ advance on Napoleon’s eastern flank might have been arrested, the same was not true of their forces debouching onto the battlefield further north, where they were connecting with their Anglo-Allied comrades-in-arms. The jaws of the Anglo-Prussian trap were springing shut with every new man of Blücher’s army who arrived on the battlefield.
Another commander than Napoleon might have kept his eleven grenadier and chasseur battalions of the Old and Middle Guard back, in order to protect what he must have realised would be a forced retreat as the Prussians emerged onto the field en masse, but not the Emperor for whom the last two decades had been a series of gambler’s lucky dice throws. The 5,000 -man-strong scale of the Imperial Guard’s attack would be enough, he hoped, to crack Wellington’s line, which he believed must be starved of reserves by then. All he needed was to be able to exploit a crack in the line anywhere along it, and the units that had provided the coup de grâce so often in the past might be able to do so once again.
In preparation for his last-ditch assault Napoleon desperately needed to put heart into his troops, so he ordered his aide de camp General de la Bédoyère and other officers of his general staff to proclaim the news that Marshal de Grouchy had suddenly appeared in force on Wellington’s left. According to Marshal Ney’s report of the battle given to the Parisian authorities on 26 June, ‘Riding along the lines, the General Officer spread this intelligence among the soldiers, whose courage and devotion remained unshaken, and they gave new proofs of them at that moment in spite of the fatigue which they experienced.’ Thus heartened (if utterly mendaciously) by Napoleon, the Imperial Guard infantry marched up the slope to the east of Hougoumont to press home what they hoped would be their decisive attack. ‘Audacity, further audacity, always audacity’ had long been Napoleon’s watchword, and it had often seen him through situations as desperate as this one.
Nor was all the news bad for the Emperor, for, as the historian Captain Becke records:
The smoke-wreaths and puffs indicated the position with sufficient clearness. On the right, Napoleon saw Durutte in possession of Papelotte, and gradually working his way up the slope; and if the division were only strong enough to press further forward, then it would outflank the Anglo-Dutch left, and be in a position to swing down the reverse slope of the Mont St Jean plateau; whilst in the centre the remainder of d’Erlon’s gallant corps crowned the ridge, beyond La Haye Sainte which was theirs at last … In his brief survey of the historic scene Napoleon must have noticed that, in the valley away to his left, the remnants of his shattered cavalry as well as a part of Reille’s Corps were rallying; and far away to the left the strife around the blazing ruins of Hougoumont still raged as furiously as ever. Wellington’s grip on his position was plainly relaxing, whereas the Emperor still held under his hand, the Guard — the Invincibles — whose steadiness, courage and devotion in the past had always proved sufficient to wrest victory from a doubtful battle.
Those historians who present the attack of the Imperial Guard as an utterly forlorn hope are therefore writing with far too much hindsight; there had been some French successes on the battlefield up to the point, at around 7 p.m., that Napoleon committed his crack units to the struggle. It is nonetheless true that if Napoleon had flung the Guard into the mêlée the moment Ney had begged for reinforcements, they would doubtless have been able to achieve much more.
To illustrate how ‘close run’ a battle Waterloo was, one only has to consider how near the Prussian 1st Corps came to doubling back just as it appeared on Wellington’s left flank. For General von Zieten’s advance guard had suddenly halted, turned around and returned, it transpired, upon the intelligence report of a young and inexperienced staff officer who had misinterpreted wounded men moving to the rear of the Anglo-Allied line as fleeing fugitives. Blücher had ordered Zieten to close up the 1st Corps with the main body of the Prussian army, and if it had not been for the prompt action of General von Müffling, who reassured Zieten that the Anglo-Allied line was holding and that von Bülow did not need help, then Müffling’s words — ‘The battle is lost if the First Corps does not go to the Duke’s rescue’— might have come hideously true. Fortunately, Zieten’s mind was not as prosaic as de Grouchy’s had been, and the 1st Corps engaged, despite the failing light.
Napoleon meanwhile gave five battalions of the Guard to Ney for the great assault, and rode to within 600 yards of Wellington’s line to salute them as they went into battle, and to acknowledge their loyal cries of ‘Vive l’Empereur!’ Another three battalions formed a second wave but did not advance beyond La Haye Sainte. Of the rest of the Guard, two battalions were installed in Plancenoit, and there were a further two at La Belle Alliance and one at Le Caillou to cover a retreat if need be. The five battalions that were about to attack — two of grenadiers and three of chasseurs — were supported by the two corps under Reille and d’Erlon, as well as cuirassiers, Guard cavalry and horse artillery.
Wellington appears to have been well apprised of the coming blow, and he certainly used the fifteen minutes before it fell in setting out his dispositions in anticipation. It seems that a deserting French cavalry officer informed the commander of the Royal Horse Artillery, Lieutenant-Colonel Augustus Frazer, where and when the attack could be expected, information that was both accurate and credible. Wellington could have expected a major attack anyhow, but the knowledge of from where it would emanate allowed him to close up his line and place the reserve cavalry brigades under Vivian and Vandeleur in the best possible positions to deal with any breakthroughs.
The Guards battalions formed three lines as they advanced up the incline. They marched with their muskets sloped upon their shoulders, almost as if they were on parade at Fontainebleau rather than taking part in the last great military manoeuvre of a hard-fought battle, indeed the last French attack of the Napoleonic Wars. The advance, with the flying flags and the sound of fife and drum, has often been described as ‘unsurpassed’ and ‘sublime’ in its initial discipline and pride. It must certainly have been an inspiring sight for a Frenchman, and a daunting one for those who stood waiting to receive its full force and fury. ‘black mass of the grenadiers of the Imperial Guard,’ wrote one British observer, ‘with music playing and the great Napoleon at their head, came rolling onward from the farm of la Belle Alliance.’
It is worth speculating here upon the exact nature of the slope up which the Imperial Guard had to attack, for we can be nearly certain that it was not the gentle gradient that may be walked on the site of the battlefield today. After the battle a 130-foot-high mound of earth was constructed by the Dutch to commemorate the wounding of the Prince of Orange, much to the disapproval of Wellington, who when he saw it complained, ‘They have ruined my battlefield.’ The earth for what is called the Lion Mound (after the vast stone lion atop it) was taken, it is believed, largely from the area to the north-west of it, thereby indeed wrecking the topography. Using geometric GPS satellite technology, topsoil analysis and a three-dimensional computer model, the landscape archaeologist Paul Hill has shown how there was almost certainly a relatively high ridge in 1815 that is not there today. Furthermore, there was a crop of high-standing corn that both slowed the Guard’s advance and gave the Anglo-Allied forces opportunities for concealment.
It was up to this ridge that the Guard advanced in columns at about 7.30 p.m., close to one another but with enough space apart for two cannon loaded with grapeshot to be drawn up too. The first column attacked at a point roughly midway between Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte. Ney led from the van, along with Generals Friant, Roguet and Michel, and had his fifth horse of the day shot from under him. Undeterred, ‘the bravest of the brave’ proceeded to advance on foot. As one historian has reconstructed the scene:
The sun was sinking, the darkened smoke-laden air made it very difficult to distinguish what was going on … Passing their emperor with their usual tremendous salute, the veterans hurried on, and threw themselves at Wellington’s line.
Waiting to receive them were more than thirty of Wellington’s cannon, primed with double grapeshot. At such close range it was hard to miss ranks of men so densely packed, and the Anglo-Allied artillery on the crest of the (largely now-missing) La Haye Sainte-Hougoumont ridge ripped huge holes in the French columns. Yet still the Guard came on. The 1st battalion of the 3rd Grenadiers soon overcame a Brunswick unit and captured the guns of Major William Lloyd’s Royal Artillery field brigade and Captain Cleeves’ King’s German Legion field brigade. They then began to engage Sir Colin Halkett’s brigade, pressing back the already badly-mauled 30th and 73rd Regiments.
The advance of the 3rd Grenadiers was halted, and eventually reversed, partly by the speed and courage of a Dutch brigade under General Baron David de Chassé, which Wellington had recalled from Braine l’Alleud as soon as he had recognised that Napoleon did not intend to mount any attacks beyond the Nivelles road on his right flank. Chassé deployed a Dutch-Belgian horse battery that volleyed grapeshot into the Guard, and then sent in 3,000 Dutch-Belgian infantry whose bayonets turned the grenadiers back down the slope. Never should the non-British and non-Prussian contribution to the victory be underestimated, since the repulse of the elite 1st/3rd Grenadiers of the Guard — a moment as important psychologically as it was tactically — was largely accomplished by these Dutch-Belgian troops. Just as it is an absurd question to ask whether Wellington could have won Waterloo without Blücher — because he would have never fought the battle — so it is equally pointless to consider a battle fought without the Dutch and Belgian contingents.
While Chassé was engaging the 3rd Grenadiers, the 4th Grenadiers of the Guard, reduced to a single battalion by its losses at Ligny two days earlier, attacked the right flank of Sir Colin Halkett’s brigade, supported by two guns of the Guard horse artillery reserve. The combined musket and grapeshot fire caused the British 33rd and 69th Regiments to waver, but any thought of retreat was banished by Halkett himself waving the flag of the 33rd above his head. Both regiments stood firm and the 4th Grenadiers were eventually also repulsed. Wellington’s centre had withstood the attack of the first Guard echelon, the grenadiers. Now was the time for the second and third echelons, made up of chasseurs.
Marching in two columns through and over the human and horseflesh debris of Ney’s futile cavalry attacks earlier in the day — ‘The ground was completely covered with those brave men, who lay in various positions, mutilated in every conceivable way’— the three battalions of chasseurs also almost reached the crest of Wellington’s (today non-existent) ridge. They had been subjected to roundshot fire from the horse artillery troop formerly commanded by Major Norman Ramsay (who had been killed earlier in the day) from the moment they had formed up thousands of yards back near La Belle Alliance, but by the time they reached their destination their ammunition was getting scarce. Certainly the roared war-cries of the chasseurs could be easily heard over the boom of the cannon. Yet their formation was effectively split by the nature of the ridge, which is very apparent if one stands to the south of La Haye Sainte and advances north-north-west; visitors to the battlefield are encouraged to do this in order to appreciate the difficulties the Guard had in trying to stay together in this great assault.
As the 1st and 3rd Chasseurs à Pied of the Middle Guard mounted the crest in their attempt to reach the Ohain road — in some places they were only about twenty yards off — they were suddenly faced by the apparition of the British 1st Foot Guards rising up from out of the corn where Wellington had hidden them. ‘Up Guards, ready!’ is one of the many versions of the command that the Duke gave them as they presented their muskets and volleyed at almost point-blank range. Lieutenant Captain Harry Weyland Powell of the 1st Regiment of Foot Guards described the scene:
Whether it was from the sudden and unexpected appearance of a Corps so near them, which must have seemed as starting out of the ground, or the tremendously heavy fire we threw into them, La Garde, who had never before failed in an attack, suddenly stopped. Those from a distance and more who could see the affair, tell us that the effect of our fire seemed to force the head of the column bodily back.
Meanwhile, field brigades such as that of Captain Napier fired grapeshot at ranges of 200 yards and less, and the troops of the 3rd Chasseurs who still wanted to close with the enemy found that they had to climb over the corpses of their fallen comrades in order to do so. The assault petered out. Superb inter-service coordination between the British infantry and artillery had been the key to the repulse of the 3rd Chasseurs.
After ten minutes or so of further carnage, Wellington sensed the correct moment to order the Foot Guards to fix their bayonets and charge, whereupon the 3rd Chasseurs were chased off the slopes and back to Hougoumont and beyond. Ensign Gronow took part in this engagement, recalling how:
We rushed on with fixed bayonets and that hearty ‘hurrah’ peculiar to British soldiers. It appeared that our men, deliberately and with calculation, singled out their victims, for as they came upon the Imperial Guard our line broke, and the fighting became irregular. The impetuosity of our men seemed almost to paralyse their enemies: I witnessed several of the Imperial Guard who were run through the body apparently without any resistance on their parts. I observed a big Welshman of the name of Hughes, who was six feet seven inches in height, run through with his bayonet and knock down with the butt-end of his firelock, I should think a dozen at least of his opponents.
So many British troops followed them down that Napier’s battery was forced to stop firing altogether. Soon they had to break off their pursuit and turn back, however, because the last battalion of the Middle Guard, the 4th Chasseurs, could now be seen advancing towards the battered but still unbroken Anglo-Allied line. This truly was Napoleon’s last throw.