La Noche Triste

In early 1520, Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez’ conquest of the Aztec Empire fared poorly. The Aztecs no longer thought he was a god and lost their fear of the Spanish guns, steel, and horses. Increasing Spanish demands of gold, food, and women grated on the Aztecs. Especially chafing was the ban on human sacrifice, which was central to Aztec religion and society. Just prior to initial Spanish contact, the Aztecs held a ceremony during which 80,000 captive men, women, and children had their hearts torn out and eaten. These ceremonies were held regularly, though those so large were reserved for special occasions. To the Aztecs, all of the ills that had befallen their empire and people since European contact were due to the Spanish prohibition on human sacrifice. The Aztecs felt the gods were punishing them since they couldn’t be appeased with human blood.

Exacerbating the volatile situation with the Aztecs was Cotrez’ problems with the Spanish governor of Cuba. Their relationship had deteriorated to the point where the governor sent an expedition to arrest Cortez. Cortez was forced to leave the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, to confront the interlopers.

Tenochtitlan was one of the largest cities in the world with a population of over a million. Tenochtitlan by all accounts was absolutely massive, easily larger than the largest European cities at the time, London and Constantinople, both of which topped out at 200,000. Tenochtitlan was even larger before the mumps epidemic (which one of Cortez’ men brought in 1519) that killed about 100,000. Cortez’ kept a tenuous hold on the city with just a few thousand conquistadors and non-Aztec Indian allies.

Cortez left a subordinate to maintain the delicate relations with the Aztecs, while he left the city to deal with the governor’s expedition. Cortez managed to coopt his would-be captors, but he lost Tenochtitlan while he was away. In his absence, the lieutenant whom he left in the capital had arbitrarily slaughtered some Aztec nobles. Their deaths were the final humiliations. The entire city rose against the Spanish. The Aztecs swarmed the conquistadors, despite their technological advantage. The Spanish had harquebuses, crossbows, pikes, halberds, steel breastplates, small cannon, dogs of war, and armored knights on horseback – the very best of early 16th century military technology to fight the Stone Age equipped Aztecs. Dismissing the odds, the 1000 conquistadors in Tenochtitlan killed 30 for every loss. Nonetheless, the Aztecs still came on. The remaining 200 conquistadors were besieged in the emperor’s palace with the Aztec emperor, Montezuma, held captive.

Cortez heard of the news as he returned to Tenochtitlan. He had 1200 conquistadors and 3000 Tlaxalan allies recruited from one of the many Aztec enemies in the region. Cortez felt it was enough to chastise the Aztecs. He entered the city and the Aztecs allowed him to make it to the palace. They then closed the causeways behind him. Montezuma attempted to parley with the besiegers but the Aztecs had had enough. The Aztecs disavowed their emperor, denounced him a traitor, and killed him.

The next day Cortez sent 400 conquistadors to break out. Although the Aztecs took 20,000 casualties, all 400 Spaniards were killed or captured. Cortez was trapped.

On the night of 30 June/1 July 1520, the Spaniards attempted to sneak out, but they were spotted by an old woman fetching water. Soon the city descended upon the expedition and a running battle was fought through the streets. The Aztecs destroyed the causeways to trap the conquistadors but the Spanish filled the gaps with dead Aztecs and crossed over the bodies. The Aztecs disregarded the losses and continued to attack, especially targeting the stragglers. Cortez gave permission for each man to take as much gold as he could carry and the greedy ones were the first to die when they couldn’t keep up. The more gold the individual conquistadors took, the less likely they were to loie to spend it.

Cortez’ entire expedition would have been wiped out but the Aztec way of war centered on capturing not killing. They kept trying to take the Spaniards captive in order to sacrifice and eat them later, particularly Cortez. The Aztecs knew that without his leadership the expedition would have certainly broke up. But each time he was swarmed and hauled off, his men charged and rescued him. Despite grievous losses, the Spanish reached the mainland where the conquistadors could finally unleash the full power of their armored knights. The final charge by the last 20 knights routed the blocking Aztec force of 40,000. The thundering horsemen cut down every warrior with many colorful plumes, a symbol of Aztec status, eventually killing their commander. Only about 250 conquistadors and 1000 Tlaxalans managed to escape what the Spanish would call “La Noche Triste” or “The Sad Night”.

The next morning, the Aztecs resumed their practice of human sacrifice, and many a Spanish and Tlaxalan heart was consumed by the jubilant Aztecs.

The Aztecs would not enjoy their victory for long though. One of the conquistadors who arrived to arrest Cortez eventually joined with him. This particular conquistador was killed on a causeway during La Noche Triste. He fell behind, not because he carried too much gold, but because he was sick and weakened. He had smallpox.

The resulting smallpox epidemic caused by this initial vector killed 250,000 Aztecs in the coming months. When Cortez returned, he found the Aztecs of Tenochtitlan much easier to reconquer.

The Fall of Fort St. Elmo

For more than a month, the 1500 Knights of St John, Spanish and Italian knights, and Maltese militia held the exposed Fort St. Elmo across the harbor from the Maltese Knights’ main defenses at Fort St. Michael, Fort St Angelo, and the towns of Birgu and Senglea. Ft St Elmo was an anchor point for the great chain that blocked the harbor’s entrance and the Turks had to take it.

Forty great siege guns pounded the fort but the Knights were able to repair and reinforce St Elmo by boat at night from across the harbor. On 3 June 1565, Dragut Reis, the greatest of the Turkish commanders, managed to get trenches and guns to cover the water approach. Furthermore, he lashed galleys together and built a platform on the great chain over which he could pass small galliots packed with archers. This completely cut off the fort and made any resupply a major operation using resources the Knights could no longer afford. On 9 June, its commander said it would fall within days and asked that the position be evacuated. Jean Parisot La Vallette, the indomitable commander of the Order, knew that every day Fort St Elmo held was another day closer to the Spanish relief, wrote back, “If you cannot find it in yourself to die for Jesus Christ and St John, then I will send men who will.” The Fort of St. Elmo held strong for another two weeks.

The constant bombardment reduced Fort St Elmo to rubble, and repeated Turkish assaults captured its entirety except for buildings of the inner courtyard and church. On 23 June 1565, Pasha Mustapha, who replaced Dragut Reis when he was mortally wounded by a cannonball, ordered the final assault. The Janissaries assembled within yards of the Knights, just out of pike range, because the Knights had long been out of powder for their harquebuses. The Knights sold themselves dearly as La Vallette watched from St Angelo. The last thing La Vallette saw through his telescope, was the Italian knight Francesco Lanfreducci laying about with a massive two handed sword underneath the banner of St. John. Lanfreducci managed to light the fire signaling the imminent fall of the fort before being swarmed by Turks, and the banner was quickly replaced by the Ottoman standard.

That night, the Turks mutilated and killed any survivors, less several knights for interrogation, and only a few Maltese militiamen escaped by swimming across the harbor. Mustapha ordered 1000 bodies nailed to makeshift crosses in a grim parody of the Crucifixion, and floated them across the harbor to demoralize the remaining defenders. On the morning of 24 June, the feast day of the Order’s patron, St John the Baptist, the bodies came ashore near St Angelo. But it did not have the promised effect. The infuriated La Vallette ordered all Turkish prisoners marched to the walls and beheaded in full view of the Turkish siege lines. And then their heads were fired out of cannons into the Turkish trenches.

The Great Siege of Malta would not be a repeat of the relatively chivalrous and “civilized” Siege of Rhodes. Both sides knew the stakes involved and there would be no quarter.

The Battles of Connecticut Farms and Springfield

Washington described his time at the Continental Army’s encampment at Morristown, New Jersey from 1779 to 1780, as “The Hard Winter”. American logistics had broken down, so the Continental Congress abdicated their responsibility and told the states to supply their own troops. Many troops went weeks without seeing meat or bread, sometimes days without seeing anything at all. Washington resorted to foraging the countryside to prevent his army from starving to death. The weather was colder than the winter at Valley Forge, with 23 major snow storms, including one that dumped four feet of snow on the encampment. Of the 12,000 Continental soldiers that entered winter quarters at Morristown in December 1779, 4000 had deserted by June, and of the remainder, 1/3 were unfit for duty.

British General Henry Clinton, whose troops were snug in New York City for the harsh winter, sought to take advantage of the Continental Army’s weakness. With the focus of the war moving elsewhere, the Southern colonies and the Caribbean for instance, Clinton surmised that he had one last shot at Washington, before other theaters made demands on his resources in New York. Washington, however, did not choose Morristown for its amenities, but for its tactically and operationally favorable position.

The encampment at Morristown was close enough to bottle up the British in New York but far enough away to permit Washington some reaction time when Clinton sortied. Furthermore, the only approach was via Newark Bay, and Morristown was screened from any landing there by the Great Swamp and Watchung Mountains. Any British landing force would have to make an amphibious landing in marshland, then a long approach march through hostile New Jersey countryside only to force one of the passes through the mountains just to fight a battle on the other side in constricted terrain against a dug in enemy under proven leadership. Clinton sent the Hessians.

In early June, 1780, Hessian General Baron Wilhelm von Knyphausen took the cream of Clinton’s army and crossed from Staten Island to bring Washington to battle. Knyphausen’s army consisted of the best of the Prussian regiments, the British Guards regiments, the Highlanders, the Royal Artillery, dragoons, the Queen’s Rangers, and two regiments of New Jersey Loyalists. Knyphausen’s 6000 men were thought to be more than enough to defeat Washington’s famished and mutiny wracked army.

On 7 June 1780, Knyphausen’s army landed at Elizabethtown Point in New Jersey. He planned on making the 11 mile march to Hobart Pass and be through the mountains before Washington could react. It was not to be. Knyphausen was spotted and the cry went up throughout New Jersey, not unlike Lexington and Concord five years before. A brigade of New Jersey militia formed at Springfield on the near side of Hobart Pass. Knyphausen met them at the small hamlet of Connecticut Farms just outside Springfield.

Stiffened by the presence of Washington and his personal guard, the militiamen made the British and Hessians pay for every foot they moved forward. They turned every house into a fortress, and every tree into a firing position. Nonetheless, Knyphausen took the village, but could see even more Americans forming in the pass. Disorganized, and bit surprised at the strength of the resistance thus far, Knyphausen impotently burned Connecticut Farms to the ground, and withdrew back to Elizabethport.

Two weeks later, Knyphausen tried again, however he knew he’d never be able to force the pass. Washington would know within minutes of his assembling to march. Clinton devised a trap. This attempt was a feint to draw Washington into a battle to the west of the mountains. Knyphausen would again march on the Hobart Pass, this time with a diminished force, and engage the militia around Springfield. He’d be the bait. Washington had spent the entire war trying to bring the British to decisive battle on his terms, and Clinton planned to give him one. As the battle against Knyphausen was fought at Springfield, Clinton expected Washington to march around the British flank and cross the mountains west of Newark. Clinton would then destroy him with a strong reserve as Knyphausen quickly disengaged from Springfield and turned on Washington. On 23 June 1780, Knyphausen marched on Hobart Pass. But this time, he met not only a horde of New Jersey militia, but also Continentals under Nathaniel Greene.

Greene had John Stark’s composite New England Brigade, “Light Horse” Harry Lee’s Legion, and William Maxwell’s New Jersey Brigade. Greene met Knyphausen at Elizebethtown, far forward of where the Hessian expected. Knyphausen attacked and Greene deftly withdrew fighting a running battle all the way back to Springfield. With Washington nowhere on the battlefield, Clinton and Knyphausen assumed their plan was working.

Washington knew of Clinton’s reserve, and had no intention of falling for the trap. The Continental Army was in no condition to attack in any case. The times were desperate, but not as desperate as they were when he pulled off the miracle at Trenton. The British were going to have to come to him. If Knyphausen wanted to make a fight of Springfield and Hobart Pass, Washington had Greene oblige.

Knyphausen fought up the Galloping Hill road toward Springfield, with Green fighting him every step of the way. The ruins of Connecticut Farms was an apt reminder to the New Jersey militia of what waited for their homes if the British won. At the bridge across the Rahway River, the Americans made a stand, and an artillery duel developed. When the Americans began to run out paper wadding, the Continental Army’s head chaplain, Reverend James Caldwell, who lost his wife in the Battle for Connecticut Farms, ran into Springfield and came back with box of hymnals. The hymnals were published by English clergyman Issac Watts. Caldwell and the gunners tore them up, and stuffed them in barrels with the cannon balls. The chaplain exclaimed, “Give’ em Watts, boys!”

The spirited defense of the Galloping Hills Bridge forced Knyphausen to send a column on the Vauxhall road to outflank the Americans. As the column got further away, it was threatened with being isolated and destroyed. The column eventually reconsolidated back on Galloping Hill road after its commander became concerned with the number of militia organizing on Newark Mountain and in the Short Hills, out in the open but just out of range. Fortunately for Knyphausen, the Queen’s Rangers found a ford and the British and Hessians crossed. Greene withdrew back into Springfield where again the Americans made the British, Hessians, and Loyalists fight for every building and street.

When Knyphausen was sufficiently bloodied, Greene pulled everyone back into the Hobart Pass, taunting his opponent to follow. But by late afternoon, it was obvious Clinton’s plan had failed and Washington wasn’t coming. Knyphausen called off the attack and declined to pursue. Clinton’s reserve was too far away to be of any use forcing the pass even if he wanted to, and there seemed to be thousands of additional American militia converging on the battlefield from all over northern New Jersey. Dead mercenaries can’t spend their pay.

In a last act of defiance, Knyphausen fired Springfield as he withdrew. He left only four buildings standing, because he was informed they belonged to Loyalists. All he did was signal to the Americans who the Loyalists were, so they just tore them down for building materials, completing the destruction of Springfield. Clinton withdrew his army back to Staten Island the next day.

The Battle of Springfield provided a significant boost to the flagging American morale after the disastrous winter. The destruction of Connecticut Farms and Springfield solidified American resolve against the British and proved an effective recruiting tool, not to mention increased the American population’s generosity towards supplying the Continental Army. The Battle of Springfield was the last major battle in the northern theater of the American Revolution. Greene’s experience in New Jersey — fighting, withdrawing, and fighting again, would come in useful when he was assigned to take command of the Southern Department later in the summer.

The Battle of Waterloo: The Final Assault by the Imperial Guard

Napoleon’s Imperial Guard was comprised of three groups and at the time of Waterloo, nearly 22,000 strong counting the Guard Cavalry (with Ney) and Guard Artillery (in the Grand Battery). They were the Young Guard, the Middle (Aged) Guard and the Old Guard. (The Old Guard are who most people are familiar with). The Young Guard were the pick of the litter of the 1810-1815 campaigns and draft classes, and those not good enough for the Middle Guard. The Middle Guard were the best veterans from Napoleon’s 1805 to 1809 campaigns. The Old Guard consisted of the best soldiers in Europe, and were veterans of most of Napoleon’s campaigns, from as far back as the Italian campaign in 1790s. The Imperial Guard, particularly the Old Guard, had better pay, better rations, and the most senior were permitted to fight in their dress uniforms (back when awards actually meant something). They never retreated and they never surrendered. Napoleon knew each guardsman by name. They were the only soldiers outside of the Marshals permitted to disagree with or even complain in front of Napoleon, thus earning them the nickname “Les Grognards”, “The Grumblers.”

Thirty minutes after Ney’s request for the Guard, and a personal inspection by Napoleon himself, the remainder of the Imperial Guard, the last uncommitted French troops, stepped off into the attack at 1930. But that thirty minutes proved fatal. In that time, Wellington was able to reorganize his lines and bring over troops from the now inconsequential fight at Hougamont, or units pinched out of the fight by the Prussian advance near Pappelote. Nonetheless, the Old Guard had never been committed unless victory was assured. When the other French troops saw them in the attack, a great hurrah echoed across the battlefield, and any troops not engaged at Hougamont or Plancenoit, surged forward. Stragglers, wounded, staff, the lost, and the remnants of shattered formations joined in the attack. Everyone wanted to be a part of the last glorious charge of the battle; the Old Guard was in the van.

The final assault by the Imperial Guard was not enough. The Guard were too few, and the reorganized Allied firepower and numbers too great. One Middle Guard battalion took 20% casualties from a single volley from a British line that popped up 25 feet in front of them. The second volley caused even more damage. The same resulted wherever the Guard met the line, but still they came on or engaged in furious point blank musketry exchanges.

In a curious historical irony, it wasn’t the renowned disciplined firepower of the British that first broke the Guard, but a Dutch brigade led by Gen David Henrik Chasse. Chasse had fought against Wellington at Talavera in 1809 as a subordinate of D’Erlon. Chasse’s troops did not exchange fire with the Guard like the British but crashed into them with their bayonets, and overwhelmed the Imperial Guard with superior numbers. Chasse’s target was the unit whom a French soldier said of, “La garde recule ! Sauve qui peut!” or “The Guard retreats, save yourself!” Within minutes the rest of the Middle Guard broke. Other French units watched in horror as the unthinkable happened: the Guard fell back. With the Guard and consequently the French morale broken, individual British, Belgian, Dutch and German units advanced, just as the Prussians emerged from Planceoit. Wellington, sensing the battle won and ever the politician, raised his hat and signaled the general attack, lest Blucher get the credit for the victory.

By 2050, the only French units not destroyed or in full rout were the two of the four most senior Old Guard regiments, the 1st and 2nd Chasseurs. They escorted Napoleon from the field and when he was safely on a carriage to Paris, they turned and fought. First in a line, and when they were out-flanked, a square. When casualties were so high they couldn’t maintain a square, they formed a triangle. Finally the Allies brought up cannon and threatened to finish them with a bayonet charge. Before they fired, a young German Osnabrucker, Sgt Conrad Fuerhing, asked their commander, Gen Pierre Cambronne, if he wanted to surrender. Victor Hugo wrote that he replied, “La Garde meurt, elle ne se rend pas!” or “The Guard dies, it does not surrender!” But what the hard drinking, hard fighting, tough as nails, soldiers’ general actually said was,

“Merde.”

In literal English, “s**t”. In the figurative,

“F**k off.”

The reply was an apt end to the Napoleonic Era.

The Battle of Waterloo: The Prussian Attack and the Fall of La Haye Sainte

Wellington got his wish, though while he was stuck in a square fending off Ney’s cavalry, he didn’t know it. Blucher kept his promise from the night before. Von Bulow’s IV Corps slammed into Lobau’s understrength corps at Plancenoit and D’Erlon was forced to commit much needed units to keep Zeiten’s I Corps from rolling up his flank. Furthermore, Napoleon had to commit part of his reserve just to stabilize the situation, the least senior battalions of his Imperial Guard, the Young Guard.

The Young Guard was part of Napoleon’s personal command, the Imperial Guard, and could only be committed by his own words. Despite their lack of seniority, the Young Guard were some of the best troops in Europe and temporarily checked the Prussians, but the fighting in Plancenoit was fierce. It was the reverse of Hougamont and La Haye Sainte with the French barricaded in the buildings and courtyards and is considered by most historians as the worst urban fighting of the Napoleonic Era. Just after 1800, Blucher paused his attack and began to reorganize for a final push.

At 1830, Maj Baring could no longer defend La Haye Sainte: his troops were out of ammunition. They had fired everything they brought, everything they were given, and everything they could scrounge. D’Erlon finally threw them out. At 1850, the nimble horse artillery batteries began to pound Wellington’s vulnerable squares from near point blank range and soon they were joined by the big guns from the Grand Battery. It was at this point the mounted Earl of Uxbridge approached the Duke of Wellington and just that moment a cannon ball took his leg. Completely unperturbed, he said,

“By God, Sir, I’ve lost my leg.”

The Duke coolly replied, “By God, sir, so you have.”

Despite the pounding the Allies were receiving, the Prussian attack, Baring’s defense, and six hours of near constant fighting severely depleted D’Erlon’s Corps. Moreover, a reformed Dutch brigade attempted to retake La Haye Sainte. Even worse Wellington reformed most of his men back into lines. D’Erlon would need more men to even attempt to break through. And he needed them ricky tick: the Prussians renewed their attack on Plancenoit at 1900 with the near assurance of quick victory, and the French artillery was almost out of ammunition.

After a personal inspection by Napoleon himself, the remainder of the Imperial Guard, the last uncommitted French troops, stepped off into the attack at 1930, 18 June, 1815.

The Battle of Waterloo: Ney’s Cavalry Charge.

By 1500, Lobau confirmed that the Prussians were only five miles away and would be in a position to attack in less than two hours. Napoleon was now on the clock. A Prussian appearance would destroy morale, so he quietly started the rumor that the troops to the east were Grouchy’s. This bit of “command disinformation” had to hold up until Grouchy did show up, or Ney broke Wellington’s weak point, his center, and La Haye Sainte was its key.

Around 1530, D’Erlon threw the full weight of his reformed corps at the tiny farm compound, but the French numbers worked against them and Major Baring’s troops held out. Again trying to make up for his previous failure, Ney had assembled 12,000 (one, two, plus three zeroes) French cavalry to support him once he struck the ridge. Ney was expecting D’Erlon to steamroll the farm. Meanwhile, the Grand Battery continued to pound the remainder of Wellington’s line, then completely exposed on the forward slope after the counterattack.

By 1600, the Grand Battery was inflicting serious damage on the Allied troops, so Wellington pulled everyone not engaged around La Haye Sainte back to the reverse slope. Cavalrymen in the best of times are an impatient lot, and the fiery Ney with thousands of his brothers were no exception. To the great mass of cavalrymen, it looked as if the Allies were retreating. A great cry went up, and unwilling to wait any further on D’Erlon, Ney ordered the charge. Napoleon was furious but could do nothing to stop the impetuous Ney. The cavalry surged forward and easily overran Wellington’s cannon. But as they crested the ridge they ran not into retreating columns, but dozens of hollow infantry squares.

The infantry square is a formation that provided all around protection against a cavalry attack and relies on simple animal instinct: a horse will not throw itself against a wall of sharp objects, in this case bayonets. All the cavalrymen could do was ride up or around and whack the bayonets with their sabres, or shoot the Allies with their carbines and pistols. The square is horribly vulnerable to cannon shot and infantry attack, but with D’Erlon occupied with the fight on the reverse slope, no square would be broken that day.

But that didn’t stop Ney from trying and he personally led many of the attacks. While rallying a group of cuirassiers, he yelled, “Come and see how a Marshal of France can die!” He had five horses shot out from underneath him but he survived. Still, Ney wouldn’t stop and the Allies were hard pressed. If La Haye Sainte or Hougamont fell, and that infantry came to Ney’s aid, the game was over.

Around 1730, Wellington, stuck in a square and oblivious to anything beyond it, kept looking at his watch and saying, “Give me night, or give me Blucher.”

The Battle of Waterloo: The Attack on the Center

At 1300, Napoleon’s artillery was finally in position, and the 80 guns of the “Grand Battery” opened on Wellington’s line. Napoleon, a former artillery officer (imagine that), had made a career of smashing a portion of an adversary’s line with cannon and then following the through the rupture with dense columns of infantry acting as a human battering ram. Wellington knew this and placed the majority of his troops on the reverse slope of the Mont St Jean ridge, which protected them from the worst, but not all, of the cannon fire. The casualties began to mount.

At 1320, D’Erlon’s I Corps stepped off on the long march through the wet wheat fields, and finally Wellington’s artillery returned fire. For the next 30 minutes, the Allied troops stoically stood in formation and took it, while the French slowly marched forward and took it. On both sides, whenever holes appeared in the line, men from the rear ranks stepped into them. About 1345 pm, Wellington, fully within range of Napoleon’s guns (most of his staff would be casualties by the end of the day), commented,

“Hard pounding, gentlemen. Let’s see who pounds the longest.”

D’Erlon’s Corps first encountered the walled farm at La Haye Sainte and detached 7000 troops to assault it, as the rest continued on. The farm was held by 700 line infantry of the King’s German Legion. King George III of Britain (yes, that one) was not actually English, but German; his other title was King George of Hannover. The King’s German Legion were soldiers who fled Hannover to Britain when Napoleon conquered it in 1803 and they formed some of Wellington’s best troops. Major Georg Baring and his battalion proved a thorn in D’Erlon’s side for the next six hours.

Weathering round shot, canister shot, double canister, rifle fire, and finally the renowned disciplined musket fusillade from British infantry, D’Erlon’s 17,000 strong columns struck the British lines at 1400. D’Erlon knew his enemy though, and he concentrated his heaviest attacks on the least reliable of Wellington’s troops, the Belgians and Dutch. Wellington acknowledged this weakness and interspersed British and German units to stiffen their lines (just as he had done on the peninsula with the Portuguese and Spanish). However, the Dutch were hastily mobilized for this campaign and many of the Belgians fought for Napoleon previously, some for over ten years. After just 15 minutes, their lines cracked and then broke.

The rout of Wellington’s Belgians and Dutch in the center was Napoleon’s high watermark of the battle. Had D’Erlon had more troops, from any source, to secure the breach and prepare for the inevitable counterattack, the battle would almost certainly have been over. But after the long march under fire and the furious fight on the ridge, D’Erlon’s men by themselves couldn’t withstand a determined counter attack. Around 1430, the top hat and great coat clad Sir Thomas Picton led the 5th Division in a counterattack. Soon after, the British heavy cavalry moved forward to exploit the highlanders’ assault. Just after Picton unleashed his highlanders, the Earl of Uxbridge released the Household Brigade and the Union Brigade against the French. With La Haye Saint Sainte still under Allied control, the French had nowhere to rally, and the British cavalry swept the D’Erlon’s men from the field. The British cavalry was only stopped by French lancers and cuirassiers in a countercharge. Some of the British horsemen made it all the way to the Grand Battery.

D’Erlon was furious. His first attack nearly successful, and he inquired Ney as to why he wasn’t supported. His men would be forced to make the same attack again. Their ordeal was for nothing. Where was the cavalry? Bad staff work had them too far from the breakthrough. Where was the Imperial Guard? Napoleon jealously guarded their use. Where was Lobau and VI Corps? They were investigating a body of troops spotted six miles to the east.

The east? Blucher had arrived.

The Battle of Waterloo: The Assault on Hougamont

On 18 June, 1815 Emperor Napoleon I of the French faced Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, and his Anglo-Dutch-Belgian-German Army just south of the town of Mont St. Jean. Napoleon planned on attacking the Duke at 9 am, but heavy rains the night before prevented his artillery from getting into position in time and, in any case, the soggy ground would greatly reduce their effectiveness. So Napoleon issued his orders and waited for the ground to dry. As he waited, the very sick Napoleon took a nap. At 1130, Marshal Michel Ney, Napoleon’s commander on the ground, wanted to make up for his failure to be aggressive at Quatra Bras and grew impatient. He gave the order for General Reille’s II Corps to begin their attack on the walled chateaux of Hougamont in order to draw away some of Wellington’s reserves in preparation for the main attack on the center of the British line.

Wellington knew the importance of Hougamont, and sent his best unit to hold it: the Brigade of Guards, backed by the best of the King’s German Legion: the Nassau and Hannoverian jaegers (German for “hunters”), light infantry whose accurate rifles made every tree precious. But Reille threw almost the entire veteran 6th Infantry Division, led by Gen Jerome Napoleon, the Emperor’s little brother, along with the 9th Infantry Div, at Hougamont. After fierce fighting on the approach, the French reached the gates and walls of the compound. But the chateaux and courtyard itself were held by the senior regiment in the British Army, the Coldstream Guards, led by the indefatigable Lieutenant Colonel James MacDonald, and there was an impasse. But make no mistake – the brawl for Hougamont was a still bitterly contested swirling maelstrom of a melee, in which no side had an advantage.

That is until 1230, when a monster-of-a-man, Sous-Lieutenant Legros, of the 1st Legre of the 6th Division, physically hacked through the northwest gate at Hougamont with an axe he found in the orchard. Thirty Frenchmen managed to storm through, and the entire battle hung in the balance. But LieutCol MacDonald personally led a counterattack during which Captain Henry Wyndam and Corporal James Graham managed to shut the gate. The thirty Frenchmen were all bayoneted, including Lieut Legros. The only survivor was a young unnamed drummer boy, whom was saved by Pvt Mathew Clay, and escorted to the chapel.

Though he didn’t know it, Wellington’s first crisis had passed.

Although the fighting around Hougamont raged all day, Jerome and Reille would get no closer to capturing it than they did at 1230. In an ironic twist, the fight for the chateaux and orchard would occupy almost a quarter of Napoleon’s Army. Like the campaign in Spain, the supposed feint at Hougamont, was a bleeding ulcer for Napoleon that consumed men and leadership, much needed elsewhere on the battlefield at Waterloo.

The Battle of Waterloo: the Narrative

Today on the “bicentennial plus five” of one of the most famous battles in history, I am hoping to lay this one out for you like TA-50. Before we begin our journey, there is something you must understand first that is kind of a pet peeve of mine: the loss of context within the narrative. And the writers about the Battle of Waterloo are the worst at it.

The vast majority of non-scholarly work on the battle break it up into “The Five Great Acts of Waterloo”. They are:

-The Assault on Hougamont
-The French Attack in the Center
-Ney’s Cavalry Charge
-The Fall of La Haye Sainte and the Prussian Attack
-The Final Assault by the Imperial Guard

It is a readymade narrative that makes a great story. But it loses a bit of the scope of what was happening in those few square miles of fields, forests and buildings, between the Inn at LaBelle Alliance, Napoleon’s headquarters, and the “Butte du Lion”, “The Mound of the Lion”, the immortalized position where Wellington spent most of the battle. Many authors and film makers portray them sequentially, and I will be no different since I’m confined to my self-imposed limits of a blog post.

But they weren’t just sequential, they were sequential and then simultaneous. Think of a wave hitting a beach. The wave doesn’t actually hit the beach all at one time; it crests and rolls down the beach, as other waves follow behind it and strike where the first wave (and then second and then third…) had already subsided.

The Battle of Waterloo acts in the same way: Each act happened sequentially but each continued on throughout the day. The battle began with the assault on Hougamont, and after its initial failure the French began the attack on the center. But that doesn’t mean that the French gave up on Hougamont, the battle for the chateau and orchard continued all day, likewise with the attack in the center. This continued in a rising crescendo for more than eight hours until the climax of the battle, the final assault by the Napoleon’s Imperial Guard. It would be a disservice to everyone if you, gentle reader, thought that any single event was the only thing happening on the battlefield. Eight hours after the battle started, as Napoleon’s grenadiers were rockin their kickass bearskin caps forward, D’Erlon was still pushing from La Haye Sainte into Wellington’s center, Lobau was in the fight of his life against the Prussians at Plancenoit, Ney’s cavalry was still attempting to break squares, and poor Jerome was still feeding the meat grinder that was Hougamont.

The Battle of Bunker Hill

On 13 June 1775, Rebel spies learned of a British plan to sortie out of Boston and break the American siege. Newly named Continental Brigadier General William Prescott devised a plan to fortify the Charlestown peninsula, the only logical place that the British could land.

On the night 16 June, Prescott, and another newly minted brigadier general, Israel Putnam, along with Colonel John Stark, and Dr. Joseph Warren (who should have had command but fought as a private out of respect for the Continental Congress’ 14 June decision) led 1400 men to fortify Bunker Hill, just past the Charlestown Neck. Whether by design or error, the Patriots fortified Breed’s Hill further down the peninsula, and then did not inform anyone at the Cambridge camp of the change. The decision would have grave consequences on the future battle.

The British were surprised (and would continue to be throughout the war) at the American ability to heavily fortify a position overnight, but it didn’t matter. With the Americans on Breed’s Hill, all the British had to do was land near Bunker Hill to win the battle. If the British occupied Bunker Hill, they would cut off Prescott’s force from the American siege lines, and then all they had to do was wait for them to run out of food and water and the Americans would surrender. British Major general Henry Clinton, actually proposed this course of action but was overruled by his peers. Major general William Howe, the new British commander who had just recently replaced General Gage, wanted nothing to do with an American surrender: He wanted to use the might of the British Empire of the to crush the rebels. He didn’t just want to defeat the Americans, he wanted to send a message about the futility of resistance. Fear was to keep the rebels in line – fear of the British Army and Royal Navy.

On the morning of 17 June 1775, Howe landed 3,000 men on the peninsula while the Royal Navy bombarded the Americans. The British initially didn’t attack, they sat on the beach and drank tea waiting for reinforcements. This gave time for Prescott to notice another flaw in his defense, Breed’s Hill could be outflanked to the north, and the entire Rebel position turned. Fortunately, Howe’s dithering allowed John Stark and New Hampshiremen to quickly scrape out a trench along a rail fence which blocked any movement north of Breed’s Hill. When Howe finally did attack, he sent a feint against Breed’s Hill and his main effort slammed into Stark, and was promptly defeated. Howe’s attack would have been successful had it occurred an hour earlier during morning tea time. In any case, when the British advanced up the hill Israel Putnam gave the famous order, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes”, a common order in the age of the musket, while John Stark used a more practical series of painted stakes in the ground 100 paces out.

The American’s inflicted heavy casualties on the initial British attack and they retreated back to landing area, much to the jubilation of the defending American militiamen. Howe tried again, this time reversing the attacks, with the main attack on Breed’s Hill and the feint against Stark, but with the same result. The defeated British streamed back to the landing area, leaving their dead and screaming wounded littering the hill. After the second attack, the Battle of Breed’s Hill was a resounding American victory. Had the battle not occurred on the Charlestown peninsula, the names “John Prescott”, “Israel Putnam” and “John Stark” would be household names in America.

The Battle of Bunker Hill occurred on the Charlestown peninsula, and that fact was the reason the British could reform for another attack. Howe refused to allow the boats to transport his defeated troops back to Boston. Stuck on the beach with nowhere to go, Howe and his staff and subordinate general officers rallied the British troops. They reorganized the formations, their staffs filled in for the fallen officer the Americans deliberately targeted, and Howe personally led the third attack.

As the situation stood the Americans couldn’t defeat a third attack. They impotently watched the British reform on the beach. Prescott couldn’t attack due to the untrained nature of his militia, but more importantly the American were running out of ammunition. The main army at Cambridge was continuously feeding troops and supplies onto the Charlestown peninsula, but the situation to the west of Breed’s Hill was chaotic, to say the least. Many American troops and most of the powder and shot stayed on Bunker Hill, and never made it to Prescott. When He departed the night before, Prescott said he was going to defend bunker Hill, so that’s where his supplies and reinforcements stayed. Few American officers marched their men to the sound of the guns, and only went where they were told. Furthermore, Prescott left no one on Bunker Hill to coordinate the reinforcements and desperately needed supplies. Finally, the Royal Navy was shelling the Charlestown Neck and Bunker Hill to isolate Breed’s Hill. Many American militiamen got their first taste of cannon fire there, and wanted no more of it. Hundreds turned around and went home.

The Americans had few casualties so far in the battle and if Prescott had the men, powder, and shot sitting on Bunker Hill, he could have defeated Howe’s third attack. But he didn’t, the Howe’s third assault carried the earthworks at bayonet point. The Americans just couldn’t stand against the British bayonet (…yet). They retreated off the peninsula. The retreat was disorganized, but several units surprised the British with their dogged and orderly fighting withdrawal, especially John Stark’s New Hampshire regiments. Many British officers were impressed with the fighting quality of the Americans when they were obviously properly trained. Nonetheless, most of the American casualties were during the retreat, including both William Prescott and Dr. Warren, whose deaths were a grievous blow to the American cause.

All was not lost though. Howe refused to follow up his victory, and continue the attack into the disorganized and defeated Americans. The newly coined Continental Army was shaken by the losses at Bunker Hill and its defeated defenders streaming back into camp. In any case, it did not have the powder for another battle. The vast majority of the Continental Army’s powder was used up or lost at the Battle for Bunker Hill. Had Howe pushed, the entire Continental Army may have broken up.

Fortunately for the Americans, Howe didn’t, and he settled the Pyrrhic victory at Breed’s and Bunker Hills. Howe had defeated the Americans, but he had so many casualties, Howe would not be able to lift the siege anytime soon. Clinton remarked in his diary, “A few more such victories would have shortly put an end to British dominion in America.” The Battle of Bunker Hill was a propaganda victory for the Americans. The amateur Americans had stood up to the mightiest army in the world and threw it back twice with horrendous casualties. The British recognized that Americans were serious, and capable. The defeat at Bunker Hill had far reaching repercussions on American operations. For the next three years, American planning would be dominated by “Trying to create another Bunker Hill.”