Saturday, June 24, 2023

The Armored Wave

The Battle of Waterloo: The British Squares Receiving the Charge of the French Cuirassiers
Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux¹
Chef d'escadron Augustin Couturier saw that the regiment was being signaled to halt. He wondered just what was going on, it seemed odd to move them forward, then halt. They were very close to being in range of the enemy guns.

Maréchal des logis-chef Jean-Charles Côté joined his commander as the horses pulled up, champing at the bit, restlessly stamping their hooves in the churned up farmland.

"What's the hold up, Sir?" Côté asked.

Couturier stood in his stirrups to try and see over the squadron to their front, then sat back down, "Damned if I know, we can't just sit here and wait for les anglais to start firing at us. We were safer to the rear of the slope."

Côté shook his head, "More nonsense from the newcomers, I suppose."

Couturier turned to look at his senior NCO, "How widespread is that sentiment?"

"The men are very aware that the army just threw officers at the units as they showed up. We're lucky in this squadron, but the other squadrons aren't as cohesive. Frankly Sir, outside of the squadron, the men don't really trust the officers. Strangers to them for the most part.²"

"I'm sure our commander is just making sure of our destination. Ney wasted a lot of men back at Quatre Bras, we don't want that happening again." Couturier then gestured Côté to draw closer.

"Keep the men in hand, Côté, no wild charges. This ground is treacherous, we won't be able to advance at much more than a trot, I'm afraid."

Côté nodded, then as he heard the trumpets sounding further to the front, he turned his mount to retake his place in the formation. "Sounds like our part in la fête is about to begin, be careful today, Sir."

"I will, you old rascal, keep your eyes on the new lads, yes?"

"Of course, Sir. Of course."

Général de Brigade Jean-Baptiste-Auguste-Marie Jamin de Bermuy galloped up to his division commander, Général de Division Guyot. He commanded the Grenadiers à Cheval of the Old Guard, he had been accosted by an imperial aide-de-camp and chastised for advancing without orders. Guyot was in the middle of an argument with Maréchal Ney, of all people.

He had noted that the Régiment de l'Impératrice Dragons³ still stood in formation, some 3oo paces to the rear. Their commander, Général de Brigade Letort, had been badly wounded on the 15th driving the Prussians back from Fleurus. Rumor had it that he had died of that wound yesterday. Now his regiment was commanded by a mere Major, no doubt refusing to move without a direct order from le Tondu himself.

Turning to Jamin, Guyot shouted, "The Maréchal insists that this attack was ordered by the Emperor, have you had any word?"

Ney looked furious, but Jamin was nonplussed. He sat his horse and glowered at both men from under his tall bearskin cap. "Monsieur, everyone within 50 paces can hear you shouting at each other. Yes, I have had word, from le Tondu himself. We are not to advance with Kellerman. That Hoffmeyer fellow has obviously received the same orders."

Ney looked puzzled, "Who?"

Guyot explained to the marshal that Major Hoffmeyer was the acting commander of the Dragoons of the Guard as Letort had been badly wounded.

At that point, Guyot realized that the only unit which had advanced to keep up with him and his staff was the Gendarmerie d'Elite⁴ under Capitaine Dyonnet, a mere hundred troopers. He looked back at Maréchal Ney.

"I am sorry Monsieur le Maréchal, but Général de Brigade Jamin is absolutely right. I will send a messenger to the Emperor immediately."

"Time is wasting! Who will support Kellerman?!" Ney's temper was rising quickly.

Guyot looked for a moment at the man, "I suggest infantry support would be more appropriate, but for now you can take my horse artillery. Until I hear from the Emperor, we stay here."

Ney shook his head, in fury he yanked the head of his horse around and galloped off towards Kellerman's squadrons, which were just reaching the bottom of the slope leading from the ridge the French Army was drawn up on.

"Jamin, rejoin your unit. Dyonnet!" he shouted out at the commander of the Gendarmes, "Lead your unit back and align yourselves behind Jamin's Grenadiers."

Major William Norman Ramsay, commanding H Troop, Royal Horse Artillery, stood by his guns in amazement. They had been firing on the French around Hougoumont, rather effectively he judged, now he saw a sight which he would remember all of his days, a mass of French cavalry, many of them armored, advancing in his direction.

"Tommy, will ye run back and let those infantry lads know that there is French cavalry headed our way. Three to four thousand it would appear."

Corporal Tommy Adair looked towards the French lines, it seemed as if the earth itself was moving this way. He gulped and stammered out, "Aye, Sir!" Then ran to the rear.

"Right lads, load round shot, and mark those horsemen to the front. After we give them the solid shot, load solid, then cannister. We'll welcome those armored lads and send 'em back the way they came!" 

Ramsay then busied himself helping the gun captains sight their pieces. He would fire one volley at the enemy as they went down the slope, then another when they came into view again. He had a bad feeling about this.

Their orders were, in the event of a cavalry attack, to take a wheel from each gun and vehicle and run back to the infantry squares. Looking to the rear, the distance to the nearest unit looked too far to comprehend. But he knew that it was fear which made him think that. It was probably no more than fifty yards.

The guns barked out, he could see little through the powder smoke, but he knew his men, even now he fancied he could hear the screams of French troopers and horses as the Anglo-Allied artillery began to land in their midst.

As Kellerman's men regrouped in the shallow dip between the two ridges he saw an officer of the Carabiniers break ranks and begin to gallop up the slope. No one followed.

"What the hell is that? Who is that idiot?"

One of his aides shook his head, "The Carabiniers are not to be trusted, mon Général. Their morale is awful, it is why the Emperor held them back on the 16th. We should have left the bastards in Paris."

Kellerman turned on his aide, "Gallop back to Blanchard⁵, tell him to keep his men in order. If any more of his men desert, I shall hold him personally responsible!"


Ramsay watched in astonishment as a brilliantly uniformed officer came galloping up the ridge, all the while yelling, "Vive le Roi!⁶"

"What the hell is this fool playing at? Hold your fire lads!"

The man galloped up and in heavily accented English pointed back to the French lines and gasped out, "That scoundrel Bonaparte is coming with his cavalry!"

Then the man galloped off to the west.

"Damned fool's lucky no one has shot him down yet." Ramsay grumbled. Then he added, to no one in particular, "One doesn't need to be bloody Frederick the Great to see that Boney is sending in his cavalry."

Then he noticed a trembling of the earth, they could feel the pounding of thousands of hooves as the French came up the slope to their front. For a brief moment, Ramsay wished he was anywhere else but on this slight ridge in Belgium.

"Steady lads, stand to your guns. After you fire, quick as you can, run back to the infantry as if the devil himself is chasing you!"

"Dear God, he will be, Sir." one of his sergeants said as the French crested the rise to their front.


¹ Please note, though the painting is magnificent, the terrain in the background is completely wrong.
² This was a major problem in putting together the Armée du Nord. There was a shortage of officers such that, as more of them rallied to Napoléon, the army couldn't be fussy about assigning them to their old units. Had there been more time, then perhaps they could have sorted that out. As it was, the army the Emperor led into Belgium was somewhat brittle, for all of its experience and power.
³ The Regiment of the Empress Dragoons.
⁴ The Elite Gendarmes were more of an elite military police force than a battle unit, even the other members of the Guard called them "The Immortals" as they were seldom committed to action. But when they were, they demonstrated why they had the word "Elite" in their name. They fought well and died hard when called upon.
⁵ Général de Brigade Amable Guy Blanchard commanded the 1st Brigade of the 12th Cavalry Division at Waterloo. It contained both of the Carabinier regiments in the French Army. They did have problems at Waterloo.
⁶ Long live the king. A royalist officer did indeed desert at Waterloo. I have no idea if it was Ramsay's battery to whom he deserted. Call it "artistic license."


  1. That last painting Sarge, not a sight I'd want to see in person.

    1. The painting is part of the panorama at Waterloo. I visited there a few times, you stand in the middle and the battle "rages" around you. Sound effects of musketry, cannon fire, trumpets, and drums all give it the right ambiance. Of course, it's nowhere near loud enough. It's also missing the screams of the wounded and dying. But who would pay to see that?

  2. Armies of thatvera, were rather hard on the bear population.

  3. Being children of the modern age of war, I suspect we badly underestimate the power and terror of a full heavy cavalry charge. And this was in 1815; before the advent of firepower it must have been terrifying. Continued great writing, Sarge.

    (Note in second section: "Guyot was om the middle of an argument with Maréchal Ney, of all people." "in the middle", perhaps?)

    1. Horses are big animals, being around them gives you a sense of the strength of the individual animals, now put a thousand of them together. Terrifying indeed!

      (Fixed the error, I think I reworked that sentence three times and still messed it up!)

    2. When you can "feel" the vibrations of something big it makes things different.

  4. The courage it must have taken to stay in formation, waiting, bayoneted musket couched to accept the charge, as literal tons (or tonnes) of belligerent strangers with saber and lance bore down on you.

    As to artillery fire, this from : CUSTOMS OF SERVICE

    “Should an enemy’s cavalry be at a distance of 1000 yards from the battery it is about to charge, it will move over
    the first 400 yards at a walk, approaching to a gentle trot, in about four and a half minutes; it passes over the next
    400 yards at a round trot, in a little more than two minutes; and over the last 200 yards at a gallop, in about half a
    minute, the passage over the whole distance requiring about seven minutes. This estimate will generally be very near
    the truth, as the ground is not always even, nor easy to move over Many losses arise from the fire of the artillery and
    from accidents, and the forming and filling up of intervals create disorder; all of which contribute to retard the
    charge. Now, a piece can throw, with sufficient deliberation for pointing, two solid shot or three canisters per
    minute, Each piece of the battery, therefore, might fire nine rounds of solid shot upon the cavalry whilst it is passing
    over the first 400 yards; two rounds of solid shot and three of canister whilst it is passing over the next 400 yards;
    and two rounds of canister whilst it is passing over the last 200 yards—making a total from each gun of eleven
    round shot and five canisters. To this is added the fire of the supporting infantry.
    “Care should be taken not to cease firing solid shot too soon, in order to commence with canister If the effect of
    the latter be very great on hard, horizontal, or smooth ground, which is without obstruction of any kind, it is less on
    irregular and soft ground, or on that covered with brushwood; for, if the ground be not favorable, a large portion of
    the canister shot is intercepted. A solid shot is true to its direction, and, in ricochet, may hit the second line if it
    misses the first.
    “Solid shot should be used from 350 yards upwards: the use of canister should begin at 350 yards, and the rapidity
    of the fire increase as the range diminishes. In emergencies, double charges of canister may be used at 150 or 160
    yards, with a single cartridge.
    “Spherical case ought not, as a general rule, to be used for a less range than 500 yards; and neither spherical case
    nor shells should be fired at rapidly advancing bodies, as, for instance, cavalry charging.
    “The fire of spherical case and of shells on bodies of cavalry in line or column, and in position, is often very
    effective. To the destructive effects of the projectiles are added the confusion and disorder occasioned amongst the
    horses by the noise of their explosion; but neither shells nor spherical case should be fired so rapidly as solid shot.
    “In case of necessity, solid shot may be fired from howitzers.’

    Granted, a few decades after Waterloo, but I rather doubt much had changed.

    1. The only thing different at Waterloo was the state of the ground. It really limited the ability of the cavalry to generate any speed at all. It also limited the ability of the artillery to bounce their shots.


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