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.