The Battle of Waterloo - Hougoumont

Posted on Tuesday 18th June 2013

By Julian Paget and Derek Saunders, extracted from Hougoumont - Waterloo and reproduced by permission of Pen and Sword Books Ltd.
The New Year of 1815 saw Europe enjoying a long-awaited period of peace after a quarter of a century of fighting against Napoleon Bonaparte. There was general relief that he was safely out of the way at last, exiled to the Mediterranean island of Elba, and it was hoped that he would trouble the world no more. Then, on 1 March 1815, Napoleon escaped and landed in France at Golfe Juan near Cannes. ‘The devil is unchained,’ wrote the British Commissioner on Elba, Sir Neil Campbell.
The Allies (England, Prussia, Russia and Austria) refused to recognize him again as Head of State, whereupon he set about raising a new Grande Armée of 500,000 men to achieve recognition by force of arms.
In response, the four Allies agreed to provide 150,000 troops each, with a view to crushing Napoleon once and for all. This force could not, however, be raised before July, and the only effective troops available in the meantime were a very mixed international army of 83,000 under the Duke of Wellington and 125,000 Prussians under the gallant, 73-year-old Marshal Blücher. By June they were deployed along the Belgian frontier with France, and Wellington set up his headquarters in Brussels.
The attack at Hougoumont.

15 June 1815
He expected to receive enough warning of any move by Napoleon to be able to deploy his troops in time to deal with the threat. So, while the regiments guarding the frontier were on full alert, the lucky ones in Brussels could relax. Indeed, on 15 June many of the officers were looking forward to attending the splendid ball that the Duchess of Richmond was giving that night in honour of the Duke.
But at dawn on 15 June Napoleon’s striking force of 125,000 confident veterans crossed the Belgian frontier and within hours had occupied Charleroi. They achieved complete surprise, and it was 3 o’clock that afternoon before Wellington at his headquarters at 544, Rue Royale in Brussels even heard of the invasion. It was important to maintain public morale, and he therefore went, albeit somewhat uneasily, to the ball. Then at around midnight came news that Napoleon was advancing in the direction of Brussels. Wellington ordered his officers to leave quietly and rejoin their units, but inevitably the party broke up amid scenes of anguish and alarm. Wellington slipped away with the Duke of Richmond to the latter’s dressing room where they both studied a map.
‘Napoleon has hum-bugged me, by God,’ Wellington declared. ‘He has gained 24 hours march on me.’
‘What do you intend to do?’ asked the Duke.
‘I have ordered the army to concentrate at Quatre Bras,’ came the reply, ‘but we will not stop him there, and if so, I must fight him here.’ He then placed his thumb nail over a small village on the map called Waterloo, nine miles south of Brussels.
Napoleon’s plan was bold and simple. He intended to separate Wellington’s and Blücher’s armies by thrusting at a point between them. He would then attack the Prussians and drive them eastwards, away from the British. That done, he would turn on Wellington, defeat him and advance on Brussels.
To achieve this, he divided his army into two. He sent Marshal Ney with 20,000 men to seize the vital crossroads at Quatre Bras and so open up the road to Brussels. He himself led the main body of 78,000 against Blücher’s 84,000 at Ligny.
He particularly wanted to defeat Wellington, because the Duke was the only Allied commander whom he had not yet faced and beaten. He told his Chief of Staff, Marshal Soult, who had fought through most of the Peninsular War of 1807–14, ‘Because you have been defeated by Wellington, you think him a great general. I tell you that he is a bad general, that his English are bad troops, and that this will be a picnic.’
He was confident that he could achieve victory by launching a massive attack straight down the main road, having first demoralized the enemy with one of his famous artillery bombardments. Marshal Soult ventured to suggest from much bitter experience that it was unwise to attack British infantry head-on, and he proposed instead an out-flanking movement round the Château de Hougoumont, but his suggestion was scornfully rejected.
With a frontal assault in mind, Napoleon concentrated his 72,000 men on a front of about two miles on the ridge either side of La Belle Alliance. He put D’Erlon’s Corps of 16,000 to the east of the main road and Reille’s 15,000 to the west. Behind them were some 15,000 cavalry, ready to exploit the expected breakthrough. In reserve was Lobau’s Corps, and under his own hand at Rossomme he kept his faithful, invincible Imperial Guard.
‘We have ninety chances in our favour,’ he declared, ‘and not ten against.’

wellington's plan
Wellington could not be sure what the French would do, and he was also well aware that he himself had little option but to fight a defensive battle. He was outnumbered and out-gunned, and, above all, he was up against Napoleon. He knew that the only possible course was to hang on until Blücher and his Prussians arrived (40,000 men under Bülow and 30,000 men under Ziethen). Then, and only then, might he be able to take the initiative.
He was satisfied with the defensive position he had chosen a year earlier. It blocked the direct route to Brussels, and he had a good reverse slope where he could keep his men out of sight and also protect them from the worst of the inevitable French artillery bombardment. His main concern was to safeguard his right flank against the two possible moves that he expected Napoleon might make. The first was to use the dead ground round Hougoumont to make an out-flanking attack (as suggested by Soult) and so come in behind the Mont St Jean position from the west. The second was to advance north-west straight to the coast, and so cut off the entire Allied force from their ports and bases.
Wellington was also worried about the reliability in battle of his hastily assembled army. He had only some 24,000 British Regular troops, and less than half of them had seen active service. He could rely on the King’s German Legion, but they were only 6,600 strong. The remaining 35,000 were a mixture of Belgian and Dutch troops, some of whom had been fighting for Napoleon in earlier years. He had little confidence in them, and so discreetly placed British brigades alongside them wherever possible in an attempt to avoid any weak points in the line. It was in his view an ‘infamous army’ compared to his magnificent Peninsular Army.
He positioned his 68,000 troops in a line some two and a half miles long spread along the ridge running through Mont St Jean and centred on the road from Charleroi to Brussels. They were roughly opposite the French positions, and the forward troops of each side could see clearly what their enemy was doing 1,500 yards away across the valley.
Wellington divided his front into three sectors. The left, where he expected the Prussians to arrive, was thinly held with light cavalry and the 5th Division, which had suffered heavy casualties at Quatre Bras; this division was under the fiery General Picton, who was also in command of that sector. The centre was held by Alten’s 3rd Division, and was commanded by the young Prince of Orange, but with Wellington keeping a close eye on him.
The third sector was his vulnerable right flank, and this he put under the ever-reliable Lord Hill. He made Cooke’s 1st Division responsible for the defence of the Château de Hougoumont and the ridge immediately behind it, and also placed Clinton’s 2nd Division in depth behind the 1st Division.
Finally, he detached Colville’s 4th Division of 17,000 men with thirty guns to Hal in order to block any enemy thrust in that direction. This was a force that he could ill afford to spare during the forthcoming battle, but he regarded it as an essential precaution to protect his right in this way.
Looking at his main position, Wellington picked out three groups of buildings, all slightly forward of the ridge, which he considered it was vital to hold and to deny to the enemy. On the left was the farm of Papelotte, and he allotted the defence of that to the 2nd Brigade of Nassauers, commanded by Prince Bernard of Saxe-Weimar, (less one battalion which was sent to reinforce Hougoumont). In the centre was the farm of La Haye Sainte, a key bastion covering the main road to Brussels, and he entrusted its defence to 360 men of the 2nd Light Battalion of the King’s German Legion under Major Baring. To support them he placed two companies (about 160 men) of the 95th (Rifles) in and around the adjacent sandpit, with a third company just behind them.
On his vulnerable right flank the Château de Hougoumont, which was the responsibility of Cooke’s 1st Division. Byng’s 2nd Guards Brigade was on the ridge immediately north of Hougoumont, and the Duke also ordered the four light companies of 1st and 2nd Guards Brigades (some 400 men) to move forward and occupy the farm and the ground round it. In addition he brought from Colville’s 4th Division at Hal Mitchell’s Brigade which he placed north-west of Hougoumont astride the Nivelles road. Finally, he positioned a squadron of the 15th Hussars on the same road, west of the farm, where they could support Mitchell’s Brigade.
These moves completed, he could only wait for the answer to two key questions. Would Napoleon try to outflank him to the west of Hougoumont or not? And would Blücher’s Prussians arrive in time?
The Earl of Uxbridge, who had been nominated as Wellington’s Second-in-Command, is said to have asked him what was the material point of his plan, so that he (Uxbridge) would know what to do should any accident befall the Duke. The reply he received was, ‘Keep Hougoumont’.
a miserable night (17-18 june)
There was much unusual activity around Hougoumont throughout Saturday, 17 June. Staff officers galloped back and forth, particularly along the ridge of Mont St Jean, and several of them came and had a quick look at the Château. Waggons loaded with stores and equipment trundled along the roads and tracks, while groups of soldiers, some mounted, some on foot, kept marching in from the south, where there was the sound of gunfire.
Throughout the afternoon the 4,000 men of Major General Cooke’s 1st Division marched into their positions on the ridge at Mont St Jean. On the left was 1st Guards Brigade, commanded by Major General Peregrine Maitland, and consisting of 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the First Guards (now the Grenadier Guards). On their right was 2nd Guards Brigade, commanded by Major General Sir John Byng, and consisting of 2nd Battalion Coldstream Guards and 2nd Battalion Third Guards (now the Scots Guards).
Everyone was extremely tired, having been marching and fighting almost non-stop for the last two days in sweltering heat. They had also been soaked through in the thunderstorm that afternoon, and now thankfully threw off their heavy packs to snatch a moment’s rest. But about the time they arrived at Mont St Jean another heavy thunderstorm burst on them, and in no time every man was again wet through and sloshing around in deep, sticky mud.
The few veterans there from the Peninsular War philosophically recalled that there had been just such a storm the night before the Battle of Salamanca on 22 July, 1812, and that Wellington had then won a great victory over the French the next day. They drew some comfort from the hope that their present misery might perhaps be a good omen for the morrow, but most of the officers and men simply thought of finding what little comfort they could along the windswept ridge.
Then at about 7pm, just as everyone was settling down, came the decidedly unwelcome order that the four light companies of both 1st and 2nd Guards Brigades were to move forward immediately and occupy the château, farm and orchard of Hougoumont in the hollow some 500 yards in front of their position midway between the Allied and French lines. Those of 1st Guards Brigade were to occupy the orchard, while those of 2nd Guards Brigade were to hold the buildings and garden of Hougoumont itself.
The light companies had been the last troops to arrive on the position at Mont St Jean, as they had been part of the rearguard under Lord Uxbridge during the withdrawal from Quatre Bras. They were looking forward to some rest; but it was not to be, and they now set off into the driving rain with the prospect of a sleepless night ahead.
The two light companies from 1st Guards Brigade (from 2nd and 3rd Battalions, First Guards) occupied the front edge of the orchard. They were under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Lord Saltoun who was only 30 years old, but had already seen considerable service in Walcheren and the Peninsular War. Saltoun was renowned for his courage and initiative, and would display plenty of both during the forthcoming battle. Indeed he was later described by Wellington as ‘a pattern to the army; both as man and soldier’. He eventually became a Field Marshal.
The farm and château were occupied by the light company of 2nd Battalion Coldstream Guards, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Henry Wyndham. The garden and the ground round the farm, including the lane to the west of the Great Barn, were held by the light company of 2nd Battalion Third Guards, under Lieutenant Colonel Charles Dashwood.
All the troops in and around Hougoumont, except those in the orchard, were under the command of Lieutenant Colonel James Macdonell (there are variations of spelling) of the Coldstream Guards. He, like Saltoun, was renowned for his bravery, having won a gold medal for distinguished conduct at Maida in 1806, and he would certainly distinguish himself again at Waterloo. The light companies managed to occupy their positions without opposition from the French, but they were only just in time. Napoleon had also appreciated the importance of occupying Hougoumont, and, almost as soon as the Guards had moved into the buildings, some French cavalry appeared, hoping to seize the farm, but they were just too late and were sent packing with a few volleys.
Soon after dark an enemy foot patrol approached from the direction of the wood, but was also driven off. Colonel Macdonnell decided, however, that some extra protection was required and sent a picquet from the Third Guards forward into the wood. Reports differ as to whether it was right forward ‘on the south edge’ (which would have been extremely close to the French positions), or whether it was on the north edge of the wood, quite close to the farm, which seems more likely. It was commanded by Captain George Evelyn and Ensign George Standen.
The remainder of the garrison in the farm buildings may well have thought that they would be able to enjoy a comfortable night under cover, but they were soon disillusioned, for they were immediately put to work improving the defences in every way possible. Loop-holes were made in the walls and firesteps constructed; all the entrances were closed and, if possible, barricaded.
The North, or Great Gate was deliberately left open, so that reinforcements, ammunition and supplies could reach the farm from the main position behind.
Work on improving the defences went on throughout the night and there was little sleep for anyone. There was, however, no further fighting, although the enemy could be heard a mere 300 yards away in the valley beyond the wood. The violent storm and heavy rain continued unabated, and the 15,000 men of Reille’s corps probably suffered rather more than the 500 or so men of the Guards in and around Hougoumont.
Those in Hougoumont were certainly better off than their comrades in the main position on the ridge. Ensign Charles Lake of the Third Guards described his miserable night:
The rain was incessant during the night and I shall never forget my Friend, the Hon Captain Forbes, (whose servant had forgotten his cloak) asking for a corner of my large one to lay under. Poor fellow! It was his last sleep for he was shot through the breast early on the morning of the eighteenth, and hereby hangs a romantic tale, he being struck on that part of the breast on which hung the miniature of the lady to whom he was engaged, and with whom I have often seen him dance at the Brussels balls.
During the night our General (Byng) slept close to us, covered with nothing but straw, and bellowed lustily at one of our officers accidentally treading on him.’
Ensign Charles Short of the Coldstream, aged only sixteen and a half years, had an equally uncomfortable time:
We were under arms the whole night expecting the attack and it rained to that degree that the field where we were was half-way up our legs in mud; nobody, of course, could lie down. The ague got hold of some of the men. I with another officer had a blanket and with a little more gin we kept up very well. We had only one fire, and you cannot conceive the state we were in. We formed a hollow square and prepared to receive Cavalry twice, but found it was a false alarm both times. Soon after daylight the Commissary sent up with the greatest difficulty some gin and we found an old cask full of wet rye loaves which we breakfasted upon. Everyone was in high spirits.
Dawn, when it came at last, was a welcome sight to both sides, even though it was still raining. The 68,000 Allied troops along the Mont St Jean ridge woke, cold, wet and hungry, and looked across the waterlogged valley at the 72,000 equally sodden and miserable French on the other side.
Ten miles to the east, at Wavre, 30,000 Prussians were just setting out to march to Wellington’s support, as Marshal Blücher had promised they would.
The stage was set.

A view of the Waterloo battlefield in 2013, taken from the top of the Butte du Lion.

up to 11am, 18 june 1815
Just before dawn on Sunday, 18 June, the troops in and around Hougoumont all ‘stood to’, ready for the French attack that might come at any moment. The rain was still falling, and it was a miserable, muddy awakening.
Lord Saltoun was in the orchard with his two light companies when a staff officer appeared, at the head of a battalion of Nassau infantry, about 600 strong; these were the 1st Battalion of the 2nd Nassau Brigade in Papelotte, commanded by Major Büssen; also with him were a company of 300 Hanoverian Jäger sharp-shooters from Count Kielmansegge’s 1st Hanoverian Brigade, and about 100 picked Luneberg infantry from Count Kielmansegge’s Jäger Corps. He told Saltoun that he was to hand over responsibility for the defence of the orchard to this new force and was then to rejoin 1st Guards Brigade. Saltoun duly handed over and was half-way back to his original position on the ridge when he met the Duke of Wellington, accompanied by his Military Secretary, Lieutenant Colonel Lord Fitzroy Somerset of the First Guards.
The Duke called out, ‘Hallo. Who are you? Where are you going?’
Saltoun halted and, ordering his men to lie down and rest, he then explained the orders he had received. The Duke seemed surprised and replied, ‘Well, I was not aware of such an order. However, don’t join the brigade yet. Remain quiet where you are until further orders from me.’ As the Duke rode on, he remarked to an aide, ‘That was one of my old Peninsular officers. See how he made his men lie down.’
Wellington then made his way towards Hougoumont. He was dressed in a blue civilian coat, white buckskins, Hessian boots, a white cravat and a blue cloak, (which he frequently put on when there were showers). The civilian coat led some contemporary accounts to describe him incorrectly as wearing civilian dress. His cocked hat, worn ‘fore and aft’ (Napoleon wore his ‘four-square’) carried no plume, but had four cockades – to represent England, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands. It was an unobtrusive uniform, and it may in fact have contributed to his survival that day, particularly just after his meeting with Saltoun.
Following his usual practice of seeing everything for himself and making quite sure that his orders had been carried out, Wellington made his way down the slope to the orchard, and then across it to the wood. It was a rash thing to do, with the French so close, and it so happened that, as he halted on the track leading towards La Belle Alliance, a French tirailleur (skirmisher) was hidden in the undergrowth a mere ten yards from him.
Fortunately the man did not recognize what an important target he had within range at that moment and did not even fire. He thus missed his chance of altering history and earning his own place in the history books.
It is not certain on which of his visits to Hougoumont that Wellington ordered the Nassauers and Hanoverians into the wood, but it seems probable that it was on this occasion, in order to forestall the French in seizing it. Whatever the precise time, the Nassauers, Lunebergers and Hanoverians moved forward early that morning into the wood, which they occupied without opposition.
At the same time Wellington ordered part of the light company of the Third Guards to be moved from the garden of Hougoumont (which was now protected by the troops in the wood) and take up a new position round the track junction at the south-west corner of the farm. This divided the defences at Hougoumont into three sectors. The first was the orchard, held by the light companies of the First Guards under Saltoun. Then came the garden and the buildings, which were held by the Coldstream light company, while the Third Guards company was responsible for the lane to the west of the farm. Colonel Macdonell remained in command of the two latter sectors.
Meanwhile, work continued non-stop on the fortification of the buildings, and more loop-holes were made in the garden walls. This was to be an important factor later in the holding of the position.
before the battle
While the soldiers, both Allied and French, could do little but wait for orders, the two commanders had much to think about, and each was planning possible moves in the bloody conflict that they knew must soon take place.
Fortunately for the Allies, Napoleon saw no particular reason to hurry, and he breakfasted at Le Caillou around 8am. ‘Tonight we will sleep in Brussels,’ he declared, and ordered ‘a well-done shoulder of lamb’ for supper that evening.
At about 9 in the morning he summoned a conference at Le Caillou to issue his orders for the battle. Rather surprisingly he decided that he would not launch his main attack until 1pm, so as to give time for the ground to dry out, which would make his artillery more effective. It was a major error, for it gave the Prussians that much more time to reach Wellington.
In order to keep the enemy occupied in the meantime he ordered Reille’s Corps to attack Hougoumont. He anticipated no difficulty over this operation, which he regarded as ‘just a diversion’; he hoped it would also make Wellington move troops from his centre to reinforce his right flank, and so weaken his centre before the main French assault.
Reille in turn gave the task of carrying out this ‘diversion’ to Napoleon’s brother, Prince Jerome, with his 6th Division of 6,000 men supported by General Piré’s 2nd Cavalry Division. ‘It is simply a question,’ he told Jerome, ‘of keeping in the hollow behind the wood in support of a strong line of skirmishers in front.’ In fact it turned out to be a very different story.
At around this time the rain eased at long last and 140,000 men tried to dry themselves out in the ankle-deep mud and the sodden, trampled crops. A crackle of musket fire came from both sides of the valley as soldiers fired their weapons to clear them of mud and damp. The Commissariat winced at the waste of ammunition, but it was the simplest way of ensuring that a musket was in working order, and a man’s life might depend on just that.
Although the two sides were within sight of each other, no shots had yet been fired in anger, and the two armies each went about their own business, preparing for the confrontation that could not now be far off.
At 10am those Allied soldiers in sight of the French watched in wonder as Napoleon on his white mare Désirée reviewed his Grand Armée in front of La Belle Alliance. It was a magnificent sight that stirred the emotions of the French and raised their spirits still higher. Cheers and shouts of ‘Vive L’Empereur’ reached across the valley, but they did not worry the phlegmatic British troops, who were more concerned now to get the battle over and done with.
Wellington, on the other hand, looked on every minute of delay as a welcome bonus, in that it gave more time for the Prussians to appear. Seeing that Napoleon was evidently not about to attack for a while yet, he made his way once again down to Hougoumont to make absolutely sure that everything there was being done as he required.
It was shortly before 11am when he rode down to the Château, accompanied this time by his Prussian Liaison Officer, General Müffling. They met Macdonell, and Wellington warned him that he must expect to be attacked before long. He again stressed the vital importance of holding Hougoumont and gave orders that the garrison must ‘defend the post to the last extremity’.
Müffling, who liked to discuss tactics with the Duke, questioned whether the place really could be held, seeing how exposed it was and how few men, a mere 1,500 or so, had been allocated to its defence.
‘Ah,’ replied the Duke, ‘but you do not know Macdonell.’
The French assault began and soon developed into a full-scale attack, with Bauduin’s Brigade advancing through the wood from the south. They were supported by the light cavalry of Piré’s 2nd Cavalry Division, who attacked to the west of the Nivelles road.
Fierce fighting went on for about half an hour, in the course of which Bauduin was killed. But the Nassauers and Hanoverians were driven steadily back out of the wood and were forced to take up new positions along the south edge of the orchard, where the First Guards had been during the night.
Wellington had meantime brought up Major Bull’s Battery of six 5 1/2 inch howitzers, and they came into action on his direct orders. They opened fire on the wood, over the heads of the Allied troops, and this was so effective that Wellington commented in his Despatches on ‘this service which, considering the proximity of the Allied troops in the Coppice, was of a very delicate nature, executed with admirable skill and attended with the desired effect.’ The French officer leading these troops stated later that the first salvo killed seventeen men.
Nevertheless, by about midday the French had reached the north edge of the wood and found themselves within sight of Hougoumont. Siborne describes the scene:
In the full confidence that this important post was now within their grasp, they rushed forward at the pas de charge to force an entrance. A deadly fire bursting forth from the loopholes and platforms along the garden wall, which was parallel to and about thirty yards distance from the hedge, laid prostrate the leading files. Those who came up in rapid succession were staggered by the sudden and unexpected appearance of this little fortress!
Every shot from the Guards behind the loopholed walls found a target among the French, who could in return only fire at a virtually invisible enemy. Some French soldiers tried to break down the solid South Gate with the butts of their muskets, but were soon shot down; others tried to climb over the garden wall, but were promptly bayoneted.
The attack made no progress at all, but to the east the Nassauers and Hanoverians, having withdrawn from the wood, were steadily driven back across the orchard to the Hollow Way.
At about the time of the first French attack, the light companies of the First Guards under Saltoun had been ordered to move back from the spot where Wellington had told them to stay. They had just joined their battalions for a welcome rest, when a shout went up: ‘The Nassauers are driven out of the orchard. Light companies to the front.’
They immediately formed up and moved forward down the hill. They once more met the Duke, who sent them on their way with the words: ‘In with you, my lads, and let me see no more of you.’
When they reached the Hollow Way they charged the French and drove them back across the orchard and on into the wood. They then re-occupied the defences that they had held previously along the south edge of the orchard, but they found to their disgust that ‘all the preparations they had made for defence [had been] completely destroyed, and during the action they had to trust to sheer hard fighting, often hand to hand, to maintain their ground.’
For the moment the situation at Hougoumont was stabilized. The French had lost some 1,500 men in their first attack and the Allied garrison was still holding out.
Wellington now withdrew the weary Nassau battalion and brought forward Du Plat’s Brigade to strengthen the reserve on the ridge behind Hougoumont.
the second french attack
Prince Jerome might well have ‘called it a day’ at this point, on the basis that he had fully carried out the Emperor’s orders to create a diversion at Hougoumont. Indeed, both Marshal Reille and his own Chief of Staff, advised him that he had done enough and should not commit more troops to the operation.
But Jerome was determined to prove himself and was not pleased that he had failed to take Hougoumont. In his defence it should be recorded that, in a conversation several years later, he maintained that Napoleon said to him about an hour after the battle began, ‘If Grouchy does not come up or if you do not carry Hougoumont, the battle is decidedly lost – so go – go and carry Hougoumont – coûte que coûte.’ If true, this not only explains but also justifies his actions.
He therefore set about mounting another attack, this time primarily from the west rather than the south. Soye’s Brigade replaced the weakened brigade of the late Bauduin, with orders to attack once more from the wood. Jerome meanwhile would attack the west side of the farm, while Piré’s light cavalry were to swing round and come in on Hougoumont from the north.
The time was now around midday and the situation was that the orchard was firmly held by the two light companies of the First Guards and the Hanoverians under Saltoun, while the buildings and garden of Hougoumont were equally firmly held by the light companies of the Coldstream and Third Guards under Macdonell.
The light company of the Third Guards, under Lieutenant Colonel Charles Dashwood, was at this time positioned outside the farm on the south-west corner of the buildings. This detachment, numbering less than 100 men, now took the full force of the second French attack, and was steadily driven back down the lane along the west side of the farm towards the North Gate.
closing the gates
Some French soldiers of the Light Regiment rushed forward and made a determined effort to break in through the half-open gate. At their head was a giant of a man called Lieutenant Legros, appropriately known as L’Enfonceur, or the Smasher. Seizing an axe from one of the pioneers, he swung it against the panels of the gate and forced his way into the farmyard.
A number of Frenchmen, (some accounts say as many as 100
Some of the enemy reached as far as the château, but they all came under intense fire from the château windows, as well as from the buildings on all sides. One group pursued a Hanoverian officer called Lieutenant Wilder as far as the farmer’s house, and as he grasped the handle of a door to open it a French sapeur cut off his hand with an axe.
But the French were heavily out-numbered and had little chance. Before long every one of them was killed or wounded except for one unarmed drummer-boy, who was spared. L’Enfonceur himself died near the château, his axe still grasped in his hand.
But even as the fighting was taking place inside Hougoumont, more French were trying to force their way in through the gate. Lieutenant Colonel Macdonell was by the Garden Gate when he became aware of the danger, and at once realized that it was vital that the Great Gate be closed. There were three Coldstream Guards officers nearby, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Wyndham, Ensign James Hervey and Ensign Henry Gooch, and shouting for them to join him, he rushed towards the gate.
As the four of them reached the area of the draw-well, they were joined by two more Coldstreamers, Corporal James Graham (who was promoted to Sergeant after the battle) and his brother Corporal Joseph Graham; four men from the Third Guards, Sergeant Ralph Fraser, Sergeant Bruce McGregor, Sergeant Joseph Aston and Private Joseph Lester also joined in. [There are various spellings of these names.]
Thrusting their way forward, the group of ten drove back any enemy in their way and fought their way to the gate. Colonel Macdonell, who was a large, strong man, put his shoulder to it, together with Corporal James Graham, who was also of heavy build. Others joined in, either adding their weight to the gates or thrusting back the Frenchmen who were still trying to force their way in.
Very slowly the two heavy panels were pushed together, and held in position until they could be barricaded. There was a rush to collect any timbers or other pieces of debris that could be used to reinforce the gate, and finally the massive crossbar was dropped into position.
The gates at Hougoumont were closed, but it had been a ‘near-run thing’.
The struggle was not yet over, however. Even while the gate was being secured, some of the enemy tried to scale the walls, and one French Grenadier, standing on the shoulders of a comrade, leaned over the top and took aim at Colonel Wyndham. Fortunately Wyndham saw him out of the corner of his eye; he hurriedly handed a musket to Corporal Graham beside him, who fired at the same second as the Frenchman and it was the latter who fell back, shot in the brain.
So the Great Gate was closed, and was never again forced by the enemy. Nor indeed did any enemy penetrate into Hougoumont for the rest of the day, and it is not hard to see why Wellington later declared that ‘The success of the Battle of Waterloo turned on the closing of the gates [at Hougoumont]’ (12.30pm to 3pm).
'The Battle of Waterloo was, surprisingly, the first time that Wellington and Napoleon confronted each other. Both were aged 46 and at the height of their powers; both were acknowledged masters of their profession.'

The Waterloo battlefield today, looking from Hougoumont Farm towards the Butte du Lion memorial.

Hougoumont today.

'Napoleon has hum-bugged me, by God,' Wellington declared. 'He has gained 24 hours march on me... I have ordered the army to concentrate at Quatre Bras, but we will not stop him there, and if so, I must fight him here.' He then placed his thumb nail over a small village on the map called Waterloo, nine miles south of Brussels.

The Duke of Wellington.

Napoleon Bonaparte.

The Earl of Uxbridge, who had been nominated as Wellington's Second-In-Command, is said to have asked him what was the material point of his plan, so that he (Uxbridge) would know what to do should any accident befall the Duke. The reply he received was, 'Keep Hougoumont'.

Château de Hougoumont in the sun, taken during filming by Battlefield History TV's 'The Waterloo Collection' DVD series.

A memorial plaque at Hougoumont bearing the inscription:
In memory of the officers and men of the 2nd Battalion Coldstream Guards who, while defending Hougoumont Farm successfully held this south gate from successive attacks throughout 18th June 1815.

Those in Hougoumont were certainly better off than their comrades in the main position on the ridge.

The Battle of Waterloo, 10.00 hours, 18 June 1815.

The Battle of Waterloo, 16.00 hours, 18 June 1815.

Every shot from the Guards behind the loopholed walls found a target among the French, tho could in return only fire at a virtually invisible enemy. Some French soldiers tried to break down the solid South Gate with the butts of their muskets, but were soon shot down; others tried to climb over the garden wall, but were promptly bayoneted.

Closing the Gate at Hougoumont.

History - the Battle of Waterloo documentary.

Further Reading

ISBN: 9780850527162

by Julian Paget
Only £9.95

The desperate defence of the hamlet of Hougoumont by the Guards was the key to Wellington's victory over Napoleon at Waterloo. It was 'a battle within a battle' and Wellington himself later declared that the outcome 'rested upon the closing of the gates at Hougoumont'. To call this a close run affair was indeed something of an understatement. This book bring to life the events of 18th June 1815 to both the visitor and reader at home.
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Taking it Further

Hougoumont and D'Erlon's Attack
ISBN: 5060247620060

by Tim Saunders
Only £15.99

Hougoumont & D'Erlon's Attack is the second part in the explosive four part series, The Waterloo Collection, which covers the entire Waterloo Campaign from Napoleon's return to France and ensuing battles to his final pursuit and eventual surrender to the British.

Following on from Ligny and Quatre Bras, Part II starts by focusing on the concentration of the Allies on the ridge of Mont St Jean and the plans of the opposing armies. While the guns of the Grand Battery thundered in the centre, French columns bore…
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