Sunday, June 11, 2023

The Charge of the Union Brigade

Charge of the Royal Scots Greys at the Battle of Waterloo on 18th June 1815
Orlando Norie
Sergent Duval saw the redcoated cavalrymen slam into the leading battalion of the column. Though he couldn't see it from where he was, the horses were trying to pass between the infantrymen.¹ But horses are big animals and the men were being knocked aside. Had they been ready, tightly packed with bayonets presented, the horses would have veered off, even stopping abruptly rather than injure themselves.

Duval remembered an incident in Spain where an English cavalryman had tried to force his horse to run into the wall of presented bayonets. The horse had stopped short and thrown its rider on top of those bayonets, killing the rider without breaking the square. But here, today, as the formation was already disrupted by both the hedge and the sunken road, there were plenty of paths for the horses to dash through.

Their riders were cutting down with their sabers to both the left and the right, though the occasional rider was brought down by a bayonet, or a lucky shot, which as often as not hit the horse and not the rider, the infantry was being slaughtered.²

Duval started pulling the soldiers nearest him into a rally square. Which wasn't so much of a square as a tightly bunched group of men, bayonets out and ready to skewer anyone who got too close. Which caused the horse soldiers to go elsewhere in search of easier prey, such as those men who had thrown down their muskets and were attempting to run back the way they had come.

Which was next to impossible for the men in the front of the column as the men towards the rear weren't really aware of what was going on to their front until it was far too late. Those fleeing tried to bull their way through the packed ranks, in spite of the efforts of NCOs and officers of those units still in good order.

Unlike horses, the panicked soldiers would throw themselves against the ordered ranks, and inevitably, due to sheer numbers, disordering, then causing to break, the units in the rear of the column.

"Stay together, boys!" Duval shouted as his clump of soldiers slowly made their back to the French side of the field. At one point two French soldiers, without weapons, tried to push their way into the group, both were bayoneted and left for dead. The men in Duval's rally square knew that to break their little formation was to invite death into their midst.

Scots Greys charging at the Battle of Waterloo on 18th June 1815
Thomas Seccombe
Private Hamish Robertson was screaming incoherently as he worked his saber, up and down, up and down. His right sleeve was stained with blood, his horse, MacDuff, looked more red than grey from the slaughter of the Frenchmen all around him.

Most had thrown down their arms and were trying to flee, some raised their hands yelling "Grâce!²" Which Robertson didn't understand, nor did he care. The regiment had not seen action since 1794. Whereas most of the army had been in Spain, the Greys had remained at home, the men were anxious to claim their share of the glory of defeating Bonaparte.

It also meant that most of their officers had never been in battle before.

Which greatly concerned the Duke as he watched his heavy cavalry become more disordered as they drove two French divisions back, scattering most of them. Bonaparte's initial attack had been driven back in the center but the left of that corps was still threatening La Haye Sainte, the anchor of Wellington's center. Where was Uxbridge, he wondered? The man needed to recall the heavies before they did what British cavalry usually did, hallooing off into the wild as if they were at a fox hunt!


"Yes, Your Grace?"

"Where is Paget⁴?"

"Last I saw him, Your Grace, he was at the head of the Union Brigade, leading them in the charge."

"Damn it, haring off like some damned subaltern, how is he to control the rest of his Cavalry Corps if he's leading a bloody charge? Send a man over to Vandeleur with my compliments. Have him move his brigade forward to support Ponsonby, I see that the Greys are attempting to attack the battery over yonder.

Charge of the Royal Scots Greys
Henri Dupray

Sergeant Harry Robertson was sawing at his reins, trying to get his mount under control. He was following the rest of the troop as they charged across the valley and up the slope at the French cannon. His horse, Serpent, was wild with excitement, he was more concerned with staying with the other horses in the troop than obeying his rider.

"Damn your eyes, Serpent! Turn, you rascal!"

He felt the heat of a French cannon blast to his front, which took down two men and their horses just ahead of him. Knowing that it was too late to turn back, he stayed with his troop.

Capitaine Cantin, commanding the artillery of Donzelot's infantry division, screamed in frustration as his gunners tried to fight off the English cavalry (he had no idea that they were actually Scottish, nor would he have cared).

He saw his lead gunner on his Number 1 gun go down as he tried to unhorse his killer with a rammer from his gun. The men who tried to stand were cut down, those who ran were cut down, only those men who sheltered under the guns themselves survived. Thank God the English had no lancers!

Cantin ducked under his Number 2 gun and slashed at the horse of the man trying to kill him. The animal went down with a scream as the sword cut tendons in his leg. The rider landed heavily and tried to get up.

Cantin's sword found the man's throat before he could do so. As he pulled back under the gun again, he felt bad as he watched the enemy cavalryman choking on his own blood, then he remembered his gunners being slaughtered.

"Mourir, espèce de bâtard anglais!⁵" he shouted at the dying man. Immediately he felt guilty, he had been raised a good Catholic, he should be praying for ...

He heard the sound of French trumpets, "Nous sommes sauvés!⁶"

All thought of the dying Sergeant Robertson left his mind as he looked to see the French cavalry charge into the fray.

Union Brigade counterattacked by French Cuirassiers and Lancers
The impact could be heard across the field as the heavy French cavalry, the cuirassiers, slammed into the British dragoons. The British officers were desperately trying to regain control of their men. The trumpeters were sounding retreat, but far too many of the horses were blown by this point.

If only the ground weren't so muddy and torn!

Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur Clifton, commanding the 1st (Royal) Dragoons, the English component of the Union Brigade⁷, looked in vain for the brigade commander, Ponsonby.

"Run for it lads!" he was screaming as he urged his tired mount back up the hill.

The only thing which saved the brigade was the intervention of Somerset's Household Brigade, and the fact that the French cavalry, having accomplished their mission of saving the guns and driving off the British troopers, had been recalled.

Of one thousand, one hundred and nineteen men of Ponsonby's brigade which charged into battle, scarcely five hundred returned to the lines. The British heavy cavalry had, for all intents and purposes, ceased to exist as an effective unit.

But they had disordered and rendered combat ineffective two of Bonaparte's infantry divisions, over eight thousand men subtracted from the forces available to the French Emperor.

It also bought time, precious time for the Prussians to intervene on the field. Napoléon had once said, "You may ask me for anything you like except time."

And the sands of time were slowly draining away for the prospects of French victory.

Sergent Duval watched all this from the position he and roughly fifty men had managed to get to behind the Emperor's grand battery. Their retreat had been bloody, but the cavalry sought the weak, not those willing to fight. So they had survived.

For now.

¹ Horses will try not to run into things nor step on people on the ground.
² A book on Waterloo I'm reading now made great use of the French unit returns for the battle to determine casualties. Many of the men who were killed are listed as "missing," the author did do some correlation between those listed as missing versus those who returned from England later in the year as prisoners of war, sometimes he assumes that those who went missing actually deserted. Which many did, after the battle, not during. If, at role call, a man doesn't answer up, and no one in the unit saw what happened to him, the soldier would be listed as missing.
³ Asking for mercy, or quarter.
⁴ Lord Uxbridge's family name. He and Wellington did not get along.
⁵ Die, you English bastard!
⁶ We are saved!
⁷ The Union Brigade had an English, a Scottish, and an Irish regiment: the 1st (Royal) Dragoons, the 2nd (Royal North British) Dragoons (aka the Scots Greys), and the 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons.


  1. A bruising post Sarge, for a few minutes I'm NOT waiting for sunrise and listening to the calling birds outside, the sound of hooves thundering and men and horses screaming fill the air.

    1. Thanks, that charge must have been something to behold.

  2. Heavy losses...not so many years ago, literally hundreds or thousands in a day. We tend to take it for granted that we now incur limited casualties but that can change so easily. And the standard of medical care back at the time of this battle left much to be desired. Heavy thoughts brought about reading these stories.
    - Barry

    1. Not to mention the difficulty of evacuating casualties from the field. If you couldn't move yourself, you laid there until someone collected you. Often you'd see three or more able bodied men "helping" a wounded comrade back to the field hospital. Most wouldn't return. There were instances of wounded men being found days after a battle, still alive but nearly insane from pain, lack of water, and any sort of treatment.

  3. Can almost smell the smoke and the blood. And the "losened bowels" of death.

    The only recent war I can think of with anywhere close to Napoleonic casualty rates is the First Gulf war and what was inflicted on the Iraqi Army. The Iraqi army was what, about 700,000? Maybe 50,000 KIA, ~75,000 wounded, Horrendous, true, but "only" about (crossing my eyes and mumbling arithmatic) about 20%. "Only." If you do include the ~175,000 captured, you're getting towards a third of the Army.

    1. The Iraqi Army was not prepared to fight a modern power. We seem to be going down that path ourselves.

    2. Our High Command seems to have a vested interest in making sure that our military isn't capable of breaking up a school yard brawl in an elementary school.

    3. I wonder if the presumption is that the new overlords (probably Chinese) will let them run the show. Don't they realize that they would be the first to be put up against the wall? Betray one boss, probably will betray the next as well.

  4. Sarge, thanks for a riveting chapter.

    I can only imagine how hard it was to control a horse once it got its head. And then trying to operate a sword - TB

    1. I've seen horses "take over" from their riders. Scary for the rider if the rider is inexperienced.

  5. You run, you get the knife. From either friend or foe, you get the knife. A running man has no friends, his enemies are everywhere and include other runners. Runners will kill other runners in order to run. It's better to stand and die than to run. Better to die facing the enemy than to die from back wounds.

    Worse, any runners caught either get the rope, the gun or the knife.

    The only way for infantry to survive against cavalry is to group up tight and hold firm. From Legionaires to Saxon Huscarls to English lines and squares, you tighten up and hold the line. Let the horsies in and you're dead. There are whole trained movements of horse that basically make the horse into a threshing mill. Break into the formation, horse sweeps one way, then the other, stomping and kicking and biting anything that gets in its way, while the rider is hacking and slashing. Go watch the Lipizzaners to see all the movements.

    Stand shoulder to shoulder, shield or blade forward, stay together, stand and lean forward to receive the charge. Stand like a man and mostly you won't die like one.

    1. Oh yes, a horse will kick and bite when threatened.

      If you run, you just die tired.


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