I have in recent years been privileged to work in colaboration with Martin Mittelacher, an expert on the role of the Nassau troops in the Waterloo Campaign.
I am therefore very proud to republish here, a copy of an article originally published in the Journal of the Society of Army Historical Research (JSAHR) Autumn 2003, with his permission, to help get his message across.
NASSAUERS AT HOUGOUMONT
By Martin Mittelacher
Descriptions of the Battle of Waterloo are in some places quite contradictory, particularly with respect to time and troops involved, and no less so in regard to the action around Hougoumont, that strongpoint in front of the right of the allied line. But there is near-unanimity in British accounts about the negligible, if not infamous, role of the Nassau battalion posted there on the morning of battle. On the other hand, a diligent examination of both British and German sources reveals the Nassauers anything but minor role in preventing the enemy from storming Chateau Hougoumont in his first attack, and in later phases of the Battle. Their contribution to its defence has been treated with silence in most English-language accounts, primarily, it seems, so as not to detract from the heroism of the British Foot Guards in this battle within the battle. But in fairness to those Nassau soldiers, and in the interests of historical truth, their part in the contest for this strongpoint deserves to be described in appropriate detail.
Certain myths about the Nassauers conduct at Hougoumont have survived in biographies and battle histories to the present day. Some of these have their origin in occasional remarks of the Duke of Wellington. When telling a good story it seems the great man was not always too particular about his facts. Following is an example of how a Wellington anecdote changed over the years into a bona fide historical event.
In George Hoopers Waterloo history, published ten years after Wellingtons death, the author has the Duke encountering the Nassauers on the morning of the Battle, at the edge of the Hougoumont woods:
While here, according to an anecdote which Mr Rogers has preserved, he [the Duke] remarked that the Nassau regiment was disposed to flinch from its forward position. And when I remonstrated with them . . . they said, in excuse, that the French were in such force near there. It was to no purpose that I pointed to our Guards on the right. It would not do; and so bewildered were they, that they sent a few shots after me as I rode off .1
Hooper, the historian, had changed salient points of the original anecdote (see Appendix) to enhance its credibility—reducing the ‘brigade’ of Nassauers to a regiment, and posting them in a forward position at the edge of the wood, 300 yards from the French, instead of in the Hougoumont orchard of the anecdote, about 600 yards distant from the French lines.
Later Waterloo historians accepted and perpetuated the story as historical fact, among them Jac Weller in his Wellington at Waterloo (1967, with reprints in 1992 and 1998), who wrote:
The French were no more than 300 yards away and in heavy strength; the Nassauers appear to have been on the point of panic when Wellington rode up to them and to some extent restored their morale. As he rode away, however, some of them shot at him.
In a footnote, Weller asserts the story’s authenticity by pointing out that it was based on ‘Wellington’s own statements’.2
But this record of events suffers from a fatal flaw: the incident never happened. Briefly, of the Nassau battalion detached to Hougoumont only its light, or voltigeur, company of some 130 men was posted at the edge of the small wood facing the French, next to about 330 Hanoverian riflemen. Another Nassau company served as support further back in the wood.3 So, as the story goes, it could only have been a single Nassau company that was about to take flight and was harangued by the Duke, with some of its men sending a few shots after him as he rode off, all this commotion going unnoticed and unreported by its Hanoverian neighbours.
In the following, an attempt is made to sort fact from fiction about the Nassauers part in the action at Hougoumont. Let us begin with a brief description of the background of these troops.
The Nassauers road to Hougoumont
The Nassau unit detached to Hougoumont was the 1st Battalion of the 2nd Light Regiment Nassau. Most of the officers and many men of that Regiments rank and file were battle-hardened veterans of Napoleons Spanish War. Their Duchy of Nassau, today a part of the German State of Hesse, was one of the Emperors creations, made up from the former Principalities of Nassau-Usingen and Nassau-Weilburg. The Duchy had contributed some 3500 men to the French army in Spain. As Napoleons fortunes waned after the Battle of Leipzig in October 1813, the 2nd Nassau Regiment went over to the British side at Bayonne in December that year. Wellington sent the men to England to join in the war against Napoleon. The 2nd Nassaus eventually became part of the Netherlands Army and, with the Orange-Nassau Regiment (28th Netherlands Line) and a volunteer Jager company, formed Prince Bernhard of Saxe-Weimars 2nd Brigade of the 2nd Netherlands Division. Having fought the French at Quatre Bras, all the Brigade except for the 1st Battalion of the 2nd Nassau Regiment took position on the morning of 18 June in the Papelotte area, on the extreme left of the allied line. Between nine and ten o clock that single unit was led by a staff officer before the front of the line to Chateau Hougoumont, in order to reinforce its garrison of British Guards and Hanoverians.
The following account concerns itself primarily with this Battalions part in the ensuing action. Many details regarding the layout of the Chateau’s defences, and, indeed, the overall sequence of events, have been omitted since these have often been described in stories of the heroic stand of the Foot Guards at Hougoumont, and are therefore presumed to be known.
Initial Troop Dispositions
When, about half an hour before noon on 18 June, troops commanded by Napoleons brother Jerome were set in motion against Chateau Hougoumont, the 3000 Frenchmen were opposed by a garrison numbering about 1330 men. It consisted of 200 British soldiers from the two light companies of the Coldstream and 3rd Guards Regiments, 330 men from Kielmannsegge’s 1st Hanoverian Brigade, and the 800 Nassauers of the 1st Battalion, 2nd Light Regiment. At the beginning of the fighting the allied units were posted as follows:
In the small wood facing the French were the 330 Hanoverians—130 Feldjager sharpshooters and 100 men, each, from the rifle-armed Liine-burg and Grubenhagen Battalions.4
Also defending the wood were 260 Nassauers, one light and one line company of the 1st Battalion.5
Providing flank protection at the north-west corner of the wood were the two light companies of the Coldstream and 3rd Guards Regiments.6
Three companies of the 1st Nassau Battalion, about 400 men, took position within the Chateau enclosure—its Grenadier Company in the gardener’s house, and two line companies along the southern wall of the Chateaus great garden.7
One line company of the Nassau Battalion was posted in the large orchard adjoining the east side of the Chateau enclosure.8 It had replaced two light companies of the 1st Guards Regiment. Their commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Lord Saltoun, had been told by a staff officer to hand over responsibility for the defence of the orchard to the Nassau troops and to rejoin 1st Guards Brigade on the main line.9
The presence of the Nassau contingent within the Chateau enclosure has been questioned10 or treated with silence by some sources.11 It was, however, confirmed in an 1833 history of the Coldstream Guards:
At ten o clock the light companies of the Guards were relieved by a battalion of eight hundred Nassau light troops: part of this corps was stationed in the lofts, buildings, yards, and out-offices; the remainder, with the Hanoverian yagers were distributed in the orchard and wood.12
On the Nassau side, Captain Busgen, the Battalion Commander, noted in his battle report that at my arrival neither the Ferme nor the Garden were occupied . . . From the existing defence preparations … it was obvious that the post had earlier been occupied [by other troops]. There was also ample infantry ammunition in one room of the [gardener’s] house.13Then there is the testimony of a Nassau private named Johann Peter Leonhard who, in his memoirs, recorded his first reaction to a posting at the Chateau: On arrival [at Hougoumont] we noticed that this big farm was surrounded by a wall. . . one could see the freshly broken loopholes in the wall. Ha, I thought by myself, here you’ll settle in but leave nevermore, good night, World! 14
Jerome Napoleons Division attacks Hougoumont
The French assault opened with the skirmishers and line troops of Jerome’s 1st Brigade attempting to dislodge the allied defenders from the wood in front of the Chateau. Reports on the progress of the attack vary considerably between British and French sources. Shortly after the action commenced, the tirailleurs drove the Nassau battalion and the company of Hanoverian Yagers through the wood to the rear of the chateau, reads, for example, a description in the already-mentioned history of the Coldstream Guards.15 On the other hand, a French historian wrote about this phase of the fighting as follows: In spite of the desperate defence of the battalion of Nassau and of a company of Hanoverian carabiniers, [the French] gained a footing on the edge of the wood. They now had only to overcome 300 yards of very dense thickets . . . The enemy fell back, but only step by step, taking shelter behind every clump, firing almost point-blank, and continually turning around and resuming the offensive.16 After retreating from the wood, some of the Hanoverians and the two Nassau companies took up a new defence position in the large orchard adjoining the Chateau on its eastern side. Together with the Nassau line company already in place, they attempted to hold on to the hedge on the orchard’s southern boundary. Originally described as impenetrable, this obstacle proved vulnerable to intense musketry fire, and eventually failed to offer protection to the defenders.17 They retreated to the safety of the Hollow Way in the back of the Chateau area. The Hollow Way would later also serve the British Guards and allied troops as a refuge and staging area during the bitter fighting over possession of the orchard.18
Meanwhile, outside the south-west corner and west side of the Chateau, the Coldstream and 3rd Guards companies were heavily engaged in repelling the French attackers at that part of the Chateau grounds.19Thus, at this stage of the action at Hougoumont, the only troops to stop the French assault on the compound itself were the 400 Nassauers inside the enclosure. Those of their men posted along the southern garden wall successfully fought off the attackers in their attempts to escalade the wall and gain an entrance into the Chateau. According to the Nassau Private Leonhard:
We had hardly taken up position at the loop holes when masses of French came out of the wood, apparently all set to capture the farm, but they were too late! A shower of balls that we loosened on the French was so terrible that the grass in front was soon all covered with French corpses. Their advancing and retiring went on … but each time the French were again repelled.20
Without revealing the identity of the defenders, William Siborne described in his history of the Waterloo Campaign this critical phase of the fighting:
In the full confidence that this important post was now within their grasp, they [the French skirmishers] rushed forward at the pas de charge to force an entrance. They were instantly and fatally undeceived. A deadly fire burst forth from the loop holes and platforms along the Garden Wall . . . and laid prostrate the leading Files. Those which came up in rapid succession were staggered by the sudden and unexpected appearance of this little fortress. Not venturing upon an escalade, they were forced to take advantage of such cover as was afforded by the hedge and trees; whence they kept up a popping fire.21
An observer, Sir Augustus Frazer, commander of the Horse Artillery, wrote in a letter on 20 June of the early action around Hougoumont: The enemy had forced a Belgian battalion [actually Nassauers and Hanoverians] out of the orchard to the left of the wood, and there was a hot fire on a battalion (or four companies, I forget which) of the Guards, stationed in the buildings and behind the walled garden. 22
Colonel Frazer did not realize that in fact it was the Nassauers who had been exposed to the enemys hot fire., and who had kept the French from storming Hougoumont on its southern front.
At that point in time—it was before Wellington ordered Bulls howitzer troop to shell the French in the wood—there were no Guards units yet inside the Chateau complex. Outside, on the south-western and western sides of the enclosure, only the two light companies of the 2nd Guards Brigade were engaged in the fighting. As the howitzer fire of Bulls troop was taking effect on the enemy in the wood and adjoining fields, the 165 men of Lord Saltoun’s two 1st Guards companies were ordered to retake the orchard. 23 They were joined by the contingent of Nassauers and Hanoverians in the Hollow Way, driving the enemy from that position.24 Together with the light troops of the 2nd Guards Brigade and Hanoverians operating from the western side of the Chateau they forced the French back into, and then out of, the wood.25
The allied troops were not to enjoy their success for very long. Jerome ordered the 3600 men of his 2nd Brigade under General Soye to join the attack on Hougoumont. Under the pressure of overwhelming numbers, and to avoid becoming outflanked, the Guards and their allies on the western side of the Chateau hastily fell back and entered the buildings by the north gate. 26 These Guardsmen were, in fact, the first of their Corps on this afternoon to become part of the inside garrison. There they reinforced the 400 men of the three Nassau companies (less the casualties they had suffered in the mean time) in repelling the French attackers. Continuing the defence of the orchard were the light companies of the 1st Guards under Lord Saltoun and a detachment of Hanoverians.27
The Nassauers in the later action outside the Chateau
Regarding the three Nassau companies who had been fighting outside the enclosure, only sparse information can be found on their later participation in the Battle, some of it pure fiction. A few writers have speculated, incorrectly, that Wellington sent part of or all these troops to La Haye Sainte, to reinforce Major Barings KGL units.28 But the detachment ordered to that strongpoint was, in fact, part of Major-General von Kruses 1st Light Regiment Nassau, stationed near the centre of the allied line,29as was indeed reported by Siborne.30 Others claimed all Nassauers without exception had precipitously left the Chateau area without orders. Of the later, critical, comments the following, apparently from a British Guards officer, was particularly damning: Not only were the troops, including the whole Nassau contingent . . . driven in [by the attacking Frenchmen], but they were completely dispersed. Of the Nassau contingent . . . not a man was to be found on the ground after one o’clock. But doubts regarding the credibility of this witness are raised when he continues: ‘with the exception of one officer, who made his appearance about eight at night, after the action was over, for the purpose of asking a certificate of the loss of the colours of that corps by fire. This certificate was granted upon his presentation of the fact, and no doubt at this moment forms a conspicuous proof and document of the hard services and gallantry of that distinguished body of troops.31 Contrary to this story, the Battalion colours were never lost. They are preserved at Castle Berg, residence of the Grand Dukes of Luxembourg, dynastic successors to the Dukes of Nassau.32 As to the later engagement of the Nassauers outside detachment, it apparently remained intact as a fighting force until the end of the action around Hougoumont. Mentioned as part of a mixed contingent of 3rd Guards, KGL troops, and Brunswick sharpshooters, it helped in driving the enemy out of the orchard and into the wood after the last French attack on the post.33
Nassau Troops maintain their post inside the Chateau grounds
Some accounts of the action assert that it was on Wellington’s express orders that the entire Nassau contingent was withdrawn from Hougoumont, without word about their further part in the battle.34 In a later critique of Siborne’s history of the Waterloo campaign, the Duke himself faulted that author for not having mentioned the withdrawal of these troops from Hougoumont and their replacement by British Guards.35 But in this, as in other respects regarding the Nassauers engagement at that strongpoint, the facts had eluded him. One half of the Battalions force continued to defend it from inside the enclosure until the end of the fighting. The battle report of Captain Busgen failed to mention withdrawal orders, or, for that matter, orders of any kind received during the fighting. Busgen stated that he was never even told under whose command he was to operate. While his account is not overly detailed, it refers, for example, to the defeat, primarily by the Coldstream Guards, of the French invaders who had forced the north gate. His grenadier company supported the British by firing on the intruders from the windows of the gardener’s house, and by a counter-attack with the bayonet.36 The grenadiers later moved out of the building and joined the Nassau line companies defending the garden wall. The Coldstreamers had apparently claimed the gardener’s house as their rightful posting.37 Captain Busgen seems to have acceded to their claim in view of the already-mentioned signs of another force’s earlier presence, including infantry ammunition stored in one of the rooms.38
The memoirs of the Nassau Private Leonhard tell of at least five French assaults, the fifth being the most powerful. By that time, he wrote, the farm buildings were in flames, thereby indicating that his unit was still defending the Chateau well after three o clock, when French howitzers set fire to much of the complex. Interestingly, despite the carnage around him, Leonhard had taken note of the severe damage that musketry and cannon fire had inflicted on the hornbeam trees along the garden alley near him, and on the beautiful tall trees outside the farm.39 About the later action at the garden wall, Captain Busgen related in his report only continued musketry exchanges between the opposing sides. Due to his limited range of sight, he was unable to determine what was happening elsewhere. Afterwards, Busgens Battalion remained in the Hougoumont area. On the morning of 19 June it joined its main body, the 2nd Regiment Nassau, on the road to Nivelles.40
Why the 1st Battalion of the 2nd Nassaus was posted to Hougoumont
Several writers have engaged in speculation as to the reason for the deployment of a particular Nassau battalion at Hougoumont, far away from the rest of its regiment stationed at the eastern extremity of the allied line. One author believed that Wellington may have had reason to suspect disloyalty and so did not want this unit where it could take other Nassauers over to the enemy.41 But the Duke would not have used an unreliable unit to reinforce his British Guards. For the first line of defence in front of Hougoumont he needed, and selected, elite light infantry, such as the Hanoverian Feldjagers, who were trained in open-order fighting.42 The Nassau light infantry, having in an earlier year impressed him by its steadfastness while fighting his Peninsular army on the French side, appeared to him similarly qualified.43 These troops seemed still to be well-regarded by the Duke on the morning of Waterloo.44 When he instructed Harry Smith, General Lamberts ADC, that Lambert’s Brigade might be needed to the left of Picton’s Division, he told him he would find his old friends from the Peninsular Campaign, the Nassauers, on the extreme left of the allied line.45
It is doubtful whether Wellington would have chosen a particular Nassau unit for the Hougoumont defence. The posting of the 1st Battalion, 2nd Nassau Regiment, might have come about for the simple reason that Captain Busgen, its commander, was the most junior of the Regiment’s battalion commanders. The prospect of having to fight among foreign troops, away from the Regiment’s munitions and other supplies and subordinate to unknown commanders, made this an undesirable assignment, to be handled by the officer lowest in seniority.
Captain Busgen, however, appears also to have been a well-trusted troop commander. When, near the end of the Peninsular Campaign, the 2nd Nassau Regiment changed sides, he and his Grenadier Company formed the rearguard as the Nassauers went over to Wellingtons lines. Busgen was also commandant on one of the troopships taking the Regiment from England to the Netherlands early in 1814.46 Curiously, he owed his promotion to battalion commander to the horse of one Major von Steprodt. It had kicked the regimental commander, Colonel von Goedecke, on 12 June so severely that he had yielded command to Major Sattler, the commander of the 1st Battalion. Captain Busgen was then put in charge of the Battalion. Some writers have incorrectly stated that Busgen assumed command of the Battalion after Major Sattler was killed at Quatre Bras. In fact, Sattler lived on to become a colonel, and died in 1842.47
The Nassau Battalion incurs Wellingtons displeasure
The several tales about the Nassauers attempted or actual abandonment of their Hougoumont position, at the beginning of the Battle, seem to have originated from one source. Preserved in the diary of Sir John Malcolm, long-time friend of the Duke of Wellington, is the following entry for 24 July 1815, which relates to a conversation he had with Count Pozzo di Borgo, the Russian Tsars commissioner on Wellingtons staff:
We were a great part of the time, he [Count di Borgo] said, between the two armies, but the coolness of the Duke … is not to be described. Considerable troops of Belgians stationed at Hougoumont gave way. The Duke, turning to me, said, smiling, Voila des coquins avec qui il faut gagner une bataille. [Malcolm] was so struck with this characteristic anecdote, that I went to the Duke, and I asked him if it was true. He said Pozzo di Borgo had repeated his exact words.48
This brief episode refers, of course, to the initial retreat of the Nassauers and Hanoverians from the orchard to the Hollow Way, before an overwhelming number of French attackers. While believed to be Belgians by the Russian commissioner, to Wellington they were Nassauers, all of them, even though there were also Hanoverians falling back with their German comrades. The uniforms of the Nassau troops and of the three Hanoverian units contained some shade of green, and looked non-British in other respects. They could easily have been mistaken for a single body of infantry. Count di Borgos sparse anecdote indicates that the Duke and his companion observed the events at Hougoumont from a distance, and that Wellington’s reaction was confined to his sarcastic remark. Most notably, he himself confirmed its authenticity to a third party, Sir John Malcolm. Absent is the high drama from later tales of the Nassauers alleged infamous conduct. The tone of Wellingtons remark leaves no doubt that, for some reason, he was not too well-disposed towards the retreating troops.
A clue to Wellington’s displeasure may be found in the positioning of the Nassau contingent in the Chateau area. He apparently had not been informed of the fact that, around ten o’clock in the morning, his British Guards had been told to hand over the main defence positions—the buildings, the garden, and the orchard— to the Nassau Battalion.49 On an inspection ride with his Military Secretary, Lieutenant-Colonel Lord Fitzroy Somerset, he met the light companies of the 1st Guards on their way from the orchard to the main line. When discovering from their Commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Lord Saltoun, the ordered replacement of his units by the Nassauers, Wellington expressed surprise, and said he was not aware of such an order.50 Apparently, his own plans had called for the Nassau Battalion to take up position in the wood and adjoining terrain in front of Hougoumont, and not in the Chateau complex itself.
The order for the posting of the Nassauers came from the Duke’s First Corps Commander, Prince William of Orange, as recorded in the battle report of the 2nd Netherlands Division:
At nine o clock His Royal Highness ordered 800 men of the Division to be despatched to strengthen the right wing, for which the 1st Battalion of the 2nd Regiment Light Infantry Nassau was told off. This battalion, under command of Captain Buschen [sic], took possession of the farmhouse of Hougoumont. . . and by this proceeding covered the front of the right wing of the army.51
Wellington’s subordinate may have misinterpreted his instructions for the deployment of a Nassau battalion at Hougoumont. The Prince assigned to the Nassauers an important role in the defence of the Chateau, possibly in his desire to reap greater glory for the Netherlands Army. This sentiment seems reflected at another place in the 2nd Division report:
This [18 June] had been as glorious a day for the Division as the 16th . . . It was owing to the heroism of the Netherlanders on the 16th that the Corps gained the distinction of being placed, on the 18th, on the two most important points of the army, namely, in the centre and at both extremities of the wings.52
Considering Wellingtons well-known resentment of any independent action by subordinate commanders, he would hardly have tolerated the peremptory dislodging, by a junior officer, of his British Guards from their original defence positions at the Chateau. The Princes higher social rank and the pressure of events may have kept the Duke from taking further action. It seems, however, that he vented his irritation over the affront on the hapless Nassauers. Upon seeing them driven out of the orchard, his sarcastic remark had that extra edge of personal resentment: Voila des coquins!
Significantly, the Duke many years later had not yet forgotten the incident, nor the Netherlands connection. As already mentioned, at the age of seventy-five he took issue, in a Memorandum in his own hand and with his own underlining, with several perceived flaws in William Siborne’s history of the Waterloo Campaign. One of Wellington’s major points runs thus: It is well known that the Nassau Dutch troops were withdrawn from Hougoumont and relieved by British Guards. Neither the fact nor the reason is stated.53
On more than one occasion, Wellington had been faced with some of his troops taking to their heels. Quatre Bras had seen such incidents. Why he so enduringly remembered the brief and, for the outcome of the action, inconsequential retreat of part of the Nassau Battalion from the Hougoumont orchard, may at least in part be explained by its unplanned and unexpected displacement of his Guards at the Chateau, on the morning of Waterloo.
The various reports and anecdotes about the Nassauers’ conduct
The Dukes sometimes-casual treatment of the facts when talking about past events in congenial company obviously contributed to the different versions of his encounter with the Nassau troops at Hougoumont (see Appendix). According to one diarist, those troops were about to flee well before the Battle had started. Others, however, had heard Wellington say that the Nassauers fled immediately after the fighting had begun. In one version, theirs was an entire brigade defending the orchard, in others a battalion posted in the wood of Hougoumont. In Sir John Malcolm’s account, verified by Wellington, it was Pozzo di Borgo to whom a scathing remark was addressed. But according to another of the Dukes interlocutors, he had made that same comment to the whole Diplomatic Corps in his entourage, whereas still others claimed that it was made to the Austrian General Baron Vincent. In this last version, it was Vincent who used the epithet coquins for the fleeing troops. That was said to have been part of the Barons response when alerted by the Duke to some of those men shooting at them. But this supposedly outraged witness failed to spread word about the incident among the Dukes company. The severest criticism that emanated from this group was that the Nassauers had left Hougoumont without orders. In rebuttal of this allegation, the highest-ranking Nassau officer, Major-General von Kruse, pointed out in his report to the B rittische General-Staab:
The story spread by the Spanish General Alava and then repeated by several writers that the Nassau battalion had abandoned the Ferme Hougoumont is not true. It may have had its origin in the fact that the battalion colours were returned [to the main body] at the beginning of the action. The Commander felt unable to provide for their security in view of the expected dispersed order of fighting.54
The Duke—Target of Friendly fire
Why the firing at him by his own troops remained a topic in the Dukes conversations over the years must stay a matter of speculation. At Waterloo he was exposed to a hail of bullets and artillery projectiles. He survived this unscathed while left and right of him staff officers and adjutants were killed or wounded. But this kind of danger was impersonal, and not the stuff of anecdotes. The theme of soldiers from a friendly force taking aim at him offered a more acute and dramatic illustration of the dangers that he had personally faced. It also led his listeners to contemplate once again the Dukes key role at a turning point of history, and the consequences for Europe had one of those fellows been a better shot.
Other friendly troops besides the Nassauers figured in the Dukes tales of the hazards in a commanders life. According to Lady Shelleys diary:
He [Wellington] told me that at one time he was galloping alone in the rear of the British line, having despatched all his aides-de-camp on errands, when suddenly the Belgians opened fire on him. Without drawing rein, he sent off a Sardinian officer who happened to be near him. Dites-leur, said the Duke, que je suis le Commandant en Chef. This had of course the desired effect.55
But considering the Dukes obvious ill-feeling towards the Nassau troops at Hougoumont, it was little wonder that they figured prominently in the stories of his exposure to friendly fire. To his listeners, their alleged behaviour provided a prime example of the kind of troops in his infamous army with whom he had to win the Battle. If true, the following incident might have reinforced Wellington’s suspicions of their trustworthiness.
During the heat of the battle, the Duke was about to pass in front of a Nassau square, the troops composing which had served Napoleon, when some of his staff requested His Grace to pass by its rear: had he rode along the front, the simple process of pulling a single trigger might have blasted
all our expectations, and injured the cause of Europe more than did the whole efforts of Napoleon and his army.
The arms, clothing, and general bearing of the Nassau-men were truly French: their splendid rifle-green uniforms, broad buff cross-belts, handsome white cap and tall black plume, produced a martial and imposing appearance.56
But whatever the circumstances that led to the tales of trigger-happy Nassauers, coming from the Duke himself they gained the status of historical fact, and were preserved as such by eminent biographers of Wellington and historians of the Great Battle.
Wellington’s Experience with the Nassauers at Hougoumont as Reported by six of his contemporaries
Sir John Malcolm—24 July 1815:
‘We were a great part of the time,’ he [Count Pozzo di Borgo] said, ‘between the two armies, but the coolness of the Duke,’ he added, ‘is not to be described. Considerable troops of Belgians [sic] stationed at Hougoumont gave way. The Duke, turning to me, said, smiling, “Voila des coquins avec qui il faut gagner une bataille”.’ I was so struck with this characteristic anecdote, that I went to the Duke, and asked him if it was true. He said Pozzo di Borgo had repeated his exact words.
- Malcolm, The Life and Correspondence of Major-General Sir John Malcolm, ed. J. W. Kaye (2 vols, London, 1856), ii, 102.
He [Wellington] said he had not above sixteen or eighteen thousand British infantry at Waterloo; that he started with the very worst army that was ever got together; but that four or five regiments who had been in the Peninsula soon gave a tone and character to the whole army, and the result was known. The other troops under his command did very ill. The Nassaus ran away, and fired at him when he rode up to rally them.
Henry John Temple, third Viscount Palmerston, Palmerston’s Journals, Selections from Private Journals of Tours in France in 1815 and 1818 (London, 1871), pp. 13-14.
George William Chad—13 August 1821—quoting the Duke of Wellington on a visit to the battlefield:
Now look here to the left of Hougoumont. Here the old Regt of Nassau troops ran away; & I went to meet them & rally them, & by God they were so frightened, they fired upon us.
The Conversations of the First Duke of Wellington with George William Chad, ed. the seventh Duke of Wellington (Cambridge, 1956), p. 4.
Samuel Rogers—no date—quoting the Duke of Wellington:
Very early in the day the Nassau Brigade were shifting their ground from an orchard; and when I remonstrated with them, they said in their excuse that the French were in such force near them. It was of no purpose that I pointed to our Guards on the right. It would not do; and so bewildered were they, that they sent a few shots after me as I rode off. ‘And with these men,’ I said to the Corps Diplomatique who were with me, ‘And with these men I am to win the battle.’ They shrugged their shoulders.
How did they behave in the action? Well enough; and it should be remembered that, as they had never served with us, we had not acquired their confidence. They had come over to us at Bayonne, having formed the rear-guard of the French army in Spain; and knowing as they now did, that Bonaparte was in the field, their dread of him must have borne some proportion to the courage with which he had formerly inspired them.
Samuel Rogers, Recollections by Samuel Rogers, ed. W. Sharpe (Boston, 1859), pp. 233-4.
Earl of Ellesmere—in notes dated 1837:
These troops [Nassau infantry] had been acting with Soult’s rear-guard, and had distinguished themselves on all occasions. At Waterloo the Duke placed them in the wood of Hougoumont, but there their courage failed them, and they fled at the first onset, leaving heavy work to be done by the Foot-Guards. The Duke, when he saw them run, turned to the Austrian General Vincent, and said, ‘Do you see those fellows run? Well, it is with these that I must win the battle, and such as these.’
Francis, first Earl of Ellesmere, Personal Reminiscences of the Duke of Wellington, ed. Alice, Countess of Stafford (London, 1903), p. 157.
Earl of Stanhope—18 March 1840:
The Duke adverted to the Nassau troops, who fled at the first fire. Yet these were the same troops who formed the rear of the French after Vitoriaand behaved extremely well. ‘They afterwards came over to us, and I sent them to England. The next thing I saw of them was running off at Waterloo, and what is more, firing upon us as they ran. I pointed them out to General Vincent, who said, “Jamais je n’ai vu de tels coquins!” My answer was, “Mais enfin, c’est avec ces Messieurs la qu’il faut que nous gagnions la bataille!”.’
Philip Henry, fifth Earl of Stanhope, Notes of Conversations with the Duke of Wellington 1831-1851 (World’s Classics edn, Oxford, 1938), p. 221.
1 George Hooper, Waterloo (London, 1862), p. 189.
2 Jac Weller, Wellington at Waterloo (New York, 1967), p. 88.
3 Maj. Moritz Büsgen, ‘Relation liber den Antheil welchen das 1. Bataillon das Herzoglichen 2. Regiments an dem Tage des 18ten Juni wahrend seiner Detachirung vom Regiment an der Schlacht von Waterloo genommen hat’ (Report on the Participation of the 1st Bn of the 2nd Ducal Regiment on 18 June in the Battle of Waterloo during its detachment from the Regiment), MS. No. 202/1015, Hessisches Hauptstaatsarchiv Wiesbaden [Büsgen MS.]. The ‘Relation’, dated 17 Dec. 1835, had been requested by the Nassau Generalcommando and was apparently to be used in a summary report on the part of the Nassau troops in the Battle of Waterloo. The latter report, prepared by Maj-Gen. von Kruse and dated 7 Jan. 1836, was sent to the Hanoverian Capt. Benne, who had made a request for it on behalf of the British Commander-in-Chief. This report may be identical with a report on the Nassauers carrying the hand-written comment ‘From an unknown K.G.L. Officer’ among William Siborne’s unpublished materials. See D. Hamilton-Williams, ‘Captain William Siborne’, JSAHR 66 (1988), 78.
4 ‘Report of the 1st Hanoverian Brigade’, in Julius von Pflugk-Harttung (ed.), Belle Alliance— Verbundetes Heer (Berlin, 1915), p. 77. The editor had collected documents from archives of German states whose troops had participated at Waterloo in Wellington’s Army.
5 Büsgen MS
6 W. Siborne, The Waterloo Campaign 1815 (4th edn, Birmingham, 1894), p. 374.
7 Büsgen MS
9 J. Paget and D. Saunders, Hougoumont (London, 1992), p. 31.
10 Weller, Wellington at Waterloo, p. 88.
11 Hooper, Waterloo, p. 192.
12 D. MacKinnon, Origin and Services of the Coldstream Guards (2 vols, London, 1833), ii, 215. The author is grateful to Philip Haythornthwaite for information on this source and for other valuable suggestions relating to the action at Hougoumont.
13 Büsgen MS
14 Cited in P. Wacker, Das herzoglich-nassauische Militar 1813-1816 (Taunusstein, 1998), p. 118.
15 MacKinnon, Services of the Coldstream Guards, ii, 216.
16 H. Houssaye, 1815 Waterloo (London, 1900), p. 188.
17 P. Haythornthwaite, Die Hard! (London, 1996), p. 221.
18 Paget and Saunders, Hougoumont, pp. 39 and 50.
19 E. Cotton, ,4 Voice from Waterloo (Brussels, 1849), p. 48.
20 Wacker, Das herzoglich-nassauische Militar, p. 125.
21 Siborne, Waterloo Campaign, p. 379.
22 Cited in D. Hamilton-Williams, Waterloo—New Perspectives (New York, 1994), p. 279.
23 Paget and Saunders, Hougoumont, pp. 39 and 100.
24 A. Schmidtborn, Antheil der Herzoglich-Nassauischen Truppen in den Kdmpfen des 16., 17. und 18. Juni 1815 (Wiesbaden, 1865), p. 24
25 Siborne, Waterloo Campaign, p. 379
26 Cotton, Voice from Waterloo, p. 48.
27 Paget and Saunders, Hougoumont, p. 41.
For example Weller, Wellington at Waterloo, pp. 106 and 116
29 Pflugk-Harttung, Belle Alliance., p. 198
30 Siborne, Waterloo Campaign, p. 459.
31 W’, ‘More reminiscences of Waterloo: the defence of Hougoumont’., United Service Journal,
July 1836, ii, 354. Italics as in original. Philip Haythornthwaite kindly provided a copy of the original
32 The author is indebted to Peter Wacker for information on the fate of the colours of the 2nd
Nassau Regiment. See P. Wacker, Herzogtum Nassau, Infanterie-Fahnen 1806-1866 (Berlin, 1968).
33 Siborne, Waterloo Campaign, pp. 486-7; Cotton, Voice from Waterloo, p. 99; Hooper, Waterloo, p. 227.
34 For example W. Seymour, ‘The Anglo-Allied Army’, Waterloo—Battle of Three Armies, ed. Lord
A. G. J. Chalfont (New York, 1980), p. 88; Paget and Saunders, Hougoumont, p. 40.
35 Cited in Francis, first Earl of Ellesmere, Personal Reminiscences of the Duke of Wellington, ed.
Alice, Countess of Stafford (London, 1903), p. 207.
36 Büsgen MS.; Schmidtborn, Antheil der Herzoglich-Nassauischen Truppen, p. 25.
37 W. Isenbart, Geschichte des Herzoglich Nassauischen 2. Infanterie Regiments (Berlin, 1903), p. 158.
38 Büsgen MS.
39 Wacker, Das herzoglich-nassauische Militdr, pp. 126-7.
40 Büsgen MS.
41 Weller, Wellington at Waterloo, p. 79 n. 2.
42 Ellesmere, Personal Reminiscences, p. 157.
43 Philip Henry, fifth Earl of Stanhope, Notes of Conversations with the Duke of Wellington,
1831-1851 (Oxford, 1938), p. 221.
44 Harry Smith, The Autobiography of Lieutenant-General Sir Harry Smith (2 vols, London, 1901),
45 Ellesmere, Personal Reminiscences, pp. 183-4.
46 Wacker, Das herzoglich-nassauische Militdr, pp. 34, 486
47 Wacker, Das herzoglich-nassauische Militdr, pp. 903 465.
48 J. Malcolm, The Life and Correspondence of Major-General Sir John Malcolm (2 vols, London, 1856), ii, 102.
49 MacKinnon, Services of the Coldstream Guards, ii, 215
50 ‘Paget and Saunders, Hougoumont, pp. 31-2.
51 D. Boulger, The Belgians at Waterloo (London, 1901), App. p. 60.
52 Boulger, Belgians at Waterloo, p. 65.
53 Ellesmere3 Personal Reminiscences, p. 207
54 Pflugk-Harttung, Belle Alliance, p. 205.
55 The Diary of Frances Lady Shelley 1787-1817, ed. Richard Edgcumbe (London, 1912), pp. 96-7. Wellington was probably aware that Prince Wilhelm of Nassau-Weilburg on his staff was a close friend of Lady Shelley, and may have felt it unwise to blame her friend’s countrymen for the abject deed. In later years she reminisced about the Prince’s ‘chivalrous devotion—for he was in those days [July 1815] my most active attendant’. See The Diary of Frances Lady Shelley 1818-1873, ed. Richard Edgcumbe (London, 1913), p. 322.
56 Cotton, Voice from Waterloo, pp. 255-6. The troops belonged to the 1st Nassau Regt which fought in Lt-Gen. Allen’s 3rd Division sector. Their commander ordered the white covers removed from the caps at about 3 o’clock because they seemed to attract the enemy’s fire. See Wacker, Das herzoglich-nassauische Militar, pp. 132-3.