The fight for Hougoumont farm was the pivotal battle within the decisive Battle of Waterloo. Château d’Hougoumont itself is a medium-size manor complex on the extreme western flank of the battlefield and at the base of the low ridge atop which the Duke of Wellington formed his defensive line on June 18, 1815. Napoléon centered his forces on La Belle Alliance, an inn complex at the center of a parallel ridge little over a mile south of Wellington’s line.
The Order of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem (aka Knights of Malta) had acquired the 60-acre tract of land at Hougoumont in 1474, and over the succeeding decades the estate passed through many hands. By the time of the battle the complex included the château, a chapel, a large barn and other farm buildings, a formal garden and a gardener’s house, all hemmed in by stout stone walls. Though almost a half-mile forward of Wellington’s line, the complex was an ideal strongpoint on which to anchor his right flank and was the scene of some of the bitterest combat at Waterloo.
When Napoléon opened battle around midmorning on the 18th, Hougoumont was among the first points the French forces hit. The emperor’s intent was to draw Wellington’s reserves to the British right flank, and then launch the French main attack through the Allied center, just to the west of the neighboring Haye Sainte farmhouse. Initially defending Hougoumont was a mixed force of British guardsmen and their Hanoverian and Nassau allies, all light troops. Lt. Col. James Macdonnell of the Coldstream Guards was in overall command. During the first assault the British lost control of most of the surrounding woods, but with massive support from the Royal Artillery they managed to beat back the French.
A renewed French assault managed to reach the compound’s north gate, sparking one of the more famed clashes of the battle. After a stout French sous-lieutenant named Legros, who went by the moniker l’Enfonceur (“the Smasher”), softened up the barred gate with an ax, some 30 French troops bulled into the compound behind him. Led by Macdonnell, a contingent of guardsmen shoved through to close the gates by brute strength. In the ensuing melee the defenders cut down all the intruders but for a fortunate French drummer boy. As Wellington later remarked, “The success of the battle turned upon the closing of the gates at Hougoumont.”
The fight for the farmstead continued all day, each side committing ever more troops to the fray. With the British tenaciously holding the main house, Napoléon personally ordered his artillery to set it afire by shelling the manor. Observing the flames from a distance, Wellington dispatched a messenger, ordering its defenders to hold out at all costs. Despite being invested by French infantry and cavalry, Hougoumont remained in British hands. By day’s end Wellington had committed 21 battalions to defending the manor and the narrow connecting corridor to the Allied main line. The French had committed 33 battalions, and Napoléon’s intended diversion had ballooned into a protracted fight that consumed an inordinate amount of French manpower and firepower. More than 6,000 men of both armies fell at Hougoumont.
Today the Lion’s Mound, a 141-foot artificial hill raised in 1826, sits about a quarter-mile in front of the Allied main position. Visitors may climb the 226 steps to the top of the mound for excellent views of the battlefield. At its base are the new visitor center and interactive Memorial 1815 museum [waterloo1815.be], opened last year to mark the bicentennial of the battle. Unfortunately, Wellington’s line has been paved over for the most part, with gas stations and shopping centers lining either side of the road.
Hougoumont is the most significant surviving feature on the battlefield. Private property at the time of the battle, it remained a working farm until close to the end of the 20th century. In 2003 its owners sold the property to the local historical trust, and volunteers coordinated an extensive restoration effort [projecthougoumont.com], supported by the current Duke of Wellington, writer Bernard Cornwell and the late historian Richard Holmes, among others. The site is well marked with memorial plaques and interpretive signs explaining what happened during key stages of the battle. The restored Great Barn houses an impressive multimedia show about the battle within a battle. Hougoumont was to Waterloo what Little Round Top was to Gettysburg, and it remains a historical treasure.