Wellington's Foot Guards at Waterloo
By Robert Burnham and Ron McGuigan
Every Napoleonic buff knows that one of the most important defensive positions on the battlefield at Waterloo was the chateau of Hougoumont.
It dominated the British and Allied army’s right and, were it to fall, would open up the way for the French to let loose his cavalry.
To defend Hougoumont, the Duke of Wellington selected his most trusted troops, the men of the First Division.
The First was the only entirely British infantry formation and to boost Wellington’s confidence in them further – were the men of the Guards.
Two brigades of them.
Their defence was staunch and the fighting bloody. At one stage the Guards were fighting off a whole French Corps.
At the battle’s climax when Napoleon threw his best troops at the battered Allied army, it was again the Guards who stood firm, and stopped them with musketry before going in with the bayonet and completing a historic victory.
Since then the Guards have been surrounded by a curtain of legend that has now been parted by Robert Burnham and Ron McGuigan.
The authors have produced an information-packed book that tells you pretty much everything you will need to know about the Guards regiments – The First Foot Guards, the Coldstream Guards and the Third Foot Guards.
The regiments’ histories, their ranking system, numbers of each rank and the Guards’ internal rivalry.
One thing that surprised me was how young many of the officers were and how in much of the fighting it was junior ranks who led the men.
Burnham and McGuigan have collected a huge number of personal accounts to put the soldiers’ experience of Waterloo together and it makes for very interesting reading.
You are placed with the Guards units from Quatre Bras through to the final shots at La Belle Alliance and the authors put you ringside at one of the greatest battles of history.
There are sad tales about the discrimination of fate in determining life or death … but amusing parts as well.
I particularly liked the adventures of Lt John Cowell who suffered from recurring bouts of dysentery at Quatre Bras but recovered enough to hop on a wagon to rejoin the Coldstream Guards.
The only problem being reports of French cavalry sent the wagon drivers into a panic and a collision threw him into a ditch.
The young officer had barely got back on the road when a party of British cavalry promptly knocked him over again.
Eventually Cowell gave up on his quest to rejoin his comrades and returned to Brussels where he was bed-ridden for a week with his disabling condition.
Others with more famous names than Cowell are presented as their men would have seen them and the first-hand accounts of both officer and rankers flesh out the characters of the officers and men who fought one of history’s most decisive battles.
And the details of who fought, where, what happened to them are remarkable.
This book deserves its place on Napoleonic bookshelves.
Wellington's Foot Guards at Waterloo, by Robert Burnham and Ron McGuigan, Pen and Sword Books, ISBN: 978526709868.