Allan Mallinson examines the role of the Scots Greys at Waterloo. Brigadier Mallinson is well known as the author of the Matthew Hervey series of novels, chronicling the life of the fictional officer of the British 6th Light Dragoons from the Napoleonic Wars onwards.
The Scots Greys and Waterloo stand firmly together in the memory. The paintings, the Ensign, the Greys; some consider their carge the turning point of the Battle of Waterloo. They remain one of the best known aspects of the famous battle. As we commemorate 200 years since the famous showdown of 1815 we look at the guns and the horses that helped secure our victory. And for those planning something festive, see our Waterloo recipes: Braised Belgian endive among others for suitable inspiration.
Brigadier Allan Mallinson writes on the Scots Greys and the role of the cavalry at Waterloo.
SCOTS GREYS AT WATERLOO
The Duke of Wellington was never pleased with his cavalry. In Spain he condemned them for “charging at everything”, getting cut up in the process or finding themselves on a distant part of the battlefield, horses blown, at the very moment they were needed elsewhere: “They never consider the situation, never think of manoeuvring before an enemy and never keep back or provide a reserve.” So at Waterloo the Iron Duke intended to keep the mounted arm on a tight rein.
It was, after all, the first time he would actually face Napoleon in the field, and the situation was not auspicious. He had been taken by surprise. He famously learnt of the sudden appearance of the French on the border with the Southern Netherlands (now Belgium) at the Duchess of Richmond’s ball in Brussels on 15 June. “Napoleon has humbugged me, by God!” The following day his Prussian allies were worsted at Ligny. Hs own troops, rushed forward to nearby Quatre Bras, were badly mauled. He was on the back foot.
But his capacity to anticipate setbacks paid dividends. Some weeks earlier he had chosen a piece of ground on which to make a stand if the French were to come. The ridge of Mont St Jean, a mile south of the village of Waterloo athwart the main road from Charleroi to Brussels. The ridge ran north-east to south-west for about three miles, two-thirds of which Wellington was able to occupy with infantry and artillery. To support these he would post two brigades of light cavalry on the left (east) flank and three on the right. Two brigades of heavy cavalry, including the Scots Greys or, as they were then more properly known, the 2nd Royal (North British) Dragoons, would be in the centre. And to each of the cavalry brigadiers, as well as to the Earl of Uxbridge (later Marquess of Anglesey), the commander of the Allied cavalry and his second in command, Wellington gave strict instructions not to leave their positions without his express order.
The Duke was essentially a general who preferred to choose his ground, make the enemy attack him and then use the superior musketry of his infantry to defeat them. He intended Waterloo to be just such a battle. In addition, for the first time he had the benefit of a strong force of heavy cavalry inclusing the Scots Greys – bigger men, bigger swords, bigger horses – to counter the French heavy cavalry or break up an assault that threatened to overwhelm his infantry. And, indeed, the charge of these two brigades, best known perhaps for Lady (Elizabeth) Butler’s 1881 painting Scotland Forever! depicting the Scots Greys galloping wildly at the French, would be one of the critical actions of the battle, even, some argue, its turning point.
WHAT’S IN A NAME: THE FORMATION OF THE SCOTS GREYS
The Scots Greys had been formed in 1681 from a number of independent troops of dragoons (originally men who dismounted to fight with the musket, rather than fight from the saddle with sword and pistol), and known as The Royal Regiment of Scots Dragoons. The “grey” of their later title may at this time have referred to their uniform, for it was not for a dozen years that this changed to red, and there is no record that the Scots Greys used grey horses exclusively.
However, when inspected by King William III (William of Orange) in 1693 it was noted that the Scots Greys regiment were all mounted on greys. Soon afterwards they were being referred to as the “Grey Dragoons” or the “Scots Regiment of Grey Dragoons”. In 1707, after the Act of Union, they were restyled “North British”, as the parliamentary union envisaged Scotland to be. Not until 1877 would their nickname be made official. They became the 2nd Dragoons (Royal Scots Greys), inverted after the First World War to The Royal Scots Greys (2nd Dragoons). They kept this title for 50 years until amalgamating with the 3rd Carabiniers (Prince of Wales’s Dragoon Guards) to form the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards (Carabiniers and Greys).
William of Orange assumed the united thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland in 1689. However, James II was a Stuart, of that long line of Scottish kings, and in the 40 years following the Act of Union there were two serious Jacobite risings to restore the Stuarts: in 1715 after the accession of George I of Hanover and in 1745 during the reign of George II. The Scots Greys took an active part in the suppression of the 1715 rebellion and in the following decades they helped police the Highlands but in 1745 they had remained on the Continent, where the British army was fighting on the Hanoverian side in the Seven Years War. Thereafter the regiment saw no action until the ill-fated campaign in the Low Countries from 1793 to 1795, early in the French Revolutionary Wars; neither did they fight in the Peninsular War. However, when Napoleon escaped from Elba at the end of February 1815 to begin his “Hundred Days”, the ill-starred attempt to retake the French crown and continue his imperial ambitions, the Greys were one of a number of regiments rushed to Belgium that had yet to fight “Napoleonic” troops. Indeed, by the time of Waterloo few Scots Greys had seen battle – and they were keen to make up for it.
THE SCOTS GREYS AND THE BATTLE OF WATERLOO
Their moment came in the early afternoon of 18 June, when it looked as if Wellington’s line at Waterloo would break. The Comte d’Erlon’s corps of three infantry divisions, some 14,000 men, with 6,000 cavalry, assaulted the Allied left wing and centre, which was held by Dutch-Belgian brigades and Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Picton’s 5th Division, the latter experienced Peninsular troops.
As d’Erlon’s men ascended the slope towards the sunken road that ran the length of the ridge left of La Haye Sainte, driving back the British skirmishers and reaching the thick hedge that fringed the road, Picton’s men stood up, formed into a four-deep line to guard against cavalry attack, advanced and began volleying.
However, the French deployed unusually quickly into line and returned fire. Picton himself was killed after ordering a counter-attack in language profane even by his own legendary standards, and soon his troops were giving way under the pressure of numbers. At two o’clock Napoleon appeared to be winning the Battle of Waterloo.
But Lieutenant-General the Earl of Uxbridge was a cavalry commander of genius. Earlier estranged from Wellington on account of eloping with the Duke’s youngest brother’s wife, he had been disbarred from service in the Peninsula after brilliantly covering Sir John Moore’s gruelling retreat to Corunna. But his cavalry coup d’oeil had not deserted him, nor his moral courage. Despite the Duke’s orders that none of the cavalry was to quit the ground it had been posted on without his express will, Uxbridge ordered his two brigades – the Household Brigade (1st and 2nd Life Guards, Royal Horse Guards and 1st (King’s) Dragoon Guards) and the Union Brigade, so-called for its English, Scots and Irish regiments (1st Royal Dragoons, 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons, and the Scots Greys) – to charge in support of the hard-pressed infantry.
With a combined strength of nearly 2,500 sabres and led by Uxbridge, the heavies advanced. The Household Brigade was first into the charge, sweeping back the cuirassiers guarding d’Erlon’s left flank. To the House-hold’s left the Union Brigade surged through the lines of red-coated infantry in the sunken road, where some Gordon Highlanders grasped their stirrups to get at the French, and at the foot of the slope routed the two advanced infantry brigades of General Joachim Quiot’s division, the Royals, capturing the eagle of the 105th Ligne while Sergeant Ewart of the Greys, 6ft 4in tall and a master swordsman and rider, captured the eagle of the 45th Ligne. Only two eagles were captured that day.
As with the Household, however, the officers of the Union Brigade were finding it difficult to rein in their troops, and the heavies lost all cohesion. With many casualties and still trying to reorder, the Greys now found themselves before the main French lines, their horses blown, though some galloped on to attack the guns of the Grande Batterie. This was too much for Napoleon, who had hitherto left the conduct of the battle to Marshal Michel Ney. He promptly ordered a counter-attack by two cuirassier brigades and Baron Jacquinot’s two Polish lancer regiments (a charge also painted by Lady Butler). As Major-General Sir William Ponsonby tried to rally his brigade he was captured by Jacquinot’s men, whereupon several Greys galloped to their brigadier’s rescue but the lancers at once killed him and three of his would-be rescuers, who could do nothing to overcome the lance’s reach. The rest of the heavies might also have been speared or sabred had it not been for a counter-charge by Major-General Sir John Vandeleur’s light dragoon brigade and two of Dutch-Belgians from the left flank, who had also disobeyed Wellington’s orders to stay put.
The charge saved the remnants of the Household and Union brigades but their casualties had been heavy, including the Greys’ lieutenant-colonel, James Hamilton, who was killed. The official recorded losses for both brigades that day were 1,205 troopers and 1,303 horses, an extremely high proportion.
However, 14,000 French troops of D’Erlon’s corps had been committed to the attack on the Allied centre at a cost of some 3,000 casualties and irrecoverable time. It was four o’clock before they were ready to advance again, by when, with the Allied line holding along the ridge and Prussian troops beginning to arrive on the field from the east, it was be-coming clear that Napoleon had lost the battle, although there would be another two hours of increasingly desperate, bloody but futile French attacks before Wellington judged it the moment to signal the whole line to advance.
The Scots Greys would later incorporate the image of the captured eagle in their cap badge, and Sergeant Ewart would be commissioned as an ensign (second lieutenant) in the 5th Veteran Battalion of Infantry. The following year he was invited to a Waterloo dinner in Edinburgh, where Sir Walter Scott asked him to speak. But Ensign Ewart begged that he might be excused, saying, “I would rather fight the Battle of Waterloo over again than face so large an assemblage.”
Allan Mallinson’s latest Matthew Hervey novel, Words of Command, set in the Duke of Wellington’s cavalry, is published by Bantam, £19.