An Impromptu Staff Ride

map courtesy of author William R. Shepherd

In May 1814, Napoleon had abdicated and was in captivity on the island of Elba. King Louis XVIII was on the French throne, and Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, the victor of the Peninsular War that did so much to sap Napoleon’s strength the previous six years, was appointed Great Britain’s ambassador to France.

On a trip from Paris to Brussels on 19 May 1814, the Duke and his staff stopped to water their horses, and maybe have a drink or two, at the small Belgian hamlet of La Haye. To the untrained eye, the fields to the west of La Haye were not dissimilar to any others in Belgium or northeastern France. But to Wellington, they formed a perfect killing ground, and at the expense of his trip, the Duke spent several hours surveying the beautiful defensive terrain.

As they approached from the south, those fields formed a shallow gently rolling valley that gradually rose northward to a small escarpment, not even high enough to be called a ridge. The road from Paris to Brussels passed right over it. To the right near a marshy creek, the ten stout stone buildings of La Haye and the walled farm of Papelotte marked the valley’s eastern edge. On the western edge of the valley about two miles away, was the imposing compound and chateau of Hougamont and another marshy creek. Any attacker from the south would not be able to go around either of these obstacles. They would have to go straight up the valley and over the escarpment. And just off the road directly in the center of the valley was the walled farm of La Haye Sainte. These obstructions stood like three great bastions of a fortress. If they were properly held, troops could poor fire into any body of men that tried to pass by. At least one would need to be taken, preferably two, before any attacker could confidently proceed north to attack a main defensive line just behind these three formidable obstacles.

That main defensive line would normally be just below the crest of the escarpment, but to Wellington’s delight the ground sloped down again to a quaint village whose chimney smoke could just barely be seen from La Haye. On this reverse slope, any defending troops would be shielded from the worst effects of an attacker’s artillery, and moreover, any movement of reserves would be unseen behind the escarpment. Those chimney’s belonged to the thirty or so buildings in the village of Mont-Saint-Jean. So if an army did seize two of the bastions, survive any counterattacks, crest the inter-visibility line, survive the grapeshot from the cannon, survive the point blank fusillade from the waiting troops, and after all that then finally break through the solid wall of bayonets, those nice stout houses of Mont-Saint-Jean would be there to cover the defender’s retreat. Truly magnificent ground.

Instead of continuing, Wellington and his staff decided to dine at the inn in the village and discuss the “wonderfully delightful” defensive terrain they were on. Even though they talked for several more hours, it was still all theoretical: Napoleon was on Elba, and King Louis XVIII would never invade Belgium. After the impromptu training exercise and dinner completed, Wellington realized he was late for his engagement in Brussels and they hastily galloped north.

Two miles up the road was a larger town where his chief of staff originally wanted to halt for a bit that afternoon. As the Duke passed through he noticed its sign; it read, “Waterloo”.

He would have to stop there again sometime.

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