In what author Brendan Simms rightly calls “an epic defence,” the 400-odd Hanoverian riflemen of the 2nd Light Battalion of the veteran King’s German Legion withstood French artillery barrages, repeated mass charges, cavalry attacks, and relentless sniping to hold the fortified farm at La Haye Sainte. The farm stood at the center of the allied line, at a crucial intersection on the road to Brussels. Taking it was essential to the French effort to crack the line and drive a wedge between the enemy armies. But for the long bloody afternoon of June 18, 1815, the vastly outnumbered Germans defeated all attempts to take their position. Simms’s meticulous research enabled him to deliver an hour-by-hour, yard-by-yard story of the officers and soldiers whose names and backgrounds personalize his account of a do-or-die stand that gives vivid meaning to the old command, “Hold this position.”
BY EARLY AFTERNOON NAPOLEON KNEW that he had a major problem on his hands. First he saw that the smoke was not moving forward around La Haye Sainte, but hung tenaciously like a cloud over the buildings. Then he observed the pell-mell flight of most of General Jean-Baptiste Drout, compte d’ Erlon’s I Corps. To make matters worse, Napoleon knew that there were Prussians approaching from the northeast. He therefore dispatched a strong cavalry screen to shield the right flank until Marshal Emmanuel de Grouchy, who was now recalled from pursuing the Prussians, arrived. The emperor sent substantial infantry forces to keep the Prussians out of the village of Plancenoit on the eastern edge of the battlefield. His main headache, however, remained the stiff resistance put up by the Germans in La Haye Sainte—Napoleon later estimated their numbers at an entire division, that is, many thousands of men. The buildings formed a breakwater which shattered the cohesion of the French advance, and a bulwark which prevented him from bringing artillery up to blast the allied line at close range. Hippolyte Mauduit, who served as a grenadier in the Old Guard at Waterloo, recalls that it constituted a “veritable outworks.” The emperor needed more information. Perhaps for this reason, a daring lone cuirassier rode up to the barricade across the road which the riflemen had reassembled and reoccupied, peered over it and galloped off before the men manning it—who had assumed they were dealing with a deserter—had time to react effectively. Dodging the bullets they sent after him, the horseman must have reported that the position was still strongly held by the enemy.
The emperor’s options were limited. Shelling the garrison into oblivion would take too long, at least with the caliber of guns—6- and 12-pounders and 5.5-inch howitzers—available to him. The sturdy masonry of the farm could withstand most of what the grand battery could throw at it, at least for quite some time. Its walls are so thick that even today a cordless landline phone cannot be used in it. His siege train of larger guns was too far away. Bringing up some light artillery pieces to break down the gate might theoretically have been possible, but would have been extremely risky in the face of unsuppressed rifle fire from the defenders; a similar deployment later in the battle led to the swift death of the gun crews at the hands of marksmen from the main allied line. There was nothing for it. The Germans would have to be dislodged by a direct infantry assault. There was a problem, however. Most of General Honoré Charles, comte Reille’s II Corps was embroiled at Hougoumont; Napoleon could not commit General Jean Mouton, comte de Lobau’s VI Corps or the guard until he was sure of the Prussians, and much of d’Erlon’s corps would remain a shambles for some time yet. Until they had been rallied, Napoleon could call only on Brigadier General Nicolas, baron Schmitz’s men around the orchard, and bring across some of Major General Pierre François Joseph Durutte’s 4th Division from the right flank. Oddly, the as yet uncommitted division of Reille’s II Corps on the left, Major General Baon Gilbert-Desiré-Joseph Bachelu’s 5th Division, remained, as its chief of staff, Colonel Trefcon, recalls, “l’arme à bras [with ordered arms] in the same position. We were given no orders.” Meanwhile, the French grand battery resumed its cannonade.
Wellington, for his part, now focused almost exclusively on his center. He did not neglect Hougoumont, which was again reinforced, but he spent the rest of the battle close to the crossroads. Major General Sir John Lambert’s brigade was now moved up to behind the farm. The Prussians, too, could see the importance of the farmhouse. Count August von Thurn und Taxis, who was serving as the Bavarian liaison officer with Prussian General Field Marshall August Leberecht von Blücher, had a good view from the Prussian advance guard at Fichermont wood. The attack, he writes, “was being made with great violence at La Haye Sainte in an attempt to force the English out by bursting through their center. This would probably make a union of communication between our two armies impossible.” For this reason, Thurn und Taxis recalls, Wellington began to send ever more urgent pleas to Blücher for help.
Some of the riflemen now took it in turns to fire from the loopholes, stepping back quickly after each round to reload and enable another marksman to take aim
THE RESPITE IN LA HAYE SAINTE did not last long. Ney ordered another attack on the farm with 3,000 men. At around 3 p.m., two French columns appeared and assaulted both sides of the farm buildings at once. As before, the attackers raised a great din, yelling “Vive l’empereur,” “Avant mes enfants,” and other familiar cries. This time, though, they advanced with some hesitation, perhaps unsurprisingly given their previous reception. Observing this, an infuriated Ney sent his aide-de-camp, Octave Levavasseur, forward with orders to tell them to get a move on. He found two companies of sappers taking cover behind a bank. Their captain—who clearly did not expect to survive the assault—handed Levavasseur his card, saying “Monsieur aide de camp, take it, here is my name.” He then ordered the drummer to beat the charge, and the engineers surged forward to shouts of “En avant,” followed by the waiting infantry.
Lieutenant Colonel Georg von Baring, commanding the 2nd Light Battalion, recalls that he had never seen such desperate courage and ferocity in the enemy. The Germans behind the barricade kept the enemy skirmishers at bay for a while, but when the French main force appeared they risked being overwhelmed. Graeme once again led his men back to the farm, telling Private Lindau to close and bar the gate. Some of the riflemen now took it in turns to fire from the loopholes, stepping back quickly after each round to reload and enable another marksman to take aim. Others lined the stand on the courtyard walls and fired on to the road below and into the orchard. Once again, the massed French suffered terribly, but some of them managed to seize hold of the protruding rifles, or to shoot through the gaps in the wall themselves. A number of defenders at the loopholes and in the courtyard were felled this way; more tumbled from the courtyard firing steps above them. At one point, the French temporarily gained control of the loopholes. Five legionnaires drove them off: Corporal Riemstedt and Riflemen Lindhorst and Lindenau were injured in the charge, for which they were later decorated. All the while, the enemy battered their axes furiously at the main gate, but they were unable to penetrate the stout oak.
Baring’s weakest point was on the other side, where the missing door left the barn wide open to the field. Here the French piled in relentlessly, and were repeatedly shot down. Rifleman Ludwig Dahrendorf was one of those defending the barn; despite considerable loss of blood from three bayonet wounds, he refused to leave his post. Riflemen Christoph Beneke, a straggler from the 1st Light Battalion, and Friedrich Hegener tried frantically to maintain the improvised barricade where the barn door had been; the latter suffered a bayonet wound to the leg in the process. He too refused his officers’ entreaties to retire from the fray in order to have his wounds seen to. Baring counted 17 dead enemy bodies, which soon provided a low wall behind which their comrades could shelter from the deadly German rifle fire. Once again, Baring directed operations from horseback, despite the fact that he presented an inviting target in the cramped courtyard. Another horse was shot beneath him, and his orderly—convinced that his master was dead—rode off with the spare horses. Baring simply grabbed one of the many riderless beasts milling around. These struggles along the perimeter lasted about an hour. The Germans held firm, for now, but as the pressure mounted it seemed only a matter of time before the French burst through the gate, or the barn, or surged over the courtyard walls.
‘The whole space between La Haye Sainte and Hougoumont appeared one moving glittering mass’
Once more, it was a cavalry attack which came to the aid of the garrison, this time a French one. At around 4 p.m. Marshal Michel Ney, mistaking the redeployment of the allied main line to escape artillery bombardment as a sign of a general retreat, ordered successive cavalry charges on the allied line between Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte to attack the squares on the reverse slopes. Observers describe a “boiling surf” of riders which swirled up the side and around the back of the farmhouse. As Captain William Siborne wrote, “the whole space between La Haye Sainte and Hougoumont appeared one moving glittering mass.” Behind La Haye Sainte, the men of the King’s German Legion line battalions were in the thick of it, forming “squares” of about 300 men each. Conditions in these formations—which could be a more or less perfect square of equal sides, or an oblong, or something altogether more ragged—were grim. The sergeants and officers shoved or cuffed the men, some of them mere frightened boys, back into formation each time musket or gunfire had opened the ranks, pausing only to check “deception” or “subterfuge” among those who had fallen to the ground. The dead were thrown out in front, the injured cowered in the center. In the middle of the square of the 5th Line Battalion, surgeon Georg Gerson patiently tended to the wounded, including those of neighboring Hanoverian formations, without regard to his own safety. His dedication and courage drew the admiration of the brigade commander, Colonel Christian Friedrich Wilhelm von Ompteda.
Ney’s thousands of cavalrymen never broke any of the allied squares, but the popular image of a futile tide of riders ineffectually lapping at the edge of a solid rock of infantry is misleading. Some of the French cavalrymen tormented the squares by firing pistols into them at close range, while skirmishers on horseback played on them with carbines, trying to tempt them into pointless volleys beyond effective range. The Germans responded by posting sharpshooters to drive them off. In between attacks, Ney’s riders took cover in the many folds in the ground, where they were often invisible from the main allied line. Meanwhile, their commanders took up positions on nearby hillocks in order to observe the enemy and to seize the moment when they could be caught on the move.
The result was a deadly game of rock, paper, and scissors played out around the farmhouse throughout the afternoon and early evening. Ompteda’s brigade had to disperse so as to escape the heavy artillery fire. “In order to destroy our squares,” Lieutenant Wheatley of the 5th Line Battalion recalled, “the enemy filled the air with shells, howitzers and bombs, so that every five or six minutes the whole battalion lay on its face, then sprang up again” when the danger had passed. In order to confront d’Erlon’s reformed infantry, however, it had to deploy in line. And in order to repel Ney’s cavalry, they had to form square, which in turn rendered them very vulnerable to shelling. Here timing and judgment meant the difference between survival and disaster. Around 3 p.m., as the second French attack began, the 5th King’s German Legion Line Battalion was once again ordered forward to assist the defenders. Once again it was menaced by French cavalry, and it was only with some help from nearby British horsemen that the Germans were able to form square and avoid the fate of the 8th Line Battalion and Lieutenant Colonel August von Klenke’s Lüneburgers. On another occasion, they were rescued by the King’s German Legion hussars. In theory, this pattern could repeat itself indefinitely, but, whereas the Germans had to be lucky all the time, the French cavalry needed to be lucky only once.
As the cavalry storm raged around them, the farmhouse and its environs briefly became a little oasis of calm. Horsemen found it difficult to operate in the quadrilateral bounded by the barricade, sandpit, sunken road and the farm itself. The infantry assaults slackened a little during the charges, as the French foot soldiers made way for the horsemen to deploy. After the first failed assault, they withdrew disheartened along with the returning cavalry, the huzzas and jeers of the Germans ringing in their ears. For some vivid moments, Baring and his men had a ringside seat during the most dramatic events of the battle. He observed four lines of cavalry forming to the right in front of the farm: cuirassiers (heavy cavalry), followed by lancers (armed with long lances, as their name implies), then dragoons (technically mounted infantry but in practice heavy cavalry) and finally hussars (light cavalry).
The defenders were not idle spectators, though. They knew that the riders were attacking their own divisional comrades on the reverse slopes, and that if they succeeded in that mission, another attack on the farm would not be long in coming. As the French cavalry passed the buildings, Baring ordered his men to concentrate all their fire on their exposed right flank. They raced out of the farm buildings to the west and poured fire into the enemy, presumably dodging back inside when any of them came too close. Numerous horses and riders were shot down, but “without paying the least heed,” the survivors pressed on towards the allied squares. Sergeant Georg Stockmann distinguished himself by not only shooting a cuirassier officer’s horse from under him, but also vaulting over the courtyard wall and taking the Frenchman prisoner under the fire and the eyes of the advancing enemy cavalry.
One eyewitness was ‘shocked at the sight of broken armour, lifeless horses, shattered wheels, caps, helmets, swords, muskets, pistols’ scattered about, ‘still and silent’
It was not long, however, before the French renewed their infantry attacks. The German marksmen on the piggery and the courtyard walls blazed at them to terrible effect, particularly against their conspicuous officers. Private Lindau waged a personal vendetta against one commander, who had been directing the advancing columns. He had the Frenchman in his sights for some time, and eventually felled his horse, burying its rider under it. Not long after, the riflemen made another sally. The enemy nearest to hand were bayoneted; the rest fled. Lindau pursued them for some distance, until he saw the French officer, still pinned beneath his dead horse. The German grabbed his gold watch chain and when the officer raised his sabre to stop him, Lindau brained him with a rifle butt to the middle of his forehead. Swiftly, he cut loose the saddlebag, but when he turned to take his victim’s gold ring events intervened. “Get a move on,” his comrades called, “the cavalry are making a fresh charge.” Lindau ran to the rest of the men, who drove off the enemy with a volley. Looking around the highway, he noticed to his satisfaction that the French dead were piled up “more than a foot high” close to the barricade. In a gesture of mercy he paused to help a wounded man lying in a pool of water, crying out in pain with a bullet in his leg. Lindau grabbed his arms, while another rifleman took his legs, and together the two Germans carried the unfortunate to the courtyard wall, resting his head on the body of a dead comrade. Lindau also managed to relieve an enemy of a purse stuffed with gold coins. When he offered his haul to Baring for safekeeping, however, his commander refused. “Who knows what lies before us today,” he replied. “You must look after the money the best way yourself.”
Shortly after, Lindau was shot in the back of the head. He refused Lieutenant Graeme’s order to go back for medical attention. “No,” he answered, “so long as I can stand I stay at my post.” The rifleman soaked his scarf with rum and asked a comrade to pour rum into the wound and tie the scarf around his head. Lindau then attached his cap to his pack, reloaded his rifle and returned to the fray. Despite his injuries, he joshed with Lieutenant Graeme on the platform above, warning him not to expose himself too much. “That doesn’t matter,” Graeme responded, “let the dogs fire.” Not long after, the lieutenant was wounded in the hand, which he bound up with a handkerchief. Lindau called out: “Now Captain [sic] you can go back.” “Nonsense,” Graeme replied, “no going back, that won’t do.” That officer was a mere 18 years of age.
In the kitchen garden, the reinforcements from the 1st Light Battalion saw off all French attacks. At the far end, Corporal Diedrich Schlemm kept up a steady fire until a bullet in the lungs forced him to quit the fight. Corporal Henry Müller, one of the best marksmen in the battalion, continued his struggle against individual French officers, with the help of the two riflemen who reloaded his weapons between shots. This time he took aim at the commander of a column who approached waving his sabre and shouting, “Avancez!” When Müller killed the officer, his men immediately retired in disorder. Yet another corporal, Friedrich Reinecke, was posted with 10 men in a gap in the hedge from which he repelled repeated enemy attacks.
Though heavily outnumbered, the riflemen had the advantage that the French line infantry found it difficult to bring their full volley fire to bear on a largely concealed and often prone enemy. They could often not even shoot unless the men in front of them stepped aside or were killed. Moreover, as light infantry, the men of Baring’s battalion were in their element at La Haye Sainte, often working in pairs as skirmishers had been trained to do. In relatively open ground, such as in the gardens, the man in front took aim and fired, while his partner reloaded, or covered him with a loaded weapon, before either moving forward, past his partner, or else waiting for his partner to fall back behind him, if the pressure up front was too great. This often created a bond between men, which became irrefragable over time, and contributed greatly to the cohesion and fighting power of light infantrymen.
Baring was deeply touched by the courage of his men. “Nothing,” he recalled, “could curb the valour of our people,” who “laughed” in the face of danger. “These are the moments,” he wrote, “where one learns to sense what one soldier means to another and what the word comrade actually entails.” When the fighting subsided a little around 5 p.m., however, it became clear that the garrison was in a parlous situation. Baring frantically set the men to work repairing the damage wrought by French artillery and infantry. More critical still was the fact that the intense fighting had consumed most of the ammunition with which the Germans had begun the struggle. Baring therefore dispatched an officer back to his brigade commander urgently requesting a fresh supply of rifle rounds. Ompteda had none to give him, however. The wagon with the battalion reserve had overturned during the retreat the day before, and the field depots had run short of rifle ammunition. Besides, it was impracticable to move large quantities of cartridges into the farm as long as the main gate was exposed to direct French fire. Access via the back entrance was also problematic. “Swarms” of enemy skirmishers, Sergeant Major Edward Cotton of the 7th Hussars recalls, had “established themselves immediately under the crest of our position,” where they “cut off the communication between the farm and our main line.” The British riflemen in the sandpit nearby had plenty of cartridges, and could literally have thrown them into the courtyard, but as they belonged to another brigade, Baring probably didn’t ask them for any, and it is most unlikely that they were even aware of the shortage of bullets in the farmhouse.
By now, in any case, Baring faced a new problem. Shortly after Graeme was wounded, Lindau heard a cry from the barn: “The enemy mean to get through here.” He took up position at the door, but Lindau had fired no more than a few shots when he suddenly noticed thick smoke under the beam. Despairing of penetrating, the attackers had set fire to the whole edifice. Luckily most of the straw had been removed for bedding the night before, but the blaze still spread rapidly. There was no shortage of water in the courtyard pond; the problem was that the Germans had nothing to carry it in. All the vessels and containers had been either burned overnight or ended up in one of the various barricades. Riflemen Wilhelm Wiese and Ludwig Dahrendorf immediately tore their caps off their heads, filled them with water and attempted to put out the fire, but to little avail. If the flames spread to the rest of the buildings, Baring would have to withdraw before his men were burned alive or asphyxiated by smoke.
BY AROUND 5 P.M., LA HAYE SAINTE was the cause of intense concern. Napoleon was determined to take the farmhouse and blast his way through the allied center before the Prussians arrived. It must have been around this time that he ordered Brigadier General Jean Pegot’s brigade across from Durutte’s division on his right flank to launch another attack on the buildings. He also sent the Young Guard to throw the Prussians out of Plancenoit. Wellington, too, must have been concerned. Instead of a cascade of Prussians coming to his aid on the allied left wing, he now risked losing the battle in the center while Blücher’s men won it to the east. Conditions within the farm were growing critical. Quite apart from the burning barn, the constant shelling grated on the nerves of the garrison. The smoke, heat, dust, and the constant biting of cartridges must also have made the men very thirsty. For the seriously wounded, the situation must have been little short of hellish, though slightly better than for the enemy casualties crawling or lying outside the farm.
Things were no better in the rest of the brigade. The 5th King’s German Legion Line were still formed in square close to the farm, beset alternately by artillery, infantry and cavalry, their situation growing ever more desperate. Ammunition carts blew up nearby, maiming men and beasts. One eyewitness was “shocked at the sight of broken armour, lifeless horses, shattered wheels, caps, helmets, swords, muskets, pistols” scattered about, “still and silent.” Here and there, frightened riderless mounts would rush back and forth, trampling on the dead and dying; some of them stood on only three legs, their shattered limb dangling uselessly. Several of these were shot to put them out of their misery, and Lieutenant Wheatley observed that “it would have been an equal charity to have performed the same operation on the wriggling, feverish, mortally lacerated soldiers as they rolled on the ground.”
“Because of the nature of the terrain,” and because it was exposed to diverse threats, the battalion journal records, the 5th Line Battalion “was forced to remain mobile, sometimes forming square and sometimes deploying [in line].” French cavalry charged no fewer than five times, on occasion retiring out of range into a fold in the ground in front of the Germans. Their commander would then take up position on a nearby elevation and order his men forward again whenever he spotted an opportunity to catch the enemy unawares. Ompteda, who had taken refuge with the 5th Line Battalion after his horse was killed, asked several of his men to shoot down the French commander, but none was able to do so. After the fifth charge, he finally turned to Rifleman Johan Milius, a straggler from the 1st Light Battalion, who lay injured in the square, having been hit in the leg by grapeshot. He volunteered to have a crack, and after being carried to a firing position by several comrades, Milius blasted the unfortunate French colonel off his horse with his second shot.
Excerpted from The Longest Afternoon: The 400 Men Who Decided the Battle of Waterloo, by Brendan Simms. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2015.