Drawn from ‘Waterloo General – The Life, Letters and Mysterious Death of Major General Sir William Ponsonby 1772-1815’ which can be found on Amazon
by John Morewood
Sir William Ponsonby has gone down in immortality as leading the decisive charge of the Union Brigade at the Battle of Waterloo, on June 18th, 1815. In the 1970’s film ‘Waterloo’ he was played by Michael Wilding and anyone who has seen this film will remember how he and a Scots Greys trooper are pursued across a muddy landscape by seven lancers. In the film, Ponsonby gave a locket to a trooper and said ‘here give these to my son. Now save yourself’. Drawing his sabre, he is slain by the lancers, repeating his father’s death as he had told Henry Paget, 2nd Earl of Uxbridge, (played by Terence Alexander) before the start of the charge.
As we all know a good story sometimes becomes the established truth when in fact it is fiction. Sir William’s father was actually a politician and had no military career – dying in his bed in Seymour Street, London in 1806. Sir William’s son was born seven months after the battle – at that time he had daughters. Furthermore, if Sir William and the trooper were both slain how does anyone know really what happened on that fateful afternoon in June 1815? And how could this man who was described by Sir John Fortescue as the best British cavalry brigade commander in the Peninsula after Baron Eberhardt Otto George von Bock and Colonel Sir Friedrich von Arentschildt, have his reputation so attacked by historians?
Sir William was born in Ireland between March 1771 and January 1772. He belonged to a lesser branch of one of the leading political families and seems to have always been destined for the army undertaking short periods of ‘work experience’ in various regiments until in 1794, he became a captain in the newly raised 83rd (County of Dublin) Regiment of Foot and then a major in the Loyal Irish Fencibles. In March 1798, just before the Great Rebellion began, he exchanged his commission and became Major in Ireland’s premier cavalry regiment, the 5th (Princess Charlotte of Wales’s) Regiment of Dragoon Guards. As the fourth most senior officer he concentrated on protecting Dublin and helping suppress the rebellion in Kildare. He was part of Cornwallis’ army deployed against Humbert’s French army and although there is no record of the 5th Regiment of Dragoon Guards being actually involved in the fighting at Ballinamuck on September 8th, after the battle Cornwallis asked for the squadron of the Dragoon Guards commanded by William to escort him back to Dublin. After the ending of the rebellion the 5th Regiment of Dragoon Guards was employed in policing duties both in England and Ireland, helping to quell the unrest caused by food shortages, high prices and the changes in society brought about by the Industrial Revolution.
In 1800, William was made a Brevet Lieutenant Colonel and in 1803, was formally appointed one of the two Lieutenant Colonels in the 5th Regiment of Dragoon Guards. He immersed himself greatly in the business of the regiment ensuring its high standards were maintained. In July 1811, when the regiment was ordered to prepare for foreign service in Portugal with British forces commanded by Lieutenant General Arthur Wellesley, (later 1st Duke of Wellington) he was the Lieutenant Colonel chosen to take command. The 5th Regiment of Dragoon Guards comprising 544 officers and men joined the 3rd (Prince of Wales’s) Dragoon Guards and 4th (Royal Irish) Dragoon Guards (later replaced by the 4th (Queen’s Own) Regiment of Dragoons) in the newly formed heavy cavalry brigade under the command of the legendary Major General John Gaspard Le Marchant
The 5th Regiment of Dragoon Guards landed at Lisbon in September 1811. In 1812 William Ponsonby led them on a journey of 2,000 miles which involved shadowing French forces on the Spanish-Portuguese border, playing a decisive role in the Battle of Salamanca, entering Madrid and then protecting the withdrawal of Wellington’s army as it fell back from Burgos
Salamanca was the battle everyone remembered. Sir William charged at the head of his 5th Dragoon Guards as part of Le Marchant’s decisive charge against the French left wing. As a result of the combined attack by the British infantry and Le Marchant’s brigade, except for two infantry regiments three divisions of French infantry, half of their cavalry and a good part of their artillery were put out of action. Le Marchant’s brigade had 105 killled, wounded or posted missing. The 5th Dragoon Guards made up over half of this casualty figure reflecting the role they played as did their capturing of the staff of the drum major of the 66th French regiment of infantry which William at his own expense had mounted and presented to the regiment and the regiment being awarded the honour of bearing the word “Salamanca” on their standards. With Le Marchant dead Wellesley appointed William Ponsonby to command the brigade which is indicative of the trust he placed in him.
William repaid the trust. Wellington wrote in his Dispatches: ‘I am much indebted to Colonel The Honourable William Ponsonby commanding Major General Le Marchant’s brigade after the fall of that officer’.
William’s brigade took part in the advance on Madrid, helping to repel a French counter-attack at Majalahonda. On August 12th, Wellesley entered the Spanish capital escorted by William’s cavalry brigade. At the end of the month the brigade left Madrid to support Wellesley in the Burgos campaign. This campaign was a failure and Wellesley was forced to retreat. The retreat, marked by bad weather, poor staff work and a breakdown in food supplies, was said by many to be worse than Sir John Moore’s retreat to Corunna. We have tantalising glimpses in diaries of the key role William and his brigade played in protecting Wellington’s army as the French harried it from the side as well as the rear. There are stories of narrow escapes as the heavy cavalry protected troops tasked with blowing up key bridges from the French and had to retreat at the last minute before the bridges were blown. On November 19th, Wellesley’s army reached safety in Portugal and William’s brigade had to ensure any stragglers made it safely into the camps before they themselves could go into winter quarters.
In 1813 William’s brigade took place in Wellesley’s great masterstroke which ensured the French defensive positions were consistently outflanked. Within two months the French had been rolled back to Vitoria in Northern Spain. In the great battle there, the heavy cavalry supported the infantry – William having the task of supporting Thomas Picton – but a combination of lack of opportunity and poor ground meant they were not committed. Only with the French retreating did Wellesley send in some of his light cavalry. Some of the hussars disgraced themselves by pillaging the French baggage train and not pursuing the enemy. This was in marked contrast to the discipline that William instilled in his men. The Honourable Sir John William Fortescue, in ‘A History of the British Army’, recalls a story on the night of Vitoria when Wellesley decided to pursue the French as far as he could:
‘General Ponsonby’s brigade of cavalry passed by a heap of dollars on the road and not a man attempted to touch them whereupon the General left a sergeant major behind who brought in as many of the coins as his horse could carry, thus enabling a distribution to be made of 5 dollars a piece to every one of the 1,300 men’. Everyone got the same regardless of rank.
After Vitoria, William Ponsonby’s brigade first took part in the attempt to attack General Clausel who was approaching Vitoria. However, once Clausel heard of the French disaster he speedily retreated and the heavy cavalry again went into a supporting role, being used to counter the French attempts to relieve the great fortress of Pamplona. As the heavy cavalry could not be used in the battles in the Pyrenees they were sent into winter quarters and in January 1814, William Ponsonby went on his first home leave since 1811 – an indication of his dedication as many of his fellow officers took leave of absence on a more regular basis. William returned in April narrowly missing the Battle of Toulouse and then had to organise the brigade’s return to the United Kingdom across France. Just before they embarked he expressed to the whole brigade his pride in them. Discipline had been so good that no one had been subject to a court martial – which was unheard of at the time:
‘The major general can assert that upon every occasion which has presented itself to them, whether regimentally or in brigade, of acting against the enemy they have nobly maintained the superiority of the British cavalry and fully justified the high opinion so repeatedly expressed with regard to them by his Grace the Duke of Wellington’.
William himself was now a Major General with gold medals for Salamanca and Vitoria. He also had gained a reputation for being a skilful general but also a humble one. A young Whig politician, William Homer MP, referred to him as: ‘one of the mildest and gentlest of human beings; but in the field always flaming with enterprise’.
His reputation had stood him in good stead. During his absence in the Peninsula he had been elected an MP for County Londonderry. A knighthood followed and it is little wonder that the now Duke of Wellington asked for him to command one of the cavalry brigades when Napoleon escaped from Elba in 1815.
The cavalry brigade Sir William was asked to command was the 2nd Heavy Cavalry Brigade. It did not consist of any of his old regiments as they were having to train up new horses following their return from the Peninsula. The Brigade consisted of the 1st (Royal) Regiment of Dragoons, 2nd Regiment of Dragoons (Royal Scots Greys) and the 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons. The least experienced regiment was the Scots Greys, who had last seen military service in 1794, and had since then become a socially desirable regiment undertaking guard duty at Buckingham Palace. The most experienced were the Royal Dragoons who had seen service in Spain. The third regiment were the Inniskilling Dragoons who, although they also had not seen active service since 1794, had been keeping the peace in Ireland. These regiments have gone down in immortality as The Union Brigade. Sir William had to get to know the men and the officers quickly and weld them into shape. Each regiment arrived at different times. The Scots Greys arrived in the Dender river valley in Belgium on May 6th, 1815. The Inniskillings arrived on the 11th and the Royals on the 27th. This meant that Sir William had less than three weeks before the campaign started to mould his brigade.
Amongst the high command there was a belief that there was plenty of time. The masterplan was to wait for the overwhelmingly large Austrian and Russian forces and begin a simultaneous invasion across all of France’s frontiers in July. This was not a view shared by Sir William. In letters to his mother he refers to the possibility of Napoleon launching a pre-emptive strike and this is of course what happened.
Early on June 16th, the bugles sounded at Brigade Headquarters at Denderhoutem and the Union Brigade started its arduous journey of 56 miles to arrive at Quatre Bras between 10 and 11 o’clock that night. The next day, the allied army retreated to the ridge of Mont St. Jean protected by the cavalry who kept the French at bay. This was of critical importance as this action, plus the disastrous decision made by the French to feed their whole army through the narrow streets of Genappe instead of using alternative routes as Wellington had done, meant that the French had to organise themselves and not begin the attack as early as they wanted to on June 18th. In this delaying action Sir William’s brigade played a prominent part as Lord Uxbridge the overall cavalry commander commented: ‘The enemy now brought up cannon and deployed. They attempted to move up on our right but this effort was effectually foiled by the well-executed movements of Sir William Ponsonby’s brigade’.
We know that Sir William spent his last night in a small cottage at Waterloo, but left before dawn to inspect his brigade and ensure that the men and horses were fed. The brigade spent the first part of the day at the bottom of the ridge originally protected from French artillery fire. However, as the Grand Battery began it’s ‘softening up bombardment’ the French started using howitzers. The shot from these guns started to cause casualties and Sir William moved his brigade to give it better protection. Napoleon’s aim was for Marshal Jean-Baptiste Drouet, Comte d’Erlon’s fresh troops of 12,000 men to march up the ridge, break through Picton’s division (reduced by the losses it had sustained at Quatre Bras to 6,500 men) and then turning left roll up the British line, forcing Wellington’s remaining divisions to disengage westwards and fall back on the Channel ports. The French would even deploy a new attack formation in two of their divisions, which would allow them to bring more fire to bear against the vaunted British line. But for the heavy cavalry of Sir William and Lord Somerset’s brigades, Napoleon’s plan very nearly succeeded.
By 1.30pm D’Erlon’s infantry had isolated La Haie Sainte and his cavalry had destroyed an attempt to feed in reinforcements. Other troops with cavalry were sent in from the French right to prevent Allied troops from intervening. By 2pm D’Erlons main attacking columns started to climb up the Allied slope. By 2.15pm they reached the top of the ridge. They started to cross the hedge go down on to the paved Chemin de Ohain and climb up the other side, through the hedge and on to the Allied part of the ridge. The majority of the Belgian-Dutch brigade of Major General Willem Frederik count of Bylandt, fled and the weakened second line of Major General Sir Denis Pack’s brigade could not withstand the French attack and started to fall back creating a gap in the line.
It was now about 2.25pm and that is when Sir William led the Union Brigade forward to the charge. Lord Uxbridge had observed the French deployment and decided to commit the cavalry. He had decided the Household Brigade of approximately 1,000 sabres under Somerset would attack the left of D’Erlons troops plus their cavalry support (in total approximately 2,800 men). Sir William’s brigade of 1,000 sabres would attack the remaining 11,500 infantry of D’Erlon. Uxbridge was unaware that on the French right wing there were also 1,100 cavalry. After informing Sir William, Lord Uxbridge returned to the Household Cavalry with whom he charged.
Sir William made the decision when his brigade would charge and personally fed them in a regiment at a time in what is known as an echeloned line attack formation. Although much useless debate has taken place amongst armchair historians on the need for one regiment to be in reserve, there simply were too many French for this luxury. Sir William had to commit all three regiments knowing full well the dangers and this is what he did in a masterfully professional way.
The result was devastating for the French. The most experienced regiment, the Royals, struck Baron Charles-Francois Bourgeois’ division on the top of the ridge and sent it falling back. Then Sir William rode to the Inniskillings who attacked François-Xavier Donzelot’s new formation which was working its way through the hedge and had not been trained to form square. Then Sir William moved to the Scots Greys as they struck Pierre-Louis Binet de Marcognet’s division also not trained to form square and sent it crashing back. It was 2.45pm and by this time Sir William had in twenty minutes destroyed five French infantry brigades, inflicting 5,000 casualties (killed, wounded, prisoners). More importantly the French main attack had been destroyed.
By this time, Sir William and his staff were with some Scots Greys close to the bottom of the ridge at the right of the French position. He had been very much engaged in the fighting himself. But he knew he had to reform the brigade. He trusted the commanders of the Royals and Inniskillings, but not the commander of the Scots Greys. We know that he gathered a group of twenty Scots Greys together, but then Colonel James Hamilton the commander of the Scots Greys, rode up with thirty more and shouted for then to charge the guns and off they went. Up the slope towards the Grand Battery.
Fifty men do not make a regiment. The Scots Greys numbered 330 and allowing for some casualties there were probably another 250. But where were they? What I have been able to discover from French sources is that a substantial group of Scots Greys attacked a formed French square on the right of the French position. This was part of General Pierre François Joseph Durutte’s division which along with chasseurs and lancers had been sent to prevent the left of the Allied line from intervening against the main French attack. It had fallen back after being attacked by some squadrons of British Light Dragoons and into this maelstrom of reforming infantry and cavalry the bulk of the Scots Greys rode.
The square of the 85th de la ligne opened fire on the Scots Greys causing many casualties and the troopers turned away and headed towards the reforming chasseurs. There Sir William caught up with them and reformed them, threatening to overthrow the chasseurs, breakthrough and lead the Scots Greys home to safety. But at that moment the French cavalry commander General Charles-Claude Jacquinot launched the 300 men of the 4th Lancers commanded by Colonel Bro de Commères into the Scots Greys. The odds became simply too great. Sir William who may have been already wounded by a musket shot surrendered to Maréchal-des-logis Francois Orban of the 4th lancers who took his sword. Some Scots Greys attempted to rescue Sir William and in the words of the French Historian and member of the Old Guard, Hippolyte de Mauduit, who clearly spoke to Orban: ‘Orban, fearing they are going to snatch his prisoner… decides to his great regret to strike him down. It was General Ponsonby’.
Sir William’s body was found the next day by Colonel Best, who in a letter to his cousin wrote: ‘I also found Major General William Ponsonby who was struck through the chest and body – he was stripped except his shirt which was entirely soaked in blood’.
At the news of Sir William’s death Wellington was so overcome he stopped writing his dispatch announcing the news of his victory. Later in Brussels he wrote to the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, Henry Bathurst, 3rd Earl Bathurst:
‘… I have received a report that Major General the Hon Sir William Ponsonby is killed; and in announcing this intelligence to your Lordship, I have to add the expression of my grief for the fate of an officer who had already rendered very brilliant and important services and was an ornament to his profession’.