The Battle of Waterloo was fought in Belgium on the 18th of June, 1815.
Many Scottish regiments took part in the Battle of Waterloo, which ended the ‘hundred days’ of Napoleon’s second coming. Perhaps the most famous action was that immortalised in the painting of 1881 by Lady Elizabeth Butler, who portrayed the charge of the 92nd (Gordon) Highlanders and the Royal Scots Greys on the French infantry Brigades. With over three thousand men, the French advanced on the allied line, which included the remnants of the 92nd Regiment, less than three hundred men. These Gordons were under strict orders not to yield and as the situation reached a critical moment, the Scots Greys appeared at the top of the rise. Stirring legend has it that the Gordons and the Greys together charged the French column, crying “Scotland Forever!” and with the Gordons hanging on to the stirrups of the cavalry horses.
In truth, the charge didn’t happen as depicted by the spectacular headlong charge in the painting or indeed, the movie. Nevertheless, Wellington’s success quite rightly appears in history as one of the greatest of military victories and there were indeed, plenty of heroics on the day with which to fill up a script. There are other well known paintings depicting heroic events surrounding the famous charge. Stanley Berkeley’s painting depicts Sergeant Charles Ewart of the Royal Scots Greys capturing the Eagle of the French 45e Régiment de Ligne. Another, by Richard Ansdell, entitled ‘Fight for the Standard’ and painted in 1847, the year of Ewart’s death, depicts the same valiant deed.
In March, 1815, a year after being banished to the Mediterranean island of Elba, Napoleon escaped and reformed his armies. He appeared in Belgium and was first engaged at Quatre Bras. That battle, involving the Gordons, was the prelude to Waterloo and did much to determine the final outcome at that battle. Two days later, on the 18th of June, 1815, all the protagonists were aligned, fifteen kilometres south of Brussels, ready to take part in the concluding act of a grand, twenty-five years long European drama.
The 2nd Royal North British Dragoons (Scots Greys) were brigaded with two other regiments of Dragoons; the 1st Royal Dragoons and the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons; to form the famous Union Brigade. The 92nd (Gordon Highlanders) Regiment of Foot took the field at Quatre Bras where it lost almost half its strength, killed and wounded. On the day of Waterloo, the Regiment took the field with less than two hundred and fifty men. The Greys and the Gordons formed part of the Reserve within Pack’s Brigade, which was stationed on the left wing, facing down slope from the crest of a small ridge.
Shortly after battle commenced, about 1.30pm, four Divisions of massed French infantry, three thousand men supported by cavalry, descended in echelon into the valley. Early in the proceedings, as the Dutch retreated behind the crest, a large space was left open to the French. This was filled by the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Scots and the 2nd Battalion of the 44th who maintained their ground for some time, before being compelled to give way.
By this time Marcognet’s leading regiment had reached the hedge of the Ohain road, so General Pack ordered up the depleted 92nd Highlanders, calling out, “92nd, all the troops in your front have given way, you must charge this column.” He then ordered the line to form four deep and to close on the enemy column, less than thirty yards away. That consisted of Marcognet’s two Brigades, including the 1er and 2e Bataillons, 45e Régiment de Ligne (‘Les Enfants de Paris’). They soon became aware of the advancing Highlanders when they received a volley at twenty yards. The French immediately returned fire and the Gordons became very hard pressed and were likely to be overrun.
With the French infantry threatening to break the British centre, the Earl of Uxbridge ordered the Household and Union Brigades to attack the French infantry, coincident with the charge of the 92nd Highlanders. However, the Scots Greys were still held in reserve. That is, until Lieutenant-Colonel Hamilton, witnessing Pack’s Brigade beginning to crumble and the Gordons falling back, ordered his Regiment forward at the walk. Because the ground was broken and uneven, thanks to the mud, crops, and the fighting, the Scots Greys remained at the walk until they had passed through the Gordons. Then they broke into a trot to cover the last few yards into the French ranks.
The arrival of the Scots Greys rallied the Gordons, who turned back upon the French, a bobbing body of bonnets and plumes lost amidst the charging horses in the dust and smoke. It’s clear that the French didn’t expect to see British cavalry materialising through the ranks of the opposing infantry and even without attacking at a gallop, the weight of the Scots Greys charge proved to be irresistible. When the Greys hit Marcognet’s column on the flank, the 45e Régiment was still in the act of forming line and its Bataillons were thrown into violent confusion, shaken also by renewed fire from the Gordons.
Ahead of the savagely charging Highlanders, Marcognet’s Division and that of Donzelot, were cut to pieces or trampled by the sabres and thundering horseflesh of the Scots Greys. In three minutes the column was totally destroyed and large numbers taken prisoner. As the French were routed, Sir Denis Pack rode up and said, “You have saved the day, Highlanders.” The important service rendered by the 92nd Highlanders at a critical moment, by charging and routing the elite of the French infantry, also brought the Gordons personal praise from the Duke of Wellington.
The Scots Greys went into the battle three hundred and ninety-one strong and by the evening, one hundred and two of them were dead and ninety-eight were wounded. This was primarily because they failed to respond to the recall. They committed a mistake familiar to many Western movie goers, overenthusiastically pursuing the French infantry and becoming split into disorganised groups. Unfortunately, Napoleon spotted their carelessness and sent Regiments of Cuirassiers and Lancers against them.
With Napoleon’s final defeat and exile to St. Helena, a great peace descended on Europe and future generations of Brits were excused from having to learn French.