By: Patrick Shrier
The Battle of Waterloo was a watershed in more ways than one, it marked the end of an era in European history by ending the career of Napoleon, but also marked the last time that mass armies would meet on a European battlefield armed primarily with muzzle loading muskets and artillery. The end of the Napoleonic wars ushered in an era of peace in Europe, which would not be significantly broken until the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871. The significance of the battle can not be underestimated as the allied victory preserved monarchism in Europe until the end of World War I.
The Duke of Wellington said it best when describing the British-Allied victory at Waterloo when he said “a damned nice thing – the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life”. That sentiment perfectly describes how close Napoleon came to winning at Waterloo, and if he had, the map of Europe would look very different today. There are many reasons why Wellington won the battle, but the two most critical in his ultimate success were the steadfast defenses of two critical pieces of the terrain on that battle field. These two places are the Chateau of Hougemont and the Farm of La Haye Saint. They both played similar yet critical roles in the British success, Hougemont protected the Right flank of the entire British line and La Haye Saint sat right in the middle of the battlefield. Though La Haye Saint fell towards the end of the day, it had already fulfilled its crucial role by that time.
The Battle of Waterloo is conventionally divided into five stages and both Hougemont and La Haye Saint play a greater or lesser role in all five stages. The stages of the battle are: 1. Reille and Jerome attack Hougemont, 2. D’Erlon attacks Anglo-Allied center, 3. Ney’s cavalry charges begin, 4. Ney attacks and takes La Haye Saint, 5. Old Guard’s final attack.
The role of these two locations cannot be fully appreciated without an understanding of the terrain on the battlefield and their placement on that terrain. The Battlefield of Waterloo is situated in a small valley that runs approximately 2 miles east to west and is about 1 mile from north to south (see Figure 1). On the western side of the valley, two draws provide outlets to the north and south, the one on the south dead ends after a few hundred yards. However, the northern draw provides a route that leads around the northern ridge to the village of Mont St Jean in the rear of Wellington’s position. The Chateau of Hougemont sits in the entrance of the northern draw and effectively commands the western end of the valley.
The farm of La Haye Saint is slightly to west (Wellington’s left) of the center of the battlefield astride the road from Brussels to Charleroi. The heights that Wellington chose for the battle had a sharp forward slope and a gentle reverse slope that allowed him to keep his infantry regiments out of most direct artillery fire during the battle. Using the reverse slope in this manner was a practice Wellington had used since his earliest days in command during the Peninsular War(1805-1813). The floor of the valley was planted in rye and corn, in places the crops grew taller than a man and all that could be seen were men’s bayonets and the tops of their hats as they marched across the battlefield. The last major terrain attribute to keep in mind when discussing the Battle of Waterloo is that there had been torrential downpours on the day and night before the battle thus leaving the battlefield extremely muddy.
On the eastern end of the valley was the small village of Papelotte and a small stream, which also marked the eastern end of the battlefield as further east, was a forest which protected Wellington’s left flank. The terrain at Waterloo is little changed except for a cutting on the south side of the Brussels-Charleroi road that was substantially destroyed in the 1820’s during the construction of a memorial in which approximately six feet of soil were removed thus destroying the vantage that Wellington enjoyed through most of the battle.
The defense of Hougemont was no doubt the most critical part of the battle. If Hougemont were to fall then napoleon would have been free to use his cavalry (of which he had over 20,000) to flank Wellington and force him to retreat. Napoleon himself must have realized the possibilities inherent in an early seizure of the chateau during his battlefield reconnaissance on the morning of the battle. He subsequently ordered that the first attack of the day be carried out by Prince Jerome’s division against Hougemont at around 11:30 in the morning.
Hougemont itself was a stoutly built complex of buildings with a garden and an orchard attached. The chateau itself was walled and gated and defended by elements from the British 1st Foot Guards and some units from Nassau and Hanover. When the initial attack against the chateau occurred, the British had positioned skirmishers in the wood and orchard between the house proper and the French. These skirmishers were quickly overrun and the French fought mightily to take the compound. The French at one point gained entry to the chateau getting about 100 men into the farmyard, The British commander LtCol. MacDonnell and some of his men forced the gate shut and the French invaders were all hunted down except for one drummer boy who was captured unharmed. Years later Wellington was asked to nominate the bravest man at Waterloo to receive an award from a British vicar’s will and he nominated Corporal James Graham, one of the men who helped shut the gates that day was nominated as the recipient.
That was the most dangerous point in the battle for Hougemont and the French did not come anywhere as close to taking Hougemont again for the rest of the battle. The fight for Hougemont was to continue for the rest of the day the attackers only retiring when the French began their general retreat after the Imperial Guard were repulsed and the British began a general attack.
The farm of La Haye Saint was the other pivotal position that the British occupied prior to the start of the battle. While its possession was not as critical as the one at Hougemont, it was crucial in the early hours of the battle that it be held. It was defended by the Second (Rifles) Light Infantry Battalion, K.G.L. (Kings German Legion) part of a brigade-sized unit of the Kings German subjects serving the British during the Napoleonic Wars. They were to put up a brave defense of the farm of La Haye Saint. The Second Battalion K.G.L. were equipped with rifles instead of muskets and they required special ammunition which presented supply difficulties on the day of the battle.
The first assault on La Haye Saint began in conjunction with D’Erlons corps assault on the main English lines. Two French infantry battalions without any artillery support conducted the attack and the Hanoverians easily defeated this attempt to take the farm. Major Baring who was the Commander of the 2nd Battalion sent back for more ammunition after this attack but none was to be forthcoming during the battle. A possible explanation for the lack of supply is that there was only one supply wagon which had ammunition for their rifles and it had overturned on the Brussels road.
The defenders of the farm fought on through the afternoon and inflicted damage on both D’Erlon’s corps and on the cavalry attacks that Marshal Ney launched later in the afternoon. Napoleon had ordered the farm taken at all costs and the French finally got around to organizing a proper attack supported by artillery around five o’clock. By this time the Germans in La Haye Saint were seriously short of ammunition, down to four rounds per man after they had searched the pockets of the dead. The final French attack overwhelmed the defenders and the fighting was hand-to-hand in the courtyard. Of the 360 men in the farm at the start of the battle, only 41 would survive the days fighting, so hard had the fighting at La Haye Saint been. The French took the farm shortly before they were to launch their final attack of the day, that of the Imperial Guard, who would marshal in the sandpit just below La Haye Saint.
Both the Chateau de Hougemont and the farm of La Haye Saint were critical to Wellington’s success at Waterloo. If either position had fallen early in the battle Wellington’s chosen position would have become untenable and he would have been forced to withdraw, perhaps even past Brussels to the channel ports. This would have ruined any chance for the Prussians and Allies to combine forces rapidly and would have led to a longer perhaps much longer campaign to subdue Napoleon. Although La Haye Saint was to fall later in the battle, its loss then was not as critical as it would have been even four hours earlier. By the time La Haye Saint fell the Prussian army was moving in on Wellingtons left flank and so reducing the pressure along the allied front.
The Chateau of Hougemont however, had to be retained as its loss would have entailed the loss of the battle shortly thereafter, owing to the route into Wellington’s rear that it protected. That Hougemont did not fall while La Haye Saint did is not a statement on the bravery of its defenders but is more revealing of the different situations of both positions. Hougemont was an inherently stronger position than La Haye Saint with British troops positioned in support immediately to its rear providing a line of supply, while La Haye Saint was isolated to the front of the main allied line with no clear route for resupply or reinforcement.
The role of both positions is not given the weight it deserves in most histories of the Battle of Waterloo, which concern themselves more with the grand attacks by D’Erlon, Ney and the Guard. They treat Hougemont and La Haye Saint as footnotes to the battle and not the linchpins of allied success that they were. Wellington himself acknowledged the role of the two positions years later when he wrote of the fight at Hougemont that “The success of the Battle of Waterloo depended on the closing of the gates.”
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 Neillands, Robin, Wellington and Napoleon: Clash of Arms, 1807-1815, (New York, New York, Barnes & Noble Books, 1994), p.9
 Ibid., pp.46-47
 Roberts, Andrew, Waterloo, June 18, 1815: The Battle for Modern Europe, (New York, New York, Harper Collins Publishers, 2005)p.51
 Howarth, David, Waterloo: Day of Battle, (New York, New York, Atheneum, 1968) p.42
 Uk Ministry of Defense, (On This Day… 18th June 1815), http://news.mod.uk/news/press/news_press_notice.asp?newsItem_id=1782
 Roberts, p.57
 Howarth, pp. 154-155
 Ibid., p.79