By Bob Elmer
Warring in the Peninsula with an army much smaller than that of the French, the British always had to take care to maintain an escape route to the sea. In the winter of 1808-9, attacked by an overwhelmingly force, Sir John Moore, Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in the Peninsula, just saved his army - and at the expense of his own life - by a precipitous retreat on Corunna.
This was a lesson Wellington learned well, and when he took command in the Peninsula, he ensured that he could retreat on Lisbon. For the winter of 1810-11 he went so far as to turn Lisbon into a fortress - the Lines of Torres Vedras - leaving Massena's army starving in the virtual desert outside.
But 1815 found Wellington in command in Belgium, and in a very different situation. Headquartered in Brussels, he was a long way from the sea. His only ally was still further to the east; and the French were coming from Paris, from the south-west.
Wellington realised that Napoleon would want to separate him from Blucher's Prussians. But knowing Napoleon's skill at out-manoeuvering enemies, Wellington thought he would attempt to do so by advancing between the British and the sea. This would force Wellington to move westwards to maintain his line of communication, and Blucher, with his own base far to the east, would not dare to follow.
Consequently, Wellington was convinced that the French attack would come through Mons, south-east of Brussels, and he was very reluctant to accept that the French incursion at Charleroi was anything but a feint to disguise the real attack. 
A glance at a map shows that Wellington's concerns were in no way unfounded: Paris is well to the south-east of Brussels, and a northerly thrust could well separate Brussels from the North Sea ports.
Even when he knew that it was Napoleon's main army that was attacking from due south, through Charleroi, directly towards Brussels, Wellington's fear of being cut off from the sea persisted. So, in his troop dispositions at Waterloo, Wellington continued to defend against the possibility of an outflanking movement. This was most apparent in his positioning 14,000 men at Hal, well to the west of the battlefield. But it also showed on the field of Mont Saint-Jean itself.
In spite of Napoleon repulsing the Prussians at Ligny, Wellington still relied upon and expected Blucher to bring his army to Waterloo from Wavre, east of the battlefield.  Consequently, he left the eastern end of his line relatively weak, and placed his most reliable troops at the western end.
The importance of the walled farm of Hougoumont, lying in front of the western end of the Allied lines was emphasised by the elite troops that Wellington assigned to its defence - just in time to prevent the French occupying it on the night before the battle. Napoleon had also recognised its importance.
On the day of the battle, the light company of the 2nd Battalion of the Coldstream Guards defended the interior of Hougoumont: the château and the farm. On the eastern side of the buildings was a walled Formal Garden. This, and all the immediately surrounding ground was defended by the light company of the 2nd Battalion of the 3rd Guards. Beyond the garden was an orchard, surrounded by a hedge, and this was defended by the two light companies of the 1st Guards. South of the farm, facing the French, was a small wood, and this was defended by Nassauers and Hanoverians.
The troops had spent all night converting the farm into a fortress. The wall around the garden already had some loopholes from many years past,  and others were added. Loopholes were also made high in the walls of the outer buildings, and the south-facing gate was barricaded.
So, as 18th June dawned, Hougoumont was ready: prepared, and defended by some of Wellington's very best troops.
The allied forces were decidedly weak compared with the veterans of the French. Only half of the 24 thousand British troops had previously been in action. The 61/2 thousand of the King's German Legion were dependable, but some of the Dutch and Belgian troops had previously fought for Napoleon, and were of doubtful loyalty.
Wellington desperately needed the aid of Blucher's Prussians, who were still on their way from Wavre. Fortunately, Napoleon again acted uncharacteristically. Instead of taking the early initiative, he delayed starting the battle until the ground had dried out sufficiently for his guns to be moved.
When, at about half past eleven, Napoleon finally decided to open hostilities, Wellington must have thought his concerns justified, because the initial attack was indeed on the western end of the allied line: at Hougoumont.
Napoleon ordered General Reille to attack the walled farm, essentially as a feint, in the hope of persuading Wellington to reinforce that end of his line at the expense of his centre.
Reille put Napoleon's brother, Prince Jerome, in charge of the attack, with six thousand line infantry. Jerome sent his skirmishers into the small wood facing the south of Hougoumont. The Nassauers and Hanoverians defended well, but they were forced out of the wood and took cover in the orchard, east of the farm and the garden.
Jerome's men must have thought they were making good progress, but they were now faced with 30 yards of open ground between the wood and the buildings; and as soon as they broke cover, they faced devastating fire from the defenders, protected by the walls. Despite courageous attempts to close on the south gate, the attack on the building failed.
The French followed the Nassauers and Hanoverians into the orchard, and continued to drive them back; but the Light Companies of the First Guards came to their support, and drove the French out of the orchard and back into the wood. The first French attack had been rebuffed.
Napoleon's 'diversion' had been attempted; Hougoumont still stood, and Wellington had not weakened his centre. That should have been the end of it, but Jerome was a Bonaparte.
He now decided to do what Napoleon hadn't done, and outflank his enemy. This time, while continuing the attack from the wood, he also sent his 1st Light Regiment to attack from the west, and some light cavalry were sent to circle right around and attack from the north.
The French 1st Light Regiment was opposed by about a hundred men of the Light Company of the 3rd Guards, and drove them back along the west wall of the farm. Arriving at the north-west corner of the farm, the British troops saw the North Gate still open and rushed inside; closely followed by the French. 
Thirty or so French troops succeeded in entering the gates before officers and men of the Coldstream and 3rd Guards, led by Colonel Macdonnel, the commanding officer in Hougoumont, forced the gates shut and barred them. The French troops who had entered were trapped and outnumbered, and all were despatched. 
Three companies of the 2nd Battalion of the Coldstream Guards, who had been held in reserve behind Hougoumont, were sent to repulse those French who had reached the north side of the farm. They drove them along the west side of the farm and back into the wood.
The North Gates were closed, Jerome's second attack had very narrowly failed. Wellington later said, "The success of the Battle of Waterloo turned on the closing of the gates."
Jerome was nothing if not determined; and he quickly mounted another assault, at about midday.
This time he decide to try to outflank the farm on its eastern side, through the orchard, and perhaps again try to enter via the north gates.
The French troops advanced out of the wood and into the orchard, where they came under the fire of Coldstream Guards along the wall of the Formal Garden.
Two companies of the 3rd Guards then attacked the French from their front, and re-occupied the orchard, driving the enemy back into the wood.
Jerome's third attack had been beaten off.
Napoleon's usual practice was to hammer the enemy with his artillery before attempting an infantry attack; and now, belatedly, Jerome followed his example.
Jerome had a howitzer brought forward to the edge of the wood, which began dropping shells onto the roofs of the buildings and into the yards.
The Grenadier Company of the 3rd Guards rushed the wood in an attempt to put the gun out of action, but the French, in force, drove them back into and through the orchard, then turning their attention to the Formal Garden.
To combat this new threat, the 2nd Battalion of the 3rd Guards advanced into the orchard, re-taking it, and driving the French back into the wood.
This see-saw action ended the fourth French attack. It was now about 2 o'clock, Hougoumont still stood, and Napoleon's 'diversion' was draining him of men desperately needed in the main battle.
The French next tried to settle the problem of Hougoumont by sending in even more troops: this time from their centre. They marched from near La Belle Alliance: the middle of the French area of the battlefield, across the Allied front, towards the south-east of the farm.
Crossing the field of battle, they were enfiladed and torn to pieces by the Allied artillery; they broke, and never reached the orchard.
Hougoumont had taken a yet further toll of Napoleon's battle plan.
More guns: in the middle of the afternoon, a French battery of howitzers was brought up, and began to drop incendiary shells onto the roofs of the buildings. The château and its chapel in the centre of the Hougoumont complex, and the Great Barn on the west side, were soon on fire.
Wounded men who had been taken into the buildings for shelter, had to be rescued from the flames. Some did not make it.
Wellington, seeing the fire, sent an order to avoid losing men to the flames and falling timbers, but he said that Hougoumont must still be held. He was assured by return that it would be!
And it was. In spite of the dangers from the fire, from floors threatening to give way, and from the exploding shells lobbed into the blazing ruins, the Guards remained at their posts and continued to repulse any French troops who dared approach the walls.
There now followed a lull in the fighting around Hougoumont, while hostilities reached a crescendo in the centre of the field.
Wellington had been adjusting his line and moving troops back into cover from the artillery bombardment. Marshal Ney, believing that the allies were retreating, led a long series of unsupported cavalry charges against steady infantry squares, to Napoleon's despair.
Then, early in the evening, the French made yet another determined attack on the south east corner of the orchard. This time, since the allied line was held back and otherwise engaged by Ney's cavalry, these troops were able to cross the field and press home their attack.
The French again drove the defenders out of the orchard, but came under devastating fire from the Coldstream Guards posted along the wall of the Formal Garden. This stopped the French advance, enabling the 3rd Guards to counter-attack and again drive them out of the orchard.
Hougoumont still held, and yet more French troops had been drawn away from Napoleon's centre.
Shortly after this, La Haie Sainte, the walled farm in front of the centre of the Allied line, fell. Having taken one of Wellington's forward bastions, a fresh effort was mounted against Hougoumont.
This time the attack came on the eastern side of the orchard, and again the defenders were driven out by force of numbers. But this was a repeat of the previous affray. As soon as the orchard was taken, the attackers came under fire from the Coldstream Guards along the wall of the Formal Garden, and the 3rd Guards were able to counter-attack and force the French out again.
Some time after this, Napoleon sent his Middle Guard in a final attempt to break through the allied centre before being surrounded by the Prussians. As we know, this last fling failed, and Napoleon met, and lost, his Waterloo.
Wellington said after the battle, "You may depend upon it that no troops but the British could have held Hougoumont, and only the best of them at that."
Undoubtedly, the defenders of Hougoumont had contributed hugely to the victory.
The stubborn efforts of some six thousand defenders and their supports, had drawn in about fourteen thousand French soldiers that Napoleon desperately needed to fend off the encroaching Prussians and force the Allied centre.
Napoleon's 'diversion' to weaken Wellington's centre had backfired, and weakened his own force.
In addition, throughout the day the presence of the Hougoumont garrison had effectively prevented the French from outflanking and rolling up the weaker Allied line.
Hougoumont could well be described as the key to victory at Waterloo.
In Les Miserables, Victor Hugo wrote that the bodies of three hundred French soldiers had been thrown down a well in Hougoumont, as a quick burial to protect the survivors from an outbreak of typhus. A simple calculation would have convinced him of the impossibility of this: the column of bodies would have been far deeper than the well. In the early 1980s, a well was discovered and excavated by teams led by Derek Saunders, then Chairman of the Association of Friends of the Waterloo Committee. That well contained no remains of French soldiers: only the skeleton of a horse.
But Hugo made many mistakes in his description of the Battle of Waterloo. He killed Bauduin in the struggle for the north gate - in fact, Bauduin was killed in the first attack, long before the French reached the north entrance.
Hugo had the British firing grape through the loopholes in the walls of the Formal Garden. But grape is fired from cannons, and it would have been a considerable trick to fire a cannon through those loopholes.
Hugo also claimed that at one point the French held the Chapel in Hougoumont. This was certainly not so!
He also said La Haie Sainte fell very early in the battle, but we know the defenders held out until early evening
The operation of a square was poorly understood by Hugo. He described the front of the British squares parting to allow cannons in their centres to fire grape at the attacking cuirassiers, and then closing again - a graceful ballet. He describes Cuirassiers leaping their horses over the bayonets and the rows of men to attack the squares from the inside - quite a feat for such heavy horsemen.
Hugo said the square of the 75th Highlanders was annihilated "at the very first shock." Indeed the 75th did not see the end of the battle - or the beginning - they were not present! But more than this, Hugo said the French annihilated no less than seven of the thirteen British squares. In reality, none were broken.
Like other apologists, Hugo had trouble reconciling Napoleon's skills with the incontestable fact that he and his French were defeated at Waterloo. He blamed this on a moment of Napoleonic forgetfulness that left the cavalry fighting without infantry support; on the hidden, sunken road into which some cuirassiers fell; on the weather; and finally, on God whom Napoleon supposedly embarrassed by his excessive greatness. Hugo sometimes reads like a member of the Napoleonic Society of America!
Nonetheless, Hugo's is an entrancingly dramatic description, however flawed, of the great battle.
Hougoumont, an excellent account of the defence of Hougoumont by members of the Association of Friends of the Waterloo Committee: Derek Saunders and Sir Julian Paget
Les Miserables - Cosette - Book the First - Waterloo," by Victor Hugo
History of the Waterloo Campaign, by Captain William Siborne
Many other accounts of the great battle, and past copies of the Journal of the Association of Friends of the Waterloo Committee[ Military Index | Battles Index ]
© Copyright 1995-2004, The Napoleon Series, All Rights Reserved.