A Conversation for The Battle of Waterloo, 1815

The Old Cavalry Slur

Post 1


Your assessment of the British cavalry's performance in this battle is completely wrong. What is curious, though, is that your error is made quite clear even by your own account.

What you describe as the ill-disciplined, disorganised, incompetently-led, 2,500 British horsemen succeeded in smashing three columns comprised of 15,000 French infantry. They took 3,000 prisoners, and then went on to spike 15 guns and temporarily disable a further 40. Their charge was initiated at short notice, and arguably it saved the day. By contrast, just afterwards, 5,000 French cavalry, attacking a small British force, in the same location, at their leisure, in dense waves, achieved precisely nothing, apart from terrorising into flight the Dutch and the Belgians (probably by saying, "Boo").

So first, let's examine the "self-serving, arrogant and inept" aristocrats who commanded the British cavalry. Lord Uxbridge was chosen by Wellington personally to be his second-in-command. Uxbridge was known as "the best horseman in Great Britain" and as a cavalry leader he was regarded as "exceptional" and "brilliant". The commander of the Union brigade, Major General Sir William Ponsonby, far from being arrogant was described as "naturally diffident and unassuming". Both men had begun their careers 21 years earlier, as infantry officers. Both were veterans of the Peninsular War, one of the most bloodstained episodes in British military history. Further down the chain of command, Lt. Col. Hamilton of the Scots Greys wasn't an aristocrat at all: he was the adopted son of Sergeant-Major John Anderson of the 21st Foot, who was killed at Saratoga. Hamilton had 23 years' service.

Now the charge. This was not some Balaclava-like cock-up. Ponsonby and the others saw immediately what was happening to Picton (a fierce and stunningly brave soldier), and they readied their men. The situation was so critical that, as Ponsonby's ADC later remarked, "Had we been five minutes later it would have been too late." The regiments were barely in place before the order to charge was given. What happened next has been brilliantly described by the then corporal Dickson of the Scots Greys. I am a horseman. I have also fought in the infantry of three different armies, and it had me on the edge of my seat as I read it.

I could take you through that account and explain what only a fighting soldier can see between the lines, but suffice to say that nowhere did "bloodlust" come into it. That is a novelist's term and it has no place on such a terrible day. As for your extraordinary assertion that the officers thought they were going to Paris, the only recorded order in that maelstrom of killing was not, "To Pawwis, chaps" but something infinitely more chilling: "Charge the guns!" It was given by Inglis Hamilton of the Scots Greys. He was last seen going flat out through the enemy ranks, his arms hacked off, the reins of his horse between his teeth. Of the few Scots officers to survive, the most senior was a Major Cheney. He had had five - FIVE - horses shot from under him in the space of 30 minutes. I somehow can't imagine he was under the illusion he was going to Paris.

Should they have retreated sooner? Maybe. However, those guns were wreaking havoc with Picton's division, and they disabled well over half of them. Yes, most of them died. That was their job that day. So did 50,000 others. (And so, incidentally, did 20,000 horses.)

Of all that has been said and written about this frightful charge, I prefer to go with the words of the two opposing generals. Napoleon looked at the carnage before him and said, "Those terrible grey horses! How they fight!" Coming from that man, at that crucial moment, about an enemy regiment, it was quite a comment. Wellington did not throw his hat on the ground in exasperation. What he apparently said was, "The trouble with the cavalry is that they always go too far." This is usually taken, by armchair critics, as derogatory. As a former soldier, I interpret it rather differently. The Iron Duke was a laconic man. Add a shake of the head and the implication, "for their own good," and it is the grim salute of one brave man to others.

Either way, you and I will never know even a fraction of what really happened on that ghastly field. I have been involved in 12 campaigns and wars, of varying ferocity (my 'username' gives a clue to where I learnt my trade), but I would never dare to make the judgements you have. They are a barely-forgivable insult to the memory of some of our finest, most skilled, and incredibly courageous soldiers, the like of which we are unlikely to see again. Please take account of this solemn fact, and modify your otherwise excellent text accordingly.

The Old Cavalry Slur

Post 2

Secretly Not Here Any More

Sorry you didn't agree with the judgement put forward in this piece, if and when I get a chance to re-write or update it I'll be sure to take all of this into account.

If I can say one thing in defense of my article it's that I was putting forward the general concensus from the sources I used when researching it. If you could point me to material offering a different view I'd be more than willing to read them and re-evaluate my writing. It's the curse of the part-timer and I'll freely admit I only used a small number of books and accounts when writing this piece as I was (and still am) studying for a degree in History. As such if someone points out an inaccuracy of difference of opinion then it's my job to go and see where I went wrong!

Thanks for reading this and for your feedback and I'm sorry a small part didn't sit well with you.


The Old Cavalry Slur

Post 3


Goodness, that was quick!

I am in no way an historian, and to be honest I have no idea what 'the general consensus' of the so-called experts is on this matter. I was actually looking up something else - equine casualties in battle - when I came across what struck me as some very curious comments about the Scots Greys' performance at Waterloo.

It has apparently been claimed that they "walked" into the French columns. This seemed so bizarre that I delved into it (thanks to Google) a little further, coming across your interesting piece in the process.

It turned out to be nonsense: merely a massive misunderstanding of what actually happens in battle. It seems to have originated from a letter written some years after the event by a Lieutenant Winchester of the 92nd Highlanders. When I found the first, brief quotes, I decided Winchester was either describing the actions of one or two cavalrymen, or possibly that he'd been suffering from the 'slow-motion effect' experienced by soldiers in extremis. However, after finding the full text, I realised it was just a figure of speech, because he went on to say that "in less than three minutes it [the head of the column] was totally destroyed - 2 000, besides killed and wounded of them having been made prisoners and two of their Eagles captured. The grass field in which the enemy was formed, which was only the instant before as green and smooth as the 15 acres in the Phoenix Park, was in a few minutes covered with killed and wounded - knap-sacks and their contents, arms and accoutrements, etc. etc. so literally strewed over, that to avoid stepping on either one or other was quite impossible ..."

This cannot have been achieved at walking pace! Not only that, but as anyone who has been involved in serious fighting knows, soldiers do not cover the last few, critical yards at the walk: they dash in. In the case of cavalry, they rely totally on the shock effect of the initial clash and the momentum of their charge, particularly if they are using lances but also in the first employment of their sabres.

However, it was a professional historian who, from this one comment about walking, extrapolated a whole series of, to my mind, fatuous and defamatory conclusions. Furthermore, it demonstrated the danger of what can happen when people who have never heard a shot fired in anger start trying to analyse such events on the basis of fragmentary and very incomplete written evidence.

Now I'm going to be somewhat arrogant myself, but in my opinion no one who hasn't personally experienced the appalling noise, confusion, and desperation of close-quarter fighting (or of war generally) is in a position to make detailed aspersions about the conduct of the men involved at the sharp end. Battle is actually indescribable. Some, like corporal Dickson, have given very good accounts of it, but to understand what he was really saying you need, as you read it, to hear in your head the roar of the guns, the yells of men, and the clash of steel - or, in modern terms, the ear-splitting racket of shells landing, of furious automatic fire, and of streams of bullets passing close by your ear at supersonic speed. NOTHING anyone has ever seen on the cinema screen or heard on the most awesome sound system comes anywhere close to that experience, never mind the added frisson of fighting for your very existence.

Corporal Dickson's memoir is one of the best I have ever read of any engagement anywhere, but I'm not sure that most people would begin truly to understand the horror of what he was describing. I felt quite sick as one dreadful scene after another unfolded before me, even though I have witnessed far more carnage than most.

You ask what were my sources. Dickson's was the main one. All the rest, to me, is just the vapid gossip of the chattering classes. I would like to be more helpful, but I am writing to you from a small village in the depths of the Caucasus mountains. (Isn't modern technology wonderful smiley - smiley ?) Sadly, I do not have a library to refer to, but if you want to ask my admittedly rough and ready opinion (Picton is one of my heroes. Did you know that he had lost his nerve after the Peninsula, and begged Wellington not to invite him back to war again?) on some of your sources, I would be happy to comment.


The Old Cavalry Slur

Post 4

Secretly Not Here Any More

Well I'll grab a look at Dickson asap, then as soon as I get back to Uni I'll hit the books and put this in the update forum.

The Old Cavalry Slur

Post 5


By the time you get back to the books (Sept/Oct ?), I shall be living in the open on horseback, somewhere in the mountains in Turkey, so I won't be logging in to this site much, if at all.

So good luck with the degree. It was fun chatting!


The Old Cavalry Slur

Post 6

Secretly Not Here Any More

Aye, and thankyou very much for your feedback, it's always great to have constructive criticism!

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