Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Battle Within A Battle - Hougoumont

Ernest Crofts
Corporal Michael Wareham turned to Private Mick Wilcox and yelled out, "How's your ammunition?!"

Wilcox shook his head, "I've plenty of cartridges, but my damned Bess is nearly fully fouled, I can barely ram a charge home!"

Wareham shook his head in return, "Mine as well, perhaps we can ... Ah damn my eyes, here come the bloody French again!"

Though the open space between the gardener's house and the wood was clogged with dead Frenchmen, the men of Reille's corps continued to press their attacks. It was if the fate of France depended on this one chateau.

Wareham looked around, there were a number of muskets on the ground, left by the wounded who had been dragged to, or had dragged themselves, to the main house. Wareham grabbed one.

Extracting the ramrod, then sliding it down the barrel, he sensed that this weapon hadn't been fired much before its owner had no more use for it. Quickly he loaded it, noting as he did so that Wilcox had found another weapon as well.

Wareham aimed out the window at a man waving a sword around, he yelled out, "Damned fool officers are making themselves bloody obvious today."

Pulling the trigger and then being enveloped in powder smoke, Wareham couldn't tell if he'd actually hit the man or not. Then Wilcox yelled out, "Ye potted the bugger, Corp!"

As he reloaded, he grinned at Wilcox, who suddenly grimaced and began to slump towards the floor.

"Mick, are ye hit?"

"Aye Corp, the Frenchies have done for me." Wilcox then collapsed to the floor, his eyes closed.

Lieutenant Antoine Boulle was clutching his abdomen, he was in agony. He had seen the flash from the upper story as he directed his grenadiers to assault the gate before them. His men has surged forward, bellowing incoherently, when he felt a hard thump in his lower belly.

He fell onto his butt, startled that he seemed to have no strength in his legs. He was left sitting upright, he didn't realize that he was resting against a man killed in an earlier assault. But that thought was far from his mind. The pain of his wound frightened him, he had seen more than one man die, painfully and slowly, from a stomach wound.

The pain seemed to come in waves, he struggled to stay awake. He knew that if he lost consciousness he was doomed.

He looked up at the gate his men were assaulting, they seemed to nearly have it opened when it slammed shut once more. Then more English appeared atop the wall to the right which jutted out from the building at a right angle and take his men under fire. Their assault on the gate collapsed in blood and gore.

As his men fell back to the wood, he saw his sergeant, Hugo Duret, who paused and grabbed another man. Together the two dragged their lieutenant back to the cover of the wood.

"We will get you back to the surgeons, Lieutenant, your wound probably hurts like the very devil himself was poking you, but it's not bleeding all that badly."

Though Boulle did pass out from the pain as his men dragged him to the rear, he didn't die. He awakened to find a surgeon binding his wound.

"You're a lucky man, young Lieutenant, I extracted the ball, it wasn't in very deep. The muscle will heal, but it will be very painful for a few weeks."

Then the surgeon rushed off, his apron was saturated with blood and his arms were red to the elbows. Boulle now had a new dread, many wounded survived their wounds only to perish in the hospital.

Private Wilcox was dragged to the main house where a surgeon gave him a brief glance, then shook his head and moved on.

Wareham was tempted to force the man to treat his mate, but he knew better. Wilcox was still unconscious when Wareham gripped him by the shoulder.

"Get well ye malingering bastard, I'll be back to fetch you once the battle's won." As he dashed back to the gardener's house, he was blinking furiously, his eyes were tearing up.

"Damn me, I'll not cry like a woman." He muttered to himself, then he saw smoke billowing down from the top of the main house. The French artillery had succeeded in setting the house alight!

"Gordon!" The Duke had to raise his voice over the noise of the cannon firing nearby.

"Your Grace?"

"Take this down and sent it to MacDonnell in the chateau!
I see that the fire has communicated from the hay stack to the roof of the château. You must however still keep your men in those parts to which the fire does not reach. Take care that no men are lost by the falling in of the roof or floors. After they will have fallen in occupy the ruined walls inside of the garden, particularly if it should be possible for the enemy to pass through the embers to the inside of the house. (Source)

"Right away, Your Grace!" Gordon finished the note and then handed it to one of the orderly officers.

Wellington was concerned that if Hougoumont fell, it would give Bonaparte leverage to unhinge his right flank. He debated sending another detachment to MacDonnell, then decided against it. His center had been badly damaged by Bonaparte's initial attack, he needed to keep as many men in reserve as he could.

Another aide galloped up, the Duke turned impatiently and barked, "What is it, Fremantle? Must you gallop about like a subaltern?"

Lieutenant Colonel John Fremantle, used to the Duke's shortness at times, simply stated, "Apologies, Your Grace, but the men are getting rather cut up by the artillery. Might I suggest they fall back beyond the crest for now?"

"No apology necessary, Fremantle. Yes, yes, give the order, have the lads fall back. Have them lie down, their officers will remain mounted to survey the field. Off you go then!"

Within minutes, the men turned about and marched back perhaps a hundred paces. Once in position, the officers and sergeants had the men lie down. Due to the nature of the ground, not many shot were bounding up the hill, most buried themselves in the mud or passed harmlessly overhead.

"Damn it, I should have seen that sooner." the Duke muttered to himself.

"Your Grace?"

"Nothing Gordon, nothing at all. Let's head back to the crossroads. I fear the French might try La Haye Sainte once more."

Across the valley one of Maréchal Ney's aides noticed something odd happening across the valley.

"Monsieur le Maréchal, look across the valley, the English infantry is pulling back!"

Taking his glass from another aide, Ney looked, and indeed, he could see the English infantry march back to the ridge, then seemingly disappear.

"We have them, follow me!"

Galloping to the nearest formation of heavy cavalry, Ney ordered them to advance. Their general immediately remonstrated with the marshal.

"Attack? Their infantry has not been hurt, they are in good order."

"Look for yourself, Kellerman! Their infantry has withdrawn!"

Général de Division François Étienne de Kellermann, commanding the IIIrd Cavalry Corps¹ took out his glass. He caught a glimpse of one regiment moving back over the crest. Then it seemed like they began to go prone.

"The infantry are still there, they appear to be lying down." Kellerman argued.

Maréchal Michel Ney took a deep breath, his aides feared that their marshal was about to lose his famous temper, but he managed to control himself. "I gave you an order Monsieur, should you refuse to carry it out ..."

Kellerman had had enough of this man, jerking the reins of his mount he turned to his trumpeter. "Sound the advance, column of squadrons, regiments in echelon, the dragoons shall lead."

Without another word, Kellerman trotted off to put himself at the head of his cavalry. He would advance cautiously and not charge in like some mindless barbarian.

As the IIIrd Cavalry Corps advanced, the heavy cavalry of the Imperial Guard under Général de Division Claude-Étienne Guyot began to move. Guyot's intention was to move up to fill the gap left by Kellerman's advancing corps

But they didn't stop.

The Emperor felt refreshed by his brief nap, walking forward to his map table he noticed the advance by a large portion of his cavalry.

"What madness is this? This move is a false one, the English are still resisting fiercely. But I suppose it must be supported."

"De la Bédoyère!"


"My compliments to le Comte Milhaud, have him prepare his corps to support Kellerman as needed. Also, notify le Comte de Lobau that I may have need of his corps to support the cavalry."

"Sire?" One of the other aides intruded.

Turning to the man, the Emperor was about to dress him down when he decided to listen, the man had been with him for a number of years, he wasn't wont to interrupt without reason.

"What is it, Flahaut? Quickly now!"

"Sire, a patrol has returned, they have a prisoner, a Prussian officer. The man claims that Bülow's corps is approaching and is nearly within striking distance."

A quick glance at his map told him what he needed to know. "De la Bédoyère, alert Lobau that he is to prepare to deploy his corps to the right. It seems we might have company soon. I want him ready to interdict any interference on our right."

As aides galloped off to spread the word, Napoléon had a moment of doubt, if the Prussians were close, than where the Hell was Grouchy?

"Soult! Have we heard anything from Grouchy, anything at all?"

"Nothing Sire, nothing since early this morning."

"Send patrols to the east, find Grouchy, he must march to us immediately! Go! Quickly!"

Maréchal Soult did as he was commanded, knowing full well that Grouchy couldn't possibly reach them before nightfall. He feared the worst.

¹ Consisting of a brigade of dragoons, two brigades of cuirassiers, and a brigade of carabiniers (another type of armored cavalry, similarly equipped as the cuirassiers though with brass sheeting on their steel cuirasses). One brigade of cuirassiers had been roughly handled at Quatre Bras, but the other three were nearly at full strength.


  1. How wonderfully vague the orders were, "support Kellerman as needed." But, given that he trusted that his commanders were seasoned professionals, maybe better to trust their judgement than to tether them with details.

    "Yes, yes, give the order, have the lads fall back. Have them lie down, their officers will remain mounted to survey the field. Off you go then!""
    Almost like Hastings, when William the Usurper noticed that Harold was having trouble controlling his fyrd when an attack was repulsed set a trap with a feint and withdrawal to lure the fyrd into following and then cutting them off.

    Once again you put the gentle reader into the choking fog of war.

    1. The term Auftragstaktik (what is called mission-type tactics in English) wasn't coined until later in the century, but good leaders knew their subordinates and would give the talented ones a mission, rather than specific orders on how to perform the mission. The less talented would be given specifics.

      While the Anglo-Allied army pulling back slightly to protect themselves from cannon fire wasn't a ruse, it certainly became one once Ney had it in his head that his enemies were withdrawing.

      At least that's the only rationale reason historians have put forth for the massive French cavalry attacks in the afternoon of the 18th.

  2. Wow - looking back through the lens of history, that attack by what appeared to be a withdrawal but was not was a key factor. Fog of war indeed.

    Also - and always reminded about this when reading your works like this - the waste of human life is staggering.

    1. A smart commander knows when to cut his losses, but like inveterate gamblers, many think that just one more hand, just one more roll of the dice, and they'll come out on top. Unfortunately there are human lives at stake, not just the loss of money.

      I've read one book on Napoléon where the author referred to him as a "magnificent scrambler." In other words he liked to fly by the seat of his pants and often he'd go by instinct, rather than logic, when he made his moves in battle and also on the strategic level. Napoléon was, in my estimation, a gambler. In his early years he was more careful, later on, reinforced by his earlier successes, he would take more chances.

      The Waterloo campaign was the ultimate gamble.

  3. "War is hell" is an old saying, or should have been. Modern weapons not required. Is it noon? Not even ten A.M.? A very long day.

    1. Depending on who you believe, the battle is probably at about 4 PM. I say "depending on who you believe" because while many officers had pocket watches, none of them were synchronized and many weren't even at the correct time to begin with. After having read multiple accounts of the battle from many different perspectives, it's kind of amazing how many accounts can't agree on what time something happened. Or whether an event occurred at all!

  4. How many paintings are there of the battle at that farm house?

    1. Quite a few. I don't know the precise number but I'd wager over a hundred.

    2. Then you're set for a long run of this story! :-)

  5. Crusty Old TV Tech here. That bit about the tactical withdrawal being misconstrued by Ney as retreat...I never picked that up from a dry dusty bones History lesson reading of the battle. It is good to have a storyteller with military sensibilities spinning the yarn, merci! Oh, and as I have said before, why in the BLAZES can't history be taught like this?

    1. Many history teachers come out of the gate fired up and passionate about history. Then they meet the students who hate history (any kind of learning actually). Some history teachers, like many other professions, just aren't very good at their jobs. I had some very good history professors in college (after my freshman year) who were very, very good. The guy for freshman history acted like he hated his job. I talked to him one day after class and it turned out that he had a real passion for history but got stuck teaching the freshman required history course, most of the students really didn't care. Burn out happens as well.

      History can be taught like this, but only those with an imagination and a passion for the topic will care. At least that's my take on the subject.

    2. And you, Sarge, most certainly have the passion and imagination to be a superb teacher, especially via the written word and spectacular use of images.
      We do appreciate your efforts, regardless of the randomness of their appearance.
      John Blackshoe

    3. I have held a class of fifth and sixth graders enthralled with a tale of historical weapons development. Even the girls were fascinated. I guess if you love a subject, the kids will appreciate that.

    4. If you really know what you're teaching and you honestly like the subject matter, that will come through to the student. Enthusiasm is contagious!

  6. Crusty Old TV Tech again. Well, hating learning, that's what "F"'s are for.

    Yeah, it takes two to tango, but I can tell you in my pre-college history instruction, only one teacher really taught History, and not history (dates, memorization, Bueller, Bueller!), and he was a Marine. 6th grade. Excellent teacher. Even got a couple of the hardhead knuckleheads to learn something. And in college, a professor of Spanish phonetics who taught history as part of learning why Cuban Spanish has some differences from Mexican Spanish, etc. Oh, and he was Army, a linguist, brilliant professor.

    1. Why is it that so many military folks learn to be such good teachers? Must be something in their makeup, that's all I can figure.

      They served, and continue to serve.


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