|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.|
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 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|
|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.|
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.|
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|
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.|
|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".|
|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."