George Drummond Graeme was the last man standing at La Haye Sainte farmhouse during the epic 1815 battle.
Just off the N5 highway connecting the Belgian cities of Charleroi and Brussels stands La Haye Sainte, a privately owned farm complex whose most obvious feature is a large, sturdy building surrounded by an equally sturdy wall. Outwardly the structure is no different than many others in the rolling countryside south of the Belgian capital, yet it played a pivotal role in one of the most important battles in European history—the 1815 slugfest that ended Napoléon Bonaparte’s reign over the First French Empire.
As significant in European history as the fight at La Haye Sainte is, however, the battle for the undistinguished farmhouse proved equally important for the family fortunes of one noteworthy combatant—a swashbuckling Scotsman named George Drummond Graeme.
Born in Stirling in 1796, Drummond—as his father called him—was the presumptive 10th heir to the estate of Inchbrakie and 26th descendant in line from the first Graeme of Montrose in the Middle Ages. The family was eminent but not affluent, and his father apprenticed Drummond to an office where he might learn commerce. The boy hated it. When his father learned in 1812 that the King’s German Legion accepted young gentlemen without requiring them to pay for their commissions, Drummond embarked on his new life with delight.
The legion dated from 1803, when the French invaded and dissolved the Electorate of Hanover, seat of the reigning British king. Its officers and men promptly fled to Britain, where a riled George III ordered the raising of a corps of Hanoverian soldiers. While the original unit was a relatively small mixed force of infantry, cavalry and artillery, by the time young Graeme arrived in 1813, Germans and other northern Europeans opposed to Napoléon had swelled its ranks to eight battalions of red-coated line infantry, two light battalions of green-coated riflemen, five regiments of cavalry, six batteries of artillery and a battalion of engineers. This army within an army numbered 14,000 and had established an excellent battle record. At any given time German-speaking troops accounted for upward of 40 percent of the forces in Spain under Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington. Graeme was posted to the legion’s green-coated 2nd Light Battalion, and in February 1813 the impressionable young Scot wrote his father from Portugal that the unit’s officers were “all most cordial…and I think the finest looking fellows I ever saw in my life.”
The battalion’s soldiers were armed with the short Baker rifle, which was accurate out to 200 yards but slow to load—so much so that British riflemen and legion troops were also issued small mallets to help seat the patched ball inside the muzzle. The French were armed with muskets and had no rifles, not even for skirmishers, thus they despised and feared the Anglo-German riflemen for their accurate fire and use of open order and concealment in shooting. The French were known to summarily execute captured legionnaires rather than accept their surrender.
Graeme fought in the June 21, 1813, Battle of Vitoria—the engagement that clinched Wellington’s victory over French forces in northern Spain—and at Tolosa four days later, as an Anglo-allied column under General Thomas Graham sought to cut off the retreat of French and Italian soldiers who had missed Vitoria. After a number of other small battles and skirmishes the Scot was an accepted and experienced young lieutenant, at all of 17 years old.
On Jan. 3, 1814, Graeme wrote that he had been out on picket duty and “consequently saw the beginning of this year in all its glory, but [we] were not so jolly as the enemy, who had their bands playing from 12 till daybreak, and such singing and uproar I never heard.” Graeme added that his own men sat around the campfire reminiscing about their last New Year spent at home—a dozen years before—and wondering whether their relatives were dead or alive.
That spring Wellington drove the French from Spain back across their border, in the process encircling the city of Bayonne. On the night of April 14–15 the besieged city’s petulant commander, General Pierre Thouvenot, launched a sortie that was fundamentally pointless—Paris had already surrendered to the Russians, Prussians and Austrians, and Napoléon had abdicated the throne on April 4. Graeme participated in the resultant night action outside Bayonne, a brutal fight marked by bayonet thrusts and musket fire at such close quarters that combatants’ clothing was singed by muzzle blasts. The British eventually contained and then drove back the French, but in the course of battle Graeme was slightly wounded. With the wars against Napoléon seemingly at an end, the young Scot took an extended leave from the legion and returned home, intending—among other things—to find himself a bride.
Graeme’s Scottish sojourn didn’t last long, however, for in February 1815 the exiled Napoléon escaped from permissive British custody on the Mediterranean island of Elba and made his way back to France. The former emperor gathered an army about him as he advanced on Paris. Napoléon reached the capital on March 19 and, following the hasty departure of King Louis XVIII, once again proclaimed himself emperor. Alarmed by Bonaparte’s return to power, Britain joined its former coalition partners in launching a campaign to once and for all rid Europe of the diminutive troublemaker. Napoléon, for his part, launched a pre-emptive strike north into the United Kingdom of the Netherlands (present-day Belgium) in a bid to split his adversaries and defeat them separately.
Recalled to the King’s German Legion, Lieutenant Graeme joined his battalion on the Continent. The first action of the new campaign did not go well, however, as on June 16 French forces under Marshal Michel Ney beat Wellington’s Anglo-allied army to the key crossroads at Quatre Bras, a day’s march from the Belgian capital. The French beat back the coalition troops, and Graeme and his unit were part of the rear guard that sought to prevent pursuers from turning Wellington’s tactical withdrawal into a rout. Graeme recalled the chaotic aftermath:
[Both light battalions] formed the rear guard and had to amuse [the French] skirmishers two hours after our army had gone; it was then so dreadfully hot we could hardly draw one leg after the other.…The enemy following us close, with their artillery peppering us from every height, they then came on with their cavalry, which beat ours at first but were checked. Nothing but horror to be seen. Everyone seemed panic-struck at the idea of retreat…all running through each other, and the enemy as is usual follow up in such a manner not giving you time to breathe.
As they put some distance between themselves and their pursuers the next day, the outlook improved. “This soon changed to joy on seeing our army had taken up a position,” recalled Graeme. “About 7 in the evening, up to the knees in mud, we came on picket in a farm in front of the [Anglo-allied] position. We had neither rations nor anything, and it was very cold. At daybreak [June 18] we heard the whole army opposite crying, ‘Vive l’Empereur!’” The farm was La Haye Sainte, and Graeme and his men could do little to prepare the position for the forthcoming attack by the oncoming French.
“We had no loopholes excepting three great apertures, which we made with difficulty when we were told in the morning we that were to defend the farm,” the young Scot recalled. “Our pioneers [combat engineers] had been sent to Hougoumont the evening before. We had no scaffolding, nor means of making any, having burnt the carts, etc. Our loopholes, if they may be thus termed, were on a level with the road on the outside.”
Graeme was posted first with a section of riflemen to one side of the main gate leading into the complex, then with a dozen men “on top of the piggery.”
The French came down obliquely toward the farm in the first attack, over the fields as well as down the high road.…When close upon us, we entered the farm and closed the gates and poured a constant fire on their columns as they passed us, and even until they were up on the crest of the British position, when they were repulsed and broken by the British line, and repassed us like a flock of sheep, followed by the Life Guards [British cavalry].…A party of our men sallied out and pursued the crowd.
Emerging from their makeshift stockade, Graeme and his men noted “the ground was literally covered with French killed and wounded, even to the astonishment of my oldest soldiers, who said they had never witnessed such a sight. The French wounded were calling out, ‘Vive l’Empereur!’ and I saw a poor fellow lying with both his legs shattered, trying to destroy himself with his own sword, which I ordered my servant to take from him.”
Despite the casualties Lieutenant Graeme and his men had inflicted on the French attackers during the initial defense of La Haye Sainte, it was not a one-sided fight. French artillery had battered the complex. “Toward evening they brought a battery to bear on us,” Graeme recalled, “pierced a wall which was our principal defense and then sent down columns to which this wall served as a breastwork on our flanks, so that our unfortunate three companies were overpowered and forced to quit. Some of the enemy then got in, opened the gates, and the whole column rushed in.”
While the bayonet-wielding Hanoverians were eventually able to repel most of the French intruders, several enemy soldiers managed to clamber atop the roof of the barn and pour down close-range harassing fire on Graeme and his men. The defenders were running perilously low on ammunition, and with the sole resupply wagon bogged down miles from the battlefield, Major George Baring, the on-site commander at La Haye Sainte, ordered his men to withdraw and rejoin the main body of the British army. The 2nd Light Battalion, joined by survivors of the 1st Light Battalion and the skirmishers of the red-coated 5th Line Battalion, dutifully pulled out, but the withdrawal came with its own perils, as Graeme recalled in graphic detail:
We all had to pass through a narrow passage. We wanted to halt the men and make one more charge, but it was impossible; the [French] were firing down the passage. [Ensign George Franck] called to me, ‘Take care,’ but I was too busy stopping the men and answered, ‘Never mind, let the blackguard fire.’ [The Frenchman] was about 5 yards off and leveling his piece at me, when [Franck] stabbed him in the mouth and out through his neck. He fell immediately.
Before Graeme or Franck could react further, the French swarmed in about them.
[Franck got off] two shots and ran into a room, where he lay behind a bed all the time they had possession of the house; sometimes the room was full of them, and some wounded soldiers of ours who lay there and cried out, ‘Pardon!’ were shot, the monsters saying, ‘Take that for the fine defense you have made.’
An officer and four men came first in. The officer got me by the collar and said to his men, ‘C’est ce coquin’ [“This is the rogue”]. Immediately the fellows had their bayonets down and made a dead stick at me, which I parried off with my sword, the officer always running about and then coming to me again and shaking me by the collar. But they all looked so frightened and pale as ashes, I thought, You shan’t keep me, and I bolted through the lobby. They fired two shots after me and cried out, ‘Coquin!’ but did not follow me.
Graeme had scarcely rejoined the stragglers of his fleeing unit when the French came in force.
We were immediately charged by a regiment of cuirassiers. All the army was formed in squares. We immediately got our men in a hollow and peppered them, and I believe they found the cuirass not thick enough for our musket shot. At any rate they faced about, leaving not a few behind. We were overjoyed and leapt out and made the bugle sound forward, wanting to retake [La Haye Sainte] but having only a handful of men, half without a cartridge, and the columns of the enemy forming up behind the cavalry gave us such a galling fire.
To reach the main British line, Graeme and his men had to fight their way through an enemy formation, and a French musket ball suddenly struck the lieutenant. “This was about 7 in the evening,” he recalled, “and I was convinced that no ball could touch me. I was in such a heat that the blood gushed very much.…All the world ran round, and I began to think all was a farce, till, just as I was about to fall, a fellow of ours ran up to me and bound up my arm and brought me away. I was so thirsty, I drank a canteen of water. A stupid doctor told me I would lose my arm, but I had no idea of that.…It was a glorious day; I am glad I saw the whole of it.”
While the brash young lieutenant survived the fight at La Haye Sainte, the defense of the complex and fighting withdrawal had been costly. “When Baring collected the regiment at night,” Graeme recalled, “there were 63 men and four officers. [The major] burst into tears and wished he ‘had been killed too.’”
After-action reports recorded the 2nd Light Battalion’s losses as 11 officers and 338 enlisted men out of an initial complement of 376; those of the 1st Light Battalion, 13 officers and more than half its enlisted men. The 5th Line Battalion, whose skirmishers had fought at La Haye Sainte, had been overrun by the cavalry charge, and only six officers and 18 of its 400 enlisted men survived. The 8th Line Battalion, the least engaged at Waterloo, lost seven officers and 110 enlisted men.
Despite their losses, the troops at La Haye Sainte and at Hougoumont—which had held, thanks to constant reinforcement and ammunition supply—had delayed Napoléon long enough for the Prussians to arrive and attack the French rear. Despite the emperor’s best efforts, the coalition forces prevailed, and as darkness spread across the battlefield, the French collapsed and fled. It was the end of Napoléon as both general and emperor, for he abdicated for the second and final time on June 22. Before him lay exile and, on May 5, 1821, death on the remote South Atlantic island of Saint Helena.
Waterloo also proved George Drummond Graeme’s last battle, but his life’s denouement worked out far better than did the French emperor’s. For his actions at La Haye Sainte Graeme received commendations from Baring and Maj. Gen. Colin Halkett, and when the King’s German Legion disbanded in 1816, the Scotsman joined the Hanoverian Guard. He became something of a figure in the court of the resurgent Kingdom of Hanover, whose viceroy was none other than Prince Adolphus, Duke of Cambridge, son of George III and founding commander of the King’s German Legion. Graeme had received a double pension for the Waterloo campaign and was able to sustain himself independently in Hanover rather than overburden the financially troubled family estate in Scotland.
Circumstances changed, however, following Queen Victoria’s 1837 ascension to the British throne on the death of uncle William IV. Court officials in Hanover invoked Salic law—which prohibited royal succession to or through a woman—thereby separating Hanover (seat of the British monarchy since 1714) from Britain and handing the Hanoverian throne to Ernest Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, yet another son of George III. Prince Adolphus returned to Britain, and Graeme chose not to remain in the new monarch’s court.
Retiring after a quarter-century of service, the Scotsman returned home and in 1840, on the death of both his father and mother, became 10th laird of Inchbrakie. Two years later he married kinswoman Marianne Drummond, daughter of General James Drummond, 8th Viscount Strathallan. Their union was by all accounts a happy and productive one, blessing them with a son and two daughters. Graeme also managed to use his pension monies to forestall the sale of his estate for indebtedness. Unfortunately, he had never completely recovered from the wound he’d suffered during the withdrawal from La Haye Sainte and died in 1854 while taking a rest cure in Tours, France. Graeme’s son, Patrick, born in 1849, inherited his father’s title but also his debts and was ultimately compelled to sell Inchbrakie in 1882. MH
Frequent Military History contributor John Koster is the author of Operation Snow, Custer Survivor and the forthcoming Hitler’s Nemesis: Hermann Ehrhardt. For further reading he recommends The Hundred Days: Napoléon’s Last Campaign From Eyewitness Accounts, by Antony Brett-James, and Or and Sable: A Book of the Graemes and Grahams, by Louisa G. Graeme. Also visit the Graeme of Inchbrakie website [inchbrakie.tripod.com/inchbrakie].