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"Was d'Erlon's defeat inevitable at Waterloo?" Topic

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Personal logo deadhead Supporting Member of TMP11 Feb 2019 1:30 a.m. PST

Or is my question what could he have done to avoid it?

There cannot be many books about Waterloo I have not now read. Brings up a question on Tactics which my latest read, Imperial Bayonets, plus Nosworthy, Muir and Rothenburg's books have not quite solved.

Poor old d'Erlon has to march his men up a ridge, in some unspecified (ie disputed) formation and face Allied Infantry that will surely show some resistance. The obvious counter measure, against what must now be disorganised French Infantry, is a cavalry attack. It almost strikes me as inevitable, plus we all know indeed is what happened.

My question then is how could he possibly have avoided this? The compact nature of the field would have left little space for a combined arms assault. Whatever French cavalry did eventually play a part seem to have been kept way back in reserve and, however deadly to blown cavalry, did nothing to protect the earlier assault. OK the cuirassiers over west of LHS, who got flattened by the Household Brigade, but again I cannot see them doing anything to protect d'Erlon's Corps from what seemed unavoidable.

advocate11 Feb 2019 3:36 a.m. PST

You make a good point.
It was an attack down the middle with his freshest and perhaps best formation (barring the Imperial Guard, the reserve).
Better cavalry support might have helped, but there is only so much space, as you point out.
I guess Napoleon intended to batter his way through (not enough time to manoeuvre, if the Prussians might be coming) so this was his best option. Just not a great one.
Credit to Wellington for choosing his ground well?

Personal logo 4th Cuirassier Supporting Member of TMP11 Feb 2019 5:09 a.m. PST

There cannot be many books about Waterloo I have not now read.
Me too, DH. It's why I've started translating the German-language ones.

The obvious counter measure…is a cavalry attack.
Yes, and it was foreseen.

D'Erlon was attacking towards a line of hedges behind which the defenders in dead ground were presumably already deployed in line. So far, so Peninsular. The obvious cavalry counterattack could thus really come only from the centre or the right of Wellington's position, as any such cavalry strike from the front would entail Uxbridge's horsemen riding down Picton's men.

To thwart this, cuirassiers accompanied the attack on the left and Jacquinot's light cavalry on the right. Andrew Field surmises that the cuirassiers weren't even a proper brigade but were, rather, single squadrons picked from different regiments and combined.

What went wrong was first of all that the cuirassiers were hit by the stronger heavy cavalry formation, from uphill, while negotiating the road above La Haye Sainte, and right after they had broken an Allied battalion. As a result, they were swept away with unexpected ease. They may well have recovered rapidly, but for the moment they were out of the picture, allowing the Household brigade to plough on into the French infantry beyond.

The other heavy cavalry strike did indeed come from directly ahead, and did indeed ride over friendly troops. As these latter were grossly outnumbered by about 4 to 1, and starting to come apart anyway, riding over them didn't much matter.

So one cavalry guard was swept away, the other was in the wrong place, and mayhem ensued.

D'Erlon's mistake, IMHO, was to send all four of his divisions forward, abreast, with no reserve. If he had limited it to three, he'd have had a reserve formation and there would have been space for more cavalry on either flank – a division rather than a brigade.

This is one of those tactical conundrums where it's really quite hard to think what he should have done differently. All his experience said that you needed to close quickly and be ready for a firefight with Wellington's infantry. To be counter-attacked by a whole division of heavy cavalry was outside his experience of British-led armies. The depth of the formation he used ensured that the volley-cheer-and-charge routine didn't rout his men, it just slowed them down but they pressed on. It bespeaks an assumption that the main threat was from the infantry, and that whatever Wellington's cavalry might attempt, a few squadrons were all he needed to contain them.

Perhaps he was in earshot when Napoleon was admiring the Scots Greys and tut-tutting over what a shame it was to have to destroy them.

I wonder if he would have been better off advancing with the leftmost division formed into a column of squares?

Musketballs11 Feb 2019 5:32 a.m. PST


In fairness to the French cavalry commanders, the Union Brigade was held back until the French crested the ridge and were scrambling through the hedge. There's simply no conceivable way the French cavalry could have stopped that charge unless they went ahead the whole way as some form of meatshield.

Not really convinced that Napoleon felt under any time pressure, either. D'Erlon's attack was planned out at around 11am…2 hours before a Prussian was sighted. The attack itself had already started before the presence of a Prussian Corps was confirmed. Even then it was clearly going to be a number of hours before it was in a position to attack.

Could also note that even the news that Bulow's 4th Corps was on his right flank need not have panicked Napoleon unduly at that time. He was aware from prisoners taken at Ligny that 4th Corps was not present at that battle, and he had no information as to where it actually was. Just because it turned up at Waterloo, it did not automatically follow that the whole Prussian army was clumping along behind it.

Possible that Napoleon simply over-estimated how effective Reille's attack would be at pulling Wellington's reserve over to the Allied right. We also have to factor in that when the plan was originally cast, Napoleon presumably expected Lobau to be available as support.

Marc at work11 Feb 2019 5:51 a.m. PST

4th – did all four divisions go in abreast? I thought one went East against Smohain etc, and at leat part of one was around LHS.

And all I would add is that hindsight is a wonderful thing. The Brit cavalry did well, but maybe 5 mins either way and they may have failed, and historians might have spent the next 200 years wondering why Wellington lost.

Personal logo deadhead Supporting Member of TMP11 Feb 2019 5:58 a.m. PST

Brilliant responses.

One must concede that the French generals were experienced professionals, that the cavalry counter attack that took place was almost unique in British defensive actions and I keep coming back to the constricted battlefield.

Marc's comment about timing was often mentioned in the early accounts, that five minutes either way could have produced different outcome. But I am not quite sure why….it would still have been relatively disorganised infantry up against heavy cavalry, in the open.

Many an armchair general has argued for a flanking attack or indeed anything but head on towards Picton's lads on the ridge top. But if that is the chosen attack, how could it possibly succeed if there is any resistance to what is a solely infantry assault?

kevin Major11 Feb 2019 6:00 a.m. PST

D'Erlons attack is almost the battle winning move. They have driven back the Dutch Belgian line and have the British support line crumbling. La Haye Saint is isolated and when it falls will allow the French move guns forward and pound the ridge (as happens later in the day). What has not been allowed for is the deep sunken road and the short sight lines at Waterloo. The heavy columns stumble and break up crossing the road (read Waterloo the French Perspective). They do not see the British cavalry until they are on top of the French. With no solid line to face down the cavalry panic sets in.
The crucial action is Uxbridge on his own initiative ordering the cavalry forward. Wellington is in the wrong part of the field above Hougoumont. If Uxbridge sends for permission to use the cavalry French order is restored and the cavalry probably fails to clear the ridge. With his left centre broken and the right centre under close range cannon fire Wellington still has 4 hours to wait for Prussian help. Napoleon has pressed the Allied line into an L shape and has the Young Guard available to break the hinge.
Waterloo 1815 a great French Victory!

Personal logo deadhead Supporting Member of TMP11 Feb 2019 6:07 a.m. PST

Timing again. Nice one.

Often puzzles me that Wellington seems to have never crossed the Brussels-Charleroi chaussee, even for the d'Erlon assault. OK he feared the Western flanking attack, loss of supply and retreat to home route and fall of Hgmt. But to the East is where he needed to preserve contact with the oncoming Prussians.

He clearly had faith in Picton and Uxbridge's judgement I guess. Fascinating responses. Thanks

kevin Major11 Feb 2019 6:29 a.m. PST

When we look at a map of the Waterloo battle it is nearly always shown as spanning from Hougoumont to Papelotte. But that was not how Wellington saw it. Hougoumont was roughly in the centre of the position he had drawn up with his forces spreading out to his right as far as Braine Alleud and some in Hal.
Through the campaign Wellington believed Napoleon would attack his right forcing the British away from the coast. Wellingtons dispositions for the battle showed that he still worried about this.
In fact Napoleon concentrated his attacks on Wellingtons left and centre. The reserves that are drawn in at the end of the day to repel the Guard are the troops that have guarded Wellingtons right all day.

Personal logo deadhead Supporting Member of TMP11 Feb 2019 6:55 a.m. PST

How true.

The perception, with hindsight, is just that. Almost nothing going on west of Hgmt. Pire's lancers hanging about doing very little. Light Infantry doing their skirmishing thing and a bit of artillery exchange. The battlefield was therefore between Hmgt and the Paplelotte, Smohain, La Haye complex.

But not to Wellington of course……explains a lot

Personal logo 4th Cuirassier Supporting Member of TMP11 Feb 2019 7:13 a.m. PST


In effect, I think they were four abreast. Elements of the westmost attacked La Haye Sainte, didn't take it, but cut it off, so one battalion went forward to assist and was cut up by cuirassiers.

Two more in the middle against Picton and the fourth against Papelotte.

A better formation would surely have been to swap the infantry division on the left for one of cuirassiers. As well as menacing the lines in front of them they can hold off cavalry flank attacks.

The French were experienced guys. They deliberately went forward in a formation optimised to deliver musketry against – and crush – a thin red line. This was what their experience led them to expect would be required. It worked quite well until it didn't.

The cloudburst of heavy cavalry was outside their experience – they'd never seen this from Wellington before.

kevin Major11 Feb 2019 7:59 a.m. PST

At Salamanca 1812 British heavy cavalry crushed a French division of infantry so it was not unknown. But the solid blocks DErlon organised should have been cavalry proof. 150 men wide with relatively narrow gaps between the columns. The edge files just needed to face out to turn this block of men into what the Austrians called a Mass formation. As long as no one panics pretty cavalry proof.
Scrambling across the sunken road breaks the formation up and the British cavalry just appears before the french scattering the skirmishers and breaking everything up. A French officer recorded that he was in the road pushing his men up onto the "British" side when a red coated cavalry man just appeared beside him. French troops still waiting to cross the road now had routing french soldiers pushing through them spreading panic.
The French Brigade on their far right was down the hill back from the sunken road and formed mass on seeing the cavalry. They were charged but drove them off with a volley.

Musketballs11 Feb 2019 8:31 a.m. PST

French left to right, in simple terms:

Charlet's brigade attacks LHS.They briefly tangle with the Lifeguards, and the 55e loses it's eagle, but French cavalry recapture it.
Bourgeois skirts past LHS, clears the sandpit and advances up the ridge. He's hit by the whole of Kempt's brigade, plus the Royals. The 105e loses its eagle. Not a great day.
May have killed Picton, though.

Donzelot: Advances in Divisional Blob, helps break Bijlandt, is then hit by the Inniskillings.

Marcognet: The second Divisional Blob – also defeats Bijlandt, and is hit by Pack's brigade and the Scots Greys. 45e loses an eagle.

Pegot's brigade advances in the right rear of Marcognet and successfully withdraws without too much hassle.
Brue's brigade is split – the 95e takes Papelotte, while the 85e is kept by Durette as a division reserve.

So, in total D'Erlon actually sends 3 divisions against the main line, with relatively minor detachments against LHS and Papelotte.

Musketballs11 Feb 2019 8:49 a.m. PST

As a thought:

Another reason why Milhaud may not have been right up behind D'Erlon: Simply passing the infantry through the Grand Battery caused a significant amount of disruption to the artillery fire. Had a cavalry corps then attempted to follow, that could have seriously impacted how much fire support D'Erlon's men received as they trooped across the valley.

Personal logo deadhead Supporting Member of TMP11 Feb 2019 8:56 a.m. PST

and again the point that timing was everything. I guess I thought that even a dense column was not safe against cavalry as a square is. So, if slightly better formed up, given a little time, they could have resisted what was surely inevitable, a cavalry counter attack. No unit is better for rapid response to a threat, a counter attack, esp if that threat is from infantry. They had to know that was the threat.

Salamanca was even more extraordinary. An example of how cavalry can take the offensive, how DoW did not always stand behind a ridge, how Ney's cavalry assaults might have worked (but of course they were not mounted against strung-out, over extended, soldiers as was the case in Spain)

Would cuirassiers directly behind an infantry column be much protection from enemy cavalry frontal assault? Equally did the artillery fire at that stage of the battle actually contribute great deal in practice? Again the thought that cavalry directly up with the infantry would have sacrificed the mass attack that did take place. It was just all too compacted…..well chosen ground! Jacquinot's cavalry were some way off and played no part until the Union Brigade had "galloped at everything" and given them the time to attack in flank.

BillyNM11 Feb 2019 10:26 a.m. PST

It seems it was a pretty close run thing – now where have I heard that before? About the only thing I can think that D'Erlon might've done differently was to keep the second brigades back a bit – possibly in echelon – as I think the extra depth of an entire division in a single formation was delivering a diminishing return.

wrgmr111 Feb 2019 10:27 a.m. PST

Our group has played Waterloo 3 times twice using 28mm figures and once 15mm.

In virtually every game the French set up a grand battery and pounded La Haye Sainte to rubble, thereby eliminating a defensive bastion. Once eliminated they pounded Wellingtons centre.

Picton's division being mostly peninsular veterans were a tough bunch who knew what to expect. So they were avoided.

Again in every game the French used an infantry division and light cavalry to hold this flank and moved against the centre, first with line infantry mixed with heavy cavalry then the Guard and accompanying cavalry. This combined arms attack splits the allied centre even destroying the British Guards Division.
The allied heavy cavalry were sent in to try and stop all the French cuirassiers and Guard heavy cavalry but were overwhelmed numerically.

I would propose that if d'Erlon had used two divisions infantry with a division of heavy cavalry in between it would have had a better chance than just using infantry. In addition another heavy cavalry unit with one or two more infantry division as reinforcements or to exploit any weakness would have been in order.


marmont1814 Sponsoring Member of TMP11 Feb 2019 11:56 a.m. PST

I think napoleon did exactly the right thing, he wouldn't have put a division of cavalry in-between two infantry divisions assaulting a thick hedge line, what where they expected to do when they got to the ridge and the British infantry shot them, stop using hindsight or wargames – using the guard etc, command control in such a small area in the real world would have led to disaster. I think Napoleon was sending his freshest and strongest corps to bleed the British. the deep columns would take the punishment of a firefight but would eventually win, they would loose more but there was only a finite amount of British infantry, and on the day the assault went in Bylandt broke and the British where under severe pressure, the line fell back and the French followed through the hedge, with a brigade assaulting LHS and Druette assaulting Papelotte etc things looked great, but it all went wrong with no room to deploy disordered infantry the cavalry was on them.The use of cavalry would have ben suicidal if it hadn't been for the British, if the cavalry hadn't got two big advantages one the second hedge was / appeared taller than the first the French pushed through and second the illusion was the lie of the land the road had a high bank thus the cavalry could get over the hedge and totally surprise the French, then panic in the French ranks did the rest, better maps, and knowing the lay of the land would probably altered tactics, unfortunately I think having cavalry in the valley in close support in case of a repulse was the issue

Who asked this joker11 Feb 2019 12:27 p.m. PST

The use of massed columns meant that these formations could not react to the eventual allied cavalry charge. In other words, they would not be able to form square.

There was not enough cavalry committed to counter the sudden allied onslaught.

That is the crux of the matter. Maybe they still don't carry the position but they probably don't get creamed so badly had they used battalion sized formations and more cavalry.

Personal logo 4th Cuirassier Supporting Member of TMP11 Feb 2019 1:03 p.m. PST

@ Musketballs: Tim Clayton reckons d'Erlon's men did not pass through the grand battery but around it to the east, wheeling back into the correct orientation afterwards.

@ deadhead: I'm not sure behind an infantry division would have been the best place for a cuirassier division. It would be better off on the flank so that any cavalry attack from that direction gets blunted, if not stopped, for long enough for the infantry to form square.

An attack from in front would have been a dicey proposition because the attacking cavalry would have had to come through the defenders and the hedgerows etc. It seems that the Union Brigade didn't attempt this until the French were half way through, at which point they were hopelessly compromised and the counter-attack sent them back.

@wrgmr1: that's hindsight at work, surely. The French had no idea what was behind the ridge. D'Erlon attacked where he did because it was assumed the Hougoumont feint would have made Wellington thin his line elsewhere. Ploughing into the centre was asking to get impaled on the strongest part of the line. Failing to reduce LHS was a mistake, but was there really time to have the artillery pound it to rubble? Did that ever happen in the era outside sieges? Wouldn't this just telegraph where the blow was going to fall?

The charge of the heavies in general and the Scots Greys in particular is often characterised as some sort of disaster. I don't see this at all. In routing the best part of a Corps, and buying crucial time for the Prussians to come up and win the battle completely unassisted by anyone, it has to be one of the most efficient uses of 2,000 cavalrymen in the whole of the wars. Who else managed that ever? At one point there were no unbroken infantry between Durutte's blokes in Papelotte and Reille's in Hougoumont, 1.5 miles away!

I for one would take that trade. Yes, it would have been handy for Wellington to have had some intact heavies later in the battle to counter-attack between the squares, but he still won. I am not at all convinced the Scots Greys would have contributed much even if intact to a battle like that – these were troops who'd never been out of the UK in 15 years, so they were practically green.

evilgong Supporting Member of TMP11 Feb 2019 2:35 p.m. PST

Hi there

Donzelot: Advances in Divisional Blob


I will play any rules that use the term 'Divisional Blob'



Musketballs11 Feb 2019 2:51 p.m. PST

I use that term to avoid being dragged into endless pedantic arguments over what it was actually called…

seneffe11 Feb 2019 3:25 p.m. PST

I'm quite inclined to go with 4th Cuirassier's take on this. D'Erlon's extensive Peninsular experience (I don't think he was at Salamanca) may not have prepared him for a British response at Waterloo which included a well timed counter attack from essentially concealed positions by elite heavy cavalry in division strength.

Perhaps D'Erlon's formation should have been cavalry proof given the opportunity to ready itself, but I recall reading an account of a Feench infantry officer who said the first he knew the British cavalry was amongst them was when one of his own men was cut down next to him- so the opportunity for organised resistance seems to have vanished quickly.

Sir Able Brush Supporting Member of TMP11 Feb 2019 3:51 p.m. PST

Did Napoleon expect his first attack to always succeed? The failure issue was the the following efforts didn't learn from or exploit waht d'Erlon had failed at.

wrgmr111 Feb 2019 4:03 p.m. PST

4th Currassier, that's hindsight at work, surely.
Yes, totally hindsight. As with all of us.
None of us can really ascertain how any of them were thinking. All we can do is look at what happened.

My particular hindsight comes from reading, as most of us have done books on the subject. Also literally hundreds of Napoleonic games using Shako 2. I know that playing a game really doesn't count, but it certainly gives an idea of what can and did happen.
I'm expressing what I would have done. Hindsight.

Michael Westman11 Feb 2019 5:02 p.m. PST

I think Napoleon was trying to swamp the Allied line on the east side of the crossroads (where he thought the village of Mont St. Jean was). Reille's corps was supposed to follow behind the d'Erlon's left in support and Lobau's corps and the cavalry on the right were to exploit the attack. But Bachelu's division didn't seem to move and I think the attack was defeated before Lobau and the cavalry were supposed to advance. D'Erlon's formation did seem to work better against the British infantry than previous attempts ever did; they just weren't ready and properly organized to face the cavalry attack.

Mike the Analyst11 Feb 2019 5:08 p.m. PST

Interesting to see mention of pounding La Haye Saint as this does not appear to have happened historically.

Here is an article (in French) that looked at the ability of the grand battery to actually do this. It was suggested that guns placed on the more southerly of the two ridges (that of La Belle Alliance) would have been out of effective range. Guns on the forward or Northerly ridge would have been too close and unable to depress the guns to hit LHS.


Mike the Analyst11 Feb 2019 5:48 p.m. PST

Michel Damiens analysis of the advance of 1st Corps is given here (again in French)


Personal logo deadhead Supporting Member of TMP11 Feb 2019 11:56 p.m. PST

Even if one has only schoolboy French theses article that Mike has found are quite superb. The maps and diagrams alone make them worth visiting.

The 1st Corps advance is on link

dibble Supporting Member of TMP12 Feb 2019 1:12 a.m. PST

Just to add that there is no evidence that the French took Papelotte, La Haye or Smohain; only that they took some buildings. The French did force the defending Nassau's to vacate the farm complex of Frichermont and retreat back to Smohain.

Personal logo 4th Cuirassier Supporting Member of TMP12 Feb 2019 1:36 a.m. PST

@ dibble

Noted. Claims the French took Papelotte are hofstory, I think, fabricated so that the Prussians can then be credited with their later "recapture". The confusion may arise because on arrival the Prussians did indeed attack Papelotte, which was occupied by Wellington's Nassauers, rather than the French.

@ Mike

Great links, although M. Damiens would find himself in trouble if he wrote in English ("l'armée anglo-néerlandaise" indeed! What? No Germans?). It does rather agree with my general view that if something was or wasn't done – attacking in column of lines, not bombarding LHS – there was a good reason for it.

As Wellington had surveyed the battlefield in April, it seems likely he was aware of how difficult it would be to deal with LHS by whatever method.

He makes a very interesting point about Napoleon having used a grand battery at seven previous battles, only one of which (Wagram) was a decisive win.

Cerdic Supporting Member of TMP12 Feb 2019 4:00 a.m. PST

Dave. It was called a Divisional Dave.

Brechtel19812 Feb 2019 4:03 a.m. PST

He makes a very interesting point about Napoleon having used a grand battery at seven previous battles, only one of which (Wagram) was a decisive win.


Senarmont's massed artillery destroyed the Russian center at Friedland. Druout's massed artillery destroyed the allied center at Lutzen. French massed artillery at Ligny was a decisive factor in the victory there and mauled the Prussians. So, that makes four. What do you consider the other three?

And it should be noted that the massed French artillery at Borodino dominated the battlefield; massed French artillery had a definite part in Eugene's victory at Raab; Senarmont massed his artillery at Ocana in an economy of force mission on the French right flank which enabled the French concentration against the Spanish right flank.

And it should be noted that after the defeat of the French cavalry at Waterloo aggressively handled French artillery supporting infantry in skirmisher swarms against the allied line and French artillery was demolishing allied squares at point-blank range during this part of the fighting. French cavalry accompanied this action which forced the allied infantry to remain in square.

thomaspicton12 Feb 2019 5:17 a.m. PST

I've followed this trail with great interest, and it's nice to see so many angles considered, all with relevance.

My own view is that it is worth considering the attack both in the context of the campaign as well as the battle. Prior to 18 June, Napoleon has treated the campaign as an advance to contact on his left flank in which a series of hasty attacks were launched against the Anglo-Dutch army largely at the instigation of Marshal Ney. Only on his right flank at Ligny did he fight a deliberate battle against a continental power – Prussia. By contrast, he viewed the British as the same colonial power that he hustled off the continent in the Corunna campaign – in 1815, the despised British were joined by people who should really have been in the French Army – why treat them with the same respect as the Prussians?

Ney's character reinforces this tendency – Quatre Bras is therefore fought not as a deliberate assault but as a series of hasty attacks designed to secure the cross roads and keep Wellington off-balance. The same applies all day on the 17th.

By the morning of the 18th June, Napoleon sees this process continuing, a prejudice that is reinforced by the fact that, by virtue of the reverse slope, he cannot see much evidence of a deliberate defensive position.

D'Erlon, who has fought in the Peninsula, has more respect for the power of British musketry and chooses a formation which he believes will bring the greatest number of muskets to bear against British in line. This actually nearly works, not least because the British are in four ranks and because Bijlandt's brigade falters.

But it is D'Erlon's misfortune to strike at two of Wellington's veteran brigades – Kempt and Pack. If he had struck further east against Best and Vincke, something very different may have happened – it's interesting to note the bizarre formation that Best and Vincke put their combined brigades – one large double brigade square eight ranks deep.

I also don't believe that the distance between La Haie Sainte and Papelotte is that narrow. Durutte who claimed (untruthfully) to have captured Papelotte, was a long way east from the rest of the Division. D'Erlon's attack might have succeeded if it had been properly combined (as later attacks were to the west of La Haie Sainte) and if supported by Lobau. But pointed against Picton and with the British heavy cavalry in support, it's amazing that D'Erlon rallied as well as he did. Finally, my understanding is that D'Erlon did not pass through the Grand Battery – this followed up behind him.

kevin Major12 Feb 2019 7:06 a.m. PST

British focused history books in talking of dErlons attack will often draw links to the Peninsular battles and how the French came on in the same old way and were seen off in the same old way. But personal accounts from this attack paint a different picture. The British line (Kempt and Pack's brigades) were being driven back and breaking.
An ADC to Thomas Picton recalled
"At the moment Sir Thomas Picton was shot in the forehead he was calling to me to rally the Highlanders who were for the instant over powered by the masses of the French infantry"
So not calling for a charge as in many books but trying to stop a rout.
Captain Clarke Kennedy of the Royal Dragoons memory of the charge
"the French column had at this time passed both hedges unchecked and as far as I could perceive, and were advancing rapidly" "we did not see each other until very close perhaps 80 or 90 yards"

Personal logo deadhead Supporting Member of TMP12 Feb 2019 9:20 a.m. PST

A very good point.

Authors now do seem to concede that the Allied line was in serious threat of collapse. The infantry had been heavily engaged and lost many a casualty only two days earlier. They did well to stand at all and impose some check on the assault. Whatever the French formation it did seem to be a battering ram.

The comment about five minutes later for the cavalry being too late, I recall more than once.

If we accept that the only possible Allied riposte (and there surely had to be some such) was a cavalry assault (due to mobility and rapid response) it must have been anticipated. There is no cavalry cover in close range….so the only French hope is that the dense columns are relatively immune to cavalry frontal attack, provided they are not taken by surprise or in disarray. Which they were of course….

I think I am finally beginning to understand now!

Personal logo Whirlwind Supporting Member of TMP12 Feb 2019 10:14 a.m. PST

But personal accounts from this attack paint a different picture. The British line (Kempt and Pack's brigades) were being driven back and breaking.

Well, not all of them. See: link

Or: link

Or: link

Or: link

Or: link


Most of the accounts I have read speak specifically to one of the Highland Bns. Field goes into some detail on this in his Waterloo book. To speak of "Kempt's and Pack's brigades" is entirely misleading. It is possible – and the eyewitnesses are contradictory – that the head of Marcognet's column – was gaining the upper-hand before they were swept away in the mass French rout.

Michael Westman12 Feb 2019 10:43 a.m. PST

Pack's brigade seemed to be the one in trouble (in addition to Bijlandt's, though they were forming a second line to stand). I've read that officer casualties in Pack's brigade on the 16th might have reduced their efficiency.

Personal logo 4th Cuirassier Supporting Member of TMP12 Feb 2019 10:54 a.m. PST

@ Kevin

From Mike the Analyst's link:

L'idée de constituer une grande batterie n'est pas neuve. Napoléon avait déjà eu recours à sept reprises à cette solution : à Eylau, à Wagram, à Borodino, à Bautzen, à Hanau, à Leipzig, et à Ligny. Le lecteur qui connaît bien les campagnes napoléoniennes aura remarqué que, sauf Wagram, aucune de ces batailles ne fut une victoire décisive. Bien plus, Leipzig fut une sanglante défaite.

"The idea of establishing a grand battery is not novel. Napoleon had already had recourse to this solution on seven occasions: at Eylau, Wagram, Borodino, Bautzen, Hanau, Leipzig, and Ligny. The reader who knows Napoleonic campaigns well will have noted that apart from Wagram, not one of these battles was a decisive victory. In fact, Leipzig was a bloody defeat."

@ kevin

British focused history books in talking of dErlons attack will often draw links to the Peninsular battles

Perhaps, but in so doing they're only echoing what Wellington himself said, so it's not plucked from the air.

German-focused history books will often claim that shattering Prussian defeats were "inconclusive" if the Prussian army survived, while French focused-history books will often include Wellington's forces at Hal in his strength, or claim that Wellington defeated Ney rather than Napoleon, so as to spin the result more favourably for the Corsican ogre.

We should read all accounts with a historian's eye for the partiality and biases of the writer.

HappyHussar Supporting Member of TMP12 Feb 2019 11:52 a.m. PST

If Napoleon attacks Wellington's right then the Prussians end up astride his line of supply down the main road back to QB. Not sure why Wellington saw that the right was going to be at risk. Napoleon needed to keep within communication range of Grouchy. By separating from Grouchy he would have allowed the French right wing to suffer defeat in detail. In fact that could have been Allied Plan B – destroy Grouchy and avoid contact with Napoelon … sound familiar? (think Germany – 1813)

kevin Major12 Feb 2019 12:45 p.m. PST

I think Wellingtons "memories of a ball" comment fits here.

@ 4th
Had no opinion on Grand Batteries, so not me

I offered quotes from men that were there and what they remember (Englishmen at that) where does historian bias fit?
I would point you to Bernard Cornwells recent Waterloo book. His picture of dErlons attack is of Belgians running away, Britains advancing with gleaming bayonets and Frenchmen routing. It was more complex than that.
It also happened over an 800m frontage so one isolated experience cannot capture the whole sweep of the thing.

Major Snort12 Feb 2019 3:01 p.m. PST

An ADC to Thomas Picton recalled
"At the moment Sir Thomas Picton was shot in the forehead he was calling to me to rally the Highlanders who were for the instant over powered by the masses of the French infantry"

Not an ADC to Picton, but actually Horace Seymour, an ADC to Uxbridge, who afterwards wrote:

It may have been when our skirmishers were driven in, in which case it was they whom he called upon me to rally.

There is otherwise little or no evidence that Kempt's brigade was forced back.

It certainly appears that the 1st and 44th of Pack's brigade retreated in the face of the French columns but that the 42nd and 92nd didn't. Several letters written by Lieutenant Hope of the 92nd, one of them only six days after the battle, provide some interesting information about this.

Lion in the Stars12 Feb 2019 3:58 p.m. PST

The crucial action is Uxbridge on his own initiative ordering the cavalry forward.

Is this really that surprising, though?

I am under the impression that British Cavalry is notorious for charging the first enemy they see in the battle.

Musketballs12 Feb 2019 5:36 p.m. PST


That would have called for a fair amount of telepathy on the part of Wellington and Blucher. Neither of them knew for certain what forces Napoleon had detached to follow up the Prussians.
Conceivably, Napoleon could have merely sent cavalry to pursue Blucher and turned up at Waterloo with an additional 2 corps of infantry. Think what Napoleon might have tried on the right wing then…

As for Plan B…one of the ironies of 1815 is that two different national armies in retreat were able to communicate and co-ordinate with each other far more effectively than Napoleon managed to do with detached parts of his own army – be it Ney at Quatre Bras or Grouchy post-Ligny. Part of what makes that possible is a simple, shared goal – that only beating Napoleon matters. So Grouchy simply gets ignored, historically, until the main event is over. Think of it as an Anti-Trachenberg plan…

Anti-historically? If the allies don't fight at Waterloo, Grouchy and Napoleon rejoin at Brussels. There's no real way then that the allies can fall on just one of them. It's not like 1813, with army-sized detachments operating hundreds of miles apart.

C M DODSON13 Feb 2019 2:42 a.m. PST

Hello Mr D.

Interesting topic covered in detail by Mr Adkin and Mr Field amongst others.

The event itself is well covered but the effect of the topography together with the two hedges is perhaps overlooked.

Having walked this area and watched the two hundredreth re enactment it is difficult to imagine fitting so many troops of all nations in such a small area.

Nevertheless that is what happened.

I would respectfully suggest that despite having no idea what was on the other side of the ridge the French were doing quite well against the Allied resistance and the dis ordering effect of crossing two hedges in a large formation. When you are in close company your view and ability to move are very restricted indeed.

As stated, the cavalry attack delivered probably at a trot in some disorder itself due to wending its way through their colleagues was decisive because of that disorder.

If, the French had been in good order resistance might have been more effective.

Closer artillery support, horribly effective later on the Alllied centre would have been useful but where would they go?

My Waterloo re- fight sought to mitigate an Allied cavalry attack by including French cavalry and horse artillery between the French columns and a full scale attack on La Haye Sainte to neutralise it. Messy but eventually successful.

This however meant echeloning the infantry or reducing the number of units in order to make the space.

I would not wish to criticise a general of D'Erlons experience. He was given a difficult task against known defensive experts, in numbers unknown on ground that was tactically difficult.

Napoleon said he knew the value of five minutes.Thankfully for us, I feel he was probably unlucky on this occasion.

Best wishes,


Personal logo deadhead Supporting Member of TMP13 Feb 2019 3:30 a.m. PST

Never ceases to amaze me just how compact the field is. If you start at the crossroads, head down to Papelotte etc, take the sunken lane to La Belle All, then that diagonal to the north west, (detour to the left for Hgmt because that access route is long long ploughed over) and finally back to the crossroads, that diamond is not a major challenge to walk.

I used to think the east of the crossroads is less altered than the west (there the loss of the ridge and, personally I think almost more significant, the felling of the Hgmt wood orchard etc). Siborne's model suggests always much less enclosure to the east, but I do increasingly see the significance of the hedges and the lost sandpit.

Certainly agree that these were experienced professionals and my original doubts had been how could they not have regarded a cavalry counter attack as almost inevitable and not done more to meet that threat….even with the restricted space. I think I now understand that far better.

Unbroken, well formed columns can face cavalry, even without forming square, provided not suddenly taken by surprise? (Do wargame rules allow for that?)

C M DODSON13 Feb 2019 4:56 a.m. PST

Hi Mr D.

I would respectfully suggest the Austrian ' Battalion Masse' was a broadly similar formation in effect to the division in column of battalions used here.

Whilst vulnerable to artillery it gave a better chance against cavalry.

My rules do allow infantry in line and column to stand against cavalry subject to a morale test. However, unless the musketry is sufficient to deter the attack then there will be a contact and mayhem usually results.

Squares are best.

The worse case scenario of course is disordered infantry which leads us back to your original question.

It wasn't just the French, the British at Quatre Bras got chewed up pretty badly by being disordered.

Best wishes,


Personal logo 4th Cuirassier Supporting Member of TMP13 Feb 2019 5:10 a.m. PST

@ deadhead

I think it's all about the obstacles. The French infantry were attacking towards a ridge with a double hedge along it. That ridge was an obstacle to passage in either direction. Ergo cavalry attacking d'Erlon from the front would disorder themselves going through it. They'd arrive on the south side at a walk in disorder. The thinking may have been that a cavalry attack could thus not come from straight ahead, or if it did, it could be contained by formed infantry.

D'Erlon's right was a built-up area. That leaves his left. On d'Erlon's left there was a banked north-south road and what is usually called a sandpit. To me a sandpit suggests a thing about a yard wide that toddlers play in, but this was actually a disused sand quarry. It must have formed a saucer-shaped depression probably about 6 to 8 feet deep but at any rate with sides steep enough to allow riflemen to stand up, load, and take potshots over the edge.

Wellington knew his business.

These latter are serious obstacles to formed troops, but not impassable, so this flank was where the counter attack might come from and hence this flank was the one protected by cuirassiers. Just not enough of them. They were hit and scattered by the Life Guards. One British witness who saw this grudgingly admitted that it turns out the Life Guards are proper soldiers after all. Another commented that they made a noise like tinkers at work.

The attack from the front came after the ground and the passage of the hedge had disordered the attackers, who had partially penetrated this position but at the cost of being defenceless against cavalry.

Simultaneous heavy cavalry strikes from ahead and the left where none was expected would have been utterly disorienting. These attacks seem to have cost d'Erlon 2,000 prisoners and presumably at least as many casualties, so about a quarter to a third of his Corps was eliminated and the rest removed from proceedings for several hours.

As a wargamer what is interesting is the full-blooded scale of this attack. Games one sees often feature 20 or 25 battalions (or whatever) a side, with an attack by 2 or 3 of them. That's not an attack, that's an excrescence from your line. An attack is when you launch 45% of your infantry in one go. That's an attack!

Personal logo Whirlwind Supporting Member of TMP13 Feb 2019 6:27 a.m. PST

I can't see that the French were doing that well against the infantry really. Slightly throwing back one-two battalions as the effect of chucking in three and a half divisions is a pretty miserable result and was no more likely to have achieved anything more decisive than similar incidents in the Peninsular when local reserves pushed them back. The effect of the cavalry charge wasn't to save the situation, it was to turn failure into rout.

kevin Major13 Feb 2019 7:07 a.m. PST

Where there similar incidents in the Peninsular?. I can think of no equivalent of such a mass of French attacking on such a limited width.
In this attack the first line of Dutch and Belgians has been mostly overthrown .The guns are lost. The second line is committed and is clearly heavily pressed, certainly enough to force Uxbridge to a huge decision. The 2 reserve heavy cavalry brigades are not for casual use. If Uxbridge believes the battle is in the balance then their use it totally justified. But if their use is just to punish a failed attack then Uxbridges use of this vital reserve was rash.
Wellington described the battle as a "close run thing". What bit of it was close run?. Was it here where his whole plan of battle could have been overthrown by Napoleons first serious move.I think so. dErlons attack could have worked (to return to the original question). The commitment of the vital reserve of heavy cavalry so early in the battle would only be justified if it was to stave off imminent defeat.

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