Household Cavalry at Waterloo 
Home 1st LG 2nd LG RHG 1st RD 1st KDG

At the time the Household Cavalry comprised only the First Life Guards and the Second Life Guards although the Royal Horse Guards (the Blues) were brigaded with the Household Cavalry on operations.

Both Life Guards regiments and the Blues sent two squadrons of about one hundred and fifty men each to join the British contingent of the allied armies which were joining forces to oppose Napoleon Bonaparte. Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Ferrier commanded the First Regiment, Lt-Col The Hon Edward Pindar Lygon the Second Regiment and Lt-Col Robert Hill, the Blues.

The Household Cavalry at Waterloo

Spring 1815.

Four squadrons - five hundred and eighty-three men - of the 1st Kings Dragoon Guards commanded by Lt-Col. Fuller joined the Household Cavalry to became the 1st Cavalry Brigade, known as the "Household Brigade" and commanded by Major General Lord Somerset, a veteran of the war in Spain against Bonaparte's forces.

The 1st (Royal) Dragoons were in the west country assisting the Customs and Excise against smugglers and not at all happy with their lot. They were very relieved to be ordered to Belgium to join the rest of the army where they, with the 2nd Dragoons (Scots Greys) and the 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons, formed the 2nd Cavalry Brigade. Due to there being English, Scots and Irish regiments, they were dubbed the "Union Brigade" and were commanded by General Sir William Ponsonby, another veteran of the war in Spain.

At the end of May the Duke of Wellington reviewed the cavalry in meadows beside the River Dender between Schendelbeke and Jedeghem  (now Idegem) with an escort of 1st Life Guards.

On 15th June 1815 Bonaparte invaded Belgium with an army of some 107,000, heading for Brussels through Charleroi.

The first encounter between the British and French forces was on Friday 16th June at the strategically important crossroads as Quatre Bras, a small village on the Charleroi to Brussels road where it crosses the road between Nivelles and Namur.

Private of the
1st Kings Dragoon Guards

Allied Commander-in-Chief, Field Marshal Sir Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington

The French cavalry wavered at the sight of these big men mounted on big black horses thundering towards them, but it took a second charge, during which the 1st Life Guards suffered casualties, before they could be persuaded to withdraw.

As Kelly and his squadron rejoined the column, Lord Uxbridge said, "Well done the Life Guards, you have saved the honour of the British cavalry".


Some 700 yards north of Genappe, the Brigade stopped on the brow of a hill. As they looked back they saw the rearmost cavalry units, the 7th Hussars and the 23rd Light Dragoons, under attack by French lancers and losing. Lord Uxbridge, in overall command of the cavalry, instructed Captain Edward Kelly, commanding a squadron of the 1st Life Guards to charge the French.

Kelly turned his squadron. They formed line, advanced and, as they approached the village, the trumpeter blew the "Charge" .

Charge of the 1st Life Guards at Genappe

As the march northwards continued, the Union Brigade took the rear and the Royals and the Royal Horse Artillery fought off the French chassuers who were trying to harass them. Again, Lord Uxbridge heaped praise on the Royals and the RHA as "the prettiest field-day of cavalry and horse artillery that I have ever witnessed".

The Household and Union brigades spent the night of Saturday 17th June in sodden fields near the village of Mont-Sainte-Jean; out of the French army's sight.

The Household Brigade's encampment the night before the battle.

As dawn broke, the soldiers started to clean their weapons and prepare themselves for the day ahead. Private Smithies of the Blues wrote;

For the first time ever known, the cavalry were ordered to grind the backs of their swords as we should have to use both sides. It was thought by the men that this order had been given because we had to contend with a large number of French cuirassiers, who had steel armour, and through this we should have to cut.


Corporal Shaw of the 2nd Life Guards advised his men to aim for the back of the cuirassier's necks as this was their most vulnerable point.


They stood in that deeply muddied field for several hours, gently steaming as the sun rose and started to dry the horses and the men's sodden uniforms.

Sunday, 18th June 1815

Earlier, Dr John James, the 1st Life Guards surgeon, had looked over the morrow's battlefield from the top of the ridge;

The view was of the most tremendous description commanding the field of Waterloo and an immense tract of country, dark with woods and coloured with columns of troops, both English and French. The storm was breaking up, leaving patches of light and grey isolated showers in different parts of the landscape. I soon saw the regiment coming, so covered with black mud that their faces were hardly distinguishable, and the colour of their scarlet uniforms invisible. The ground was a quagmire.

Private Peel of the Blues later wrote to his sister;

The strongest thunder rain fell that ever did flow, and the poor soldiers was knee deep in water. It rained all night.

A number of soldiers found some shelter in a cottage, but it was too crowded to lie down and rest.

Corporal Major
Thomas Playford
2nd Life Guards
self-portrait.

At about lunch time the French started their main attack against the painfully thin British line on the ridge either side of the Charleroi - Brussels road employing about a third of their total army. At the same time, La Haie Sainte came under heavy attack from both infantry and cuirassiers. The cuirassiers attacked and cut to pieces a battalion of Hanoverian infantry sent to reinforce La Haie Sainte's defenders.

La Haye Sainte farm

Seeing French infantry breasting the ridge, Lord Uxbridge sent the Household and Union Brigades to attack. The Union Brigade was to attack the infantry before they crossed the O'hain road whilst the Household Brigade was to relieve the attack on La Haie Sainte.

La Haye Sainte farm

Uxbridge's mistake was failing to instruct the Royal Horse Guards and the Royal Scots Greys, the reserve regiments in each brigade, to follow at a distance and take advantage of any opportunities which developed. He held himself responsible for the error.


The trumpeters blew "Walk March" and all seven regiments moved towards the French lines.


The need for the Household Brigade to pass through the lines of British infantry and cross the sunken road caused them to break their formation. They barely had time to cross the road and reform their line before Somerset's trumpeter, sixteen year old John Edwards, blew the "Charge".


On the right of the line the 1st Life Guards and some of the King's Dragoon Guards, followed by the Blues, went to the west of La Haie Sainte, which stands alongside the Brussels-Charleroi road,  covered the hundred yards downhill in a matter of seconds and engaged the cuirassiers. Despite the French advantage of six inch longer swords, they were soon routed and pursued into a gravel pit.

Charge of the
1st Life Guards

The 2nd Life Guards and the rest of the King's Dragoon Guards went to the west of La Haie Saint where they also encountered cuirassiers.

Meanwhile, the Royals had taken the 105th Infantry Regiment by surprise although the French were able to get off a volley which resulted in the deaths of twenty-one men.

The sight of a mass of heavy cavalry bearing down on them would be enough to frighten the life out of most good men and the French again turned and ran.

The Royal Horse Guards fighting French cuirassiers

Private Smithies of Major Dorville's Royals squadron, later recalled...

On we rushed at each other, and when we met the shock was terrific. We wedged ourselves between them as much as possible, to prevent them from cutting, and the noise of the horses, the clashing of swords against their steel armour, can be imagined only by those who have heard it. There were some riders who had caught hold of each other's bodies - wrestling fashion - and fighting for life, but the superior physical strength of our regiment soon showed itself.


Lieutenant Trathwell of the Blues also managed to take an Eagle but his horse was shot from under him and he was captured before he could get his prize to safety.


Lord Uxbridge's timing had been perfect and the charge by both heavy cavalry brigades broke Bonaparte's main attack.


So exhilarated were the cavalry by their success that rather than reform and return to their positions in good order ready to attack again, they swept on and attacked the French artillery, going so far as to attack the wagon lines where they were counter-attacked losing many good men, both killed and taken prisoner.

Despite being camped close by, so close that shots passed over their heads, neither the Household nor Union brigades were called upon at Quatre Bras but covered the rear of the column as the army withdrew northwards on Saturday 17th June.

The 1st Kings Dragoon Guards charge at La Haie Sainte

Captain Clark of the Royals spied the officer carrying the 105th's eagle trying to get the colour to the rear for protection and went after him. He was successful and the Blues & Royals continue to wear this battle honour on their uniforms.

2nd Life Guards officer
by
Cpl Maj Thomas Playford

TOP

1LG

2LG

RHG

1D

1DG

Panorama and map of the battlefield
Click for larger image

Text drawn heavily from “Horse Guards” by Barney White-Spunner, Lt-Gen (Ret), Blues & Royals (RHG/1D)