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The Battle of Waterloo: On April 27th 1815, the Life Guards again left London for the Continent, on their way to one of the most tremendous battles of modern times. On the 17th June, information reached Wellington that the Prussian Army, under Blucher, had been defeated on the previous day at Ligny. This defeat was prophesied by the Duke, who said, when he saw the disposition of his troops the Prussian General was making, "The Prussians will get most damnably licked!" Wellington therefore resolved to fall back through Quatre Bras, so as to enable him to keep u communications with Blucher. The cavalry took up a position to cover the retreat, and to check the French advance guard a Hussar regiment charged some French Lancers which were supported by a body of Cuirassiers, in the town of Genappe, but they were repulsed; they were too light for the purpose. The 1st Life's were thereupon launched at the enemy. They charged in column, the rear rank of the rear troop charging first. The big heavy stalwart troopers made very short work of the Frenchmen, and so effectually stopped their approach that the army was enabled to take up its position on the plain of Waterloo unmolested. In fact they not only held the French cavalry in check, but absolutely scattered the body in every direction; and even pursued them, and inflicted great slaughter among them all through a neighbouring village. The Life Guards then marched on and rejoined the main body of the army in front of the village of Waterloo.
The night of 17th June was full of misery. The rain poured down incessantly, drenching man and beast alike. Thunderstorms raged heavily from time to time, and the army was thoroughly well soaked to the skin. The troopers wearied with the fighting of the day, had no shelter for themselves or their horses, and rested as best they might. There was not much attempt at encampment, for it was pretty generally understood that the next day would be fraught with momentous issues. So the men grumbled the night away and took what cat naps they could, and when the reveille was sounded at the break of day there was no inducement for the sluggard to resist its summons. There was much to do ere the troops were set in battle array; swords to rub up, horses to be groomed, uniforms to be coaxed into some sort of order, and it was not until 10 minutes to 12 on that every memorable Sunday morning that the first gun was fired from the French centre.
What a striking difference there was on that summer Sunday morning in England and in Belgium! At home, the people of every town and village were in church putting up heartfelt prayers for the safety of their loved ones, fathers, sons and sweethearts, who were fighting far away in a foreign land, peace and calm pervading the warm June air, and the sun shining over all. While there on the rain-soaked plain of Waterloo, there stood two armies facing each other, with the sting and reek of gunpowder in their nostrils, and the lust of war in their hearts.
The French at once commenced the battle with a furious attack on the farmhouse of Hougomont, held by the Guards under Byng, and simultaneously Ney attacked the British centre with 20,000 men. the French pushed fiercely on. Wellington's first line was shaken, and in parts broken, while a whirl of cuirassiers charged up to the very crest of the British position. The moment was critical. The pressure on the infantry was simply tremendous, and for a moment it seemed as though disaster had befallen. Then the Scotch and Irish regiments dashed at the enemy, led by the gallant General Picton, who was shot at the head of his troops with the roar of battle resounding in his dying ears. At the same moment the Scots Greys and Inniskillings were hurled at the French by Sir William Ponsonby, and as they passed through Pictons Brigade, some of the Scotch regiments broke ranks and clinging to the stirrup leathers, charged along with them. The enemy were thrown into the utmost confusion.
Casualties - June 1815: Officers Killed - 2 - RIP, Offices Wounded - 4
Soldiers Killed - 45 - RIP, Soldiers Wounded - 50
Horses - 48 killed RIP, 21 wounded, 25 missing.
Waterloo Medal 1815 - 265
All this time the First Cavalry Brigade, consisting of the 1st and 2nd Life Guards, the Blues and the 1st Dragoon Guards, were standing still, chaffing at their inaction and longing for the time when they too, might come to close quarters with the enemy. While they were acting the part of spectators of the stirring events that were going on before them in the plain below, let us look at the Life Guards. Great big stalwart fellows they were, not a man under six feet in his boots, mounted on magnificent black horses standing sixteen hands. Their burly frames were clothed in double breasted scarlet coatees, with a scarlet and yellow sash around the waist, and trousers of a blueish mixture with a red stripe running down the outside seam; brass helmets were on their heads with a huge red and white woollen crest and tall straight scarlet and white plumes on the left side of the head-dress. The officers were dressed like the men, but with gold lace on the cuffs and collar, and with black shabraques, the men having white saddle cloths. Each man was armed with a long straight sword, carbine and pistols.
The French renewed the attack, this time supported by their cavalry. The British infantry was formed into squares, on came the French surging up the hillside, the French cavalry actually surmounting the ridge and charging nearly up to where Wellington had taken up his station. The infantry reserved their fire until the cuirassiers were almost upon them, and then each square belched forth sheets of flame. The French cavalry reeled. Wellington seized the psychological moment and ordered the First Cavalry Brigade to charge. The Heavies deployed and advanced in line, the Life Guards on either flank, the 1st Dragoon Guards in the centre, with the Blues in reserve. They halted a few minutes, about 100 yards from the enemy to "dress", the troopers settled themselves in their saddles and then, as the trumpets crashed out with brazen voice, the whole Brigade charged in line. The French cavalry, unlike our men, wore cuirasses and used a longer sword, but such was the terrific onrush of the Heavies that they could not stand the tremendous shock. Horses and men went down like poppies in a hurricane. Nothing could withstand them; the Frenchmen were fairly ridden over, and before long were going helter-skelter down the hill, utterly discomfited.
This portion of the charge was shared by the 1st Life Guards and the Dragoon Guards on the left. The 2nd Life Guards were opposed to the flower of the French cavalry, the famous Carabiniers a Cheval, every man of whom was selected from the ranks of the Army at large for individual bravery. As they charged the British they were thrown into confusion. In their path was a hollowway - the sunken road of Ohain- and before speed could be slackened the foremost ranks went crashing down on to the road 15 feet below, a writhing mutilated mass of men and horses. As soon as what was left of them had scrambled up the opposite bank and had reformed in some sort of order, the 2nd Life Guards raced down upon them. Without waiting for the impact, the French turned and fled across the Charleroi Road. But the Guards went after them and continued the pursuit so hotly and impetuously that they pretty nearly made an end of the entire cuirassier regiment, and absolutely penetrated the French first line. Captain Kenyan's troop actually captured a battery, and endeavoured to carry it off. But they had gone too far. A body of Lancers outnumbering the Life Guards three times over, attacked them and they were besides exposed to the fire of several columns of infantry. They had, therefore, to retreat hastily, after accomplishing- what had never before been attempted, much less achieved - the total defeat of the French Cuirassiers.
Among the many gallant soldiers that took part in this memorable charge of the 2nd Life Guards, one man was elevated by the people into a popular hero. Who has not heard of Shaw the Lifeguardsman? John Shaw was a corporal in the 2nd Life's, and began his career as a prize fighter. He was a Nottingham man and fought his first fight in his own village Woolaston. So pluckily did he stand up under the mauling he was getting from a much more powerful man, that he excited the admiration of Jem Belcher, then a noted "pug". Show won his first battle and then came up to London and enlisted in the regiment. He defeated the celebrated Molyneaux, and just before he went on active service he gave a pugilist named Painter a most terrible drubbing, knocking him down ten times in succession. It will be seen that a man in habitual hard training, with muscles like steel ropes, and a thorough knowledge of how to use his sword, was quite fitted to perform astonishing feats of valour.
When his regiment came into contact with the French horsemen, Shaw selected his man and rising in his stirrups, cut his opponent through the helmet right down to the chin. During the day he is said to have killed at least nine Frenchmen. But the stalwart trooper met his death towards the close of the battle. In the last charge but one made by his regiment, Shaw was surrounded by a dozen of the enemy. He made a gallant stand and when his sword snapped close to the hilt, it is said that he took off his helmet and used it as a cestus, hitting out from the shoulder with the brass weapon, until he was cut down.
Charge after charge was made by the French cavalry, and attack upon attack was delivered by all arms. A tremendous cannonade would be opened, followed by a whirlwind of horsemen, which masked the advance of divisions of infantry. But all to no purpose. The 1st Cavalry Brigade charged again and again, until men and horses alike drooped and were wearied, almost exhausted. Then came the end. Napoleon caused his entire army to advance. The long suffering British squares dissolved into line. They fired one volley then charged. The Foot Guards furious with long restrained passion, rushed on the leading divisions. These wavered, fell back; the British charged home with the bayonet. The cavalry came up, and overwhelmed, utterly and entirely defeated, the French fell back.
At that moment the Duke shut his glass with a snap and said: "The field is won. Order the whole line to advance. Let the Life Guards charge." And the Life Guards did charge! Scattered and flying the French retreated. Napoleon and his brother Jerome tried to stop them , but without success. Cambronne's brigade of the Old Guard alone stood firm. They formed into square and defied the victorious British. Vivian's Hussars charged them, surrounded them on every face of the square. But they refused to surrender. A pause ensued, dramatic in its intensity, while both sides glared at each other. Then at the sight of Napoleon's veteran soldiers, the ever victorious Old Guard, standing defiant to the last, and awaiting total annihilation with dignified composure, the British gave a great cheer of admiration for their heroic bravery.
At that precise moment, the Life Guards swept down upon the stubborn square and dispersed and cut it to pieces, very few of its component parts being left to swell the tide of retreat. All semblance of order was lost in what remained of the French army. A panic set in "Sauve qui Peut!" was the universal cry, and what was, only a few hours previously, one of the finest armies the world had seen, was simply one vast undistinguishable mass. The allied squadrons, the Heavies always in front, gave them no respite, and shattered their flanks and rear, and completed the awful rout. The Duke of Wellington rode up to the Life Guards after the battle and thanked them for their distinguished bravery.
They had 108 men and 217 horses killed during the day. The Duke himself was in considerable danger at one time. An eyewitness records that the French cavalry charged to within fifty yards of the Commander-in-Chief, as he stood with only one Aide-de-camp left out of all his staff, the rest being either killed or wounded, in a square of the Foot Guards. Napoleon's tactics at Waterloo were described by Wellington in a letter to Marshal Beresford: "Napoleon did not manoeuvre at all, he just moved forward in the old style. I had the infantry for some time in squares, and we had the French cavalry walking about us as if they had been our own."
During the progress of the battle several of the Headquarter Staff endeavoured to extract from Wellington what his plans were incase he, himself, was killed. But the Duke took no manner of notice until at last he said: "I have no plan. They must be defeated."
When Picton's dead body was carried off the field there was found in his pocket a commission appointing him Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in the event of Wellington's death. The Life Guards marched with the army to Paris, which was occupied by the allies, and at the beginning of 1816 embarked for England. (Excerpt from the Army and Navy Gazette 1896 by Bacon)