By 1944, thousands of Allied airmen had been shot down and captured by the Germans. But even in captivity, it was the duty of every officer to attempt to escape in order to tie down German resources to guard the prisoners. By late 1942, troublesome prisoners with multiple escape attempts were sent to Stalag Luft III (Air Prison 3) which was deemed “escape proof” by the Lufwaffe.
But what the Germans really did was place every escape artist on continental Europe in the same camp. Led by British Squadron Leader Roger Bushnell, the camp formed an escape committee that spearheaded an effort to breakout hundreds of prisoners in a single night.
The planning and preparation effort for such an endeavor was huge and would take over a year. Every prisoner had to be given a disguise, travel documents, a fake ID, maps, compass, and enough survival gear to get them to a friendly or neutral country. All the while avoiding German and other occupying authorities. All of which had to be manufactured in secret under the noses of the camp guards. The biggest problem however was getting out of the camp. To effect this, four tunnels were dug, code named “Tom”, “Dick”, “Harry” and “George”. Preparations for the mass breakout continued throughout 1943 and into 1944.
By winter in early 1944, three of the tunnels had been abandoned and all efforts put into “Harry”. On the moonless night of 24 Mar 1944, 200 prisoners of Stalag Luft III were waiting their turn to travel through the 104m long tunnel from the camp to the woods beyond. But the tunnel wasn’t long enough and when the first escapee broke through the earth, he found he was 3m short of the wood line and very near the route of a German roving guard. A signal system was set up to avoid the guard but the throughput of Harry was seriously diminished. Not all 200 would make it out that night. The decision was made to go ahead anyway.
76 prisoners escaped that night in the largest breakout in World War 2. The Great Escape caused chaos across occupied Europe as tens of thousands of German and Axis troops attempted to track down the fugitives. 73 of the 76 were eventually recaptured. Hitler was so incensed by the breakout that he personally ordered the first 50 killed by the Gestapo. The other 23 were returned to the camp alive. Only three would actually make it to safety. One made it to neutral Spain via the French Resistance and two stowed away on a ship bound for neutral Sweden.
After the failure to capture Colonel Francis Marion in Ox Swamp the week before, Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton and his Loyalists of the British Legion, reinforced by the 1st battalion of the 71st Regiment of Foot (Fraser’s Highlanders), headed into the South Carolina backcountry to find and defeat Brigadier General Thomas Sumter. Sumter’s large force of Patriots threatened the loyalist stronghold at Ninety Six. Sumter’s men had recently defeated Major James Wemyss and his 63rd Regiment of British regulars at the Battle of Fishdam Ford, and Tarleton mounted them and incorporated the remnants into his British Legion to ride with the dragoons. Tarleton attempted to surprise Sumter, who was on his way to Ninety Six, and got within a day’s march undetected. However a deserter from the 63rd, who had probably never ridden a horse before, informed Sumter of the imminent danger about midnight on 20 November 1780.
In the predawn hours, Sumter moved to Blackstock’s Plantation on the Tyger River. The plantation’s buildings were on a sharp hill above a pasture over which any attack must come. Sumter placed his barely trained militia, most of whom had just recently joined him, among the buildings and fences. Blackstock was a strong position that gave Sumter’s raw militia confidence against the coming attack by the Legion’s dragoons, the Highlanders of the 71st, and the 63rd’s regulars.
About 4 pm, Tarleton was informed that Sumter was at Blackstock’s Farm, and immediately set off with all of his mounted troops to surprise Sumter. It probably would have worked because even though Sumter’s men were assigned positions that morning, by late afternoon the untrained militia were scattered about the farm buildings, many not within easy reach of their positions. Sumter’s officers would have had a hard time reorganizing the men if 350 British horsemen charged down the lane while they were lounging about. Fortunately, a small patrol spotted Tarleton’s imminent approach and fired a shot which warned Sumter’s main position. When Tarleton arrived at the edge of the pasture, he saw that surprise was lost and dismounted the regulars.
Sumter was concerned that Tarleton was waiting for artillery, which would play havoc with his militia, so he decided to force the battle. He sent forward a strong skirmish line of Georgia riflemen and South Carolina volunteers to harass Tarleton as he formed, with orders to gradually withdraw in the face of any advance. The 63rd took up Sumter’s challenge and pushed the riflemen and volunteers back at bayonet point. As the dragoons of the British Legion watched the regulars advance as if they were at a show, 100 South Carolina mounted riflemen under Col. Edward Lacey snuck on the 63rd rapt audience and launched a volley from the woods into their flank. Though the Legion chased them away, they took casualties they could ill afford. About that same time, the 63rd’s sweep of the skirmishers approached too closely to the hill and Carolina riflemen checked their advance with witheringly accurate fire from the barn. The sharpshooters killed or wounded most of the 63rd’s remaining officers, including its commander Major John Money. Despite the fire, Tarleton rode in to save Money and barely escaped with Money’s body draped over his saddle. With his friend dying, Tarleton desperately charged Sumter’s position with every mounted man remaining under his command in a last attempt to salvage the battle. Tarleton’s charge barely made it up the lane before he was attacked by militiamen from the reverse slope screaming Indian war whoops. With his horse shot out from under him, Tarleton withdrew from the battlefield when his men could no longer charge because the lane was blocked by dead and dying men and horses felled by the deadly fire from the top of the hill. Tarleton fell back about two miles to reorganize and attack again in the morning with his Highlanders and Legion light infantry.
The Battle of Blackstocks was a great patriot victory against one of the most dreaded loyalist commanders of the American Revolution. However, Sumter was one of the very few casualties the Americans suffered. Sumter was shot in the chest with five balls of buckshot, and a sixth lodged next to his spine. Sumter turned command over to Georgia militia Col. John Twiggs. That night after policing the battlefield of anything useful the British left behind, Twiggs, in the fashion of Washington, kept the campfires burning and slipped across the Tyger River. When Tarleton returned in the morning, he found the farm abandoned. Unfortunately for the Patriots, what Tarleton couldn’t do on the 20th, Twiggs did on the 21st. Without Sumter, the militia disbanded, just as it did after the victory at King’s Mountain. Sumter spent the winter recovering from his wounds. Any attempt to capture Ninety Six would have to wait until spring.
On 25 July 1780, Major General Horatio Gates arrived at Southern Department’s main camp at Deep River, thirty miles south of Hillsboro, North Carolina, to take command of the Continental Army assembled to drive Lord Cornwallis out of South Carolina, recapture Charleston, and put down any Loyalist counterrevolutionaries. “Granny” Gates, as his men called him, was the “Victor of Saratoga” and it was thought he could do the same to Cornwallis as he did to Burgoyne.
Unfortunately, Gate’s reputation was almost exclusively the result of the actions of his subordinates, John Stark, Enoch Poor, Daniel Morgan, and Benedict Arnold mostly, which he, and his sycophants, took credit for. Left to his own devices, Gates would have almost certainly lost at Saratoga. The argument can be made that he stayed out of his subordinates’ way, but that’d be wrong: the battle was won for the most part because they ignored his orders, or disobeyed them outright. In the Southern Department, Gates had few subordinates of the caliber he had in New York, mostly because he refused their services. The exception, of course, was Major-General Baron Johann De Kalb.
De Kalb was a German officer from Franconia, who had served in the French Army, and traveled to America before the revolution. He and his protégé, Marquis de Lafayette, were offered commissions in the Continental Army, and De Kalb was instrumental training the Continental Army at Valley Forge, even though von Steuben got most of the credit. As commander of the Maryland and Delaware Line, some of the best troops in the Continental Army, whom he marched south with, the fiery De Kalb was furious when he learned Gates was given command of the Southern Department instead of him.
As soon as Gates arrived, he ordered DeKalb to march directly on Camden, a supply depot and loyalist mustering center held by Lord Rawdon in command of 1000 troops: Carolina loyalists, volunteers from Ireland, and Banastre Tarleton’s infamous British Legion. Against this force, Gates had DeKalb’s Continental Line and the dragoons of Armand’s Legion. On the way he expected to pick up North and South Carolina and Virginia militia. Gates had no plans to attack Camden, and only wanted to occupy a defensive position north of the town, which would force Rawdon to either evacuate Camden, or attack Gates’ superior force.
The road to Camden was through barren country and mosquito infested swamps which took a toll on the army, which was already low on food and wracked by dysentery. Taking the direct route to Camden was against the advice of all of his officers who knew the country. An alternate route to the west was recommended. It would have taken longer, but it would have been through Patriot friendly territory where they could have requisitioned food. Gates refused. However, by the time Gates reached Rugeley’s Mill, about 15 miles north of Camden, Gates’ “Grand Army” swelled by the addition of 2100 North Carolina militia, 700 Virginia militia, and several hundred more South Carolina militia and dragoons. With almost 5000 troops, he was sure to force the British out of Camden.
Gates’ had no faith in his militia, and still had no intention of attacking despite the odds. At Rugely’s Mill on the morning of 15 August, he found out Cornwallis had reinforced Rawdon with about 1000 additional troops. Cornwallis heard of Gates arrival on 9 August from loyalists along Gates’ route of march. Cornwallis immediately departed Charleston with its garrison, and arrived at Camden on the 13th bringing the British army strength up to 2100. Despite the increase, Gates felt little need to change his plans. Gates sent most of the South Carolina militia away, including a band led Francis Marion, to continuing raiding loyalist outposts, and capture and burn all the boats, bridges, and ferries on the Santee River, to prevent Cornwallis’ escape after the inevitable British defeat. Arrogantly, Gates refused the services of William Washington’s dragoons, who promptly went on to raid independently. Gates assumed he had more than enough troops to defeat Cornwallis.
With battle imminent, Gates wanted to fortify his sick, tired, and weary men with a bit of rum. However he didn’t have any, so he substituted molasses. The molasses just made the dysentery worse, and gave everyone else a severe case of diarrhea. Nonetheless, at 10 pm on the 15th, Gates ordered a night march to cover the 10 last miles, and planned on being in the defensive positions above Camden by dawn.
Unfortunately for Gates, Cornwallis also ordered a night march at 10 pm on the 15th. He planned a surprise dawn assault on the American army which he thought was still at Rugeley’s Mill. The two armies collided in the night about 2:30am north of Camden at Parker’s Old Field near Saunder’s Creek.
The dragoons and light infantry of Armand’s Legion and the British Legion clashed in the darkness, with Armand getting the better of Tarleton after receiving the British charge with pistol fire and counter charging. However, the Virginia militia sent to support Armand had never been in a battle, and, in a harbinger of things to come, withdrew in panic at the first shot. The Virginians sent Armand’s lines into chaos, and only a rear guard action by Armand’s light infantry, led by Lt Col Charles Porterfield, prevented Tarleton from scattering the American vanguard. Both sides withdrew as neither Cornwallis nor Gates wanted to fight a night battle.
At dawn, both armies were lined up against each other, Gates’ 4000 and Cornwallis’ 2100. Both commanders followed the standard 18th century tactic of placing their best units on the right. For the Americans it was the Delaware and Maryland Line under de Kalb, for the British it was the 23rd Royal Welsh Fusiliers and the veteran 33rd Regiment of Foot. Opposite de Kalb was Rawdon in command of the Irish Volunteers and the loyalist militia, and across the field from the Welsh and the 33rd was the unreliable Virginia militia. The same who fled the night before. Gates ordered the entire American line to attack, while Cornwallis ordered just his veteran right to attack.
Gates should have guessed Cornwallis would have placed his best units on the right and not placed his least reliable troops opposite them, but he didn’t. Even worse he ordered the Virginians to attack. Gates hoped to take advantage of the British transitioning from column to line, but all he did was made the militia difficult to control by their officers. At the first sight of a British bayonet, the Virginians broke and ran. They didn’t engage or even get close to the British line. The Virginians didn’t even fire their weapons. They dropped their weapons a fled for their lives. Only three Virginians were even wounded in the battle. The rest ran. They took most of the North Carolina militia in the center of the American line with them. Tarleton and the British Legion gave chase. As the Virginians streamed past, Gates took off. Followed closely by his staff, General Horatio Gates, the Victor of Saratoga, didn’t stop running until he reached Charlotte, North Carolina, sixty miles away.
De Kalb had barely engaged Rawdon to his front before he was out flanked by the British. He took control of the battle and assaulted Rawdon, nearly breaking his lines. But in the process, his left was exposed as the British overwhelmed the only North Carolinian brigade not to run away. He ordered the American reserve, the 1st Maryland Brigade, to support his left, but they couldn’t reach it. The American line was split. Tarleton returned to the field, and charged into the rear of the Continentals which broke them. Several hundred escaped through the swamp to the west where the horsemen couldn’t follow.
In an attempt to rally his men, de Kalb was unhorsed and captured. He had ten wounds – seven from bayonet and three more from musket balls. Baron Johann de Kalb died two days later despite the best efforts of Cornwallis and his personal surgeon. Tarleton pursued the routed American for over 22 miles, ensuring “rout and slaughter ensued in every quarter.”
The Battle of Camden lasted just under an hour and the Americans suffered over 2000 casualties, the British a little over 300. 700 Continentals reformed in Hillsboro a few days later, but the equipment losses were devastating and the American army in the South would lack the essential tools of warfighting for months. Continental Congress called for an inquiry into Gates’ actions at Camden, but his political connections ensured it went nowhere. Nevertheless, Gates never had a command again. Subsequently, the Southern Department was given to Washington’s most trusted subordinate, Nathaniel Greene. But until he and Daniel Morgan could come south from New Jersey and take command, the defense of the American cause in the South fell to Patriot partisans and the overmountain men mustering over the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The war for the Carolina backcountry intensified after the successful capture of Thicketty Fort, as patriot commanders raided Major Patrick Ferguson’s loyalist outposts. Ferguson, with a smattering of British regulars and provincial loyalists from up North, was desperately trying to recruit and train Carolinian and Georgian loyalist militia to defeat the overmountain men gathering in large numbers over the Blue Ridge. An American army led by Horatio Gates had just entered South Carolina and threatened Camden, an important depot town and loyalist mustering center, one of the few that was far too large for patriot partisans to attack. After the victory at Hanging Rock, Patriot Colonel Thomas Sumter’s next targets were the vulnerable fords and ferries on the Wateree River. Sumter wanted to strike them before the inevitable clash between Gates and Cornwallis. Sumter dispatched Col Thomas Taylor to scout one of Camden’s satellite training camps, Carey’s Fort, which also guarded the ferry over the Wateree River about a mile south of Camden behind Cornwallis’ main body.
On the morning of 15 August 1780, Taylor with about two hundred cavalry and militia, found the small British garrison of Carey’s Fort under its namesake, prominent local Loyalist Lt-Col James Carey, fast asleep. Seizing the moment, Taylor’s men quickly stormed the fort, and took the entire 37 man garrison prisoner without firing a shot. Taylor captured about thirty wagons full of supplies, which were supposed to be ferried across the river and sent to Camden that morning. Cornwallis’ army, across the river a mile away, had no idea that anything was amiss. After a quick interrogation, Taylor learned that a supply convoy from another large Loyalist outpost at Ninety Six was also scheduled to arrive that day.
Dressed the same as the loyalists they captured, Taylor’s men posed as the garrison, even waving to curious loyalists on the other side of the river who were sent to find out why the wagons had not crossed yet. Later that morning, the convoy from Ninety Six arrived. The convoy’s thirty wagons were escorted by 70 Highlanders of the British 71st Regiment. By the time the Highlanders figured out the ruse, they were in no position to fight, and were all captured. Upon learning the news of Carey Fort’s capture, Sumter brought his whole command down from his own raid to reinforce Taylor.
The loss of Carey’s Fort, and more importantly, the ferry over the Wateree River, effectively severed Cornwallis’ lines of communication from Camden to Ninety Six and Charleston. And there was nothing the British could do about it: The fort and ferry boats were secure on the west side of the fast and deep Wateree River, and the British were on the east side, impotent and helpless as the Americans taunted them. Furthermore, if the much ballyhooed Gates, with his “Grand Army” defeated Cornwallis in battle north of Camden, Cornwallis would be forced to retreat away from Charleston into the wilderness and swamps of north east South Carolina. The defeated remnants of Cornwallis’ army would then be at the mercy of American partisans. With the fall of Carey’s Fort, the war in the South, and possibly the entire American Revolution, could be won by the Patriots in the next few days.
Gates just had to defeat Cornwallis at Camden; and the Victor of Saratoga outnumbered Cornwallis nearly two to one.
At 0700, on 5 July 1950, TF Smith, the farthest forward US unit on the Korean peninsula, engaged attacking elements of the Communist (North) Korean People’s Army in an attempt to delay their advance so General McArthur’s United Nations Command could establish a perimeter around the critical Korean port city of Pusan.
TF Smith was a 540 man battalion sized task force led by Lieutenant Colonel Brad Smith, the commander of 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry, of the 24th Infantry Division. TF Smith was the first American unit to engage communist North Korean troops, who had invaded South Korea two weeks before on 25 June. TF Smith consisted of just two rifle companies and one artillery battery of six guns. Although World War Two ended less than five years before, only 1/6th of the unit had combat experience. Though they were highly trained, TF Smith was organized and equipped as a constabulary for the occupation of Japan. They were still equipped with the obsolete (even by WW2 standards) bazooka, and had no anti-tank guns or tanks. The hard lessons of combined arms warfare learned through the bloody crucible of the Second World War were lost or disregarded by petty bureaucrats who looked to make the peacetime army more efficient and cost effective. Consequently, TF Smith had no engineer or air support, and they lacked land mines, barbed wire, and had almost no time to dig in before they were attacked by a force that just days prior couldn’t be stopped by four entire South Korean divisions.
Despite given a mission that a fully equipped 3000 man regimental combat team would be hard pressed to execute, TF Smith held the line at Osan for three hours against two North Korean divisions, one infantry and one armored. By 1000, on 5 July 1950, they were out of ammunition and began an orderly withdrawal. However, in the process TF Smith was assaulted in the flank by about 40 communist tanks. LTC Smith’s men simply had no capability remaining (if it had any to begin with) to stop the Soviet produced T-34/85 tanks, the best Soviet tank of Second World War. TF Smith’s withdrawal immediately turned into a rout and only about half of TF Smith made it back to the Pusan perimeter.
TF Smith has since become a metaphor for ill preparedness though this was no fault of LTC Brad Smith or his men.
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,
In literal English, “s**t”. In the figurative,
The reply was an apt end to the Napoleonic Era.
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.
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.”
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.
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.