Jan 01 2012
This is the fourth and final article in a series on the Household Brigade.
“Scotland For Ever”, by Lady Butler
One of the most iconic images of the Battle of Waterloo is the charge of the Scots Greys, as immortalised by Lady Butler. Whatever the deficiencies of the painting in terms of reality, it has created an impression which is difficult to forget, not least because the charge of the Scots Greys was in fact part of the charge of the Union Brigade, comprised of the 1st (Royal) Dragoons and 6th (Inniskillings) as well as the Scots Greys. The Union Brigade routed d’Erlon’s corp, which had been threatening the allied left only moments before, then rode on to the Grand Battery, taking two eagles in the process.
This magnificent moment makes it little wonder that the deeds of the Household Brigade during their parallel advance are so easy to overlook. Even the fate of the Union Brigade, overrun by French lancers, brings a tragic dimension to the achievements of the three regiments, English, Irish and Scottish.
Nevertheless, the Household Brigade (1st and 2nd Life Guards, Royal Horse Guards and 1st Dragoon Guards) added a significant feature to the iconography of Waterloo, the only full-scale combat between British and French heavy cavalry throughout the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, a combat which distantly echoes the knight-led battles of the Middle Ages, particularly as the French cuirassiers were armoured with breast and black plates.
At the start of the battle both the Household and the Union brigades were in position on either side of the Brussels-Charleroi road, the former on the right of the road, the latter on the left. Even when hostilities commenced, at about 11 o’clock according to most accounts, they would have had little idea of what was happening, being at the foot of the reverse slope, in support of the infantry.
D’Erlon’s advance was supported by cavalry. Dubois’ cuirassiers wheeled to the left, threatening La Haie Sainte and then riding down the Hanoverian battalion sent to support the King’s German Legion light battalion defending La Haie Sainte. At this point Lord Uxbridge (later the Marquis of Anglesey), commander of the allied cavalry, sent both the Union and Household Brigades into action. The Household Brigade advanced with the 1st and 2nd Life Guards and the 1st Dragoon Guards in line, and the Horse Guards (Blues) in support as a reserve. It is worth remembering, at this point, that the 1st Dragoon Guards had not been on active service since 1793, and although the Life Guards and Blues had arrived in the Peninsula late in 1812 they had seen no real action as the momentum of the war moved towards the Pyrenees, terrain unsuitable for cavalry.
The Marquis of Anglesey on the general advance directing the brigades of Cavalry (Jones)
The commander of the Household Brigade was Lord Edward Somerset. His later report succinctly summed up what happened when the brigade moved forward to encounter French cavalry charging uphill and threatening the allied centre:
General Lord Edward Somerset
‘On the first advance of a large body of French cuirassiers to the ridge of the position occupied by the British infantry on the right of the high road, the Household Brigade immediately advanced to charge them; and drove them down the hill in utmost confusion. The brigade pursuing its advantage, attacked and routed a large body of infantry that was posted further to the rear, but at length having suffered considerable loss, and having come upon the enemy’s support it retired to rally and form.’
Not surprisingly, what happened was rather more complicated than this simple account suggests. The fiercest opposition was encountered by the 1st Life Guards, on the right of the brigade, and the Blues, who rode forward in support of them. As a result they preserved better order than the 2nd Life Guards and the Dragoon Guards who, having overcome their opponents and fired by the heat of battle, crossed the road and mixed with the Royals and the Inniskillings, joining their charge towards the Grand Battery. Uxbridge ordered the sounding of halt and rally, but the troops were deaf to its command. The situation was critical. Uxbridge had no reserves because the Scots Greys had already outrun the rest of their brigade, while the 1st Life Guards and the Blues were fully engaged in holding their own against the cuirassiers. Nonetheless, these two units were able to retire in reasonable order when the French brought up two guns and more infantry, thus giving their surviving comrades a body to form upon, although it was a close call. Somerset, who was in the rear of his retiring troops, lost his horse to cannon shot and was then urged to ‘Scramble through the hedge, you have not a moment to lose.’ He did so, on his hands and knees!
Early published accounts of the battle commended the conduct of the Household Brigade.
‘Lord Edward Somerset, with the invincible brigade of household troops, consisting of the life guards, royal horse guards, and 1st dragoon guards, rushed forward against the mailed cavalry of the enemy, and swept the intruders from the ground they had so rashly ascended, driving them up the opposite heights back into their own line.’1
‘Notwithstanding the weight and armour of the cuirassiers and the power of their horses, they proved altogether unable to withstand the shock of the heavy brigade, being literally rode down, both horse and man, while the strength of the British soldiers was no less pre-eminent when they mingled and fought hand-to-hand.’2
Indeed, one Life Guardsman reported in a letter home:
‘Until we came up with our heavy horses, and our superior weight of metal, nothing was done with the cuirassiers; unless one got now and then a cut at their faces, not one of them gave way; we therefore galloped at them, and fairly rode them down; when they were unhorsed, we cracked them like lobsters in their shells’.3
An officer in the 2nd Life Guards summed up his impression of the battle:
‘About 11 A. M. the action commenced, and the Household Brigade of cavalry was soon ordered forward to charge the Cuirassiers of the Imperial Guard, which they did with great success. A second charge left but few of them; but we in our turn have suffered much, for the heaviest fire, which was truly tremendous, was directed against the Household Brigade during the whole of the day, and it is astonishing how any of us escaped.’4
There were also some individual exploits which attracted attention. Lieutenant Tathwell of the Blues actually managed to get his hands on an eagle, but his horse was shot before he could ride off with it and he was taken prisoner. (He escaped and rejoined the following day.) Captain Kelly of the Life Guards killed the colonel of the 1st regiment of cuirassiers and kept his epaulettes as a trophy. Most famous of all was Corporal Shaw, a famous pugilist and also an excellent horseman, who kept up the fight for most of the day, and was finally attacked by six horsemen. He killed four of them but the remaining two overwhelmed him, and he died of his wounds of the battlefield.
Corporal Shaw of the Life Guards dealing destruction to all around him. (Jones)
‘Sir John Elley, who led the charge of the heavy brigade, was himself distinguished for personal prowess. He was at one time surrounded by several of the cuirassiers; but being a tall and uncommonly powerful man, completely master of his sword and horse, he cut his way out, leaving several of his assailants on the ground, marked with wounds, indicating the unusual strength of the arm which inflicted them.’5
Colonel Elley was a particularly interesting example of the (somewhat limited) meritocracy that existed in the army of the time. His origins were humble. His father had owned an eating house, and young John was apprenticed to a tannery owner. He enlisted as a trooper in the Blues in 1789 after the death of his master’s daughter, to whom he was engaged. Seven years later he was a lieutenant in the same regiment, and by 1813 he had risen to the rank of colonel. He ended his life as a lieutenant-general.
The losses the Household Brigade took in their combat with the cuirassiers meant they could play little further offensive part in the battle, although they provided valuable support to the infantry squares during the waves of French cavalry charges, and took part in the final advance against the retreating French. They bivouacked on the battlefield at nine in the evening.
The final word on their conduct comes from an officer in the Blues.
‘Often, in the conflict of “La Belle Alliance”, did the Earl of Uxbridge turn his eye towards [the brigade], exclaiming, “Now for the honour of the Household Troops;” and as often was his Lordship solaced by the brightest effects of glory under his eye.’6
- Captain Batty, An Historical Sketch of the Campaign of 1815 p.98
- Lieutenant G.W. Picton, The Battle of Waterloo p.79
- Picton p.226
- Booth, The Battle of Waterloo p.72
- Picton pp.80-1
- Booth, p.29