Military Subjects: Battles & Campaigns

Chassé's Division at Waterloo: Two Eye-witness Accounts

By Bas de Groot

In the ongoing debate about the battle of Waterloo, one of the many points of discussion is the conduct, placement and actions of the 3rd Dutch-Belgian Division in Wellington's army, commanded by General Chassé. Most notable in this debate is the part the division played (or, according to some, did not play) in the repulse of the French Imperial Guard during the final stages of the battle. Chassé’s own after-action report, reproduced in F. de Bas’s La Campagne de 1815, is rarely involved in the debate, the reports of his Chief of Staff and Colonel Detmers (commanding his 1st Brigade) almost never. Many authors tend to stick to British, Hanoverian, and French memoirs when writing about this subject, which are in ample supply. Dutch memoirs on the subject are scarce. Recently, however, two Dutch memoirs have surfaced. In this article, I will use both these eye-witness accounts in order to give an impression of the role that Chassé’s Division played in the repulse of the Imperial Guard.

The First Account

The first account was written by Jan Willem van Wetering (1789-1859). Van Wetering joined the Batavian army in 1803 in the 1st Battalion of the 4th "Halve Brigade" (Demi-Brigade), which in time became the 9th Regiment of the Kingdom of Holland. By that time van Wetering had been promoted to corporal. The 9th was renumbered as the 5th in 1809[i], but was incorporated into the 126eme Regiment d'Infanterie de Ligne (126eme de Ligne) less than a year later. As a sergeant of the 126eme de Ligne and part of Victor's IX Corps van Wetering went into Russia. During the retreat the remnants of his battalion took part in the rearguard action at Borisov only to have their divisional commander, General Pantouneau, surrender himself and all the troops under his command a few days later. After being marched to the Russian hinterland as a prisoner of war, van Wetering with many of his fellow Dutch prisoners joined the Russo-German Legion. With the Legion, he fought in many of the actions in the 1813 and 1814 campaigns. After the dissolution of the Legion at the end of 1814, he joined the Dutch army and was posted as a sergeant with the Bataljon Nationale Militie No. 4 (4th Dutch Militia battalion). During the Campaign of the 100 Days, this battalion  formed part of Colonel Detmers' 1st Brigade of the 3rd Division.

Van Wetering took part in the 1805 expedition of Marmont into Germany and Tyrol, the 1806-1807 campaigns in northern Germany as part of VIII Corps under Marmont and Mortier, the 1809 campaign in northern Germany as part of X Corps under Jerome Bonaparte, the 1809 defense of Walcheren, the 1812 Russian campaign, the late 1813 and 1814 campaigns in Germany and France and the campaign of the 100 Days. He left active service in 1848, when he was serving as a lieutenant. 

The first account starts June 17th, when the Brigade Detmers retreated from Nivelles to Braine l'Alleud:

“The march wasn't long, but the heat that day was oppressive, and the march had to be executed in quick-time. Thirst and fatigue were wide-spread within the Battalion. Staying behind, however, was not to be thought of, not even by those who were known to make occasional use of that option, as we were all afraid to fall into the hands of the enemy.

We arrived at our destination and were quartered in barns, as close to each other as possible. The 1st Flanker company[ii], of which I formed a part, was put up in a farm on the great road of Waterloo, or Brussels. All of the afternoon that road was choked with vehicles of all sorts. All who could left the scene of war. It looked much like a retreat, like there was no hope of recovery. At nightfall the Battalion was assembled and bivouacked on a height near a mill. Here the pickets were posted: a lieutenant, a sergeant, two corporals and twenty-four flankers. The post we were to take up was pointed out to us, safety required this. Even if this had not been the case, we wouldn’t have been able to sleep anyway. Because it rained heavily all through that night, we were absolutely soaked by the time we were ordered to fall in in the morning. I formed part of this picket. Once we had arrived back with the Battalion, we cooked our food, checked our muskets, discharged and reloaded them, and dried our clothes as best we could. I changed into my best set of clothes, and since I felt that something important was going to happen this day, I gave my watch and money to the wife of a sergeant in the 19th Militia Battalion. She was the wife of Sergeant van Kempen, a comrade that I'd known for several years, who had served alongside me in the Legion (he means the Russo-German Legion, BdG). His wife had endured the Russian campaign. Her first husband had died in Russia, and she had been taken prisoner on the Beresina, and had placed herself under the protection of Sergeant van Kempen. He had wed her whilst serving in the Legion. I had been present as a witness at their marriage, therefore I trusted these people, and gave her my little treasure to keep safe, on the condition that if I should fall, it was to be their property, if I was to be wounded, or escaped this campaign unscathed, they would return it to me, and if I was to be taken prisoner, they would keep it safe until I would ask for it. My testament being made, I now advanced on the enemy in good cheer.

The thunder of cannon, the rattling of musket was to be heard on all sides. We advanced and took up our station in the second Line. The first had been taken up by English and Scotch. We stood in ordre de bataille (line, BdG), our arms supported, and could do nothing. We suffered many casualties both dead and wounded, for we stood within reach of the enemy cannonballs. Because of this we had to change positions frequently, or change formation to colonne d'attaque (close column of companies, BdG) or square, to deploy en bataille (in line, BdG) again afterwards. This lasted for quite a while. The first line suffered much. We saw nothing but wounded approaching us from there. The whole line was covered in powder smoke. Our officers as well as our experienced NCO's[iii], who knew more of these situations, had to strain themselves to the limit to encourage the young soldiers, who had never seen battle before, by pointing out to them our brave crown prince and other commanders who galloped up and down the frontline through a hail of bullets, and risked their lives for the fatherland. Because I was in charge of the distribution of provisions (we only had two NCO's present with the company at that time, the sergeant-major having been sent back with the administration, the quartermaster-sergeant being sick, another sergeant having the duty of orderly on the staff of General Chassé, having been sent back to his company, never arriving, and the other sergeant being employed with the battalion quartermaster), I still had some small distribution barrels of jenever with me in reserve. I now served each man a ration. This somewhat encouraged our men.

We were still standing in order of battle with supported arms. I stood, as senior sergeant or executive NCO, behind the Captain. The blade of the Captain's sabre was shot through just above the hilt. He thought he was injured, and retired behind the lines. I stepped up to take his place. At that moment, Corporal Nitering on my left, was shot through the arm, which had to be amputated later on. This bullet also hit the man behind him, and killed him. The Captain retook his post, and we suffered many more casualties in this position.

While we stood here, Adjutant Gerritsen got a message, stating that his wife, cantinière and washerwoman of the company, had given birth to a son. The Captain sent her husband to her, ordering him to stay with his wife, but he couldn't find her. She, in the meanwhile, had arrived, with the newborn in her lap, at our position, looking for her husband. Not being able to find him, she thought, notwithstanding the Captain's assurance that he had sent him back, that her husband had been killed or wounded. It took us some trouble to remove her from the battlefield. The next day she rejoined the company on the march.

The firing began to grow heavier around us. We advanced to the frontline and took part in the fighting. This lasted for quite a while, until the much wished-for "Forward" was heard. Captain de Rechteren van Hemert[iv] received orders to advance speedily with his company of flankers, and press the enemy hard. We started skirmishing and took many prisoners. We ran into an enemy battery of 4 pieces. Some of the artillerymen were killed or wounded by us, and we took two guns.

What the battlefield looked like, I probably won't have to explain, because it had been fought over bitterly throughout the entire day. Thousands of dead and wounded covered the battlefield. The rain that had fallen the night before added its awful part. In some places, we were forced to walk ankle-deep through puddles of blood mixed with rainwater. We pursued the French until the paved road to Jemappe. There our Brigade Commander, Colonel Ditmers, caught up with us and ordered our Captain to halt and prepare our bivouac. He asked the Captain to relate to us his satisfaction with our behaviour, especially while skirmishing, and that he would give notice of this to the General commanding our Division.

By this road there stood a farmhouse. This had been converted into an ambulance, and was filled with wounded. A fire broke out here that night, and the whole building was soon consumed by the fire. (Oh those poor wounded.)”

The Second Account

The second account was written by Johannus C. F. Koch (1784-1865). Koch also joined the Batavian army in 1803, albeit in one of its foreign Regiments, the 1st Regiment of Waldeck. This Regiment was in 1806 incorporated into the 2nd Regiment of the Kingdom of Holland, Koch being posted with the 1st Battalion as a corporal. His company commander at that time was a Captain Groenia, who would eventually command a battalion of the 75eme de Ligne during the Battle of Waterloo as part of Lobau's VI Corps, detached with Grouchy’s wing[v]. Koch’s battalion of the 2nd Regiment went into Spain as part of Chassé's Dutch Brigade in 1808, and was incorporated into the 123eme de Ligne of the French Army 2 years later. Koch was promoted to sergeant in 1811, in which year the remains of battalions of the 123eme de Ligne which served in Spain were transferred to the fourth battalion of the 130eme de Ligne. In 1813, due to vacancies, Koch was rapidly promoted to sous-lieutenant and lieutenant. In July 1814 Koch and all the remaining Dutchmen and Germans of the old 2nd Regiment of the Kingdom of Holland were discharged from French service and went back to the Netherlands. There, Koch was quickly posted as a lieutenant with the Bataljon Nationale Militie No. 19. This battalion was renumbered to Bataljon Nationale Militie No. 17 in April 1815, by which time Koch was also the battalion's adjutant. During the Campaign of the 100 Days, this battalion  formed part of Colonel Detmers' 1st Brigade of the 3rd Division.

Koch took part in the 1805 expedition of Marmont into Germany and Tyrol, the 1806-1808 campaigns in northern Germany as part of VIII Corps under Marmont and Mortier, and served in Spain between 1808 and 1814, where he took part in the battles of Durango, Talavera, Ocaña, Almonacid, the Pyrenees and the Nive. He served during the campaign of the 100 Days and left active service in 1844 as a major. In 1848 he was promoted to lieutenant-colonel and served as Governor of the National Home for Military Invalids in Leiden. In the course of his military life he was made Knight 4th Class in the Dutch Military Order of William and Knight of the Netherlands Lion, and received The Sabre of Honour for the taking of Stralsund, the Dutch Metal Cross, and the St Helena Medal.

The second account also starts on June 17th:

“On the morrow of June 17th, we received orders to advance again; We marched through Nivelles again and positioned ourselves on a height north of the town, which we quitted again in the afternoon, so as to take post on the main road to Brussels.

When we had left Nivelles, I found myself a little in the rear of the column trying to persuade a drunken sapper of our battalion to advance with the rest of us; as I was doing so, I suddenly noticed four French chasseurs very close to me, spurred on my horse and left the sapper to his fate. The chasseurs were polite enough not to shoot at me.

On the night of the 17th, we experienced very heavy weather, with heavy rainfall, showers, which drenched the ground so thoroughly that we, who were beside the road in a cornfield, had to stamp down the corn and stand on that, so as not to sink into the mud.

That night we marched to the village Braine l’Alleud where we encountered the French, without either of the parties being able to fire a single shot, because our muskets were completely soaked. At night we bivouacked on a height near the village under our piled arms on a handful of straw; as I had posted our flank company as skirmishers in the direction of Quatre-Bras, I only arrived in the bivouac around midnight, where Drum-major Swick had saved me 2 bundles of straw, on which I slept peacefully until daybreak.

In the early morning of the 18th we started to get our weapons in working order to be able to resist the enemy; around 10 o’clock our divisions were concentrated and posted on the main road to Quatre-Bras with General Chassé at their head, to await further orders.

At 11 o’clock hostilities commenced with a surprising intensity; we had, from our position, a fine view of it all, especially when the cavalry advanced across the plateau of the farm of Quatre-Bras and charged; But as the Nassauers and Brunswickers, who defended the farm, were hard pressed, and would be forced to withdraw, an English general rode up to General Chassé and transmitted an order to him. We saw our General draw his sword, and by then we knew what was coming; the General commanded ‘Forward’, we formed in colonne d’attaque, advanced to the main road in the pas-de-charge, deployed there and opened a fire by files on the enemy.

During our march to the main road my horse was shot dead under me; I left my batman with it to take off my portmanteau, saddle and bridle, which was all new, and had cost me 400 florins; he later returned to me empty handed, because the Prussians, thinking he was a thief, had beaten him up, despite his every entreaty to explain matters; I later received only 200 florins as compensation.

I knew enough from former battles to know how to get another horse when one has lost his own, and soon had found myself another, but just as I had it by the bridle, and was about to mount it, it too was shot dead and I now had no more options of finding another, for we advanced on the enemy in quick time, the Lieutenant-Colonel on the right and I on the left of the column, to keep it together, until we saw the enemy looming before us like a mountain; Seeing them, I called out to the Commander “What is to become of us?”, to which he laconically replied: “Well, Forward!”, and in this direction we went; the artillery, which accompanied the column, handed the enemy a volley of grapeshot, and then we charged in with our bayonets, mounting the height; the artillery, having reloaded quickly, caught up with our column; they gave the enemy another round and now the enemy began to retire, closely pursued by us; our losses were considerable; I remember a woman, who had not wanted to abandon her husband at the start of the battle, and walked by her man in his company, being shot in half, and an officer, too; a shell burst in the middle of our combined drums and fifes, so that there were almost none left; seeing this, our drum-major picked up a drum and continued beating the pas-de-charge.

Our pursuit of the French took us straight through the guns and caissons they had abandoned; I took a horse from one of the caissons, and rode it till midnight, when we halted and the pursuit of the French was handed over to the Prussians; my batman tied my horse to a tree and lay down beside it, but unfortunately by morning, it had died, so that I was left with nothing again but the clothes I wore, for my portmanteau with my spare clothes were lost with my first horse; fortunately, I found in the portmanteau that the third horse carried a pair of new nankeen trousers with gaiters and a pair of new shoes; all of which fitted me like a glove, and in this outfit I marched to Paris.

Judging by my practical experience, it appears to me that the Dutch contributed much to the victory of the battle of Waterloo, because Napoleon himself had taught us, in the preceding years, how to attack, and he was paid back with this knowledge in full; our attack was little mentioned, however.”

What to Make of These Accounts?

We can only put these accounts into their proper place if we compare them with the official accounts of General Chassé, his Chief of Staff and Colonel Detmers. First of all, however, we need to distinguish the three phases of the deployment of the 1st Brigade of Chassé’s 3rd Division, namely the advance from Braine to the battlefield proper, the advance of the Division from the second line of the Allies into the frontline, and the following fight with the advancing French Guards.

The first account mentions very few to no precise times for these specific phases. It gives no time indication for the advance from Braine to the battlefield, it only mentions that the advance took place after the battalion had had time to get fully organised, and that the battle was well underway. From this account, it is clear that the Division spent quite a long time in the second line, and that the second line of Wellington’s right flank was well in reach of the French artillery on Napoleon’s left flank, and, judging by the account, of French small arms fire as well. The second account mentions that the Division was formed and ready by 10’o clock in the morning, but gives no time as to when the Division actually took up its position in the second line. The second author speaks much less of the time spent in the second line and losses incurred there than the first, but as both authors were in two separate battalions, they may have been in different locations before their final advance to the frontline.

What both authors do agree on, is that their battalions took part in the fighting before the general advance of their Brigade which coincided with the advance and subsequent retreat of the French Middle Guard battalions. Van Wetering mentions that the 4th Militia “… advanced to the frontline and took part in the fighting. This lasted for quite a while, until the much wished-for "Forward" was heard.” Koch states that the 17th Militia “formed in colonne d’attaque, advanced to the main road in the pas-de-charge, deployed there and opened a fire by files on the enemy” before this battalion advanced on the enemy. This clearly proves that the contest was by no means over when Chassé’s men entered the fray, for, if this had been the case, a battalion salvo, or even an abstention from firing would have taken place. The deployment of a battalion in line and the act of firing by files took up precious time, and shows that the enemy was still advancing by the time Detmers’ men joined the fray. 

The official reports of Colonel Detmers and the Chief of Staff mention that first the 35th Belgian Jagers battalion, the 2nd Dutch battalion of Line infantry and Van Wetering’s 4th Dutch Militia battalion deployed into line, most probably on the left of the combined British 30th and 73rd Regiments, which are described as still in good order, and in a position in front of a Brunswick triangle-shaped, retiring square (which had on its left the Nassau battalions, which Detmers took for Jagers, since they also wore green uniforms and bell-topped shakos, much like the Dutch Jagers). Once the 6th, 17th (Koch’s battalion) and 19th Militia battalions had come up and reinforced the first three battalions, the whole Brigade advanced together[vi].

Notes:

[i] F.J.G. ten Raa, Uniformen van de Nederlandsche Zee- en Landmacht, hier te lande en in de koloniën (The Hague, 1900)

[ii] All battalions of the Netherlands army were made up of 6 companies; 4 centre companies and 2 flanker companies, which were posted on the flanks of the battalion. In effect the flankers served as a mixture of grenadiers and light infantry, taking up both roles as required. The 1st flanker company formed the right flank company, the 2nd flanker company the left flank company.

[iii] The officers, but also many of the NCOs of Dutch Militia battalions were professional soldiers and long-time servicemen, as opposed to the rank and file, who had only been called up in the autumn of 1814. 

[iv] Captain de Rechteren van Hemert was also a veteran of the Russian campaign and the Russo-German Legion.

[v] Erik Swart, ‘Subjecten en Sujetten’, Armamentaria (35, 2000) p.89-111, there 110

[vi] F. de Bas & J. de T’Serclaes de Wommersom, La campagne de 1815 aux Pays-Bas (Bruxelles, 1908) Vol. III p.366-370 & 376-378

 

Placed on the Napoleon Series: March 2008

 

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