Waterloo as seen by those who fought The story of Siborne and his famous diorama of the battle of Waterloo is well known to all those who are interested in the campaign of 1815. It is also well known that to ensure that he had every aspect of his work as accurate as it could be Siborne wrote to as many officers of the British Army as he could, to confirm or refute the given wisdom of events, and to give them the opportunity to relate their own experiences during that momentous day of conflict. Although the replies he received from many willing contributors, from virtually every branch of the service, were elicited for the specific purpose of the creation of the model—published together they have provided posterity with a unique and invaluable archive of information and perspectives on one action. This is possibly the most famous battle the world has known—from the perspectives of many people all of whom viewed momentous events from within close proximity to each other. Here are the voices of Waterloo who would have remained silent but for Siborne's appeal. An absolutely riveting book and an essential source work of the Napoleonic Wars.
On the way Sir Augustus informed me that a serious attack was meditated against that part of the line to which he was leading us; that in all probability we should be immediately engaged with the enemy’s cavalry, in which case should they charge home, it was the Duke’s positive order that the men should be withdrawn from their guns into the nearest infantry squares. Then, having indicated our position between two squares of the Brunswick Infantry, he left us.
The ground we were to occupy was two or three feet lower than that immediately in our front, so that the bank where this difference occurred abruptly, and along which ran a narrow open road, formed a sort of genouillère to our battery. Beyond this road extended a tolerably level surface for about forty or fifty yards; and thence the ground descended rapidly towards the plain that divided the two armies.
Our leading sub-division had scarcely arrived on the position, ere it became evident that the Duke’s order could not be complied with, for a heavy column of cavalry composed of Grenadiers à Cheval and, had just ascended the plateau and was advancing upon us at a rapid pace, so that there scarcely appeared time even to get into action, and, if caught in column, of course we were lost.
However, the order was given to deploy, and each gun as it came up immediately opened its fire; the two infantry squares at the same time commencing a feeble and desultory fire; for they were in such a state that I momentarily expected to see them disband.
Their ranks, loose and disjointed, presented gaps of several file in breadth, which the officers and sergeants were busily employed filling up by pushing and even thumping their men together; whilst these, standing like so many logs, with their arms at the recover, were apparently completely stupefied and bewildered. I should add that they were all perfect children.
None of the privates, perhaps, were above eighteen years of age. In spite of our fire the column of cavalry continued advancing at a trot until separated from us by scarcely more than the breadth of the little road, but at the very moment when we expected to be overwhelmed, those of the leading squadrons suddenly turning, and endeavouring to make way to the rear, confusion took place, and the whole broke into a disorderly crowd.
The scene that ensued is scarcely to be described. Several minutes elapsed ere they succeeded in quitting the plateau, during which our fire was incessant, and the consequent carnage frightful, for each gun (9 pdrs.) was loaded with a round and case shot; all of which, from the shortness of the distance, size of the object, and elevation of the ground on which they stood, must have taken effect.
Many, instead of seeking safety in retreat, wisely dashed through the intervals between our guns, and made their way as we had seen others do; but the greater part, rendered desperate at finding themselves held, as it were, in front of the battery, actually fought their way through their own ranks, and in the struggle we saw blows exchanged on all sides.
At last the wreck of this formidable column gained protection under the slope of the hill, leaving the plateau encumbered with their killed and wounded, and we then ceased firing, that our men, who were much fatigued with their exertions, might rest themselves and be fresh against the next attack, which we saw preparing; for they had not retired so far down the hill but that the tall caps of the grenadiers of the leading squadrons were visible above the brow.
The second attempt was preluded by a cloud of skirmishers, who, advancing to within a very short distance of our front, did us considerable mischief with their carbines and pistols, but their intention being evidently to draw out our fire, no notice was taken of them.
At length the column being re-formed, again ascended the plateau, and advanced to attack us, but this time their pace scarcely exceeded a walk, or at most a gentle trot, too many obstacles lying in their way to admit of more rapid movement without confusion. This was in our favour. Experience having shown us the unerring and destructive effects of a close fire, we allowed the leading squadrons to attain about half the distance between the brow of the slope and the road in our front before we commenced.
It is scarcely necessary to say that the result was precisely similar to what has been already detailed. Again they fell into confusion, and again for several minutes were exposed to a deliberate fire of case shot within twenty yards, so that the heap of killed and wounded left on the ground, before great, was now enormous.
I think three times (of this I am uncertain) these attacks were renewed, always with less prospect of success because our position became more and more inaccessible after every attack. Be that as it may, the last had just been defeated and we were still busy at the work of destruction, when the Duke arriving from the rear rode along our front and obliged us to cease firing, although the remains of the cavalry had not yet quitted the plateau.
His Grace was soon followed by a line of infantry, (?advance of Adam’s brigade) who ascending the slope with ported arms, ankle deep in a tenacious clay and struggling with the numerous obstacles encumbering the ground, presented but a loose and broken front, whilst the feeble hurrahs they sent forth showed how much they were out of breath with their exertions. Arrived on the summit, these disorders were rectified, although the fire that now opened upon us from the enemy’s batteries caused considerable loss, and the whole (our neighbours of Brunswick included) descended the hill towards the plain.