History of War

THE BATTLE FOR HOUGOUMONT

Source:   British soldiers slam the gates of Hougoumont farm on the onrushing French forces  

“NAPOLEON, WHO HAD BEEN FIGHTING SINCE THE WARS OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION, NEARLY ALWAYS ADOPTED AGGRESSIVE DOCTRINES IN BATTLE, TRYING TO CRUSH THE ENEMY SWIFTLY AND DECISIVELY”

On 18 June 1815, Napoleon’s cannon opened fire at the Allied army at around 11.35am (the exact time is a source of disagreement among witnesses and historians). The Battle of Waterloo had just begun. The French wanted to destroy Wellington’s army as well as the Belgian-Dutch military, convinced that the British would sign a peace treaty if Brussels were taken and the enemy general driven out of Belgium.

On the other side, the duke of Wellington was determined to counter the French offensive in Belgium before stopping the troublesome French emperor once and for all. Both commanders had plenty of experience on the battlefield but displayed very different military styles. Napoleon, who had been fighting since the Wars of the French Revolution, nearly always adopted aggressive doctrines in battle, trying to crush the enemy swiftly and decisively. His military might was indisputable, but historians and witnesses have noted that he was not at his best during the Hundred Days. Tired, depressed and overweight, he was probably not fit to lead an army as effectively as previously. Wellington, a cautious commander, preferred defensive positions in order to preserve his men. His careful approach to battle, combined with British discipline in the heat of the action, was key to his many victories during the Peninsular War.

Caution was precisely the reason Wellington picked Mont-Saint-Jean to fight the French army. The British commander knew the place already, having noticed its favourable topography the year before. The gentle slopes and the hills around the small hamlet would protect his men from the French cannon. Moreover, four key positions could potentially stop the enemy: the castle of Fichermont (also spelled Frischermont) and the farms of Papelotte, Haye Sainte and Hougoumont (in fact a farm-castle).

On 17 June General Cooke was ordered to reinforce Hougoumont with the light companies of his four battalions of the Guards (First Division). Colonel Macdonnell was made commander of the castle and the farm. One witness, a man named Maaskamp, saw the British at Hougoumont the day before the battle: “During the night, they prepared for the castle’s defence. They dug a pit next to the outside hedge, and there was a reinforced wall behind the hedge around the garden and the orchard. They dug loopholes in the wall and placed an elevation platform to fire above it.” Companies of the Second Brigade occupied the garden as well as the farm, while men of the First Brigade, commanded by Lord Saltoun, were positioned in the orchard and the wood.

Early on 18 June 1815, the duke of Wellington, the prince of Orange, Generals Hill and Uxbridge, asdown to Hougoumont. The prince of Orange, having had a close look at the farm-castle, sent 300 men to reinforce it. Wellington also positioned the light company of the Coldstream Guards and men of the Third Guards to the west of Hougoumont. Soldiers from Nassau and Hanover were placed in the wood. At 10.00am, Captain Bügsen and six companies of the Second Nassau Regiment arrived, totalling 800 soldiers. 400 men were positioned in the orchard while the others occupied the farm-castle. As a result, most of the men in the garrison on the day were German. Light companies of the Third Guards were moved to the western lane area, and men of the light company of the Coldstream Guards were ordered to defend the north gate and the buildings of the lower courtyard.

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