Leading military historian Richard Holmes describes the struggle for Hougoumont during the Battle of Waterloo, and explains why the historic farm-complex, now under threat of collapse, must be preserved.
The Duke of Wellington maintained that it was as difficult to write the history of a battle as the history of a ball. The inherent complexity of both events did not permit measured analysis: there was simply too much going on at the same time.
As far as Waterloo is concerned, although there will always be issues that encourage dispute, historians are in a position to prove the Duke wrong, for careful examination of the hundreds of personal accounts of the action enables us to take a comprehensive view. But it remains hard to grasp any battle without visiting the field on which it was fought, and that is particularly true of Waterloo.
For instance, the ridge of Mont St Jean, the defensive position selected by Wellington for his Allied army, is a more modest feature than its name suggests; the central area of the battlefield, on the axis of the main Brussels road, is surprisingly shallow, and the complexity of the Prussian approach can only be properly appreciated by seeing the hamlets and little roads off to Wellington’s left flank.
On the one hand, the construction of the Lion Mound has actually changed the microterrain in Wellington’s centre, and an autoroute buzzes noisily across the battlefield’s western flank; but on the other, parts of the field remain unspoiled, and once one escapes the busy commercialism of the area round the mound, the battlefield is remarkably evocative.
The British bastion
I have always found the farm complex of Hougoumont, standing like a great wave-breaker at the foot of the slope in front of Wellington’s right centre, one of the most poignant spots on any battlefield. In 1815, Hougoumont was an altogether more substantial feature than it is today.
A modest château was at the centre of a group of domestic and farm buildings built around two courtyards, with a kitchen garden to the west, and a larger formal garden to the east. An orchard stood further east, and to the immediate south was a large deciduous wood, with a narrow gap between its northern edge and the brick wall surrounding the formal garden. North of Hougoumont, a sunken lane, the ‘covered way’ in contemporary accounts, ran obliquely up onto the ridge of Mont St Jean.
In 1815, a British infantry battalion had ten companies, eight of them known as ‘battalion companies’, with two ‘flank companies’, one of them a grenadier company, traditionally composed of the biggest men in the battalion, and the other a light company, with the best shots and skirmishers. Wellington initially garrisoned Hougoumont with the light companies of 1st and 2nd Guards Brigades, part of his 1st Division, posted on the ridge north of the farm.
There were some 400 men under the overall command of James Macdonell of the Coldstream Guards, who, like his brother company commanders in the Guards, ranked as a captain in his own regiment but enjoyed the army rank of lieutenant-colonel. Miguel de Alava, who had served as a Spanish liaison officer on Wellington’s staff in the Peninsula, had attached himself to the Duke for the campaign (he was to claim the unusual distinction of having fought at both Trafalgar and Waterloo). He drew Wellington’s attention to the importance of Hougoumont, and suggested that it should be more heavily defended. ‘Ah,’ replied the Duke, ‘I’ve put Macdonell into it. You don’t know Macdonell.’
The Guardsmen spent 17 June preparing the place for defence, loopholing walls, and using timber taken from the buildings to build a firestep that enabled them to fire over the perimeter wall. Early on the morning of the 18th, the day of the battle, a detachment of Nassau infantry, with some Hanoverian and Lüneberg sharpshooters, arrived in Hougoumont, and were eventually posted in the wood to its south.
The French assault
Napoleon intended to make his main thrust straight up the Brussels road, with an artillery bombardment preparing the way. He ordered General Reille, one of his corps commanders, to attack Hougoumont, with the intention of inducing Wellington to reinforce its garrison and, by doing so, weaken his main position. Reille entrusted the task to Napoleon’s brother Prince Jerome, commanding one of his divisions.
Jerome’s first attack went in at about 11.30, and, as the long day wore on, wave after wave of assaults were to break against the walls of Hougoumont. The French came perilously close to taking the place when Sous-Lieutenant Legros of 2nd Light Infantry, a huge man, nicknamed ‘The Smasher’, forced his way through the north gate with 30 or 40 men; but
Macdonell led a counterattack, and secured the gate by dropping a baulk of timber into its iron fastenings. The attackers were killed.
As the fighting went on, a few Frenchmen managed to get through the southern gate, damaged by their artillery fire, and a few more pressed in through the small western gate, but all were killed or driven out. Towards mid-afternoon, some of the buildings, including the château itself, were set on fire by French howitzer-shells. Wellington had been watching events from the ridge, and trickling reinforcements down to Hougoumont as required. He sent a message warning Lieutenant-Colonel Francis Hepburn of 3rd Guards, now in overall command, to hold the château as long as possible and ensure that the French did not force their way through its ruins.
At this juncture, the garrison was running short of ammunition, but Private Joseph Brewer of the Royal Wagon Train bravely drove a cart full of ammunition down the sunken road behind Hougoumont, and the crisis passed.
Further French assaults, with Foy’s division now joining Prince Jerome’s men, made progress in the orchard, but were soon dislodged. By now, the Prussians were biting hard into Napoleon’s right flank, and when, at about 7.30, the last French attack broke on the musketry of Wellington’s line up on the ridge, Hougoumont remained firmly in Allied hands.
Its defence had cost perhaps 1,500 men, but the French had lost far more, perhaps 5,000. Wellington was to maintain that the defence of Hougoumont was decisive: victory at Waterloo hinged on the closing of its gates.
The farm today
Although the château itself was never rebuilt, Hougoumont remained a working farm, and it was possible for visitors to enter the north gate, epicentre of the fighting, and visit the tiny chapel that had, almost miraculously, survived the battle.
The formal garden had become rough pasture, but the walls surrounding it remained intact, and re-enactors were able to camp in their shelter. The wood to the south had long disappeared – three isolated trees remain – but it was very easy, walking past the south gate and along the line of the wall, to imagine French infantry emerging from the trees to cross the strip of open ground between wood and wall under withering fire from loopholes and firestep. However, after the death of the last tenant farmer, the place became increasingly dilapidated. The outer wall of the great barn, on the western edge of the complex, now bulges alarmingly, and is shored up by makeshift timber buttressing. The wall is gapped in several places, and although some repairs have recently been carried out, Hougoumont lies very much at the mercy of the elements and vandalism.
My own visits to Hougoumont left me increasingly worried about its condition, and a number of other visitors – from professional battlefield guides to enthusiastic amateurs – wrote, telephoned, or emailed to suggest that something should to be done as a matter of urgency. A small group of us met (fittingly enough in a Berkshire pub), and Project Hougoumont was formally launched in June 2008. In October that year, we became an affiliate of Waterloo 200, the official organisation entrusted with overseeing the commemoration of the 200th anniversary of Waterloo in 2015.
We were unable to begin serious fundraising until we were registered with the Charity Commission, a process that itself depended on a series of necessarily complex discussions with the Belgian local authority, which now owns the site and has extensive plans for the sympathetic redevelopment of the central part of the battlefield. However, in May 2010, we were at last registered with the commission, and are now able devote ourselves to the task of raising money. We will work in collaboration with other interested parties, most notably the local authority, and the Belgian government itself will meet part of the restoration cost. It is our hope to have the majority of the work completed in time for the 200th anniversary of the battle.
You will not need me to tell you that today’s financial climate is scarcely benign, and some potential corporate donors are no longer able to offer the sort of support that might have been forthcoming just a few years ago. Lottery funding, which might have been available for a project within the United Kingdom, cannot be used for schemes abroad. But it was always our expectation that the project would attract the interest of a wide variety of people, and our Chosen Men scheme encourages individual donations. I can scarcely begin to say how important it is that this iconic site – part of a battlefield that, as Winston Churchill might have put it, was one of history’s great punctuation marks – is preserved for the education and enjoyment of future generations.