© Comité de Waterloo 2013 
Le Comité de Waterloo
A.S.B.L Comité pour les études historiques de la bataille de Waterloo
Delivered at the Ceremony to mark the reopening of Hougoumont Farm after its restoration, Wednesday 17th June 2015. Your Royal Highness, Excellencies, honoured guests, my lords, ladies and gentlemen. Together with my esteemed French colleague, Monsieur Alain Lacroix, I am honoured to give you an account of what happened here 200 years ago. In doing so, and I speak particularly to the British among you, I am conscious as a cavalryman and as Colonel of the King’s Royal Hussars that I am treading on very thin ice over what is, rightly, to the Brigade of Guards, iconic, if not hallowed ground. But as the proud father of a Grenadier Guards officer and equally proud father in law of a Scots Guards officer I can assure you I am not in any way biased. Now this is a story full of sound and fury; a story which signifies everything for the history of Europe and it all happened here in these farm buildings amid this pleasant but unremarkable Belgian country side 200 years ago tomorrow. It is an epic to rival the Iliad. There is supreme courage, inspirational leadership and for the allies, a glorious victory. But there is also hubris, nemesis, tragedy, defeat and for all who took part, immeasurable cost to men and horses. The events immediately before the battle can be quickly told: the French march on Brussels via Charleroi on June 15th; Napoleon’s defeat of the Prussians at Ligny and their subsequent withdrawal to Wavre on 16th June. His disastrous decision to send Marshal Grouchy and 30,000 French soldiers in the wrong direction in pursuit of what he thought was a fleeing Prussian army. On the same day, the inconclusive but equally bloody battle at Quatre Bras 12 kilometres to our south from which Wellington withdrew the allied army to the low ridgeline known as Mont St Jean, just to the north of where you are sitting now. Wellington’s plan was not complicated: to secure the fortified farms here at Hougoumont on his right flank, la Haye Sainte in the centre and Papellotte on his left flank. The rest of the allied army was deployed along the reverse slope of the ridgeline with cavalry kept in depth left, centre and right. There was no thought of manoeuvring against Napoleon. Wellington was going to soak up the French attack until Blucher and his Prussians arrived from Wavre. If you had been here in June 1815 you would have seen the same great barn – albeit rebuilt since the battle - and the gardener’s house to your left. However, to your right, next to the North Gate there was stabling and cowsheds. In the centre was the chateau, unoccupied and unfurnished on the day of the battle. Attached to the chateau was the chapel you see before you. Also attached to the chateau was the farmer’s house – occupied and in use. To your left rear behind the marquee and extending almost as far as the tree line was an elaborate formal garden beyond which was an orchard extending some way into what are now fields. Behind my right shoulder, the other side of the barns was a kitchen garden. To the south of Hougoumont, to your left, a wood extended for some 300 metres. The 1st British Guards Division arrived on the ridgeline to the north of Hougoumont after withdrawing from Quatre Bras in pouring rain at about 7pm on the evening of 17th June and four light companies (around 450 men) were quickly deployed to secure Hougoumont: two from 1st (subsequently the Grenadier) Guards commanded by Lord Saltoun, one from the Coldstream Guards and one from the 3rd (now Scots) Guards. Also deployed into the wood were 200 Hanoverians. This was very much an allied force. Lt Col James Macdonnell of the Coldstream Guards, a 34 year old Scotsman and an officer held in the highest confidence by the Duke of Wellington was put in command of the whole garrison. Throughout the night, in pouring rain, Macdonnell and his men loopholed the walls and prepared the buildings for defence. Wellington took considerable interest in what was happening at Hougoumont, visiting the farm twice before the battle to ensure it was properly defended. He appeared first shortly after dawn when he told Macdonnell that Hougoumont was to be held at all costs. As he rode away after his first visit, his Prussian liaison officer Baron Muffling expressed concern about the small force responsible for defending the chateau. ‘Ah, you don’t know Macdonnell,’ responded the duke, ‘I’ve thrown MacDonnell into it.’ Nevertheless, he ordered the reinforcement of Hougoumont by the 800 men of the 2nd Nassauer Regiment, Germans in the service of the King of the Netherlands. The Nassauers arrived at about 1000 hrs and took over the defence of the buildings, garden, orchard and wood. Saltoun withdrew with his two companies of 1st Guards only to be ordered back to retake the orchard after the battle had begun. Macdonnell and the two companies of Coldstream and 3rd Guards took up positions west of the buildings in the kitchen garden. Napoleon’s plan of attack was also straightforward, some might say equally lacking in imagination. Ignoring the advice of General Reille who had fought the British in Spain who told him, and I quote: ‘The English infantry are unbeatable but the English army is less agile, less supple … and we can beat it by manoeuvring’, Napoleon rejected any thought of a flank attack and determined to assault the allied line frontally. However, he did decide to start the battle with a feint attack against Hougoumont with the aim of forcing Wellington to weaken his centre by deploying reserves to strengthen his right flank. However war has a dynamic of it own and that feint attack against Hougoumont soon became a major assault, a battle within a battle that sucked in large numbers of French troops who could not be used elsewhere. So the story of the battle for Hougoumont begins at around 1130 hrs on the morning of 18th June when five French batteries opened fire on the buildings and its vicinity. Following the bombardment, the 6th Division commanded by Prince Jerome, King of Westphalia and Napoleon’s brother launched the attack. Four regiments of capable, experienced veterans protected by swarms of skirmishers advanced against the Nassauers and Hanoverians in the wood. The Nassauers and Hanoverians fought hard, the French advance through the wood was counterattacked by MacDonnell and his companies of Coldstream and 3rd Guards supported by the howitzers of Bull’s battery firing shrapnel over the defender’s heads into the advancing French. To make any progress, the French were forced to commit more troops and soon Jerome had committed his whole division to the fight, over 7000 men. The pressure was too much for the allied infantry in the wood. The French fought their bloody way up to the south walls of the farm buildings to your left. The Nassauers, Hanoverians and Guardsman had by this time withdrawn into the farm buildings and as the French emerged from the wood they were confronted immediately with a stream of musket fire from the loopholes and windows of the gardener’s house, stables and the high brick wall of the formal garden. The French attack was cut to pieces and halted. One of the first to be killed was General Bauduin commanding the lead French brigade from the front.   Private Johann Leonhard, a Hanoverian private soldier who had fought through the wood and withdrawn to fight from the loopholed wall wrote afterwards: ‘the shower of balls we loosed off on the French was so terrible that the grass was soon covered with French corpses.’ In the orchard, the French were more successful – for a time at least. The 1st Legere advance, supported by the 2nd Legere, drove back the Hanoverians and Nassauers and took most of the great orchard. But Lord Saltoun and his two light companies of 1st Guards were recalled to the orchard and with relentless, disciplined volley fire the guardsmen were unstoppable. Two light companies drove two French battalions from the orchard. It was now about 1230 and the French attack on the south side of Hougoumont had failed. Under cover of artillery Colonel Cubieres led an attack on the west of the buildings. MacDonnell’s two light companies of Coldstream and 3rd Guards were driven back into the courtyard. Cubieres, well remembered by the British defenders as an inspirational commander, mounted, one arm in a sling from a wound at Quatre Bras, was urging on his tirailleurs when he met Sgt Ralph Fraser of the 3rd Guards. Fraser was very much the tough, old sweat veteran Scottish NCO who had served and fought in Egypt, and the Peninsular  – and twice been seriously wounded. Cubiere took a swing at him with his sword, Fraser ducked and lunged upward with his halberd, wounded Cubieres and pulled him off his horse. Instead of killing him, Fraser leapt nimbly onto the colonel’s horse (he should have been a cavalryman) and rode it through the North Gate through which most of his comrades were withdrawing. The North Gate then became the scene of the critical moment for the defenders of Hougoumont. Last in to the farmyard was the light company of 3rd Guards. The gates were shut but there was no time to secure them properly. Shots were fired through the wood and within moments heavy axe blows combined with the pressure of dozens of Frenchmen forced them open. The axe wielder was a giant French officer, called appropriately, Lieutenant Legros, known as l’enforceur.  At the head of his men, Legros burst into the compound followed by a mass of wildly cheering French soldiers. There was desperate hand-to-hand fighting in the farmyard. Realising that the gates must be closed at any cost to prevent more Frenchmen from pouring in, MacDonnell yelled at three officers: Captain Henry Wyndham and Ensigns Hervy and Gooch, all Coldstream Guards officers, to join him. They were quickly joined by another six soldiers, four from 3rd Guards, including our friend Sgt Fraser and two Coldstream Guardsmen, Corporals James and Joseph Graham, brothers and two of the many fine, fighting Irishmen in Wellington’s army. While some heaved on the gates, others fought with bayonets and swords to beat back the French. Slowly the gates were pushed together, barricaded and the crossbar dropped in position by Corporal James Graham who then coolly took his musket back from Captain Wyndham who had been holding it for him and shot a Frenchman aiming his musket at Wyndham. The gates were closed, barricaded and inside the farmyard all the French, less one drummer boy,  were quickly killed, including Legros. The crisis was over.   Years later, when Henry Wyndham had become General Sir Henry Wyndham KCB his niece used to say, as she sat freezing in the inevitable fierce draft at his family home, that ‘no Wyndham had ever closed a door since Hougoumont’. Wellington was clear about the critical importance of this moment: ‘the success of the Battle of Waterloo depended on closing the gates of Hougoumont.’ On the ridge line to the north, Sir John Byng commanding 2nd Guards Brigade saw the pressure Hougoumont had come under and ordered a counter attack by 2nd Battalion, Coldstream Guards and 2nd Battalion, 3rd Guards who saw off the French attack and reinforced the garrison in the chateau and orchard respectively. Throughout the afternoon, the battle within a battle continued with the utmost ferocity at Hougoumont. The French kept up the pressure, committing another division to the fight so by mid afternoon there were some 12,500 Frenchmen attacking around 2,600 defenders. Then Napoleon ordered Reille to fire incendiary shells onto the chateau. The buildings soon caught light and in no time the chateau, great barn and farmer’s house were blazing. As the battle continued to rage, men made desperate efforts to evacuate the wounded from the burning barns and to the cacophony of battle was added the desperate screams of wounded men and horses unable to avoid the flames. The fire spread to the chapel, began to lick at the feet of the crucifix – and then went out; a sign taken by some as divine intervention. Meanwhile the defenders were running short of ammunition and the Adjutant of the 3rd Guards managed to get a message to Captain Horace Seymour, ADC to the allied cavalry commander Lord Uxbridge. Fortunately he happened to come across Private Brewer of the Royal Wagon Train in charge of a cart full of ammunition. Seymour pointed out where he was needed and in no time the gallant Brewer had whipped up his horses, drove down the hill to the farm and was let in by the north gate with a much needed supply of ammunition. So Hougoumont stood firm. The afternoon saw successive French attacks and allied counter-attacks in the orchard until between 7.00-7.30 pm detachments from the King’s German Legion, Hanoverians and Brunswickers helped clear the orchard and the wood of the last of the French. Eventually exhaustion took hold and the fighting died down. The battle for Hougoumont was over. The casualties were everywhere; in the orchard alone over 2000 had fallen. So we should remember that where we sit 200 years ago is where the defenders of the chateau: British, Dutch, German stood fast to the end underpinned by the discipline and fighting spirit of the Brigade of Guards. But let us also pay tribute to the gallantry of the attacking French. As Sergeant Major Cotton of the 7th Hussars wrote of the French: Their bearing that day was of gallant soldiers; their attacks conducted with a chivalric impetuosity and admirably sustained vigour …to deny them the tribute of respect and admiration which their bravery and misfortunes claim would tarnish the lustre of their martial glory.’ When the poet Robert Southey visited Hougoumont in October 1815, he wrote: "I wish it might be allowed to remain untouched, that the ruins themselves might remain as the best monument of the brave men who are buried beneath them." Two hundred years on, it is the same response to this intensely atmospheric place that has inspired a group of volunteers in Belgium and the United Kingdom to join forces in giving effect to Southey’s vision. The result is this remarkable restoration and museum which manages to bring to life the events of the battle while also preserving Hougoumont as a memorial to the brave men of all nations who fought and died here. Of course this has required an immense amount of dedicated hard work – as well as significant funding. In thanking the British side, I start with Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne for his huge support and the generous contribution from Her Majesty’s Treasury to the project; next are Ambassadors Jonathan Brenton and Alison Rose, together with Deputy Head of the British Mission in Brussels Katrina Johnson who facilitated the British Government grant. Thank you too for the Embassy’s support for today’s ceremony. Our thanks go also to Martin Drury for his dedication and vast conservation knowledge which have helped ensure Hougoumont’s very high standard of restoration and scenography: to Barry Danzig for his strong leadership, to Alex Spofforth for all his effective work as secretary, and to Alice Berkeley, Steve Stanton, Annie Tatham and all the members of Project Hougoumont for their many years of hard and effective work.  Thanks go too to Colonel Simon Vandeleur, Regimental Secretary of the Coldstream Guards, and through him the Coldstream Guards who have done so much to make today happen, together with the Grenadier and Scots Guards present today.
“The Battle for Hougoumont - 18th June 1815”, by General Sir Richard Shirreff KCB CBE