Waterloo/Ligny - the 100 Days.

The twin battles of Ligny and Waterloo were fought between Friday, 16 and Sunday, 18 June, 1815 - just 200 years ago today.

This post is in memory of the brave English, French, Irish, Netherlander, Scots, Prussian and other German States, Welsh and other soldiers who, in spite of the fact that considerably more than half of them were inexperienced in combat or even barely trained, fought and in many cases died in these battles. May their souls sit at God’s Right Hand. With greatest respect, JR.

Painting - Thédore Géricault, “Le Chasseur de la Garde” (Hussar of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard), 1812-1814.


Ferocity of battle - a striking item in the Musée de’l Armee, Invalides, Paris. This is the cuirass of a young French heavy cavalryman who (obviously) died at Waterloo, probably in the course of Marshal Ney’s ill-advised mass cavalry attack on the British infantry. The unfortunate chevalier was hit by a solid ball from a British or British/German (King’s German forces) field gun. It punched through his cuirass - in the front, out the rear - rather in the manner that a paper punch would deal with sheets of paper, obviously causing terrible (and inevitably fatal) injuries to the upper torso. I have seen this cuirass on a number of occasions; it is relatively small. This suggests that the wearer was not a Cuirassier of the Guard, or even a veteran, since such men would have been selected for their height and “body mass”. More likely, he was a young cavalryman, perhaps recruited into the French Army in the “interim” period between Napoleon’s first exile and return. Most of King Louis XVIII’s army defected to Napoleon early in the “100 Days”. Okay, I am speculating a bit. A sad relic, in any case … JR.

The practice of Bounding solid round shot was common enough, setting elevation of the piece so that (hopefully) the shot would bounce along the ground, and through the formations of attacking Soldiers. Aside from the fatalities/injuries this caused, the greater effect was to cause panic, and disrupt entire formations at ranges too great for effective use of Grape, or Canister shot.
I was sent this link today, you all may enjoy seeing these images, depicting a re-enactment of the Battle of Waterloo. http://imgur.com/gallery/XKZWo

“A horse ! A horse ! My kingdom for a horse !”

Shakespeare - “Richard III”.

Well, I don’t know about Leicester’s most famous (posthumous) inhabitant, but Napoleon Premier generally (though not exclusively) favoured grey chargers (generally described as “white” at the time). He had quite a number of them over time, so that confusion can easily arise as to which served (literally) under him in which battle. This specimen - one high in the list of my wife’s un-favourite exhibits in the Musée de l’Armee Museum, Paris, is almost certainly the stuffed remains of “Le Vizir”, a purebread Arab stallion presented to the Emperor by Sultan Selim III of Turkey in 1802, aged 9 (alleged). Le Vizir was active in Napoleon’s ecurie up to 1814; some accounts suggest that he accompanied the Emperor to his first exile on Elba. As I remarked, there were a lot of grey chargers about. However, it is pretty certain that Le Vizir was present at a number of major battles, including Eylau, and that he took part in the Emperor’s ill-fated invasion of Russia in 1812. He did not make it to Waterloo, however; Napoleon rode another favourite grey stallion, “Marengo” on that occasion.

I said “almost certainly” because the Musée de l’Armee itself remains a little uncertain as to whether this example of the taxidermist’s art is definitely the mortal remains of “Le Vizir”. His post-war caretaker recorded his death in 1826 (which would have made him very old in Horse Years) and the history of his remains thereafter is, to say the least, remarkable. It would appear that his hide came into the possession of a member of the Manchester Natural History Society (mounted or not mounted, in a taxidermy sense, is not clear) and was offered to Napoleon III as a gift by the Society in 1868. However, the donation process was complicated (to say the least) by the fall of Napoleon III in 1870; it would appear that the stuffed horse, now mounted on its frame and enclosed in a large wooden case, ended up in an attic in the Palais du Louvre, where it was later discovered by museum staff. This may all seem stranger than fiction - but it is reasonably well attested by surviving documentary evidence. Believe it or not.

I am inclined to believe, on the balance of evidence, that this is, in fact, the mortal remains of the famous Le Vizir, “the most painted charger of Napoleon” according to one author. He is now displayed in a glass case in the Musée de l’Armée at Les Invalides, Paris, surrounded by the Museum’s huge collection of “Napoleana”, close to the equally taxidermised remains of a dog said to have been a companion of the Emperor in his exile. The remains of his Imperial master lie in his tomb, only a few hundred metres away. By the way - the grey charger, “Marengo” was rescued, injured, by a British officer from the field of Waterloo. He was subsequently paraded in a victory parade in London and, on his death, was defleshed. His skeleton was long on display in England, for part of the time, at the British Military Academy at Sandhurst. I am not sure where it is now. Best regards, JR.



Alleged to be the mortal remains of the grey stallion, “Marengo”, allegedly ridden by Napoleon Premier at Waterloo. His story (or “myth” as his [and I do mean “his” recent biographer describes it] is that he was an Arab stallion of relatively small proportions, brought back from Egypt by Napoleon, and employed in his personal service to the end at Waterloo. The problem is that, given the number of greys wandering around Napoleon’s écurie, “Marengo” lacks sufficient documentation to prove that a single horse of this name actually existed, even under his alternative name of “Aly”. Secondary accounts place him at a number of battles apart from Waterloo - including Austerlitz, and Moscow. However, by contrast with “Le Vizir”, their is now known documentary evidence to suggest that this individual animal existed as a single individual. It has further been suggested that his alleged longevity as a war-horse is highly improbable. It is now being suggested by some researchers that this individual “Marengo”, recovered from the Waterloo battlefield, was promoted as an individual by his owner at the time of his death in order to make money from the public through exhibiting his skeleton. These remains were subsequently exhibited by Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, and is now exhibited at the British Army Museum at Chelsea, London. The Museum has recently been challenged to show the skeleton’s provenance; I understand that they have no current intention of conducting their own investigation. No doubt, this will run and run …

An interesting dispute, certainly. The only reasonably solid, directly-attested facts are that a grey horse, probably ridden by the Emperor in the battle, was recovered from the battlefield, and subsequently died in England (having failed at stud), and ended up with his skeleton exhibited in public (the fate of his hide is unknown. As far as his “myth” - not definitely attested “biography” - is concerned, many “battle honors” are attached to his name, as well as accounts of exploits throughout central Europe, Russia and even the Peninsula. There is a real possibility (by contrast with “Le Vizir”) that “Marengo” is, so to speak, a “composite horse”, the equine equivalent of figures in medieval literature composed of the acts and achievements of a number of individuals. Perhaps.

I would make a couple of points. First, this horse was recovered from the field of Waterloo. His life is documented from that point. He was a grey stallion from the Imperial Stables, and there is a good probability that - whatever his name - he was ridden by the Emperor in that battle. Secondly, the objection that he was too old to function as a war horse by that date fits in with the “composite horse” theory (which would suggest that he was a lot younger than the “mythical” animal “imported from Egypt”. Certainly, the animal whose skeleton this is would have been pretty old by the time of Waterloo, and positively geriatric when he died. But (as someone with a passing interest in the equine species), this is not necessarily conclusive of anything. Horses can live into their thirties (forties would be pushing it a bit, perhaps …). Also, there seems to be an implicit assumption that the Emperor required relatively young, spirited stallions to carry him into battle. Not necessarily. There is documentary evidence of the views of members of Napoleon’s écurie staff as to his skills as a horseman. They suggest that he was a very poor horseman who would have preferred to ride a solid, experienced, “genuine”, brave horse into battle than one which would require a, say, Joachim Murat to control. One of the harsher critics describes Napoleon as “rolling around in the saddle, following the horse’s motion”. Horses destined for the Emperor’s use underwent an extra-intensive version of the training for cavalry horses at the time - subjected to unexpected explosions, musket fire, artillery fire, clashes of edged weapons, and so on. All of this suggests that a horse suitable to Marshals Ney or Murat would not have suited Napoleon himself. A relatively elderly, experienced, savvy and yet brave and obedient stallion (and remember, this is not the character of younger stallions by any means) might have been preferred, both by the Emperor and by his nervous stable-masters.

In the end of the day, it seems there is a clear possibility that “Marengo” was a “composite”, whose “legend” incorporated the achievements of a number of Napoleon’s grey chargers. Equally, and in the absence of solid documentary evidence, it is equally possible that there was a “Marengo” to whom a number of equine achievements can be attributed. Pretty sure that we shall never know. I would like to think that the “myth” is largely true - but the whole matter is, for me, too hazy in terms of evidence to offer a view even on the probability of that account, one way or the other.

Irish Derby (150th renewal) tomorrow at the Curragh. Shall I go, or watch it on the box ? HERSELF will decide … Yours from the covering shed, JR.

Another image of the cuirass pictured in an earlier post, and some more information. This photo shows more clearly the nature of the “wound” inflicted on this man, apparently, by a solid shot ball from a British/German allied field gun at Waterloo. The ball went straight through the right-hand side of his chest, rather like a paper punch. As I suspected, this man was not a member of an élite cuirassier unit, but a Carabinier-a-Cheval, originally a mounted gendarmerie-type formation subsequently converted to a front-line cavalry unit. According to Musée de l’Armee records, the owner of this cuirass was one Francois-Antoine Fauveau, a butter producer in civilian life. He is likely to have been dragooned into Napoleon’s army following the latter’s return from Elba, and (while it is likely that he knew how to ride a horse, hence his assignment to a mounted unit), he probably had little military training or experience at the time of Waterloo (a common situation for men fighting that day on either side). He was just 23 years old at the time of his death. In sadness, JR.

Portrait of an officer of the Carabiniers-a-Cheval by Thédore Gericault, ?1812 (Musée du Louvre). Looking into the (somewhat complex) history of this corps, I find that I was a bit unfair in describing the Carabiniers as originating in a gendarmerie-type formation (although they certainly performed such functions at various times). The concept of a French force of Carabiniers goes back to the 16th century. At that time, the cavalry made, so to speak, its last stand against the infantry as a primary striking force on the battlefield, made possible by the availability of wheel-lock pistols and carbines that could be used effectively against halberdiers, pikemen and musketeers armed with matchlock muskets. In France in particular, the establishment of carabineer units mainly took the form of small, élite “sharpshooter” units armed with carbine, pistol and sword.

The organization of carabineer units in France changed much over the years. Only in the 1780s, when military requirements were very different from those of the 16th century, were the Carabiniers-a-Cheval organized in two regiments, brigaded together. Their uniforms and armament were also subject to much change, some of which is quite comical. Worth noting in this context that the cuirass only arrived in 1809, and it was not especially popular in the corps. It consisted of double steel plate, coated with copper (officers) and brass (other ranks). I would guess that the Musée de l’Armee cuirass is of the latter type. By the time of Waterloo, armament (after many changes) had settled on a flintlock carbine, a pair of flintlock horse pistols, and a curved sabre.

It is not very clear, but originally, the Carabiniers-a-Cheval were in all probability, light cavalry, as was usual for firearm cavalry at that time. By the time of Waterloo, they were definitely classified as heavy cavalry along with the cuirassiers. Arguably, they were a more effective force than most cuirassier units, as the latter tended to come from the more privileged classes and are reputed to have been a bit lazy. However, the presence of the unfortunate butter-maker Faveau on the field of Waterloo suggests that, in the 100 Days period, the quality of recruits, and of their training, left much to be desired.

One interesting point to note about Gericault’s portrait - also seen in other depictions of such carbineers, but not clearly described in official descriptions of their uniform - is the thick leather jacket and gauntlets worn along with the cuirass. This is likely to have dated back to the 17th century (if not further); the thick leather would have been designed to afford some protection to the wearer from edged weapons, mainly sword fights with enemy cavalry. Best regards, JR.

jamesgraham.jpg“Bravest of the Brave” - On 18 June, 1815, Wellington’s army - mainly composed of British, allied German and Netherlands units - stood on the defense at Waterloo. Of the British forces, a recent history has estimated that some 40 per cent of the British troops were Irish. As with the rest of the soldiers engaged at Waterloo, the bulk of the British were recent recruits with little or no training. Britain’s main reserve of veterans (from the Peninsula) had been sent on a clean-up operation in the Caribbean. Not all, however, were so ill-prepared.

Roman Catholic soldiers had service in the British forces opened to them by a “Catholic Relief Act” of, I think, the 1780s, initiating Ireland’s role as a major source of British recruits through the 18th and 19th centuries. One man take advantage of this relief was James Graham, of Clones, Co. Monaghan. He enlisted in the Coldstream Guards, and was a well-trained (if not very combat-experienced) professional soldier by the time of Waterloo.

Wellington’s line at Waterloo was anchored, at either end, by the occupied walled farmhouses of La Haye Sainte (east) and Hougoumont (west). Wellington judged the holding of these locations as vital. Consequently, La Haye Sainte was manned by an élite unit of sharpshooters from the King’s German Legion, and Hougoumont by Coldstream Guards, supported by infantry from a nearby sunken road.

As the battle developed, an increasingly heavy and violent attack on the Hougoumont farmyard evolved. Why this came about is still a matter of debate among historians. Some argue that Hougoumont was side-show - a “battle within a battle”, that developed mainly because Napoléon had shifted his position behind the lines in such a way that he had a disproportionately prominent view of the extreme right of the Allied line. Wellington does not appear to have believed this; he heavily reinforced British infantry in the adjacent sunken road in response to French attacks. Napoléon seems to have shared his opinion that Hougoumont was one of the keys to the battlefield. It is worth noting that, if the French had broken through the Allies’ right flank, they could have cut them off from their line of retreat to the sea - recognized as one of the Emperor’s pre-battle objectives.

The crisis in the Hougoumont battle came when a gate of the farmhouse, left open (or more likely inadequately barricaded) in order to facilitate communication and supply from the sunken road) was assaulted by French sappers and broken open. Anything up to 100 French soldiers entered the walled farmyard, attacking British troops inside. However, behind them, the Coldstreamers’ commanding officer, Lt. Colonel James McDonnell determined to get the gate closed before complete disaster ensued. He was assisted, spontaneously, by a number of officers and men of the Guards, including James Graham, his brother, and a number of other ranks. In spite of severe pressure, Graham and his little crew succeeded in pressing the gate closed. Cpl. James Graham was the man who bolted the gate, which was then barricaded. The French who had entered the farmyard were killed to the last man, only a young drummer boy being spared. Later in the day, as the French continued to attack and climb over the wall, James Graham saved the life of an officer by shooting down a French sharpshooter aiming to shoot the officer, and rescued his brother from a burning barn (the brother subsequently died of his wounds).

The Duke of Wellington later wrote that the “closing of the gate at Hugoumont” was the key event of the battle. McDonnell and James Graham were celebrated, the latter (by Wellington) as the bravest man at Waterloo. Graham was honoured, in addition to the Waterloo Medal, with a special Medal for Bravery. He continued in service after the war, notably taking part in the suppression of the “Cato Street Conspiracy” against the Crown. In the course of the attendant riot, Graham is credited with saving the life of another officer - Frederick FitzClarence, an illegitimate son of King William IV.

James Graham continued in service up to 1830, at which time he was discharged, in effect, due to disability and age. He was consigned to residence in the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, Dublin (equivalent of London’s Royal Hospital, Chelsea), where he died in 1845, and rests still. With best regards and great respect, JR.

Portrait of James Graham, above, is a painting on panel, author unknown, in the collection of the National Gallery of Ireland. JR.

JR, slightly off topic, your comments took me back to this I read years ago: Vietnam 1965.

"All reports had to be written in that clinical, euphemistic language military prefers to simple English. If, say, a marine had been shot through the guts, I could not write “shot through the guts” or even “shot through the stomach”; no, I had to say; “GSW” ( gunshot wound ) “through and through, abdomen.” Shrapnel wounds were called “multiple fragment lacerations,” and the phrase for dismemberment, one of my very favourite phrases, was "traumatic amputation.

" In effect, Colonel $%^&*£ had been disintegrated, but the official report read something like “traumatic amputation, both feet; traumatic amputation, both legs and arms; multiple lacerations to abdomen; through-and-through fragment wounds, head and chest” Then came the redundant notation “killed in action.”

From Rumour of War (Philip Caputo): excerpt from “The Officer in Charge of the Dead”, (Chapter 10)

A very good study of these few days is the encounter-battle of Qatre Bras. It receives less attention than the events of the following day, but, as skirmishes go, it was quite a battle. The British cavalry and horse artillery did an excellent job as rear-guard while the main force withdrew to Waterloo.

Riflemen caught in the open at Qatre Bras (source unknown)