Battles like Waterloo are full of moments when the result appears in the balance. I think that’s why we are drawn to military history. Climactic moments of drama which dramatically alter an outcome are as obvious on the battlefield as they are obscure in the courts, the boardrooms, the labs and the committees that shape our world.
An even fight
Waterloo was an evenly matched struggle. Napoleon could have blasted Wellington’s allied army off their ridge and marched on Brussels before the Prussians caught him in the famous pincer that ended his dreams of an empire reborn.
If Napoleon’s subordinates had been as reliable as Massena, Davout and Berthier had been in past campaigns, if the allied centre had collapsed under the massive cavalry assault of Marshal Ney, ‘bravest of the brave’, if the Imperial Guard had managed to punch through the thin red line late in the day.
One moment, though, was regarded by Wellington and many contemporaries as truly decisive. On the western edge of the battlefield was the Château d’Hougoumont. It was a strongly built, walled farm house which the Duke of Wellington had garrisoned with a mixture of British Guardsmen and German allies.
Napoleon’s first move at Waterloo was to launch a feint against Hougoumont, playing on the anxiety felt by every British commander, the security of his lifeline to the Channel Coast. The Emperor would tempt Wellington to protect his west flank by weakening his centre, which would then be subjected to a massive Napoleonic assault.
French troops hurled themselves at the Chateau in the opening clash of Waterloo. One group managed to work their way around to the north gate and break in to the courtyard.
A giant of a man, Sous-Lieutenant Legros, broke through the gate with an axe and dozens of French soldiers stormed in. They were met by British Guardsmen and a brutal hand-to-hand battle followed.
The men fired their muskets at close quarters and then used the 15-inch razor-sharp bayonet on the end to thrust, while using the barrels and stocks to club the enemy or parry their blows. In a dazzling display of leadership, Lieutenant Colonel James Macdonell, the Coldstreamer in command of Hougoumont, fought his way to the gate helped by fellow officers and Corporal James Graham, and managed to shut and bar the gate.
30 or so Frenchmen were now trapped inside. One by one they were massacred, only a young drummer boy was spared.
Closing the gates
Wellington nominated Corporal Graham as the “most deserving soldier at Waterloo” for his bravery. He also declared afterwards that “the success of the battle turned upon the closing of the gates at Hougoumont.”
It was not quite that simple, but if Legros’ men had seized Hougoumont, it would have put perhaps intolerable pressure on Wellington’s flank. Still early in the day, Napoleon would have had a major advantage. Instead, after that initial assault, the fighting around Hougoumont bogged down into a brutal slog which drew in men and artillery which Napoleon desperately needed elsewhere on the battlefield.
The allies held Hougoumont, but Wellington did not greatly weaken the rest of his line to reinforce it; Napoleon’s opening move had failed. Despite this, the Emperor unleashed attack after attack, only to find that the same spirit of stubborn resistance that had saved Hougoumont was present throughout the allied army.