THE DEFENCE OF PAPELOTTE
10 a.m. – 3 p.m.
18th June 1815
On the 18th June 1815, Wellington’s army was formed up south of the village of Waterloo. At the end of Wellington’s left flank were four strong-points, from east to west, the Château of Frischermont, the village of Smohain and the two farms of La Haye (not to be confused with La Haye Sainte in the centre of the field) and Papelotte. The river Smohain ran through the village and there were two main areas of woodland – around Papelotte and Frischermont. To the north of this area the ground rose up to the ridge, which ran along the whole length of Wellington’s position, and along this ridge was a road. Tracks crossed this road and led down to Papelotte, La Haye and Smohain. To the south of the position the ground rose [but less steeply than on the north side] so that all the strong points apart from Frischermont were in a valley, along which ran another road. Frischermont lay more on the southern slopes, [see diagram]. It was in this area that one of the fiercest but least well known actions of the Battle of Waterloo was fought.
By 10.00 a.m. on the 18th June 1815, the two sides had formed up. Along the road on the ridge were positioned, from Wellington’s left to right, Vivian’s Light Cavalry Brigade, together with Gardiner’s Troop of Royal Horse Artillery, Vandeleur’s Brigade of English Light Dragoons, Vinckle and Best’s Hanoverian Landwehr Brigades and Rettburg’s Battery of Hanoverian Foot Artillery. Between Best and Vincle were also the four guns of Byleveld’s Dutch-Belgian Horse Artillery Battery, attached to the Nassau Brigade under the Prince of Saxe-Weimar, which occupied Papelotte, La Haye and the road running along the valley. An advanced squadron of Vivian’s 10th Hussars was stationed at Smohain village, meanwhile , having just relieved a squadron of the 18th Hussars and a small outpost of the 12st Hussars, King’s German Legion.
On the south side of the valley the infantry division of Durutte [part of 1st. Corps] was formed up opposite Papelotte and La Haye while Jaquinot’s Light Cavalry Cavalry Division and its attached horse artillery battery occupied Frischermont and faced the 10th Hussars in Smohain.
The Allied first line of defence, the Prince’s Nassauers (Nassau; A small German State), was busy preparing for the coming battle, cleaning muskets, checking the flints and also fortifying the two farms by knocking loopholes in the walls. There were four battalions of these veteran Germans – the two battalions and the attached Jaeger company of the Orange-Nassau Regiment and the 2nd and 3rd battalions of the 2nd Nassau Regiment. Two of the battalions [those of the 2nd. Regiment] were formed up in line, behind the valley road to the west of Papelotte, “occupying the hedge rows in front” with skirmishers. One flanker company was at Papelotte. The Orange-Nassau Regiment occupied La Haye and part of Smohain. We can imagine the scene; the men in green coats and buff belts preparing for battle for battle in the farms and elsewhere impatiently and nervously for the French attack.
Elsewhere the atmosphere was slightly different – it had an added touch of British calm. In Smohain village Captain Taylor of the 10th Hussars, having positioned his squadron’s vedettes(mounted sentry’s), was busy cooking bacon in one of the houses. Behind, on the ridge, Lieutenant Ingilby of Gardiner’s Troop, returning from Brussels [on a mission to find a possible line of retreat for Vivian’s Cavalry Brigade in case this would prove necessary] brought back “a cold fowl for the troop, who…. had nothing” and reported to Vivian.
THE STARTING SKIRMISH: MIDDAY
It was around noon. Capt. Taylor of the 10th, was sitting in the house in Smohain when suddenly in burst a trooper saying “there were three great Squadrons right upon us.” Taylor snatched up his red shako , “mounted immediately and galloped to the front”. The vedettes of the latter were withdrawing before the three squadron columns of Jaquinot’ s 3rd Chasseurs a Cheval. There was also a general movement all the way “along the opposite slope, troops and Guns taking up their positions.”
Napoleon’s Grand Battery was forming up, the l2-pounders of the Guard joining with batteries from 1st and 2nd Corps ready to bombard the ridge along which Picton’s men were formed. Durutte’s Division was preparing, like the rest of D’erlon’s Corps, for the main attack and as a preliminary for that attack the French were strengthening their positions by taking Smohain. The French knew this would be the easiest stronghold to take as General Haxo of the Engineers had reported to Napoleon earlier that there were no barricades in the village, whereas both farms now had numerous loopholes in their walls. First, the 3rd. Chasseurs a Cheval pushed back their opponents vedettes and then Jaquinot’s 6-pounder horse artillery battery [part of the Great Battery] “opened on the village” of Smohain and Nassauers further to the west. Finally, Durutte’ s voltigeurs skirmished with Nassau flankers and Jaeger to take their attention away from the village.
Taylor “called in [his] ….. men and mounted the rest, and knowing that the village was well garnished with Infantry [some Orange-Nassauers]” . He retired before the French, up the Allied slope “and formed on the plain space above”. One troop was left further forward to check any Chasseurs who advanced out of the village, while the vedettes loaded their carbines and formed along the road in the valley to the west of Smohain. Finally, to draw away the fire of the French artillery from the front line, Byeveld’s Netherlands Battery “returned the fire” (probably on its own initiative as Wellington did not believe in wasting shot against enemy guns]. As the position stabilised around Smohain, with the vedettes and Nassauers holding back Chasseurs, Taylor’s squadron rejoined Vivian’s Brigade, leaving the Nassauers still containing the French [there being little cavalry can do to dislodge infantry behind brick walls].
The French had Frischermont in their hands [the allies could not have afforded to place troops in this stronghold which was on the French side of the valley] and were firmly established in Smohain, although they had not yet taken the whole village. A “strong patrol” of Jaquinot’s 7th Hussars, led by the “tremendous fire” of the great battery opened up, part of which started to heavily bombard the Papelotte and La Haye farms in preparation for infantry attack. already the voltiguers were pushing back the Nassau skirmishers and the D’Erlon’s massive columns started to move forward against Picton’s British division. It was to be a near run thing for Wellington’s left flank.
THE FIRST ATTACK. [FIRST PHASE]
As the other divisions formed into columns and began to march into the valley, Durutte’ s Frenchmen formed into eight battalion columns [two columns for each of the four regiments, which were the 8th, 29th, 85th and 95th Line] and moved forward to join the attack. The voltigeurs pushed back the Nassau skirmishers and then, as D’erlon’s other columns were welcomed by volleys from Picton’s men, Durutte’s columns pushed back the two Nassau battalions of the 2nd. Regiment; which were lining the valley road and began threaten’ the second line of defence; the Hanoverian’s of Vincke and Best , However, fire from Braun’s and Beleveld’s Batteries must have torn through the French ranks [the attack would have been more successful if it had been made in l’ordre mixte – a formation which combined the battering ram effect of the column with the fire power and shallower depth, through which cannonballs could tear a path,of the line). This artillery’s fire combined with the fact that the French were advancing uphill meant that the advantage of numbers that the French held was balanced and so the attack here ground to a halt, leaving the skirmishers blazing away, at each other.
More French were, however, coming up to the two farms of Papelotte and La Haye and things were not going so well for the allies here. At Papelotte the French must have suffered huge losses as they came up to the high walls but, once they managed to force an entry into the farm, their advantage of numbers meant that the place must soon have fallen. The wood on the east side of the farm buildings, however, must have allowed many of the garrison to escape the French bayonets and bullets. [Remember that at La Haye Sainte there was no wood – only an orchard on the French side of the farm and so D’Erlon’s men were easily able to surround the farm and almost wipe out the whole of the garrison]. La Haye was a stronger position, however. It consisted of several separate buildings and so as the French advanced they must have been caught in a murderous crossfire and been slaughtered. One very isolated building may possibly have been captured but, in general, the place remained firmly in Nassau hands.
The French now held two of the four strongholds [Frischermont and Papelotte], were firmly established in part of the third [Smohain] and were still in a position to take [La Haye.]
Although the left of the French attack had been halted, there was still a possibility that the Nassauers might break facing that portion of the French attack. They had suffered severe casualties and, having taken the brunt of Ney’s attack of 15th and 16th June just south of Quatre-Bras, were now being attacked by entirely fresh, experienced troops. The young Hanoverian militia of the second defence were also likely to fail if the French attack managed to grind its way up towards them. Picton’ s men to the west were being slowly pushed back by the other columns of D’Erlon’s as well. It was high time for the British Cavalry to lend a hand.
THE FIRST ATTACK. [SECOND PHASE]
Suddenly the British Heavy Cavalry Brigade of Ponsonby smashed into D’Erlon’s left three columns and put them to rout. One of the cavalry regiments, the Scots Greys, after emerging from the wreckage of Marcognet’ s column, charged one of Durutte’ s battalion columns: “In descending the hill…..the Greys came in contact with a …… French Column or square, regularly formed, the fire from which did great execution ….. This column was nearly destroyed, and the remainder of it were taken prisoners.” (It should be noted how much better this battalion was suited for receiving cavalry than the massive divisional columns). The remaining seven columns of Durutte were still in a strong position, however especially since the Greys and Inniskillings charged too far without directly supporting the Nassauers.
Then another cavalry charge was made, one which tipped the balance round the farms. To support the Union Brigade and enable it to retire successfully, once it had rallied, and also to drive off Durette’s men, Vandeleur’s British Light Dragoon Brigade was moved along the ridge road up to Rettburg’s Battery. Vivian moved to fill the gap left in the line and to be in a better position to support Vandeleur if his brigade got into difficulties. Ghigny’s Dutch-Belgian cavalry moved from, the centre to the left also in support – some may have joined Vandeleur’s charge. At Rettburg’s Battery Vandeleur’s Brigade deployed: “The 11th Light Dragoons were ordered to be the reserve and remain on the hill, the 12th and 16th being in line, the 12th on the left.” . The 12th. “advanced unperceived by the enemy , and on passing the hedge-row, occupied by the [92nd.] Highlanders, immediately made a flank attack on the French Column of [Durutte ). This attack was successful, [but)….. we were stopped by their standing columns of reserve [more battalion columns) on the other side of a ravine.” French skirmishers behind the hedges on the left also inflicted many casualties. According to Capt. Barton of 12th. the French artillery fired as much on their own infantry as they did on the 12th!
During this charge Gardiner moved forward two of his guns (with difficulty due to the muddy ground) to support it, but then a French shell blew up the limber of one of the guns and he withdrew after the charge.
Meanwhile Jaquinot’s 3rd and 4th Lancers were ordered to counter attack Ponsonby’s Heavy Cavalry, which they did with great success, killing the Brigade commander and many of his men.
As the green-coated lancers with their crested helmets began to pursue the scattered redcoats back across the valley, the 16th. Light Dragoons charged the French, and were joined by the 12th. whose colonel [another Ponsonby] fell around this time. He was believed dead but’ eventually was found during the night by a private of the 40th Foot and he subsequently recovered. These two regiments gained time for many Scots Greys and Inniskillings to return to the allied lines before the light dragoons were forced back by the 5th and 10th cuirassiers who, ordered to charge by Napoleon, cleared the valley of troops. Also Durutte’s division abandoned its gains, hurried on its way by an attack on Papelotte by the 3rd. Battalion, 2nd. Nassau Regiment. It would otherwise have been open to another flank attack by the British cavalry. So, what now was the
overall result of the action?
CONCLUSION OF THE FIRST PHASE 3 P.M
A very serious attack had been beaten off by the allies and the two farms were still in Nassau hands, providing protection against further French attacks on this sector of the battlefield. The allies were also still containing the French Chasseurs in Smohain. All this had been achieved, however, only at a very heavy cost. Many Nassauers had fallen, ideally there should have been more than four battalions to defend this sector to start with and many British cavalry had fallen as well. All this increased the likelihood of the next French attack being successful. All the allied troops had fought extremely well against superior numbers, the Dutch-Belgian Battery despite reputation fought as well as any other.
On the French side, the cost had been heavy too. Many of Durutte’s infantry had been killed or wounded either in attacking the formidable strong-points of Papelotte and La Haye, or in advancing against the troops behind the hedgerows. As the French were formed in columns, the bullets and artillery fire would have claimed many casua1ties. At least two of the battalion columns had also been broken by British cavalry. Worse, Marmot’s Hussars were now reporting that the Prussians were advancing to Wellington’s support. Durutte now needed control of the four strong-points not just to tie down the brigades of Vande1eur and Vivian and keep then from supporting the battered allied centre, but also to cut the line s of communication between Wellington and Blucher and to help form a line to face the Prussians. A line that would be anchored to P1ancenoit and these four strong-points.
Therefore the strong-points were vitally important for both armies – and the French were still in a position to take them.
THE PAPELOTTE ACTION PART 2
3pm to 10pm
THE PRUSSIAN ARRIVAL
Prince Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar, Colonel of the Orange-Nassau Regiment and commander of the whole Nassau brigade on the evening of the 15th June after the original commander Colonel Godeck broke his leg, was undoubtedly busy counting the cost of the last attack and encouraging his depleted green-coated Germans. Also, he was worrying about his parents receiving exaggerated reports of his slight self-inflicted leg wound received while cutting branches away with his sword two days earlier at Quatre-Bas. He was, it appears, reminding himself of his duty to maintain the honour of his family and to hold his position as instructed. However, the last attack by Durutte’s French division had made his position very desperate due to great loss of his men. The Prince, seeing great numbers of soldiers lying in blood soaked green jackets and the French voltigeurs mingling with the corn some distance in front, must have despaired of surviving the conflict.
There was some hope, however. Beyond some skirmishing by the light troops in “no man’s land”, there was at this time no serious fighting in this area. The Nassauers were lucky, all along the rest of the line there were either infantry or cavalry attacks on Wellington’s troops. Also, the Prussians were expected to arrive at any moment; already a “Prussian Officer….with the intelligence of the advance of that army”had come to Vivian’s brigade of light cavalry. Major Percy, ADC to the Duke of Wellington, (who would take the Waterloo dispatch to England after the battle) also came to this area “to ascertain how soon the Prussians might be expected”. French skirmishers had been thrown out in a line ready to face the Prussians and Captain Taylor of Vivian’s 10th Hussars noticed their “guns and troops (waiting) in reserve”, while Lieutenant Ingilby of Gardiner’s battery (attached to Vivian’s cavalry) noted the Prussian “fixed picket in the distance (to his left)”. During this time, “the weather was still dull and wet” and when the wind partially cleared away the smoke at times, it revealed massive French cavalry charges to the right and then French cheers of “Vive l’ Empereur!” could be heard.
Faced with the threat of the Prussians, Napoleon had sent Domon and Subervie’s light cavalry divisions to guard his army’s right flank and to observe any Prussian movements. Lobau’s 6th Infantry Corps was also detached to support the cavalry and several cannon were taken from the right of the Great Battery. It was these troops which Captain Taylor had notice from the ridge.
Eventually Bulow’s 4th Prussian Corps arrived from Wavre at 4:30 pm, and attacked. To link up with Wellington’s left flank, and to protect his own right flank from French attack, Bulow sent three battalions from Losthin’s brigade to Frischermont from from where Jacquinots cavalry had by now been withdrawn. The 2nd battalion, 8th Regiment and the 3rd battalion, 3rd Silesian Landwehr led the advance, with the 1st battalion, 18th Regiment following in reserve. Having passed Frischermont and progressed through Smohain with considerable caution at about 5.00 p.m., the Prussian battalions marches parallel to the river Smohain, but Durutte’s men charged them and they withdrew back into the village of Smohain. Lieutenant Ingilby of Gardiner’s battery saw this skirmish and felt frustrated that the French were outside the effective range of his 6- pounder cannon. Eventually the position stabilised on this sector of the battlefield and the weather began to improve.
This lull in the fighting ended at about 6.15 p .m.. In a fierce and desperate attack, the French had just overrun La Haye Sainte in the centre of the battlefield and infantry, cavalry and artillery units were attacking all down the line. Durutte’s men came on again proceeded by the customary dense line of voltigeurs. Again both French and Allied artillery roared out cannon shot. By1eveld’s and Rettberg’s batteries, situated on high ground with an excellent field of fire, had a superb opportunity to show their worth and no doubt took full advantage of it (Rettberg’s battery having totally run out of ammunition by the end of the battle). Again the French burst into Papelotte Farm and took the place and probably dealt likewise with La Haye Farm The Nassauers, exhausted, depleted and outnumbered, retreated on to the second line of defence, the Hanoverian Landwehr Brigades of Best and Vincke. Vivian and Vandeleur’s brigades, together with Gardiner’s cannon were ordered over to the west to support Wellington’s crumbling centre and the young, inexperienced Hanoverian Landwehr was unlikely to be able to provide much help. Indeed, Vincke’s brigade was called over to Mount St. Jean Farm to provide a reserve at about the same time that Vivian and Vandeleur left. Also,·due to the casualties in Picton’s division, Best’s brigade would be moved slightly to the west to help fill the gaps in the line there. The Prussian in Smohain were themselves engaged and could hence’ not lend much support. Ziethen’s Prussian 1st Corps was still too far from the battlefield to help. The Naasauer’s position was desperate.
However, the French position was desperate too. They were tired, decimated, soaked by the previous night’s rain, covered with mud, demoralised by their previous lack of success and by the Prussian arrival and suspicious of their generals, many of whom had openly served King Louis XVIII in 1814. They could not stand this battle of attrition any more than the Allies. Individuals, then groups, inched back down the ridge slope, followed by companies, battalions, regiments and finally the whole attacking force from Hougoumont to La Haye. The Prince’s Nassauers, steadily advancing after the French, were able to retake Papelotte and La Haye (although due to small numbers unable to garrison them sufficiently to ensure that they would not fall again).
THE DREADFUL LULL
There was another dreadful lull as the two sides regrouped and prepared for the final blow. Victor. Hugo sums up the. situation well: “That battle was like a duel between two grievously wounded men, each with the blood draining out of him, neither willing to yield.” To the east, meanwhile, two of Hacke’s Prussian battalions, 2nd Neumark Landwehr, had relieved Losthin’s more experienced three battalions (two were old reserve battalions and only one was of Landwehr ) in Smohain and Frischermont, enabling them to join the heavier fighting against Lobau. Units of Pirch’s 2nd Prussian Corps, arriving behind Bulow, allowed some of the latter’s cavalry to start to move over to the support of the Prince and his Nassauers – the 1st (West Prussian) Uhlans (a regular unit) advanced in column, followed by the more inexperienced 2nd Neumark Landwehr Cavalry. .One of Wellington’s. ADC’s, Lieutenant Colonel Freemantle, had been sent to Ziethen’ s advancing column requesting reinforcements for Wellington’s line. However, Blucher, desperate for additional soldiers for the assault on Plancenoit had sent an order to Ziethen to turn left in support. Ziethen’s 1st Corps had already started to turn away from the road leading to Wellington’s position, when General Muffling, Prussian liaison officer to the Anglo-Dutch Army, arrived and persuaded Ziethen that the Anglo-Dutch had to be reinforced directly and immediately or they would break. The Prussian brigades of the advanced guard marched back to the turning leading to Wellington’s position. The Prussians were on the way.
THE 3RD ATTACK
There was to be one, last French attack, however. The whole French line advanced in support of the Imperial Guard’s attack in the centre of the battlefield, encouraged by Napoleon’s announcement that Grouchy’s Frenchman, not Ziethen’s Prussians, were arriving. Durutte’s men again swarmed over the trampled corn, opening fire as they advanced across the tracks and up to the Nassau battalions. Meanwhile, to the north, Ziethen’ s 1st brigade under Steinmetz arrived and turned off the ridge road to start the descent to the Papelotte and La Haye Farms, while the French started to batter down the doors of the two farms and to storm into the buildings, totally capturing Papelotte.
Then Ziethen’s battalions spread out: the 3rd battalion, 12th Regiment, proceeded by the 1st and 3rd Silesian Rifle Companies (presumably in skirmish formation) bore down on Papelotte, while the 1st and 2nd battalions, 24th Regiment, advanced to La Haye and the 3rd battalion, 1st Westphalian Landwehr followed in support. Then, as the French must have been swarming around the farms an the musket smoke and the setting sun must have combined to produce a supernatural gloom, the Prussians arrived. At first the French, remembering Napoleon’s announcement thought Grouchy had arrived, but upon being greeted by volleys of lead, soon fell back. The Prussians entered La Haye: “unhappily(they)….mistook(the Prince of Saxe-Weimar’s) Nassauers, whose uniform is still very French (as they had once served in that French organisation, the Confederation of the Rhine), though their hearts are true German, for Frenchmen, and made dreadful fire upon them. (The Nassauers) were driven from their post.” The Nassau troops had fired back on the soldiers they had concluded were Grouchy’s force and the terrible mistake was only realised after many casualties had been inflicted on both sides.
There was no time to stop, however. The Prussian cavalry attached to Ziethen’s advanced guard- 1st Silesian Hussars, the 3rd Brandenburg Uhlans, the 5th Brandenburg Dragoons and the 2nd Kurmark Landwehr Cavalry from Lutzow and Treskow’s brigades formed up along the crest of the ridge fulfilling the supporting role Vivian and Vandeleur had formerly played. Both Lutzow and Treskow’s brigades had charged heroically at the Battle of Ligny to cover the flight of the Prussia~ army from the battlefield. Many casualties had been suffered there and Lutaov had been taken prisoner. Nevertheless, they would provide good service in the final hours of the battle. In addition, the Prussian Horse Artillery Battery number 7 relieved Rettburg’s guns – the latter had no ammunition left,while the rest of 1st Corps artillery formed on the slopes of the ridge north of the outposts and poured flanking fire on both Lobau and D’Erlon. The 4th Corps cavalry detachment and meanwhile arrived and was ready to protect the left flank of the second phase of Steinmetz’ s attack. Steinmetz’s infantry itself had by now consolidated around the farms so that all four strong-points of this sector were now in allied hands. The Prince of Saxe-Weimar and Nassauer’s meanwhile occupied a position between Steinmetz and the 1st Corps cavalry.
By now the French Imperial Guard had been repulsed and the shock of the arrival of Ziethen as opposed to Grouchy completed the hammer blows launched at the French army. Totally demoralised, the French now came under attack from all sides, Wellington’s General Advance, another Prussian onslaught on Plancenoit and importantly, the continuance of Steinmetz’s attack.
Victor Hugo describes the scene: “Ziethen’s cavalry led by Blucher in person….The sky….c1eared to allow the sinister red light of the setting sun to flood through the elms of the Nivelles road….Two of Durutte’s regiments were weaving this way and that,’ rebounding like shuttlecocks between the sabres of the(Prussian) Uhlans and the muskets of Wellington’s infantry….An army of 40,000 men, the lions of France, become sheep for Ziethen to slaughter.” As Durutte’s division dissolved into fugitives, with its commander (a survivor of both the retreat from Moscow and of Leipzig) severely wounded, Marshal Ney rallied two of its battalions and and led them forward, only to be swept back in a wave of fleeing, demoralised troops. Ziethen’s cavalry charged in pursuit and cut down many Frenchmen, before being jammed up in the whirling sea of a routed army, overturned carts and mud on the main road.
As the last soldiers left the battle sector, a deathly calm fell on the scene. Smohain had half its houses gutted while La Haye and Papelotte had also been severely damaged. Already the mainly Prussian looters were at work and the wounded would have to wait a long time until they received medical care. In all Ziethen had suffered around 320 casualties, Durutte’s losses must have been enormous both on the battlefield and in the rout, while Prince Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar, writing on the 19th June to his father, noted that only 1,200 of his 4,000 men were still ready for action.
There is no doubt that the defence of the Papelotte – Frischermont area was magnificent. However, the bravery and heroism of the outnumbered defenders should not be allowed to overshadow the magnificent feats. of arms of the attackers, who indeed, at one point of the battle (2.15 p.m.) held Papelotte and Frischermont and were established in part of Smohain village.
The fight was one of determination and obstinacy in both defence and attack by two sides equally well balanced. It was the arrival of Steinmetz that finally broke the stalemate and in this respect the action symbolises the battle as a whole Wellington almost reduced Napoleon to a draw, Blucher changed a draw into a victory.