WATERLOO BY HORSE
An account of a journey across the present day battle-sites of the Waterloo Campaign by horse.
by Evelyn Webb-Carter- Chairman of the Waterloo Association
Having followed many campaign routes over the years and been so involved in the Waterloo battlefield for nigh on 20 years it seemed obvious that I should try a ride of the Waterloo Campaign. Perhaps I should not have left it so long but I had been deterred by the obvious development of the area. Belgium is a highly populated country and the infrastructure of roads, motorways and railways is intimidating; at least to a horseman!
So, some years after the bicentenary with which I was heavily involved I turned my mind to a Waterloo Ride. I was aware of the “Waterloo Ride” organised by a redoubtable Dutchman which basically circumvented the battlefield every other year but I wanted to do more by following the whole campaign in the number of days it took. First, I had to reconnoitre or find a scout to see if such a thing were practical, given the physical obstacles. I had a bit of luck as there is a former Grenadier officer, Justin Davies, living and working in Brussels. I had known him in the Regiment but not well. However he became heavily involved in the project to restore the farm at Hougoumont on the battlefield and with my involvement in the UK commemorations we got to know each other over a long period and became firm friends. He was the obvious scout and although I expect he inwardly groaned he agreed to help. He had two things to do; one was to find a source of horses, more about that later, and the other to prove a route.
Fortunately Justin and his other half, Maria, are keen bicyclists so in the months following my proposal to him, he and Maria scouted the routes which I had identified comparing the campaign routes with today’s modern maps. He came across a few problems and adjustments and even compromises had to be made. For example Blücher had marched from Wavre on the fatal day of 18th June and this was the route I wanted to take but Wavre is now very built up and riding through a town is no fun. But by going south of Wavre we found a more rural route from a suburb which although mentioned in the histories is not a significant route. But this allowed us a rural ride to meet at Lasne for the final few miles to the battlefield taken by the Prussians. In the year before the ride he and I also did some reconnaissances by car. Thus by the start of the ride I had a full set of maps showing exactly our route without undue obstacles; quite a feat in today’s Belgium.
Horses were going to be an obvious factor. My initial idea was to find some friends who had horses in UK and drive them over the channel for the weeks ride. I even got my own horse inoculated in accordance with current European regulations. But this exercise and investigating the procedures and bureaucracy, even though I had done it twice before several years ago made me think again. It would be all a lot simpler to hire horses in country. So once again I turned to my redoubtable scout, Justin. Could he find a stable which had horses for hire over an extended period of 4 days? Well, he did but there was a problem. Karl Lacus who owns a livery in the Forest of Soignes seemed to think he could help. But the good Karl is not a great communicator. Despite telephone calls, e-mails, Justin’s visits I simply could not get him to make a proposal. So reluctantly in 2017 I abandoned the venture as too much was in the “air” and I had to let my riders go. Whereupon the week before we were supposed to start the ride Karl emails saying “where and when do start?” I had to tell him I had postponed the trip until I had secured horses for certain. But the good news was that he was genuinely interested whilst being rather disorganised. He readily agreed to provide horses the following year. Thus it was that I managed to get routes, riders and horses all set for a ride in April 2018.
So who were the riders? There was my daughter, Rose who had accompanied me on many of my riding trips around the world and her newly acquired husband, Ewen, whom she had met on my trip over the Andes. Little did I know that I would be playing Cupid! Then there was Jim Arkell our immediate neighbour in Gloucestershire and his ex soldier son Johnny. Finally there was myself and Simon Mayall, a frequent campaigner on my rides. We were supposed to have my old friend Henry Dallal, who also been a constant companion in many countries and who is a talented and celebrated photographer. We were, all in all, a jolly crew that assembled at a small gîte near Ligny on the Monday evening. The plan was to ride the battles of Ligny and Quatre Bras on Day 1 following Napoleon and Marshal Ney in the events of 16th June 1815. Then on Day 2 we would replicate the ponderously slow pursuit by Marshal Grouchy to Wavre and finally we would arrive on the battlefield as Blûcher did on Day 3.
So much for the plan, how did it go? Our first night in the perfectly adequate gîte at Boignee (Le Relais de Charlinette) was mostly spent in a briefing/discussion on the campaign. The riders were pretty well acquainted with the campaign so this was a fruitful exercise interspersed with a very reasonable five course supper. After a long day travelling we all retired well watered and briefed. The next morning the horses eventually arrived some 45 minutes late and so with some suspense we examined the horse flesh which emerged from an enormous horse box. Well, they looked good and so the next thing was getting mounted, always a kerfuffle at the beginning of a ride. No dramas but it took time and it was not until about 1015 that we departed saying farewell to our hosts who had made a good sum by our presence.
Our route took us along the southern boundary of the battlefield of Ligny towards Fleurus from where we visited the famous windmill where Napoleon viewed the battlefield at about 11 am on the 16th June. By 12 he had ordered the attack to be commenced by 4th Corps under Marshal Gerard and so started the slogging match which lasted till nightfall. Fleurus was a good viewing point but it only really covered the North side of the Prussian position and so the South Eastern quadrant could not be seen. Keen to get off the roads which we discovered quite quickly were very slippery for horseshoes we rode along a farm track to reach Le Tombe de Ligny, a low knoll overlooking Fleurus where Ziethen the Commander of I Corps spent the night of 15th/16th June. It struck us as being extraordinarily advanced to his main body behind him. We were able to get a view of the deployment of I Corps and quite clearly they were deployed on a forward slope. Interestingly the position at Ligny had been foreseen and the plan had been to dominate the Namur road which sits on shallow ridge. But Von Gneisenau, Blucher’s Chief of Staff had brought the whole force forward so it sat in a bowl in full view of the French. 11 and 111 Corps were deployed to the east in the shape of an S having fallen forward on its side with the top not far from our gîte of the night before. We rode along part of the front of I Corps, some of it now built up but then much more broken with streams and copses making our way to La Haye. Riding out of Ligny on a particularly slippery road Johnny’s horse, Wasabi, lost all four feet and his rider landed on his hip. This was the ride’s most worrying moment but Johnny was very stoic saying that everything was OK. Like the trooper he is, he remounted and on we went. Not far from there we met up with Jim Arkell who had been picked up by Ewen who cleverly supplied us all with a cold beer which was most welcome. With much jollity we rode onto Brye, passing the site of the windmill at Bussy. This like Napoleon’s OP was used by Blûcher to view his battlefield. A little further on we paused for lunch near a building which I guess had been an asylum. It was being renovated but we were accosted by a couple of mentally disturbed locals who fortunately did not pause for long. We wolfed down our diet of cheese, pate and French bread washed down with wine. This was the sort of repast we were to have in the next few days and was much enjoyed in the April sunshine as the horses munched away on their hay. Soon it was time to move on as we had some way to go.
The duty driver for the next leg was Johnny who was I suspect feeling a little battered although he didn’t say as much. Soon we were all mounted and on our way crossing the country to Quatre Bras. This was a fairly straight forward ride although I had to keep an eye on the map and one stage took an unrecced route which worked well. Fortunately I had driven this route a month or so previous. Soon we were in the area where Ney deployed his troops on his approach to Quatre Bras. This is a story of missed opportunity by Ney and miscalculation by Wellington. Wellington had assumed for a while that the centre of Napoleon’s axis would be further west i.e. from Valenciennes to Brussels and it was not until the evening of the 15th June at about 5pm, just before he appeared at the famous Duchess of Richmond’s Ball. The Prussian most probably knew the real axis earlier in the day, possibly as early as 9 am but they had failed to inform the Duke until now. This caused the Duke to utter to the Duke of Richmond “Napoleon has humbugged me by God! He has gained 24 hours’ march on me”. Whilst reviewing the situation on a map he pointed to Quatre Bras and said “I must fight him here!” Preliminary orders were issued at the same time and further orders at 10 pm which in essence moved 1 and 3 Divisions and others to Nivelles. At the same time the 5th Division, the Reserve Division under Picton and the 4th Hanoverian Brigade deployed out of Brussels on their way to Mont St Jean and no further until Wellington was sure of the French axis; Nivelles or Quatre Bras. So this miscalculation might have been far more serious were it not for Ney’s remarkably slow deployment to approach Quatre Bras. There was a good deal of confidence that the French would be in Brussels that evening but even with no resistance they would have been hard pressed. At Quatre Bras all was quiet until 2.30 pm when the French attacked with 19,000 infantry and 3,500 cavalry. Wellington had been on the ground by 10 am having left Brussels at 7 am, a good deal earlier than our schedule! It was so quiet that he wondered if he was at the right place. He went forward to La Coquinette which was where we riders crossed the Charleroi – Genappes road. From there he wrote an optimistic despatch to Blûcher. Shortly after at about 2 pm Wellington rode over to Blûcher’s position at Brye to consult and it was then there is some speculation as to what was agreed. Von Gneisenau alleges he said he would come to Blûcher’s aid whatever the circumstances but Wellington’s recollection is that “I will come if I am not attacked myself”.
Wellington arrived back from Brye at about 3pm by which time the French attack had begun and at that stage the front was being held by the 2nd Netherlands Division but only just. Shortly after Picton’s Division arrived and sat astride the Nivelles –Namur lateral road bringing stability to the situation. Our route took us over the main Charleroi – Quatre Bras road and we circumvented Bossu Wood or at least where it had been. The area was much more open and large crop growing fields dominated the scenery. By now it was about 1630 and we were still some way from Genappes so I made a decision to finish our days ride at Quatre Bras and drive onto Genappes. We did not have to wait long before Karl arrived with the box and all was well. The horses had had a long day and the riders had done enough. We were a bit short of time as we were expected at Le Château de Bois Seigneur but despite that I was in need of a cold beer and where better than in Genappes, a town which plays a part in the story. Over the beer we reflected on the battle at Quatre Bras. Although not overwhelming it was a victory for Wellington but at a cost of 4,700 casualties (killed and wounded) of which 318 British killed. The 1st/92nd Gordon Highlanders had 42% casualties. One of the important factors for both the battles of Ligny and Quatre Bras was the confusion surrounding D’Erlon’s Corps which took part in neither battle and could have been decisive in either. As it was, Wellington was lucky but then good generals make their own luck.
We then went on to Château Bois Seigneur and were met by Bernard and Christine Snoy who were as ever charming and welcoming. Bernard gave us a bit of a brief on the château and then we all got into baths etc. Dinner was at 8 and a very congenial evening ensued. I vaguely remember we had an excellent dinner of asparagus,stuffed courgettes and tomatoes. After dinner we had a glass of port and a conducted tour of Bernard’s not inconsiderable library. By 1030 we were all whacked and pleaded to go to our beds. So ended a very enjoyable day with good horses and good company.
The next day was somewhat cloudy but spells of sunshine helped us on your way. However having gauged the tempo of the previous day and realising we had a considerable distance to ride I made a decision in the morning to start at Gembloux rather than at Ligny. Karl was as ever very cooperative and duly we met him at Ligny and then guided him to a suitable site at Gembloux. This day was designed to follow the wanderings of Marshal Grouchy who had been instructed by Napoleon to follow Blûcher and harry him. Fortunately for Blûcher and the Prussians this did not happen. Not only did Grouchy take his time on the 17th not leaving Gembloux until after midday, but he also haired off in the wrong direction believing Blûcher was retiring on Liege. Grouchy’s force was not inconsiderable numbering 27,000 infantry and 6,000 cavalry and one wonders why he needed such a large force if he was just trying to find and shadow Blûcher. Or was his mission to find and engage with his strong force? Napoleon’s thoughts on this are not clear but it is felt unlikely that he expected Grouchy to engage Blûcher as he would have been vastly outnumbered. Napoleon could have done with some of the troops allocated to Grouchy the next day, the day of Waterloo. It is also clear that Grouchy was not very clever this day because what he omitted to do was to get to the west of Blûcher (wherever he was) so he could interpose between Wellington, whose direction of withdrawal and probable position was known, and Blûcher. This would have meant getting to the west of Wavre and had he done so the outcome of Waterloo might have been very different.
Our ride was down a disused railway line which had been converted to a horse/cycle track which took us towards Namur in exactly to same direction as Grouchy, well off to the right flank. Our ride was very pleasant in the now warmer sunshine. We were free of traffic and able from time to time to have a brief canter. However at one stage we had to cross a narrow bridge OVER a motorway and this we all found rather unnerving with vast quantities of traffic passing a few feet below and I resolved to dismount the next time but fortunately the only other bridge crossing a motorway was under it. After a couple of hours we met with Rose who was the duty driver and she dispensed cold beer which was most welcome. Not long after we met up with her again for lunch in a pleasant communal pasture. The normal picnic was very jolly all the more so as we were in no hurry, our time being interrupted by some local interest including a gentleman who might have been sent from Central Casting as Blûcher, complete with walrus moustache! Cries of “nous avons trouvé Blûcher” were heard. Soon we were on our way again and managed a bit of cantering. We arrived at our destination bang on time and were met by our host Comte Bernard de Traux de Wardin. Bernard de Traux is one of those magnetic people that immediately make you feel welcome; he is robust looking 78 year old with a broad smile. He guided us through his estate but on the way we were trotting up beside a wood when we heard a great “crash” just behind us. Looking back we saw an enormous bough of a tree had fallen to the ground. If we had been a few seconds behind…….. ! In the great storm of 2014 the estate had lost a large number of trees and Bernard showed us where many had fallen. We arrived at the beautiful Chateau Jodoigne in good time and there we were met by Bernard’s wife Wendy who matched her husband’s welcome. The Château had been restored by Bernard and Wendy over the last 20 years and despite a fire in 2001/2 is a most lovely place; we were indeed fortunate to be their guests. Once the good Karl had arrived and taken away the horses we were brought in and shown our luxurious quarters before enjoying a cup of tea in front of a fire. It was a lovely moment as we chatted happily away in the warmth of a family home. We fleetingly met Bernard and Wendy’s charming youngest son who sadly could not stay for dinner as he was being interviewed for a job the next day; I hope he was successful.
After tea there was time for a deep bath and a quick kip. Dinner was delicious, I remember the Bombe Surprise, and we were joined by Michael and Diane Mitchell and Justin and Maria Davies as well as a historian friend. We were 13 at the dinner table but Wendy had placed a Teddy Bear at the end of the table for those of us who were superstitious. It was a delightful party but soon the day’s work had played tricks on our attention and we were off to a good night’s sleep. The plan had been to drive to the RV with Karl at Ottignies and leave the “people carrier” there so that we could all ride together but there was valuable stuff on board and fearing local brigands Bernard de Traux kindly drove us all to the RV. Karl, jolly as ever got us organised and soon we were off on our route to Waterloo.
When Blûcher and his Army withdrew to Wavre the various Corps moved in differing directions and order which reflected the outcome of Ligny. This meant that when they arrived and stopped at Wavre and vicinity they were not located in a logical manner for possible operations the next day not least because nobody had foreseen what those operations might be. Thus the Corps were mal located for the day of 18th June, although the battered II Corps was at least west of the Dyle maintaining communications with the allied Army. IV Corps for example being the least damaged was well to the West of Wavre and if used for the next day at Waterloo would need to carry out a passage of lines through II and III Corps. This is exactly what Blûcher quite rightly ordered but it was going to take a long old time to bring IV Corps through the others where roads were few and far between. The result was a much delayed move of the Prussians towards Waterloo. Blûcher had had some difficulty in persuading von Gneisenau that to support Wellington at Waterloo was a safer bet than withdrawing East but it was surely so. It was perhaps one of the most decisive moments in the 19th Century for if Blûcher had not marched, heaven only knows what might have happened at Waterloo. At 2 am Wellington had received Blûcher’s assurance that he would be at Waterloo at midday but this was clearly not going to be possible.
One notable feature of the ride was the appearance of Ewen on this day who was resplendent in a pair of old fashioned breeches made out of Cameron tartan. Our own progress was also delayed, not by enemy action, but by an error of map reading on my part. I was gaily confident of where I was but owing to a wrong turn we were several kilometres further East than we should have been. This took a bit of time to sort out but soon we were back on track riding through Lasne and on towards Plancenoit. We paused at the Memorial to Count Schwerin, who was the Commander of the 1st Prussian Cavalry Brigade and was the first Prussian casualty being killed by round shot. It was his widow who erected the memorial and she became in the years to follow a popular figure locally as she tended his grave and memorial. On we went along that long path to Plancenoit which elements of IV Corps and all of II Corps took. At Plancenoit we took in Memorials to the Prussians and Napoleon’s Jeune Garde. Sadly we had no time to spend around the Church where a large part of the action took place. We crossed the main Charleroi road at La Belle Alliance and so entered the battlefield of Waterloo.
Our path took us along the old road, now just a farm track towards the Hougoumont Estate then much larger than it now is. The diagonal track took us towards the position held by Hugh Halkett’s Brigade of Hanoverians and Adam’s Brigade in the evening. This track shows the interesting relief of the land here which although less marked than it was thanks to the building of the Mound is nonetheless significant. For it was the left handed slant which under pressure of artillery fire had the effect on the Moyenne Garde of favouring the left as they attacked the British Line. It was these which gave Adam’s Brigade the opportunity to left form and take the Garde in the flank.
We riders took a detour into Hougoumont where they kindly opened the famous gates, beautifully remade for the bicentenary by the Petworth Estate. The story of Lieutenant Wyndham and the closing of the North gates was retold once more including the traditional yarn that the Wyndhams haven’t closed a door since! There Michael Mitchell met us with a glass of white wine which was most welcome. Hougoumont is a magical place steeped in the history of the battle. It has been beautifully restored and is a triumph to all those involved in Project Hougoumont. It was here where soldiers from the Brigade of Guards, notably the Coldstream, defended the estate and latterly the Château and its grounds. That it held out during the whole battle was not only remarkable but crucial to Wellington’s success.
We were a bit behind the clock so we had to move on to our next appointment. Suzanne Cornet who lives at La Haye Sainte had invited us to ride into their courtyard so we hacked up the Mound and on to La Haye Sainte where Suzanne greeted us with a glass of cold beer. It was here where the soldiers of the King’s German Legion were so robust in defending the farm, a much smaller property than Hougoumont. Unfortunately they had done little to build further defences and even burnt a gate as fire wood the evening before. Had they taken more precautionary measures maybe La Haye Sainte might not have been captured by the French. The farm has hardly changed in the intervening years and since the farm is not open to the public we were lucky to see it.
We then rode up to the Mound for a few photograph opportunities and waited for the good Karl to arrive and take our friends away. This was followed by lunch in the restaurant and afterwards all went to look at the excellent museum and climb the Mound whilst I went back to retrieve the vehicle we had left at Jodoigne. That evening we were host to all those who had helped us on the ride including the Snoys and the de Trauxs. Julie Huckle part time secretary to Michael Mitchell was also with us as she had been such a help over the planning of the ride. A jolly evening was had by all and we retired to Bois Seigneur-Isaac for our second night.
The next day, having made our farewells to the Snoys, our single task was to ride in the Forest of Soignes. This was an important lesson to show how porous the forest was. Napoleon frequently criticized the Allied position at Waterloo because In Wellington’s rear was a barrier to any retreat he might have to make. In fact troops traversed it through several roads and tracks on the way to Quatre Bras. For us although the passage of time will have had an effect it was far from being an impenetrable barrier. We spent about 90 minutes in the forest and were able to have a good canter and inspect the old Royal Box of the race track which is no longer used. It was a lovely sunny morning with the sun seeping through the large beech trees and we all felt that we had had a good few days riding over the battlefields of 1815. So it was a merry party that parted company at the local railway station which took Simon, Jim and Johnny to Brussels to join the Euro Star. The rest of us drove to Waterloo so that Rose and Ewen could see in the church the memorial to Cornet Alexander Hay of the 16th Light Dragoons who was killed at Waterloo. Rose is his great great great great great niece, a nice link to the battle which I sadly do not have! We then went off to a car park to sort out the hired car before handing it in. And so it was not long before we were on the Euro Star and in London and back to the hurly burly of our respective lives.