The True Tactical Significance of the Château of Hougoumont during the Battle of Waterloo
By Andrew W Field
Denis Dighton’s well known painting of the fighting at Hougoumont (National Army Museum).
For many who have read about Waterloo, the name Hougoumont conjures up a picture of a few heroic British guardsmen fighting against overwhelming odds in defence of a vital part of Wellington’s line whose capture by the French may well have resulted in the loss of the battle. After all, Wellington is credited with saying, ‘The outcome of the battle of Waterloo rested upon the closing of the gates at Hougoumont.’ But to what extent is this really true?
I believe that many of us that are interested in the battle and have read numerous accounts of the campaign feel that Hougoumont was a key part of the allied defence, and because Wellington and many histories seem to say so, and perhaps because the French appear to have expended so much blood in attempting to capture it, this remains unchallenged. So why did Wellington see Hougoumont as so important and why did the French apparently try so hard to capture it; was Hougoumont the key to winning the battle, and if not, was it not just a white elephant that the French should have ignored?
The aim of this paper is not to recount the detail of the fight for Hougoumont, but to examine the true tactical significance of the complex to the result of the battle by looking at both the allied and French perspectives of this iconic ‘battle within a battle’.
A diagram showing the full extent of the Hougoumont ‘obstacle’ that extended far beyond the buildings.
Any student of Waterloo will be familiar with the château of Hougoumont; it was located about 300 metres in front of the right (western) end of ridgeline that marked Wellington’s main position, lying in the shallow valley that divided the two sides. Both could look down into the buildings and garden, but it was partially hidden by the wood, kitchen gardens and folds in the ground from the French and by dead ground and hedge lines from the allied ridge. The buildings themselves were strong and surrounded by walls with limited external access. But as an obstacle, it extended far beyond this. To the southeast was a large wood, composed of big, mature trees; to the southwest and west was the kitchen garden bounded by mature trees; to the east was an orchard and in front of this were two fields bounded by high, thick hedges. To the rear (north), although the château’s garden was not bounded by a wall, there was a sunken lane that offered a ready-made trench and point of refuge for the defenders. Its total circumference was therefore considerable; including all these features it had a frontage of some 500 metres and a depth of about the same.
This old map shows the shallow valley that ran from la Belle Alliance to the Nivelles road which was blocked by Hougoumont, denying it as a route around the western flank of Wellington’s position.
Placed as it was, it protected Wellington’s right wing from direct attack, insofar as any attack on this end of the line would have to pass either to one side or the other of it before it could come into contact with the allied troops on the ridge behind. In this respect, it was a large obstacle that would have to be by-passed in clear view of the allied troops, and a manoeuvre by-passing it to the west would entail a very wide outflanking movement which would give the allied commander plenty of time to prepare countermeasures.
At the time of the first French attack, the garrison of Hougoumont consisted of; 800 men of the 1st Battalion of the 2nd Regiment (1st/2nd) of Nassau commanded by Captain Büsgen; the light companies of the 2nd/2nd and 2nd/3rd British Foot Guards, (about 200 men); a company of the Hanoverian Feld-Jäger (about 100 men) and a company of jägers from each of the Lüneburg and Grubenhagen Field Battalions (about 200 men). Thus giving the garrison an initial total of about 1,300 men.
By the end of the battle, the following had also been drawn into the fighting for this post; the light companies of the 2nd/1st and 3rd/1st Foot Guards, most of the 2nd/2nd and 2nd/3rd Foot Guard Battalions (who retained just a small force back on the ridge to protect their colours) and part of the Brunswick Avant-Garde Battalion; whilst behind Hougoumont and drawn into the fighting in the orchard and the fields were the battalions of the brigades of du Plat (1st Kings German Legion Brigade) and Halkett (3rd Hanoverian Brigade) providing an essential support that could not be deployed elsewhere without compromising the security of the post. At the end of the battle even some battalions of Brunswickers fought through the grounds.
Over 800 men of the 1st Battalion of the 2nd Nassau Regiment helped to defend Hougoumont throughout the day. Virtually no British eye-witness accounts of the action mention them and yet for the first half of the battle they provided the bulk of the garrison of the farm.
The initial deployment of the 1st Battalion, 2nd Nassau Regiment, as described by the battalion commanding officer Captain Büsgen.
Contrary to popular belief, and even many recent accounts of the battle, the whole of the French 2nd Corps (Reille) was not committed to the attacks on Hougoumont. The total force involved was three brigades; the two of Prince Jérôme’s 6th Division (the brigades of Bauduin and Soye) and one brigade (Tissot’s: vice Gauthier, wounded at Quatre Bras) of Foy’s 9th Division: In total therefore, a maximum of 6,000 men given the casualties suffered at Quatre Bras, and possibly less (Reille’s corps had suffered the brunt of the fighting there). Those histories of the battle that have the whole of Reille’s 2nd Corps committed to the fighting for Hougoumont have not consulted well-placed and dependable testimony from both General Foy (commander of the 9th Division) and Colonel Trefcon (chief-of-staff of Bachelu’s 5th Division, the other division of Reille’s corps), which clearly show that only half of the corps was directly involved in the fighting there. There are no dependable primary sources that contradict this, despite the romantic notion of such overwhelming odds. According to French eye-witness accounts, Bachelu’s division and Foy’s 2nd Brigade took part in an infantry assault on the main allied line at the end of the great cavalry charges and did not take part in the fighting around Hougoumont.
In his book The Battle, History of the Battle of Waterloo, Alessandro Barbero perhaps rather controversially concludes that the allies actually committed more troops to the defence of Hougoumont than the French did to attacking it.
When considering the defensive value of the Mont-Saint-Jean ridge, Wellington felt that his right (western) flank was the most vulnerable and he was concerned that this flank was in danger of being turned by the French and the whole right wing being enveloped. The position of Hougoumont was well-sited to guard against this and to force any outflanking troops to have to swing widely out to the west to avoid it. He therefore decided to deploy some of his best troops there, and then to reinforce them continually as the battle progressed.
Hougoumont, and the farm of la Haye Sainte in the centre of his position, have often been described as ‘breakwaters’, but might better be considered as outworks, as in a siege, whose purpose is to break up enemy attacks on the main position, attract fire and manpower away from the main line of defence and to cause maximum attrition on the enemy. With the benefit of both cover from view and fire it follows that the defence of a strongpoint requires less manpower than to attack one, offering an advantageous economy of force to the defender. Artillery support to the garrison of Hougoumont was provided from the ridge behind, the higher elevation enabling the allied guns to fire over the heads of the garrison and to dominate the French approaches to the farm. Indeed, it may be considered that as long as Hougoumont was in allied hands, the ridgeline immediately behind it was almost unassailable.
This map, taken from Siborne’s famous history of the battle, clearly shows the importance of Hougoumont as an advanced post screening the right of the allied line.
As if to reinforce the importance Wellington placed on the holding of Hougoumont, he directed a considerable effort to improve its defences and even took pioneers from the garrison of his other strongpoint, la Haye Sainte, to ensure that there were the resources and manpower to do this. In contrast to la Haye Sainte, the work to strengthen it went on throughout the night.
Even putting aside the fact that Hougoumont offered a strongpoint of impressive strength and was a considerable challenge to assault in the days of the manoeuvre of large, close order formations on the battlefield, its position also had another significant advantage to Wellington; apart from guarding his main line on the right, it also blocked the natural route that gave the French the shortest access into the shallow valley that ran around the ridge at its western end which offered them an opportunity to outflank his right wing down the Nivelles to Brussels road.
It can therefore be fairly said that Hougoumont would have been an important outpost if Napoleon had chosen to attack or outflank the right of Wellington’s line. However, if Napoleon launched his main attack on another point of Wellington’s line, then Hougoumont could only be considered of secondary importance. But even if it was to fall, although this may have been a blow to allied morale, the integrity of the main line of defence on the ridge would not necessarily have been compromised. In the best case, Hougoumont would attract large numbers of French troops whilst offering them little advantage if they were to succeed in capturing it.
Napoleon’s stated plan for the battle was to attack Wellington’s centre left with a view to seizing Mont Saint Jean, splitting the allied army into two and cutting the road to Brussels which would have been the allied line of retreat. In his memoirs, he also lays out his reasoning for not attacking Wellington’s right,
‘I had preferred to turn the enemy’s left, rather than his right, first, in order to cut it off from the Prussians who were at Wavre and to oppose their joining up if they had intended doing so; and, even if they had not intended doing so, if the attack had been made on their right, the English army, on being repulsed, would have fallen back onto the Prussian army; whereas, if made on the left, it would be separated from them and thrown back in the direction of the sea; secondly, because the left appeared to be much weaker; thirdly and finally, because I was expecting every moment the arrival of a detachment from Marshal Grouchy on my right and did not want to run the risks of finding myself separated from it.’
Whatever the dependability of Napoleon’s memoirs, and we can be especially wary of his claim of the detachment from Grouchy, the allied left was indeed the weaker flank (not in the physical sense but in the strength of the troops defending it) of Wellington’s position and Napoleon had already shown that he would take every risk to avoid the Anglo-Dutch and Prussian armies joining up. It can be seen therefore, that he did not intend to make a major attack against Wellington’s right where Hougoumont stood and for this reason alone, Hougoumont cannot be considered of vital tactical importance once his plan became clear.
In his memoirs Napoleon goes on to describe Jérôme’s attack on Hougoumont but does not share what his intentions were when ordering it. However, he gives us a hint when he writes, ‘This [Hougoumont] was defended by an English guards division, the enemy’s best troops, which I was glad to see on his right, which made the attack on the left all the easier.’ This suggests that his intention was for the attack to be a diversionary or secondary attack with the aim of drawing troops away from the point where his main attack was planned to fall; the allied left centre. The fact that the action around Hougoumont gets no further mention in his memoirs suggests that in Napoleon’s mind at least, it was of little or no importance; merely a diversionary attack. Hougoumont is not named at all in Napoleon’s account of the battle that was published in Le Moniteur on the 21st June.
A number of French histories also describe the attack on Hougoumont as ‘diversionary’, ‘false’ or a ‘feint’ and even Clausewitz, in his critique of the campaign, concludes, ‘It almost seems as if this was only supposed to be a feint…’ Sir Herbert Maxwell, in his biography of Wellington, describes the attack as a ‘feint’. However, a number of more modern commentators have questioned this but do not clearly articulate why. Perhaps it was because the French made such efforts to capture it that they conclude that Napoleon must have intended to do so and point out that his orders do not state that it was just a diversionary attack. Whilst the latter is strictly true, Napoleon’s written orders merely state, ‘The 2nd Corps [who carried out the attack on Hougoumont] will also advance keeping abreast of the 1st Corps.’ Hougoumont gets no mention in his written orders, but the fact that the attack went ahead can only mean that Napoleon must have ordered it and that this must have been a verbal order, as it is inconceivable that such an attack would have been launched without orders. The commander of the 2nd Corps was General Reille; General Bachelu’s (commander 5th Division, 2nd Corps) chief of staff reports that Reille had a long conversation with Napoleon before the battle started.
However, convincing confirmation that it was a diversionary attack comes from two primary sources. The first comes from a staff officer to Marshal Soult, Napoleon’s chief-of-staff. Colonel Petiet wrote in his souvenirs, ‘Marshal Ney would commence the attack on the village of Mont-Saint-Jean, at the cross-roads, suggesting that the Emperor’s project was to open up the Brussels road and to make a false attack on the [French] left, at the Hougoumont farm, in order to draw English forces there continually …’ But perhaps even more convincing is General Foy, who commanded the 6th Division of the 2nd Corps, who wrote in a letter just five days after the battle, ‘the affair of the Hougoumont wood drew the enemy’s attention and fire to our left. It was evidently a secondary attack…’
If Napoleon had meant the attack on Hougoumont to be a serious attempt to capture it, it also begs the question as to why he would strip the 2nd Corps of its twelve-pounder corps artillery (to become a part of the grand battery); probably the only calibre that would have had any chance of having a serious impact on the sturdy walls of the château and its outbuildings.
Not even all British eyewitnesses saw the French attack on Hougoumont as a concerted attack to capture it. Captain James Shaw, later General Sir James Shaw Kennedy, who served in the quartermaster’s department of the British 3rd Division at the battle, wrote, ‘No one can doubt, who knows the field of battle, and who is even tolerably informed of the circumstances, that Napoleon’s plan of attack was that of breaking Wellington’s centre at la Haye Sainte, overthrowing the left of the Allied line, and thus going far to ensure the defeat of the Anglo-Allied army…Two hours had been lost to Napoleon in the attack of Hougoumont, which attack was only an auxiliary operation to the main one [my emphasis] by which he hoped to gain the battle.’
It seems undeniable that if Napoleon planned to break through Wellington’s line to the east of the main Brussels road, there was absolutely no advantage to be had in committing a large number of troops to an attack on the extreme west against a position that was so strong that it would surely be a meat grinder for the troops taking part and what possible advantage would it offer the main attack in the centre other than as a diversion?
The French 2nd Corps
But why, if we are to believe that Napoleon had no intention of making a determined effort to capture Hougoumont, did the 2nd Corps uselessly sacrifice so many men in their attacks on it?
If we have already absolved Napoleon of ordering the assaults on Hougoumont, we must now look at the contribution of the commander of 2nd Corps; General Reille. Whilst we do not know what orders were given by Reille, he did write a brief account of the campaign, in which he says,
‘Towards eleven o’clock, Napoleon gave his instructions for the attack; it was to be made in echelons formed with the right in the lead. The 1st Corps to the right of the main road and the 2nd to the left; in this way, the 1st Corps, which had not previously been engaged with the enemy, was to engage first, whilst the 2nd was to support this movement covering the left, to the Hougoumont wood. Prince Jerôme, commanding the 9th Division, was directed on this point, having behind his left Piré’s cavalry division; General Foy was to be in the centre and General Bachelu on the right, up to the main road… The 9th Division descended on the Hougoumont wood, its first brigade advanced and wanted to capture the farm of this name, which had been fortified, instead of holding in the low ground behind the wood and maintaining a strong line of skirmishers in front. The order was given several times, but other attacks were uselessly attempted by the other brigade, and this division spent the whole day involved in this operation.’
So if Reille is to be believed, he at least understood Napoleon’s intent; the main effort was to be the 1st Corps attack on the allied centre left; there was to be no attempt to capture Hougoumont, but to threaten it, tie down the troops that garrisoned it and encourage Wellington to reinforce it.
General Reille, commander of the French 2nd Corps. Although responsible for a diversionary attack on Hougoumont, the corps’ main task was to support d’Erlon’s attack on the allied centre left.
We have therefore established beyond reasonable doubt, that Napoleon planned to attack the centre left of Wellington’s line and therefore had no reason to get drawn into a costly fight for a strongpoint that did not support his main effort, but did lend itself, given the importance Wellington put on holding it, for being the ideal target of a diversionary attack. We have also seen that Reille, if his own account is to be believed, seemed to understand Napoleon’s intent.
The importance of possession of Hougoumont to the French
It is now worth exploring the advantages that Hougoumont would have offered the French if they had captured it. We have already established that the 500 metres by 500 metres square château and farm complex, with its surrounding woods, orchards, gardens, fields and thick hedges offered an impenetrable obstacle to large formations of close order troops; the kind of formation in which the French inevitably carried out their attacks. It was therefore of no use to the French as a staging point for a heavy infantry attack on the allied ridge behind it. Any formed attack would have to bypass the complex. If the wood was held by the French, as it was for most of the battle, and the buildings were threatened sufficiently to contain the garrison from sallying out, any bypass could therefore be carried out safely without the need to occupy the whole complex, and certainly not the buildings from which the fields of observation and fire were very much restricted by the surrounding trees and hedges.
Any French formation attempting to outflank the allied right therefore, did not need possession of the Hougoumont buildings in order to achieve this. The only real advantage the capture of the complex had to offer the French was as a launchpad for large numbers of skirmishers to harass the allied troops on the ridge beyond in much the same way as they were able to do from la Haye-Sainte after its capture. But it was widely accepted that these skirmishers en grandes bandes had insufficient combat power in themselves to seize ground from formed bodies of defending troops, even less able to hold it, and were therefore only used to set the conditions for a formal attack by close order columns. But it is inconceivable that the French would have been able to launch such formations from within the broken and close country of Hougoumont. If there was a danger of Hougoumont falling, the allied garrison could have fallen back to the main line on the high ground behind and the coordination of a formal attack on the ridge would have had to have started all over again, on a point on the battlefield that offered no advantages to the French and which would have had to bypass Hougoumont as surely as before it was captured. An allied garrison of the complex, given the close country of which it consisted, would have been as unable to interfere with a French attack on the main ridge as it was unable to interfere with the great cavalry attacks and the infantry assault of Bachelu’s division and one of Foy’s brigades at the end of them.
The truth is that with no attack planned to outflank the west of the allied position, Hougoumont offered little tactical advantage to the French in return for the heavy casualties that its capture would inevitably cost.
How many attacks were launched on the farm by the French?
Julian Paget and Derek Saunders in their book on Hougoumont (see bibliography), list seven separate attacks on the farm complex, the last taking place sometime around 6.30pm after the fall of la Haye-Sainte. However, from French accounts it is possible to identify only four, although the last one was against the orchard rather than the buildings or garden at about 2.30pm. This is supported by Captain Büsgen, the commander of the 1st/2nd Nassau, the largest of the units defending there, who wrote in his account of the battle,
‘Between two and three o’clock, the enemy then moved up a battery to the right side of the farm and started a heavy cannonade with his guns and howitzers on the buildings. It did not take long and they were all in flames.
The enemy now for the third time [my emphasis] made a rash attack, which was mainly directed at the buildings… This attack, which ended about half past three o’clock, was the enemy’s last serious attempt [my emphasis] on the Hougoumont position; the skirmish fire, however, lasted with hardly an interruption until the end of the battle.’
Once more we see how more modern accounts of the battle exaggerate the action at Hougoumont. Eye-witness evidence from both the allied and French sides shows that by 3.30pm the 2nd Corps gave up any attempt to actually capture Hougoumont and restricted themselves to the mission they had originally been given to capture the wood and fix the garrison in place. We do not know whether this was because Reille or some other senior officer finally intervened to end the slaughter of their men. This is further corroborated by Prince Jérôme, Napoleon’s younger brother and commander of the French 9th Division of 2nd Corps, who we have seen was directed to make the original attack, who wrote in his memoirs that at three o’clock he was recalled by Napoleon to join him near la Belle Alliance; I leave it to the reader to decide why Napoleon might have taken such a step.
So why did the French repeatedly attack Hougoumont?
We must now ask why Reille’s corps, and Jérôme’s division in particular, did not carry out their orders to merely contain and threaten Hougoumont.
Unfortunately, we learn little from Jérôme himself about the orders he received; in a letter to his wife written on the 15th July, he merely wrote,
‘At 12.15pm., I received the order to begin the attack; I marched on the wood of which I occupied the majority after a lively resistance, killing and losing many men. At 2pm., I was master of the entire wood and the battle was engaged along the whole line, but the enemy, who realised the importance of this point, rushed forward a reserve and took it from me. I advanced with my whole division and at 3pm., after a bloody fight, I took it again, and from then on, held it to the end of the battle.’
Prince Jérôme, brother of Napoleon, had something of a chequered military career and it is little surprise that he was involved in such a controversial aspect of the battle.
It is noteworthy that he does not even mention the château or even any buildings, let alone the detail of his orders (although he was unlikely to go into such tactical detail in a letter to his wife), although the lack of a mention of the buildings may suggest that he understood his attack was merely to capture the wood. One account of the battle for Hougoumont in particular has Napoleon saying to Jérôme, ‘If Grouchy does not come up or if you do not carry Hougoumont, the battle is decidedly lost, so go, go and carry Hougoumont, coûte que coûte [whatever it costs].’ However, there is no reference for this and no French account I can find has any record of such a conversation. Given the evidence we have already examined, that Napoleon had no intention of attacking the allied right, it seems rather more than unlikely that he would say such a thing and it is almost certainly an invention of someone trying to embellish the facts.
So if the senior French commanders understood it was only a diversionary attack, the number of French troops committed to the fight for Hougoumont was far less than often repeated, and the allied right was not to be the target of the French main effort, why did half of 2nd Corps smash itself against the walls of the farm?
To answer this question, we need to have an idea of how far down the 2nd Corps chain of command the order not to become decisively engaged in an assault on Hougoumont was disseminated. We have already accepted that we are never likely to know exactly what orders Reille and Jérôme were given, but if we accept that Reille understood there was no need to assault the farm complex then it is reasonable to assume that Jérôme was also told this by Reille. Jérôme initially committed a single brigade which attacked the farm having cleared the wood but failed to take it. When he committed his second brigade, which then proceeded to make the same futile assault on the walls, we must assume that Jérôme did not emphasise to his brigade commanders that they were not to attack the farm, but to keep it under pressure. The blame seems to lie with the former King of Westphalia, whose military career up to this point had hardly been blemish free and had only continued due to Napoleon’s indulgence and patronage.
Prince Jérôme’s chief-of-staff was General Guilleminot, a very experienced staff officer who had clearly been appointed to a post far below his seniority and experience with the aim of giving Jérôme wise counsel and perhaps keeping him from acting foolishly. In later conversations with a British officer who had been present at Hougoumont, Guilleminot is reported as saying that whilst he supported the initial attack on the buildings, what could be considered as an attempted coup de main to seize the complex by surprise or before the defence had been properly organised, he did not support the following attacks. This suggests that the subsequent attacks were either ordered by Jérôme or were launched either with his tacit agreement or that he lacked the authority or confidence to stop the independent actions of his subordinate commanders.
We can feel confident that Napoleon made clear to Reille that the attack on Hougoumont was to be a diversionary attack. Reille’s writings seem to show that he understood this. Whilst we can question whether Reille then made this clear to Jérôme who was to launch the attack, given that he clearly disobeyed it, must be open to question. However, a clue is given by a battalion commander in Jérôme’s division, chef de bataillon Jolyet of the 1st Light Regiment, who wrote, ‘Several times our skirmishers, despite the orders that limited them to prevent the enemy from manoeuvring against our left, wanted to seize the house that was in their way.’ Here we can see that the avoidance of a deliberate attack on Hougoumont must have been stated and that this had reached battalion command level in Jérôme’s division. However, if the battalion commanders had been briefed on this requirement, we don’t know how much further this level of detail was passed on down the chain of command, given the difficulty of briefing the junior officers in the days before radio.
We have one last eye-witness account which might give us a clue; Lieutenant Théobald Puvis was in the 93rd Line, a regiment in Tissot’s brigade (the brigade that was committed from Foy’s division). He writes, ‘Our senior officers came to tell us ‘we are going to attack the English lines with the bayonet; “warn everyone” it was recommended to us.’ So here we see that Puvis was given no idea what they were going to attack or what lay in front of them and it can easily be imagined that being confronted with the walls of Hougoumont, and enthusiastic to get involved in the action, that his unit attacked them. Whatever the intentions of the chain of command, it is inevitable, without their background knowledge and strategic oversight, that junior officers, non-commissioned officers, and soldiers have a very different perspective of battle. They fight in a microcosm; their focus is what is in their immediate vicinity, what they perceive as the greatest threat. Particularly in conditions of limited observation, caused by vegetation, smoke or buildings, their battlefield becomes much smaller, just a tiny part of the full battle picture; rather like looking at the battle through a drinking straw. What’s more, perhaps through their enthusiasm for victory, seizing what they see as a threat or vital objective can propel them into a determination to capture something that is of little consequence in the greater scheme of the battle.
We can therefore see that the evidence suggests that the order not to commit to a determined attack to seize Hougoumont had been disseminated to battalion commander level and therefore it must have been below this level that the important detail became lost and that at these lower command levels the soldiers attacked whatever was in front of them. The greater the resistance of their objective, the greater its importance became in their eyes and the greater their determination to seize it, driven on by their courage and enthusiasm into efforts far beyond those intended by their seniors and far beyond the true tactical advantage its capture offered. It seems therefore, that either Jérôme and his experienced chief of staff lacked the confidence or authority to stop the attacks or that it became a matter of honour for Napoleon’s younger brother to prove his determination and military prowess by capturing the farm.
An old post card photograph of Hougoumont showing the gardener’s house and the southern gate.
When Wellington initially considered his defensive plan, Hougoumont no doubt stood out as a tactically important feature that demanded a strong defence. But the true tactical significance of Hougoumont depended on Napoleon’s own plans. If the emperor intended to attack the allied right, then Hougoumont was strategically placed and inherently strong enough to make a significant contribution to the defence. If Napoleon chose to attack elsewhere, then this was no longer true; once he revealed his plan of attack, an assault on the allied centre left, the farm complex lost much of its importance, and certainly its previously key role in Wellington’s defence.
Much myth has grown up around the defence of Hougoumont, but whilst I do not wish to denigrate the exceptional bravery displayed by both sides during what was clearly bloody fighting, many histories have made claims that have not been substantiated by dependable testimony. In his book Wellington at Waterloo, Jac Weller wrote that the importance of the fighting at Hougoumont ‘can hardly be over-estimated’ and that the garrison of Hougoumont, ‘kept about 14,000 veteran French infantry busy throughout the day’ and ‘As many as 10,000 men from both armies are said to have fallen in and around Hougoumont.’ This has now proven to be a gross exaggeration on all counts.
Once the battle started, for the reasons we have discussed, Hougoumont was not vital ground; the capture or loss of which would have decided the battle. It would have been so only if the French had chosen to try and outflank Wellington’s line to the west. But they did not. As it was, Napoleon’s main attacks fell on the centre left (d’Erlon) and the centre right (the great cavalry attacks) of the allied line. Hougoumont played no part in the defeat of these attacks. It was a sideshow where the advantage to one side or the other was unlikely to affect the final result of the battle.
An old post card photograph of the northern gate; the gate that was forced by the French.
It appears quite evident that each of the two sides put a different emphasis on the tactical importance of Hougoumont. As the defender, Wellington had to set his defence before he could try and draw Napoleon’s plan from the deployment of the French army; he therefore had to cover all possible enemy courses of action and had to be concerned about a possible French attempt to outflank his right wing along the shallow valley that led around that part of the battlefield. Before the battle started, Napoleon was clear that a successful attack on the right of Wellington’s line would drive his defeated army into the protective arms of Blücher’s Prussians. Having ruled out a main attack on the farm complex, it then suggested itself as an ideal diversionary attack; threatening a part of Wellington’s line that the allied commander already had concerns about.
Wellington might have reduced his efforts to maintain the post once he had established where the main French attack was landing, but as long as the French were prepared to throw their manpower away in useless attempts to seize a position whose importance had waned as the battle progressed, it continued to offer him good value for his investment, albeit at the cost of tying two whole brigades (du Plat’s and H. Halkett’s) to Hougoumont to support the garrison there. Hougoumont was almost the bait in a trap into which the French rushed. From Wellington’s perspective therefore, the defence of Hougoumont was a great success; it drew increasing numbers of French troops away from the truly important points of the battle and inflicted heavy casualties on them; this is absolutely not the same as suggesting the outcome of the battle was decided by a successful defence.
From Napoleon’s perspective, Hougoumont was supposed to be the objective of a diversionary attack to draw allied troops away from the critical point and the troops allocated to it were not supposed to get decisively engaged. It is perfectly feasible that even before the battle started that Napoleon had appreciated that Hougoumont was a white elephant; an objective which, if captured, offered little or no advantage to his aim of attacking the allied centre and splitting Wellington’s army in two by seizing the main Brussels chausée.
The truth is that the number of French soldiers committed to the capture of Hougoumont was half of that most histories tell us. Perhaps some of the hype that has been built up around the fight for Hougoumont, the countless assaults and the commitment of the whole of Reille’s corps, is perhaps, more to do with glorifying the men and units that took part in the defence than an objective analysis of the evidence drawn from both the allied and French accounts and perspectives of the battle, or a critical and objective assessment of the true tactical significance of the farm complex.
And yet the French did commit large numbers of troops to a fight that would have contributed little to a potential French success, troops that could have been used to better effect elsewhere on the battlefield. That they did, was down to poor leadership; from Reille and Guilleminot, for not intervening and stopping the assaults before too many troops became committed; from Jérôme for being in direct command of the assaulting troops and disastrously failing to implement his superior commander’s intent, even though it must have been clear to him that he was doing so. And finally, if chef de bataillon Jolyet is to believed, the commanding officers must also take some of the blame for allowing their battalions to be frittered away in fruitless assaults on such a strong position when they should have understood what Napoleon had intended.
The conclusion must be that Hougoumont would have offered Wellington a number of significant tactical advantages if the French had planned to attack his right; but they did not. For the French, given where they did attack, the capture of the complex would have offered them little. It seems clear that Napoleon fully realised this and therefore had no intention of a costly and lengthy assault on a point on the battlefield that was of secondary importance. He was let down primarily by his own brother (for which reason he seems to have conveniently over-looked the disobedience of orders) and by a corps commander who apparently lacked the determination and moral courage to intervene early enough. The fact that his own attention was elsewhere, and the extent of the fighting was hidden from him by the lie of the ground and the Hougoumont wood, was almost certainly the reason why Napoleon did not intervene personally. The fact that the fight for Hougoumont has reached iconic status in the history of the battle is because of the much re-cycled myth of that handful of heroic British guardsmen fighting against the odds against a full corps of French infantry, a myth that perhaps until now has not been adequately analysed and challenged.
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Bonaparte, Jérôme, Mémoires et Correspondance du Roi Jérôme et de la Reine Catherine, (Paris: Dentu, 1866).
Bonaparte, Napoleon, Napoleon’s Memoirs, edited by Somerset de Chair, (London: The Soho Book Company. 1986).
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 Although this is a familiar quote with a number of variations, I am not absolutely sure of its provenance; it is one of those sayings that is often quoted but never referenced, so I am not absolutely convinced of its authenticity.
 Various sources give slight variations to this list.
 Girod de l’Ain, Vie Militaire du Général Foy, (Paris: Plon, 1900), pp.280-81.
 Trefcon, Carnet de Campagne du Colonel Trefcon, 1793-1815, (Paris: Edmond Dubois, 1914, originally published in 1892), pp.187-89.]
 See Notes 3 and 4 above.
 Babero, Alessandro, The Battle, History of the Battle of Waterloo, (London: Atlantic Books, 2005), pp.305-06.
 See Baring’s account of the battle published in Letters from the Battle of Waterloo, edited by Gareth Glover, (London: Greenhill Books, 2004), p.243.
 Napoleon’s Memoirs, edited by Somerset de Chair, (London: The Soho Book Company. 1986), p.525.
 Ibid., p.526.
 See Houssaye, Quinet and Charras.
 Clausewitz’s critique is published in Moran and Pedlow, On Waterloo, Clausewitz, Wellington and the Campaign of 1815, (USA: Clausewitz.com, 2010), p,142.
 Maxwell, Sir Herbert, The Life of Wellington, (London: Sampson Low, Marston and Company, 1900), Volume 2, p.65.
 Trefcon, op. cit., p.184
 Petiet, Mémoires du Général Auguste Petiet, Hussard de l’Empire, Souvenirs Historiques, Militaires et Particuliers, 1784-1815, (Paris: S.P.M., 1996), p.443.
 Girod de l’Ain, op. cit., pp.280-81.
 Shaw Kennedy, James, Notes on the Battle of Waterloo, reprint by Spellmount, 2003, p.106.
 Documents inédits sur la Campagne de 1815 publiés par le Duc d’Elchingen, (Paris: Anselin et G.-Laguionie, 1840.) p.91.
 ‘In large groups’, generally a whole battalion fighting as skirmishers; this had been a recognised French tactic since the Revolutionary Wars; see Marbot and Bressonnet in the bibliography.
 See this author’s book Waterloo, The French Perspective, (Pen & Sword, 2012).
 In Glover, Gareth, The Waterloo Archive, Volume 2: German Sources, (Frontline Books, 2010), pp.157-58.
 Jérôme Bonaparte, Mémoires et Correspondance du Roi Jérôme et de la Reine Catherine, (Paris: Dentu, 1866), Volume Seven, p.22
 Ibid., p.23.
 A reference in a relatively modern account records that this is taken from Jérôme’s memoirs (Ibid.), but I cannot find it there.
 See Siborne’s The Waterloo Letters, (London: Arms and Armour reprint, 1983), Letter 114 from Lt Gen Woodford who served with the 2nd/2nd Foot Guards at Waterloo, p.262.
 Jean-Baptiste Jolyet, Souvenirs et correspondence sur la bataille de Waterloo, (Paris: Teissedre, 2000), p.77.
 Puvis; Souvenirs du chef de bataillon Théobald Puvis, du 93ème de ligne (1813-1815), reproduced in Journal de route d’un garde d’honneur (1813-1814), Paris: Demi-Solde, 2007), p. 83.
 Weller, Jac, Wellington at Waterloo, (London: Greenhill Books, 1992), p.94. In their own book, Paget and Saunders write that the French suffered 5,000 casualties at Hougoumont which, given the commitment of no more than 6,000 men would represent a casualty rate of 83%; this is clearly nonsense.
 I suspect it became a point of honour for the Emperor’s younger brother to capture the farm.