Wellington soon became aware of the preparations being made by the French as Milhaud’s cavalry corps, consisting of four thousand five hundred iron clad Cuirassiers, rode forward to deploy. This movement included the redeployment of much of the cavalry to the east of the road over to the west and took some considerable time to complete; this cavalry charge was no instant reaction or a rash impulse. The allied infantry had time to prepare their defences and were retired from the ridge line and then formed into squares (so called, although the formation was often more like a rectangular shape), the front ranks kneeling with bayonets pushed out like the spines of a hedgehog, the rear ranks standing with muskets loaded, ready to bring down the horses and riders if they pushed their attack hard up to them. The heavily depleted units of Kielmansegge’s and Halkett’s Brigades were joined together, two battalions forming amalgamated squares.
The artillery on the ridge was ordered to reserve their fire until the cavalry approached, when they were to decimate them with canister shot before quickly removing a wheel to avoid the cavalry dragging their abandoned guns away and retiring to the protection of the squares standing just behind. The allied cavalry was pulled in from both the right and left to form up in rear of the lines of squares from where they could counter attack the French cavalry when they had inevitably become disorganised as they wound their way between the allied squares.
Having formed up in the shallow valley whilst the French artillery intensified its bombardment of the allied ridge, Milhaud’s Cuirassiers began a slow walk across the valley floor and were supported by a demonstration along the Nivelles road by Pire’s light cavalry brigade. This latter movement was countered by Grant’s cavalry brigade, who soon returned to the centre having ascertained that this was only a diversionary attack. Ignoring the small arms fire from both La Haye Sainte and Hougoumont orchard on their flanks, the Cuirassiers soon came within effective canister range of the allied artillery and the French began to sustain heavy losses but continued undaunted. As they rode on, the smoke billowed incessantly from the allied cannon as they sought to rapidly fire as many rounds as humanly possible; great numbers of horses dropped with terrible wounds and riders were thrown to the ground with great violence or were struck themselves, but still the rest rode on. As they neared the allied artillery batteries, the French horsemen were emboldened by the sight of the gunners running away, abandoning their cannon, whilst others rapidly hitched their guns and fled from the ridge in obvious panic.
Suddenly the Cuirassiers crested the ridge and cheered in expectation of seeing the allied centre crumbling before their eyes. But to their great surprise, they found themselves uncomfortably close to the first of a number of hollow squares of infantry, standing resolute despite their sudden appearance.
The allied infantry could feel the tremor of the earth under their feet as the hordes of heavy cavalry approached the crest of the ridge, but they still remained unseen and as such their imagination made it feel even more frightening. Suddenly the allied artillerymen ran to place themselves under their protective wall of bayonets and the crest was instantly surmounted by thousands of armoured horsemen who did not hesitate to put spur to their horses and launch themselves upon the squares, seemingly oblivious to the ring of bayonets they projected. The squares held their fire as per orders, and only when the cavalry had approached so near that the infantrymen could imagine the horse’s breath on their faces did the order ring out loud and clear;
The carnage was immense, horses and riders fell in agony, the steel cuirass proving no protection against a musket ball at such a short range, and the surviving horses instinctively shying away from the musket fire and outstretched bayonets caused the cavalry regiments to part as they rode along the flanks of the first line of squares, only to find further squares awaiting their opportunity to fire upon them. It has been described like a tidal wave of cavalry crashing upon the immovable rocks of the squares, seemingly engulfing them, but forcing the wave to break up and dissipate its energy as it swirled harmlessly around them.
Beyond the lines of squares stood the allied cavalry, awaiting their moment to strike the disorganised and exhausted horsemen. Although it was often light cavalry against armoured Cuirassiers, their lack of cohesion and the exhaustion of their steeds, gave the flashing sabres of the light cavalry every opportunity to defeat them and they were soon sent back over the ridge in confusion. But Lord Uxbridge could see that not every allied cavalry unit was as aggressive as it should be; many witnesses record that he was almost apologetic for the poor showing of some of the cavalry to the infantry officers.
One group of about sixty Cuirassiers broke off to the west in search of an escape route along the Nivelles road, but they unfortunately found themselves trapped in a gulley with the abatis blocking their way ahead. Soldiers of the 51st Foot lined the sides of the cutting and fired down upon the poor Cuirassiers, and 8 Cuirassiers and 12 horses were killed, the rest were dismounted and taken prisoner.
But the moment the French cavalry retired below the ridge line was the signal for the French artillery to recommence their fire and their cannonballs now had much larger targets to aim at as the allied infantry were forced to remain in squares, with the French cavalry rapidly reforming only a few hundred yards away. In fact the allied infantry were soon to realise that the French cavalry attacks would become a very welcome escape from the murderous cannonade and to actually wish for their return.
The allied troops were at least in hollow squares, reducing somewhat the casualties, but the 1st Nassau Regiment stood in a solid column, two companies wide, all day, as the inexperienced troops had not been trained how to form hollow square and their distinctive white oil covers worn over their shakoes making a vivid target, caused them to suffer severely from the cannon fire.
How many times the French cavalry charged over the crest is anybody’s guess as no one had the time or inclination to count them, but estimates range anywhere from six to as many as fifteen separate charges over the next two hours. The initial cavalry charge had since been supplemented by greater numbers of reserves joining in, including the Guard cavalry, seemingly without orders, all being desirous to drive the allies from the ridge.
Captain De Brack of the famous Red Lancers of the Imperial Guard blamed himself for the Guard cavalry becoming involved. As he later recorded:
I shouted ‘The English are lost! The position to which they have been thrown back demonstrates this most clearly…One false move and their army is ours!’
My words which were spoken in a loud voice could be easily heard by some of the officers at the front of the regiment who pushed forward to join our group. The detachments on the right followed these officers, who were in turn followed by others trying to maintain the alignment of the troops, and there were also followed by the Chasseurs of the Guard. Although they all moved only a few paces to the right, it seemed more than that from the left hand side and all of a sudden the brigade of Dragoons and Grenadiers [a Cheval] thought that the order to charge had been given, …it set off and we followed.
During one of these short respites to reform, Captain Alexander Mercer’s Horse Artillery troop was escorted into the front line in advance of two Brunswick infantry squares. Aware of his orders to retire with his men into the squares when charged, Mercer viewed the young Brunswick soldiers with some concern, for he believed the sight of his artillerymen running back would only set them off as well! Mercer decided to continue to man his guns and keep firing; whether this was a courageous or foolhardy decision even he did not know at that very moment. However, when the French cavalry surged forward again, Mercer ordered continuous and rapid discharges of canister, which destroyed both horses and riders and rapidly built a rampart of flesh in front of the guns which made it virtually impossible for successive waves of cavalry to approach. Every discharge continued to extend the rampart and those only originally wounded often succumbed to subsequent discharges which continuously tore into the mass of bodies, turning them into a pile of gore. Mercer’s troop and the Brunswick troops had survived.
As the attacks continued, the infantry squares became veritable charnel houses, with the numerous wounded dragged into the centre, the dead being evicted when time allowed to deter the French horses charging home, the squares also became the only safe place men could utilise to relieve themselves. Ensign Rees Gronow of the 1st Foot Guards recalled the squares with horror:
During the battle our squares presented a shocking sight. Inside we were nearly suffocated by the smoke and smell from burnt cartridges. It was impossible to move a yard without treading upon a wounded comrade, or upon the bodies of the dead; and the loud groans of the wounded and dying were most appalling.
The French cavalry continually milled about the squares, their horses barely able to maintain a canter after a short period; sometimes the Cuirassiers simply stood off the squares seemingly inviting the infantry to fire upon them, so that their colleagues could charge home whilst the infantry only had their bayonets to defend themselves with. But the infantry were also wise to the ploy and they were ordered to reserve their fire, leading to a curious impasse on the allied ridge, with the combatants simply staring at each other for long periods. Ensign Macready of the 30th Foot recalled how the infantry soon learned to despise the cavalry charges;
The best cavalry is contemptible to a steady and well supplied infantry regiment. Even our men saw this, and began to pity the useless perseverance of their assailants, and as they advanced would growl out ‘Here come these damned fools again!’
When the infantry did fire, they learned to aim at the horses, despite the knowledge that the cuirass was no protection against musket bullets at close range, the bulk of the horses making them a larger target and cavalrymen without horses were useless. The armoured cavalrymen came crashing to the ground as their horses were hit and those lucky enough to survive without breaking their necks found that getting up off their backs in full plate armour was virtually impossible. The infantrymen found humour in the ‘upturned turtles’ unable to right themselves; many escaped eventually, having released the straps retaining the iron body armour, but those who lay closer to the squares were lucky to be made prisoner as too many succumbed to a rifle butt smashing their skulls.
Some of the infantry squares did begin to disintegrate under the incessant cavalry charges only interspersed by the death raining down during the cannonade. The allied cavalry formed in line close to the rear of the squares, patiently awaiting the next wave of French cavalry, also now became perceptibly less energetic. Some also acted as a solid barrier to prevent any movement to the rear by the wavering infantry.
As time wore on, the Duke of Wellington and his diminished entourage, who continued to appear at every moment of danger, would seek the protection of a nearby infantry square at the very last moment as the French cavalry swarmed forward again. However he had now also become aware of the sound of a heavy cannonade far to his left, which finally announced the arrival of the Prussians!
The Duke ordered Adam’s Light Infantry Brigade and Du Plat’s German Legion Brigade onto the forward slope behind Hougoumont, where they formed square, the 1st and 3rd K.G.L. amalgamating into one. These troops jointly supported the defenders of Hougoumont orchard and also brought a flank fire against the French cavalry attacking the ridge. The added bonus for these battalions was that the undulations of the ground and the diminished visibility behind Hougoumont wood meant that these troops found the French cannonade far less destructive in this position.
The Cumberland Hussars, a Hanoverian cavalry regiment, received an order to charge the French cavalry, but refused to advance. The Hanoverians momentarily considered their options, then promptly wheeled around and rode from the field! They reportedly rode all the way to Brussels without stopping, spreading panic in their wake as they cried out in terror that the French were at their heels. Painfully aware of how close his centre now was to buckling, the Duke called in units from the left wing, especially as news arrived of Ziethen’s Prussian Corps drawing near to his left flank.
Messengers sent to order the movement found Vivian’s light horsemen already on route having anticipated the order. Soon Vandeleur’s cavalry and Best’s Hanoverian Landwehr were also on the march as were Chasse’s troops from Braine l’Alleud. On arriving at the centre, Vivian met Lord Somerset and enquired where his heavy cavalry brigade was; ‘There’ was his answer, his hands indicating the dead and dying lying all around.
But after two hours of continued attacks, the French cavalry was thoroughly exhausted, decimated and thwarted; the remnants of the finest cavalry in Europe slowly retired for the very last time and sought to reform behind their own infantry on the French ridge.