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Supporting Correspondence: Battle of Waterloo

This article describes correspondence (reports) from Wellington's commanders about the action taken part in by their units during the Battle of Waterloo.
Print showing British soldiers defending the Hougoumont
© University of Southampton

Wellington’s Waterloo Despatch was the official account of the battle and, as we have seen, was sent to England to the Secretary of State on 19 June. The Duke, however, needed supporting materials on which to base his account and subsequent communications.

The most important of these came from his divisional commanders — and they were written in the same way as Wellington wrote his own despatch, to the same unwritten rules and largely to the same structure. This was an official record, composed on 19 June and the following days as the army moved forward. These accounts contain more detailed descriptions of the action than the Waterloo Despatch, and reveal important points about the work of 18 June.

Document 1: Lieutenant General Carl von Alten wrote to Wellington the day after Waterloo on the conduct of the 3rd Division, which had been positioned in the centre of Wellington’s forces, including the defence of the farm at La Haye Sainte.

Document 2: Sir James Kempt gave a report on the 5th Division, enclosing also a report that had been made to him from Major General Sir John Lambert describing the activities of the 10th brigade of infantry.

Document 3: Lieutenant General Lord Hill sent in a report on 20 June about the activities of the 2nd Division, which Wellington had himself witnessed, enclosing a report from Lieutenant General Sir Henry Clinton (who in turn enclosed one from Major General Adam)

Battle is a confused and confusing event. You might like to try to follow the reports of these troop movements using the map of Waterloo you downloaded in step 2.2. Is it possible to do the same with the soldiers’ voices recorded in their memoirs in step 2.4?

Formation of the troops
Von Alten takes us through the day, describing the formation of his troops — in columns, ready to deploy into line, or as squares, to protect infantry against cavalry. Sir James Kempt sets out the composition of the main lines of battle, and the sequence of the main elements of the action that his division saw, the work of Sir John Lambert’s brigade. What is also apparent from these reports is the way in which Wellington’s army was composed — beyond British forces — of Hanoverian, Dutch and Belgian troops, as well as of contingents from various German towns and states, and how inexperienced some of these troops were. The 4th and 5th Hanoverian brigades, for example, were made up of young militia soldiers. The 2nd Division, under Hill and Clinton, included the battalion from Osnabrück and other battalions from elsewhere in Lower Saxony — Salzgitter, Bremervörde and Quakenbrück.

Glimpses of Napoleon’s forces and their tactics
Kempt notes how the enemy concealed his attack until the last moment, and then advanced rapidly in three immense columns of infantry, covered by artillery; von Alten notes the impact of enemy artillery on the 3rd Division, the different types of shot used, and the steadfastness of his troops under fire; Kempt describes how it was impossible for Lambert to retake La Haye Sainte, as his infantry were in squares surrounded by enemy cavalry — and the prolonged exchanges of fire that ensued. The reports are hard to place together overall: there are few references to timing — von Alten talks of the part of the action continuing ‘for several hours’, and Sir James Kempt in one place says simply ‘The struggle at this point continued for some hours, but every effort of the enemy proved ineffectual …’ On the whole, however, each officer provides a good sense of the tactics that were employed in his section of the battlefield. Later discussions of the battle were to focus on the question of sequencing what had happened overall. Lord Hill, in 1830, as commander in chief of the army, commissioned William Siborne to establish what officers could recollect of their whereabouts at particular points in the day, especially at the crux of the battle, at about 7 p.m.

Recognition of the service of the allied forces
Like Wellington’s despatch, the authors of these reports are careful to mention their supporting staff, the succession of officers to command as a result of casualties — right from the most senior officers, Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Picton’s death resulting in Kempt taking command of the 5th Division. Some of the concluding passages make recommendations for promotion or distinction based on the valour and commitment of the troops, a point which the next section will discuss further.

Document 1: Report from Lieutenant General Carl von Alten, Brussels, to Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington, on the conduct of the 3rd Division at the battle of Waterloo, 19 June 1815

Report from Lt General Alten

The very severe loss which the 3rd Division sustained in the action yesterday would be most painful to me, had I not the full conviction that every regiment composing it, did their duty, and it is in justice to their conduct that I do myself the honour of submitting the following report for Your Grace’s perusal [i.e. the Duke of Wellington].

In compliance with Your Grace’s orders and those of His Royal Highness the Prince of Orange to form the division for the attack in two lines of contiguous columns, I placed them in columns of two battalions together at quarter distance, the right regiment on its left company, the left on its right company, so as to deploy right and left into line or to form squares as necessary, the columns composing the 1st and 2nd line, chequered.

The attack towards the centre commenced by a heavy cannonade with Major Lloyd’s and Captain Clewes’s brigades of guns on the enemy’s columns, who were advancing to the wood on the right of the 3rd Division. The enemy soon after advanced a strong column of infantry covered by a heavy line of artillery on the high road from Genappe, who after being kept for a considerable time in check by the 2nd light battalion occupying a house in front of our position, had nearly gained it when by the spirited advance in line of the 1st light battalion and 8th line battalion King’s German Legion, they were repulsed. The French cavalry who had gained the position on the left of their infantry and had failed in the charge they made on the square of Grubenhagen and Osnabrück field battalion, got for a short time amongst the 1st light and particularly the 8th line battalion until the advance of our cavalry sent them back.

The cannonade by this time on the part of the enemy, which was no longer checked by our guns, was very destructive to our infantry squares; yet none even shewed a disposition to give way, but filled up the square over the bodies of their brave comrades as they fell. The enemy’s cavalry now appeared in crowds on the position, charged the square of the 30th and 73rd British, the one of the Grubenhagen and Osnabrück, and that of the Bremen and Verden field battalion five or six times, but were as often repulsed by the coolness of our troops, who reserved their fire until they approached within 20 paces.

In this position the hostile armies continued for several hours, the enemy bringing up their infantry and latterly approaching his numerous artillery to within grape shot. During this time a very spirited charge was made by the 5th line battalion headed by Colonel Ompteda, who afterwards fell in the action, but at this time was seen many yards in front of that battalion and with the remains of the 1st light battalion drove down with the bayonet a division of French infantry who were again trying to gain the position by the high road. The squares by this time had been so much reduced in number by the continued fire of canon, muskets and ultimately grape shot of the enemy, that they had hardly enough men enough left to remain in squares and therefore were withdrawn from the position by Count Kielmansegge; and the remains of the Legion and Hanoverian brigade and part of the British brigade reformed on the high road in rear of the village of Mont St Jean.

It now only remains for me to assure Your Grace that nothing could exceed the bravery, perseverance and coolness of the troops which was particularly commendable in such young troops as the Hanoverians. I cannot sufficiently appreciate the judgement displayed by Major General Sir Colin Halkett, who maintained his ground in every exposed situation during that trying day with the greatest gallantry. Major General Count Kielmansegge also set a noble example to his brigade by coolness and intrepidity. In the death of Colonel Ompteda, the country has to regret the loss of a gallant officer of superior talents. I have every reason to be satisfied with the services of the Hanoverian headquarters staff, and feel particularly endebted to Colonel Berger, chief of the Hanoverian staff for his advice and able assistance. Brevet Major Heise of the 2nd light battalion, Military Secretary to the Hanoverians, was with me during the whole action and very useful to me. The services of Captain Shaw, Deputy Assistant Quartermaster General who was senior of the department in the absence of Major Jessop, from a wound at the commencement of the action on the 16th, were indispensable to me, particularly in executing the first disposition of the troops for the attack.

All the commanding officers distinguished themselves in the charge entrusted to them, more particularly Lieutenant Colonel Wurmb of the Grubenhagen field battalion, who fell in the latter part of the action, and Major Baring, commanding the 2nd light battalion in the gallant defence of the house until he was forced to abandon it from want of ammunition even for the few men he had latterly left.

Major Lloyd’s and Captain Clewes’s brigades of artillery were well served, although severely exposed to the more numerous artillery of the enemy. Those of Captain Clewes were particularly useful in checking the advance of the enemy’s columns to the wood on the right of the 3rd Division. It is but justice to the exertions of Doctor Denecke, physician to the forces and attached as staff surgeon to the 3rd Division to notice his superior arrangements respecting the wounded men during the action.

I beg to conclude my report by mentioning to Your Grace that during the action of the 16th instant also, the battalions of the 3rd Division which were engaged showed great steadiness and Lieutenant Colonel Klencke with the Lüneburg field battalion under his command particularly distinguished themselves on that day by several times repulsing the enemy into the wood and maintaining the position on the left of the line.

[University of Southampton Library, MS 61 Wellington Papers 1/468/35; SD, x, pp. 534–5; Crown copyright: reproduced by courtesy of the Controller of Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.]

Document 2: Report from Major General Sir James Kempt, bivouac near Genappe, to Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington on the conduct of the 5th Division at the battle of Waterloo, 19 June 1815

In consequence of the lamented fall of Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Picton (who was unfortunately killed early in the battle yesterday at a very critical moment while nobly animating the troops) the command of the 5th Division and the troops that had been placed under his orders devolved upon me, and it is quite impossible for me to convey by words to Your Grace the feelings of admiration with which I beheld the invincible spirit displayed by the British troops in repulsing every attack that was made upon the position where I had the honour to command. The troops were formed in two lines supported by Major General the Honourable Sir W. Ponsonby’s brigade of cavalry. The 1st line was composed of Dutch and Belgian troops, with the 1st battalion of the 95th regiment under Colonel Sir Andrew Barnard posted on a knoll on the right. The 2nd line was composed of the 8th and 9th brigades of infantry under Major General Sir Denis Pack and myself and the 4th and 5th Hanoverian brigades of militia commanded by Colonels Vincke and Best. The enemy having concealed his attack to the last moment, advanced rapidly in three immense columns of infantry covered by 30 pieces of artillery directing their heads on the right, centre and left of the position to the left of the chausée. Our first line, acting as light troops, gave way as the column approached, but the 8th and 9th brigades of infantry instantly advanced and charged the heads of the columns just as they had gained the crest of the position. A struggle for a few moments ensued but the invincible spirit and determination of the British troops was such that these immense masses directed with the greatest fury were absolutely put to flight by the British brigades, weakened as they had been most materially by the same action which they had fought two days before. Major General the Honourable Sir W. Ponsonby instantly assailed himself of this and charged with most gallant manner at the head of his brigade. Many prisoners were taken and their eagles. Shortly after this Major General Sir J. Lambert arrived with his brigade to support the 5th Division and the enemy having formed fresh columns renewed the attack with the same impetuosity. They were met and repulsed in a similar manner. Part of Sir J. Lambert’s brigade charged on this occasion and behaved nobly.

After the failure of these attacks the enemy’s efforts were principally directed to the right of the chausée and having gained possession of a large farmhouse (La Haye Sainte) and also the adjoining ridge of equal height with the one which we occupied, I requested Sir J. Lambert to cross the great road with the 37th regiment and retake it, but at this period it was found to be impracticable, all the infantry in this part of the position being formed in squares and the enemy’s cavalry around them. A fresh attack was now made by the enemy along the great road and under cover of the farmhouse which they occupied. The evident intention was to keep down the advance of our line by a superior fire from the farmhouse and ridge and under cover of it to push on the mass of infantry in its rear along the chausée. A desperate struggle and fire now took place. I directed all the broken ground that afforded the least cover to be completely lined with troops, but in addition to this I found it absolutely necessary to encrease our fire by moving up the greatest part of the 27th regiment which Major General Lambert posted in as good a situation as circumstances would admit, but it was unavoidably much exposed. The regiment behaved nobly and suffered exceedingly. The 95th and 32nd were also near this point, and suffered also great loss. The struggle at this point continued for some hours, but every effort of the enemy proved ineffectual, and he never for one moment gained a footing on the position to the left of the great road.

Major General Sir J. Lambert’s arrival to the support was most fortunate, and he conducted the movements of his brigade in the most able manner. He has requested me to transmit the inclosed letter and to recommend the officers therein mentioned to Your Grace’s notice which I have great pleasure in doing. Major General D. Pack displayed his usual judgement and gallantry in the command of the 9th British brigade and I am much indebted to him for his advice and assistance after the command devolved upon me. Colonel Sir P. Belson succeeded to the command of my brigade and I have every reason to be satisfied with the manner in which he led it. Colonels Vinck and Best also deserve to be particularly mentioned to Your Grace, their brigades, the 4th and 5th Hanoverian, though composed of young militia soldiers, displayed much steadiness and moved correctly to support various parts that were most threatened, forming squares on several occasions. The two brigades of artillery of the Diet (the British under Major Rogers and the Hanoverian under Captain Bauer) were ably served and judiciously placed. I lost in my Brigade Major, who was killed (Captain Eeles, 95th), a most valuable officer, and my aide de camp Captain the Honourable Charles Gore, has served me for several years on continued service and proved himself on every occasion to be a most active and gallant soldier.

I shall take the liberty of bring under Your Grace’s notice the particular claims and merits of the officers commanding regiments in a separate report but I cannot close this one without mentioning that Colonel Sir A. Barnard and the next in command Colonel Cameron of the 95th were both wounded and also Colonel Dixon of the 28th while in command of it.

Captain Tyler, aide de camp to Sir Thomas Picton joined me immediately on his fall and I found him particularly intelligent and useful. Captain Tyler was first aide de camp to the General and had served with him for five campaigns. He goes with the body to England.

Enclosed is a letter from Major General Sir John Lambert to Major General Sir James Kempt, 19 June 1815:

The 10th brigade infantry having been ordered up in support of the 5th Division and to place itself under the orders of Sir Thomas Picton, I beg leave to report to you as second in command that I was perfectly satisfied with the conduct of every individual of the brigade in the action yesterday. I most particularly mention the steady and gallant conduct of the 27th regiment under Major Hare, unavoidably exposed for several hours to a galling fire (well known to you) and was much to be praised, and I should be obliged to you to name him to the commanding officer of the forces particularly. On the death of Major Heyland of the 40th, Major Browne took the command and continued in it. Major Smith, Brigade Major, afforded me great assistance by his zeal and abilities. Should the commander of the forces think proper to recommend these officers for a brevetship, I consider them as well meriting it and should hope it would meet with your approbation my so doing.


I am anxious also to mention for the same object Captain Ellis of the 40th who though wounded continued exerting himself to the end of the day in command of the light companies of the brigade after Captain Holmes of the 27th was killed.

[University of Southampton Library, MS 61 Wellington Papers 1/468/34; SD, x, pp. 535–8; Crown copyright: reproduced by courtesy of the Controller of Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.]

Document 3: Letter from Lieutenant General Lord Hill to Field Marshal the Duke of Wellington, Nivelles, 20th June, 1815, 8 a.m.

My Lord Duke,

Although Your Grace witnessed the conduct of that part of the troops under my command which had the good fortune to be employed in the action of the 18th instant, still I think it my duty to transmit the accompanying report from Lieutenant General Sir H. Clinton, commanding the 2nd Division, and beg leave to express my entire concurrence with the Lieutenant General’s sentiments respecting the gallant conduct of the troops on this occasion.

I have also the satisfaction of reporting to Your Grace the good conduct of Lieutenant Colonel Webber Smith’s troop of horse artillery, which acted with my corps during the day.

I have also to mention the steady conduct of the 3rd Division of the troops of the Netherlands, under the command of Major General Chassé, which was moved up in support of Major General Adam’s brigade, to repulse the attack of the Imperial Guard.

The brigade of Belgian artillery also deserve my best thanks for their steady conduct and well directed fire during the last mentioned attack.

I particularly remarked the firm manner with which two battalions of Brunswick infantry, commanded by Major Proestler and Major Holstein (formed in squares in support of the artillery), received the repeated attacks of the enemy’s cavalry.

I cannot conclude this report without expressing my particular thanks to Lieutenant Colonel Sir C. Broke, and to Lieutenant Colonel Sir Noel Hill, to Major Egerton, Major Churchill, and my personal staff, as well as to Captains Lord C. FitzRoy and Hillier, and their respective departments.


Letter from Lieutenant General Sir H. Clinton to Lieutenant General Lord Hill, Nivelles, 19 June 1815

My Lord

I have the honour to report to Your Lordship that the conduct of the 2nd Division during the action of yesterday was such as to entitle it to the approbation of Your Lordship and to that of the commander of the forces. The steadiness with which the young Hanoverian brigade, under Colonel Halkett, sustained the effect of a lasting cannonade during the several hours in which that brigade continued to be in reserve would have been laudable in veteran troops. From the moment at which the 2nd Division was called upon to take a more active part in the action, by relieving some of the corps in the first line, the good conduct of the whole could hardly be surpassed. The brigade of Colonel du Plat was the first employed in this manner, and it was not long before its valuable commander received a dangerous wound, which will long deprive the army of the benefit of his services. It then fell to Major General Adam’s brigade to take its share of the same honourable service: the manner in which the several regiments — the 52nd, under Colonel Sir J. Colborne; the 71st, under Colonel Rennell; and the 2nd and 9th, under Lieutenant Colonels Norcott and Ross — discharged their duty, was witnessed and admired by the whole army. It was later in the day when I brought forward the brigade under the command of Colonel Halkett. The alacrity with which this move was performed by every battalion of the brigade, the regularity of its movements, and the correctness of its formations under a destructive cannonade, were very praiseworthy in these young troops. The Salzgitter Battalion, under Major Hammerstein, I employed in reinforcing the post of Hougoumont, at that time vigorously attacked; and the Osnabrück Battalion, under Major Count Münster, advanced with the first line; whilst the Battalions of Bremervorde and Quackinbrück, under Lieutenant Colonel Count Schulenburg and Major Baron Busch, continued in reserve as a support to the right of the line.

When the handsome repulse of the enemy’s last attack afforded the opportunity to become ourselves the attacking body, so judiciously taken advantage of by Major General Adam’s brigade, under Your Lordship’s immediate direction, I directed Colonel Halkett to reinforce the attacking line with the Osnabrück Battalion, under Lieutenant Colonel Count Münster; and I added to it the brigade of the German Legion, the command of which had now devolved upon Lieutenant Colonel Wissel. The 23rd regiment, under the command of Major Dalmer, in consequence of Lientenant Colonel Sir B. W. Ellis being wounded, advanced as a support to the right of the attack. The gallantry with which this service was performed by every corps which had the good fortune to be employed in it, I am sure attracted Your Lordship’s notice; and I think, without claiming too large a share of merit for these several corps, I may say that the result of their noble efforts greatly contributed to the complete success of this glorious day, though the whole of the artillery and numerous trophies taken from the enemy may belong in common to every corps engaged, as the effect of their exertions. I must report that the enemy was driven from four pieces of cannon which he was attempting to carry off upon the right of the Genappe road by the Osnabrück Battalion, which also, during its advance, got possession of two pair of colours.

Major Simpher’s troop of horse artillery, and Captain Bolton’s brigade, conducted themselves entirely to my satisfaction. The service has lost an excellent artillery officer in Captain Bolton, who was killed near the close of the day, after usefully exerting himself during the whole of it. Major Simpher’s troop followed in support of the cavalry, until darkness put an end to the pursuit of the enemy. The brigade of the 4th Division commanded by Colonel Mitchell having been placed for the moment under my orders, I am happy in having to make the same favourable report of the conduct of every corps composing this brigade; the 51st regiment, under Lieutenant Colonel Rice, having been most usefully employed during the whole of the day, with one squadron of the 15th hussars, in keeping in check a considerable body of the enemy’s cavalry, supported by infantry, which menaced our right; and the 14th regiment, under Lieutenant Colonel Tidy, having acted as a support to the 51st, and latterly as a support to the right to the post of Hougoumont.

I have also to acknowledge the assistance which I received from Lieutenant Colonel Sir Jeremiah Dickson, the Assistant Quartermaster General, and from Captain Bentinck, acting as Assistant Adjutant General, as well as from the officers of my personal staff.

I beg too that Your Lordship, in making your report to the commander of the forces, will have the enclosed letter from Major General Adam laid before His Grace.

[SD, x, pp. 544–6.]

© University of Southampton 2015
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