Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Waterloo 200 - The Bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo,18th June 1815, "Hard pounding this, gentlemen; let's see who will pound the longest"

The charge of the Scots Greys and Gordon Highlanders at Waterloo - the picture that encouraged a little boy to get better and started a lifelong hobby.
If you are a regular follower of this blog, you will know that despite a keen interest in the career of the Duke of Wellington and the army he commanded, I have spent little time focused on perhaps his most famous, and certainly his most important battle, the Battle of Waterloo or from a French perspective the Battle of Mont St Jean.

As a keen Napoleonic wargamer, drawn into the hobby by this famous battle, I have found the Battle of Waterloo and the Hundred Days Campaign less interesting as my knowledge of the period has grown over the years, but it would be impossible to ignore the bicentenary of such a world changing event that formed the pinnacle of the career of the greatest British general since the Duke of Marlborough.

Rather than do, what practically every other Napoleonic wargamer seems to be doing this year, namely re-staging the whole campaign, the whole battle or selected parts of it, I thought I would try and do something a little different, to mark the passing of this significant anniversary.

So I thought I would begin by telling a little story which begins in early 1968 with a seven year old boy, brought home early from his village school, in tears complaining of headaches and feeling unwell. By the evening, the worried parents had had the family GP in to see the boy and under instructions from the doctor, they made the short drive to The Bristol Childrens Hospital. The little boy was rushed into theatre to have a lumber puncture performed to confirm a suspected diagnosis of meningitis, a disease that still puts fear into the minds of parents today.

The news, when it came, was a mixture of good and bad. The diagnosis confirmed meningitis, inflammation of the meninges, the tissue lining around the brain. However the infection causing the problem was viral rather than the more serious bacterial, and the little boy was taken on to the ward to begin several days of steroid injections into his thighs, morning and night, until the inflammation was brought under control. If the infection had been caught early enough then other side effects may be avoided, but the parents went home knowing that several children had died from it, in the area, in recent months.

The little boy was me, and I carry the memories of those days, and as a parent myself have come to understand the terrible worry my parents went through at that time. Over the few days I spent in hospital, my family made regular visits, to help encourage my recovery and my Dad brought me a present telling me that the bugs causing my illness were a foreign army and that I had to imagine my body with its own army destroying the invaders, to help me get well.

My father was using a simple psychology on a child, but my imagination went to work, and turning the pages of my present from him, the Ranger Book for Boys 1968 edition, I was grabbed by the picture that heads this post and that filled the centre of the book. Here was my battle, the fight that was going on inside me and I studied intently every part of the action portrayed.

The story of the Battle of Waterloo from the book my Dad gave me
I read the surrounding text with the accompanying illustrations of soldiers from the period, of the famous British regiments that had been involved in this epic battle and discovered my first encounter with this most famous of battles. Whether my Father's psychology had its effect, I will never know, but I like to think it did, and I made a full recovery with no after effects other than a decreasing phobia for injections that I carry to this day. I always look away.

I kept the book, as it has always meant something special to me, and I gave it to my boys to read when they were growing up. It is in my book collection still, if a little tatty and with the spine missing.

I never forgot the story of Waterloo and my interest in the soldiers was reignited in my teens when a school friend brought in some Airfix Waterloo Highland Infantry painted by his Dad. The kilts were exquisite and I was fascinated by the detail he had captured with his painting. Wanting to know more I searched out a book on the battle and discovered in my local book shop "The Battle of Waterloo" by B J Hurren published 1975.

The bit that caught my eye, was the bit at the bottom of the cover "Background books for Wargamers and Modellers". I wanted it right then. It is still, today, an excellent book on the battle and campaign, together with "how to wargame" ideas, probably only lacking in a detailed order of battle. Needless to say, I carried this book around for months and re-read it cover to cover several times.

When I was sixteen, I finally got to travel to Waterloo and Quatre Bras. I still have the discoloured Polaroid photos today. This holiday also included a trip to Les Invalides in Paris, and I couldn't believe the treasures held there.

The film Waterloo, takes this story on to its conclusion, and why I am not the avid Waterloo enthusiast of my youth. In the film Napoleon, played by the great Rod Steiger, (for me, this is how I imagine Napoleon to have been), turns to his Marshals complaining that because this Wellington beat them all in Spain, they are afraid and in awe of him. This exclamation immediately peaked my interest. What happened in Spain? What is this past record that came to haunt both the Emperor and his Marshals on that final day of battle?

I had to discover more. This Napoleonic thing was bigger than I had imagined. I knew about Waterloo and Borodino and Austerlitz, and I had heard about Marengo, oh and the Battle of the Pyramids, but Spain, what was that all about?

I was, by this time, seriously into wargaming, and by that I mean Napoleonics. I had joined a local club and it was through the club that I discovered Oman and his History of the Peninsular War. I was stunned by the amount of clear information contained in these books.

In the days before the internet, books were the only source of information and it was often difficult to get hold of them. Today we are spoilt with the amount of information that is freely available with little effort required to find it. Yes I am one of those people slightly aggravated by questions on forums asking for information on the facings of the 3rd Battalion Rutlandshire Light Infantry in 1812, which with a little bit of key stroking is information that will pop out on screen with practically no effort - oh dear my sons are right, I'm turning into a grumpy old man!

With the discovery of the Peninsular War and the years of conflict that presented so much more in terms of battles and campaigns, the Hundred Days campaign became much less attractive. This was the theatre that produced the man that was able to define the strategy that was to defeat Napoleon at Waterloo. It was in Spain that the army, Wellington would have preferred to have had with him and that provided his core of veterans on the 18th of June, was evolved. It was in Spain that the seeds of Napoleon's downfall were sown and Waterloo was just the final crop from that harvest of disaster; planted in the summer of 1808, when the youngest Lieutenant General to lead a British expeditionary force landed at Mondego Bay in Portugal and fought his first battle in Europe in the valley of Rolica.

The Battle of Rolica 1808
In my travels I have visited the first and last battles in Europe of Sir Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington and having been to Waterloo first, I immediately saw, on visiting Rolica, the bigger story surrounding the man and his generalship. At Rolica Wellesley was attacking and it was the French army clinging to a ridge line defensive position. At Vimeiro, just down the road, I stood on the open ridge to the east of the town and cast my memory back to standing on the undulating shallow ridge line at Waterloo. The battle lesson dished out in 1815 was practised by its designer at these two engagements in 1808, that is, how to attack a ridge line and how to defend one.

I took this picture of the gulleys leading up the ridge at Rolica in June 1994, not much changed from August 1808 give or take the odd telegraph pole.
JJ Wargames - Rolica

Though on a much smaller scale than Waterloo, the principles demonstrated by the future Duke at these first two battles would have served Napoleon well if he had chosen to study his adversary. In defence, as at Vimeiro, always guard your flanks and use your ridge line to hide your movements in defence of those flanks and your centre, making best use of any defensive terrain to your front to anchor your line. In attack, as at Rolica, do the opposite and feel out your enemy's flanks whilst trying to pin his centre and thus envelope his force or turn him out of a strong position and force his withdrawal and if he is unwise enough to manoeuvre to said flanks in full view of your position (Salamanca 1812), look to exploit any gaps in his line whilst doing so and destroy his force in situ.

Vimeiro Hill as pictured by me in 1994. The view down into the valley of the River Maciera. This was where the brigades of Fane and Anstruther perfected Wellington's ridge line defence in August 1808 that would bring down an Empire in 1815.
JJ Wargames - Vimeiro

So it is the Peninsular War that has, in my opinion, much more to offer the student of Wellington and his battles. But you can never forget your first love, and that is why Waterloo holds an important place in my passion for the period. It is why I will travel to Belgium next week with my wife and sons to tour not just Waterloo but the other three key engagements, Quatre Bras, Ligny and Warvre. It is why I signed up for my Royal Mint Waterloo commemoration  bronze medal. It is Waterloo, enough said!

However, my pilgrimage to this most famous of battle sites will be also to pay a personal homage to the men who died and suffered most terribly that June summer day in 1815 and to remember that little boy who was encouraged to get better by their example.

As a postscript to this story I have scanned my old pictures of Quatre Bras and Waterloo from 1976 and I think they will make an interesting comparison to how the battle field looks in 2015 when I post on our trip next week. So first up are some pictures I took in and around the famous crossroads. Even then I was trying to see the land from the point of view of the soldiers on the ground, so important to add to our understanding when it comes to wargaming these battles.


The points on the map illustrate where I took my pictures back in 1976 as seen below. Standing on the ground really enables the features and folds to be appreciated.
1. Looking down the road to Thyle and to Namur, where Pack and Kempt's troops would have lined the hedgerows to the right.
The road is slightly sunken providing the British infantry adequate cover lying down under fire from Ney's "grand battery"
2. Looking along the road to Nivelles, with what would have been the Bossu woods to the left, the scene of much too and fro fighting and Colonel Miller's wounding
Lieutenant Colonel William Miller was appointed commander of the 3rd battalion, 1st Foot Guards on the 3rd of March 1814 during the Peninsular War and was mortally wounded leading his battalion as the Guards plunged into Bossu Wood. I reckon he probably made a bit of a target of himself, probably mounted to control his battalion and many Guardsmen were killed and wounded when Ney turned his guns on the wood bringing them into contact with large chunks of trees as well as shrapnel .
In my professional work, I was able to meet the living relative of Lieutenant Colonel William Miller who was familiar with with his relations demise but unfamiliar with the fact that his uniform jacket, worn on the day, is in the possession of the National Army Museum in London.

3. This house is seen from the Namur - Nivelle road and is off to the left of the main Charleroi road as circled on the map, It was taken by the 92nd Highlanders in the allied counter-attack at the end of the day in a charge led by Colonel Cameron.
4. The view from the road where Pire's lancers met Picton's brigade on the rising ground in the distance, after they had shot up and repulsed the French infantry columns sent against them. Corn in the fields beyond would have restricted the sight lines even more.
I'm not sure about the sporrans, perhaps left on following the Duchess of Richmond's ball, but Wollen's picture captures well the drama of Pire's attack on Picton's men
5. Gemioncourt Farm - take away the modern trailers and it looks much as it must have done in 1815


La Caillou Farmhouse, where Napoleon established his HQ on the 17th June 1815, spending the night here on the eve of the battle and the scene of the pre battle breakfast and meeting as portrayed in the film "Waterloo". 
A group of buildings that should need no introduction to the Napoleonic buff, La Haye Sainte seen from the Lion Mound. Imagine the masses of French cavalry led by Ney sweeping past from the  right of picture towards the allied infantry in square and gunners ready to lose off the last round of cannister before running back to the infantry.
The barn wall still displayed the musketry damage in 1976
The dramatic scene above seems so unreal when compared with the tranquillity of the picture below
I managed to step through the main gate to snatch this picture of the main farm house building in La Haye Sainte
The few words on the sign don't really do justice to the bitter fighting that went on practically all day for these buildings
In the centre of the picture, the remains of the Chateau Hougomont as seen from the Lion Mound
The farm buildings were all part of a working farm in 1976 before the building fell into dis-repair

The Guards chapel on the left, now reunited with the crucifix that was stolen in the 80s. This peaceful scene would have been one of carnage with fires burning and the dead and wounded littering the courtyard

"In memory of the officers and men of the 2nd Battalion (Scots) Guards who died defending this farm - June 18th 1815"
Mark Churms picture from 1991 really captures the ferocity of the fighting at Hougomont. 
One of the mighty barns still standing in 1976 that survived the howitzer shells in 1815
The view the French troops under Reille and Foy would have been greeted with as they emerged from the wood in front of these buildings, loopholed by the Guards with fire steps built on the walls
The view out towards the French lines from Lion Mound to where Ney led the mass cavalry charge in the afternoon
On the other side is the ground over which the Imperial Guard led by Napoleon himself marched to its date with destiny and a warm welcome from Maitland's Guards and the 52nd Light Infantry.

The sign says it all really. La Belle Aliance suitably named as the spot where the Duke of Wellington met with Marshal Blucher at the end of a very long day.

My trip to Belgium in 1976 only allowed enough time to do Quatre Bras and Waterloo which does not do justice to the important contribution made by Field Marshal Blucher and his Prussian army. This series of posts, as well as acting as part of my effort to commemorate this very important campaign, has enabled me to revisit the key aspects of the campaign with a view to mapping out the sites I aim to cover in next weeks battle field visit.

To complete the story I am very keen to capture the Prussian sector and aim to post pictures and commentary on Ligny, Wavre and the approach to and battle for Plancenoit.

I will be relying principally on Dr David Chandler, Jac Weller, a sprinkling of Peter Hofschroer, Mark Adkin, Scott Bowden, Commandant Henry Lachouque, Anfrew Uffindell and Micheal Corum to provide all the background notes, together with any local snippets of history to complete the mix.

In addition I hope to post pictures of a large 28mm Ligny game planned locally this weekend that will provide a nice link going into next week.

And finally I think the Duke of Wellington should have the last word on this very special day.

"My heart is broken by the terrible loss I have sustained in my old friends and companions and my poor soldiers. Believe me, nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won."


  1. Great write-up JJ which brought back some happy memories. For me it was a Patterson Blick transfer book and a packet of Airfix Waterloo British Hussars my father bought for me when I was seven or eight on a trip to Wales. I have tried to get to Waterloo on no less than four occasions now, even having physically been in Belgium on two of them. I hope you and the family have a good trip there next week.


  2. Love the old polaroid photos, look very atmospheric , Tony

  3. Tatty and the spine missing - as all well-loved books should be!
    Thanks for this, Jonothan. I really appreciate the work you go through to pull this blog together - it's inspirational.

  4. Keep up the good work Jonathan this is a great read .
    Regards Furphy .

  5. Hi Chaps, thank you very much for taking the time to leave your comments. I'm really pleased with the response and feedback I've had to this week's little excursion away from the painting and the toys.

    As you can see my back story into the hobby is as a signed up member of the pre-Games Workshop generation who fell in love with the history as much as the hobby. When you reread the history and get out into the battlefields it just rekindles the imagination to model it on the table. I can see a few 18mm, 100 Days Campaign figures ending up in the collection at some time.

    Anyway, the 3/24th Ligne are nearing completion and once all this Waterloo stuff is done, its on to rolling out another Talavera scenario.

    Cheers all

  6. JJ
    You are fine writer sir!
    Your childhood story was especially moving!
    Please keep up the good work - personally looking forward very much to the next Talavera scenario.....

    1. Hi Nigel, thank you sir, that's very kind of you.

      The Talavera project progresses with the 24th Ligne finished and then, trips to Waterloo permitting, we are off to look at Marshall Victor's "Dawn Attack". Vive l'Empereur, en avant!

  7. This is possibly your finest and most personal post to date, very moving and possibly therapeutic I imagine. You write very differently to me so it's hard to conceive of me pulling this off quite so authentically, I admire that.
    I've come back from a long weekend in Brussels and Waterloo going over the battlefield and various WW1 sites too. My companions were not wargamers but I did learn something new from one of them, apparently Belle Alliance refers to the farmer's joy at his child's marriage to a person of a higher social status so bridging the class divide in a "beautiful alliance". This happened way before the battle, which over turned my assumptions completely! Possibly everyone else here knows except me!
    Have a great trip,

  8. Hi Jeremy, thanks mate, I really appreciate your comment.

    Well as the header at the top alludes, I have a passion for the hobby, and I guess that implies an emotion and with all the fun and great times I've had with it and because of it, I hope to pass that passion on to others. I think we are really blessed with how the hobby has developed and spoilt with the great products it can now offer. I think one of the best things to come out of playing with toy soldiers is both the boys gained an education in British history time-lined like they used to teach it, instead of the modular methods today. I am pleased to say that if stopped in the street by the BBC they could talk about Roman, Dark Age, Tudor, Restoration and Napoleonic history with a sense of when things happened.

    I hadn't heard that about Belle Alliance and what a lovely story. We have an ex pat driving us around the area next week so I will see if he has any local gems to share. More anon.


  9. Hi JJ,

    Well things you never knew. I have a similar story, except the disease was measles (a killer in its time) and the magazines and annuals were the Victor and Commando. Having read those I was there ! With titles like "Knife for a Nazi" and "The Death Dealers" what six year old wouldn't have been ?


    1. Hi Vince,
      Ha kids today hey, brought up in their spotlessly clean houses with central heating developing food allergies, they don't know they're born. I had the measles about age 5 or 6 as well. I reckon we're both lucky to be here at all.

      I think Victor and Commando have a lot to answer for when you see how many blokes of a certain age turn up at conventions.

  10. Hi JJ,

    What a great post mate. For me it was being laid up in hospital for two weeks with fluid on teh lungs and Mum and Dad buying me an Airfix Catalogue in 1976. Still have it as well. Great photographs of the battlefield from 40 years ago and realy well put together.

    1. Hi Carlo, thank you, much appreciated. I always enjoy hearing people talk about their "back story", the thing or event that caused them to get a bug for this mad but very enjoyable hobby.
      The one thing I find they all tend to have in common is, as I describe it, the passion that drives the individual to find out more, to play those certain games, to develop their painting and modelling, and something that keeps people coming back to the hobby even after years of not being involved in it.
      I guess there is a certain amount of Peter Pan in the whole thing, but I quite like getting in touch with the boy who first got enthused by some beautifully painted figures.