The Battle of Waterloo as Seen by an Ordinary British Cavalryman
At the Battle of Waterloo, Dickson (1789–1880) was a corporal in a Scottish cavalry troop. He had enlisted in 1807. His reminiscences of the battle were written down by relatives years later.
This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.
“Well, you all know that when I was a lad of eighteen, being a good Scotsman, I joined the Greys, the oldest regiment of dragoons in the British army, and our only Scottish cavalry corps.
“When news came that Napoleon Bonaparte had landed in France, we were sent across to Belgium post-haste, and there had a long rest, waiting for his next move. I remember how the trumpets roused us at four o'clock on the morning of Friday the 16th of June 1815, and how quickly we assembled and fell in!
“Three days' biscuits were served out to us; and after long marches—for we did fifty miles that one day before we reached Quartre Bras—we joined the rest of our brigade under Sir William Ponsonby.
“Besides our regiment there were the 1st Royals and the Enniskillens, and we were known as the Union Brigade because, you see, it was made up of one English, one Irish and one Scots regiment.
“On the day before the great fight—that was Saturday, for you know the battle was fought on the Sunday morning, the 18th June—we were marched from Quatre Bras along the road towards Brussels. We thought our Iron Duke was taking us there; but no. In a drenching rain we were told to halt and lie down away in a hollow to the right of the main road, among some green barley. Yes, how we trampled down the corn! The wet barley soon soaked us, so we set about making fires beside a cross-road that ran along the hollow in which we were posted. No rations were served that night. As we sat round our fire we heard a loud, rumbling noise about a mile away, and this we knew must be the French artillery and wagons coming up. It went rolling on incessantly all night, rising and falling like that sound just now of the wind in the chimney.
“One thing I must tell you: though there were more than seventy thousand Frenchmen over there, we never once saw a camp-fire burning all the night and until six o'clock next morning. Why they weren't allowed to warm themselves, poor fellows! I don't know. Well, about eleven o'clock that night a fearful storm burst over us. The thunder was terrible to hear. It was a battle-royal of the elements, as if the whole clouds were going to fall on us. We said it was a warning to Bonaparte that all nature was angry at him.
“Around the fires we soon fell asleep, for we were all worn out with our long march in the sultry heat of the day before.
“I was wakened about five o'clock by my comrade MacGee, who sprang up and cried, 'D___ your eyes, boys, there's the bugle!' 'Tuts, Jock!' I replied, 'it's the horses' chains clanking.' 'Clankin?' said he. 'What's that, then?' as a clear blast fell on our ears.
“After I had eaten my ration of 'stirabout'—oatmeal and water—I was sent forward on picket to the road two hundred yards in front, to watch the enemy. It was daylight, and the sun was every now and again sending bright flashes of light through the broken clouds. As I stood behind the straggling hedge and low beech-trees that skirted the high banks of the sunken road on both sides, I could see the French army drawn up in heavy masses opposite me. They were only a mile from where I stood; but the distance seemed greater, for between us the mist still filled the hollows. There were great columns of infantry, and squadron after squadron of Cuirassiers, red Dragoons, brown Hussars, and green Lancers with little swallow-tail flags at the end of their lances. The grandest sight was a regiment of Cuirassiers dashing at full gallop over the brown of the hill opposite me, with the sun shining on their steel breastplates. It was a splendid show. Every now and then the sun lit up the whole country. No one who saw it could ever forget it.
“Between eight and nine there was a sudden roll of drums along the whole of the enemy's line, and a burst of music from the bands of a hundred battalions came to me on the wind. I seemed to recognize the 'Marseillaise,' but the sounds got mixed and lost in a sudden uproar that arose. Then every regiment began to move. They were taking up position for the battle. On our side perfect silence reigned; but I saw that with us too preparations were being made. Down below me a regiment of Germans was marching through the growing corn to the support of others were were in possession of a farmhouse that lay between the two armies. This was the farm of La Haye Sainte, and it was near there that the battle raged fiercest. These brave Germans! They died to a man before the French stormed it, at the point of the bayonet, in the afternoon. A battery of artillery now came dashing along the road in fine style and passed in front of me. I think they were Hanoverians; they were not British troops, but I don't remember whether they were Dutch or German. They drew up close by, about a hundred yards in front of the road. There were four guns. Then a strong brigade of Dutch and Belgians marched up with swinging, quick step, and turned off at a cross-road between high banks on to the plateau on the most exposed slope of our position. They numbered at least three thousand men, and looked well in their blue coats with orange-and-red facings. After this I rode up to a party of Highlanders under the command of Captain Ferrier, from Belsyde, Linlithgow, whom I knew to belong to the Ninety-second or 'Gay Gordons,' as we called them. All were intently watching the movements going on about them. They, with the Seventy-ninth Cameron Highlanders, the Forty-second (Black Watch), and First Royal Scots formed part of Picton's, 'Fighting Division.' They began to tell me about the battle at Quatre Bras two days before, when every regiment in brave old Picton's division had lost more than one-third of its men. The Gordons, they said, had lost half their number and twenty-five out of thirty-six officers. Little did we think that before the sun set that night not thirty men of our own regiment would answer the roll-call.
“I seem to remember everything as if it happened yesterday. After the village clocks had struck eleven the guns on the French center thundered out, and then musketry firing commenced away to the far right. The French were seen to be attacking a farmhouse there in force. It was called Hougoumont.
I noticed, just in front of me, great columns of infantry beginning to advance over the brow of the hill on their side of the valley, marching straight for us. Then began a tremendous cannonade from two hundred and fifty French guns all along the lines. The noise was fearful; but just then a loud report rent the air, followed by a rolling cheer on our side, and our artillery got into action. We had one hundred and fifty guns in all; but half of these belonged to the Dutch, Germans, or Belgians, who were hired to fight on our side. The French had about ten thousand men more than we had all that day, till, late in the afternoon, the Prussians arrived with forty thousand men to help us. I was now drawn back and joined our regiment, which was being moved forward to the left under better cover near a wood, as the shot and shell were flying about us and ploughing up the earth around. We had hardly reached our position when a great fusillade commenced just in front of us, and we saw the Highlanders moving up towards the road to the right. Then, suddenly, a great noise of firing and hisses and shouting commenced, and the whole Belgian brigade, of those whom I had seen in the morning, came rushing along and across the road in full flight. Our men began to shout and groan at them too. They had bolted almost without firing a shot, and left the brigade of Highlanders to meet the whole French attack on the British left center. It was thought that the Belgians were inclined towards Napoleon's cause, and this must account for their action, as they have shown high courage at other times.
“Immediately after this, the General of the Union Brigade, Sir William Ponsonby, came riding up to us on a small bay hack. I remember that his groom with his chestnut charger could not be found. Beside him was his aide-de-camp, De Lacy Evans. He ordered us forward to within fifty years of the beech-hedge by the roadside. I can seen him now in his long cloak and great cocked hat as he rode up to watch the fighting below. From our new position we could descry the three regiments of Highlanders, only a thousand in all, bravely firing down on the advancing mass of Frenchmen. These numbered thousands, and those on our side of the Brussels road were divided into three solid columns. I have read since that there were fifteen thousand of them under Count D'Erlon spread over the clover, barley, and rye fields in front of our center, and making straight for us. Then I saw the Brigadier, Sir Denis Pack, turn to the Gordons and shout out with great energy, 'Ninety-second, you must advance! All in front of you have given way.' The Highlanders, who had begun the day by solemnly chanting 'Scots wha hae' as they prepared their morning meal, instantly, with fixed bayonets, began to press forward through the beech and holly hedge to a line of bushes that grew along the face of the slope in front. They uttered loud shouts as they ran forward and fired a volley at twenty yards into the French.
“At this moment our General and his aide-de-camp rode off to the right by the side of the hedge; then suddenly I saw De Lacy Evans wave his hat, and immediately our colonel, Inglis Hamilton, shouted out, 'Now then, Scots Greys, charge!' and, waving his sword in the air, he rode straight at the hedges in front, which he took in grand style. At once a great cheer rose from our ranks, and we too waved our swords and followed him. I dug my spur into my brave old Rattler, and we were off like the wind. Just then I saw Major Hankin fall wounded. I felt a strange thrill run through me, and I am sure my noble beast felt the same, for, after rearing for a moment, she sprang forward, uttering loud neighings and snortings, and leapt over the holly-hedge at a terrific speed. It was a grand sight to see the long line of giant grey horses dashing along with flowing manes and heads down, tearing up the turf about them as they went. The men in their red coats and tall bearskins were cheering loudly, and the trumpeters were sounding the 'Charge.' Beyond the first hedge the road was sunk between high, sloping banks, and it was a very difficult feat to descend without falling; but there were very few accidents, to our surprise.
“All of us were greatly excited, and began crying, 'Hurrah, Ninety-Second! Scotland for ever!' as we crossed the road. For we heard the Highland pipers playing among the smoke and firing below, and I plainly saw my old friend Pipe-Major Cameron standing apart on a hillock coolly playing 'Johnny Cope, are ye wakin' yet?' in all the din.
“Our colonel went on before us, past our guns and down the slope, and we followed; we saw the Royals and Enniskillens clearing the road and hedges at full gallop away to the right.
“Before me rode young Armour, our rough-rider from Mauchline (a near relative of Jean Armour, Robbie Burns's wife), and Sergeant Ewart on the right, at the end of the line beside our cornet, Kinchant. I rode in the second rank. As we tightened our grip to descend the hillside among the corn, we could make out the feather bonnets of the Highlanders, and heard the officers crying out to them to wheel back by sections. A moment more and we were among them. Poor fellows! some of them had not time to get clear of us, and were knocked down. I remember one lad crying out, 'Eh! but I didna think ye wad ha'e hurt me sae.'
“They were all Gordons, and as we passed through them they shouted, 'Go at them, the Greys! Scotland for ever!' My blood thrilled at this, and I clutched my saber tighter. Many of the Highlanders grasped our stirrups, and in the fiercest excitement dashed with us into the fight. The French were uttering loud, discordant yells. Just then I saw the first Frenchman. A young officer of Fusiliers made a slash at me with his sword, but I parried it and broke his arm; the next second we were in the thick of them. We could not see five yards ahead for the smoke. I stuck close by Armour; Ewart was now in front.
“The French were fighting like tigers. Some of the wounded were firing at us as we passed; and poor Kinchant, who had spared one of these rascals, was himself shot by the officer he had spared. As we were sweeping down a steep slope on top of them, they had to give way. Then those in front began to cry out for 'quarter,' throwing down their muskets and taking off their belts. The Gordons at this rushed in and drove the French to the rear. I was now in the front rank, for many of ours had fallen. It was here that Lieutenant Trotter, from Morton Hall, was killed by a French officer after the first rush on the French. We now came to an open space covered with bushes, and then I saw Ewart, with five or six infantry men about him, slashing right and left at him. Armour and I dashed up to these half-dozen Frenchmen, who were trying to escape with one of their standards. I cried to Armour to 'Come on!' and we rode at them. Ewart had finished two of them, and was in the act of striking a third man who held the Eagle; next moment I saw Ewart cut him down, and he fell dead. I was just in time to thwart a bayonet-thrust that was aimed at the gallant sergeant's neck. Armour finished another of them.“
Our host here pointed out to his little company of intent listeners a print of the well-known picture of the incident which hung on the wall, and of which he was very proud; then he continued:
“Almost single-handed, Ewart had captured the Imperial Eagle of the 45th `Invincibles,' which had led them to victory at Austerlitz and Jena. Well did he merit the commission he received at the hands of the Prince Regent shortly afterwards, and the regiment has worn a French Eagle ever since.
“We cried out, 'Well done, my boy!' and as others had come up, we spurred on in search of a like success. Here it was that we came upon two batteries of French guns which had been sent forward to support the infantry. They were now deserted by the gunners and had sunk deep in the mud.
“We were saluted with a sharp fire of musketry, and again found ourselves beset by thousands of Frenchmen. We had fallen upon a second column; they were also Fusiliers. Trumpeter Reeves of our troop, who rode by my side, sounded a 'Rally,' and our men came swarming up from all sides, some Enniskillens and Royals being amongst the number. We at once began a furious onslaught on this obstacle, and soon made an impression; the battalions seemed to open out for us to pass through, and so it happened that in five minutes we had cut our way through as many thousands of Frenchmen.
“We had now reached the bottom of the slope. There the ground was slippery with deep mud. Urging each other on, we dashed towards the batteries on the ridge above, which had worked such havoc on our ranks. The ground was very difficult, and especially where we crossed the edge of a ploughed field, so that our horses sank to the knees as we struggled on. My brave Rattler was becoming quite exhausted, but we dashed ever onwards.
“At this moment Colonel Hamilton rode up to us crying, 'Charge! charge the guns!' and went off like the wind up the hill towards the terrible battery that had made such deadly work among the Highlanders. It was the last we saw of our colonel, poor fellow! His body was found with both arms cut off. His pockets had been rifled. I once heard Major Clarke tell how he saw him wounded among the guns of the great battery, going at full speed, and with the bridle-reins between his teeth, after he had lost his hands.
“Then we got among the guns, and we had our revenge. Such slaughtering! We sabred the gunners, lamed the horses, and cut their traces and harness. I can hear the Frenchmen yet crying 'Diable!' when I struck at them, and the long-drawn hiss through their teeth as my sword went home. Fifteen of their guns could not be fired again that day. The artillery drivers sat on their horses weeping aloud as we went among them; they were mere boys, we thought.
“Rattler lost her temper and bit and tore at everything that came in her way. She seemed to have got new strength. I had lost the plume of my bearskin just as we went through the second infantry column; a shot had carried it away. The French infantry were rushing past us in disorder on their way to the rear, Armour shouted to me to dismount, for old Rattler was badly wounded. I did so just in time, for she fell heavily the next second. I caught hold of a French officer's horse and sprang on her back and rode on.
“Then we saw a party of horsemen in front of us on the rising ground near a farmhouse. There was 'the Little Corporal' himself, as his veterans called Bonaparte. It was not till next night, when our men had captured his guide, the Belgian La Coste, that we learned what the Emperor thought of us. On seeing us clear the second column and commence to attack his eighty guns on the center, he cried out, 'These terrible Greys, how they fight!' for you know that all our horses, dear old Rattler among them, fought that day as angrily as we did. I never saw horses become so ferocious, and woe betide the blue coats that came in their way! But the noble beasts were now exhausted and quite blown, so that I began to think it was time to get clear away to our own lines again.
“But you can imagine my astonishment when down below, on the very ground we had crossed, appeared at full gallop a couple of regiments of Cuirassiers on the right, and away to the left a regiment of Lancers. I shall never forget the sight. The Cuirassiers, in their sparkling steel breastplates and helmets, mounted on strong black horses, with great blue rugs across the croups, were galloping towards me, tearing up the earth as they went, the trumpets blowing wild notes in the midst of the discharges of grape and canister shot from the heights. Around me there was one continuous noise of clashing arms, shouting of men, neighing and moaning of horses. What were we to do? Behind us we saw masses of French infantry with tall fur hats coming up at the double, and between us and our lines these cavalry. There being no officers about, we saw nothing for it but to go straight at them and trust to Providence to get through. There were half-a-dozen of us Greys and about a dozen of the Royals and Enniskillens on the ridge. We all shouted, 'Come on, lads; that's the road home!' and, dashing our spurs into our horses' sides, set off straight for the Lancers. But we had no chance. I saw the lances rise and fall for a moment, and Sam Tar, the leading man of ours, go down amid the flash of steel. I felt a sudden rage at this, for I knew the poor fellow well; he was a corporal in our troop. The crash as we met was terrible; the horses began to rear and bite and neigh loudly, and then some of our men got down among their feet, and I saw them trying to ward off the lances with their hands. Cornet Sturges of the Royals—he joined our regiment as lieutenant a few weeks after the battle—came up and was next to me on the left, and Armor on the right. 'Stick together, lads!' we cried, and went at it with a will, slashing about us right and left over our horses' necks. The ground around us was very soft, and our horses could hardly drag their feet out of the clay. Here again I came to the ground, for a Lancer finished my new mount, and I thought I was done for. We were returning past the edge of the ploughed field, and then I saw a spectacle I shall never forget. There lay brave old Ponsonby, the General of our Union Brigade, beside his little bay, both dead. His long, fur-lined coat had blown aside, and at his hand I noticed a miniature of a lady and his watch; beyond him, our Brigade-Major, Reignolds of the Greys. They had both been pierced by the lancers a few moments before we came up. Near them was lying a lieutenant of ours, Carruthers of Annandale. My heart was filled with sorrow at this, but I dared not remain for a moment. It was just then I caught sight of a squadron of British Dragoons making straight for us. The Frenchmen at that instant seemed to give way, and in a minute more we were safe! The Dragoons gave us a cheer and rode on after the Lancers. They were the men of our 16th Light Dragoons, of Vandeleur's Brigade, who not only saved us but threw back the Lancers into the hollow.
“How I reached our lines I can hardly say, for the next thing I remember is that I was lying with the sole remnants of our brigade in a position far away to the right and rear of our first post. I was told that a third horse that I caught was so wounded that she fell dead as I was mounting her.
“Wonderful to relate Rattler had joined the retreating Greys, and was standing in line riderless when I returned. You can imagine my joy at seeing her as she nervously rubbed shoulders with her neighbors. Major Cheney (who had five horses killed under him) was mustering our men, and with him were Lieutenant Wyndham (afterwards our colonel) and Lieutenant Hamilton, but they were both wounded. There were scarcely half a hundred of the Greys left out of the three hundred who rode off half an hour before. How I escaped is a miracle, for I was through the thick of it all, and received only two slight wounds, one from a bayonet and the other from a lance, and the white plume of my bearskin was shot away. I did not think much of the wounds at the time, and did not report myself; but my poor Rattler had lost much blood from a lance-wound received in her last encounter.
“Every man felt that the honor of our land was at stake, and we remembered that the good name of our great Duke was entrusted to us too; but our main thought was, 'What will they say of us at home?' It was not till afterwards that we soldiers learned what the Union Brigade had done that day, for a man in the fighting-ranks sees little beyond the sweep of his own sword. We had pierced three columns of fifteen thousand men, had captured two Imperial Eagles, and had stormed and rendered useless for a time more than forty of the enemy's cannon. Besides, we had taken nearly three thousand prisoners, and, when utterly exhausted, had fought our way home through several regiments of fresh cavalry. That, my friends, is why, from the Prince Regent to the poorest peasant, from the palace to the lowliest cottage, the name of the Union Brigade was honored throughout the land."
Mackenzie Macbride, ed., With Napoleon at Waterloo and other Unpublished Documents of the Waterloo and Pennsular Campaigns (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1911), pp. 138-148.